The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Louisville

96 Comments

The Irish exited Notre Dame Stadium for the last time in 2014. And for the second-straight week they sang the alma mater after a defeat, taking another step backwards from the home-field advantage Brian Kelly and the Irish had quietly built over the past few seasons.

The loss was Notre Dame’s fourth in five games, a third-straight defeat at a time of year where Kelly’s football teams have historically gotten better. But that’s certainly not the case in 2014, where a ravaged defense played a mix of journeymen and children, a difficult blend for any program, but especially this one.

That — combined with a slow start by the offense and struggles in the scoring areas — cost the Irish a victory. And the razor’s edge that Kelly once danced upon comfortably, has drawn blood again, another loss where one or two key plays swung the balance.

With the annual rivalry battle with USC set for Saturday afternoon, both teams enter battered and bruised. But before we get to that, let’s close the book on the Irish’s 31-28 defeat in their first ever meeting with Louisville on the gridiron.

Here are the good, bad and ugly from Notre Dame vs. Louisville.

 

THE GOOD

Tarean Folston. The sophomore running back is emerging as a star player. For all the clamoring for Greg Bryant, it’s been the running back who didn’t come in with a five-star tag that’s turning into the best runner the Irish have had in the backfield since Julius Jones.

Folston didn’t get 20 carries against the Cardinals elite rushing defense, but it didn’t matter. He ran for 134 yards on just 18 carries, a 7.4 average on a day where the rest of the team managed -28 yards on nine carries. (Golson’s fumble craters that number, but it’s still a stat worth mentioning.)

Even better, Folston stayed on the field in passing situations, holding his own as a pass-blocker in a situation where Cam McDaniel usually steals snaps. In case you are wondering, his head coach noticed.

“What I’m most impressed with is that when we challenged him as a complete running back, he took that challenge and he stepped up,” Kelly said Sunday.”As you saw, he was in the game late, and he did an outstanding job in pass protection, and that was the piece that was missing for him.

“He did a great job.  And then tough yard running.  He’s just, again, a guy that’s developed as a sophomore to the point where he’s put himself in a position to get the primetime carries and be in the game late.”

 

Will Fuller. Another game, another touchdown for Will Fuller. Fuller has scored a touchdown in every game this season minus Stanford, and his 14 touchdown catches are one shy of the single-season mark held by Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate, who both caught 15 in their breakout junior seasons.

Fuller is making that move as a sophomore, and doing so as it becomes more and more apparent that he’s the team’s most dynamic pass-catching weapon. Fuller got behind the talented Louisville secondary multiple times, and likely would’ve scored another touchdown if Golson could’ve gotten a deep throw out quicker.

“He’s a factor in every game we’ve played. Louisville had probably two of the better corners in the country, and he ran by them at will,” Kelly said.

Earlier in the year, Kelly hesitated to call Fuller a No. 1 receiver. On Sunday, he acknowledged the step forward Fuller has taken in his game as the season has worn on, acknowledging his ascent in a very condensed timeline.

“He has obviously put himself in a position to be considered one of Notre Dame’s finest receivers,” Kelly said. “And he’s done it in very short order. Obviously he didn’t play very much at all last year, and he’s made a statement this year.”

 

Jaylon Smith. After seeming lost in the shuffle after Joe Schmidt’s injury, we saw flashes of the Jaylon Smith of September on Saturday, with the sophomore linebacker leading the team with 11 tackles, including one TFL. Probably most important was the return to Smith tracking down an opponent in the backfield, an occasion that’s frequency dropped precipitously since Schmidt’s injury.

Smith was named a finalist for the Butkus Award on Monday, a tip of the cap to a talented young player who from afar still resembles an elite linebacker. But for those that have watched the sophomore the past few weeks as the Irish defense has collapsed, they’ve seen a young player whose taken some lumps as he’s learning along the way.

That’s perfectly normal. Especially for a (still) young player learning a new position in a new scheme, forced to rely not just on his elite athleticism but to deal with some limitations that come with being slightly undersized at his position in the trenches.

As he met with the media after another difficult loss, Smith sounded wise beyond his years as he took a relatively big-picture approach to things, while also understanding that winning the next game continues to be the most important thing.

“It’s experience. The whole atmosphere. Even losing, in this case, is something we’re all learning,” Smith said. “I’m young myself. I’m a sophomore. I’m 19 years old. We’re all just continuing to learn.

“Obviously, it’s not acceptable to lose at any cost. There’s no moral victory, so you can’t look at it like that. We’re not even focused on next year right now. Right now, it’s all about our rivalry next week and finding a way to get a victory.”

 

Cole Luke. Notre Dame’s coaching staff did their best to match the sophomore cornerback with Louisville’s DeVante Parker. Luke held his own, with Parker catching three balls against him, though Luke had two pass breakups.

But it was the catch that didn’t have Luke in coverage that burnt the Irish, with Parker matched up with Devin Butler that turned into a 21-yard touchdown.

“Outstanding,” Kelly said, when asked to evaluate Luke’s play. “Except we didn’t get the matchup on the touchdown. We had matched them up all day and didn’t get that matchup and they threw a touchdown.”

Kelly didn’t mention the gameplan to shadow Parker with Luke all game. But that’s both a testament to the improvement Luke has shown this season. It’ll also likely be the assignment with USC’s Nelson Agholor, who after exploding the previous four games was held to just three catches for 24 yards against UCLA.

 

The Effort from the Young Guys. Nobody wants to find moral victories out there, but not too many people had Jacob Matuska, Greer Martini and Isaac Rochell contributing sacks against Louisville. Add to that a productive afternoon for Nyles Morgan (10 tackles and a 1/2 TFL) until his ejection for targeting and the incremental steps are starting to show up.

Morgan’s ejection will cost him the first half against USC, putting Greer Martini into the starting lineup. That’s an awful long way down the preseason contingency plans for the Irish defense at a position that couldn’t be more important in this system.

After calling the targeting penalty a “careless mistake” after the game, Kelly took the long view when asked about the play of his freshman middle linebacker, reminding everybody that while he appears to be struggling now, that the sky is still the limit for Morgan.

“Oh, he’s going to be a terrific player. He just shouldn’t be on the field right now,” Kelly said. “He’s a great kid, we love him.  He’ll learn, because the kid does everything we ask him to do. He’s going to get an opportunity to be a complete player.  It’s just going to take a little bit more time.”

 

Greg Bryant. That’s the type of return Notre Dame can use in the punt game. Bryant showed a way to impact the game as a punt returner, nearly taking a kick to the house as the Irish rallied back from a large halftime deficit.

Bryant’s still making too many mistakes back there — no fair catch early, and the huge collision with James Onwualu was a near-crisis that was barely averted. But Bryant made a game-changing play.

Now go make a few more against USC.

 

THE BAD

The Third Down Defense. The Irish defense killed themselves early against Louisville, allowing the Cardinals to convert three key third downs that extended touchdown drives to open the game.

The mistakes were critical ones. After after allowing just four conversions on 39 attempts of 3rd and 10 or longer, the Irish defense gave up three back-breakers to put Louisville up early.

The Irish defense recovered, allowing the Cardinal to convert just six of 14 third downs, but the three long early ones killed them.

 

Tackling. This one might seem a little all-encompassing, but that’s kind of the point. There are some pretty elusive skill players on Louisville’s roster, but that might have been the worst tackling we’ve seen from an Irish team since the BCS title game had Zeke Motta performing fly-bys on Alabama All-Americans.

Those misses were headlined by Austin Collinsworth trying to play with one arm. Or Nyles Morgan flying by or misdiagnosing plays. Or young defensive linemen doing their best to chase down a play and miss it.

 

The Rush Defense. In a game where Notre Dame knew it absolutely needed to stop the run, they gave up 226 yards. Yes, it took Louisville 50 carries to do it, but still — there were just too many big runs happening, a product of injuries and missed assignments that’s timed up with the injury to Joe Schmidt.

The guys got better as the game wore on. But once again, in need of a critical drive on defense, the Irish weren’t able to get it.

Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated ($) had this key stat that shows how far the D has fallen since Schmidt’s injury. In 30+ quarters of football with Schmidt, Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones manning the middle, the Irish gave up just 25 rushes of 10 yards-or more. In the 13 quarters since Schmidt’s broken ankle? Notre Dame’s given up 31.

 

Red Zone Offense. I said it very early in the game when the Irish settled for three points on their opening drive, but celebrating a made field goal masked the issue of not getting seven.

The Irish might have scored on four of five red zone drives (with the missed chip-shot field goal the back-breaker), but scoring only two touchdowns isn’t going to get it done.

Give Louisville’s defense credit. They’re a Top 10 red zone defense and a Top 5 group when it comes to allowing touchdowns in the red zone. But with a chance to win the game with a touchdown near the end, the Irish ended up needing to settle for a field goal, and even that short-circuited.

It’s popular to criticize the playcalling near the goal line. But ultimately it comes down to making the plays and being assignment correct. That didn’t happen on the final drive, with Kelly trying to run clock down and get seven, but unable to do it after struggles up front blocking derailed the final series.

When asked about the step backwards in the red zone, Kelly wasn’t willing to make any blanket statements, though acknowledged the special teams struggles and turnovers for any statistical drop off. But just like he said when Tommy Rees was playing quarterback, it comes down to making the plays in a tougher offensive environment.

“It’s really hard for me to give you a great answer other than we take a lot of time and effort to break down that area of the field and think we come away with the plan that’s going to allow us to score touchdowns in that area,” Kelly said. “But it’s still about execution.”

 

Safety Play. At this point, we can only speculate what Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate have done to be stuck behind Collinsworth and Drue Tranquill at safety. Because for the second consecutive game, the safety play has stunk, and Notre Dame’s best two athletes at the position still haven’t been able to work their way back onto the field.

Shumate was the missing player when the 10-man Irish gave up a critical third-down conversion to Northwestern, a junior who should know better. Redfield had mostly been an invisible presence on the back line, outside of an interception against Michigan and a missed sideline tackle against Arizona State, a play that caught the ire of analyst and former All-American linebacker Chris Spielman.

Most fans see the safety play and think that Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder are cutting off their nose to spite their face. And there’s plenty of ammunition for that school of thought, especially after watching Collinsworth and Tranquill struggle in space against both talented and less-than-talented personnel.

But here’s what Kelly said about the situation on Sunday, asked specifically about the absence of the Shumate and Redfield.

“We would like to have the two young guys back there… but we haven’t been consistent enough,” Kelly said, while correcting himself after calling Shumate young. “That’s forced Austin into the game, and he’s not 100 percent.  He’s giving us everything he has, though.”

When effort is the best thing you can say about your injured safety, you’re essentially saying everything you need to about the guys that are being replaced. So if the message hasn’t gotten to Shumate and Redfield, there’s a chance it might not happen this year.

But with a very talented group of receivers on USC’s roster, the Irish will need to match athletes in the secondary. That means Redfield and Shumate need to do what it takes to sharpen their gaze in practice.

But Kelly was rightfully asked if the schematics of the defense weren’t part of the problem. After reminding the head coach of his comments about making it easy enough for Jaylon Smith to get on the field and allow him to use his skills, Kelly agreed to a point, before drilling down further and acknowledging the elephant in the room.

“It’s a dramatic shift from where we were last year to this year in terms of the scheme that we’re playing,” Kelly acknowledged. “So we’re never going to put it all on the players.  It’s part coaching, as well.  You’re right in the premise of your question in that we’ve got to get the best players on the field, but they also have to be the most productive players, so it’s also about production while they’re on the field.

“Max and Elijah are not on the field not just because there’s mental mistakes, but there’s production lapses, as well.  So it’s a little bit of both in that sense.  In other words, it’s not just simply the scheme, it’s also about production, and we’ve got to keep an eye on both of those things.”

It’s worth mentioning to people who continue to call for Redfield and Shumate to play. Those opinions were likely formed not by anything they saw on the field, but by the stars affixed to their recruiting rankings. Those have been rendered useless since they stepped foot on campus.

“We haven’t given up on them, let’s put it that way,” Kelly said. “We still believe in them. But they’ve got to continue to show more consistency in practice.”

 

THE UGLY. 

Making a Field Goal. The dynamics of a successful field goal operation are three-fold: Snap, hold and kick.

Of course, that’s the simple version. But with the school’s all-time leader in field goals stepping up to tie the football game, the final two pieces of that puzzle seemed to executed at a less-than-satisfactory rate.

On the sidelines, we saw Kyle Brindza, Kelly and holder Malik Zaire talk about the hold, with Brindza frustrated and animated as he talked to Zaire.

Here’s the slo-mo version of the kick in question.

***

source:

***

Without question, it takes a little bit too long for Zaire’s hands to clear the kicking area. The ball is late getting to the correct position on the ground.

But the ball is there, and Brindza — a senior kicker who snap-hooked two misses last week that contributed greatly to the loss against Northwestern — needs to just rip it. It’s a 32-yarder that doesn’t need anything more than brute force and direction.

Instead, Brindza pushes the ball wide right — like a golfer giving up on a swing before it’s off his club. The view of the conversation on the sideline didn’t look like a veteran coaching up a young guy. It looked like Sergio Garcia blaming a difficult lie or a Bubba Watson yelling at his caddy.

On Saturday, Kelly backed his veteran kicker. On Sunday, after reviewing the tape, his viewpoint shifted.

“I think we needed a little bit better hold, and we needed a little bit better kick.  I don’t think it’s all on the holder, and I don’t think it’s all on the kicker.  I think it was a combination of both.”

In a results based business, Brindza’s taken a nose dive at a time of year where his mistakes have been remarkably painful. In Notre Dame’s two home losses, Brindza’s missed field goals have been the difference in the final tally.

 

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Associated Press
40 Comments

Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

rivals.com
28 Comments

When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

Getty Images
35 Comments

Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

Associated Press
43 Comments

A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills