Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s raised ceiling, amid a rebuild, a result of both veterans and humble newcomers

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame has exceeded all rebuilding or reloading expectations in 2021. That was the presumed reality entering the season and an understandable one after sending four offensive linemen to the NFL along with the winningest quarterback in Irish history, not to mention one of the best linebackers in Notre Dame’s recent history, two leading receivers and two starters from the defensive backfield.

The Irish ceiling looked lowered in 2021, part of the reason for bringing in quarterback Jack Coan from Wisconsin, an attempt at raising the season’s floor.

That floor may always have included a 55-0 pasting of Georgia Tech (3-8) in the home finale, but the ceiling never looked high enough for that demolition to put now-No. 5 (in the AP) Notre Dame at 10-1 with a possible Playoff berth on the horizon.

Yet, here the Irish are, winning 10-plus games for a fifth straight season, losing just one home game in the last four years, going unbeaten against ACC opponents in regular-season play in the last four years, winning their last 15 November games (16 if counting last year’s regular-season finale against Syracuse on Dec. 5).

“You’re a teacher, you’re an educator, you’re always looking to see growth and improvement, but you never really know what that mark looks like,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday. “Sometimes it’s measured in much smaller increments. This has been a little bit larger in those increments.

“I think we all would want to see the growth. It’s just been to the point where this is a really good football team.”

A really good football team, indeed. And again, that was not anticipated in 2021.

Yet, the Irish have reached that status, have reached the arguable precipice of the College Football Playoff for a third time in four years while rebuilding and reloading. To simultaneously do those often competing tasks is to thread a needle few programs in the country can. Namely, only Oklahoma, Ohio State and Alabama have proven able to, with Clemson suffering a one-year fall from those ranks and Georgia likely joining them permanently moving forward.

Notre Dame has found multiple receivers who clearly can play roles in years to come, freshmen Lorenzo Styles and Deion Colzie combining for 16 catches and 248 yards this year. It has a bona fide No. 2 running back in freshman Logan Diggs — three touches for 26 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday — not to mention his possible future backup in classmate Audric Estime. Two freshman left tackles started this year after just one did so previously in program history.

Incorporating such numbers of youth is easier said than done. Inexperience’s learning curve can torpedo a season. The lack of development inherent to years in a collegiate strength and conditioning program can leave younger players exposed against veteran players. Locker room cohesion can be undone by altered playing time.

Hence it is rare to reload and rebuild while maintaining contention.

“We have a younger group of players in our locker room that are selfless, that model to what our upperclassmen do,” Kelly said. “They’re not resistant to the standards that we have in our program. They follow, but yet are confident in their own abilities, as well.”

Those abilities took time to develop enough to play at this level. Modeling the elder statesmen took time, too.

The Irish coaching staff intentionally paired Diggs with junior running Kyren Williams in offseason workouts and lifting sessions, hoping the possible All-American could rub off on the newcomer. Diggs said that took time, well into preseason practices. Given he did not play until halfway through the season, one might wonder if it took longer, understandably so.

In time, though, Williams made Diggs a college-level player well ahead of schedule.

“I would say my attention to detail and definitely my mindset (mirror Williams’),” Diggs said. “The way that Kyren approaches the game is just different from anyone or anything I’ve ever seen. His mindset is very strong, very confident. That rubs off on me, that rubs off on our whole room.”

One of seven captains, Williams’ leadership was always presumed. In his specific case, his outsized gameday bravado is evident from afar. Notre Dame has leaned on others, as well, to toe this line of present and future contention. “Roving leaders,” so to speak, fill in around the captains.

Few players know better what it is to warrant notice from day one better than sophomore Michael Mayer, and few players are now counted on for more. If anyone embodies both present and future contention, it is the star tight end already earmarked as a 2023 first-round draft pick.

“Last year as a freshman, I had great senior leaders, great junior leaders, most that are playing in the league right now,” Mayer said. “I learned a ton from them.

“Coming into this season, I knew my role as a leader had definitely become a little bit bigger. I feel like I’ve done a good job of that this year. I feel like I have a personal connection with even the freshmen that just got here in the summer.”

Mayer then listed off most of the freshmen who have chipped in offensively this season. He missed a few. It’s that long of a list.

Veterans like Coan, offensive linemen Jarrett Patterson and Josh Lugg, and receivers Avery Davis and Braden Lenzy have all played roles in shepherding the influx of youngsters. Doing so accelerated Notre Dame’s rebuild from 2020 Playoff contender. It may well contend in 2022 as expected, but that timeline no longer fits this reload.

Shutting out a Power Five opponent for the first time since 2014 underscored the Irish reality. Notre Dame’s 2021 ceiling again includes a Playoff appearance.