It was a deflating loss which brings the question – ‘Will Notre Dame build a football team that can win in the playoff?’
Notre Dame was outmatched by a wide margin in 2012 when facing Alabama. But heading into its playoff matchup with Clemson, there was a different sense – that the gap wasn’t as wide as it was versus the Crimson Tide, that the Irish had the firepower to compete for a win.
On Saturday, those who felt the Irish had taken that next step forward in achieving big bowl success were proven wrong.
This was just one facet of the Fighting Irish that fell apart in the Cotton Bowl.
But life moves on. Notre Dame will regroup to fight for playoff contention again in 2019 and so on. But have the Irish recruited well enough to patch the weak points within its football team?
No, five-star talent wasn’t acquired over the last two cycles. But certain position groups saw influxes of talent in which we haven’t seen over the last decade. And when it comes to the defensive side of the ball, the Irish have a shot at landing a dozen four-stars with National Signing Day approaching.
In this review, we’ll look at the major problems areas in which Clemson exposed and whether the Irish have accumulated the talent to shore up those weaknesses.
Quality defensive back depth
When Julian Love left the game in the first half, Trevor Lawrence putting points on the board through Donte Vaughn felt inevitable. And the touchdown pass (the second score over Vaughn) that he connected on as the first half ended really highlighted the cost of weak depth in a crucial football game.
Mykelti Williams and Ashton White left the program early after signing in the 2015 class before 2016 class signees D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry never played a defensive back snap for the Irish. Making matters worse, the Irish missed at cornerback in the 2017 cycle while both safety signees moved to different positions (Genmark-Heath, Robertson).
This sums up the creation of Notre Dame’s defensive back depth concerns, at least when it comes to quality.
Of course, we don’t know that the Irish won’t see attrition from its last two classes. But after the Early Signing Period, the Irish have signed five cornerbacks and five safeties with impressive star power at the top and seven total four-stars.
Bigger-bodied, athletic defenders from programs in the South in Houston Griffith, Derrik Allen, and Kyle Hamilton bring optimism at safety while a handful of highly-touted cornerbacks give Todd Lyght plenty to work with.
It’s anyone’s guess how this group will develop. But we can feel confident that the Irish will have a healthier rotation in the future.
Quality defensive line depth
The Irish fielded a productive defensive front this year, but a lack of quality upperclassmen to provide a strong rotation showed at times.
Behind Jerry Tillery and Jon Bonner were relatively inexperienced underclassmen who have spent little time in a college strength program. That’s not to say this unit didn’t play well, as they did. But if you look at top programs, there’s a handful of capable upperclassmen rotating inside every year. We just haven’t seen that at Notre Dame in recent years.
At the two interior defensive line spots, there is reason for optimism. Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (whose injury was costly for the Irish this year) and Kurt Hinish will enter upperclassmen years next fall while Jayson Ademilola, Ja’Mion Franklin, Jacob Lacey, Hunter Spears, and Howard Cross show bright futures.
If this unit can stay healthy, stay in the program, and develop the way they’re expected to, the Irish could finally find that veteran rotation inside. It’ll take time, but there’s no doubting that the pieces are there.
On the edge, Notre Dame is expected to land All-American defensive end Isaiah Foskey who would pair up with Nana Osafo-Mensah to give Notre Dame arguably two of the top five defensive ends added over the last decade.
Still, the Irish added just one defensive end in the previous cycle which certainly fell short of the goal.
It’s possible that Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem, and Daelin Hayes all return next fall, which would be a huge plus for Notre Dame. But building the veteran rotation on the edges could be tough if you’ve only added three total defensive ends over two classes.
It’ll be interesting to see if Howard Cross and/or Hunter Spears are capable of working on the end. For now, it’s tough to predict for the future of the defensive end depth and rotation but the young talent at the top appears to have serious potential.
Speed on the perimeter
The Irish put plenty of size on the field at wide receiver versus Clemson. But a lack of speed showed. Too often, Ian Book didn’t have a place to throw the football and the culprit was simple – Notre Dame’s wide receivers weren’t creating separation.
The 2018 wide receiver class brought plenty of what Chip Long was looking for – explosive speed. However, the true freshman wide outs weren’t ready to take on key roles in Year One.
Will that group develop in the direction many perceived they would?
Surely, Braden Lenzy was one of the fastest athletes in the West as a senior out of Oregon. And with Lawrence Keys, his explosive route running, the eyebrow-raising quickness he showed in space and when weaving through traffic stirred up excitement with many Irish fans.
We caught glimpses of future greatness in Kevin Austin through his freshman campaign before he took a step back in what appeared to be maturity issues within the program. Still, the Floridian has big-time talent, that much is certain.
The 2019 class is tough to project, especially high school quarterback Kendall Abdur-Rahman. But one thing is clear – that kid can run.
The pure speed and athletic talent appears to be there. Whether the development will follow is what could determine Notre Dame’s ability to score versus programs like Clemson in the future.
The loss of its best offensive linemen in Alex Bars was a tough blow for the Irish. You can’t replace a veteran like Bars. Still, the Irish offensive line played well in 2018. But at Notre Dame, that unit is expected to be great.
Too often, Notre Dame’s rushing attack was knocked down. Far too many stuffs let weaker opponents play with the Irish – Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt being examples – while the young unit did provide solid pass protection throughout the majority of the season.
In the end, it was a young group without its captain, and at times, it showed. Clemson’s defensive line is among the best measuring sticks in the country, and the Irish front was beat up often on Saturday.
Although the 2018 offensive line class wasn’t flashy in star rankings, the Irish added a pair of 300-plus-pounders in John Dirksen and an ultra-mobile Luke Jones while Jarrett Patterson was a surprise of the summer – outperforming his low-four-star billing.
As Eichenberg, Kraemer, Hainsey, and others put in another year in the weight room, mesh as a unit, and learn from the Cotton Bowl loss, look for the offensive line to show improvement in 2019.
After the loss we witnessed on Saturday, its fair to assume many Irish fans don’t have the energy to look into the future. Notre Dame put together a tremendous undefeated run before those 12 wins feel hard to remember following the letdown that was the Cotton Bowl.
All we can do is look at where the problem areas were, what created those problem areas, and whether the coaching staff has the talent on-hand to repair the kinks in the chain.
Recent recruiting classes show that if development matches recruiting rankings, and attrition doesn’t strike the way it did in the Brian Van Gorder era classes, Notre Dame could erase some of the downfalls which were in plain view versus Clemson.
Will athletes like Kyle Hamilton, Phil Jurkovec, Kevin Austin, Nana Osafo-Mensah, Jacob Lacey, and Quinn Carroll provide the type of star power at the top to reach the playoff again? Will the coaching staff develop the quality rotations needed to win the next Cotton Bowl?
There’s reason for optimism even if he feels impossible to find after a suffocating loss.