State of the Union

Author: Mike Frank

KellyKimball8Where is Notre Dame as a program?  In a recent ESPN poll, with over 70,000 votes cast, 67 percent of those voting felt ND currently isn’t an “elite program.”  What is an elite program?  Why would those voting not think ND was in the upper echelon of great programs?  With all the championships, Heisman’s, tradition and exposure, how could that be?

Obviously, there’s the:  “Notre Dame, you either love them or hate them” factor that will certainly influence such a vote, and that likely played a large part in this vote.  But, is Notre Dame an elite program?

ND is a program who has their own TV contract.  They just signed the largest apparel contract in history.  They’re a national school whose reach goes far beyond North America.  They are clearly the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys of college football.  But like the Yankees and the Cowboys in past and present, these great franchises have had their lean years as well.

The Irish had a great 12-1 season in 2012, including a berth in the BCS Championship game, but I think some ND fans don’t realize the mediocrity Notre Dame has been immersed in for quite some time.

In fact, since 1994, 18 seasons, the Irish have won 10 games just 3 times.  Just 3 times……

The Irish have won 8 games or less 11 times in those 18 years.

When you look at those facts, an unbiased person might actually agree with the voting.  The Irish, currently, are not an elite program in my personal opinion, at least if you’re judging them by the only thing that truly matters, results on the field.

However, I strongly feel they’re on their way to getting there.

I think the two most important ingredients to having a healthy, elite program are having strong leadership amongst the team, and amongst the administration supporting the program.

I’m going to say this because I honestly believe it to be true.  Jack Swarbrick is the best Athletic Director in the country, and I’d argue anyone who says otherwise.  He’s successfully navigated Notre Dame into the most favorable position he possibly could have in every major event Notre Dame has faced in his tenure.  In my mind, “Savvy Jack” is batting almost a perfect 1.000 since arriving.   Has he always hit a grand slam?  No, but I do think he’s always landed the most realistic and favorable situation Notre Dame could possibly hope for in regards to coaching hires, conference affiliation and clothing deal.  I think he’s done a masterful job on the stadium improvements, and pretty much everything else he’s put his attention to.

But Jack can’t do it on his own.  He’s had a lot of help from Father Jenkins and those who truly make the decisions at Notre Dame.  I believe this group finally, truly, understands the importance of Notre Dame football in helping further the overall Notre Dame brand.   Finally!

When a program has strong support from those who make the decisions, very good things can happen.  I think we’ll see the improvement Irish fans have been hoping for very soon.

The second piece to the puzzle is strong leadership amongst the team.  It starts with the head coach, and it goes through the assistants, to the players, to everyone on the support staff.  You have to have strong leadership to motivate the others to keep pushing forward.

Is Brian Kelly a great leader?  Is he a master motivator like Lou Holtz?

I’m not sure we have a definitive answer to this, but I do think we have a pretty good indication.  When Tommy Rees went down in the USC game in 2013, Brian Kelly knew he had no shot to win the game unless the defense played lights out—and they did.

Not many felt the Irish had a shot against ASU this year—they were wrong.  Not many felt the Irish would bounce back after the Pittsburgh loss—they did.  When the Irish struggled against Rutgers in the first half, a different team came out in the second half.  How can the Irish possibly beat MSU and their great defense?  No way ND can travel to Norman, Okla. and beat Bob Stoops and the mighty Sooners.  Stanford is going to pound the Irish…….

Sure, there is a flip side to this story—-Michigan this year, the egg against Bama, the Pitt loss—there are others.

But my point is, I think until this year, we saw a lot of great leadership from Kelly, and even a lot this year as well, but the results were not what many wanted.  This year, I think the team lacked team leadership, and I believe that was a big reason Notre Dame struggled, among others.

I don’t believe a master motivator can be the key ingredient in every game.  Sooner or later the actual players are going to need to lead themselves, especially when Stanford is on the goal line.  Brian Kelly didn’t do any master motivation on that series—that was all the players, and you need both to be successful, I believe.  I think you saw the same thing at Alabama this year.  Did Nick Saban suddenly forget how to coach and motivate?  To be a great team and strong program, you need to recruit not only great players, but also great leaders who will step up when their time has come.

I believe the next important ingredient is both talent and depth amongst the team.   Is Notre Dame there yet?  I don’t think so, but they’re much closer than they’ve been in the past 18 years, I’m pretty certain of that.

I believe with the Barnett commitment, Notre Dame hasn’t been anywhere near as deep in talent at QB in a very long time.  You can say the same thing about wide receiver, offensive line and cornerback.  You may even be able to say that about linebacker as well, but we’ll have to see how some of these young players develop.

Is ND “good enough” at tight end?  They would certainly be if Niklas had not left, but you just have to move on—it’s still a talented group, but they’re just young.  The Irish have two outstanding talents at running back, but I think you’d love to have at least one more of their equal.  At defensive line, they certainly have a lot of bodies, and a lot of athletic ability.  However, I don’t think many are “developed” at this point.  D-line coach Mike Elston’s ability to coach up this group will likely be a very large piece in how good the Irish will be the next four years.

At safety, I’m not sure the Irish are at an elite level, or even a top 25 level at this point.  It’s clearly obvious they have one truly gifted athlete, another arriving this fall, and then a bunch of guys who have all been given the opportunity to play and haven’t impressed.  Can this be fixed any time soon?  Will C.J. Prosise be moved back, or maybe even James Onwualu?  This is clearly one area they need to get better results.

When you look at the overall roster, the Irish are in great position in almost all positions in regards to both numbers and talent.  How much of that is elite talent?  Potential NFL first round talent?  No team is going to have that kind of talent at every position, but they do matter.  There’s a reason less-than-athletic QB Tommy Rees was sacked so little this year—his name is Zack Martin—among others.  And just as important, you need to have a lot of second, third and fourth round talent as well to truly complete with the elite teams out there.  How many on ND’s roster do you see with that kind of talent?

I’ve said this because I believe it to be true.  If the Irish want to get back to the very top, they need to recruit two elite players every year.  Two Jaylon Smith’s.  One on offense.  One on defense.  And they need to make sure the rest of the class they sign have a legitimate shot to develop into NFL draft picks as well.  Not everyone will, but you need to find great talent who can be developed.  I think the Irish staff did a great job of that this year with many of those they ended up signing.  Not many are ready to be stars now, but many of those they did sign have a great shot to become NFL prospects if they put in the time and effort.

There are a lot of other key, important ingredients to a great program.  A well designed recruiting plan that is also executed every year being one.  A sound strength and condition program and plan.  We’ve seen great improvements in both the strength and conditioning as well as nutrition, and Notre Dame stepping up to help in those improvements.  Obviously there are many other important facets I could point out, but I think you get the point.

Finally, I think this is more important than many realize—-the quarterback.  I believe in today’s game, you have to have an above average quarterback to become a great team.  An elite quarterback can take an average team and make them a contender, see Texas A&M.  An average quarterback can turn a great team into something less, see Stanford.  But talent alone does not make a great quarterback.   Leadership and dedication also has to come into play.

Is Everett Golson a great leader?  Is he finally dedicated?  Will his teammates follow him?  With the loss of Zack Martin, Chris Watt and T.J. Jones, the Irish offense is now rudderless in regards to leadership.

Who will pick up the torch and lead?  I believe Golson has “it” when it comes to being a playmaker.  He feels pressure and never panics.  He’s at his best when the play breaks down.  Very few people have that ability.  But it’s during crunch time that you need a leader.  All of his “it” factor won’t matter if his teammates don’t want to follow him.

When you look at the total package of the current state of the ND program, one has to realize the Irish are very close to getting back on top.  They have the support they need from the administration.  They have a very good leader at head coach.  I think they’ve improved their coaching staff with their recent hires compared to last year.  And, they’ve finally gotten their quarterback back—the one who led them to the Championship Game.

I truly see the Irish knocking on the door of greatness.  Who will be the first to open the door and walk through?  Golson and Kelly need to be the men to do it.  Will it finally happen?

About Mike Frank