This piece will be the first in a series of articles on my grand plan for the Irish to get back to the top of college football. No, nobody asked my opinion on how to get there, but that's never stopped me from having an opinion on anything. HA!
I've thought long and hard about the remaining pieces left for Irish head coach Brian Kelly and his staff. It's clear they've come in with a solid plan and have done a great job of executing it thus far. While there has been some bumps along the way, Kelly got his team to the final game last season, and the future appears to be very bright for Notre Dame.
However, it's one thing to be a really good, top 10 team, and something quite different being the very best in the game. I think Alabama's play this January showed Notre Dame they still have a ways to go before they're able to battle with the Crimson Tide.
Currently, Alabama has a stronghold at the pinnacle of the College Football mountain, and I don't see anyone ready to challenge the beast from the South, including Notre Dame. Alabama's program is so strong right now that I think the only way they might falter would be to implode from within, which is usually how a great dynasty comes to an end. We've seen it many times before, but Nick Saban sure seems to have his program under control and functioning like a well-oiled machine.
However, most of Saban's key staff members have remained with the legendary coach thus far. It will be interesting to see if Saban can continue the success once the inevitable mass exodus occurs amongst his key people.
The Hidden Yards
College football coaches talk about the hidden yardage often. Things like penalties, returns, ball spots, etc., can often be a big factor in a game that the casual fan doesn't often consider. Most just consider the key plays but don't consider how they got into that position.
The hidden yards are important, but I have a different "hidden yards" I'd like to consider.
I think there are a lot of "hidden yards" in your depth chart. This is the one thing I think Brian Kelly understands very well, that maybe the three previous Irish coaches didn't understand. Depth is really the key to a great program. Your starting 22 is very important, no question, but the depth of your program is what makes your starting 22 great. This is why you see Kelly speaking so often lately about how important it is to improve their walk-on program. He understands that his starting 22, once the season starts, is often competing against his walk-on program. When Notre Dame's offense and defense are preparing for Alabama, they're going to be going against a host of these important walk-ons as a "show team" to get a good look at what to expect come game day. If you're "show team" consists of a bunch of Mike Frank's, you're not going to be prepare for Alabama.
My home state, Nebraska, has a very rich tradition and pride in their walk-on program. Every kid growing up in Nebraska, besides me, longs to run out on the field in Memorial Stadium and represent their proud state, and they're willing to get their head kicked in every week for the chance it might happen. Nebraska has long had a large walk-on program, and they've found many great players who developed into actual starters and productive players under their strength and conditioning program and coaching.
These players play a very vital role in the preparation each week, and the better these players are, the more prepared your team will be. The more you have to choose from, the better the chance you'll have to find some real "diamond's in the rough" who can really make a difference.
My guess is most young boys in Alabama grow up wishing, praying, they get a chance to play for Alabama. My guess is they line up in droves hoping to be chosen so they can also get their head kicked in every week by the Crimson Tide starters.
My estimation is you can find that with pretty much every state school---an abundance for loyal sons who'd do anything for their beloved home state school.
And my guess is Notre Dame has a long list as well----myself included----not that anyone would've wanted me. The problem? It costs almost 50K per year to go to Notre Dame. Normally, It costs around 15K to go to the home state school. That's another 140K for four total years someone will have to come up with just to go to Notre Dame. I couldn't imagine being 140K in debt just for the slight chance I could play for the Irish. Oh, and then, you also have the academic side of it. I had less than zero chance to be accepted at Notre Dame, even if they wanted me, due to my grades and test score. I'm certain I wasn't alone.
The pool to choose walk-ons from, because of the cost and the academic side of things, is much, much smaller than what you'd find at any state school across the country.
All the while Alabama and Nebraska are convincing a lot of talented kids, who can easily and have a much better chance to play at Alabama-Birmingham or Toledo, to come to school and compete in their walk-on program. There are also a lot of "scholarships" that are out there that can help these kids with the cost of school---academic or otherwise. This is something that most don't consider. These scholarships make it easier for these kids to attend these state schools and come out close to debt-free. But when it's 50K every year , that's a considerable amount of money. The same happens with say the ND baseball program. If memory serves me, there are only 13 or so scholarships given out to the entire Irish baseball team. Obviously not all of those players can afford to pay for the entire bill, but academic scholarships and grants help fund at least some of the bill.
Maybe this is a rumored "change" Kelly is hoping for? Some assistance to help in scholarships---academic or otherwise----for some walk-ons, and maybe a few breaks in academics along the way with getting some talented players into school? Notre Dame's graduation success with athletes is obviously very high, so my guess is these potential walk-ons would likely adapt and excel as well? It would certainly seem logical considering their success with scholarship athletes.
Please don't read too much into that. I have no inside knowledge that this is something Kelly is looking or hoping for. I honestly don't. But if I were in his shoes, I'd certainly be considering it. At least trying to find a way to level the playing field.
The better the talent Kelly can put in front of his starting 22, the better chance he can have his team be properly prepared and motivated for Saturday. And it's also important that these walk-ons do more than just "show team." They need to push the starters as well. Every freshman hopes to at least see the field on special teams his firs season, but when you have a guy like Mike Anello out there stealing starting spots and starring on special teams, that motivates the rest of your depth chart. Nobody wants to lose a spot to a walk-on, and the more Mike Anello's you have, the more effort your going to get from the reserves in your program.
Be looking for Part II of my series coming on Monday.