Notre Dame Football Mailbag: Sizing up Brian Kelly's potential longevity and its significance

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Welcome to the Notre Dame Football Not-So-Live Chat/Mailbag, Spring Break Edition.

The Irish get back to work Tuesday, with practice No. 4 of the 15 this spring. Pro Day follows on Wednesday, with practices Nos. 5 and 6 both open to the media on Thursday and Saturday, respectively.

Thanks again for your questions. Not a lot of duplicates this week — or whining, for that matter. All appreciated. Keep ‘em coming.

Off we go.

Denis from St. Catherines, Ontario: Hi Eric. So Brian Kelly would be very pleased to have another five years at ND. What are your thoughts on what kind of an accomplishment that would be?

I don't mean whether or not he wins a championship, etc. Just the duration. How difficult would it be for another coach to go beyond 15 years? Would that record of 15 years be safe for years to come? Would it ever be broken? Would he deserve a statue even without a championship?

Thanks a lot.

Eric Hansen: That Frank Leahy was nudged to leave the position at age 45 because of health reasons and Ara Parseghian stepped away of his own volition at age 51 with similar motivation, both help frame what an accomplishment that would be for Kelly if it were indeed to come to pass. Leahy’s run is all the more fascinating because of his two years of service in World War II after his first three seasons on the job.

By my math, five more years would give Kelly 14, and he would be the first Notre Dame head coach to head the program in his 60s. He’s already the second-oldest Irish head football coach ever, at age 57.

I’m not a big statue guy when it comes to who deserves them and who does not, but a championship seems like a requisite piece of the résumé for that to happen.

Kelly from Granger: Hi Eric, Thanks for doing this! Which players on this upcoming fall’s ND football roster do you think are the five most likely to be first-round draft picks?

Eric Hansen: Kelly it’s a very difficult question, because there’s no one in the next draft class that’s on that clear trajectory to be a first-rounder, so it’s going to take quite a bit of projection and some educated guessing.

I look at elite athletes at premium positions and work that concept into my projections. For instance, an edge defender is much more coveted by the NFL than say an inside linebacker; a tackle more valuable than a center. So here’s my list of possible future first-rounders:

• Defensive end Julian Okwara: He needs to put on weight and be better against the run to complement his pass-rushing skills.

• Tight end Cole Kmet: Fantastic athleticism and potential needs to translate into production.

• Left offensive tackle Liam Eichenberg: The last three Notre Dame starters at his position ended up being first-rounders.

• Quarterback Phil Jurkovec: Obviously, there’s a lot of development that has to take place, but he has ideal size, has the arm strength, has the mobility and mental makeup to be elite.

• Safety Kyle Hamilton: The incoming freshman brings freaky athleticism, coachability and humility to the Irish defensive backfield.

Jay from Huntington Beach, Calif.: Hi Eric. I know it’s early. However, do you have a prediction on the Irish’s biggest “signature win” this coming year, and their closest-game-that-shouldn’t-be-close-but-Irish-win-it’?

Of course, if you can include your always intuitive analysis of why, that will be most appreciated.

Thank you for all of your articles.

Eric Hansen: Jay, it is so early, because of the questions that must be worked through at several positions. But I can say this, I think signature wins are rare in any program. I think the only one that could rise to that level, if the Irish were to win it, would be the road game at Georgia.

Clemson last year in Texas would have been one. Oklahoma on the road in 2012 was one.

In the trap game category, I think Virginia the week after Georgia could shape up as one. Also Boston College at home the week after Navy could be unexpectedly difficult.

Adam from West Babylon, N.Y.: I am hoping the secondary can be as good as last year, but I don’t see it. Also what linebacker can we be excited about ? There are so many but who will emerge?

Eric Hansen: I think the safety position will actually be both better at the top of the depth chart and deeper. I also think there’s another level for cornerback Troy Pride’s game to rise to. So the answer to your statement/question comes in how ND goes about replacing All-American Julian Love and then finding an answer at the nickel that was elusive throughout 2018.

The three players to watch closely are Houston Griffith, Avery Davis and eventually Shaun Crawford. If ND is going to match or exceed the production from last year’s secondary, the answers will likely come from that group. And don’t count out freshman safety Kyle Hamilton from having some kind of role.

As far as the linebackers, there are quite a few to be excited about, and I don’t think you’ll see a depth chart in ink at that position group until sometime in August. This spring is about growth at the position and figuring out which individuals and combinations work the best.

If I were you, I’d be most excited about rover Shayne Simon in the linebacker group. I’m most intrigued by Jack Lamb. My sense is ND will end up with a Simon-Asmar Bilal-Bo Bauer starting alignment in September, but that’s far, far from conclusive.

ND Harvey from South Philly: E, Happy St Paddy's Day weekend. If the season started tomorrow who would be our starting center? Thank you. Stay away from the green beer....Go IRISH!!!!

Eric Hansen: Harvey thanks for the advice. I tend not to ingest anything green from my fridge unless it was that color when I bought it. I think the early favorite, sophomore-to-be Jarrett Patterson, will end up as the eventual starter at center Labor Day weekend in Louisville.

Tom D. from Lansing: Are we any closer to breaking through and getting some five-star talent, which seems necessary to competing at the highest level? Also, other teams seem to get more out of their freshmen than we do. Could you comment? Thanks.

Eric Hansen: Tom, I’m working on an in-depth story on Notre Dame and the five-star athlete. I think you will be stunned by some of the assumptions people make about five-star prospects and what the reality is. However, I think what you’re getting at is whether the Irish are involved with more difference-makers in this recruiting cycle.

I have written and said this in the past few months, that Notre Dame is evolving the right way on the offensive and defensive lines — both with regard to recruiting and player development. The safety position group has been transformed from a talent and development standpoint in a short time.

Where there’s a lot of work to be done is recruiting and developing elite speed at the running back and wide receiver positions. And so far in the 2020 cycle, the Irish seem better positioned to gain some ground in that regard.

Among the visitors coming in next weekend is Chris Tyree of Chester, Va., the nation’s No. 1-rated all-purpose back. That doesn’t mean he’ll eventually commit to ND but to land the good ones, you’ve got to get them on campus.

Your comment regarding freshmen playing key roles for other teams vs. ND is difficult to quantify. So many factors play into that formula — returning starters, team culture, need, etc. But I would agree the Irish don’t have as many plug-and-play freshmen typically as the teams that are playoff regulars. I do think that ties more into recruiting than development.

Dave from Granger: Eric, I listen to just about every ND podcast available and the work you do on Pod of Gold and Sportsbeat definitely stands out above the rest. Now if we can just do something about that Pritchett guy! (Kidding).

My question is this, if Notre Dame were to make the CFP for a second straight year this year, what would you say was the number No. 1 reason why?

Eric Hansen: Thanks, first, for the kind words. I really enjoy working with Tyler on the podcast and Darin and Sean on SportsBeat. I am lucky to be in such company.

There would have to be multiple reasons, as I’m sure you know, but since you are limiting me to one, I will play along. The No. 1 reason would be a surprisingly dominant linebacker corps that helped lift the Irish to be an elite defense.

An elite defense is not only a staple of national champions in the CFP/BCS Era, it can cover up a lot of blemishes on offense.

Todd from Mishawaka: I wanted to know why we always take the ball first when we win the toss? I know the numbers say score first, and your chances of winning are better. But who says you have to have the ball first to score first? Deferring is my preference. Thank you and go Irish.

Eric Hansen: Todd, I get this question several times a year, but you put a little twist on it, so I’ll go ahead and answer it. Keep in mind by not deferring, you may end up with your preference of wind direction in the fourth quarter. And in this climate, that can be significant.

Even though more coaches defer than elect to receive, that doesn’t make it right for everybody. You have to do what’s best for how your team is constructed, and that can vary from team to team and year to year.

Having said that, Brian Kelly’s teams have scored first 68 percent of the time during his 116 games at Notre Dame. Let’s take that a step further now. Kelly’s ND teams have won 76 percent of the time when they score first (83 percent for his career).

And Notre Dame under Kelly wins at a .867 clip when it leads at the half. Kelly’s overall win percentage is .698.

David from Sacramento, Calif.: Hi Eric, this is my first time writing to you. I was wondering if the O-line will improve after having new starters gaining experience from last year? I think the pass protection was adequate but the run blocking was below average.

Eric Hansen: Welcome to the Not-So-Live Chat, David. I have family in Sacramento, so nice to hear from someone from that part of the country.

I would expect significant improvement collectively, provided center Jarrett Patterson continues on the arc he’s on. You are only as good as your weakest link. And a line with four standouts and someone who struggles can be derailed. I don’t expect that to happen. Nor do I expect perfection.

However, I do think it will be better. How much better? Keep an eye on Tommy Kraemer at right guard. If his early practices — with improved mobility — turn into something sustained, that’s significant.

Also tied to the optics about offensive line plays are how the running backs perform and whether ND can develop a speed option at the outside receiver on the wide side of the field. It’s possible for the O-line to improve and not look like it if those areas don’t evolve as well.

John from Toronto, Ohio: When will Phil Jurkovec get some playing time?

Eric Hansen: He’ll get lots of reps this spring. There are only two scholarship quarterbacks on campus this spring (Brendon Clark arrives in June), so there’s plenty of work to go around.

David from Washington, D.C.: Hey Eric — two questions:

1) How does the coaching staff feel about Cole Kmet's role in 2019?

2) What is the injury status of Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah? Is the rover position Shayne Simon's to lose?

Thanks.

Eric Hansen: The coaching staff is downright giddy about what Kmet can contribute to the offense in 2019, and as an added bonus a leaner Brock Wright has been an early spring surprise to compliment that. Offensive coordinator Chip Long called Kmet, in fact, a once-in-a-lifetime type prospect.

Owusu-Koramoah is back practicing after missing last season with a broken foot. I would be surprised if anyone other than Simon ended up as the starting rover.

Rich from Sparta, N.J.: Hi Eric. I read ND added Marshall to the 2022 schedule. Any thoughts who the Irish will add to fill out the 2021 schedule?

Right now ND has six home, four road and a neutral-site game with Wisconsin on the slate. I’d like to see the Irish fulfill a past obligation to visit BYU, but a seventh home game against teams like Boise State, Fresno State, SMU, etc., may be the direction the athletic department goes.

I’m not sure Boise State would take a visit to South Bend with no return trip by the Irish, but the other schools might be agreeable. Which way do you think ND goes?

Eric Hansen: The curveball here is the Shamrock Series game vs. Wisconsin in Chicago. Every Shamrock Series game to this point — and the 2020 game vs. Wisconsin in Green Bay, Wis., as well — has been a “home game” with NBC televising. This one is not.

To give NBC its inventory of seven games, I would say the missing game will be a home game. My sense is that it would be a Group of Five opponent rather than a Power 5 team, though I wouldn’t anticipate that opponent would be from the Mountain West Conference.

George from El Segundo, Calif.: Hi Eric, what is your take on Michigan next season? Seems they lost a lot of talent, and Don Brown’s defense got lit up pretty good in the last two games. Still expecting a tough one at the Big House, though. What do you think?

Eric Hansen: George, the unraveling of the Michigan defense against Ohio State and against Florida in its bowl game (admittedly with some key pieces missing in the latter) was stunning. I’m not sure that wasn’t more of a Jim Harbaugh problem than a Don Brown problem.

Both teams are projected to be in the AP preseason top 10 in August, per analyst Phil Steele — ND at No. 8 and Michigan at No. 9, so I would expect the game to be epic. It’s so early in the development of the teams to really take a deep dive into matchups without calling Miss Cleo on the Psychic Hotline.

One wrinkle to keep an eye on: The Wolverines have a potentially tough road game at Penn State the weekend before hosting the Irish. Notre Dame has a bye week. And Kelly is 21-2 in his career, and 10-1 at ND in the game immediately following a bye week.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and Irish coach Brian Kelly celebrate after ND’s 24-17 win over USC, Nov. 24 in Los Angeles.