Analysis: Taking stock in Notre Dame's perception and realities

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The $6 get-in price listed Friday on the secondary market speaks volumes about the intrigue level of Saturday morning’s neutral-site clash between Notre Dame and Navy (11:30 a.m.; CBS) at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.

So does the already-slumping market for ND-Army set for Nov. 12 in San Antonio, Texas, where face-value tickets between $45 and $250 in the Alamodome can be had for as little as $22.

Notre Dame seventh-year head football coach Brian Kelly’s reality is that the balance of the 2016 season, including Saturday’s triple-option test, really does matter. The equally important world of perception screams that it’s already about 2017.

The worn coaching adage dictates Kelly take one game at a time, and — at the very least — one season at a time. But the 3-5 record he brings into the 90th-annual clash against Navy (5-2) as a 6½-point favorite necessitates an eye in both seasons and both worlds, perception and reality.

It all starts with the naming of the next Irish defensive coordinator, whether that’s eventually interim place-holder Greg Hudson or an outside hire. But the spectrum of key areas to watch, when it comes to a potential renaissance season in 2017, is much wider.

Here then is a rundown of the most pertinent factors to watch over the final games of 2016, and beyond:

Coordinator qualities

The Fremeau Efficiency Index (BCSToys.com), a fascinating stat-based website, takes national statistical rankings and raw numbers and adjusts them to take in caliber of opponent in those given areas.

Even with the four games that ousted coordinator Brian VanGorder presided over, the Irish find themselves with the No. 46 opponent-adjusted defense going into this weekend’s games. For perspective sake, that’s the best ranking of an Irish defense since its 2012 run to the BCS National Championship Game (14th).

“When VanGorder was fired, I didn’t think it was possible for the defense to get that much better to make a difference,” said Fremeau, an analyst whose home base is footballoutsiders.com. “But they have. It’s the offense that’s been more of the reason they haven’t made a bigger leap forward.”

Even if Hudson can maintain or improve that standing in a still small sample size, there’s much more to consider when it comes to his candidacy and those of the outside considerations.

“No recruit is going to buy into what Kelly is selling about his defense, even with the improvement on the field, until he names a guy and outlines his vision for the defense,” CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said.

“Notre Dame doesn’t have to have a super big name as their next defensive coordinator. What he has to be is energetic, where he builds up that name and is the kind of guy that difference-maker recruits on defense want to play for.

“At Notre Dame, all you have to have is that one big year, and you’re a famous defensive coordinator. But it can’t be a guy who’s trying to build his résumé to be a head coach in year two. You need stability, a guy who’s going to stay for five years.”

Stability wasn’t necessarily lacking with VanGorder, but his investment in the recruiting process decidedly was — and eventually that bleeds onto the product on the field.

Kelly can’t afford to make that same miscalculation again, that the rest of the staff’s recruiting prowess can make up for the face of the defense being so back-burner in that process.

Ordinary special teams

The Irish check in at No. 66 out of 128 teams in the Fremeau Efficiency Index special teams rankings. That’s down 47 spots from 19th last season, though most of Kelly’s seven Irish teams have been average in their special teams rankings.

“Egregious errors amplify the problem,” said Fremeau, who pointed out ND’s worst season on special teams was its most successful team overall, the 2012 squad (12-1) that finished No. 4 in the final AP poll but 87th in the special teams standings.

“You can be kind of lousy or pedestrian on special teams and not cost yourself games if you’re up 10 points or more or whatever,” Fremeau continued. “I’m in the camp that it doesn’t matter until it does — when it becomes the difference between winning and losing.

“And it has been in two games (Duke and N.C. State) and almost was last week against Miami.”

The issue then becomes does Kelly need to make a change or reassignment at special teams coordinator? Scott Booker currently holds that position and coaches the tight ends as well.

The perception is that something major needs to be done, whether that’s more shared responsibilities among the nine assistants, a more focused role for Booker or new leadership in that area. The reality may be more subtle changes are in order.

A stat to keep in mind: three of the teams in last year’s four-team playoff had special teams rankings worse than ND’s current standing of 66th — Clemson was 105th, Oklahoma 78th and Michigan State 110th. National titlist Alabama was 24th in 2015 and is 39th so far this season.

Get ready for Plan C

In a perfect world junior quarterback DeShone Kizer not only comes back for 2017 but improves, senior Malik Zaire returns for a fifth year and redshirting sophomore Brandon Wimbush can develop at a comfortable pace.

But the perception is Kizer will head into the 2017 NFL Draft as a first-round pick and Zaire will grad-transfer, so Kelly has to have Wimbush ready to be ND’s No. 1 option, with two QBs with no college experience (Ian Book and Avery Davis) as his backups.

Kelly, though, also needs to fix the pieces around whomever is the starting QB in 2017. And there is one player in the two-deeps on offense with expiring eligibility — seldom-used center Mark Harrell.

In the FEI adjusted offense ratings, the Irish have slumped to 72nd. That’s down from sixth last season and would be the worst of the Kelly Era if the rating holds (57th in 2010 is the low bar there).

“Anecdotally, I thought the Syracuse game was who Notre Dame was going to be (a 50-33 Irish victory),” Fremeau said. “Not that great on defense, but strong enough on offense to outscore people. I can’t help but think maybe some of that was Kelly’s attention being drawn away from the offense to fix problems on the defense.”

The schedule

The contorted beauty in ND’s free fall from its preseason top 10 ranking is that to date it has played the nation’s 97th toughest schedule. And even if you factor in the final four games, it rises only to No. 81.

Which means had the Irish lived up to or exceeded expectations and put together an 11-1 mark, they most likely would have been left out of the playoff field.

“An undefeated team — Notre Dame or a Power 5 team — is going to be safely in the playoff conversation, but I think this year it would have been undefeated or bust based on this year’s schedule.”

The scary part is that pattern could repeat in 2017.

Of ND’s 2017 opponents five were ranked in the 2016 preseason poll (Stanford, Michigan State, Georgia, USC. North Carolina), but only North Carolina remains in the top 25 (No. 18 AP, No. 21 CFP rankings).

“On the surface, my gut says it doesn’t have enough juice to get an 11-1 Irish team into the playoff in 2017, but it is true that it’s really difficult to figure out who’s going to be really good schedule-wise and who isn’t.”

Kelly’s image

This is where reality and perception are at their most divergent in the current snapshot, at least when it comes to how it plays in recruiting.

Notre Dame did lose defensive line prospect Donovan Jeter to Michigan recently, and defensive end Robert Beal nine months ago, eventually to Georgia. But if that number (2) holds, it will tie for the second-fewest decommitments in eight recruiting cycles under Kelly.

Coming into this cycle, Kelly had lost 19 players to decommitments in his time at ND, while flipping 37 prospects from other classes onto ND’s roster.

Lemming has been traveling the nation the past few weeks, talking to recruits in the 2018 and 2019 classes, current juniors and sophomores. And ND finds itself in the Alabama-Ohio State-Michigan tier when it comes to early top fives, per the longtime analyst.

“And when you look at the other end of the recruiting cycle, Kelly is outstanding in the house for home visits,” Lemming season. “I’ve had a lot of kids tell me that. He’s a smart, personable guy when he gets to the house. He’s as good as anybody really.”

The tweak Lemming says ND needs to make in its recruiting, regardless of how well or awful a current season is going, is better follow-through on difference-maker type players very early in the process, especially those on defense.

“Notre Dame has been really good in its evaluations and really good at getting its foot in the door. But where they lose the great defensive prospects is that next stage — getting kids to call them and forming a relationship when they’re sophomores.

“You don’t have to do it for every kid, but you have to do it for the difference-makers. Because when it comes down to a kid splitting hairs, Notre Dame has to be better there.”

Which says nothing about rumors about Kelly’s future beyond 2017, about national media and fans who claim he throws his players under the bus after a loss, about his fiery sideline demeanor which some have found off-putting, and about the 3-5 record.

“It is kind of irrelevant, the way kids think,” Lemming said. “And if they make a good defensive coordinator hire and start winning, it goes away. And it goes away very quickly.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the Miami at Notre Dame NCAA college football game Saturday Oct. 29, 2016, inside Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA

Sept. 2     TEMPLE

Sept. 9     GEORGIA

Sept. 16     at Boston College     

Sept. 23     at Michigan State

Sept. 30     MIAMI (Ohio)

Oct. 7     at North Carolina

Oct. 21     SOUTHERN CAL

Oct. 28     N. CAROLINA STATE     

Nov. 4     WAKE FOREST     

Nov. 11     at Miami (Fla.)     

Nov. 18     NAVY

Nov. 25     at Stanford