Analysis: Here's what Notre Dame's next steps should look like

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — By the time Trevor Lawrence and his flowing, blond locks come to Notre Dame Stadium on Nov. 7, 2020, the current Clemson QB prodigy will likely be roughly a couple of months away from both officially plopping himself at the top of the 2021 NFL Draft board and being able to negotiate his first shampoo commercial.

Most disturbing perhaps for the Irish football fan base is that he’ll probably have the kind of cast around him that has allowed the Tigers to go 28-3 over their last 31 games away from home and 19-1 in their last 20 against the AP Top 25 — that, after rudely and decisively dismissing No. 3 Notre Dame on both counts from its first-ever College Football Playoff.

The 30-3 bottom line in the Cotton Bowl/CFP semifinal at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, doesn’t get any more palatable if you crack it open and forage for statistical solace.

The 538 yards that No. 2 Clemson dented the Irish defense for is the most yardage yielded by ND since Wake Forest gleaned 587 in a 48-37 scorefest won by the Irish on Nov. 4, 2017, and the sixth-most of the Brian Kelly Era overall.

The 248 yards the Irish offense labored for, in the lowest-scoring output of its 38-bowl game history, is the fourth-lowest offensive yardage total of the Kelly Era and least potent since the 113 the Irish put up in the 10-3 loss to NC State in 2016, played in the outer bands of Hurricane Matthew.

But looking at the numerical carnage — and the cyber-stench that naturally and deservedly comes with it — with anything but a wide-angle lens distorts what might be possible for Notre Dame the next time it encounters Lawrence and Clemson, either in the 2019 postseason or in game 9 of its 2020 regular-season run.

Remember Notre Dame’s 41-8 loss at Hard Rock Stadium to Miami (Fla.) on Nov. 11, 2017, when the Irish were also ranked No. 3, then plummeted?

The knee-jerk aftermath was filled with hot takes about a glass ceiling for Notre Dame as well as the game being a launching pad back to elite status for the Hurricanes program. The reality is since that game, the Irish are 14-2, including 11-2 against Power 5 teams.

Miami is 8-9 from that juncture, including 5-9 against the Power 5. And then Sunday, Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt abruptly retired after just three seasons on the job amid a landslide of negative headlines and developments.

“Losing gives you perspective,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday night as he heads into his 10th season following a 12-1 mark in 2018.

“It’s not great. No one ever likes to go through losing to gain perspective. Our guys saw that they could win a game like this, and we’ll go to work on that.”

Where Kelly’s work starts is actually with more of the same of what he’s been doing since the post-2016 program reboot and building upon that rather than an overreactive gut job and rebuild.

That’s not to say there weren’t new philosophical and developmental flaws exposed Saturday in Kelly’s evolving foundation by a program that was only two points better than the Irish on a rainy night in Clemson, S.C., three seasons ago.

But there’s far more momentum and sustainable pillars in place than there are reasons to soul search.

Those have a lot to do with the program’s infrastructure, anchored by a now-elite strength and conditioning program piloted by Matt Balis, but recruiting is a big part of it, too.

And the Irish got noticeably stronger in the 2019 cycle in the areas where college football’s two biggest bullies, Clemson and No. 1 Alabama, started then perfected their dominating formulas — the offensive and defensive lines.

The offensive line haul — Zeke Correll, Quinn Carroll, Andrew Kristofic and John Olmstead — signed less than two weeks ago, is arguably the nation’s best. A similarly impressive defensive line class of Howard Cross III, NaNa Osafo-Mensah, Jacob Lacey and Hunter Spears is likely to add four-star California defensive end prospect Isaiah Foskey in the coming days.

ND’s defensive back recruiting, highlighted by 2019 Georgia safety Kyle Hamilton, has surged in the past couple of cycles. There appears to be quantity and quality in an oversized corps of young linebackers, but some of them will have to be microwavable to make up for the impending losses of grad Drue Tranquill and senior Te’von Coney.

If there’s a rub in the recruiting model, it’s that Notre Dame needs to get dynamic running backs and wide receivers, with top-end speed, with greater frequency.

Recruiting also means re-recruiting. And ND’s success rate in that area is far more critical than it is for Alabama and Clemson to do the same.

Last year, Kelly and his staff got notably Tranquill, Coney, All-America defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and nose guard Jonathan Bonner to come back, while losing running back Josh Adams and wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown to early entries into the NFL Draft.

This year the realistic must-haves are junior defensive ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem and a senior with a fifth-year option Miles Boykin, at wide receiver. Junior cornerback Julian Love coming back would be a coup for Kelly, but Love’s second-round draft grade from the College Advisory Committee might not help the coach’s pitch to return.

Love’s absence Saturday due to a head injury for part of the first quarter and all of the second — when Clemson outscored the Irish 20-0 and scorched replacement cornerback Donte Vaughn — underscores to Kelly how fragile the Irish remain at certain positions.

Some of that is remnants of the Brian VanGorder Era of recruiting missteps still lingering on the roster, but it’s still on Kelly for hiring him as the defensive coordinator in the first place and not moving on more quickly when it became apparent how awful the fit was.

It’s also on Kelly that while Clemson clearly was the better team on Saturday, Notre Dame came nowhere near its “A” game, particularly on offense.

Quarterback Ian Book’s regression against Clemson, the first top 50 defense nationally he’s faced in 10 career starts (compared with Brandon Wimbush’s nine top 50 defenses faced in 16 career starts), screams for attention/correction.

Book, skittish often even when he wasn’t pressured, completed 17 of 34 passes for 160 yards and an interception while being sacked six times. His 83.65 pass-efficiency rating for the game is not only a career worst in a starting role, it’s roughly half of his season average coming into the CFP game.

His 50 percent completion rate and long completion of 23 yards are also by far his worst in 10 starts.

Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and QBs coach Tommy Rees need to coax Book to make the kind of improvement this offseason that he did in August to eventually overtake Wimbush at the top of the depth chart. Book also could stand to be pushed by 6-foot-5, 220-pound redshirting freshman Phil Jurkovec.

Competition is never a bad thing.

Nor is ugly history — if you can overcome it. And ND’s got a little more hideous on Saturday in Texas.

At the end of the 1993 season, 22 miles away in Dallas, at the old Cotton Bowl venue, No. 4 Notre Dame held off No. 7 Texas A&M, 24-21 — a victory that moved the Irish up to No. 2 in the final polls.

Since then, the Irish are 0-8 against top 10 teams in January with the average losing margin of 21 points.

Tweeted former Irish All-America tight end Tyler Eifert, a member of the 2012 Irish that got curb-stomped by Alabama, 42-14, in the BCS National Championship Game: “2012 was embarrassing and this is just as bad. ‘Oh you guys played hard.’ No, embarrassing.”

It stings and should sting, if you’re a Notre Dame player, coach or devotee — because the Irish have and should continue to have national championship aspirations in football. And it’s up to Kelly to uncover the final pieces to the formula.

Perhaps his best motivation that something like that actually exists and isn’t just wishful thinking is Clemson.

A year and a handful of days before Alabama dressed down the 2012 Irish in Miami Gardens, Fla., the Tigers capped their first ACC title run in 20 years with a 70-33 flop in the Orange Bowl at the hands of underdog West Virginia.

In the years that followed something called “Clemsoning” actually became a thing. A couple of online/urban dictionaries define it as follows: 1. The act of failing miserably on a grand athletic stage, or when the stakes are high. 2. Record-setting failure, usually reserved for college football.

And maybe Notre Dame just suffered “Clemsoning” at the hands of Clemson. But the Tigers have made the term irrelevant the past few seasons when it applies to them.

It’s time for the Irish to do the same.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly calls for a referee during ND’s 30-3 loss to Clemson, Saturday in a College Football Playoff semifinal at Arlington, Texas.
Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick stands with Chris Finke (10) and Julian Love (27) during the Alma Mater following ND’s CFP semifinal loss to Clemson, Saturday at Arlington, Texas.
Notre Dame players in their locker room reflect on a 30-3 loss to Clemson, Saturday in the CFP Playoff/Cotton Bowl at Arlington, Texas.

Sept. 2: at Louisville

Sept. 14: NEW MEXICO

Sept. 21: at Georgia

Sept. 28: VIRGINIA

Oct. 5: BOWLING GREEN

Oct. 12: USC

Oct. 26: at Michigan

Nov. 2: VIRGINIA TECH

Nov. 9: at Duke

Nov. 16: NAVY

Nov. 23: BOSTON COLLEGE

Nov. 30: at Stanford