Notre Dame Football Mailbag: Dissecting ND's recruiting model; lessons learned from Clemson

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Welcome to the very first version of Notre Dame Football Not-So-Live Chat, which is actually a mailbag format.

We may return to the live format eventually, but for now this make sense and can keep us connected while we search for a new chat host that makes economic sense. I welcome your feedback on the new format.

Once spring practice starts in early March, I’ll do this on a weekly basis and on a set day of the week. For now, it’s a little more scattered. I will announce the next mailbag on my Twitter account (@EHansenNDI).

Off we go:

Kevin from Pittsburgh: Why hasn’t ND had an elite program under Kelly, even though Kelly has consistently had good recruiting classes?

Quite simply, Kelly has not obtained the quantity of high-level recruits (top 50) as the elite programs (do). And, when he does, a high percentage of those high-level recruits have not made a big impact on the program.

As far as recruiting overall, ND does most of its recruiting damage (as far as numbers) with those four-star recruits ranked between 100-400. On average, ND will grab a top 50 recruit each cycle. Maybe add another recruit or two between 50-100.

But for the most part, ND’s recruiting rankings are driven by the large quantity of lower-ranked four-star recruits it is able to land. This would be great for most programs, but not for ND and its fans who consider ND an elite program.

A new article shows that even when Kelly has landed top-level recruits, a disproportionate few have made a big impact at ND (for a variety of reasons).

Looking at the top 12, Jaylon Smith had a career worthy of the five-star ranking. Stephon Tuitt and Tommy Kraemer can be considered impact players. Ishaq Williams, Ben Koyack and Brandon Wimbush were nice contributors. But that’s about it.

The big issue seems to be transfers. Seven of the top 12 eventually transferred out of ND. In retrospect, if we factor these transfers into the rankings, ND’s recruiting classes were probably over-ranked by quite a bit. Going forward, it will be interesting to see if Kelly can land more high-level recruits and then actually have those recruits make an impact on the field for ND.

Eric Hansen: Kevin, there’s a lot to unpack here.

There’s a lot of gray area that I kind of get stuck in with regard to your question, especially the premise that the Irish classes have been over-ranked, thus overall class rankings haven’t translated into similar on-field results.

For instance, the Irish made the playoff in 2018 and finished No. 5 in the final polls, yet didn’t have a single top 5 class that contributed to that run. In fact, ND — per — didn’t have a top 10 class in the years 2014-18 (11-11-13-13-11). That would suggest to me a team that outperformed its projected talent base.

You also assume that top 50 players universally succeed elsewhere. That’s far from the case. Let’s take a look at it from a little bit different angle — the AP All-America first team from 2018.

Five of the 25 players on the 2018 team were top 50 recruits. And every single one of those five played for either Clemson or Alabama.

So of the other 245 top 50 players recruited over the past five cycles (some of whom admittedly have graduated to the NFL), not one could rise to the level of first-team All-America in 2018.

Interestingly, seven first-teamers in 2018 were three-star recruits and a stunning five were two-stars or less.

The real question to me in all this is how does a Notre Dame team, that went 12-0 in the regular season and make the playoff, take the next step?

I wrote about this right after the playoff, but I’ll expand and reiterate a couple of points when it comes to recruiting and retention.

For all programs, but for those such as Notre Dame and Stanford especially, it can’t be solely about the star rating. Fit has to be important. And some of the transfers you cited — Aaron Lynch in particular — was a lesson learned on Kelly’s part about fit.

Note that Lynch was an inferior player at South Florida after transferring and Gunner Kiel got beat out in his final season at Cincinnati. Greg Bryant, Tee Shepard and Davonte’ Neal never found traction at their new schools.

It does Kelly no good to bring a five-star prospect to Notre Dame if he doesn’t have the resilience to deal with the academic challenges he’ll face on a daily basis and perhaps distance from home as well. You can advocate for lower admission standards (I realize you didn’t, but others do), but that doesn’t mean a prospect can survive in the classroom over time.

You also don’t want someone who will poison the culture with his own character flaws.

And don’t lose sight of the player development piece. If it was all about class rankings and top 50 players, then what happened to Florida State (class rankings from 2014-18: 4-3-2-5-10), LSU (2-8-5-8-14), Tennessee (5-5-14-15-20), Auburn (9-7-8-14-12) and USC (10-1-10-6-3)?

I think the formula for developing an elite defensive line — an essential piece to an elite program — is working. Combining players with length and potential with a Matt Balis-run strength program produced the No. 3 D-line in all of college football in 2018, according to Pro Football Focus.

Just two years prior, with different defensive leadership, the Irish line was dead last among Power 5 programs in producing sacks.

If the Irish are able to add some five-stars (beyond Daelin Hayes) in the future to the defensive line mix, all the merrier — as long as they’re fits.

I mentioned this in the post-playoff article, and 247Sports director of recruiting Steve Wiltfong did the same Wednesday on our Weekday SportsBeat radio show on WSBT: Where ND needs to make a significant improvement in its recruiting model is attracting/developing/retaining game-breakers at wide receiver and running back.

That’s why the (soon-to-be official) Lance Taylor hire as the new running backs coach, replacing Autry Denson, is so critical and will be highly scrutinized. It’s also why wide receivers coach Del Alexander will find himself under the microscope in the next year, both as a recruiter and developer.

Ed from Newton Falls, Ohio: What are the chances of Notre Dame's game with USC being an evening kickoff this upcoming season?

Eric Hansen: It’s an obvious choice to be in prime time.

Jack from Myrtle Beach, S.C.: Hi Eric: After reading the recruiting profiles of last year’s and this year’s classes, it seems that we have a number of defensive players who were excellent running backs in high school.

Given the lack of a proven returning backs (both Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones Jr. were hurt often) and the loss of a couple of transfers, are there any thoughts to moving some of these defensive players to the running back position? If so, which ones seem to be the most likely candidates?

Eric Hansen: Jack, the Irish lost one running back — and it was to graduation — in Dexter Williams. You have five returning and none with expiring eligibility in 2019. And the Irish added a running back in the most recent recruiting cycle, Kyren Williams, an early enrollee, no less.

So six is an ample number of scholarships to devote to the running back position. The problem might be quality, or at least having a skill set that replicates what Williams did for the Irish in 2018.

If you were going to move someone, it would be for that reason — that he could be your No. 1 running back, not that you were short of bodies. I don’t see anyone on the roster that fits that description.

The closest scenario would be TaRiq Bracy, a sophomore-to-be. But it doesn’t make sense to move a potential starter at cornerback to running back, where he might be your third- or fourth-best option at that position.

Tom from Lansing, Mich.: Will Notre Dame ever move away from scheduling the final game on the west coast each year, which has been a disaster most seasons? Opinion: Stanford should be totally eliminated from the schedule, since we have no long-term tie to them and the indiscretions of their band years ago. Play MSU and Purdue instead.

Eric Hansen: A little history, Notre Dame has been employing this pattern — playing at Stanford or USC to end the regular season — since 1996, with a couple of variations. In 2001, the 9/11 tragedies pushed a September matchup with Purdue to December. And in 2003 a road game at Syracuse on Dec. 6 followed a late-November road trip to Stanford.

Your question is will it ever end? But the premise for your question is that it has been a disaster and perhaps that’s why it should end.

I’d argue that having a strong opponent at the end of the regular-season schedule, when other top teams are typically playing elite teams, is a good thing when trying to build a playoff résumé. So I would keep it for the foreseeable future. Coach Brian Kelly likes it, because typically he stays out on the west coast to recruit after the game.

I think the bigger issue has been November fades in general, not just flops because of the final opponent and its location. Kelly thinks he’s found the right formula to remedy that, and perhaps he has.

I’d point out that you can still sprinkle in games with Purdue and Michigan State. The Irish have the Boilermakers on the schedule in 2021, 2024 and 2025, and the Spartans in 2026 and 2027.

I do think there will come a time when maybe Stanford cycles off the schedule, but I don’t think it happens while Jack Swarbrick is still filling out the dates as athletic director.

David from Roy, Utah: Why does Notre Dame seem so non-aggressive when it comes to special teams play? They seem to be missing some good opportunities in blocking punts and kick returns.

Eric Hansen: David, there’s no question the Irish have room for improvement, but I think the areas in which that improvement could be the most impactful would be kickoff coverage and punt coverage.

Specifically, when it comes to blocking punts, there’s really no correlation in being good at that and contending for a national title. Most coaches are more concerned with setting up a return or at least stressing ball security. I think that’s wise, unless you see something on film that leads you to believe a block attempt makes sense against a certain opponent.

National champion Clemson, for example, blocked zero punts in 2018. There are just 10 teams that blocked more than two in 2018 and eight such teams in 2017. None of them made the playoff in either year, and none of the 2017 teams repeated in 2018 when it came to being among the nation’s leaders in blocked punts.

I do think ND can be better in kickoff returns, but again, neither Alabama, nor Clemson had someone in the top 50 in that category.

For me, it’s emphasizing coverage, having a dependable place-kicker and excelling at net punting that are the areas where you can make the most headway in improving your overall football team. Now if the next Rocket Ismail shows up on campus, I wouldn’t be shy to deploy him.

Tom in Toronto: Hi Eric, thank you for hosting the Mailbag. Tough game to watch. Big stage. It seemed like the Irish were a step off. First half of USC redux. A couple of things: How do the coaches get the team ready and focused when so much is at stake? And not meaning to point the finger and second-guess (but doing so), do you think that playing Brandon Wimbush in the second half may have made a positive difference to the offense? He guided the team to a win against a strong Michigan defense in game one. Clemson had prepared for Ian Book, and Brandon Wimbush would have brought a different skill set and experience. Your thoughts?

Eric Hansen: Tom, I’ll start with the Wimbush portion of that question. I am a bit surprised there wasn’t a Wimbush package in this game, given his skill set. I’m not sure how much difference it would have made, but I would have liked to have seen it.

Perhaps the coaches tried it in practice and weren’t seeing what they wanted to see. I also think the run Clemson went on in the second quarter really limited the variety ND could employ to get back in the game in the second half.

How do the coaches get the team focused? I think by trying to keep them in their comfort zone of doing what got them there during the regular season. I don’t think that was flawed thinking. Clemson was just that much better than any team the Irish had faced all season.

Kaz from Grand Rapids, Mich.: I know this question is now six weeks old, but what did your contacts inside the Gug say about Ian Book's performance in the Cotton Bowl? Though I have great respect for your evaluation and opinion, I'd like to know what the coaches said about his performance. And did it send up any red flags for them about potential future limitations?

Thanks for taking our questions and trying something new.

Eric Hansen: Kaz, I think the question still reverberates among the fan base even now. Internally, I think Ian Book’s performance against Clemson — his worst statistically of his career by far — exposed what he needs to work on this spring and summer in order to take his game to another level. I think it’s viewed in that light much more than, say, a red flag or multiple ones.

There’s also the belief that a more consistent offensive line in 2019 and perhaps more speed at receiver will help Book take that next step.

In my opinion, Book needs to see pressure in large doses in the spring to test whether he is indeed evolving. Don’t wait for Georgia on the road, in game three, to find out.

Len from the Jersey Shore: Hi Eric thanks for hosting. I will try and keep this short.

I had questions about the playoff game and the next steps.

First the players had a phenomenal year. I know they are hurting. I hope they appreciate what they have accomplished.

Now about the game. When calls were overturned and Julian Love was out, did the team lose focus? Grit? Belief they could win?

It appeared there were open deep balls available for the offense. Ian Book seemed more inaccurate than normal on the deep ball? Was he still hurting? Bad day?

Should we expect better deep balls next year? Is he still the long-term answer?

He had a great year! Similarly to Michigan and Florida State, would Brandon Wimbush’s talents helped in this game? Clemson has a great defense that is designed to take a rhythm QB and offense out of sync.

Next the direction. The team has now won 10 games or more three of the last four years. It has been a long time since that was done. The staff has done a very good job.

What does the program need to do to move from a very good team to an elite team? Is it Possible? Will they spend enough money on facilities to attract the recruits, enough to keep hire high quality coaches and quality/quantity support staff to develop those recruits? Recruit enough talented depth across the board?

Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Texas A&M spend crazy numbers and have many “consultants, etc., staff outside of official coaches.” How well can we compete?

In both areas about the game and the future your thoughts are greatly appreciated.

Eric Hansen: Len, you remind me of myself when I make the promise of keeping something short. Let me cover the ground that I haven’t previously in the mailbag.

Remember, just because Book was untested until Clemson in certain areas, doesn’t mean he’s unable. And he was untested. The Tigers were the first top 45 ranked team nationally in total defense he had faced in a starting role.

So 10 percent of his starts have come against top 45 defenses. Going back to Brady Quinn (2003-06), no other ND starting QB has made fewer than 36 percent of his starts against such defenses. DeShone Kizer made a whopping 70 percent against them.

But even against middling-to-bad defenses, Book struggled at times with the deep ball and against pressure. He deserves a chance this spring and summer to evolve in those areas.

As far as how the team reacted to adversity, sure they could have reacted better and the game could have been more competitive, but Clemson was going to win that game. They were that much better.

I think Notre Dame has the right commitment to take the next steps. As to what that should look like, I’d refer back to this piece I wrote after the Clemson game:

Ken from Pensacola, Fla.: Can you give some insight on what to expect in the 2019 ND Insider and how soon will we be able to purchase one? Thanks and Go Irish! P.S. We're keeping you and yours in our thoughts and prayers fighting the extremely cold weather.

Eric Hansen: Thanks for those prayers Ken. We’re on a temperature roller coaster right now, but that beats a flat line of subzero weather.

I’ll have more details on the mag once we get into spring practice. That’s when we do our planning for the stories, because the most compelling story lines become most clear at that point. I’ll be happy to follow up then and glad you asked about it.

Mark from KC (but currently in warm AZ): Will the tickets for the ND/Wisconsin games at Lambeau and Soldier Field be split 50/50 or will one be a home game and one a road?

Eric Hansen: Mark, oddly the game in Green Bay is technically ND’s home game and the one in Chicago is Wisconsin’s. There’s a TV-related reason for that. As far as the ticket allotment, it is indeed 50/50 at both venues.

Chuck in South Bend: “Last one for me”... In your opinion, which Brian Kelly-coached ND player has most exceeded your expectations in his NFL career? I’ll sit a few rows behind you and to your right and listen for my answer.

Eric Hansen: This is an odd answer, because he was a first-round pick, but it’s Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith. I thought he was talented and would do well, but a guy who didn’t sniff All-America status and struggled before Kelly showed up has gone on to became an absolute elite NFL player.

Mark from Port Orange, Fla.: What are the major differences between the new offensive line coach and the old one? What grade would you give new line coach?

Eric Hansen: The biggest difference between Harry Hiestand and Jeff Quinn is personality. They’re both demanding, both have high standards, but have a very different way about going about it. Quinn is more snuggly, more verbose. Harry is crustier and less G-rated. I think the cool thing is Jeff decided to build on what Harry had done rather than tear everything down and start over.

I’d give Jeff an A in recruiting and an incomplete on the field. I think I need to see another season of O-line play before I can fairly assess that.

Gene from New York: Hi Eric. Hope you're staying warm! As I wasn't able to make any of the live chats, this format helps out! Thanks for that and all your great coverage!

Question for you on the Clemson game: Going into it, I was very concerned about their strength (D-line) vs. our less-experienced (and productive) O-line. Clearly that proved to be a deciding factor in the game. If three of their players (plus the one suspended) are heading for the NFL, not sure what you can say. But I will say that, as has been the case in previous high-profile games against potentially more athletic opponents, the offensive game plan did absolutely nothing to try to counteract it.

Seems that in a month of trying to figure out how to beat them, the only thing the offensive coaches were able to come up with is to run about eight QB draws — which did absolutely nothing! I know dropped passes and inopportune fumbles also killed us, but I just find it hard to believe that there were no additional wrinkles they might have put in the game plan to try to play to our strengths and away from theirs. Your thoughts?

Eric Hansen: Gene, the second-quarter onslaught really sucked the strategic answers out of the game in the second half. I will say I was surprised in the first half that ND didn’t try to leverage its tight ends in the game plan a little more.

Casey from Crown Point: How do Todd Lyght and Terry Joseph interact? Does Lyght have authority for all of the secondary or just the corners?

Eric Hansen: It is confusing, because Lyght has an endowed position that is labeled (Pat and Jana Eilers Family) defensive backs coach, when he actually coaches just the cornerbacks now. Terry Joseph’s emphasis is coaching safeties, but he is actually in charge of the entire secondary.

Lou from Westlake, Ohio: Didn’t Lou Holtz recruit a kicker from Katmandu or someplace like that in Southeast Asia? I remember seeing that in an episode of “Coach” starring Craig Nelson.

Eric Hansen: Lou, can I safely assume it’s Happy Hour in the greater Cleveland area?

Irish quarterback Ian Book has followed up a subpar performance against Clemson in the College Football Playoff Dec. 29 with a strong spring.