Chat Transcript: Talking what went wrong, is there hope, and the future of Notre Dame football

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Eric Hansen: Welcome to Notre Dame Football Live Chat, the Rose Bowl at South Bend edition. And I'm not going to say no whining, but if you do, it needs to be creative and substantive. And no exaggerating!! PLEASE remember to include your NAME and HOMETOWN with your question. Let's rock this thing.

Mark from Pittsboro, N.C.: Enjoy your chats immensely. No question, just a comment: I wish we would become a permanent member of the ACC for all sports (except hockey). Merry Christmas!

Eric Hansen: Mark, thank you. That's not in the cards right now or for the foreseeable future, but I have to say I enjoyed the conference experience for this year as a nice changeup. ACC people were great to work with.

Don from Springfield, Mass.: May you and your loved ones enjoy a wonderful, safe and merry Christmas. I personally think we should end the season next week, go straight to the 'Bama/Clemson matchup. Let Ohio State and the Frightened Irish play the consolation game and be done with it. Anyway, in this era of high-powered offenses, do you think we will ever see any team north of the Mason-Dixon line win a championship? The only northern team who can possibly recruit the explosive five-star talent needed is Ohio State.

Eric Hansen: Don, thank you and Happy Holidays to you. I'm not sure I'd diminish a team as "frightened" that made the sacrifices to play through a pandemic and made the playoff field. ... I am writing for the weekend a story that touches on the theme you asked about. I'll give you a very abridged version in this answer. Yes, I do think it's possible. Notre Dame came up with a model that's different than the other three teams in the playoff. The model works, but there's very little margin for error and it's a team that MUST play with the lead or be within striking distance to keep it from unraveling against elite teams. Eventually, Notre Dame aspires to be able to recruit closer to Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State and add the element of a more dynamic offense to that formula. We'll see if the Irish can get there. The more difficult task in the playoff era in winning a national title vs. the BCS, is the teams that are not named Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson typically have to win two games against those teams to win instead of just one, where weather, turnovers, good luck, a great game plan can swing in the underdog's favor.

Irish Rob from Scranton, Pa.: Here we are again. The Irish completely flopped in a big game. Stop me if you've heard this story before. ... Before my question, happy holidays to you and yours. Eric. I am sure you will be getting a great deal of whining today, and you will handle it masterfully. I apologize in advance if mine fits the whining criteria. When you get down to brass tacks, does this boil down to ND cannot compete with the 'Bama and Clemson because we lack the overall recruits to do so as a result of stricter academic requirements? I truly feel ND can compete with anyone not named 'Bama and Clemson right now, but also wonder if next year, that will be the case, which is something you rarely question with Bama and Clemson as their excellence is sustained year to year. Do we need to lower our expectations from national championships to 10 wins, major bowl game winners with an occasional chance at a college football upset?

Eric Hansen: It's not ALL about recruiting. Otherwise, we'd have Georgia in this conversation. Those three schools that are playoff regulars are so because of talent, but also elite development and elite coaching. I'd argue Notre Dame has elite player development, and I still think Brian Kelly and his staff are very good (I know some of you will throw tomatoes at your screen). The recruiting CAN be better. The academic side of it makes it more difficult but not impossible. (I'll be writing about that element too for this weekend's piece.) I think it's OK for fans to lower their expectations, but the coaches, administration and players NEVER should.

One thing that kind of ticked me off Saturday night, and I know people needed to vent, was the suggestion that ND should turn down the playoff bid and try to pick on someone their own size. I know that's not what you're suggesting, but I wanted to address this. If you want to put a limit on someone else's dreams and ambition because you're afraid of being disappointed, I think that's incredibly selfish and immature, and you need to rethink the way you follow your team. As Clemson climbed toward what Clemson is now, there were a lot of those kinds if disappointments along the way. They even had a verb for it: Clemsoning. But they persevered, and look at them now.

Jeff from Phoenix: Hey Eric, I hope your Elf on the Shelf is going easy on the judgment and minding his own business. So, did you get a vote on the Heisman and can you disclose who you voted for? Was it a tough decision for you? Thanks!

Eric Hansen: Jeff. I did vote on it. Deadline was Monday, and I waited to vote until all the games were over. The Heisman trust makes us sign a non-disclosure statement (actually check a box), and so I can't share yet. It was a tough decision, but one I felt really good about and a ballot that might have looked different early in the season. I can say all three players on my ballot played different positions.

Don from Brigantine Beach, N.J.: Hi Eric: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you, the SBT staff and your families. What do you think of hiring a defensive coordinator outside the program? One coach who comes to mind is Tyler Stockton from Ball State. He's a former ND defensive lineman (2009-2013) who has a couple of years experience as a DC. If we can give Tommy Rees a shot as OC, why can't we do the same for Tyler? The least Coach Kelly can do is grant him an interview.

Eric Hansen: Don, thanks for the Holiday cheer, and same to you and your family. I'm all for Brian Kelly conducting a national search, but I believe the best internal candidate and overall candidate is Mike Elston, and the best external candidate is Cincinnati's Marcus Freeman. I really enjoyed Tyler when he was at Notre Dame. I got to interview him several times AND NOT ONCE ON ZOOM! My question to you is what do you find attractive about Tyler as a candidate at this stage of his career? Being an ND alum? And has hiring ND alums always resulted in home-run results? I do like Tyler's potential in the coaching business, but Ball State was No. 92 nationally in total defense this year and No. 91 the year before. So what tells you that's going to translate to what ND needs in 2021?

Joe from New York: Hi Eric. How are you? Any chance Zeke Correll is able to play against Alabama? Essentially we are using a third-string center. Josh Lugg is talented and will play a huge role next year. But not at center.

Eric Hansen: I asked Brian Kelly about that Sunday, and he said it will be a competitive situation in practice between those two. He has not been real forthcoming about which one he thinks is the better choice if both are healthy. My hope is to get more clarity on that next week. I do think both will be starters next year, but quite possibly neither one at center.

John from Elkhorn, Neb.: Hey Eric. Happy holidays to you and your family. Wondering what’s the latest on Xavier Watts and any meaningful playing time? Haven’t heard much about him. Thanks!

Eric Hansen: There's going to be a real opportunity for Xavier Watts in 2021, but again there will be a lot of competition. That next wave of receivers has more top-end speed: Braden Lenzy, Kevin Austin Jr., Watts, Jordan Johnson, Lorenzo Styles Jr., to name a few. Xavier has played 16 snaps in 2020. Only five WRs have played 60 or more snaps. Not having spring practice hurt him as much as any receiver. In the one spring practice they did have, he jumped out at me. I was impressed. I want to see more ... next year.

Jim Tal from Valley Center, Calif.: Hi Eric, hope all is well with you. I was really dismayed by the effort against Clemson. No excuse whatsoever. At this stage, the Irish should be beyond such a lackluster performance. Once again, Kelly provided fodder for those who claim he'll never be much of a big-game coach. Also, Tommy Rees was totally schooled on Saturday and his inability to adjust was disappointing. With so much pressure being brought, couldn't he have countered with some slip screens, dumps to the backs, quick hitches and slants of which they were just a scant few? Anything to slow down the heat. When his team truly needed Rees to help provide some answers, he was nowhere to be found. Fair assessment?

Eric Hansen: Jim, I can't argue with any of that. What I will say is Rees has had a pretty good year. I like where that's headed long term. And let's face it, his bad day came against one of the best, if not the best, defensive coordinators in college football. The one thing I'll add is that complementary/ball-control football model can unravel pretty fast if you get down two scores. But ND had the chance early to score two TDs and came away with three points. That was critical.

Dwight from Arkansas: First, my observation/opinion for all it's worth, LOL. I think Texas A&M has a legitimate gripe for being left out. But it is not ND, but Ohio State that should have been omitted. The Buckeyes didn't play as many games and won in a not-so-impressive way vs. Northwestern. The Big Ten knew and understood the ramifications of not playing a fall schedule when they initially canceled their season in August. Suddenly, at the 11th hour, they decided to play and then want OSU in the playoffs. The playoffs should be for teams that played an 'X' amount of games. Let OSU play a bowl game. Oh well, if Clemson is as good as they were in the rematch with ND, it may not matter. My question: Alabama and Clemson are, in the belief of many, the top two programs. And I can't disagree. Given that Florida hung 46 points on 'Bama, can the Irish at least be more competitive on the scoreboard, win or lose? (I pick Clemson to win it all.)

Eric Hansen: The one thing that I'll say in Ohio State's defense is that their conference let them down. They were adamant about playing from the start and applied pressure to make it eventually happen. So should the kids be punished for a constant stream of administrative missteps and miscalculations? I agree, the low total of games bothered me as an AP voter. Yet there's no precedent in a pandemic.

To your question, I'm not sure yet how competitive ND can be. I am just starting to dive into Alabama in depth and then will try to figure out how Rees/Kelly/Lea will deal with that. I can tell you this Florida and Ole Miss were the teams that gave the Crimson Tide the biggest scare. But they did it in very different ways. Both have QBs that are in the top 8 in passing efficiency nationally. Both have really dynamic passing games. But Florida is a VERY one-dimensional offense with a very average defense. And Ole Miss is an incredibly well-balanced offense with a God-awful defense. On the surface, I think North Carolina would be a tougher matchup for Alabama than ND because of the way that team is put together on offense. I need to see if there's a team that's constructed like ND that played 'Bama this season. Maybe Georgia?

Len from the Jersey Shore: Hi Eric, the best of the season to you and your family. Tough game! Trevor Lawrence, as expected, is a generational talent. I knew the O-line would take a step back, as they had not played together as a group with Josh Lugg at center. And an O-line working as a unit enhances each other’s performance. In addition, I thought Tommy Rees and Jeff Quinn had bad games. Rees and Quinn had been amazing all year. Clemson's experienced defensive staff had their number. Penetration broke down the all-season-successful outside zone blocking scheme. And Clemson boxed in the magician Ian book. But I think this is reparable. Do you agree?

Eric Hansen: Hi Len, best of the season to you and your family too. Sometimes, as I go through the chat, there are chatheads that seem to be able to read my mind. Congratulations, you're this week's winner. And I do think those things are reparable. I also think Alabama is better than Clemson.

Jack from Oak Park, Ill.: Eric, seems like Clemson adjusted defensively (not just adding missing players), including keeping Book in the pocket to shorten the time for receivers to get open. I assume 'Bama will do the same. So how does Tommy Rees scheme our way out of this problem to keep offensive balance and score some points in the Rose Bowl? Go Irish and Merry Christmas.

Eric Hansen: I think there's a few ways to try to get this done. Get the ball out quicker. Slow down the rush with quick passes and with screens. The running game has to get going, and Book's a big part of that. There was more than 100-yard swing in his rushing stats alone from Clemson I to Clemson II. And then Rees has got to get Book outside. If Bama tried to hem him in, you're going to have to design some plays to get him out on the perimeter. Again, these fixes are a lot easier to implement against, say, Georgia Tech than they are against Alabama.

Jay from Chicago: Hi Eric, at the risk of sounding overly optimistic here, is it fair to say that Alabama's offense presents a better matchup for ND defense than Clemson? The mobility of Trevor Lawrence, along with his pre-snap prowess, seemed to create unique problems. While Mac Jones possesses some escapability, he does not seem to present the same challenges running the football, similarly to the first ND matchup with Clemson and D.J. Uiagalelei.

Eric Hansen: I applaud open-mindedness. I won't necessarily be rewarded, but college football is full of surprises. To your question, Lawrence is WAY more mobile than Mac Jones, BUT you are trading the lack of mobility for a running back in Najee Harris who's scored 24 RUSHING TOUCHDOWNS and three more on pass receptions, as well as the best college receiver on the planet in DeVonta Smith. So do you commit safety help to the run and let Smith get some one-on-one matchups? That is Clark Lea's dilemma as he prepares.

Patrick from Los Angeles: In your opinion, what was the single biggest failing in the loss to Clemson? It seemed the failure to score more than three points in four trips to or inside the Clemson 30-yard line might top the list.

Eric Hansen: That's where the problems started,

James from Alexandria, Va.: Hey Eric. Thanks for the chats and for your coverage of Notre Dame. I appreciate your insights! You are my go-to for balanced perspective on ND's performance. It may be pure folly to ask this question, as the answer is probably "none," but what are Alabama's relative weaknesses this year? Do any of them line up opposite Notre Dame's strengths, and how can ND best exploit those weaknesses?


Eric Hansen: If you click on the box, it will magnify those stats. That's Alabama's thumbnail.

You tell me where you see the weakness. ... Punting? That's kind of it, and they don't have to do it very often. ... Their defense was vulnerable against Florida's combination of speed at WR (Kadarius Toney 8 catches for 153 yards) and an elite tight end (Kyle Pitts 7 for 129). If I'm coaching this game — and thankfully for you all I'm not — I'd try to run the North Carolina gameplan on both sides of the ball and limit the 'Bama's plays on offense to 60 or less. ND has to create multiple turnovers and or special teams big plays (blocked punt, etc.)

Hank, the Polish prince, from Buffalo, N.Y.: Hello Eric. Wesolych Swiat . That's Merry Christmas in Polish. I just finished watching some of the game against Clemson again. Unlike Brian Kelly's assessment of our O-line's performance, I think he may have been kind in his public response when asked his thoughts. Run blocking was nonexistent and pass protection — six sacks and countless hurries speak for themselves. Were they unprepared, overmatched, or just flat?

Eric Hansen: Buon Natale e risparmia un po 'di bourbon per me. That's Italian, the foreign language I know best. I'll let you use Google translate. I think one of the other chatters mentioned this, the chemistry at center still needs to be worked out. And Jeff Quinn/Tommt Rees did not have a good day at all. I blame the offensive game plan and ineffective offensive adjustments for the way the offensive line looked above all else.

Burke Reilly from Detroit: Since defense for ND will be key, I'm wondering who’s taking over as defensive coordinator for the Alabama game?

Eric Hansen: Clark Lea.

Bill from Buffalo, N.Y. Merry Christmas, Eric, and thank you for allowing us fans to have an outlet for our questions. I wanted your thoughts on Clark Lea leaving for Vanderbilt. On one hand, I understand why he is leaving. It's his alma mater, a head coaching gig in the SEC, but I still think that this is a no-win situation. Vanderbilt will never be seen as a power in such a tough conference. And even though he will gain experience, I think it will only be a matter of time, just like all of the previous head coaches there, that he will be dismissed at some point. I'm not saying he won't be a good head coach. but taking such a difficult job just seems like a can't-win job. Your thoughts?

Eric Hansen: Since he went to school there and grew up in Nashville, I'll give Clark the benefit of the doubt that he knows what he's getting into. It's not only his alma mater, it's a job he's dreamed of having. James Franklin won enough there to parlay that gig into the Penn State job. Maybe Clark can do that kind of magic or maybe you'll be right. I admire the guy for trying. And Merry Christmas to you.

Marie from Atlanta: Hi Eric, Happy Holidays to you and your family. It seems that Tommy Rees' inexperience really hurt him in the Clemson game, as he was badly outcoached. After seeing what happened this past weekend, do you think Brian Kelly will ramp up his involvement in the offensive planning for the playoff game? Do teams playing in major games at the end of the season (playoff or New Year's Six) ever consider hiring outside analysts on a short-term, consulting basis to help plan for these games? If there was someone available who would be very useful in helping to plan for Alabama, would ND bring them on board for a couple weeks, just to have and extra set of eyes for looking at film, and also to present a different view point, particularly if they are very familiar with Alabama? I know there is not much time this year between the end of the season and the playoffs, but typically there is 4-6 weeks so this kind of hire might be more realistic in a normal season. Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and fantastic 2021.

Eric Hansen: Hi Marie. Happy Holidays to you and your family, and I am incredibly optimistic about 2021 ... from a life perspective, not necessarily football. I think BK is pretty involved in at least the planning part of the offense, so Saturday's yuckiness is on him, too. I wouldn't, like, grab the steering wheel from Tommy, but I might have my foot on the driver's ed brake. I am confident Rees will learn from this and he deserves the chance to show what he learned. Yes, teams have brought in consultants before on a short-term basis. I don't think BK has, but he's not averse to asking questions to people he respects.

I like the concept, especially with the way you have presented it. Off the top of my head, there is one guy that comes to mind, and that's new Arkansas State coach Butch Jones if he'd be willing. He just spent two seasons with Nick Saban at Alabama and had to face him for five years as the head coach at Tennessee. He's also very familiar with Kelly's system, having followed him as the head coach at Central Michigan and then Cincinnati.

Brian Sontchi from Batavia, Ill.:Hello Eric and Merry Christmas to you and yours. Do you believe Tommy Rees needs to get more innovative with the play calls on first and second down, and especially more so in the red zone? It seemed to me Clemson was ready for just about every play call on those two downs, setting up way too many third-and-long situations. Thank you for all your articles.

Eric Hansen: Brian a big yes and heck yes to that. And Merry Christmas to you.

Tom from Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eric, wishing you a Merry Christmas and thank you for the time and energy of the chats. Is Braden Lenzy shut down for the year? If so, should we, as ND fans, expect to see another steady dose of intermediate routes? It seems that is the majority of the passing game. Even when something resembling vertical routes are run, they don’t seem to be the priority. I doubt crossing routes are the key to victory as it won’t keep safeties honest!

Eric Hansen: Tom, the whole Braden Lenzy situation has to be frustrating for Notre Dame and for Lenzy himself. He's played 134 snaps this year, and it feels more like 10. He didn't play at all in either Clemson game. If you could get the full extent of his talent for Alabama, that would help. But it seems unlikely and a better bet to see that in 2021. And wishing you happy holidays.

Mark from Schoainch, Germany: Good Day and Merry Christmas, Eric. Thanks for the chats; they're awesome. What is your take on Brian Kelly's listless performance on the sideline during the rematch? Compared to Dabo Swinney, who was fired up and running around, BK stood there uninterested. Was he in disbelief that his team played so poorly and/or was he STILL trying to figure out how to motivate a team for a major game, which he has successfully only accomplished once? Thanks!

Eric Hansen: Mark, Guten Tag und frohe Weihnachten. And thanks for being a part of the chat. I think sideline decorum can be misleading, and kind of fits whatever narrative that particular game took. Let me give you an example. When Tyrone Willingham was at Notre Dame and he was winning big his first year, his low-key demeanor was compared to Buddha and celebrated. When he started to lose, people began to criticize that same behavior and speculated he was pondering how to improve his golf game during football games. I will say Clemson had more reason to be motivated. Lose, and they likely were out of the playoff, while ND was in win or lose. That's not a pass for what happened. But the sideline isn't always telling.

Charlie from Medellin, Colombia: It seems to me that, while there were many mistakes in the ACCCG, the main reason we lost is that Clemson's defensive game plan was to stop the run and contain Ian Book from scrambling. Our receivers could not get open, so Book had no one to throw it to. The receivers not getting open has been a consistent issue this year. 1) Do you agree? 2) Do you think the reason is the scheme/routes are too easy to defend (possibly fixable) OR the receivers just aren't good enough (not fixable)?

Eric Hansen: Charlie, I'm not sure it's been a consistent problem, but with no Braden Lenzy/Kevin Austin, there's not someone who can consistently run by DBs in coverage. In this game, the way Clemson played coverage and the way it pressured Book contributed to the WRs either not getting open or Book not being able to find them. Your assessment of Clemson's game plan was spot on.

Ty from Godfrey, Ill.: Good afternoon, Eric. Terrific work, time after time. I always look forward to your pointed observations in every article you write. Nearly every athlete, particularly football in this case, states, "With a Notre Dame degree and experience, that will take care of my life after football.” (Prince Kollie and many others). Four for 40 is another statement made frequently. With members of my family and many friends who are graduates of ND, I too believe in what might be called the Four for 40 "credo." ND graduates seem to take care of members of the ND family. It would be an intriguing read to see what this means in reality. Perhaps the path of life of former football players who have graduated from ND over the last five years? Even more intriguing would be that history when compared to those players graduating from other schools in, say, the SEC. I know there are studies that show graduation rates of universities, but ... what is ND football graduation rate when compared with other Big Ten, ACC, and SEC universities?

Eric Hansen: Ty, thanks for the kind words. It's an interesting idea and one that would be good to do in the offseason. It's not just the graduation rates, it's what people are able to do with those degrees. I think something that perhaps is too much of a well-kept secret is how Tom Mendoza, for instance, of the Mendoza School of Business, impacts the lives of former and CURRENT players.

Tom from Kennesaw, Ga.: Eric, first a very blessed and Merry Christmas to you and your family. I would also like to congratulate all the players and the many honors that they have won this season and, hopefully, more to come. Regardless of the outcome of the Alabama game, to make the Playoff two out of three years is quite an accomplishment and one Irish fans should enjoy. I think the consistent success we have had since the debacle of 2016 shows Brian Kelly is building a program. However, following the last Clemson game, I think it shows we are still on the doorstep trying to get in with the really elite programs — Alabama, Clemson and your Buckeyes. In your opinion, what do we have to do to take that next step? And, is it a BIG step or just a little one? Thanks so much for all of the wonderful chats and humorous exchanges you provide us fans. You have talked us off the ledge many times. Have a safe, healthy and Happy New Year!!!

Eric Hansen: Tom. Thanks for your analysis and your holiday wishes ... and you the same. I think there are two big steps. Recruiting, and I don't mean give up on the three-stars, but more five star talent that are FITS and more depth of talent, particularly elite speed. I think ND is trying to move in that direction. The other is evolving into an offense, once you have that kind of talent, that can be ball control OR uber dynamic, like Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State's.

Sean from Greensboro, N.C.: First, Merry Christmas to you and your loved ones. Thank you for doing such a great job this year under trying times. Now, please talk me off the cliff. I do not think I can start the new year with another blowout. Do you think we played so poorly that mentally, we knew we were in the playoffs win or lose? The total collapse is hard to fathom. Thanks so much.

Eric Hansen: Sean, I am glad that the cliffs in Greensboro are figurative and not literal. Merry Xmas. I mentioned here recently in another question, Clemson certainly had stronger reasons to be motivated, but at some point, as a program, you have to play above those kinds of things. I can't guarantee you what will happen Jan. 1. What I do feel good about assuring you is that Notre Dame will survive it, win or lose, and they'll continue to evolve as a program and they'll be back.

Tom from Raleigh, N.C.: Hey Eric, I really don’t have a question for you today. But as the year is coming to a close and I look back, I just wanted to say THANKS for helping make 2020 more bearable for many of us. You are definitely a real pro and a super teacher! I've learned so much about the game from you, and your insights into strategy, performance, and so many issues on and off the field — definitely gave me the desire to stay optimistic about football and life. God bless you and your family, and best wishes for a great Christmas and even better 2021.

Eric Hansen: Tom, I am beyond blown away by this. That's about the best Christmas present I could hope for.

Dan from Belen, N.M.: Feliz Navidad, Eric! The NCAA has essentially given this year’s athletes a “do-over” year. It got me to thinking who on the Irish roster would most benefit from this mulligan. My candidates would be Houston Griffith on defense, and Javon McKinley on offense. I think Houston still has a year of eligibility. However, I still think an additional would do him a world of good. Who would you select?

Eric Hansen: Dan, your question is an interesting one, but one that doesn't take into account what the player wants to do. I think Javon is ready to take the next step. And you're right, Houston already had another year. So of the 13 players who would have had expiring eligibility, I'd go with Kurt Hinish and possibly Nick McCloud. As a wild card, Aaron Banks actually has two years left, but I think he'd benefit coming back (as draft analyst Scott Wright has indicated) if he could play left tackle next year.

Lee from Lancaster, S.C.: If Alabama dominates the Irish like Clemson did in the ACC Championship Game, does that confirm that the Irish will never have enough elite players to actually win a national championship?

Eric Hansen: Never? Never? NEVER!

Mike McFadden from Williamsport, Pa.: Marie from Atlanta had the very best question I have seen all season. Great question, Marie. Eric, is Nick Saban sending the players home a problem or rather isn't he taking a critical chance here? Thanks.

Eric Hansen: I'm not familiar with what Saban is doing re his players. I know Clemson is allowing that, though most of them are within driving distance. That was the big issue for ND, most of the players are flying distance. Any travel adds risk. It comes down to risk vs. reward.

Caleb from Charlotte, N.C.: I wish you and your family a happy and safe holiday season! Is a healthy Clemson team really 24 points better than ND or did the Irish not play up to their capability?

Eric Hansen: Vegas has Clemson as a 14-point favorite if they meet again Jan. 11.

The Gipper from Mine Hill, N.J.: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Eric, to you and your family! To beat Alabama, we will need every break available. So I look at special teams and see the Tide has their Heisman-hopeful WR Davonta Smith returning punts for TDs while ND sticks with a walk-on who raises his hand for a fair catch 99% of the time. Edge: Alabama big time. Why not Chris Tyree, Lawrence Keys, Xavier Watts or Braden Lenzy back fielding punts to hopefully get a huge play from special teams just once this season?

Eric Hansen: Kelly has done that before. He used Michael Floyd with some success in the 2011 bowl game. I am not against that idea.

Steve from Las Vegas: Do you think that the playoff format of only four teams has inadvertently led to the superteams of 'Bama, Clemson, and OSU? With these three teams always dominating the playoff spots, it seems like more and more of the top recruits each year are being funneled to these teams (rich get richer). Do you think expanding the playoff to eight teams would help with this issue? For example, more teams making playoffs (and getting that national exposure) might spread top recruits out to more teams rather than most of them going to those three programs.

Eric Hansen: That's a theory that's being floated. I think it has some merit, but contractually there's a commitment through the 2025 season to stay at four (January 2026 to be precise).

Tom from Downers Grove, Ill.: Speaking of players that we might have forgotten about, how is Osita Ekwonu doing? Is there any update in how he might progress in the larger linebacker shuffle we constantly talk about? I'm not saying see the field this season but maybe in the next one?

Eric Hansen: The only linebacker who is really likely not to return is Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, so competition is going to be extremely competitive for those linebacker spots in 2021. There's still high hopes for Osita.

Matt from L.A.: Caveat: this is not a BK hate post. I think he’s done tremendous things for ND. But Bryan Driskell made some interesting points recently about BK not giving young players consistent opportunities at the playmaking positions (with some obvious exceptions often due to injuries). One thing I’ve heard about the Bill Belichik/Nick Saban coaching tree is they look for what a player is good at and then put them in a position to succeed. BK seems to look for what a player struggles with and keeps them off the field until they fix the issue. Have you heard these arguments (from Driskell or anyone else) and do you agree or disagree? Thanks for doing this mailbag. I Always enjoy reading your insights!

Eric Hansen: Matt, I'd rather not answer the question in the context of what someone else on the beat said and whether they've been drinking too much eggnog or not. I think BK plays the best players. Look at running back. He turned that depth chart upside down and started a redshirt freshman, backed up by a true freshman. A freshman tight end is the second-leading receiver on the team and set a school record for receptions for a freshman tight end. He starts a freshman at cornerback and played a freshman safety extensively last year. Freshman Rylie Mills got some meaningful snaps at the interior of the defensive line. If there's a critique, it's why haven't talented receivers consistently developed quickly.

KJ near the Channel Islands, Calif.: Merry Christmas, Eric. Appreciate your work and insights. To beat Alabama, will Brian Kelly have to coach differently? Even Nick Saban says (contrary to the old bromide) that offense is what wins in today's game. A strategy to control the game with a running game (even assuming the Irish could do so) would likely not be enough to win a scoring fest. Ian Book is going to have to be willing to throw into tight coverages, understanding there's risk, but it's a necessary part of a winning plan. It's OK to tell me I'm totally off base here. My wife does it all the time.

Eric Hansen: KJ. Tell your wife to tell you that ND is not built to win a track meet at this stage of the program evolution. In a couple of years? Maybe. But not on Jan. 1. Happy holidays and thanks for the question.

Eric Hansen: We have a killer print deadline today because of the holiday, so I have to end it here. Thanks for all the great questions and Happy Holidays to all of you. We'll be back to do it all over again next Wednesday at noon ET.

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