Chat Transcript: Reframing Notre Dame's season, assessing changes — those needed and made

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Eric Hansen: Welcome to Notre Dame Football Live Chat as we plunge into the offseason. PLEASE remember to include your name and hometown with your question. Let's get right to it.

Jim from Erie, Pa.: Will Brian Kelly be able to keep Mike Elston? Elston has been a tremendous ambassador for the university and football program. His loyalty is admirable too. I have high hopes he is positioned to be this generation's George Kelly — a cornerstone of the football program for decades.

Eric Hansen: Mike Elston has indeed been a tremendous asset for the Notre Dame program in some very obvious ways and some not so obvious. It's really up to Mike as to whether Brian Kelly can keep him. There's mutual interest at Purdue. There are other opportunities, and there would be even more next year. He's 46, and he may feel the window is closing on him getting to be a head coach if he doesn't take the step to be a coordinator now. There are reasons to stay, but I'm not sure Mike can wrap his head around those right now. Sometimes a few days can make a big difference in how you view a fork in the road like this.

Justin from Houston: Eric, you bring balance, honesty and insight to delusional ND fandom. It’s much appreciated. My questions are about recruiting. Ohio State is in the big six in recruiting with Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, LSU and USC. Five of those six are in the south or out west, with better weather. How does Ohio State recruit so well being a northern, cold-weather school, while one of the knocks on ND is that it’s a northern, cold-weather location? Is academics really the only difference? Thanks for helping keep us ND faithful!!!

Eric Hansen: Justin, really interesting question. Ohio State can indeed cast a wider net because of academic standards, but there are a few of other things in play. One, when Urban Meyer was there, he was as good a recruiter as there is in the nation. Ryan Day is off to a great start, but it'll be interesting to see if he can sustain it. Another factor is Ohio is still a huge producer of talent, and so many kids in Ohio grow up wanting to be a Buckeye. In terms of producing NFL talent, for instance, Ohio is fifth — behind only Florida, California, Texas and Georgia. In terms of cities producing the most NFL talent, Cincinnati is fourth and Cleveland seventh. One more factor — playoff success. Getting to and winning playoff games helps shape perception. At least ND is getting to the playoff.

Sean from Greensboro, N.C.: Eric, hope you can clear something up for me. You said in last weeks chat that the Irish did not throw more to their wideouts against Alabama because Ian Book was not willing to do what he did in the first Clemson game: “Throw into a tight window and let his receivers make a play.” Question: Who made that call — Book or the coaching staff? Either way, it shows a team not willing to do what it takes to win. It annoys me to no end. Hope you get to see your grandkids soon. Thanks for all you do.

Eric Hansen: Sean, thanks. I have to put this on Ian Book's shoulders. We had Todd McShay on our Pod of Gold podcast before the game, and in his game prep for ESPN he talked to the ND coaches about that very thing. And they were telling Ian BEFORE the game that he needed to cut it loose. Now did they provide a game plan that allowed him to do that effectively? You could argue maybe not. I hate to stick this on Book, because he brought a lot of really good things to the table. But you asked me a specific question, and I feel like I need to answer it honestly.

Chris from Albuquerque: Has Notre Dame tried kicking the tires on Dylan McCaffrey as a quarterback for next year?

Eric Hansen: With five quarterbacks on the roster, including a grad transfer already, why would they look at another one? And one who didn't play last season and has only 35 career passing attempts?

Bob from Loganville, Ga.: Eric, I really liked the game scheduling in NCAA football this season. Having meaningful games in mid-December, then a one-week break before the playoffs was far better IMO than the customary format. I'm all for starting the season later or incorporating additional bye weeks for this type of schedule to continue. But, then again, I'm not the student-athlete having to deal with midterms and finals. Thoughts?

Eric Hansen: I liked that the playoffs/bowls were staged shortly after the regular season ended. I'm not sure that works, though, with a regular academic calendar instead of the condensed one used this year. It'd be fun question to ask Brian Kelly, but one in which his answer wouldn't affect a possible change. They're going back to the old way next year, provided we're in a better place with the pandemic.

Jason from Amber, Pa.: Eric, at other schools I am surprised at the number of players who are projected to be middle- and late-round draft picks who decide to return to school for another year. At ND it seems to be the opposite. Too many players are leaving early that would greatly benefit from another year of college football. Who advises these players? Do the coaches do anything to persuade them that returning for another year is the best option for them? What is your way-too-early projection for next year? I'll go with 8-4 or 7-5.

Eric Hansen: Jason, I'm not sure your math would hold up as to players elsewhere leaving early vs. Notre Dame players leaving early. Keep in mind, ND's players are put on a pace to graduate in 3 1/2 years, so when they turn down a fifth-year option, they already have their degree. And for the true juniors who declare, they're not that far away from a degree. At other schools, players may want to return to finish their degree work, because they've been on a slower pace to graduate. ... Brian Kelly has lots of NFL resources to help advise the players. They also get advice typically from their families. Some don't care about the round they'd be drafted. They're just ready for a new challenge. ... Without knowing who the quarterback will be, I'll take a stab at 9-3, with the provision I can adjust that after spring practice.

Tom from Downers Grove, Ill.:Hi Eric. Thanks for answering our questions throughout the season. Do you feel like next year is a little bit of a make-or-break season for coach (DelVaughn) Alexander in the wide receiver room? Our veterans and grad transfers helped us out last season after some injuries, but is it fair to say we need to see some production from our touted recruits? Thanks.

Eric Hansen: Yes, I think that's a fair assessment. He did have a good year on the recruiting trail this past cycle. But there's lot of young WR talent on this roster, and it's time to show he can develop it.

Denny from Beaverton, Ore.: Good morning, Eric. Assuming that the hiring of Marcus Freeman works out as well as hoped, what assurances in the screening and hiring processes do you think were given to minimize the possibility of a similar early exit that occurred with a recent defensive coordinator hire (Mike Elko) to Texas A&M? Cutting through all the legalese of a contract, do you think, for example, that Freeman would have promised to remain at Notre Dame for at least three years, assuming the chemistry was there? Or is this always just a crapshoot with a big hire and a high-profile program? Best to you this year, and I very much appreciate your chats!

Eric Hansen: Denny, thanks. I think that's the risk when you hire really good people. They want to move up and they tend to be in demand. Marcus Freeman wants to be a head coach. He was in the running for the Illinois head coaching job recently. If he does at Notre Dame what he did at UC, he's going to be in demand. But two or three years of Freeman, I think, is worth it.

Peter Burke from Coto De Caza, Calif: How do transfers count in the graduation rate of the team?

Eric Hansen: The GSR accounting system that the NCAA moved to a few years ago doesn't penalize you for players transferring out, as long as they left the university in good academic standing.

Jim Tal from Valley Center, Calif.: Good afternoon, Eric. Hope all is well with you and yours. I so appreciate these chances to interact with you and get your perspective on all things Irish. I was genuinely surprised that Tommy Tremble opted out. I love Tommy as not only a terrific blocker but as a real talent. However, he did have some drop issues. And I believe coming back to totally polish his receiving skills would have been in his best interests, since he was destined to be more of a focal point in the passing game. Can you provide some insight into Tremble's decision? What factors were really at play here, because from the outside looking in, it seems as if he's jumping the gun somewhat. He definitely could have enhanced his draft stock by remaining with the Irish for an additional year. Thanks much.

Eric Hansen: Jim, I appreciate you and the other chat-heads. This is a really fun part of my week. ... I hope to talk to Tommy at some point, but I have not as of yet. However, my sense is that, in his mind, coming back wasn't necessarily going to boost his stock, particularly if Michael Mayer continues to evolve into a first-round pick and All-American. Also with a new offensive line and new QB, there was some risk. Todd McShay projects Tremble to go in rounds 2-4, which isn't bad.

Dwight from central Arkansas: The OSU-vs.-Bama outcome should stop the negatives toward ND being in the playoffs. The Tide is simply better than everybody else. I don't know where ND will be in the final poll, but they shouldn't fall far IMO. The ESPN way-too-early preseason poll, as they call it, has the Irish ranked No. 15. They have Clemson No. 1. Why above 'Bama, I don't understand. Other teams above the Irish include North Carolina, Cincinnati, Texas A&M and Indiana, just to name a few. I know it's way too early to even try a reasonable guess at where everyone stands. If you care to respond, that's fine. I know there's not really a question there. Thanks for good work in a bad year for sports.

Eric Hansen: Dwight, I'll try to intuit a question. I left Notre Dame where I had them on my ballot pre-playoff, and that's at No. 4. There are all kinds of way-too-early top 25s. I've seen ND as high as sixth and as low as 15th. And it's all a guess right now. Just have fun and enjoy the conversation, would be my advice.

Alex from Jackson, Mo.: Eric, do you agree bringing in a transfer with experience at QB was a good idea? I, for one, think it was a really good call. Secondly, do you think Jack was the first choice, or simply the first to agree to transfer? Any idea how that works? Who reaches out to him to gauge interest? Is there someone at ND who has a relationship with a coach at Wisconsin who is a go-between? Interesting how that whole dynamic works. Thanks as always. Hope you are doing well.

Eric Hansen: Alex, thanks. The portal concept changed the entire dynamic of transferring. Once you're in there, you can freely talk to whoever you want and vice versa. You don't need a release from your school, etc. It's a lot cleaner of a process. Typically schools monitor the portal and make the first move. I don't know if ND looked at anyone else, and Jack wasn't in the portal very long (Dec. 20, I believe). Sometimes ND will slow-play a potential transfer, as they did with Nick McCloud, for two reasons. One, they didn't have the numbers to make that work in January, when he entered the portal. Two, they wanted to let spring play out to see what they had already on the roster with so many young cornerbacks. But spring got wiped away, and so bringing in an experienced corner made a lot of sense. ... In bringing in Jack Coan at QB, I'm good with it, provided the premise is he's competing for the starting job and not the heir to it.

Bill Kaufman from Windsor, Colo.: Eric, thanks for the great reporting you do for all of us Irish fans. My question: What position groups at this time appear to be of most concern for the 2021 season? Which players do you believe will be the starters in those position groups?

Eric Hansen: Bill. thanks. I am going to share a depth chart I've been playing around with but hadn't published yet. I placed incoming freshmen at the bottom of their positions, even though I think several will quickly climb. Offensive line was a lot of guesswork. I'm also not accounting for players who will be limited in or miss spring all together because of an injury. A lot of positions are very fluid. I think the offensive line has a lot of talent, but it's getting the chemistry right and putting the pieces in the right places. I think QB, safety and cornerback would be the positions of biggest concern. Without further blather, here's the early depth chart.

2021 depth chart

Trevor from Drayton, Ontario, Canada: Hey Eric. Really enjoy reading these chats, and figured I'd jump in with a few questions about the offensive line. As of right now, who do you think the starting five would be? Who's a dark horse or sleeper in the mix who may have not played this past season who could push for playing time or even split reps?

Eric Hansen: Trevor, I mentioned this last week that you always start by identifying your five best O-linemen regardless of position and then fitting them to positions. The top three are Jarrett Patterson, Josh Lugg and Zeke Correll, but Patterson is likely to miss spring. And is he best at left tackle or center? I'd put Correll at center in the spring and Lugg at right tackle and then get a look at some of the younger left tackle talent, like Andrew Kristofic and Tosh Baker. There's a group of Kristofic, Quinn Carroll, Rocco Spindler and Dillan Gibbons that are probably competing for two spots. Maybe Baker makes that leap with a great winter in the weight room. Maybe Hunter Spears surprises.

Bruce from Centralia, Ill.: Hi Eric. The end of the season was disappointing, but the trend of the program in recruiting and on-field performance seems overwhelmingly positive. If the team slips back to say 8–4 next year, how much does that interrupt the momentum that Brian Kelly and his staff have been building? I say 8-4 only because there are so many questions that need to be answered, including what we can expect from Jack Coan. Thanks as always.

Eric Hansen: Bruce, thanks. I don't think it interrupts the momentum, because this isn't expected to be a playoff team. As long as BK gets the most out of them. As long as there's a feeling of progress. As long as recruiting continues to progress, I think momentum remains and maybe builds.

Jim from Berlin, Conn.: Eric, I want to reiterate what so many others have said throughout the season: Thank you so much for all the great info you gave us on the Irish. You have helped us all get through a really tough football season as well as an even tougher COVID year with your insights and comments. I hope you and your family continue to stay safe in the coming year. My question is this: Realistically, are we just deluding ourselves by thinking the Irish can somehow overcome the advantages that the Alabamas, Ohio States and Clemsons of the world have in recruiting in order to truly compete on their level in the playoffs? Since 2012, we've been outscored 103-27 in our three playoff matchups and have also lost badly to Ohio State and Clemson in two other contests. Should we just be satisfied with a top 10 ranking and not have our hopes dashed by thinking we can beat any of the elites?

Eric Hansen: Jim, thanks for the kind words there. You all helped me get through COVID with my sanity as well. ... The Alabama-Clemson-Ohio State dominance is a problem for all of college football. That's why there's talk about maybe moving to an eight-team playoff before the contact expires, to explore that possibility without strings. Would that necessarily solve the problem? Not sure, but it might help recruiting at some schools. Over the three seasons we've had our Pod of Gold podcast, I've intermittently asked guests if Notre Dame can win a national title under Kelly. Out of maybe 20 guests, some of whom have no ties to ND, I've gotten one "no" response. Here's why I would say "yes." Notre Dame is achieving things the Irish haven't done in decades. This 2020 team was the first since 1990 to go wire to wire in the top 10 of the AP poll. They're one of only five teams to make it to the playoff twice. And they've got a head coach who not only believes he can win a national title, he's busting his butt to continue to find ways to support that belief.

Tony from Fairfax, Va.: Yes, polls don't matter, but they still mean something for fans. How did you rank the Irish in the final poll? Texas A&M jumping is egregious. Another data point of uselessness of polls. But, hey, it fired me up.

Eric Hansen: Tony, I think there is value in having the polls, if nothing else to generate interest in early-season games and for the historical context they bring. I mentioned I had ND fourth. You can see my entire ballot here. You can use the dropdown menu to look at any of the other voters' ballots. I think a big reason why A&M jumped ND is because voters were encouraged to turn in their ballots early. I'm not trying to take a stab at bad political humor. AP wanted to publish the results a couple of hours after the game. Especially for those covering the game, that was a tough ask. So they asked for early ballots and just fill in 1 and 2 with "winner" and "loser." I think the Alabama-OSU final score probably would have influenced some voters who turned their ballots in early.

Ken from Pensacola, Fla.: Eric, Happy New Year to you and yours. Looking forward to chatting with you this year. OK, when can we expect a SLICK ND Insider for the 2021, like smooth. crisp pages with plenty of GREAT information on our team? And when could we expect to see it hit the stands. Thanks mucho — GO IRISH! Thanks again.

Eric Hansen: Ken, as you know, we changed the format and the timing this past year because of the uncertainty of whether there would even be a season. We're hoping to roll at least the timing back (with a July 1 pub date instead of early August), but I'm not sure about the format. The new format was more profitable to the company, and that matters to them. As you may or may not know, we're under our third ownership group in a couple of years' time and are now a part of a much larger company. The old, old owners knew me, sat in my office and talked football on occasion, knew what kind of car I drove. The intermediate owners knew me and my reputation in the college sports world. The newest owners might not know me beyond my corporate ID number, so navigating changes in the format might be a bit more complicated. I am optimistic, though. No promises, but thank you for asking.

Dan McCarty from Whereabouts Unknown: If you were to do a two-deep roster AFTER all of the transfers, departures and graduations, where are the big holes to fill?

Eric Hansen: Yes, there will be some more departures. Right now, I'd say the positions where looking at grad transfers might make a lot of sense are: safety, cornerback and defensive end.

Larry from Topton, Pa.: Hi Eric! It's great to have our chat, highlight of the week! Short question: will Jack Coan be at ND for spring practice (whatever form that takes)?

Eric Hansen: Jack Coan will enroll at ND in February and will be present and available for spring practice.

Joey G. from Philadelphia: Hi Eric. After watching the Irish wide receivers no-show in yet another big game, in your opinion is it a QB, coaching, or lack-of-talent problem. Also, don’t see all the hype about Avery Davis' return. ND doesn’t have anybody that can unseat him?

Eric Hansen: Joey, there were a lot of layers as to why they passing game wasn't better. Some were limitations of the QB. Some was because of injuries to two of the most dynamic athletes in the WR room (Kevin Austin Jr. and Braden Lenzy). Some could be development/coaching at that position. We'll know more definitively this year about that last part. Not sure why you're picking on Avery Davis. The guy made amazing progress this season. As far as up-and-comers at the slot position, I'm bullish on incoming freshman Lorenzo Styles Jr.

Eric from Akron, Ohio: Good afternoon, Eric. When I watch other teams in the playoff offensively, I see wide receivers running free from time to time. Monday was a good example. I refuse to believe this is a talent issue, but rather an offensive-design issue. Do you think this is something the offensive staff will review this offseason? Do you agree that some of our younger WRs should have seen "some" playing time? Thanks and take care!

Eric Hansen: Eric, it goes without saying that your parents have great taste. ... But to your point, I think the solution is both in talent upgrades and play design/concept. And yes, I think Brian Kelly, Tommy Rees and the offensive staff will review that. It's all about keeping up with what's going on in football and then getting ahead of the curve. So any coach that's worth his contract is constantly striving to get better. I'm not sure which WRs you wanted to see that you didn't get to see. It seems like Jordan Johnson's lack of playing time was more self-inflicted. Now Xavier Watts ... I can understand your point there. Would it have made a difference between 10-2 and 12-0? No. But a healthy Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy all season could have made ND more competitive in December and January.

Michael from Chicago: Not technically ND-related, but were you surprised to read that Mike Denbrock interviewed for the Vandy offensive coordinator position? Reasonable to assume Coach Kelly made this suggestion to coach (Clark) Lea?

Eric Hansen: I wasn't surprised to read it, because I was the first one who reported it. And not surprised at all the Clark Lea may go in that direction if Denbrock is willing to leave Cincinnati.

Adam from Dayton, Ohio: Eric, Justin from Houston had a great question (and you a great answer) re: ND vs. OSU recruiting. Indiana is certainly not Ohio in producing talent, but as the best known Catholic university, can they do a better job of tapping into the Catholic high school resource across the country? Those schools are talent-rich, and ND should be a serious threat to land a kid out of those schools —no matter what state. Another point, Urban Meyer was one of the best recruiting head coaches of all time, and he upped OSU's talent level from the Jim Tressel era, even though Tressel was a great coach and his Buckeyes a near-elite program. Brian Kelly is not that level of recruiter. Could ND hire some type of recruiting specialist in a support system-type role to combat the fact that the head coach isn't an elite recruiter?

Eric Hansen: In the recruiting analyst industry, Kelly is looked upon as a very good closer, but not an elite overall recruiter. He has reacted to having that pushed in his face by making some changes, which include getting involved with some key recruits much earlier in the process and more often throughout it. Also Marcus Freeman will bring an elite level of recruiting to the job, not that Clark Lea was a slouch. To the Catholic school situation, yes there's room for Notre Dame to do better in those settings. But it's still a hard pull in certain parts of the country. Not everyone wants to be time zones away from family and in a different climate and culture.

Mark from Orange County, Calif.: Hi Eric, as always thanks for these chats. Do you think defenses no longer win championships and a high-powered and high-scoring offense is the future of college football? Low-scoring, slug-it-out games are mostly a thing of the past? Kind of related, not much acknowledgement in the press of ND keeping Alabama to the lowest points scored in a any of their games this past season.

Eric Hansen: Mark, I still think defense is a big part of the formula, particularly rushing defense. But you can't win a national title with a great defense ONLY, and a game manager at QB and a pedestrian offense. You need to have both elements if you're going to win two games against top 4 teams.

Greg from South Bend: Hi Eric. Any rumors about Brian Kelly interviewing for the Philadelphia (Eagles) job again? I believe he was close last time until they hired Doug Pederson.

Eric Hansen: Ugh. Not any credible rumors. And the Eagles hired Chip Kelly in 2013. Pederson came later.

Ryan from Mars, Pa.: Good afternoon Eric. What do you think about the hiring of the new defense coordinator? Go Irish.

Eric Hansen: Big, big time.

Chris from Albuquerque: Eric, I asked about McCaffrey, simply because he looked very good against us. Yes we have five QBs, but it appeared to me that albeit limited action, McCaffrey is better than at least four and arguably all five with the mobility that Book had to extend plays. I get only 35 attempts, but that is more than the four QBs total in the room. It's opening night at Florida State: Would having a high-four-star McCaffrey be our starting QB be so bad? Appreciate the talks, my man!

Eric Hansen: Chris, you are limited on scholarships, so six QBs won't work. It's Coan or McCaffrey (or someone else)? Not both. Coan had the experience (and other qualities) ND was looking for. If Dylan was so good (and he very well may be), why didn't he ever take over at Michigan?

Lee from Lancaster, S.C.: Hi Eric, some players are better than others, and I think the same holds true for sportswriters. You are one of the best and the one I turn to for all my ND football coverage. I'm curious, were you this good when you first started or did you get better with experience like many players do?

Eric Hansen: Did my mom pay you to ask that?

Eric Hansen: Seriously, thank you for the compliments. My face just turned beet red. I'll try to answer this honestly. Two things. I was very fortunate early in my career that people believed in me and took a chance on me when I probably hadn't earned that. Secondly, I promised myself when I started to have one goal above all others: Learn from others and get better every day. I hope I have kept my promise to myself.

Stephen from Toledo, Ohio: Hi Eric! I must say after the loss to Alabama I was convinced the difference between us and them was the academic-standard restrictions and that we could only be a top 5 team but never THE top team. After watching them dismantle a very good Ohio State team my opinion changed a bit. Do you think Brian Kelly will make changes to the offensive playbook allowing for a more explosive offense like 'Bama or will he continue to try his hand at a conservative game management style that he played this year?

Eric Hansen: Stephen, I think he played to the strengths and weaknesses of his current roster. And the ball control/complementary football model did get ND to the playoff. It just couldn't make them competitive once they arrived there. Brian Kelly knows the roster and the philosophy both must evolve. And there is speed and talent in the next wave of receivers.

Henry from Stockton, Calif.: Hi Eric. I want to add my name to the long list of ND fans thanking your for this chat and especially for your work this bizarre season. You have provided a tremendous service to all with your level headed insights and steady hand. I wish you and your family all the best in 2021. No questions.

Eric Hansen: Wow, this is a fun day to be me. I'm kind of blown away. Thank you.

John in Park City, Utah: Hi Eric. Thanks for all your work! I don't think No. 4 vs. No. 5 is a big deal (in the final rankings), but do you see any way to say that Texas A&M had a better résumé this season than ND?

Eric Hansen: Carter Karels, a fairly recent Texas A&M grad in our sports department, will probably challenge me on this, but here's how I look at it: Notre Dame played a closer game against Alabama. They beat North Carolina by the exact same margin, but the Tar Heels had four players who made All-America teams (LB, two RBs and a WR) all opt out for the bowl game. I also think ND's win over Clemson, even without Trevor Lawrence, was more impressive than A&M's win over Florida. So based on those data points and the entire résumés, I gave the edge to ND.

Jim from Fremont, Ohio: Eric, thank you for continuing the chats into January. Ill be quick and to the point: Of all the players who have entered the transfer portal so far, who do you think the team will miss the most? Or who do you think leaves the biggest hole for coach Kelly and staff to fill. Thanks!

Eric Hansen: For me, it's Houston Griffith No. 1 and Ovie Oghoufo No. 2.

PJE from Columbus, Ohio: How many more transfers leaving or coming and any more assistants leaving? Thanks.

Eric Hansen: Just based on math and scholarship limits, there'll be at least four more players leave the roster between now and August and probably more. As I mentioned earlier, Mike Elston might leave. I don't anticipate any others.

Peter Loomis from Telluride, Colo.: Remember August of 2020? The college football world was crumbling, and the Big 10 and Pac-12 canceled their seasons. In your opinion Eric, did Trevor Lawrence save college football with his "We Want To Play Movement?" It seemed to be the point that turned things around. His comments to the media were that college football players were safer from COVID-19 when training and playing than going back home and taking classes via Zoom. Your thoughts?

Eric Hansen: I do remember it. Vividly. And it wasn't a fun time. I'm not sure it's overstating it that he "saved" college football, but he was the face and muscle behind a movement that certainly shifted public opinion and rhetoric. I know when I saw his tweets, I thought to myself, "This is really cool on so many levels." Obviously, safety comes first, but the players' desire to play through this and to have a voice was a necessary part of the equation to play. Much, much respect for Trevor Lawrence for a great career and a powerful voice off the field.

Tom from Toronto: Hi Eric. I hope that this finds you and your family well. I do not have a question but a few observations. I think that the coaches need to up their game. There is no way that Chris Tyree should have tried to return the kickoff in the Alabama game. The goal was to get the ball into the hands of the offense and have them drive the field for a touchdown. The unfortunate turn of events was a recovered fumble on the 10-yard line and a problematic start. I expect that this took the wind out of their sails. I also think that Brian Kelly has to figure out how to motivate his teams to play in and win the big games. He did very well in Clemson 1. It was clear that there was no way that ND was going to lose that game. He did not do well in Clemson 2 or Alabama 1. I would suggest that he pick the brains of anyone willing to allow him to do so, possibly starting with Lou (“Leave Jimmie Johnson to me – his ass is mine”) Holtz. Football is often a game of momentum and motivation. They need to do better. Thanks.

Eric Hansen: Fair enough, Tom. I won't answer a question that doesn't exist and that wasn't too manifesto-ish, so there you have it.

Michael from Chicago: Which ND players that have entered the transfer portal surprised you? Which, if any, have a realistic chance to come back to ND?

Eric Hansen: Well the answer I gave on the two that hurt the most are the two that also surprised me — Houston Griffith and Ovie Oghoufo. I don't see there being a U-turn back to ND, given the number of players who'd have to leave to even the scholarship ledger, but with some new coaches, I wouldn't completely rule it out.

Manny From San Pedro, Calif.: Eric!!!!! Hope your having an amazing 2021!! Seems like there has been a lot of stuff to keep you busy. With some high school football (Michigan) starting back up in January for their playoffs, do any of these affect ND’s early enrollees?

Eric Hansen: Manny!!!!!!! Happy New Year to you and your exclamation points, and I mean that sincerely. The only two recruits from Michigan are Rocco Spindler (2021) and Nolan Ziegler (2022). Spindler's team lost in the playoff before there was the break for COVID. He is an early enrollee and it will not affect his timetable. Ziegler's team probably will win a state title, but he's a year away, so it's all good.

Tom from Pawleys Island, S.C.: Eric: Really appreciate your fine work. In your piece this morning you mention it is difficult for underclassmen to transfer their credits to ND. Is this because of the type of courses they have taken or the quality of the institution they may be coming from?

Eric Hansen: Thanks, Tom. Kind of both. Sometimes there's not a matching class at ND, for instance. But ND is a stickler with undergrad transfers for regular students, not just athletes.

Leo from Winona Lake: Is Tommy Rees really our best play-calling option?

Eric Hansen: Well, the thought in hiring him is that he's a promising young talent with an experienced backstop in Brian Kelly, and that he'll blossom and improve with each passing year and quickly. We'll see, but I can see the potential as well as the inexperience in this season's run.

Duane from Canyon Lake, Calif.: In light of Alabama's crushing of Ohio State and ND's defense holding Alabama to the lowest offensive output of the year, will the elite sports media haters admit that they are wrong about ND belonging in the playoffs?

Eric Hansen: Not sure. A lot of people, in all walks of life, like to dig their heels in when they're wrong.

Erik from Granger, Ind.: I couldn’t help but admire Alabama’s creativity on offense against OSU. Their route concepts just seem more interesting than ours. Maybe I’m mistaken and it’s just their elite talent that made the offense seem more effective. What do you think?

Eric Hansen: I think we were watching the same game.

Joe H from Williams Bay, Wis.: Hi Eric. Great chats as always. I’m wondering what you think our personality will be on offense next year with all the new faces and also how you see Tommy Rees evolving in his second year as offensive coordinator. Thanks.

Eric Hansen: I think ND needs to show it can play ball control BUT also show it can make strides toward playing efficiently at tempo and being able to win games when it gets into a track meet. I think the biggest step for Rees to take next year is in-game adjustments.

Doug from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho: Have not been to ND for a while. Any plans to update the Gug and other facilities?

Eric Hansen: Yes, the plans are drawn and in great detail. It's about finding the money, which during a pandemic and with a financial crisis affecting all athletic departments, it's a tougher ask. It'll get done, just not in the original timeframe. Good to hear from you.

James from Columbus: Just wanted to say, "Thank you Eric."

Eric Hansen: Very cool. Well let me say, "Thank you" to you as well.

Dan from Grand Rapids, Mich.: Hi Eric. Do you think ANY of the current ND wide receivers are going to be comparable to any of the Big 3's? (OSU, Clemson, 'Bama). Why is it that we can't beat anyone deep or even get open vs. the elite teams? Is Jack Coan the answer for one year? Thanks for ALL your work and your patience in letting us vent! All the best and stay safe.

Eric Hansen: Dan, I don't know if Jack Coan is the answer. I'm curious if he can run in ND's offense (he was a prolific runner in high school and not at all at Wisconsin). I like him as an option. Not sure until I see him practice to think if he's THE guy for 2021. Of the youngest receivers, I think there's a lot of promise with Jordan Johnson, Lorenzo Styles Jr., Deion Colzie and Xavier Watts. ... and thank you.

Tom from Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eric, appreciate this entire season and everything you’ve done for the ND Community! I’ve watched Brian Kelly offenses at GVSU (my alma mater), Central Michigan and Cincinnati. That entire time there was nothing passive or low-octane about them. Is it a personnel issue or a change in offensive philosophy? Also do you potentially see the Marcus Freeman/Mike Mickens tag team being a more dynamic/aggressive not only on the field but also in recruiting? Do you anticipate spring ball happening?

Eric Hansen: Tom, thanks, appreciate you too. The old Kelly offenses, at least at Cincy and CMU, didn't have the running backs or tight ends that would have been able to win a playoff game at the FBS level. It is more of a personnel issue, and this is a big year — a big, big year — for wide receiver development, and quarterback development, for that matter. Mac Jones was No. 1 nationally in passing efficiency. Justin Fields 10th, Trevor Lawrence 12th ... and Ian Book 33rd. I love Book, but that number has to come up big time with the next QB if ND is going to compete on the big stage. In the playoff the previous years, the QBs were 1, 2, 3 and 8 in passing efficiency. That's where ND needs to be. I do think Mickens and Freeman will bring a more aggressive approach on and off the field. I think there's the personnel to try that. I do expect spring football to happen. Not sure about a Blue-Gold Game, and likely no spectators if there is.

Jeremy from Goshen: Eric, what do you and your team at the Tribune think of the QB situation going forward? Should ND ride through bumps of starting Tyler Buchner as a freshman or accept the low ceiling that Jack Coan and Drew Pyne bring from a physical standpoint? I am open to your alternate third option. To me, putting Buchner with the scout team is not acceptable.

Eric Hansen: I'd want to let it play out in spring practice to see what I have. If there's a spring practice, and I think there will be ... just later than usual. I agree with keeping Buchner off scout team.

Eric Hansen: OK, that's going to have to do it for this week. Thanks for all the great questions. And since there's still a lot going on and so many questions I didn't get to, let's do it again next week ... Wednesday at noon ET.

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