Hansen: How Riley to USC can become a positive for Notre Dame, long term

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly leads out his players before the ND-Stanford game, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif.

SOUTH BEND — The last question of Brian Kelly’s Saturday night postgame press conference, dissecting Notre Dame’s 45-14 squashing of Stanford, was all about drilling down on the details of the Irish head coach’s locker room celebration.

“Yes, after each game I chug a fifth of Jameson Irish Whiskey,” Kelly quipped. “Oh, you guys didn't know this? More folklore for you.”

Eventually he relented with the truth, about sipping a half a bottle of red Gatorade out of the Legends Trophy — a large crystal bowl that the ND-Stanford winner hangs onto ‘til the next game between them. Unreported, but clear on the Twitter video, was that a small portion of the Gatorade splashed onto the front of Kelly’s jacket.

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In the 24 hours following the 11th victory of a season that flashed very little of that kind of potential in early September, few would have blamed Kelly if he encored with the whiskey.

The Irish on Sunday slipped a spot on the AP and coaches polls, to No. 6. And arch-rival USC got serious about its chronically unstable football program and hired Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma.

In the long term, Riley to USC should be a potential positive for the Irish.

Notre Dame needs schedule oomph in November for future College Football Playoff résumés, even when it eventually expands, for seeding purposes. Having a high-stakes game every other November on the road the same weekend of Ohio State/Michigan, Alabama/Auburn, Oklahoma/Oklahoma State, etc., would help put the strong Irish Novembers into proper context.

And ND hasn’t dropped a November game since 2017.

This year’s November schedule not only was devoid of ranked teams, it didn’t have a team on it that finished the regular season with a winning record. And thus, at least from the outside looking in, the otherwise impressive late-season Irish growth curve got lost,

Which partially explains why Notre Dame dropped in the polls after a 31-point win over a team that took down top 10 team Oregon in October.

Another plus long term of Riley at USC — if the fit is as comfortable as it was in Norman, Okla. — is it elevates the ND-USC game back to the level that it becomes one of the reasons a recruit picks the Irish — to play in those kinds of high-stakes/high-exposure/epicenter-of-the-college-football-universe type of games.

In the short term, though, Riley at USC could cause some challenges for Kelly and other coaches a little more than two weeks away from the early signing period for recruits (Dec. 15-17).

Greg Biggins of 247Sports is reporting that Riley has an in-home visit this week already scheduled with one of the top recruits in Notre Dame’s 2022 class — four-star wide receiver C.J. Williams of Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei.

Kelly, who had previously planned to use this week for him and his staff to check in on their 23 committed players and do some 2023 class schmoozing, reportedly will meet with Williams and his family on Tuesday.

One interesting wrinkle is that Riley didn’t offer Williams a scholarship when he was coaching the Sooners, when 45 other schools did.

And for those alarmed by the Irish coaching staff having to win a tug-of-war at the 11th hour for an elite recruit who’s been committed for months, this is part of the drama that comes baked into bigger recruiting aspirations to which Notre Dame is now committed.

A couple of other recruiting thoughts:

• With the number of head coaching changes in the FBS now in the 20s (and growing), Notre Dame might benefit by picking up a late flip for its own class or even redirect the trajectory of some top 2023 recruits toward South Bend.

• Whether or not Riley can convince more of California’s top talent to stay home, Notre Dame will continue to search for those prospects three time zones away and willing to be transient.

In the 2018-21 recruiting cycles, the Irish signed more California talent (11 recruits) than from any other state. Georgia was next with 10 Irish recruits. And there are three more committed Californians, including Williams, in the 2022 class and another one in the six-man 2023 class to date.

Notre Dame wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. (4) tries to get away from Stanford's Ethan Bonner (13) during ND's 45-14 win over Stanford, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif.

Ascending Austin

Saturday night against Stanford, senior wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. recorded six receptions in a game for the third time this season. It’s hard to fathom that’s the same number of career catches he had coming into 2021.

It also probably would have been a bigger deal Saturday night had tight end Michael Mayer not tied Cole Kmet’s school record for receptions in a game by a tight end with nine (for 105 yards). But actually, the success of one is helping the other — putting opposing defensive coordinators in a pick-your-poison dilemma.

Austin heads into Notre Dame’s postseason assignment with 42 receptions, tied with Kyren Williams for second on the team, and 783 receiving yards and six TD catches — both team bests.

He also is much more consistent, much more fluid and much more dangerous after he catches the ball than earlier in the season. Of his 125 yards against the Cardinal, 79 were after the catch.

That after being suspended for the 2019 season and missing most of 2020 and all of 2021 spring practice with a twice-broken foot.

“We probably put a little too much on him after not playing for almost two years,” Kelly said of Austin’s early struggles this season, including regular drops and a combined single catch in early-season games against Purdue and Cincinnati.

“Put a lot of that pressure on him and maybe him on himself in terms of what you wanted to do, and I think it weighed heavily on him.

“He relaxed, worked hard in practice, and then started making some plays. That confidence came back, and I think we saw the real version of what Kevin Austin can be and will be moving forward.”

The question is how and where will Austin move forward?

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Fort Lauderdale, Fla., product has pro football aspirations that he initially hoped to chase in the spring. But if the draft round/draft money algebra means anything to him, Austin would be smart to keep building his résumé at Notre Dame one more year in 2022.

Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer (87) gets upended by Stanford's Tristan Sinclair (8) as Levani Damuni (3) comes in to help tackle during the ND-Stanford game, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif.

Inside the numbers

A day after reaching two significant milestones (most catches by an ND tight end in a game and in a season), sophomore Michael Mayer woke up Sunday as the most prolific tight end in the Power 5 in both catches per game (5.8) and receiving yards per game (69.8).

How he didn’t end up a Mackey Award finalist may be due in part to voters checking out the top draft prospect lists to help them make their decisions about the annual award given to the nation's best tight end. The problem is, as a sophomore, Mayer isn’t draft-eligible yet, so he’s not on those lists.

Perhaps the blowback aimed at the Mackey voters will enlighten those selecting the All-America teams in the next week or so.

• Before leaving to take the head coaching job at Vanderbilt, Clark Lea in his three years as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator led the Irish to three consecutive seasons in which ND finished in the top 15 nationally in scoring defense (13th-12th-14th) for the first time in five decades.

His successor, Marcus Freeman, has the Irish sitting at No. 11 in scoring defense at the end of ND's regular season.

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI