With the end of the 2020 college football season comes a look toward 2021. Everyone is dropping their “way too early” top 25 rankings (which kind of implies it’s right on time) so let’s jump in head first with how the Irish can adjust to the season before.
They’ve already answered a couple of questions in bringing in grad transfer quarterback Jack Coan and hired highly sought after Marcus Freeman to coach the defense. Those were the two biggest question marks heading into 2021 and the answers were as good as they could have plausibly been.
The rest of the off season will bring answers to the following: how does the offensive line shake out? What does the wide receiver room/rotation look like? Who is emerging at cornerback? How those things adjudicate themselves will ultimately tell the tale for the Irish next season.
With that in mind, here are four ways Notre Dame needs to adjust offensively and defensively to make 2021 a successful year.
Reduce The Workload Of Kyren Williams
Kyren Williams was a breakout star for Notre Dame in 2020 as a runner, receiver, and pass blocker. In his 12 game season, he finished with the second highest all-purpose yards of the Kelly era (1,438), finishing only behind Josh Adams in 2017 (1,531). In many ways, he was the engine behind Notre Dame’s offense; despite his diminutive size he was able to run with power inside, break big plays, and dazzle us with his open field ability. That being said, Notre Dame is going to have to lessen his workload in 2021 to get the best out of him late in the season.
Williams registered 246 offensive touches in 2020, an average of about 21 per game, a number that would have been even larger had he not hurt his shoulder in the first half against Boston College. The next closest skill player was Chris Tyree with 81 touches on offense (about seven per game), with 17 coming against Boston College when Williams missed a good portion of action. 21 to seven at running back is too much of a disparity. Williams size is what it is, and bulking him up is only going to hamper his game. None of this takes into account the countless number of hits Williams accrued as the teams best pass blocker as well.
Notre Dame needs to find a way to make the running back position a true rotation to a.) keep its best players fresh b.) get the most out of the position. They’ve got Williams, they’ve got their prize recruit Tyree, C’Bo Flemister has registered over 110 touches over his career, plus two freshmen coming in. Find two, or three, who can share the load over the course of a game. It’s best for everyone involved.
Bring Back The RPO Game
My biggest takeaway from this playoff season was Notre Dame needs to bring their RPO offense back into the fold. Alabama crushed us with short passes throughout, with 15 of their 25 completions came from between 0-5 yards with the LOS with over 100 yards on three completions coming from RPO concepts (two slants and a swing pass).
Notre Dame was very adept at this in 2018 with Ian Book, but mostly abandoned it in 2019 with Chip Long calling plays and again in 2020 with Tommy Rees. Given the strengths of Jack Coan’s game–quick release, good decision maker, accurate short–adding this to the offensive feels like a no-brainer. It also compliments the running game by discouraging run blitzes, because a vacating linebacker only opens up lanes for the passing game. Taking advantage of the strengths on offense include bringing back the thing that killed you the year before.
Make Better Use Of Kyle Hamilton
Hamilton led the team with 63 tackles, this is despite missing what amounts to two full games with his ankle injury, plus another half with a targeting ejection. In truth, this was more like an 80+ tackle season from our free safety, and he was on pace to lead the team in tackles by double digits. It also marks the first time a defensive back has led the defense in tackles during the Kelly era.
Some of this has to do with Hamilton being a fantastic player. But it’s also a sign that he was asked to cover for deficiencies in the linebacking corps. The three players who earned considerable time at Buck this season–Marist Liufau, Shayne Simon, and Jack Kiser–combined for 56 tackles in 2020. Hamilton totaled 4.5 tackles for loss in what amounts to nine and a half games while the trio at Buck tallied 5.5. You get the idea.
Part of getting the most out of Hamilton includes fixing the Buck position so he doesn’t have to be a cover for short comings. This is a lot of what we saw with Jaylon Smith in 2015, not something Notre Dame wants to be associated with as that is seen as a waste of his talents. I imagine Marcus Freeman spends a lot of his time thinking and scheming for ways to turn Hamilton into the game wrecker he can clearly be. He’s going to be a first team All-American–he made some first teams this season–and will be a major part of why 2021 Notre Dame can make a return to the playoffs. They need to turn him into a star.
Find The Formula At Corner
Notre Dame is short on experience but long on numbers and ability in the secondary. TaRiq Bracy and Clarence Lewis have both played big minutes in high level games. Beyond them there is athleticism and length that simply has to be tapped into. Cam Hart and Ramon Henderson have length and speed. Caleb Offord, Ryan Barnes, Philip Riley, and Chance Tucker include length, toughness, and speed. There are raw materials that Notre Dame can tap into. They’ve got their new coordinator and his buddy Mike Mickens coaching the corners. There are four players in here that can do the job at a level befitting of a playoff caliber unit. My big prediction on this January 12th afternoon is the corner group blows up in 2021.