Christmas came and went last week, and I’ve had this column in my drafts for a little, so I figured I’d post it anyway. The time for giving and receiving gifts might be over for this Christmas season. Still, in case Notre Dame has a super generous aunt or uncle that it hasn’t seen yet who has a boatload of presents for it, here’s a wish list for Notre Dame football this holiday season.
Win the Fiesta Bowl
Given everything that’s happened to Notre Dame football since the final whistle of the Stanford game five years, err weeks, ago, the importance of this game is easy to lose. We all know the stat by now. Notre Dame has not won a major bowl game since January 1994, when they beat Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl to finish the 1993 season 11-1. Since then, the Irish lost Fiesta Bowls to Colorado (‘95), Oregon State (‘01), and Ohio State (‘05 & ‘16), a Rose Bowl to Alabama (‘21), a Cotton Bowl to Clemson (‘19), a Sugar Bowl to LSU (‘06), and a BCS Title game to Alabama (‘13). That’s not great.
In most of Notre Dame’s big bowl games, they were overmatched from a talent perspective since the Irish tend to land in the most marque bowl they are eligible for because of the money they attract. That isn’t the case this time around. Oklahoma State is good, but they aren’t a team full of four and five-star players like some of those Ohio State, Alabama, and LSU squads. Make no mistake, though, the Cowboys are good. This won’t be the easy contest that many Notre Dame fans seem to think it will be.
A win on Saturday would be enormous for the program, not just to snap the embarrassing streak but to jump-start the Marcus Freeman era that has already given the program a jolt of energy it had been missing.
Convince more players to stay versus heading to NFL
If Notre Dame can beat Oklahoma State and win the Fiesta Bowl, the program will have a ton of momentum heading into the off-season. However, to capitalize on that theoretical momentum, the Irish staff needs to win a lot of the re-recruitment battles that will take place over the next few weeks. The Irish have over a dozen players who could return in 2022 whose return is far from solidified at this point. If I had to make a wish list of my top-5, though, they would be the following.
- Kevin Austin – Hands down, the most significant re-recruitment Freeman needs to win. Numbers at wide receiver are terrible, and Austin showed that he is a legit #1 receiver this year. If he leaves for the NFL, he’s a 6th or 7th round flier of a pick. However, he could play his way into a day 2 type pick if he returns.
- Isaiah Foskey – Numbers aren’t bad at defensive end, but for Notre Dame to make any sort of legit run in 2022, they need a monster pass-rusher like Foskey. In his first season as a starter, he flashed big-time pass rush potential. He could easily play his way into the first round if he returns.
- Braden Lenzy – Again, numbers are terrible at wide receiver, and the Irish need bodies. Reading between the tea leaves of some of Lenzy’s comments since the end of the season, it sounds like a return is likely, but not official. It’s not impossible to imagine a scenario where he returns and is still passed by Lorenzo Styles, but his experience and speed are vital for the Irish offense.
- Jayson Ademilola – I am a sucker for the defensive line, and even though Notre Dame doesn’t need Ademilola to return, he’s in my top-5 as well. Like Foskey, he flashed in 2021 as a first-time starter. In 2022, he could essentially major in football and be an absolute monster in the middle of the Irish defensive line.
- Jarrett Patterson – Rounding out the top five here with another luxury return, but if Notre Dame gets Patterson back, the offensive line has the potential to be downright dominant in 2022. If Patterson returns, you essentially have four starters back and just one spot to fill.
Complete the coaching staff
Notre Dame is working with a bit of skeleton crew for the Fiesta Bowl, with Bayou Brian perfecting his Cajun accident and Brian Polian being the only assistant to follow him to Baton Rouge. We also know that Jeff Quinn is unlikely to return, and conventional wisdom suggests that Del Alexander wouldn’t as well after the debacle at wide receiver recruiting. That could leave Freeman with as many as four spots to fill on his staff. Here’s my wish list for those openings.
- Offensive Line – Harry Hiestand’s name has been floated so much that he seems like the odds on favorite to return. While I still have some concerns about his recruiting given Freeman’s mandate for his assistants, with the war chest of talent Quinn collected, Hiestand could win another Joe Moore Award or two over the next few years.
- Wide Receivers – This is the one position where nothing is official in terms of an opening, but my hope here is for a young, up-and-coming wide receiver who can recruit. I wouldn’t be opposed to Lance Taylor taking over at WR if the Irish could pull in a top-flight RB coach too. Taylor restocked a depleted running back room over the last three years with Chris Tyree, Logan Diggs, Audric Estime, and Jadarian Price. The numbers would fix themselves if he did the same for the WR room.
- Special Teams – The one name that’s been floated by the Irish Illustrated team that I love is Brian Mason from Cincinnati. He’s a great coach and has experience as a recruiting coordinator. Sign me up.
- Linebackers / Defensive coordinator – If Freeman handed over the reins to Mike Elston as DC and elevated Nick Lezynski to linebackers coach, I wouldn’t be upset. Elston has earned the opportunity to be a DC, and it’s going to happen sooner or later, whether at Notre Dame or somewhere else. At the same time, if Freeman went the opposite route and brought in someone with a lot more experience (maybe even head coaching experience) to round out the staff, I think that would make a lot of sense as well. The sentimental in me is pulling for Elston because it’s impossible not to root for the guy.
Find a wide receiver in the class of 2022
Even if Notre Dame gets lucky with the 5th and 6th-year decisions for the four wide receivers, I think the Irish have to find a receiver in the late signing period after losing Amorion Walker and CJ Williams. Even when both were committed, I thought Notre Dame had to sign a 4th wide receiver. And that was before Xavier Watts moved to defense. For the life of me, I still can’t wrap my head around the decisions made around that position this year, but here we are.
Notre Dame’s best bet here might be tied to landing a wide receivers coach from another program and having an unsigned receiver follow him. I don’t have a name for you here, to be honest. Still, even with luck in the portal and with returnees, Notre Dame can’t go into the 2023 season with a total of four scholarship wide receivers between the senior, junior, and sophomore classes.
Scour the transfer portal for WR and safety help
Notre Dame needs to hit some luck with the transfer portal again as they did in 2020 with Bennett Skowronek and Nick McCloud. In addition to a receiver, maybe even two, the Irish sure could use a defensive back who could step in a start in 2022, just as McCloud did last year for the Irish. Xaver Watts and Ramon Henderson have flashed potential in the second half of the year, but in an ideal world, Chris O’Leary has an experienced transfer come in and compete with them for a starting spot.
We’ve spent a ton of time talking about the bad wide receiver recruiting because of the terrible numbers Notre Dame has on the roster, but safety recruiting has been just as bad over the last decade. So far in the class of 2023, it looks like that is finally being rectified with Adon Shuler and hopefully Peyton Bowen (announcing January 1). Until those reinforcements arrive, Notre Dame would be wise to hit the portal hard for help in the secondary.
Zero in on an elite QB for 2023
I haven’t published my “5 Things I Liked / Didn’t Like” about the entire Brian Kelly era yet, but spoiler alert, the lack of elite quarterbacks, is going to be in the didn’t like column. Whether it was from lack of involvement/effort or just an inability to sell elite quarterbacks on his system, Brian Kelly could never land a true game-changing quarterback in his time at Notre Dame. The closest he came was Gunner Kiel, but that was after he struck out on other prospects he wanted more. For Notre Dame to challenge for a national title, that has to change.
Since Notre Dame is already playing catchup on the elite quarterbacks, Marcus Freeman has his work cut out for him here. Dante Moore and Nico Iamaleava are the two 5-star quarterbacks linked to the Irish the most, but neither is believed to have the Irish in the lead at the moment. Freeman spent a lot of December securing the class of 2022, working on his staff, and preparing for the Fiesta Bowl, but once all that is in the rearview, he needs to set his sights on luring an elite quarterback to Notre Dame.
Add some additional analysts/support staff
Notre Dame has done a great job of expanding the football operations over the last ten years, but to elevate recruiting to where the Irish are consistently landing top-5 classes, building it out more would be ideal. Last year, the Chad Bowden hire was a home run, and expanding the recruiting support staff even more should be something Freeman and Jack Swarbrick are looking into seriously.
I left facility upgrades off here because, by all accounts, those things are in the works, and wheels are in motion despite reports that they were the only reason the last guy left.