With only one vanilla scrimmage game and three-minutes of B-Roll footage after each of the other 14 Notre Dame spring practices, educated guesswork, press conferences and Brian Kelly assessments were the only tools available for evaluating the worth of the 2021 Irish heading into the summer months.
“The way I see it now is we’re a good team, and good teams aren’t good enough,” the Irish head coach explained May 1, immediately after the Blue-Gold Game. “We need to be a great team. Good teams don’t win a national championship.”
As the on-field Irish coaches step aside and turn over the program keys to Director of Football Performance Matt Balis for the next two and half months, the reasons Kelly sees “good” and not “great” aren’t a guarded secret.
Highlighting Kelly’s to-do list before his 12th season?
* Replenish the production and leadership void of quarterback Ian Book — a three-year starter, a two-time team captain and the winningest signal-caller in Notre Dame history.
* Rebuild one of the best and most experienced offensive lines in program history after losing four of five starters. This restoration includes replacing two all-Americans on the left side in tackle Liam Eichenberg and guard Aaron Banks, potentially with two true freshmen, Rocco Spindler and Blake Fisher.
Since freshmen became eligible to play in 1971, only one Irish lineman (Sam Young, 2006) started a season opener.
* Replace unanimous all-American and Butkus Award winner Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah at linebacker, along with eight other former Irish players from nearly every position group who became NFL Draft picks last month.
* And lest we forget, Kelly also needs to help smooth the transition from departed defensive coordinator Clark Lea into the Marcus Freeman era.
Not since Lou Holtz in 1994 has an Irish coach faced such staff and roster churn from both a production and leadership standpoint as Kelly does this year.
In the six seasons from 1988-93, Holtz went 64-9-1 — a stretch that included a program-record 23-game winning streak, a national championship and two other title near misses.
Not only did Holtz lose both his offensive coordinator (Skip Holtz) and his defensive coordinator (Rick Minter) after the 1993 season, his roster also lost future NCAA and/or NFL Hall of Fame inductees Jerome Bettis, Aaron Taylor, Bryant Young and Jeff Burris, as well as veteran starting quarterback Kevin McDougal.
In all, ten players from the 1993 Irish team were selected in the 1994 NFL Draft — including three first-rounders and seven total in the first three rounds.
And not even Holtz could survive this massive of a staff shift and roster reboot, going 6-5-1 in 1994 and retiring two years after that.
Facing similar circumstances, Kelly isn’t making any excuses or sewing any preemptive seeds that 2021 will be a rebuilding project, not hardly.
Kelly’s focus remains extending his string of four consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins — already a program record — to five straight, and to make his third College Football Playoff in the last four years, challenges he sees as manageable.
“You need to be a great team,” again emphasized Kelly, who with 43 wins in the last 51 games since 2016 has his program humming along in the same way Holtz did in 1993. “How do you get from good to great? That’s where we are in this process.”
Clearly, a busy offseason awaits, as does a tricky 2021 schedule that includes five consecutive games from Sept. 25 to Oct. 30 against Big 10 power Wisconsin; Cincinnati, which finished No. 8 in the final 2020 AP Poll; at Virginia Tech; then home against improving opponents USC and North Carolina.
“They want to do it. They’re capable of doing it,” Kelly said of his players’ post-spring mindset to accomplish something beyond another playoff appearance. “We’re going to stay the course and when they get there, they will ascend to the level we need them to play at.”
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