The 2021 Notre Dame Fighting Irish are certainly not Brian Kelly’s most talented team during his time in South Bend. However, this year’s team may be one of the most enjoyable teams I have watched during my life due to their consistent improvement throughout the year, as well as the number of contributions from such a multitude of players. I thought it would be fun to pose the following: If you could add one player from Brian Kelly’s tenure in South Bend to this year’s team, who would you pick and why?
DeShone Kizer (2015)
Kizer would be my number one choice to play on this year’s roster. To begin, I completely understand the all-time winningest quarterback in Notre Dame History graduated just last season in Ian Book. However, I would rather have Kizer than Book with this season’s team. Kizer averaged 8.6 yards per attempt during his sophomore campaign in 2015, whereas Ian Book only hit 8.0 yards per attempt one time in his career (2018). Kizer’s prototypical size, coupled with the threat of him running would blend together what the coaching staff has been attempting all year in Jack Coan (size) and Tyler Buchner (arm talent and running ability) to help the offense thrive. We all remember what Kizer did with Will Fuller in 2015. While it may be a stretch to say there is any wide receiver on the current roster worthy of a 1st round pick, there is more overall talent at his disposal than there was in the 2015 wide receiver and tight end rooms. As mentioned previously, Kizer’s ability to run would have helped the offense operate more efficiently throughout the season. Opposing defenses would have had to defend the Irish differently, most likely paving the way for Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree to find easier sledding in the run game. Kizer also would have been able to mask some of the deficiencies on the offensive line with his escapability, resulting in fewer sacks and stalled drives. Overall, I still believe that Kizer was the most talented quarterback that Brian Kelly has had during his tenure, and I would be willing to bet that the current team would be undefeated with a much different outlook on what was achievable the rest of the season.
Ronnie Stanley (2015)
Stanley would be a “set and forget” type player on this year’s team at left tackle. As potentially the best left tackle prospect under Kelly, I have a hard time believing that Stanley would not have positively impacted the offensive as a whole earlier this season. Would his addition have allowed the run game to gain traction far earlier in the season? The short answer is yes. By no means would Stanley’s addition have drastically impacted who Jack Coan is/would have been for the 2021 team. However, a competent rushing attack most likely unloads a ton of pressure from Coan’s shoulders. With defenses having to respect the rush, perhaps the passing attack gels sooner and the entire quarterback carousel that occurred throughout much of the first half of the season doesn’t occur. Furthermore, with a number of deep threats at wide receiver and a competent run game, there may have been more consideration given to running a healthy dose of play-action, which could have added an entirely different dimension to this offense when considering the threat of Braden Lenzy, Lorenzo Styles, and Kevin Austin running deep, with Michael Mayer working the middle of the field.
Harrison Smith (2011)
Imagine the pairing of Harrison Smith and Kyle Hamilton on the backline of the Notre Dame defense. Not only would we have seen some potentially unique defensive alignments and blitzes, but it is also undeniable the impact of having two premier playmakers at safety would have had for this year’s defense. The defense hasn’t directly cost the Irish any games this season, and on the whole, the unit has been sound. Houston Griffth and DJ Brown have both had an overall strong season but both have had lapses in their play that have directly led to big plays from the opponent. Adding Harrison Smith to the defense greatly diminishes the chances of a back squirting out of a missed tackle and running to daylight or allowing a receiver to go streaking through the defensive backfield uncovered. At times, Smith could have dropped down to play the Rover position to help cover the slot or add a physical presence to slow down the opponent’s rushing attack. Additionally, having Smith on the backend of the defense provides stability as Smith was rarely out of position on any given play. Does Smith prevent a loss to Cincinnati? I don’t believe so. However, get Notre Dame into the College Football Playoff and suddenly having Smith gives Notre Dame another chess piece to help combat an Ohio State, Alabama, or Georgia.
Honorable Mention: Jaylon Smith(2015), Will Fuller(2015), Stephon Tuitt (2012), Quenton Nelson (2017), Ian Book (2020), and Tyler Eifert (2012)
There is a case to be made for a handful of past Irish players having a large impact on this year’s team. Although you may not agree with my top three choices, I am interested to hear who you believe could have taken this Irish team over the top during such a wide-open college football season!