As the calendar turns to November, Notre Dame enters the home stretch of the season with an 8-1 record, a #10 ranking in the initial College Football Playoff Ranking, and an outside chance at a College Football Playoff berth. Despite the injuries, the quarterback carousel, the transition to Marcus Freeman as the new defensive coordinator, and the dreadful offensive line performance for much of the year, 2021 is shaping up to be a potentially special season. Winning a national championship is a farfetched fantasy this season but winning a New Year’s Six Bowl, Notre Dame’s first major bowl victory since 1993, would be a great ending to what may be Brian Kelly’s best coaching job of his Irish career. Although Kelly will always have his detractors, one would be hard-pressed to diminish the coaching abilities he has displayed during this chaotic season.
The program has been in a transition year from the moment the clock hit 0:00 against Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. Gone were four starting offensive linemen, defensive coordinator Clark Lea, and the Notre Dame’s all-time winningest quarterback in Ian Book, in addition to several other players.
Initially, Kelly won a bidding war against LSU to hire Marcus Freeman as his new defensive coordinator. Freeman is an undeniably talented coach but has faced his fair share of struggles this season. Under Lea, the defensive mentality was a “bend but don’t break” unit. While Freeman has kept several tenets from Lea’s system, he plays a much more aggressive style of defense predicated on creating havoc. Although the defense has created more splash plays, they have also allowed a multitude of big plays. Whether it has been poor gap discipline on a run or a miscommunication in the secondary, there is definitely a different feel to this year’s defense. Growing pains are to be expected as players learn a new system, and this year should serve as a springboard for next season to a more assignment-sound defense.
In an attempt to replace Ian Book, Kelly turned to the transfer portal to nab graduate transfer Jack Coan. During Coan’s time at Wisconsin, he benefited from strong offensive line play and a lethal running attack as he operated mostly under center. Unfortunately, Tommy Rees’ offense rarely has a quarterback under center and the offensive line play has been uneven for most of the year. After a brilliant debut against Florida State, Coan has had plenty of ups and downs since. Tyler Buchner was inserted during the second week of the season to jumpstart a stagnant offense and has remained a part of the weekly game plan when healthy. Drew Pyne was forced into relief against Wisconsin following Coan’s injury and played the majority of the second half against Cincinnati due to the ineffectiveness of Coan and Buchner. While some of the problems on offense have been inflicted by the coaching staff, they have continued to work to adjust the offense to fit the strengths of their current roster. Over the past several weeks, the adjustment to go to a more up-tempo offense has seemingly benefited Coan, allowing him to play to his potential, while continuing to let Buchner evolve into his role.
Unlike previous seasons in which the team was relatively healthy, this year’s team has been battling injuries since fall camp.
Marist Liufau was lost on the final day of fall camp to a fractured ankle. Starting left tackle, Blake Fisher (knee), and starting linebacker, Shayne Simon (shoulder), were lost for the season in the opening game against Florida State. Fisher’s injury played a major role in the offensive line’s struggles during the first half of the season, while Simon’s injury quickly thinned a position that many thought was one of the deepest on the team heading into the season. Michael Carmody, Fisher’s replacement, suffered a high-ankle sprain that kept him out for several weeks, forcing third-string left tackle Tosh Baker into the starting lineup.
The avalanche of injuries in the initial two weeks has slowed down, but the team has seemingly been without a key piece each game. Tyler Buchner strained his hamstring against Purdue and missed the Wisconsin game. This injury became even more magnified when Coan was forced from the game in the 2nd half with an ankle injury, forcing Drew Pyne into the first meaningful snaps of his career. Kurt Hinish missed both the Wisconsin and Cincinnati games with a concussion. Joe Wilkins Jr. tore his MCL against Cincinnati and was lost for the season. Michael Mayer reinjured an adductor strain he initially sustained in fall camp against Cincinnati and had to miss the Virginia Tech game. Chris Tyree suffered a turf toe injury against Virginia Tech and missed the USC game. More recently, Kyle Hamilton has missed the past two weeks after injuring a fat pad in his knee during the first quarter against USC. In today’s game against Navy, Avery Davis was lost potentially for the season with a significant knee injury.
As documented above, Notre Dame’s depth has been tested in almost every game this season in some form or fashion. Yet, the coaching staff is continuing to find ways to gameplan around the absences and put backups in the best possible position to succeed. Many of the backups who have seen action as a result of the injuries have been freshmen. Not only is it a testament to the types of players the coaches have been recruiting, but it is also a testament to the infrastructure within the program that Notre Dame has continued to stack up wins with a multitude of first-year players playing major roles on offense.
Tyler Buchner is obviously the biggest name that comes to mind in terms of impact during the season. He has served as a change of pace at quarterback since he first entered against Toledo in Week 2. While his play has been up and down, Buchner has gotten valuable reps for a potential starting role next season and has contributed significantly in wins against Toledo and Virginia Tech. Perhaps more important than Buchner, Joe Alt has become a key cog for the Irish this season. Alt initially served as an extra tight end/offensive linemen in certain situations earlier in the year. However, after injuries to Blake Fisher and Michael Carmody, and the suboptimal performances from Tosh Baker, Alt was inserted as the starting left tackle against Virginia Tech. Since then, Alt has played a large role in stabilizing the offensive line, which has led to an improved Irish offense.
In addition to these two, Logan Diggs, Lorenzo Styles Jr, Deion Colzie, Cane Berrong, and Mitchell Evans have all seen the field for extended stretches. Diggs may be in line for an even bigger workload down the stretch due to the extremely thin depth chart at wide receiver following Avery Davis’ knee injury against Navy. Either Chris Tyree or Kyren Williams could see more playing time in the slot to alleviate some of the burden, which would lead to an increased role for the freshman back. Similarly, both Styles and Colzie will continue to see an uptick in their snap count for the remainder of the season. Not only will the extended playing time benefit the freshmen for the coming seasons, but they are all the best options at their respective positions to give the team this season the best chance to continue to win.
While this season has not been the prettiest, I have found it to be one of the most fascinating to watch due to the countless obstacles the 2021 Irish have faced. Overall, the team has steadily improved since September. I truly believe this season has been Brian Kelly’s best coaching job since he has been in South Bend and should receive the credit he deserves for putting this year’s team in a great position for the stretch run.