Watching Notre Dame without Ian Book was always going to be different. We knew that coming into this season. New Quarterback, new Defensive Co-Ordinator, a huge upheaval in personnel. Everything was going to change.
I just didn’t expect it to change this much.
The Fighting Irish of 2021 are a completely different team to the Fighting Irish of 2020. In fact I’d suggest they are the complete opposite team to their counterparts of last fall. Last year we saw the best offensive line in college football lead a very efficient clock control offence, with some scrambling garnishes by NFL back-up Ian Book, complemented by yet another elite Clark Lea defence. It was textbook Brian Kelly. From what we saw against Florida State this is not a traditional Kelly team. Far from it.
Let’s start with the Quarterback. I’ve been quite bullish this off-season that Jack Coan can unlock something in this offence that Ian Book never could. It’s not that he is some sort of huge upgrade over the Saints fourth round pick. He is a severely limited Quarterback in many ways. Yet he brings one massive quality that Book never had.
To outline this properly here is an excerpt from my draft evaluation of Ian Book earlier this year…
“I do not think the term pocket-presence should even be muttered in the presence of an Ian Book evaluation. To even associate the words with the man seems sacrilegious at best. Phantom pressure chases Book as if he is a five year old at a haunted house. The monster is always coming for him, even if the best offensive line in college football seems to have everything completely under control.”
Jack Coan however loves the pocket. Presumably because once he escapes it there’s nothing he can do. He’ll hang in there and take the deep shots Book never could, and that massively raises the ceiling of this offence. Against Florida State we saw him stand strong, wait for the play to develop, and hit his receiver downfield. Ian Book just did not do that. He’d have set off running before he even got to his second read. Now obviously Book added some creative and athletic elements to the offence that Coan does not, but that ability to hang in there is a huge plus.
Again Coan is not a huge upgrade on Book. He’s just limited in different ways.
Let’s move to the trenches. Having lost four starters and Tommy Tremble you’d expect things to get off to a slow start on the ground, and that was the case. Last year Kyren Williams ran behind the best offensive line in the nation. Against Florida State he could barely muster anything all game. On 18 carries he only gained 42 yards at an average of 2.3 yards per carry. Fellow back Chris Tyree only managed 31 yards as well. It isn’t like Williams is just a product of his environment either. He’s a legitimate NFL back. With a young, developmental line in place Tommy Rees had to put the ball in the air in the way he never had to last year. It paid off.
Jack Coan threw for 366 yards and four touchdowns, more yards than Ian Book mustered in any game last year. Star tight end Michael Mayer went for 120 yards, the returning Kevin Austin notched up 91 at an average of 22.8, Kyren Williams showed off his pass catching credentials with 83 yards on 6 catches. This wasn’t just a dink and dunk passing offence. This was one with massive big play potential.
Welcome to the new Notre Dame.
Whilst the offence has undergone a massive change during the offseason, the defence now leaves Tallahassee under the most scrutiny. With Clark Lea now at Vanderbilt former Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman is in charge, and his tenure didn’t get get off to the best start. The Fighting Irish allowed FSU backs 254 yards on the ground on just 32 carries, that’s 7.9 yards per carry. The Seminoles ran down their throats all game, and what’s more they were able to reel off some big plays to back that up. Notre Dame allowed two plays of 60+ yards against FSU, they only allowed three of those during Clark Lea’s 38 game tenure.
This is just a very different defence to last year, but again that is to be expected. You don’t just replace a guy like Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah. You won’t have the same pass rush with Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji now in the NFL. You probably aren’t going to have the same returns just a few months into transitioning more towards Freeman’s creative 3-4 defensive front. Yes Clark Lea probably never lets that game gets close with last years defence, but even if Lea was in charge the defence would probably still be Kyle Hamilton and vibes. There’s no need to panic, yet. Marcus Freeman is still a good coach.
Notre Dame are just facing an evolution, one that has flipped this program back to front in a matter of months. This team is literally a mirror image of last year, and that’s fine. The Fighting Irish football needed to change, it needed to evolve, and we’re in the process of seeing that right now. This year was never going to be a play-off year. This is about two years down the line.
Will you have the perimeter weapons for Tyler Buchner to play with alongside as that powerful offensive line? Will you be able to create explosive downfield plays to complement a dominant running game? Will this team have the swagger and quality to go toe to toe with Alabama? That is what matters to the future of this program.
It remains to be seen whether they can answer those questions, but right now I believe in the future of this team. Even if it isn’t the Notre Dame I know and love.
Follow Ed on Twitter – @Farrardise