Mailbag, Part II

More questions and answers from June's email collection...

1.) I like your phrase "peer teams" to describe matchups that can realistically go either way. Who are Notre Dame's peer teams on the 2014 schedule? -- Richard, Chicago.

It's easier to list who's definitively not: Florida State, Rice, and Purdue. To extrapolate, Northwestern and Syracuse could take down Notre Dame -- as we view those teams today -- with minimal breaks on any given Saturday. I would not, however, refer to either the Wildcats or Orange as Irish peers for 2014.

Navy should compete with both Notre Dame and Ohio State (the Buckeyes open at home vs Navy) this fall, but noting the Mid's as a peer team would be inaccurate as well. (Navy would have its hands full with Notre Dame's schedule.)

Michigan, Stanford, North Carolina, Arizona State, Louisville, USC, Notre Dame. I'm comfortable with that group as "peer teams".

2.) What's the fuss about Keivarae Russell? He was torched by Michigan last year, Alabama before that, and now he's talking about being the nation's best? A tad premature, right -- Ellen, Tulsa, OK.

It's an admirable goal and the right attitude for Russell as he moves to his upperclassmen days, and to be fair to him, he improved immensely over the course of 2014, especially after a rough outing in Ann Arbor.

I think the new system will suit him well and he'll enter -- and conclude -- the season as one of the team's four best players. (Obvious candidates include Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, perhaps Everett Golson and/or DaVaris Daniels.)

Russell was far from the nation's best last year, but this isn't last year. (And Alabama was about 20 pounds ago, with no loss of quickness.) With 26 starts and plenty of talent and confidence in tow, Russell could excel in 2014. At cornerback, however, humility is a play away.

3.) Aside from running back, give me a unit or position group that will be markedly improved over last season. Because I don't see any. -- Marcus, Toledo, OH

Umm, quarterback?

Save for sacks incurred (Everett Golson and Malik Zaire will be sacked more than eight times this year as was Tommy Rees), I don't think there's a meaningful category, statistical or otherwise, in which Notre Dame's quarterbacks won't be better this fall than last. More touchdown passes, fewer picks, more yards, better completion percentage, and far more of an impact as runners, obviously.

As Marcus mentioned, the running backs should be vastly improved, and I'd add the safeties, cornerbacks, and wide receivers to the improvement mix -- too many mental errors and collective inexperience held back the latter in 2013.

4.) Brian Kelly is entering his fifth season. Can you compare the five best players he recruited to the five best Charlie Weis recruited? It's not close, and I understand Kelly's a better coach than Weis, but why isn't there more top-notch talent in South Bend? -- Andew, McDonough, GA

I'll answer as asked, and only rate by their recruiting prowess, not the development of said players, because most of Weis' best guys developed primarily under Kelly.

Weis' five best college players recruited: Manti Te'o, Golden Tate, Tyler Eifert, Zack Martin, Michael Floyd. Kyle Rudolph and TJ Jones get my nod for honorable mention.

Kelly has too many players yet to complete their careers to compete on this list. (Remember, Rudolph, Te'o, Martin, and Eifert would not have qualified for this list after Weis' fifth season, either.)

But Kelly's best are likely Stephon Tuitt, Jaylon Smith, and Aaron Lynch, who would have been a no-brainer on this list had he remained in South Bend. Also Troy Niklas was well on his way before departing for the NFL. You can then argue any from this grouping will join after 2014: KeiVarae Russell, Everett Golson, DaVaris Daniels, Sheldon Day, and Ronnie Stanley, and thereafter the 2013 recruiting class will make a strong collective pitch, especially the RBs.

The fact is, too many Kelly players have yet to write their full stories for this comparison to be relevant.

I have a better question: Who are the best players that developed under Kelly (or Weis, if you want to include former coaches)?

That deserves its own column...


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