As we approach the midway point of our summer First-Rate series following the completion of the offensive analysis (quarterbacks, running backs, receivers/tight ends and offensive line), mark me down as confused or uncertain or unsure or…hell, I’m not sure what’s going to happen with Notre Dame this fall against this schedule.
This generally is the time of year that we look at the Notre Dame slate and say, “That’s very challenging,” or “That’s a 10-win schedule.”
As confused and misguided as I can be in picking Notre Dame games – although 10-2 was the prediction a year ago in the pre-season – I get more and more uncertain as we get into the position-by-position breakdown of Notre Dame and its 12 opponents.
There is a tendency among Irish fans this time of the year to pencil in victories where victories are not assured by any means. There’s a Notre Dame fanatic gene that prompts some to dismiss Virginia, Temple and Boston College on the road in ’15, North Carolina, Northwestern and Louisville at home in ’14, Purdue and Pittsburgh on the road in ’13, Purdue, BYU and Pittsburgh at home in ’12, South Florida and Boston College at home, and Wake Forest on the road in ’11, Tulsa at home and Navy on the road in 2010…There are more that fit the criteria.
For the record, of the above-mentioned games, the Irish won 10 and lost six. The six that were lost – Northwestern and Louisville in ’14, Pittsburgh in ’13, South Florida in ’11, and Tulsa and Navy in ’10, were unexpected (although injuries played a significant role in the November losses to Northwestern and Louisville in ’14).
The 10 above-mentioned victories were by a combined 46 points with no winning margin greater than seven points, including three- and seven-point wins over Purdue, a triple-overtime home victory over Pittsburgh (that required a missed chip-shot field goal and an ignored duplicate number fiasco), a three-point win in Fenway Park over a three-win Boston College team, and a two-point win over the Eagles in Notre Dame Stadium.
There are three things we’ve learned about the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame, which moves into Year No. 7:
• He’s a very good football coach. It’s a very good thing Notre Dame signed him through the 2021 season. He’s averaged nine victories a season and has not won less than eight in a year. He wins most of the games his teams should win. He runs a professional, smooth-functioning program. He’s good for Notre Dame and Jack Swarbrick made a good choice when he hired him.
• When Kelly doesn’t have one of his better teams, he loses four or five times. He’s averaged nine victories per season with the Irish, but he’s won eight games three out of six years, and nine in another season when he benefitted from playing a .500 Rutgers team in a bowl game.
• Kelly’s teams have frequent scares even when he’s winning 10 and 12 games in a season.
The playing field today is more level than it’s ever been. The haves – Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State, Clemson, Stanford, Michigan State, et al – are double-digit-winning machines. The rest of the better programs are in that eight- and nine-victory range, which means four or five losses in a season.
Because the Notre Dame defense is so far from proving itself on a weekly basis, this looks more like an eight- or nine-victory team, regardless of schedule. The caveat is that the offense could be good enough to make this a nine- or 10-victory season, particularly if Brian VanGorder’s defense begins to make strides.
And then there’s the schedule. It’s easy to dismiss several of Notre Dame’s 2016 opponents. But as Notre Dame continues to navigate its way through a schedule littered with ACC teams – still a relatively new proposition and one that is subsequently difficult to gauge – teams like Duke, Miami and Virginia Tech at home, and N.C. State on the road, are more head-scratchers than automatic notches in the win column.
Duke lost its quarterback to injury in February, and that’s going to be a limiting factor for the Blue Devils. But you cannot offhandedly dismiss a David Cutcliffe-coached team that has won 27 games the last three seasons. (Note: Duke is 13-3 on the road the last three seasons, including wins over Virginia Tech twice, North Carolina, and 11-win Georgia Tech in 2014.)
N.C. State has spun its wheels under Dave Doeren, losing 11 times the last two years. But if Virginia could give the Irish a scare in a venue the program has never played, so, too, can the Wolfpack in Carter-Finley Stadium (although N.C. State doesn’t have much of a home-field advantage). The Wolfpack, incidentally, just may have the best defensive front among all of Notre Dame’s 2016 opponents.
Miami and Virginia Tech – a combined 15-11 in 2015 – don’t strike much fear in the hearts of Irish fans. But factor in new head coaches Mark Richt and Justin Fuente, as well as Hurricane quarterback Brad Kaaya. Teams like this give Kelly’s Irish a scare in Notre Dame Stadium all the time.
Even Michigan State and Stanford are being taken for granted to some extent because a) both games are in Notre Dame Stadium, b) both teams are replacing a long-time starting quarterback, and c) only 10 and 11 starters respectively return. Yet the Cardinal has won 54 games the last five seasons while the Spartans have triumphed 36 times in three seasons.
No one can assume victories over those two programs.
Can’t you see a Brian Polian-coached Nevada team giving the Irish a run the week after Notre Dame opens the season in Austin, Texas? The Wolf Pack have one of the best and most experienced offensive lines returning among teams on the Irish slate.
And speaking of the Longhorns, do you think winning in the house that Darrell Royal built is a sure thing? At least one pre-season magazine – a magazine with a quality track record in these types of projections – has Texas as the most improved team in the country in ’16.
Chaos has reigned at USC for the last few years, but the Trojans still have the most talent of anyone on Notre Dame’s schedule and more stability.
Now, not all or even a majority of those games will go against Kelly and the Irish. Notre Dame’s talent and depth are as good as they have been at any point since the NFL draft choices on the 2012 defense.
Kelly is, after all, an eight-to-nine-victory coach at worst at Notre Dame. He’ll reach that total again in ’16, even if the defense struggles. This looks like another 30-to-35 points-per-game offense, and that will be enough to win eight or nine games.
But Notre Dame’s defense is just unpredictable enough, as is its schedule, to zero in on what’s going to happen in ’16. This looks like a season of twists and turns, and one of the more interesting and unpredictable that we’ve seen from a pre-season perspective.
It was quite a shock last Thursday when 6-foot-1 Notre Dame junior point guard Demetrius Jackson not only slid out of the NBA lottery picks – which had been expected leading up to the draft -- but past the first round completely, past likely suitors Houston and Milwaukee early in the second round, and plummeting to the 15th pick of the second round (45th overall) to the Boston Celtics.
Why the fall-off-the-mountain drop? The easiest explanation is size. Ten guards measuring 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-7 went in the first round. Fifteen guards were drafted ahead of Jackson, 14 of which were 6-foot-3 or taller.
The NBA, as it pertains to guards/length, has become a mathematical equation. There is this much space to cover. Do we cover that space with a 6-foot-5 wingspan or do we cover it with a 6-foot-11 wingspan? The latter can navigate the square footage of a basketball court better than the former.
But it had to be more than just Jackson’s size.
He was an inconsistent shooter during his third and final year with the Irish. Point guards don’t need to be as accurate as shooting guards in the NBA, but now add Jackson’s 33.1 percent three-point shooting to his size disadvantage.
If he shot 33.1 percent from beyond the college arc, how is he going to shoot from a distance a foot and three inches longer against opposing guards with greater size/length? Even two-point jumpers against the NBA’s backcourt length will be difficult.
Jackson was a fairly inconsistent player after he sustained a hamstring injury in the Jan. 23 home game versus Boston College. His shooting took a significant dip over the next month plus.
Some NBA scouts questioned Jackson’s ability to beat people off the dribble. His ability to do so was never quite commensurate to his athleticism. Some questioned his one-on-one defending ability, whether it was against guards of comparable size or those longer and capable of beating Jackson to the bucket with the added length.
Mike Brey said the shortcoming was a function of all that was asked of Jackson. The NBA generally doesn’t ascribe to those theories.
Another infiltration of foreign draft candidates pushed back some of those guards picked ahead of Jackson. But most of the foreign players drafted were big men. That doesn’t explain the 15 guards drafted ahead of Jackson.
Mike Brey said Jackson knocked the NBA scouts off their feet at the combine with his athleticism and his maturity in interview sessions. Not a surprise. But it wasn’t enough to influence several organizations with point-guard needs to overlook his perceived shortcomings.
Jackson went from certain NBA player to a prospect without a guaranteed contract with an organization loaded with guards, including the Celtics’ top two in playing time in 2015-16 – point guards Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley.
If there is anyone who will overcome the odds of landing a spot and sticking in the NBA despite some obvious NBA-level limitations, it’s Jackson. No one will out-work him. No one will be a better listener or more coachable than Jackson. He’ll give his best effort to fit the role required of him.
The Celtics’ Brad Stevens recruited Jackson when Stevens was coaching in national championship games at Butler. Jackson should have every opportunity to land a spot on the Boston roster, although second-round picks thriving in the NBA are few and far between.
At the very least, one must say that Jackson and his camp miscalculated. If someone had told Jackson before the draft that he would be the 15th pick of the second round, would he have come out anyway? Almost undoubtedly not, and if you hear to the contrary, you’re drinking the Kool-Aid disseminated by the Notre Dame publicity department.
While Notre Dame and Team Jackson painted a pretty picture of his opportunity with the Celtics, the slide was nothing short of disastrous.
Imagine Jackson leading the Irish to another Sweet 16 or Elite Eight in 2016-17. That added notation on the resume could have stamped Jackson indelibly as a winner, although it wouldn’t have done anything for his height.
Now, he’ll fight an uphill battle against more obstacles than anyone could have imagined as Notre Dame turns over the keys of its offense to Matt Farrell and freshman T.J. Gibbs with an ample backcourt of players sharing the wealth.
Quite honestly, Notre Dame’s backcourt will be deeper and more well-rounded with the passing of this baton.
PEANUTS TASTE GOOD
ESPN’s Will Cain – a new combatant for Stephen A. Smith on “First Take” this past week – engaged in debate over the NBA trade between the Knicks and the Bulls. The Bulls shipped Derrick Rose to New York for Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon and former Notre Dame combo guard Jerian Grant.
(Memo to the media: you don’t, repeat, don’t pronounce the i in Grant’s first name. It’s JARE-en.)
Cain, a pretty spunky counterpart to Smith, who argued vigorously against Phil Jackson’s trade, said that the Knicks traded “Robin Lopez and a bag of peanuts” for Rose.
Grant is no bag of peanuts. At 6-foot-4 – an inch or two less than his listed height when he played with the Irish – Grant is a point guard who can penetrate and distribute as well as most young backcourt players in the league. He struggled with the Knicks and didn’t see much playing time until late in the season when he averaged 14.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists in the final six games.
From extra distance beyond the three-point arc, Grant made just 22-of-100 attempts, which is precisely why he has to be a point guard in the NBA. Successful off-the-dribble jump shots converted during his brilliant fifth-year senior season with the Irish were not his forte.
But a bag of peanuts? Sure, it’s sportswriter hyperbole, and not one that should be vigorously disavowed. But let’s just see how Grant performs with consistent minutes in Chicago.
This is a player who has a unique feel for the game and a special ability to make the players around him better.
ENDS AND ODDS
• Is there a more overrated, meaningless “pre-season award” than a college football player’s name on a “Watch List”? I don’t tweet as much as most, but I guarantee you, one of my tweets as we head further into the summer months will not be Notre Dame players on a “prestigious” Watch List.
• Phil Steele’s College Football Preview has revolutionized the industry as it pertains to the media’s preparation for the upcoming season. If I were to make a shameless pitch for any magazine, it would be for Athlon Sports as its Notre Dame correspondent. My recommendation: buy both.
• A college football sportswriter’s lament: Never count down the days to the first game of the season. Wishing away the summer months is like wishing away ice cream. Don’t worry, it will still taste good.