For most upper-echelon FBS programs, a stretch of four consecutive seasons of 10 or more wins with a pair of College Football Playoff appearances in that span would represent nothing short of an outstanding — and likely record-setting — accomplishment worthy of unfettered praise.
But for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, that stretch has likewise included two CFP semifinal losses of 27 and 17 points, to Clemson and Alabama, respectively. Additionally, the departure of defensive coordinator Clark Lea — a semifinalist for the 2020 Broyles Award, presented annually to the best assistant coach in college football — seemingly leaves an insurmountable void among Notre Dame's coaching staff.
And yet, there are still plenty of reasons for the Fighting Irish — and Notre Dame's vast fan base — to be incredibly excited about the coming 2021 season. Here are three of the top drivers for confidence about Notre Dame's upcoming campaign.
1. Marcus Freeman
There's no denying that Lea possesses one of the top minds among all college football coaches. But Notre Dame's hiring of Freeman to succeed the new Vanderbilt head coach points to its willingness to aim high in its pursuit of one of the rising stars of the coaching world, and its ability to bring such a strong candidate to northern Indiana.
Freeman joins Notre Dame — whom he picked over LSU — fresh off a campaign in which his Cincinnati defense finished third in the FBS in interceptions (16), eighth in scoring defense (16.8 points allowed per game), 10th in total takeaways (21) and 14th in rushing defense (111.1 yards rushing allowed per game). Among teams who played at least 10 games in the 2020 season, Freeman's Bearcats posted the fourth-best scoring defense and eighth-best rushing and total defenses.
Freeman joined Lea among the 15 semifinalists for the Broyles Award, but the former moved one additional tier forward as one of just five finalists for the prestigious prize. Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell — whose connection with Freeman goes back to Freeman's playing career at Ohio State when Fickell was an assistant in Columbus — highlighted Freeman's recruiting prowess when he hired Freeman to join his Cincinnati staff in 2017.
According to 247Sports, the Bearcats have posted the top recruiting class in the AAC in each of the last two cycles, and three classes ranked in the top 50 nationally in the last four cycles after notching just one in the 10 previous cycles. Freeman's talent for attracting high-end talent was a key focus in Kelly's praise of his new defensive coordinator, and with Freeman's immediate impact on recruiting upon his arrival at Notre Dame, it's easy to see why so many are eager to for the future of Notre Dame's defense under Freeman.
2. Talent development on offense
The defense isn't the only side of the ball to be excited about in 2021. Notre Dame's offense returns its top two rushers and three of its top five pass catchers from a season ago, all but one from that group possessing a full complement of eligibility remaining (2020 did not count in that respect). The duo of Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree in the backfield, plus Michael Mayer and Avery Davis over the middle, present a versatile and uber-talented returning combination next season.
Mayer excelled as a true freshman to finish second on the team in receiving, and Williams eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark on the ground as a redshirt freshman. While the group — aside from Davis — may be on the inexperienced side, their continued development is one to monitor closely. Williams, Tyree, and Mayer should be even better after exploding onto the scene this past season, and they'll in all likelihood provide a dynamic pass-catching unit in 2021.
And don't forget about Mayer's fellow classmates in wide receiver Jordan Johnson and tight end Kevin Bauman. Johnson — a 5-star recruit and the No. 1 player from Missouri in his class, according to both Rivals and 247Sports — and Bauman, a consensus 4-star recruit and the No. 2 player from New Jersey per Rivals, add even more playmaking ability to a surging group. Their growth, plus any contribution from oft-injured speed threat Kevin Austin Jr., who has mustered just six catches in 14 games, would represent a major win for Notre Dame in 2021 and beyond.
3. New year, better Rees
Much of that growth on offense — both of the aforementioned returning contributors and of the incoming freshman class, which includes quarterback Tyler Buchner, wide receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr. and offensive linemen Blake Fisher and Rocco Spindler — will ultimately hinge on a similar continued upward trajectory of offensive coordinator Tommy Rees.
After three seasons as Notre Dame's quarterbacks coach, one of the most decorated signal-callers in program history enters his second season as Kelly's offensive coordinator — while also maintaining his role as quarterbacks coach — in 2021. In that time, he has displayed a wealth of knowledge both in bringing talent to Notre Dame and in developing that personnel during their time on campus.
As part of his transition, he has shown a knack for putting together high-quality game plans, tailoring his schemes to utilize the talent available. This will be put to the test again with Rees needing to identify and groom a replacement for Ian Book, the winningest quarterback in the program's long and illustrious history. Jack Coan, a transfer from Wisconsin, could be that guy but he hasn't played in a game since 2019.
But Rees has shown a deft touch in setting up his unit to succeed, guiding Notre Dame to top-30 finishes nationally in time of possession and rushing, total, and scoring offenses. While he and the offense fell short of expectations in the ACC Championship Game and the Rose Bowl this past season, Rees has an opportunity to learn from these setbacks in order to continue his progression and maintain Notre Dame's status among the top teams in college football.
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Kyren Williams photo courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics)