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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

September 10, 2020

A Monday Brian Kelly press conference, a depth chart, and player interviews for the first time in over 250 days. At times it didn’t seem like we’d ever get here, but we made it.

It’s game week, baby! Almost game day! Yes, I used baby like George Costanza would. I’m that excited about football.

It was nearly impossible to get excited about football a couple of monhts ago. Now I can barely sleep in anticipation of watching a full college football Saturday.

There has to be a lingering feeling for everyone of simply being happy that we have football, regardless of Notre Dame’s record this fall. But let’s be honest, that will go away for many on the first three-and-out of the season with fans questioning a Tommy Rees’ play-call or the first sack by the Irish defensive line that makes someone jump out of their seat.

With all of the other stuff going on in the world and the cloud of Covid-19 hanging over the season, which has already led to postponements for a handful of games, you can be forgiven if you forget that Notre Dame is going to have a really good football team this season. Coming off the best three year stretch for the program since the early ‘90s, this is a roster with veterans poised for big years and young talent ready to explode onto the scene. This may not be normal circumstances, but that shouldn’t take away from the potential for this to be another great year for Brian Kelly’s program.

Things set up well for Notre Dame in 2020. Really well. As ESPN’s Bill Connelly pointed out in this piece ($), the Irish are favored by at least 9.8 points in nine of their 11 games according to SP+. If we’re looking at the last three years as a guideline, they are 22-0 straight up in games where they were favored by 10 points or more.

It’s pretty easy to predict that nine wins should almost be a given and 10 wins very likely.

The game against Clemson looms large as one where they will be an underdog (for obvious reasons). No one will be picking them to win that game, at least not before the season happens, but things are set up for them to have a shot at running the table if they can finally take down a Goliath at the same level of Clemson.

They haven’t done that since Florida State in 1993. They came close in 2000 against number one ranked Nebraska. They came close again against USC in 2005. They were within one point of Georgia in 2017. Those games were all at home, where this game against Clemson will be played. So if there is going to be some Notre Dame magic, minus a regular crowd, this would be a year it could happen.

Notre Dame may get two chances to make it happen, once in November and then again in a conference championship game. Things are set up for them to have a season where they should be favored in every game minus one. And that one they won’t be favored to win, they may get a chance to beat that team a second time. That doesn’t happen very often.

 It’s a unique scenario in a unique season, but it’s not going to be unique for Notre Dame to have a chance at 10 wins again. If they win more than that, then this season could truly be special for them.

2. I don’t think what we saw from Southern Mississippi and their head coaching situation is going to be the norm for this season in college football. In fact, I would bet there will be far less coaching changes than what we see in a typical year.

One reason is that given the issues some programs will have with players opting out or missing significant time, it would be really difficult to fire a coach whose team was hit hard by Covid-19. The difficulty of coaching in this type of year has to be taken into account by athletic directors and others influencing coaching decisions.

But the biggest reason why I don’t see a lot of head coaching changes happening has to do with money.

Athletic departments are being hit hard by what’s going on right now. Universities in general are taking major financial hits. Donors who would typically give seven or eight figure donations are also having to deal with economic issues with their businesses. All of that won’t make it easy to buy out coaches who have multiple years left on their contract.

Normally I would have said that Clark Lea was set up to be hired as a head coach somewhere after this season. He almost was this year. Now? I’m not so sure because there are going to be less openings and there might not be the right openings.

I think most fans assumed Lea would not be around in 2021. I believe the chances of him sticking around are much higher now than I would have said back in March.

3. There were a couple of surprises when Notre Dame released their first depth chart of the season. The biggest might have been freshman Clarence Lewis being listed as “OR” with TaRiq Bracy as a starting cornerback.

Kelly’s answer when asked about Lewis definitely clarified why Lewis is in the position he is in right now:

"The cornerback position requires not only athleticism, but an ability to make plays when the ball is in the air, a savvy sense and the ability to tackle. He brought all those."
"Certainly, we could talk about the coaching as well. Mike Mickens has done a really good job of bringing him along, but a lot of that is Clarence has some innate ability at the position that was able to translate itself early on in his time here.
"Comparisons are easy to make and sometimes they get taken and we run too fast and too far with them. We started another young man as a true freshman and his name was KeiVarae Russell. I don't know if Clarence has the same athletic ability in terms of raw athletic ability. KeiVarae was really a gifted athlete.
"Clarence has clearly demonstrated as a true freshman we could put him on the field at the same level or possibly even higher than the level that KeiVarae had to play as a true freshman. We did pretty good that year."

That’s very high praise. The Russell comparison might not have been what some expected, but it didn’t stop me in my tracks hearing about his ability to make plays on the ball, his savvy sense or his ability to tackle. It fits everything he showed as a prospect.

Making plays on the ball really is what separates good from average corners. It’s what made Julian Love so exceptional at Notre Dame.

The Irish don’t need average corner play. They need playmakers. With Love, they were making plays at the position. In 2017 and 2018 they averaged 44.5 Havoc plays from the position. That number dropped to 24 last season. They need to get closer to those 2017 and 2018 numbers.

We’ll see if a young player like Lewis can help them get there.

4. It wasn’t shocking that Shaun Crawford won the starting job beside Kyle Hamilton at safety. ISD’s Matt Freeman reported that things were trending this way last week and his versatility has been written about a lot on ISD as one of his biggest assets. He’s been mentioned as a contender to play safety numerous times.

Here’s something from a piece I wrote on the defense back in July:

A healthy Crawford gives Lea, Mike Mickens, and Terry Joseph options in the secondary. If Notre Dame elects to play three safeties at one time, Crawford can fill that role. He’s a heck of a blitzer and an intelligent player as a slot corner in sub-packages. He might just be the best field corner on the team as well.

That highlights how him being listed as a safety could mean one thing in base packages and another when Notre Dame goes to Dime. It also brings up the question of who might be the next defensive back in Dime.

Will Crawford be the nickel and line up as a slot corner? If Hamilton is being moved around and playing more of the Alohi Gilman role in Dime, does that mean they need Crawford to play deep? Will it be a safety or a corner who comes into the game when they add an extra defensive back and who might that player be?

The depth chart doesn’t give us those answers. We should have them this Saturday on 3rd downs against Duke.

I’m excited to find out what the personnel looks like in those situations.

5. I think it has to be a bit of a concern that Braden Lenzy, after a breakout last ⅓ of 2019, is listed as the second team “X” receiver. It doesn’t really fit with the expectations I or most had for him in 2020.

We weren’t at practice and I haven’t heard enough about it to say why Lenzy is not a starter. I do know that Notre Dame needs explosive plays from the wide receiver position and Lenzy was supposed to be one of the guys to provide that.

The good news is that he has proven he doesn’t need many touches to make an impact. It’s not good news that he didn’t earn that job in camp given what he showed at the end of last season.

The depth chart for game one isn’t set in stone and he certainly proved that being out of the mix early in the year doesn’t mean you can't be a factor as the season goes on. Hopefully that is the case again with him because Notre Dame is going to need his speed as a deep threat and runner.

6. Duke was one of the least explosive teams in the country on offense last season. They only had 14 plays of 30 yards or more last season (tied for 124th in the country). They desperately need to improve that in order to get back to being a bowl team and David Cutcliffe knows it.

They aren’t going to have a chance to beat the Irish if they play safe. They need to attack on offense and defense.

From Cutcliffe’s press conference earlier this week:

I think we've got to be aggressive on both sides of the ball. We can't be afraid. We can't play on our heels. I thought we got on our heels a little bit on both sides of the ball a year ago. They're talented. They are outstanding. And as I said, well-coached. So, I think you have to match that with an aggressiveness nature that you're going to compete at the highest level.

I read that and know that with him calling the plays, it likely means they aren’t going to settle on that short passing game that did nothing for them last year. 3.6 yards per attempt from your starting quarterback isn’t going to cut it, even if part of that had to do with getting the ball out quickly to help nullify Notre Dame’s pass rush.

It sounds like they are going to take more downfield shots this year, which means their line will have to protect longer. I get why they would do that, but I don’t think that’s going to be a good thing against Notre Dame’s pass rush.

I think the Irish defensive line is going to have a big game with plenty of pressure put on quarterback Chase Brice. I love knowing that there will be football for me to breakdown this weekend and I love that I will get to watch what I believe will be a very good Notre Dame pass rush.

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