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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

October 8, 2020

I know everyone can’t wait to watch Notre Dame football this Saturday after a three week break. A matchup against Florida State might not be what it was six years ago, but it wouldn’t matter much who the Irish are playing. Most of us just want to watch football again.

We’ll all have eyes on the Notre Dame game at 7:30 EST on Saturday night, but I’m just as interested in another game going on at that time. Miami is playing Clemson in a battle of the top teams, so far, in the ACC.

This is going to be one of those annoying “Is Miami back?” games that get mentioned 100 times before and after the game. Everyone already knows the answer to that question. Miami isn’t back because to be back to where they were, they’d have to be included with the elite of college football. Even an upset over Clemson wouldn’t mean that the Hurricanes are going to be national championship contenders.

Outside of that narrative, there are a lot of things that can be learned from this game that could be important from a Notre Dame perspective. Maybe the most important thing to watch for is if Miami’s offensive line can block Clemson’s front four.

I’ve been shocked at the transformation for Miami. Their line was flat out brutal last season and hasn’t been consistently good in a long time. The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman did a great job highlighting the impact new O-line coach Garin Justice has made for them ($). If they can protect quarterback D’Eriq King against Clemson’s front, I’ll feel a lot better about Notre Dame holding up in pass protection against the Tigers.

On the other side of the ball, Miami’s front has looked great against inferior O-lines this season. How will Clemson’s do against the best pass rush they will have faced so far? Can the rush make Trevor Lawrence look mortal? He’s only played that way once in his career and that was against LSU in the national championship game.

He’s still breaking in some new receivers as well who have shown some flashes, but don’t look like Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins just yet.

The main question any Notre Dame fan will want to know after this game is how beatable is Clemson? Where are they vulnerable? Are they vulnerable?

Dabo Swinney’s teams have lost only two regular season games since 2015 so it wouldn’t be a smart move to pick against them. But if Miami is good enough to show where Clemson might have some issues to fix this season, it could end up teaching Notre Dame’s staff a lot about what they’ll need to do in order to beat Clemson in November.

2. Barton Simmons and Bud Elliott had a conversation on their podcast earlier in the week about the trend in college football of needing “dudes” at receiver to win a championship. It’s impossible to argue against what they were saying when you look at who’s won in recent years.

Every single national champion has had at least one “dude” at receiver since 2014. All of them had at least one future first or second round pick and every one of those teams had multiple NFL Draft picks on the outside. Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, and LSU were loaded at several positions, but it’s undeniable the impact that having players who could make big plays in the passing game had on their teams.

When thinking of that, it should make the lack of receiver production in the first two games concerning when it comes to beating the top tier teams in college football. Notre Dame doesn’t need to have elite production from their receivers to be the second best team in the ACC. They will need it if they want to beat Clemson and have a shot at making the College Football Playoff.

It also makes it clear the importance of having a healthy Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy. No one would be projecting them to be taken in the top two rounds of the NFL Draft today, but they certainly have NFL potential and could get there.

Lenzy has dynamic speed. Austin in my opinion can be the best receiver on the team at winning contested catches and also be a beast after the catch. When their time comes, we could very well be talking about them as day one or two NFL Draft picks.

There is pressure on those two in particular to play a big role in boosting the passing game for Notre Dame. When you look at the other older players on the roster, there aren’t any players that would be considered as next level talents as of this moment. So if Notre Dame wants to beat the big boys this year, Austin and Lenzy have to make the leap.

3. Why does it have to be those two? As always, it comes back to recruiting.

That 2017 class has no receivers still playing receiver at Notre Dame. Michael Young has transferred and Jafar Armstrong is a backup running back. The 2018 class had Austin and Lenzy, but also Lawrence Keys, Joe Wilkins Jr., and Micah Jones.

At best, Jones could be a Javon McKinley type who helps out as a blocker later in his career. That does not seem likely. Keys and Wilkins can and have been contributors to an extent. Can they be more than that? We’ll find out as the season progresses.

The 2019 class only had two receivers and both of them have been working at other positions. Cam Hart moved to corner last season and Brian Kelly mentioned that Kendall Abdur-Rahman was taking reps in the backfield in the summer.

All of that leaves a lot of pressure on the ‘18 group of receivers to produce this season. Only so much can be expected of what looks like a good freshman class of Jordan Johnson, Jay Brunelle, and Xavier Watts.

It’s extremely difficult to contend for a championship if a program misses in two out of three recruiting cycles at receiver. If that happens and you have Austin, Lenzy, and Keys miss games early in the year, it makes a lot more sense why there weren't a lot of plays being made by receivers.

4. The good news is that Notre Dame looks like they have set themselves up well going forward after getting Deion Colzie‍ back in the current class and adding Jayden Thomas‍ as well. Those combined with Lorenzo Styles Jr.‍ after landing Johnson, Watts, and Brunelle is a group of six that has a very high ceiling.

I do think the biggest priority for the staff in finishing this recruiting class is to add one or two more receivers. The two they are still actively recruiting, Donte Thornton Jr.‍ or Titus Mokiao-Atimalala‍, would both be huge.

Mokiao-Atimalala has position versatility and could be an outstanding safety, but no one should question his traits as a receiver. He has great lateral agility after the catch and has big time ball skills. Thornton is a similar prospect to Colzie, but he creates more separation and shows more ability to break free from defenders in the open field. He checks all the boxes as an elite prospect.

There’s a chance Thomas could end up playing on defense and that makes it even more important to land one or both of the two prospects mentioned.

5. The three most important things I watch for when evaluating receiver recruits: ability to win contested catches, speed, and ability to win after the catch. Other stuff matters too, but those are at the top for me.

Thornton and Mokiao-Atimalala have shown exciting flashes after the catch, which is why it would be great to add them both.

Chase Claypool was a very good receiver after the catch for Notre Dame, but it’s been awhile since Notre Dame had a great one. We’d have to go back to 2014 and CJ Prosise, which is one of the main reasons why he moved to running back.

According to PFF, Prosise averaged 9.4 YAC in 2014. That’s right up there with what YAC monster Deebo Samuel did at South Carolina in his final season in college. He averaged 9.5.

Samuel forced 21 missed tackles on 62 catches. Prosise forced 14 on only 29 catches.

I’m sure Notre Dame would love to sign a Prosise type of player in each class, but 220-pound studs who run a 4.48 40 don’t fall off trees. I think that’s what they were hoping for from Jafar Armstrong. He hasn’t been that guy for them even if he fits the physical profile.

The Irish need more receivers who can create YAC so they should try to sign as many as possible who can fill that need for them.

6. I know there were a lot of people who were confused by Jack Kiser not being included on the depth chart at Buck this week. I wouldn’t get too worked up about it. Listed there or not, Kiser earned a chance to play after his performance against South Florida and should be in the mix.

I think there are a lot of people who believe Kiser should be the starter after that game and maybe that will be how it ends up. I don’t think either Shayne Simon or Marist Liufau should lose their opportunity to play, though. At least not without getting at least one more game to prove themselves.

It’s not about what they might have done in camp that has earned them playing time. It’s about not losing playing time based on getting Covid-19 or having to sit out because of contact tracing (we don’t know the specifics with them whether it was one or the other).

Losing a starting job because of an injury isn’t the same as this in my opinion. This is something that most likely was out of Simon’s and Liufau’s control. They don’t deserve to be punished for that.

If everyone is healthy in this game and Kiser plays like he did and the other two aren’t making an impact, then they should go ahead and make the move. Simon and Liufau at least deserve the chance to compete with Kiser before a change is made. After FSU, things can be re-evaluated.

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