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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

October 22, 2020

It was a good day for the defense last Saturday against Louisville. That defense was led by Ade Ogundeji up front (three pressures) and they got great performances from Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Drew White (a combined three tackles for loss) at linebacker.

They are three key players for Notre Dame this season and they all have something in common: they didn’t make a major contribution on the team until their third year in the program.

It doesn’t always happen that way with others like Kyle Hamilton making an instant impact, but players like him are unique to most football teams. It usually takes a year or two of development for a player to emerge and that’s pretty typical for many of the key pieces on the teams that won 33 games the previous three seasons.

One thing is becoming very clear. If a player doesn’t make the leap as a contributor by year three, it’s probably never going to happen. That’s just the way it is with the next recruiting cycle ready to move ahead of any players on the depth chart who aren’t keeping pace.

Freshman stars like Hamilton may be rare, but others late-bloomers are also infrequent. There are not many Asmar Bilal types who breakout in their final year, which is why it wasn’t that surprising that Jordan Genmark Heath didn’t win the starting Buck job and ended up transferring. He was set up to be right there with Bilal in 2019, but he was passed by Shayne Simon and Jack Lamb in JGH’s third year. Ironically, Lamb has been bumped back down the depth chart in his third year and though Simon has played a lot this season, his playing time feels like it’s anything but secure. It’s year three for them and they are supposed to be taking that next step. We haven’t seen it yet and it’s looking less likely we will.

There are 15 players from the 2018 recruiting class who are currently listed in the two-deep for Notre Dame. Some are already established or are starting to make an impact (JOK, White, Tommy Tremble, TaRiq Bracy, Bo Bauer, Jarrett Patterson). Many of them are still trying to break through (Houston Griffith, DJ Brown, Ovie Oghoufo, Kevin Austin, Lawrence Keys, Simon, etc).

It’s the latter group that are important to see how much better Notre Dame can be this season, but also important to see how good the Irish can be in 2021. Because if a handful of them don’t show they are on the verge of doing more in year three, the odds of them developing into quality starters and/or NFL prospects isn’t very likely.

I know that people are excited about a lot of the talent on this 2020 Notre Dame team, but after four games, we have a pretty good idea about the guys who are the difference-makers. We don’t know as much about the guys who haven’t balled out yet.

It’s those guys who will be critical over the next few weeks. If a handful of them start to make significant strides on the field, then it changes the ceiling of not just this team, but next year’s as well.

2. One reason why I think we might see some of those guys improve more during the season than we would in a regular year is that none of these players had the benefit of a spring or a normal fall camp.

That hurts them a lot, especially because this would have been the first year for most of them to compete for starting jobs. The off-season isn’t just about refining technique and getting bigger and stronger. For a lot of younger players it’s about building confidence. Even many of the older players are able to use the off-season as a time to build confidence.

Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool are two perfect examples of that. Both of those guys dominated in spring and fall camp.

None of the players got as much of a chance to show they could do that before they got to the season and sometimes what they need more than anything is to make a play in practice just to show themselves they can do it. They can build up their confidence and also gain the confidence of the coaches during that time. Instead, they are having to do it now in games and in a season where they were already forced to stop and restart.

It’s not fair, but it’s reality. Hopefully finally playing and practicing three weeks in a row will help.

3. Everyone watching has more questions than answers right now at receiver for Notre Dame, but there seems to be this outrage over Notre Dame not playing freshman wide receivers. The assumption is that if the Irish signed talented players, they have to be better than the guys that the coaches are putting out there, right?

So if that’s what so many are assuming, then why is that only at receiver? Why is the staff playing Michael Mayer and Chris Tyree so much? They don’t seem to be scared of playing freshmen who earn it. They weren’t with Kyle Hamilton last year or Robert Hainsey in 2017.

With Mayer and Tyree both having big roles in the offense, why is this just a receiver issue? If anything, Mayer has a much more difficult learning curve with his role as a blocker as well as receiver and it only seems like he’s going to play more snaps and see more targets as the season progresses.

I get that people are frustrated by the lack of production at receiver, but this idea that all of these freshman receivers play everywhere except Notre Dame is false.

15 receivers who were ranked in the top-30 at the position play for teams that have started their season. They have combined for two touchdowns so far. Seven of them have not recorded a single catch.

4. I really appreciate Jahmir Smith being so honest about his mental health. Even though more people are doing it now than ever before, it’s still not something that young men are usually comfortable talking about. I hope he knows that him sharing why he is stepping away from football is probably going to help someone else share that they might be struggling too.

And that person may really need some help. Smith sharing not only shows courage, but it also may have an impact on someone else opening up.

I wanted to get that out of the way before I go right into the football side of things. If Smith is no longer going to play at Notre Dame, that leaves one less running back on the depth chart for next season and I think it’s fair to say that Jafar Armstrong could be looking to play a fifth year somewhere else when considering his playing time these last couple of games.

That would leave Notre Dame with only three returning backs on the roster plus Logan Diggs, who is committed in the 2021 cycle. Even if Kendall Abdur-Rahman is moved to running back permanently, it would make sense to look at adding another back in this cycle or signing two in 2022 if they end up with just Diggs.

Much like how Notre Dame has to be planning ahead at linebacker with so many bodies and not enough playing time, the same has to be said about running back.

5. I think I’m more excited about the Pitt game than any other in recent memory where the opponent was unranked. It’s because even though Pitt is a 3-3 team and extremely flawed on offense, they have the talent and play a style on defense that matches up with Notre Dame’s strengths.

Notre Dame looks like they have one of the top offensive lines in the country. Pitt looks like they have one of the best defensive lines in the country. Notre Dame has controlled the game running the ball (fifth in yards per carry) and Pitt has been elite at stopping the run (second in yards per carry against FBS competition).

This really should be a great test for the Notre Dame offense before they face Clemson. If they can’t run against Pitt, you can bet the farm they aren’t having success running against Clemson. But if Notre Dame does run the ball well, it at least gives hope they can move the ball that way when they face the Tigers.

It’s likely that the Irish will have to produce some explosive plays through the air against Pitt. That’s something that they haven’t done much of (only three completions over 30 yards so far), but will need to be much better at.

This is an opportunity to see if Notre Dame can get more after the catch from players (the only receiver or tight end to have more than 30 yards after the catch on the season is Mayer). It’s also an opportunity to try and hit the deep ball. Ian Book is only averaging three passes of 20 yards or more per game and it’s tough to create explosive plays down the field if that number doesn’t go up.

It will have to be against Pitt. Last week the wind played a big role in not attacking down field as the two teams only combined for five deep throws in total (Louisville’s Malik Cunningham came in averaging 6.5 of them a game). If the wind isn’t a factor, we’ll have to see Book let it fly because the opponent is going to dictate it.

The main objective is to come out and get a win, but how the Notre Dame offense performs running the ball and making big plays in the passing game is going to be the test before the massive midterm against Clemson’s defense.

6. Book is who he is at quarterback, but as he is analyzed and criticized by everyone when he doesn’t shine in a game, it’s important to remember how many times he has won games for Notre Dame when they would have taken L’s under previous quarterbacks.

He has led fourth quarter comebacks against LSU in 2017, Pitt in 2018, and Virginia Tech in 2019. He had clutch drives to close out games against USC twice (2018 and 2019), Northwestern in 2018 and Louisville just last weekend.

It’s easy to brush aside the fact that he’s 26-3 as a starter because there is more than just wins and losses that are looked at when we evaluate quarterbacks. But with Book, that record does matter a little bit more when you consider how close another quarterback might be to 19-10 during that span.

He’s averaging 5.96 yards per carry as a runner this season when taking out sacks. He’s averaging 7.6 yards per attempt passing, the exact same number he had last season. His attempts per game are down seven from last year with 23.5 per game. That’s 17 less throws per game than Phil Jurkovec (who is at 7.5 YPA) so Book’s not exactly getting an opportunity to rack up numbers.

Most Notre Dame fans seem to believe the receivers are a big problem so that has to be taken into account as well when you consider who he is throwing to compared to what he had in 2018 and 2019.

He’s not an elite quarterback, but he’s not anything as close to as bad as what I have seen written about him by a lot of fans. There isn’t just the best and the worst. That’s not the only two choices. There is a big space in between that and Book, for all of his faults, is significantly closer to the best quarterback than the worst one.

It’s a tough gig being the quarterback at Notre Dame. He’s done a good job. I understand why that’s not good enough for some who think about who those three losses were against. I also can appreciate the wins he was a part of, especially those seven I mentioned.

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