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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

December 24, 2020

After any Notre Dame loss, I know I’m going to see it somewhere whether it’s Twitter or a message board.

“Fire Brian Kelly”

I saw it from a few people after the Clemson loss last weekend. Never mind that it had been 16 games since the previous Notre Dame loss or that the program was selected to the College Football Playoff in two out of the last three years. Forget that they are one of only five programs to be selected more than once to the CFP (Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma).

They must have wiped from their memory that Kelly had beaten Clemson more than a month ago. It’s like a Men in Black situation where a loss comes and all of those other things get deleted from someone’s brain.

This has been a really good run for Notre Dame. This 2020 team has overachieved based on what I thought they would do in the preseason. They are the only program with two wins vs the SP+ top-10. Ohio State has zero. Alabama has one. Clemson has one. Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M? They’ve got one against three-loss Florida.

Any way one looks at it, this has been a successful season. I know that might be hard to come to terms with for fans who are stinging from losing the way the Irish did to Clemson. It’s even tougher when thinking about being massive underdogs to Alabama in the CFP, but none of that takes away from what Notre Dame did before last Saturday.

I get the frustration. The Irish might be one of only five teams to make multiple CFPs, but they are clearly behind Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State. Kelly has done a fantastic job winning 10 or more games in the last four seasons and putting them, along with Oklahoma, in the next tier of programs behind the big three. That’s not good enough, though, for everyone who has championship expectations.

Notre Dame is closer to the top of the mountain than they have been in decades, but even as they have climbed, the peak seems to continue to rise further away from them. Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State are only getting better. Notre Dame has too, but not at the same rate.

That’s why every time Notre Dame has a top-10 to 15 recruiting class, it’s difficult to see how they will close the gap when those three all in the top-five. If they’re not going to recruit at that same level, then they have to evaluate and develop better than just about everyone else.

They’ve done a great job of that, but it’s not been enough to get to the top of college football.

I feel like I’ve written a couple “Can Brian Kelly get Notre Dame to take the next step?” in 6 Thoughts over the last few years. It’s going to be a topic of discussion until it happens. That’s how it should be when the program gets to the level they are currently at.

What Notre Dame has accomplished this season so far should be celebrated. All of those things I mentioned that they’ve done recently under Kelly should be as well. Questioning how Kelly can get Notre Dame on par with Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State should happen as well. It’s a natural response that being this good, but not good enough.

I know the questions about taking the next step will be louder than celebrating what they did, but I think both reactions to this season are necessary. There shouldn’t be one without the other attached to it even if more fans will be worrying about what’s next rather than what just happened.

2. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler recently put out his top-10 NFL Draft rankings at each position. He included 20 receivers because it’s such a deep year at the position.

I like to look at these kinds of rankings because I love the NFL Draft, but also because looking at it adds context as to how many difference-makers a college program has on their roster. Chances are that if a player is ranked in the top-10 at his position for the upcoming draft, then he’s an impact player at the college level.

Seeing this shows exactly the gap that exists when it comes to top talent at Notre Dame compared to the other playoff teams.

Notre Dame has three receivers in their fourth or fifth season. None of them are included in the top-20 draft eligible receivers. They have three in top-10 at other positions. Tommy Tremble is the fifth ranked tight end (yes, his blocking has turned heads). Liam Eichenberg is the seventh ranked offensive tackle. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is the second ranked linebacker.

Alabama has 10 in Brugler’s rankings. Ohio State has eight. Clemson has four.

That may seem low for Clemson, but consider that one of them is going to be the first pick in the draft and they have numerous underclassmen who will eventually be top picks (Myles Murphy, Bryan Bresee, Tyler Davis, etc). This was the year to get Clemson and the Irish got them once (minus Lawrence in the lineup). The next couple of years they are going to be even more loaded.

Alabama has seven more upperclassmen on their roster that can be classified as difference-makers. Ohio State has five more. All three of the other CFP teams have a quarterback who is projected to go in the first round as well.

I know that Notre Dame has some studs who aren’t draft eligible like Kyle Hamilton, Kyren Williams, and Michael Mayer. Even if those guys were a year or two older, it’s pretty clear they aren’t a match with these other three teams when it comes to individual talent.

3. It seems very likely that Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji will be drafted after this season. That would make four defensive ends from the 2016 recruiting class that were selected by NFL teams. That’s pretty impressive. I can’t remember another position group turning out that well from any class in recent memory.

Three of those players were 4-star recruits (Hayes, Julian Okwara, and Khalid Kareem). Ogundeji is the one exception. He was considered a project and developed into the player people thought he could become.

Notre Dame fans hope the players the defensive ends they signed in the most recent class can follow in the footsteps of Ogundeji. Will Schweitzer‍, Devin Aupiu‍, and Jason Onye‍ all fall into the project category. There isn’t any way to not say it’s a risk to add three of these types of prospects at the same position in the same cycle. That’s just being honest about it. The odds of all three becoming NFL Draft picks like the four who signed in 2016 are slim.

That’s putting a lot of trust in not only Mike Elston to develop them, but Matt Balis as well. Much like Ogundeji it’s going to take time for them to approach their ceiling on the field. They’re going to have to put in a lot of work to do so.

Looking at Brugler’s list of top-10 edge prospects in this class, Michigan’s Kwity Paye, Wake Forest’s Carlos Basham, Pitt’s Rashad Weaver, Cincinnati’s Myjai Sanders are on there. All three were ranked as 3-stars coming out of high school. It’s not out of the question that one or two of three Notre Dame just signed could end up like Ogundeji or the four from those other programs.

However, it’s safe to say that Notre Dame fans would feel a lot better if they signed a prospect the caliber of a Joseph Ossai or Jayson Oweh. Both were prospects that the Irish wanted to sign, but didn’t. Both are in Brugler’s top-10 for this upcoming NFL Draft.

I know the optimists are hoping for Ogundeji 2.0 with this trio, but not landing at least one blue-chip edge rusher is the biggest question mark in what I would otherwise consider a strong and balanced recruiting class for the Irish.

No one wants to see a replay of 2015 where the Irish signed three defensive tackles and the best player at the position in that class was someone who was originally considered an offensive lineman.

4. My other big question mark for the class Notre Dame just signed is at safety.

It definitely helps that they were able to bring in Khari Gee‍ during the signing period. I think he’s a heck of a prospect.

I don’t think a Kyle Hamilton comparison is appropriate, though, other than them both being so long. Gee is not Hamilton in terms of ball skills and instincts. I think his future is likely at Rover too. If that’s the case, then I do wonder how safety will shake out with this group in the next few years.

I want to see more of Justin Walters‍ playing the deep half, but he didn’t have a senior season. I think both Philip Riley‍ and Ryan Barnes‍ have potential to move to safety, but we’ll have to see how that shakes out.

It’s critical that Notre Dame gets two starting caliber safeties from the class based on what they’ve got on the roster right now. They have one more year of Hamilton and it’s murky after that.

DJ Brown and Houston Griffith have both played over 200 snaps this season and have a combined three Havoc plays. KJ Wallace and Litchfield Ajavon are the other two safeties on the roster and we haven’t seen them enough to know where they project next season and beyond.

Safety is a legitimate concern on the Notre Dame roster the next couple of seasons. It’s absolutely critical that out of the four players I mentioned, at least two of them develop into quality players for the Irish.

5. I have kept track of the number of Havoc plays (tackles for loss, pass breakups, interceptions, and forced fumbles) for Notre Dame this season and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was the clear leader on the team with 18. That should be completely unsurprising for anyone who watched him this season. He won the Butkus Award for a reason.

It was a bit more surprising that only three other players on the team were in the double digits. when it comes to Havoc. That would be Drew White (11), Nick McCloud (11), and Daelin Hayes (10).

The defense was one of the best in the country when it comes to Havoc rate, but they also played less plays per game than only three other Power 5 teams and it was more of a cumulative effort than a few dominant individuals.

I did take a look at the individual Havoc rate for players based on the number of snaps they played to see if there was anything that stood out and there were a couple of interesting things that stood out.

The first was that White and Bo Bauer both made plays at a similar rate (2.7% for White and 2.4% for Bauer). That’s pretty good consistency from the Mike linebacker position.

After that, it was interesting to see high rates from young players like Jack Kiser (3.1%), Clarence Lewis (2.5%), Isaiah Foskey (2.4%), and Ovie Oghoufo (2.7%). It’s not that surprising from the first three, but Oghoufo sticks out more because he hasn’t been talked about much this season.

Notre Dame’s Dime package is going to look a lot different next season and it wouldn’t shock me at all to see all four of these players be a part of that in 2021.

6. I know there will be plenty of discussion about who may come back for that extra year of eligibility after the season, but there are four players that I think Notre Dame should ask back whose eligibility was supposed to run out after 2020.

That would be Kurt Hinish, Brock Wright, Javon McKinley, and Tommy Kraemer.

Not only should they ask those players to stick around, but I believe it would be in the best interest of those players to stay and play one more year as well.

Hinish is someone who would have redshirted if the depth chart wasn’t so decimated when he was a freshman. A fifth year makes sense for him because I do not believe he’s someone who is likely to get drafted as an undersized two-down nose tackle.

He has gotten better every year and this season was his best. Building on that would give him a better shot at the next level in my opinion.

Wright is pretty similar. This is the first season where he played a bigger role as a blocker and he’s done good work. One year working primarily as a blocker isn’t going to help much with having an NFL future, though. If he wants to play on Sundays, another year at Notre Dame would benefit him.

McKinley is basically a one-year wonder in terms of production. He’s finally blossomed into the player many envisioned he could be. It might not be enough to get him to the league, though. As things stand, there should be an obvious opportunity to be a top option for Notre Dame next season as well.

Kraemer is interesting because I’m sure he would prefer to move on to the NFL. A year ago this would have been a no-brainer. I thought he was the best O-lineman on the team before his injury last season.

This year has been a struggle with him fighting through an injury and dealing with having his appendix taken out. The film hasn’t been great for him. It hasn’t been anywhere close to where it could be, even if it’s understandable considering the circumstances.

He did not get a Senior Bowl invite while Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey did. It’s a really good year for interior offensive lineman in the draft and this season couldn’t have helped his stock.

I know it would help Notre Dame a lot to have a better Kraemer back in 2021. I think it might be the best move for him as well.

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