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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

January 14, 2021

In college football coverage, there isn’t anything more worthless than way-too-early top-25 rankings. It is click bait at its finest and yet, they keep putting them out because college football fans still click.

The ones I have seen, that I promise I only checked because I wanted to include it for this note, have Notre Dame ranked as high as ninth and and as low as 15th. That seems appropriate given that the Irish are losing a Butkus award winner and two NFL Draft picks at defensive end plus four of five starters on the offensive line and the winningest quarterback in school history.

The bump down from the top-five makes sense, but Brian Kelly has proven that he has a program that has developed well enough to continue to win from year to year. 10 wins or more is realistic again and his teams have surpassed expectations in recent years.

No one who bleeds blue and gold will be content with taking a step back, though. They’ll want to see another step in the right direction towards a championship. For that to happen, there will have to be several unproven players who have to step at multiple positions.

Going over all of them would take more than I can fit in 6 Thoughts this week. I’m going to focus on the receiver position for this because looking at what DeVonta Smith just did for Alabama makes it obvious that dominant play from that position means more now than maybe ever.

Smith was a big play waiting to happen. Even as a freshman, that was true. He only caught seven balls in 2017. Four of them were longer than 20 yards and his final one was a game-winning touchdown in the national championship game.

On Tuesday I put out a piece about Notre Dame needing to be more explosive on offense. Offense is winning championships in college football, especially in the last two years.

Smith and John Metchie combined for 48 receptions of 20 yards or more for Alabama this season. LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson, and Terrace Marshall had 66 in 2019. There is no doubt that the quarterback play was great on both of those teams, but it was the receivers who made those offenses special.

Notre Dame has to match or come close to that level of production from the receiver position with explosive plays. That’s just how things are trending with the game.

As successful as the program has been in the last four seasons (43-8), they have been far away from those types of numbers. Chase Claypool had 23 receptions of 20 yards or more in 2019 (third in the Power 5 behind only Chase and Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb), but the next guy on the team in explosive plays was Braden Lenzy with seven (from scrimmage, not just receptions).

Miles Boykin had 17 in 2018 with four games of Brandon Wimbush at quarterback. They would need that kind of year with a 2019 year from Claypool to get in the game.

This season Javon McKinley led the team with 12. Ben Skowronek had eight and Avery Davis had four. If it wasn’t obvious why Notre Dame had to play a ball-control style against Alabama, it should be now. They were in no position to get in a shootout with the Tide.

The most important position for Notre Dame this offseason, outside of quarterback, is receiver. They need to find playmakers there. Desperately. If they don’t, then there’s a limit as to how high they can go in 2021.

The good news is that the ceiling is high at the position. Avery Davis was 19th in the country in average yards after the catch. They need to see if he can continue that with more touches. It would help greatly if Braden Lenzy could stay healthy and build on the promise he showed in 2019. They need a healthy Kevin Austin to be the player Notre Dame expected him to be as well.

Who knows what will happen with Jordan Johnson, but there’s a reason why Irish fans are frustrated not seeing him on the field (even if the reason he’s not on the field has to do with him and not the coaches). They know he has the kind of potential to be a receiver the offense needs.

Is there a Chase or Smith on the roster? Probably not, but there is enough talent to be a lot more explosive than they have been.

It really doesn’t matter who it’s going to be for Notre Dame. It just matters that they establish two or three playmakers at the position. Without that, anywhere from ninth to 15th seems like a fair projection for 2021.

2. In only six quarters in his two College Football Playoff games, Smith had 197 yards receiving AFTER THE CATCH.

Yes, I wrote about the after the catch statistics between Notre Dame and Alabama last week. I feel like I have to double down on it after Smith had 106 YAC against Ohio State. Play press and he’s going to smoke a defender deep. Play off and give him space, have fun trying to tackle him.

I haven’t seen a college receiver better than him. I have seen some who are more physically dominant, but no one who won the way he did consistently when the other team knew he was the guy they had to try and stop.

3. This upcoming year will be the first season in a long time that the four defensive ends who Notre Dame signed in the 2016 cycle will not be part of the defense.

What a run for Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem, Daelin Hayes, and Ade Ogundeji. All four are going to end up as NFL Draft picks. They combined for 120.5 Havoc plays during their college careers. That’s pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good.

There is talent remaining on the roster at defensive end, but the next group must improve their level of play. It’s a huge development year for Isaiah Foskey, Jordan Botelho, Justin Ademilola, NaNa Osafo-Mensah, and Alex Ehrensberger. Foskey and Ademilola are the only two who were in the rotation in 2020.

There’s going to be high expectations on Foskey to be an impact pass rusher, but he really slowed down after a hot start to the season. He had 10 pressures in the first three games. He had eight in the final nine games.

The raw talent is evident. His hands and his ability to add counters and attack an edge are a work in progress.

Cincinnati had an impact pass rusher in Myjai Sanders. Foskey has the potential to have that kind of impact and the edge rusher group as a whole could be very good. This spring is going to be huge for all of them.

4. Shaun Crawford was at Notre Dame for six years. In all of that time, Notre Dame never found anyone else who was a fit as a slot corner/nickel.

I know many have talked about the misses in recruiting at certain positions, but this doesn’t get mentioned enough. Who ends up working there this spring and fall is still a bit of a mystery.

Maybe it doesn’t matter as much if Notre Dame is playing three safeties more, but I think most coaches would rather have a quality slot corner than a safety matching up there.

5. I don’t know how closely Irish fans were paying attention to Stanford this season, but they really remain an enigma as to what direction the program is headed.

They got blown out by the most talented team they played (Oregon) and although they finished the season at 4-2 with four straight wins, five of their six games were decided by a combined 13 points.

The offense was the bright spot (20th in FEI), but quarterback Davis Mills is leaving early for the NFL as is receiver Simi Fehoko. He’s the best big play threat the Cardinal had at position in a long time, but only ended up playing one game against Notre Dame in his career.

The defense was abysmal. They finished 112th in FEI.

I have no idea how good they are going to be in 2021 when Notre Dame visits Palo Alto in November. I’m fairly confident they’ll be better than their 4-8 record in 2019. I don’t think they are going to be close to the team they were in the early part of the last decade.

6. I know we’ve written about Marcus Freeman a lot this week. We talked about how big it was for Notre Dame to add him to the staff on Power Hour so I don’t need to keep talking about it here.

I don’t need to, but I will.

Brian Kelly has won a lot at Notre Dame, particularly in the last four seasons. There’s also been a lot of moral victories mixed in, which I know many are tired of.

I know they are tired of being close, but not good enough. I know fans are tired of the Irish finishing second in a recruiting battle for an elite recruit and likewise for a coach they want to hire.

This time, Notre Dame didn’t finish second. They got their top choice.

There is no such thing as a home run hire, but the important part is that they took a big swing and connected. If it goes on the wrong side of the foul pole, I think fans can live with that knowing that this he is a coach with the potential to make a big impact on and off the field.

There’s certainly more changes to come before the spring with at least one spot on the coaching staff open. Even when things are already going well, change can be a good thing. I think it is in this case and I’m excited to see where it takes the program going forward.

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