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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame Roster Intriguing in 2021

January 14, 2021

Most felt Notre Dame would have a chance at the College Football Playoff entering the 2020 season, and Clemson, USC and Wisconsin would decide that fate. 

The Irish joined the ACC because of a pandemic and it basically came down to a two-game season with Clemson and North Carolina. It must be nice to be in that position every year like Clemson, right? 

What were some of the surprises? 

Rushing offense was the huge sticking point for many folks as Tommy Rees took over as offensive coordinator. Would the first-year OC even run the ball? Would Rees be able to carve out a run game against good teams? Could he improve Notre Dame's short-yardage issues? Was he going to air raid? 

Those were a few of the questions we heard between the Camping World Bowl and the Duke game in September. 

Notre Dame finished No. 24 in the country in averaging 211.1 rushing yards per game. It would be No. 14 if you can take out teams who didn't play 10+ games, which is also fair in this year as Arizona State, Kent State and Ohio are ranked over the Irish as none of those programs played more than four games. 

Rees didn't have an established running back returning on the roster despite C'Bo Flemister flashing at times over the last two years, so it might be even more impressive to see Kyren Williams run for 1,125 yards and 13 touchdowns. Williams was the workhorse as he carried 211 times and also had 35 receptions for 313 yards. 

True freshman Chris Tyree ran just 73 times on the year, but the Virginia native racked up 496 yards, which was a blistering 6.8 yards per carry to go with four touchdowns. 

Flemister also had a solid campaign with 58 carries for 299 yards and five scores. 

What's next for this group? The sky is limit in terms of their talent. All three are only going to get better and that means more explosive plays for the Irish. The vision of Williams was on display from game one and Tyree improved there as the season went on. Both aren't Josh Adams, but more than proved they will pick up 3 yards on 3rd-and-2 inside the tackles. 

The commitment to the run game was there all year and perhaps too much at times. I don't expect Michael Carter and Javonte Williams stats from Notre Dame's backs in the future as they won't run that many plays, but I think the expectation is higher and the Irish should have one 1,000 rusher and another who is in the ballpark moving forward. The future is bright. 

Third-down defense was another area Notre Dame excelled at in 2020 as Clark Lea's group finished No. 12 in the country at 31.4%. The Irish forced 153 third downs in 12 games and only let the opposition get 48 first downs. 

It's quite impressive to get off the field or force a fourth-down decision and Brian Kelly will take that every year. Kyle Hamilton was the key chess piece here as the sophomore safety can play in the box, on the slot, deep middle, or blitz. 

Lea is gone and Marcus Freeman arrives in South Bend. At Cincinnati, Freeman wasn't far behind Notre Dame as the Bearcats finished No. 22 in third-down conversions allowed last fall. Cincinnati's defense allowed 52 first downs on 152 third-down situations (34.7%) and Freeman will have more toys to play with at Notre Dame. 

March 5th was the last time I saw the Irish practice, so I'm not sure where some guys are in their development, but I can tell you this. Notre Dame has the bodies for Freeman to create some havoc in small windows. 

At 6-foot-4, Hamilton creates problems everywhere because of his natural feel for the game and playmaking ability, as noted earlier. Cornerbacks Clarence Lewis (6-1), Cam Hart (6-2), Ramon Henderson (6-1), Ryan Barnes (6-2) and Chance Tucker (6-1) are long athletes that will be on the roster and can shrink those windows even more. Khari Gee was a late addition to the 2021 recruiting class and at 6-foot-3, the Georgia native could also help out in a sub-package. 

And no, I don't expect all these guys to be on the field at the same time, but Freeman has options to get bigger and longer in situations, which will present offenses more challenges on third-down and other situations. 

Speaking of cornerbacks, I'm very interested in seeing how Mike Mickens and Freeman develop the group moving forward. There will be a lot of young and inexperienced talent there. 

The duo developed Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad Gardner into one of the country's best cornerbacks in two seasons. Gardner was barely ranked a three-star prospect with a composite ranking of 83.1, but at 6-foot-2, he had length that's coveted in today's game. 

How good has the true sophomore been at Cincinnati? He's played 608 snaps in coverage and has yet to give up a touchdown. 

The first challenge for Freeman and Mickens will be developing the talent into players they can put on the field, which has been a significant issue for the Irish over the last few years. Depth simply hasn't been there along with development. 

Cornerback snap counts in 2020: 
Nick McCloud: 624 (NFL Bound)
Clarence Lewis: 421
TaRiq Bracy: 288
Cam Hart: 88
Isaiah Rutherford: 28 (Transferred)
Ramon Henderson: 19
Caleb Offord: 3

There needs to be a little more balance there, especially when you consider Notre Dame won so many games with the comfort of a bigger lead. 

For example, if you look at Clemson, the Tigers were able to get its cornerbacks much more experience and no one had the snap count of McCloud. It's also worth noting Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah took a lot of snaps, which generally would have gone to a nickel, so another player could have received more. 

Clemson cornerback snap counts in 2020:
Derion Kendrick: 383
Andrew Booth Jr.: 333
Sheridan Jones: 313
Mario Goodrich: 238
Malcolm Greene: 194 (some safety work)
Fred Davis II: 181
LeAnthony Williams: 115

There is a talent difference and Clemson ran teams off the field, but there's an opportunity for Notre Dame to be more like this moving forward. It starts with Mickens developing players, which he has proven he can do at Cincinnati and last year with Lewis. 

The spring should be exciting because of the unknown and the chance for Notre Dame to improve in so many areas. There will be a lot of exciting talent arriving in a few weeks and will get plenty of opportunities to earn early playing time in the secondary, but also at other positions. 

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