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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

January 28, 2021

The Notre Dame beat has been pretty fortunate in recent years. The football program has allowed us plenty of access to watch practices in the spring and the fall and it makes our jobs a lot easier.

We get a good feel for the team and the personnel because of it. We can’t be at every practice, but we were at enough to get a decent idea about what to expect during the season.

Last year was different for obvious reasons. Notre Dame didn’t even hold a spring ball aside from one non-padded practice. They didn’t have a traditional fall camp either and the practices they did have were not open to for media viewing.

Those open practices are good not just for getting to see the guys who are set to shine this season, but seeing the guys who are going to be players later on. I remember seeing Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in his first fall camp at Culver. He looked like he weighed 190 soaking wet, but also looked like a special athlete even doing simple footwork drills.

Fast forward to the spring of 2019 and JOK was yet to make an impact after redshirting and 2017 and an injury in 2018. He was poised to win the starting Rover job, though, and had been flashing at every practice we watched.

Then when I asked Alohi Gilman about any young players on defense who have that same edge and swagger as him that could carry it on after he left, Gilman had this to say about JOK:

It turns out the praise Gilman had for JOK was pretty prophetic. He had a monster first year as a starter and then won the Butkus award this past season. He’s now on his way to being a first round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.

If we were able to watch practices last spring, I had planned to ask JOK the same question I asked Gilman. Who out of the younger guys on the defense has that same edge that?

I would have loved to hear his answer, but without it, I’ll take a couple of guesses as to who he might have said.

The first player that comes to mind is Marist Liufau. It was a bit of a surprise that he was listed as a co-starter at the start of the season and he got off to a slow start while missing the South Florida game.

Things started to flip the later in the year.

He took control of the Buck linebacker position with two sacks against North Carolina along with a fumble recovery against Syracuse, a tackle for loss against Alabama, and 17 of his 22 tackles coming in the final four games. The light was turning on for him and his physicality was evident.

If Marcus Freeman is looking for someone to help replace that edge, Liufau is a strong candidate at linebacker.

I didn’t have to watch one snap of him in practice to know that the other young player that can bring that edge is another defender from Hawaii, Jordan Botelho. All anyone would have to do is watch one kickoff with him screaming down like a rolling ball of butcher knives.

Every defense needs players with that kind of swagger. Te’von Coney had it. Gilman had it. JOK had it. I think Liufau and Botelho have it as well and even though I might not see them compete in person until the summer, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a buzz about them coming out of spring ball.

2. At the end of the season, I know there were a lot of Notre Dame fans who were critical of Tommy Rees. It comes with the territory when a team only scores 24 points in the final two games.

I do think that his first year as offensive coordinator has to be looked at in its totality and not just with those final two games. When examined that way, it’s impossible not to look at it as a success.

The offensive jumped from 25th in FEI to 17th. That’s the third best result of the Brian Kelly era behind 2015 and 2017. It’s worth mentioning that this offense didn’t have nearly the same amount of big play ability on the roster than those other two.

This is a big one for me, though. Notre Dame went from 65th in 3rd down conversion percentage to seventh this year. The Irish were never higher than 32 under Chip Long and this was the only time the offense has finished in the top-10 in that category in the last decade.

There are obvious areas of improvement that need to be addressed this offseason (explosive plays and red zone) and he’s going to have a much different looking group than he had in 2020. We’ll see how he adjusts to the changes in personnel, particularly at quarterback.

Notre Dame needs to be a top-10 offense to make the next step. Rees took them closer to that in his first year.

3. Notre Dame has recruited nationally almost as long as Notre Dame has had a football program. Still, the Midwest was always considered a base for recruiting and Chicagoland was a part of that.

It simply isn’t what it used to be in terms of producing top talent and this piece by Matt Brown does a good job of examining why that is.

This, in particular, jumped off the page at me.

“From 2014-2019, Illinois saw a greater raw number decline in football participation than any other state outside of California, with participation numbers dropping by over 80,000.”

That’s jarring to see, but it’s reality.

The midwest in general isn’t producing the same number of elite talent that they used to, which is why I really like the idea of Notre Dame expanding their recruiting department to add regional recruiting coordinators.

It’s not to take away any of the big picture stuff or evaluations that the current staff does, but it’s something that they need to be better at when it comes to identifying talent and fit much earlier with staff that has or can build connections in different regions of the country.

In my opinion, no one has a more difficult job in college football than the recruiting department at Notre Dame. They don’t have that regional recruiting base that every other elite program has. Ohio State recruits nationally as well, but 29% of their last four classes have been composed of players from Ohio. Notre Dame doesn’t have that.

Things aren’t getting anymore easier for them so they need to attack it differently than everyone else. Regional recruiting coordinators would help with that.

4. I’m going to be very curious to see where Daelin Hayes ends up being taken in the NFL Draft. He’s had a nice first couple of days at the Senior Bowl and had a strong final season in blue and gold, but he played a lot in four years and change while only finishing with nine career sacks.

I don’t think that tells the whole tale for him. His pressure rate of 14.1% in 2020 was very good. That’s better than the 11% of Texas’ Joseph Ossai, who is seen as one of the top pass rushers in the Draft.

Then again, Ossai had a ridiculous 21 Havoc plays (16 tackles for loss) in only nine games. Hayes had 10 in 12.

It sounds weird to say considering how much he was on the field at Notre Dame, but I think Hayes has a chance to still get a lot better when he gets to the NFL. He came to Notre Dame not having played a lot of football in high school. His athletic talent was obvious, but he was extremely raw.

I don’t believe he’ll be a day two pick. He could be a very intriguing player for teams who like his versatility as a day three pick.

5. Two years ago I wrote a piece looking at the previous 15 national champions. Each of them had multiple first round picks. 12 of the 15 had four or more starting for them.

We can now add LSU and Alabama to that list to make it all 17 teams who had multiple first round picks.

LSU had four last year and a fifth is going to go when Ja’Marr Chase gets taken off the board this spring. Alabama has five projected first round picks in this upcoming draft and they may end up with more than that.

What does it take to win a natty? A team that is loaded with first round picks.

Does Notre Dame have multiple first round picks on the 2021 roster? Kyle Hamilton seems well on his way to being one. After that, it’s not really obvious outside of Michael Mayer (eventually).

Notre Dame essentially needs some combination of Kevin Austin to become a legitimate WR1, Kyren Williams to be Clyde Edwards-Helaire 2.0, Isaiah Foskey to develop into a force off the edge, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa to emerge as a true game wrecker, or have a couple of the new starters on offensive line follow in the footsteps of Martin, Stanley, Nelson, and McGlinchey.

Of course there are other guys who could develop. No one saw Will Fuller as a future first round pick when he was a freshman or predicted that everything would click for Jerry Tillery as a senior. We’ll have to see what happens.

But to put it bluntly, Notre Dame needs to hit big on at least a few of those scenarios if they are going to win a championship. The standard to win right now is so high and they have to match it to have a shot.

6. Notre Dame’s 2018 recruiting class hasn’t been anything close to expected, especially when looking at the top players from the class.

Houston Griffith, Kevin Austin, Phil Jurkovec, Shayne Simon, and Jack Lamb were the highest ranked according to the composite rankings. Jurkovec is no longer with the program, Lamb is in the transfer portal, and none of the other three has established themselves as full-time starters.

I know this might be seen as some massive failure by Notre Dame, but after looking at results from the top-five prospects in the previous five cycles and comparing that with other schools, what has happened with the ‘18 class isn’t as uncommon as one would assume.

From 2013-2017, Oregon had only four of the 25 top-five recruits from those classes become NFL Draft picks. (I included projected picks in this year’s draft as well) Florida went three for 25.

USC went nine for 25. Five of the nine went in the first two rounds. Notre Dame went 10 for 25. Five of their 10 went in the first two rounds. Clemson had 12 of 25 with seven in the first two rounds.

Not that a 40% hit rate on the top recruits is good, but it’s pretty average when looking at a lot of programs.

Ohio State and Alabama have been incredible hitting on their top guys. It’s 16 of 25 for OSU with 11 in the first two rounds (could be up to 13 after this draft). For Alabama it’s been 18 of 25 with 12 in the first two rounds (could be up to 14).

Those two sign more 5-stars than almost anyone else so that has a lot to do with the hit rate being higher, but USC has signed plenty of 5-stars that went bust. Ohio State and Alabama have just been way better when it comes to developing those guys.

Notre Dame has to hope that Austin and Griffith finally have things turn around for them in 2021 and that can change the way the ‘18 class is viewed, if only just a little. That would really only keep Notre Dame at their average, though.

They’ve signed some great prospects in the last couple of cycles and that average needs to go up with a group that includes Mayer, Chris Tyree, Tosh Baker, Botelho, Blake Fisher, and Tyler Buchner. Hitting more with those top guys will also increase their chances of having multiple first round picks and we know what can happen when a team has more than a few of those.

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