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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

February 4, 2021
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When looking at how things may shake out in college football for the next year, it is helpful to look at who is returning for each program. Experience matters. It’s not more important than talent, but it still matters.

That’s why what Bill Connelly does each year looking at returning production is so fascinating. It can be a predictor for which teams can improve greatly year over year. Just look at Indiana last season, which was 11th in returning production and had their best team in a long time. Northwestern was first and also had a bounce back year.

Of course, Georgia Tech was second in returning production coming into 2020 and they went 3-7. Louisville was 13th and dropped to 4-7. Alabama was 88th and dominated on their way to another national championship.

Returning production is helpful to look at, but it’s only a part of the story when predicting how a team will play the next season.

Notre Dame was 20th in returning in production in 2018 and first on defense. The pieces were in place for that team to win with defense and they did on their way to a 12-1 record. Heading into last season, the Irish were 83rd overall and 102 on defense, yet they found a way to make the College Football Playoff again with a team that wasn’t supposed to be as good as they ended up being.

Thinking about how Notre Dame has succeeded with a lot of production returning and also without it says a lot about the state of the program. It’s a testament to Brian Kelly and the entire staff that they’ve been able to sustain success even when they’ve lost significant contributors from the previous year.

This year might be their toughest challenge yet. Connelly has the Irish 123rd overall in returning production (123 on offense and 108 on defense).

It’s heavily weighted towards snaps on the offensive line, passing yards, and wide receiver/tight end receiving yards on offense. That’s why having Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree back in the backfield doesn’t matter that much (at least for Connelly’s formula).

On defense it’s returning tackles and returning passes defended that count the most and these numbers seem off to me with Notre Dame getting back 66.5% of their tackles, 51.6% of sacks, 65% of TFLs, and 58.9% of passes defended. I think Connelly may have counted some “seniors” who aren’t leaving like Drew White, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, and Kurt Hinish when tallying up the numbers. Adding them would give Notre Dame a bump in production, but regardless of that, the Irish still have a lot to replace on defense.

Things are set up for the Irish to take a step back this season. Most programs would when losing four of five starters on the offensive line, two of their three leading receivers, and their starting quarterback.

They aren’t going to take a step back in the talent department, though. A healthy Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy are more talented than Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek. More young talent at receiver should be poised for bigger things with more opportunities too.

There will be over a dozen offensive linemen who were blue-chip recruits competing to replace the starters who are now gone. They won’t lack for “dudes” up front.

The same could be said for the other side of the ball where Notre Dame could arguably be more talented in their starting 11. The key will be developing that talent.

That is why Kelly has been able to do to keep on winning over these last four years. Equanimeous St. Brown is gone and then Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool are there making that position even better. They lose a Drue Tranquill at linebacker and have Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah emerge after he’s gone. Khalid Kareem is a beast over his last two years and Ade Ogundeji steps in with minimal drop off. That’s how things have gone at a lot of spots.

They are losing a lot of production. Maybe the program is at the point where it doesn’t matter that much because of the way they have developed the roster as a whole. This year should be a good test to see if maybe can be taken away from the previous sentence.

2. One of the things that Notre Dame has benefited from in recent years is a late career breakout season from a handful of players.

In 2020 it was McKinley. In 2019 it was Ade Ogundeji and Asmar Bilal. Even someone like Tranquill could be placed in that category, though, switching positions and finally staying healthy had a lot to do with him breaking out in 2017.

There are more than a few veterans who have the potential to go from little production to big production this season.

Austin is an obvious one if he can stay on the field. Paul Moala is another who now has an open position and should be healthy in 2021. Jayson Ademilola could be this year’s Ogundeji with a strong finish propelling him forward. Technically Avery Davis could have been included with this season, but could he go from WR3 to WR1? I don’t think it’s out of the question with what he showed at times and there is precedent at receiver with a few making a big leap in their final year.

Houston Griffith is the most intriguing one because he has basically been pegged to breakout since his freshman season. It hasn’t happened so far and logic says that it probably won’t. (

Stephen A. Smith voice) HOWEVER, Bilal was thought of similarly and then he surprised everyone with his final season. A new scheme and position coach can change things for certain players. Griffith will get both of those and one more shot to live up to the recruiting hype that preceded him.

3. With two key players to replace at tight end and a ton of unknowns at the receiver position, could we see Tommy Rees go all-in with more Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree on the field at the same time? I wouldn’t be surprised by it.

If it’s about getting the 11 best on the field as much as possible, it’s hard to argue that Tyree wouldn’t be included in that 11.

Notre Dame did run some 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end) this season, but never more than a few times in a single game. Coastal Carolina is a team who played primarily with 20 and 21 personnel (9th in FEI on offense) and that may be an offense to look at if Rees wants to expand the package with Williams and Tyree.

Williams had 35 catches last season and I don’t see that number going down in ‘21. Tyree will catch more than the eight balls he caught as a freshman. Both of them have potential to play in the slot.

We saw this early in the year with two backs on the field against Duke.

via GIPHY

I can’t see why we won’t see more of that this season.

4. I know that some Notre Dame fans might have hoped for a bigger name or a more established recruiter than Chris O’Leary for the safeties job, but I just wanted to chime in here that I have been impressed with him whenever I have seen him on the field at Notre Dame.

I wouldn’t call him a yeller, but he demands the attention of the players and is communicating constantly in drills and in team. There’s a vibe you get with some young coaches who can look like they are too nervous to speak up or give instruction because they aren’t “the guy” running that position. I never got any hint of that with O’Leary.

He was always someone who looked like he was in command and had the respect of the players. That might sound standard, but it really isn’t with all graduate assistants.

I always like the idea of promoting from within because there is no better job interview than watching a guy work on and off the field. Let’s see if he can hit the ground running as a recruiter. I’m sure he will once they step on the practice field again. 

5. Marcus Freeman didn’t have an opening press conference to introduce himself to the Notre Dame media, but his appearance on signing day was basically that. And boy, did he ever make an impression.

It’s easy to see why so many recruits have already responded to him in such a short time. It seems inevitable that Notre Dame’s players will embrace him as a coach and that’s not always the easiest thing when he’s the guy replacing a popular and successful coordinator who was there before him.

I liked everything I heard from Freeman yesterday, but this in particular stood out to me:

“In terms of schematics, I have certain philosophy on things, but I'm always changing. I'm always changing. One to be able to defend against the crazy offenses that we see. It will be extremely exciting to go against Tommy (Rees) and the offensive staff this spring in terms of what they do offensively.

“Everybody wants to know if you’re a three down team or you’re a four down team. Are you a nickel team? It's again, let's get the best 11. That's my job and that's our job as the deepest staff to figure out the best 11 and then the best 22 and say, ‘OK, are we better to have a four defensive linemen alignment or better to have a nickel on the field? You know? And, and what are we trying to take away? What are we trying to stop the offense from doing? So there is no perfect answer to that question.”

This is football. Not just today. This is how football has always been. At least for the good coaches.

It’s finding your best players and then adapting what they do best to stop what the offense does best. It’s not, “This is who we are” and sticking with that no matter what. It’s about evolving based on who you’re coaching and who you’re coaching against.

It was obvious Freeman understood that when watching his defense at Cincinnati and it’s even more clear hearing him speak now that he's at Notre Dame.

If you’re not excited about watching his defense this year, get excited. It’s going to be fun to see where they go.

6. Every Irish fan remembers when Manti Te’o chose Notre Dame over USC on signing day. That may have been the last great signing day moment for the program. Not because they don’t sign great prospects. They just make signing day boring because they have wrapped up the majority of the class in December.

All signs were pointing to him ending up as the next great linebacker at USC. He chose the other path and won the Butkus Award at Notre Dame. The program has since had two more win the award and had some very good linebackers. It hasn’t nearly gone as well at USC.

The Trojans have signed plenty of blue-chip linebackers since missing out on Te’o. Almost all of them have underachieved.

In total, 15 linebackers who were ranked as 4 or 5-star players signed with USC since the 2010 recruiting cycle. Only two have been drafted (Hayes Pullard in the sixth round and Cameron Smith in the fifth). Su’a Cravens was also drafted, but he was ranked as a safety.

It’s remarkable how highly ranked players like John Houston, Palaie Gaoteote, and Solomon Tuliaupupu seemed like “can’t miss” prospects that would follow in the footsteps of previous studs. It didn’t happen for Houston, Gaoteote is transferring, and Tuliaupupu hasn’t even played in three years.

They are looking for the next great one and it’s been a while since they had their last one. Maybe Raesjon Davis‍ changes that after choosing to sign there yesterday (he was previously committed to LSU). Or maybe he’s just the next guy who is hyped up to be a star and then fizzles out. He’ll join a long list of players if that happens.

It’s funny how the fortunes have flipped at the positions of the two schools since then. It all started with Te’o and now Notre Dame fans expect to see the next great linebacker in blue and gold even if they’re unsure who that is quite yet.

 
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