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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

February 11, 2021

When I watched Chiefs and the Bucs play in the Super Bowl, all I could think about was how this game may apply to Notre Dame football. I’m sure that there were probably four of the other 90 million or so viewers who were doing the same thing.

It’s a problem for me. I can’t just watch a game and enjoy it anymore. I’m always watching it from that angle and wondering how it may apply to a piece I might write or 6 Thoughts.

There were a lot of big storylines that came out of the game. Tampa Bay’s dominant defense deserved to be talked about the most, but that story also went hand in hand with injuries Kansas City was dealing with.

Patrick Mahomes was running for his life for most of the game. That tends to happen when a team is playing without its two starting tackles on the offensive line and has two other starters out.

To say it had an impact on the game is an understatement. The Bucs’ defensive ends Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul combined for 16 pressures in the game. On the other side of the ball, with everyone healthy on Tampa’s line, Kansas City’s pass rush was anemic.

Offensive tackles: they’re kind of important!

Thinking about how devastating the lack of protection was in that game made me think of the 2021 Notre Dame offensive line. For the first time in Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame, he’ll have to replace two starting offensive tackles.

He’s been lucky to have Zack Martin for four years and then when he left, starting right tackle Ronnie Stanley slid over to replace him. The same thing happened after Stanley left with Mike McGlinchey. In McGlinchey’s last season, true freshman Robert Hainsey emerged and became a mainstay at right tackle with Eichenberg stepping in on the left side the next year.

The Irish had three straight years of Eichenberg and Hainsey. Now Jeff Quinn will be forced to have two new players protecting a new quarterback, which isn’t a comforting thing to think about for Notre Dame fans because there isn’t the obvious next star offensive tackle who is poised to take over.

That isn’t to say there aren’t good options. It’s just not obvious who will be the ones to step up. Quinn has plenty to choose from and it seems unlikely he’ll struggle to find at least three good ones out of these six players.

Josh Lugg played 480 snaps in 2019 at right tackle and played well down the stretch of that season. We know he can start there and play at an above average level when healthy.

He’s not the only one with experience. Jarrett Patterson has been a two-year starter at center, but before that was a backup at left tackle as a freshman. He could start at just about any spot on the line and he could be a solution at either tackle spot.

Then there are the young tackles on the roster. All of them were highly ranked prospects.

The group of Quinn Caroll (68th by Rivals, 70th by ISD), Andrew Kristofic (120th by 247Sports, 126th by ISD), Tosh Baker (57th by 247Sports, 54th by ISD), and Blake Fisher (25th by Rivals, 8th by ISD) may not produce both of the starters for the Irish at offensive tackle this year, but would it surprise anyone if they did?

Quinn certainly has the talent to work with at those spots to have at least two good tackles this season and it may be more than that. And for the players who lose the battle to start at tackle, it wouldn’t be surprising to see one or more start at guard in ‘21.

Notre Dame faced a lot of bad offensive tackles in the ACC last season. There were only a handful of good ones in the entire league and two of them played in blue and gold. Even with two new starters, I don’t think we’ll see whoever is starting at quarterback running for their life like Mahomes had to in the Super Bowl.

2. Every coach is a thief.

There are very few true innovators involved in the game today. Almost every scheme or concept is stolen from someone else and then tweaked to adjust to either their personnel or the modern era. (For more on that, I highly recommend Tim Layden’s book, “Blood, Sweat, and Chalk”)

As former NFL defensive back Darius Butler pointed out on Twitter, what Tampa defensive coordinator Todd Bowles did with his defensive tackle Vita Vea was something I can’t remember seeing.

He used the monstrous Vea to bull rush and press the pocket against those backup tackles to force him to slide into the stunt coming from the opposite side (as explained in the second clip). He also did it with defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh at times. It wasn’t something he did on every passing down, but he mixed it up enough to give those tackles and Mahomes problems.

I couldn’t help but think of Notre Dame using Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa or Rylie Mills to do this in certain passing situations. Those two wouldn’t be every down “big ends”, but they could certainly help press the pocket with size and power.

The Irish may be looking for answers trying to generate pass rush this season with mostly unproven edge defenders. This could be something worth stealing for Marcus Freeman in sub-packages.

3. One last thing on the Super Bowl that I think matters for any team trying to win a championship on any level.

A team has to be both lucky and good to win it all. The Bucs are the perfect example of that.

Their general manager Jason Licht did a great job taking care of the good part of it. The roster is loaded and they hit on several top picks. It’s the job he did putting together that roster that made Tampa a great option for Tom Brady. That brought other pieces like Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown to an offense that was already loaded and the defense was built up over time with smart free agent signings and several high picks.

Throw in a strong coaching staff and they were good enough to win it all.

Now, comes the luck part.

They had a healthy starting defense for the first time since week five. Vea, who broke his ankle early in the season, was a force against a Kansas City offensive line that was missing four starters. I’d say that was unlucky for the Chiefs and pretty lucky for the Bucs for things to break like that. That’s not even taking into account some calls going their way in the game.

Good is the biggest part of it. The Bucs were really good. Luck had a hand in it too and that’s something to remember when thinking of Notre Dame not being good last season and also lucky to not have to face Trevor Lawrence in their first matchup against Clemson.

On the other hand, the Irish were unlucky with injuries to a couple of key receivers, Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy. If those guys were healthy, Notre Dame is better. Better enough to surpass what they did? I don’t know, but it wouldn’t have hurt to have them, that’s for sure.

4. For years, Notre Dame lost too many games they were supposed to win. That hasn’t happened for a long time. They haven’t lost to a team with less talent than them since Stanford in 2017. Since Kelly rebooted the program, they are 34-2 against opponents who had less talent than them on the roster.

That’s according to the 247’s team talent composite, which doesn’t just take into account recruiting rankings. It counts who is actually still on the roster and who might have been added via transfer. Those two losses, Miami being the other one, were to two teams who both had top-20 talent so it’s not like the Irish lost to teams that were far less talented than them.

This run for Kelly says a lot about how well he’s built the program and how well he and the staff have coached overall.

Ah, but what about the teams with more talent than them? I think more than a few of you would be surprised that Kelly is 8-6 in those games.

The wins are against USC three times, Florida State twice, LSU in 2017, Michigan in 2018, and Clemson in 2020. The losses are against Clemson twice, Georgia twice, Michigan in 2019, and Alabama this past season.

It’s easy to point to USC and FSU being tire fires during this time and Notre Dame taking advantage of it. However, that doesn’t give credit to the stability Kelly has sustained. If he was coaching either of those programs, they would be a lot better than they have been.

Recruiting better is still going to be a topic of interest until Kelly can win a few more of those six games he lost. It should be, but what he’s done with less raw talent can also be recognized as being impressive.

The team talent composite for the 2021 season won’t come out until much later, but the Irish should be the more talented team in every game except for when they face USC and we know how that matchup has gone for Notre Dame recently.

5. The offseason is a prime time for position switches, whether it’s out of need for the team or for the player who wants more of a chance to play. Oftentimes it’s both.

This pure speculation and nothing we have heard, but there are a few that I feel would be intriguing if they happened.

Kendall Abdur-Rahman doesn’t have a clear path to playing time on offense. If he sticks at running back, it’s tough to imagine him breaking into any kind of rotation with the players who are already returning unless he lights the world on fire when he touches the football. I know there was some consideration for him to be a defensive back at the college level from some schools and I’ll be interested to see if Notre Dame decides to give him a look there.

Osita Ekwonu looks buried on the depth chart at inside linebacker and a move to running back would see him in a similar spot. He might not have the ideal length to play as an edge defender, but at 236 with some twitch he may be someone they could move to Vyper.

Other than those two, who were already working at new positions last fall, there aren’t many others who jump off the page as players who may move spots other than an inside linebacker (Jack Kiser? Marist Liufau?) moving out to Rover to compete there.

That’s a pretty good sign that the roster is pretty well constructed in my opinion. Notre Dame doesn’t have a lot of obvious needs that need to be fixed by a lack of numbers at certain positions and that’s a good thing.

6. Notre Dame recruiting coordinator Brian Polian hit on a bunch of different topics on signing day including the transfer portal. I think he’s absolutely correct that programs are going to have to have a dedicated staffer (or multiple staff) to monitor the transfer portal once the one-time transfer rule has passed.

Here’s exactly what he said about it:

“We are all going to have to get adjusted, I assume, and I'm speaking for myself, not Coach Kelly, not anybody else in the program, I am under the assumption as the recruiting coordinator that the one-time transfer is going to pass here at some point in the near future. When that occurs, teams are going to have to consider a dedicated staffer just to monitor the transfer portal in the way that an NFL franchise will have a director of college scouting and a pro personnel office where the pro personnel office, their job is to know all the people that are playing in the League currently.
“It could get to the point where staff is going to have to be dedicated to knowing who's in the portal and having some sense of academic background, years of eligibility, amount of time that they played. If we're going to function in that world, we're going to have to dedicate resources to making sure that whatever decision we make is as educated as possible.”

My only disagreement with him is that it can’t be a consideration. It’s going to be a must for every program and it will be more difficult for Notre Dame because the academic background piece of it will be more important than at most other schools.

If Notre Dame doesn’t already have someone in mind internally for that role, they have to at least be thinking about a list of candidates because when it passes, things are going to happen quickly and they have to be ready.

Recruiting is much more difficult now than it was even 10 years ago. Managing personnel on the roster is much more difficult as well and it will become even more so with once this rule passes. They have to be ready and it’s a good thing that Polian is already thinking about this because I guarantee every other blue-blood program is thinking about it as well.

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