Story Poster
Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

February 18, 2021

Notre Dame is losing a lot on offense. They’re losing a lot on defense.

But the schedule? It’s one of the more friendly ones the Irish have had in some time.

There’s only four true road games. The only team with more raw recruited talent than them is USC and they have some holes on their roster. When Notre Dame plays teams that have less talent, their record is pretty good of late. They haven’t lost a game to a less talented team since 2017.

That isn’t to say there won’t be some challenges they have to overcome if they want to run the table in the regular season. The biggest one may be Wisconsin. That game is set to be played in Chicago and one would think that if there are fans in the stands, it should be a pro-Notre Dame crowd.

There’s no question that the Irish have recruited better than Wisconsin. They just had their best class in school history and only signed six blue-chip prospects. They signed some great players, Notre Dame would have loved to have Nolan Rucci and TJ Bollers in their class, but it’s not one where that will feature several immediate difference-makers.

That’s because Wisconsin is a developmental program. They are as good as any at getting the most out of the talent on their roster. That’s why they’ve been able to win 10 games or more in eight of the last 11 seasons (not including 2020 where they only played seven games).

Though they went 4-3 in a jumbled schedule last year, they return over 80% production on both sides of the ball. They’re once again going to have a great offensive line. They have a talented young quarterback in Graham Mertz who beat out Jack Coan for the starting job. Let’s not forget that they are bringing back a defensive coordinator that turned down an opportunity to be the DC for the Green Bay Packers and almost all of their best players from a defense that finished fourth in FEI.

All of that suggests that it will be a very tough game for Notre Dame. They may be the best team that the Irish face in 2021.

They’ve won all of these games over the last decade. Paul Chryst has carried on the tradition that was started by Barry Alvarez and they’ve consistently remained a strong program. Despite all of that, here’s their record against the three blue-blood programs in the Big 10 (Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan) since 2015 (the year Chryst became head coach): 3-8

All three of those wins came against Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan.

Chryst beat Brian Kelly once when he was the head coach at Pitt (the Stephon Tuitt ejection game). He’s at a better program now and he’s got a better team. However, Wisconsin is not a blue-blood program and they have had most of their success beating up teams who are similar in talent, but aren’t nearly as good at developing players.

We’ll see how the two teams look in September and that may change my perspective, but as it stands right now, I can’t see any way I’d pick Wisconsin to beat Notre Dame at Soldier Field. Kelly has now built up the Irish to the point that until proven otherwise, picking his side is the smart bet in this kind of matchup.

2. It really is amazing what Kyren Williams did last season. Kelly has had others go from redshirting as a freshman to being an impact player in year two, but the list could be counted on one hand.

It’s Williams, Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley (who played a bit as a freshman before taking a redshirt), DeShone Kizer, and Quenton Nelson. Seriously, that’s the list.

So if you’re predicting that a receiver like Jordan Johnson or Xavier Watts will have a monster season, recent history suggests that it’s unlikely to happen. If you’re hoping that someone like Ramon Henderson will go from raw athlete to lockdown corner after a redshirt year, realize that it’s not based on precedent.

If there’s one guy I feel best about joining those five that I mentioned, it would be Tosh Baker. A lot of that has to do with opportunity and the fact that super talented offensive linemen are three of those five.

More than a few players who redshirted will contribute, but it would be surprising if a couple of them made the kind of impact Williams did.

3. It would be great for Notre Dame if Baker was the next Martin, Stanley, or Nelson for obvious reasons. One reason it would be that many might not know about is that Cincinnati’s Myjai Sanders decided to return to school.

He had a great year for the Bearcats and was speculated to be rising up draft boards. He had 10.5 tackles for loss and five passes deflected. I watched a lot of him while studying Marcus Freeman’s defense and he has awesome length and great twitch. He’s going to be a problem to block next year and not just Notre Dame.

I think he could have been a day two pick this spring. He might be a first rounder in 2022.

4. Linebacker Ben Davis entering the transfer portal reminded a lot of people that Notre Dame went all out trying to sign him back during the 2016 recruiting cycle. They sent the equipment truck just to get his attention.

They did the same thing with wide receiver Demetris Robertson. Davis was a 5-star recruit and so was Robertson. When they chose other programs, Alabama and Cal respectively, it felt like they were huge losses at the time.

Davis has seven career tackles. Robertson had 50 receptions in his first season at Cal. He’s had 49 in the last four seasons.

This isn’t a commentary on 5-stars being overhyped. Consider it a reminder that losing a stud in recruiting isn’t always as crushing as it may appear at the time.

If someone is ranked as a 5-star recruit, they are a very talented athlete. There is no doubt about that. Maybe these two weren’t in the right situations or maybe they were never going to work out. It certainly takes some sting away for Notre Dame fans that neither have become great college players.

5. I remember Devin White as a chunky high school linebacker who didn’t have a true future position. He was overweight, 260 pounds at 6’0” as a high school junior. He could run really fast in a straight line, but he struggled to change directions quickly and appeared to be a few cheeseburgers away from moving to defensive tackle. Most sites had him ranked as a running back.

Fast forward to a few years later and he slimmed down considerably. He transformed his body and became more athletic because of it. He now weighs 237, was a top-five pick, and is one of the top linebackers in the NFL.

I can’t say that current Notre Dame target, Niuafe Tuihalamaka‍, fits the same mold as White. His listed weight is the same as White’s right now in the NFL and he certainly doesn’t move anything like White does currently.

I would say Tuihalamaka looks like a throwback Mike linebacker who may be stuck as a two-down player in college.

But who’s to say he won’t move much better as a junior? He hasn’t had his season yet in California. Or maybe he’s someone who is going to stick at this weight over the next few years and be a better version at this weight? I honestly don’t enough about him yet to say. I certainly didn’t know enough about White to know that he’d be someone simply needed to lose the weight to take his athleticism to another level.

Tuihalamka is a perfect example of why evaluating some of these rising senior prospects is so difficult without a season. I like him as a player, but I have questions. Maybe some of those questions get answered before he even gets to college.

6. This might sound like a crazy take, but former NFL and college football coach June Jones has Trevor Lawrence as his third ranked quarterback in the class. Mac Jones is his top quarterback, which sounds even crazier, until you read this article from Yahoo’s Eric Edholm and Jones’ reasoning at least makes you think about it.

The Athletic’s Dane Brugler came out with his current top-10 quarterbacks in this year’s draft and one thing that most of them had in common was that mobility was a strength. It’s not for Mac Jones, which is why it’s so critical that he was elite in other areas like deep ball accuracy. As Brugler mentions in his notes about Jones, he has advanced-level poise and anticipation. That’s the kind of thing that’s necessary to be a top quarterback without the mobility being a big piece of the puzzle.

How many young quarterbacks in high school show advanced-level poise, anticipation, and deep ball accuracy? It’s extremely rare and those are things that aren’t easily developed.

Most of the best high school quarterbacks show outstanding mobility and elite arm talent and with those qualities Jones has so extremely difficult to find at a young age, the physical traits are important to rely on even if we’ve seen several good athletes with big arms fizzle out in college football. 

This is why I’m all for taking as many shots with quarterback recruits as possible. Alabama could have been fine with only Tua Tagovailoa in their 2017 class. He was the Elite 11 MVP and a consensus top prospect. It didn’t stop them from taking Jones in the same year. They worked to flip him from Kentucky after they had already earned a commitment from Tagovailoa.

It usually doesn’t work out this good with two quarterbacks. Maybe one works out and the other transfers. For both to be that good and stay at the same school is atypical.

I think Notre Dame fans would be happy with one quarterback as good as either of them, which is why I’m for them taking two quarterbacks in a class more often. Both won’t likely stick around, but only one has to hit for it to be a success. And unless they are completely sold on the one, why not take a shot with a second?

subscribe Verify your student status
See Subscription Benefits
Trial only available to users who have never subscribed or participated in a previous trial.