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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

February 25, 2021

We have to go all the way back to 2016 for the last time Notre Dame had a quarterback competition during spring ball.

That was the DeShone Kizer versus Malik Zaire battle. On paper it looked like there could be no wrong choice. It’s a good example of why football isn’t played on paper.

The handling of the situation was not anywhere close to smooth and not making a proper call on it earlier in the process helped play a part in an unsuccessful season. No one wants to see a replay of what happened then.

It shouldn’t, mostly because it’s a completely different situation with no one returning starter rather than two of them.

This thing should be wide open and the choices couldn’t be more different.

There’s the experienced transfer, the prior season’s backup, the guy coming off of an injury, and the early enrollee. It sounds like a description of a ragtag bunch of misfits as much as it does a quarterback competition.

For some, the choice is easy: choose the guy with the most upside and let it ride.

That would be Tyler Buchner and he’s the best athlete and runner out of the group. If he wins the job, the offense could look drastically different with him than it would with anyone else. That’s also why he’s the most fascinating choice. Him winning the job would open up the offense to look quite a bit different than it did in Tommy Rees’ first season as coordinator.

Just because it’s more intriguing doesn’t make it the right choice, though. That will be determined over the next six months. He has to earn it and whether he can do that this year is a mystery.

The biggest reason why is that he’s played far less football than any of the guys he’s competing against. It’s not just that he doesn’t have the college starts that Jack Coan has at Wisconsin. He’s played far less game reps than Drew Pyne and Brendon Clark did in high school.

Pyne had 1,111 pass attempts in high school. He played in 49 games. Clark threw the ball 888 times. He played in 45 games.

Buchner started one year at quarterback in high school. That was 13 games and he played in 10 more. He threw 439 passes.

That number would have likely doubled if Buchner had a senior season, but the pandemic prevented that from happening in California.

I’m sure he threw the ball plenty this fall while he waited to enroll at Notre Dame. But game reps are different. There is no substitute for them and those reps aren’t even college game reps. The lack of those for Buchner, who missed his sophomore season with a knee injury, makes it very difficult to project how ready he will be in year one in South Bend.

Trevor Lawrence was the ideal freshman starter at quarterback. He didn’t start the first game of the season, but probably should have. Clemson had Kelly Bryant returning, though, so it’s understandable that they didn’t just hand Lawrence the job despite all of the reports that he was the superior player.

There is no Bryant blocking Buchner’s path. He could win the job and be on his way to becoming a three or four-year starter for the Irish, however, it is important to note that Lawrence was not only a 5-star recruit coming into Clemson, but he had won 41 straight games in high school. He had also thrown the ball 1,335 times in games before he stepped foot on campus.

Buchner has the typical freshman obstacles to overcome when it comes to playing. He also has the atypical high school experience that has to be factored in as well.

If he is the starter for Notre Dame to open the season or at any point in 2021, it’s going to be fun to see what he can do because he clearly has special traits. They’ll have to be very special to overcome his lack of experience.

2. I put out my initial ISD Fab 50 earlier this week. Rivals and 247 updated their rankings this week too. A common theme with all of the rankings is that Notre Dame is only involved with a handful of top-50 prospects.

There are five from the Fab 50 that Notre Dame is in the mix for (S Xavier Nwankpa‍, RB Gavin Sawchuk‍, OT Aamil Wagner‍, QB Gavin Wimsatt‍,  S Sherrod Covil Jr.‍, and LB Joshua Burnham‍). We might be able to take Nwankpa out of that mix as well (please see Mike’s latest INTEL for an update).

In the 247sports rankings, they have Sawchuk as well as RB Nicholas Singleton‍, DT Anthony Lucas‍, DE Cyrus Moss‍, OT Zach Rice‍,and WR CJ Williams‍. That looks a little less bleak than my top-50 in terms of interest for Notre Dame, but if you look at their top-100, the composite top-100, and my own top-100, the Irish are involved with more prospects than they have been in recent years.

I have 18 in my top-100 that Notre Dame has a shot to land as things stand today with two already committed in DE Tyson Ford‍ and RB JD Price‍. I count 14 from 247Sports’ top-100.

The most composite top-100 prospects Brian Kelly has signed in one class was six. That was way back in 2011, his first full-class he brought in at Notre Dame.

It’s taken a while to get back to this point, but I do think they could end up landing more than six in this cycle.

3. Notre Dame is likely going to end up with nine players from the 2016 class being drafted by NFL franchises. Nine out of 23 players that signed is outstanding, especially when you consider that the much hyped 2013 class also signed 23 and only had five.

That nine doesn’t include some pretty good players like Tommy Kraemer, Jalen Elliott, Tony Jones, Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley, and Jamir Jones either.

They finished 15th in the team recruiting rankings that year.

Alabama finished first.

That class had three first round selections and four more that were day two picks, but that’s it. They might get one more drafted this spring. It might be hard to believe, but Notre Dame is going to have more players taken by NFL teams than the top ranked class that year.

That says a lot about how great the development was for the Irish with that group. I don’t think the staff is ever going to be able to consistently evaluate and develop a class as good as that one turned out, but that should be the goal because you only have to look at Alabama’s next class to figure out what the Irish are up against.

They’ll end up with 11 players drafted from the group Nick Saban signed in 2017 and might have as many as eight end up as first round picks. Four already went last year and four are projected to go in the first 32 picks this year.

4. Two years ago I wrote about Notre Dame being a high-end developmental program. A few weeks ago Mike Elston reiterated that’s who they are.

They are trying to recruit players with high ceilings and then get them to reach for that while at Notre Dame.

That class I just referenced shows that they are doing a pretty good job of that. However, they can be better without even getting into landing more top-100 prospects.

Since 2017, Notre Dame has played really well on defense and has had seven players drafted from that side of the ball. They are going to have three more this year to make it 10 in the last five drafts.

A program on the west coast has been better at developing defenders, though. Washington, who routinely recruits at a lower level than Notre Dame, has had 12 defenders drafted over the same timeframe and are going to have four more this year.

16 guys on defense drafted in five years is great for any program. That’s more than Clemson has had (12). Only Ohio State and Alabama, both over 20, have done what Washington has done when it comes to developing NFL Draft picks on that side of the football.

And those two blue-bloods have done with several elite prospects. 11 of those 16 from Washington were 3-star recruits.

6 of the 10 from Notre Dame were 4-star recruits. It’s obviously a combination of UW doing a great job of developing them while they are on campus with Chris Petersen and Jimmy Lake, but the identification of talent is a big part of it too. Not included in that 16 is defensive end Ali Gaye who originally signed with Washington and is now one of the top defensive lineman in the SEC at LSU. He was another 3-star prospect in high school.

Washington is the current standard as a developmental program. Notre Dame won’t have to recruit much better than they do right now if they can get up their level.

5. PFF has been dropping their top-10 returning players at each position and looking at it was a good reminder that Notre Dame isn’t projected to play too many elite players next year.

The top-10 guys at their position that Notre Dame will face are UNC’s Sam Howell and USC’s Kedon Slovis at quarterback, Cincinnati corner Ahmad Gardner and defensive end Myjai Sanders, and Purdue wide receiver David Bell. Maybe USC wide receiver Drake London would be a consideration as well, but there just aren’t many “game wreckers” that they are going to have to deal with like in the last few years.

College football can change in an instant and a player can go from unknown to superstar fairly quickly, but this is another reason why I’m going to have a hard time predicting against the Irish to win at least 10 games again this fall.

6. I wanted to save my final thought on a recruit Mike mentioned in his recent ISD Intel as showing strong interest of late.

Safety Kevin Winston‍ is not highly ranked by 247 or Rivals. I’m very high on him as a prospect and I don’t mind being out on a limb with my evaluation of him right now. He has the range to play deep, closes in a hurry, and has good recognition in man coverage.

He’s a top-100 recruit in my opinion and that’s only based off of his sophomore year. He hasn’t played as a junior yet and has gotten bigger.

That’s the key piece of this for him and several others who haven’t had a junior season. There are going to be guys who go from barely ranked or not having a profile on some sites to being considered elite.

I hope there is not another year like this where there is spring football in so many states, but I have to admit that it makes recruiting a little bit more interesting. Winston is someone who I believe will show he is a great prospect and there are going to be more like him who we don’t even know about right now.

There’s more work for college coaches and personnel departments because of this unique year. Whoever handles that the best could end up benefiting greatly in the 2022 cycle.

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