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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

March 11, 2021
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Everyone who hasn’t undergone an Eternal Sunshine procedure remembers this moment from 2018.

Justyn Ross, all 6’4” of him, was lined up in the slot and beat Alohi Gilman down the field for a touchdown which essentially put the nail in the coffin of that game.

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Whether Gilman was playing that too aggressive or whether it was a bust by Jalen Elliott not rotating to help deep is irrelevant. What matters in this case is that Clemson put their two Entish receivers on the same side and had them run vertical routes.

They got Ross matched up with a safety and Trevor Lawrene probably knew it was six points before he hit the top of his drop.

That 2018 Clemson offense was spectacular down the stretch while on their way to a national championship. The duo of Ross and Tee Higgins, also 6’4”, was too much for Notre Dame and Alabama to handle in the playoffs. They combined for 22.9 yards per reception and five touchdowns and when they lined them up on the same side of the formation, defenses couldn’t find solutions to stop them.

Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool might not have been on the same level as those two, but they really aren’t that different when it comes to size or the ability to get deep. Boykin and Claypool both ran a 4.42 40 at the NFL Combine in back to back years.

Notre Dame didn’t find a way to unlock the potential of both of them in the same season. There was a good reason for that in 2017 with Equanimeous St. Brown ahead of them on the depth chart at boundary receiver and some issues at the quarterback position.

Boykin and Claypool were starting together on that 2018 team, though. A combined 109 catches is not bad at all, but the overall impact they had that year doesn’t feel like it matches up with their talent.

There’s been a lot of criticism directed towards Notre Dame receivers coach Del Alexander recently about the lack of development of young receivers. Some of it may be fair with players taking longer to breakout than at other positions. Some of it is not when you consider injuries or off the field issues being out of his control with some other players.

This really isn’t about him and the job he has done. This is more about whether or not Notre Dame did a good enough job of taking advantage of their big, fast wideouts.

I think it’s pretty obvious they didn’t and we should have seen a lot more of a pair like Boykin and Claypool lining up on the same side rather than sticking with the mentality of boundary and field as often as they did. Those two against a safety or a linebacker in the slot was going to be a win the majority of the time.

Clemson took advantage of that and several other offenses are doing the same by utilizing bigger options in the slot. When we saw this from Boykin in 2017 from the slot, it’s something I would have hoped to see more of outside of this one play.

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The hardest player to find and develop on defense is a good slot corner. Without that for most college football teams, it means linebackers and safeties are matched up often against receivers.

That doesn’t mean an offense needs a jitterbug speedy option there all the time. Sometimes the best mismatch is getting a big, fast receiver like Ross or LSU’s Terrace Marshall. He’s 6’3” and doesn’t fit the profile of a typical slot, yet he had over 1/4 of his targets come while lined up there and eight of his 10 touchdowns were from him starting out in the slot.

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Notre Dame has the potential to have some great production from the slot this season with Avery Davis returning and others like Lawrence Keys, Xavier Watts, and Lorenzo Styles as potential playmakers. I don’t want to take away from what that group might accomplish.

This is about not taking advantage of those mismatches more often with Boykin and Claypool when Chip Long was running the offense while also being optimistic that we may see more of this with a player like Kevin Austin in 2021.

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I know that touchdown was taken off the board, but I loved that call and loved seeing Austin in the slot with another big body, Ben Skowronek, outside.

There are mismatches to be exploited out of the slot in college football and it’s not just speedy smaller guys who can take advantage of it.

2. Notre Dame’s top three receivers had only 27 deep targets last season in 12 games. The previous season Claypool had 30 by himself. It’s easy to point the finger at Ian Book and say he didn’t pull the trigger on more downfield targets last season, but he’s the same guy who threw it deep to Claypool 30 times the year before.

The Irish are going to need to push down the field more often in 2021 no matter who is playing quarterback. Javon McKinley was only targeted 13 times on passes with air yards of 20 or more down the field. He caught nine of them, which is an impressive rate.

22.8% of his targets were deep compared to 27.8 for Claypool and 29.6 for Boykin in 2018. It seems obvious that Notre Dame could have targeted McKinley deep more than they did and they need to take more shots down the field in general this fall.

3. Whether it’s the early signing period, lack of visits due to the pandemic, or just a general decline with the program, it is pretty crazy that Stanford only signed one 4-star in the 2021 cycle.

The blue-chip ratio for their team this season is 24.4%, more than 30% lower than Notre Dame. The 2015 team that beat narrowly beat Notre Dame at home was at 40.2%.

That’s a pretty significant drop and the only way to make up for it is to hit more with 3-stars than they have been. I just don’t see that happening, which is why I wouldn’t be surprised for it to be awhile before Stanford gets back on the winning end of the rivalry.

4. CJ Stroud might be Ohio State’s quarterback this season. When we first saw him at The Opening in 2019, Baylor and Cal were battling it out for his commitment.

At this time two years ago he was ranked 860 in the composite. On May 31st he jumped up 511th. He jumped up to a 4-star after an MVP performance at the Elite 11. He finished as a top-50 prospect after a great senior season.

Jaxson Dart may be USC’s quarterback of the future after Kedon Slovis graduates. Before his senior year in Utah, he was 1620 in 247’s rankings. He finished 107th in the final rankings.

Those two quarterbacks were the second of two quarterbacks in the recruiting classes for Ohio State and USC respectively. They were obviously too good for those programs to pass up.

I’m mentioning this as a reminder that we have a long way to go with the rankings and we don’t know where Notre Dame commit Steve Angeli‍ may ultimately end up after his senior season. I’m also mentioning this because I strongly believe that Notre Dame should still keep their eyes open for a second quarterback in this class.

There are players who are just starting their junior campaigns now. There are players who had shortened or disjointed junior seasons because of the pandemic. Most of these guys haven’t been evaluated in person and there may be opportunities to see more quarterbacks throw this summer if things are trending in the right direction.

It would be fantastic for the Irish if Angeli really takes off with more reps as a senior, but even if that were to happen, I think they should still be looking out for another quarterback who may show them something over the next nine months.

5. This piece from Joe Rexrode of The Athletic on Clark Lea makes it pretty hard to believe that Lea would be ready to take the Notre Dame job if Brian Kelly were to walk away earlier than expected.

When someone is emphasizing a 10-year plan, it doesn’t sound like he’d be willing to leave after a few years, especially if things were going well.

I am definitely intrigued by this idea behind this long term plan when there are so many coaches who don’t last longer than their first contract. I know I’m in the camp that Lea is the kind of coach and person who could succeed at several schools. Vanderbilt might be the toughest gig out of all the Power 5 programs, though.

Frank Beamer built Virginia Tech into a power program and it was slow and steady to get there. He won 28 games in his first six seasons and it took until his ninth season before he won a conference championship. He then won 10 or more games in 13 of the next 17 seasons.

That was in the Big East and the ACC. Vandy plays in the SEC.

If Lea wants to be the next Beamer, then it means they are going to go through some growing pains to get to where he wants to be. It also means he’s probably not going to be a realistic candidate for a Notre Dame opening whenever there is one.

6. Earlier in the week I wrote about five potential breakout players this spring and Marist Liufau was included on the list. One of the reasons why had to do with him only blitzing on 13% of passing plays last season for Notre Dame. Marcus Freeman had his starting inside linebackers blitz 18.7 and 32.7% of the time on passing plays so it makes sense that Liufau would be activated more rushing the passer. He generated pressure 22% of the time he rushed the quarterback in 2020.

Drew White and Bo Bauer appear set at Mike linebacker for Notre Dame this fall and I do think their impact getting after the quarterback will be something to watch this season if Freeman is as aggressive as he was with Cincinnati last year.

White had a pressure rate of 34.2% on blitzes. Bauer’s was 20.3%.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching Clark Lea’s defense the last few years, but I have to admit that I’m looking forward to seeing the differences between Lea and Freeman. I think we’ve already seen how they are different as recruiters and seeing how they are different as defensive play-callers this fall is just as intriguing.

 
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