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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

March 18, 2021

Notre Dame has not announced spring practice dates yet, which is probably an indication that they aren’t going to be opening things up much to the media. It makes sense given that they’ll try and take every precaution to not have anything interrupt critical practice time.

They didn’t have a spring ball last year. They also lost some strength and conditioning time due to a Covid outbreak within the team. They need this time to develop the young core of a team that is going to replace many of the veterans who had played a key role in winning so much over the last few years.

The team right now is an enigma to me. Raw talent and the way the staff has developed in recent years suggest they’ll be very good again, but their ceiling is a mystery because there are so many players who are going to be asked to step forward.

There are several who I believe have the potential to be great and their time may be right now. There are so many that I want to see how they look at the start of spring and then reassess in the summer.

Tosh Baker and Andrew Kristofic are circled up front for me. Baker may be the next elite left tackle for the Irish and Kristofic could be someone who starts at multiple positions. They both could be foundational pieces on the O-line for not just this season, but the next few years.

I know I’m not the only one who wants to see where Jordan Johnson fits and if he is going to be in the mix. I’m very intrigued with whether or not Xavier Watts can break through at receiver as well. I was much higher on him as a prospect than many and I want to see if he can jump the line in front of some older players.

Will Isaiah Foskey work his way from flash to consistency? Him and Jordan Botelho have pass rush potential that is arguably higher than the defensive ends from that great 2016 class, but at the very least one of them has to start towards that potential this year.

Jack Kiser might be one of the most intriguing players on the entire roster. Where does he fit and is Marcus Freeman going to run with him more than Clark Lea did? He’d be on the list of players who seemed poised for greatness at some point down the line.

Then there’s secondary where everyone would love to see things finally click the way they were supposed to with Houston Griffith. I know I was very bullish on KJ Wallace’s potential and there should be an opportunity for him to make a move at safety, much like there is an open competition at corner where Ramon Henderson is someone who was more than athlete than corner as a recruit, but he’s a pretty darn good athlete. How he looks at corner after a year in the program is going to be interesting to watch.

There’s all of those players and I didn’t even mention the early enrollee quarterback who hasn’t taken part in a football practice since 2019.

There’s a ton of unknowns on the roster who could hit big for Notre Dame in 2021 and get it kicked off this spring. If a handful of those I listed end up being big factors for Notre Dame, the ceiling for how good the team can be this fall changes.

If more than that experience a breakout spring ball, then we may see another squad capable of running the table again in the regular season.

2. I didn’t bring up Jayson Ademilola there, but I have a feeling that he may be in line for a monster spring leading into a great season.

It’s been tough for him because he’s been competing with Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and when there are two good players who play the same spot, the opportunities aren’t always going to be there. His two best games were the final two of last season, though. That got overshadowed by the losses, but his play was a bright spot against Clemson and Alabama.

If MTA ends up playing some end in ‘21, that likely means more snaps for Ademilola. The sacks didn’t come through, but his 11.1% pressure rate was very good. He was at 16.2% in those final two games.

Sheldon Day was the player Ademilola was compared to when he was being recruited by the Irish. Injuries held him back as a sophomore and junior, but he had a super disruptive senior season with a 13.5% pressure rate and 15.5 tackles for loss (most in the Brian Kelly era). His junior year was far less disruptive than Ademilola as a pass rusher (7% pressure rate).

I don’t know if Ademilola can come close to what Day did in 2015, but he’s one guy I think is primed to go from contributor to key piece on defense.

3. It’s great to see Romeo Okwara being rewarded with a big contract after coming into the NFL as an undrafted free agent. I think he should have been selected after his senior season, but he was a classic case of a late bloomer.

He had 11 tackles for loss in his last seven games at Notre Dame. He only had 9.5 before that.

Okwara and Stephon Tuitt both put up double digit sacks in the NFL this past year. They have been tracking sacks since 1982 and 2020 was the first time the Irish had two players who have done that in the same season. Justin Tuck (four times), Bert Berry (twice), and Bryant Young (twice) are the other pass rushers who have put up double digit sack numbers in a single season, but never had another Notre Dame player do it in the same year.

4. I did not watch much of NC State the last two years without them being on Notre Dame’s schedule so I have to admit that I was unaware of offensive lineman Ikem Ekwonu.

The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman wrote about him after several ACC coaches mentioned that he was the best lineman in the conference last year ahead of projected first round pick Christian Darrisaw of Virginia Tech.

If the last name sounds familiar, it’s because Ikem is the twin brother of Osita. The current Notre Dame linebacker was a 4-star prospect and one of the top defenders on the board for the Irish in the 2019 class. Ikem, a 3-star 36th ranked guard in the composite rankings, had his share of Power 5 offers. He was not pursued as heavily as Osita was, though.

Notre Dame certainly didn’t show much interest in Ikem.

The way Ikem is described by his own coaches and rivals in the ACC, it feels insane that he didn’t have more offers. Any time a player has adjectives like dominant, violent, and rare beside his name, it’s a pretty big sign that several schools whiffed on their evaluations of a kid who also ran the anchor leg on his relay team.

It also makes me think that Osita, who might have been the most impressive freshman from a physical standpoint in 2019 fall camp, is someone who shouldn’t be given up on.

Maybe Osita is the next Steve Filer, a guy who looked the part and had all the tools to be great. Or maybe he’s Asmar Bilal, who took a little bit longer for the light to turn on, but it turned out fairly well when it did.

5. I think Irish fans should be very excited about what the starting linebackers could look like in a few years. Joshua Burnham and Prince Kollie are the best two linebacker prospects the Irish have signed in the last five recruiting cycles in my opinion.

Those two plus Kahanu Kia, Nolan Ziegler, and Khari Gee, if he moves to Rover, are a really strong nucleus already. It seems likely that Notre Dame is going to add two more outstanding prospects to that group from this 2022 cycle.

The Irish have had three linebackers win the Butkus Award in the next decade. I think the linebackers are going to be a strength again this season even after losing Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. I’m not saying that Notre Dame should be called the new “Linebacker U”, but it’s been a good run at the position and things are only looking up.

6. Everybody wants the next Tony Romo in the booth, except it took years to find him and there hasn’t been anyone hired that has generated as much buzz since.

I’m sure NBC hopes they have found their Romo in Drew Brees and they are immediately moving him to the booth to call Notre Dame games this fall. I know there are many who aren’t happy about it, partially because of the man he is replacing.

Tony Dungy was very good. Not just because he was knowledgeable, but he clearly had strong chemistry with Mike Tirico from their time working on Sunday Night Football. That chemistry went a long way in helping make them a very good team. They were probably my favorite duo that NBC has put in the booth for ND games.

I don’t know if Brees will be good or not because there have been several sports broadcasting hires that looked like home runs that turned out to be duds. Brees is someone that networks were fighting for, but that doesn’t mean anything. They were fighting for Jay Cutler at one point and that didn’t turn into anything significant.

I do think Brees deserves more of a chance than some are giving him without even listening yet.

The thought is that he’s a Purdue guy and people are tired of having a “rival” in the booth after having a couple of former Boston College players and a former USC player. That line of thinking is understandable considering that Doug Flutie and Pat Haden weren’t good at the job, but it immediately discounts the fact that Mike Mayock was (at least in my opinion).

In a perfect Notre Dame world, NBC would finally add a former Notre Dame player to their broadcast. I know Brady Quinn is someone who has been mentioned since he’s been working at Fox for awhile and there’s others like Aaron Taylor and Rocky Boiman who are currently working for CBS and ESPN respectively.

All three would be better than Flutie was, but that’s a pretty low bar to clear.

To some it may only matter that it’s a Notre Dame guy there with Tirico or whoever. I couldn’t care less what school someone went to. I just hope that Brees adds to the broadcast and he has chemistry with Tirico. Those parts are unknown with him and it won’t be long before he gets tested with the Irish playing Purdue in September.

One wrong line from Brees on that day and it’s the kind of thing that will make some Notre Dame fans sour on him forever.

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