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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

April 29, 2021

For the last five seasons, most people knew where the ball was going to be thrown to the most. When Notre Dame was looking for a play from the wide receiver position, the majority of the time they were looking for a matchup on the boundary.

From Equanimeous St. Brown to Miles Boykin to Chase Claypool and then Javon McKinley, big bodies on the boundary were typically option number one in the passing game. Those four receivers led the teams in receptions since 2016.

We have to go back to Will Fuller and TJ Jones to find Notre Dame highlighting the “X” position more. Before them, though, it was Michael Floyd on the boundary catching 179 passes over two seasons in Brian Kelly’s offense.

The Irish had a plethora of boundary receivers even last season where McKinley and Ben Skowronek both fit best there. With both moving on to give the NFL a shot, there isn’t that bigger go-to guy at that spot for Notre Dame this spring.

That could change when Kevin Austin returns healthy this summer. He has the skills to fill that void. Perhaps Jordan Johnson, who has been banged up a bit and missed some time this spring, can emerge there as well.

The “W” receiver position has been such a crucial piece on offense for Notre Dame in the last half decade and the only recent time it wasn’t was when Fuller and Jones were 1,000 yard receivers at “X”. I don’t see that player to the field or in the slot so there will be a lot riding on if Austin can be the next guy to go from almost no production to being a consistent threat. He’d be following Boykin and McKinley who had 18 and 11 career catches respectively before their breakout seasons.

If Austin or Johnson can’t be counted on, though, we might see tight end Michael Mayer lining up there a lot on obvious passing downs.

As mentioned in my piece on him earlier this week, Mayer only lined up out wide on 9.5% of passing snaps last season. If the Irish can’t find a top option on the boundary to compliment the speed of guys like Avery Davis, Lawrence Keys, and Braden Lenzy, then we could see that percentage go way up.

Florida’s Kyle Pitts, the top tight end in today’s NFL Draft, lined up out wide on 21.2% of passing snaps last season. If Notre Dame doesn’t find that reliable player on the boundary, around 20% for Mayer is a number I think we’ll see.

2. Something that really didn’t make much sense to me when examining Mayer’s numbers last season was the fact that he was only targeted 17 times all season as an intermediate receiver (between 10 and 19 yards).

That feels like an area where Mayer should eat all game long so that number was surprising to me.

I think a big reason why we didn’t see more targets for him was the guy throwing the ball. Ian Book did not excel making those medium completions and was a bit hesitant to make some of those throws. He finished 84th in adjusted completion percentage on intermediate targets. The previous season he was 114th.

I think Mayer will see a lot more action over the middle of the field in 2021, especially if Jack Coan wins the starting job. He was 22nd in adjusted completion percentage on those same throws in 2019.

3. I’d be lying if I wrote that not seeing any big runs from the backs in the highlights Notre Dame sent out wasn’t a red flag. All we have to do is go back to last fall camp where we also didn’t have access and saw several long runs from Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree.

It’s pretty obvious the issue is not with the backs, but with the moving parts and new faces on the offensive line. It’s been a TFL party just about every day with the highlights we’ve seen and that also backs up with what we’ve heard has gone on as well.

Notre Dame was exceptional at gaining positive yards when running the ball last season. They finished 15th in Stuff Rate and that helped them get into favorable down and distance situations as well as execute “4 minute offense” at an extremely high level to close out games.

I know it’s spring, but I just don’t see any way that is the identity of the offense this season. When they are looking for easy yards to keep the chains moving, I’d bet we’ll see a lot more throws to the perimeter than we saw all of 2020.

4. I’m for playoff expansion and it sounds like a lot more conference commissioners and athletic directors are as well. Strictly speaking from a fan perspective, more playoff games is a good thing and it will help eliminate opt outs by players from teams who would have settled for making a New Year’s Six bowl.

I think that any commissioner or AD who thinks this will solve the problem of Alabama (five national championship appearances), Clemson (four), and Ohio State (two) consistently being a cut above the other programs (three combined appearances for everyone else), then they are being incredibly naive. Notre Dame fans know that it’s one thing to get invited to the dance and it’s another thing to be good enough to win it.

Playoff appearances aren’t going to magically make more of these programs contenders to win it all. They have to build up their programs to be able to beat the best.

5. Notre Dame has a chance to have 10 players drafted this weekend. That would be the most since 1994, which is also the first time the NFL cut the draft to seven rounds. Eight players feels very likely and that would be tied for the most in the Kelly era (2014). It’s an obvious sign of a very healthy program.

How many players will the Irish have taken on day one or day two? That matters more because just about every player who is off the board then is an impact player. I thought they had anywhere from two to four potential selections, but in Daniel Jeremiah’s final rankings, he has five in his top-82: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (15), Liam Eichenberg (47), Tommy Tremble (52), Aaron Banks (74), and Robert Hainsey (82).

Maybe five do get selected, which would be the most since they had six in 2016.

Alabama has eight in his top-62 and seven of them are in his top-50. That’s the bar and Notre Dame has to keep working like Marcus Freeman to reach it.

6. JOK is the only sure first rounder on last season’s roster for Notre Dame, but there are a few more younger players who could end up joining him in future drafts.

This is the how many first rounders national championship teams had on their rosters since 2011:

2011 Alabama - 7

2012 Alabama - 6

2013 FSU - 4

2014 Ohio State - 5

2015 Alabama - 5

2016 Clemson - 5

2017 Alabama - 9

2018 Clemson - 6

2019 LSU - 6

2020 Alabama - 5+

The 5+ for Alabama is because they will definitely add to the five they are projected to have this year in future years. In the end, nine or 10 is probably going to be the number for them.

Yes, the coaching staff will have to prioritize fit when they recruit players to Notre Dame. An important question needs to be asked with every recruiting class, though: are there multiple individuals who can develop into first round picks?

If the answer is yes, then that one’s big step in getting to where they need to be to compete with these types of teams to win a championship.

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