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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

May 6, 2021

No matter what happened with Jordan Johnson at Notre Dame in 2021, it was going to elicit a strong reaction from fans.

If he emerged as a starter, many would question why didn’t he play last season. If he were to enter the transfer portal, which he has elected to now, there would be many that would be upset about a talent like him not working out when the Irish clearly need to be better than they have been at wide receiver.

It says a lot about his time with the program that the only two on field plays he’ll be remembered for will be him punching a guy against South Florida and blocking when he was supposed to be receiving a screen pass in the spring game. Despite the potential he showed as a recruit, it never materialized for him at Notre Dame and that doesn’t even get into off the field issues that were part of his time in South Bend.

No fans should be upset with the Notre Dame staff about things not working out for Johnson. He’s not the first and he won’t be the last who needs to find a better fit.

The individual case is one part of it. The bigger picture is another and that’s something that fans can absolutely be justified in complaining about it.

That’s because it’s not just about Johnson leaving. It’s about there not being another comparable prospect on the roster who was already in front of him.

Notre Dame is “O-Line U” and “Tight End U”. If a player doesn’t end up developing as they’d hoped he would at one of those spots, they recruit at a level where there’s no issue to plug in the next guy. That hasn’t been the case at wide receiver, which is why when Kevin Austin hasn’t been able to stay on the field or Johnson didn’t turn out to be the player or fit they wanted him to be, it matters more because they aren’t signing multiple players like that in each recruiting cycle.

It’s also about only having two receivers left from the 2019 and 2020 classes. So it’s not even an issue they can throw numbers at hope that development will win the day. Cam Hart (2019) is now a corner and Kendall Abdur-Rahman (2019) also transferred. With Johnson out, it leaves only Jay Brunelle and Xavier Watts from the 2020 class.

The Irish signed three from the 2021 class with Lorenzo Styles, Deion Colzie, and Jayden Thomas. This puts a lot more pressure on Notre Dame to have this group hit.

Receivers coach Del Alexander is under pressure too. Every single receiver on the roster is one of his guys now. He recruited them all. He’s had some wins on the trail and with development, but not enough of them for Notre Dame to be comparable to the top offenses in the country at the position.

The frustration with the individual case of Johnson and not playing as a freshman is misguided. There were reasons (plural) why he shouldn’t have been on the field. The concerns about the future at wide receiver are completely understandable.

Finishing the 2022 class with some top of the board targets at the position could definitely help ease some of those frustrations, but unless what they see from the young receivers on the roster this year is going to tell them whether or not they may need to look to fill a hole or two with a transfer coming in.

2. Should people be concerned about the 2021 wide receiver group? I would say less so after seeing some of the results of the Blue-Gold game and how they backed up what we have heard publicly and privately about the position.

There were 11 completions of 20 yards or more. Six players total had at least one of those and Lawrence Keys had three. Even if the offense got close to that production from Keys, Braden Lenzy, Joe Wilkins, and the tight end group, that would be a huge shift when it comes to explosive plays. The scrimmage didn’t even include Austin or Michael Mayer.

The first rule of the spring game is to not overreact to the spring game, but the frequency that Tommy Rees attacked the deep middle and the way he used play-action to target tight ends feels like an indication of how the offense will be changing this season.

3. The 3rd down defense was outstanding by Marcus Freeman’s defense giving up a first down only 23.8% of the time. This was all without the “Dollar” package and with a low key amount of pressure brought on blitzes.

Notre Dame was good on 3rd down last season overall (11th), but there was a slide down from third in 2019. A lot of that had to do with the pass rush taking a step back and the secondary not being as good. 3rd down pass defense dropped to 70th in pass efficiency all the way from the fifth the year before. Notre Dame was 42nd in sack rate in 2020 after being 13th in 2019.

With this defensive line and what I believe Notre Dame has at corner this season, I think we’re going to see closer to the ‘19 level of play on 3rd down. Put that together with what Freeman likes to do on the money down and it’s going to be very tough for offenses to move the sticks.

4. One of the plays I liked the most from the Blue-Gold game was when Kyren Williams leaked out of the backfield on 3rd and 4. He caught the ball outside and beat Bo Bauer in space for a 14-yard gain.

That’s something I believe the Notre Dame offense will benefit doing more of rather than keeping Williams in to block. Williams did such a great job picking up the blitz in the win over Clemson that there were stories written specifically about it. The problem was that it was an outlier.

That game didn’t represent how he blocked all season. He wasn’t anywhere close to that level in the majority of other games. PFF gave him an overall pass blocking grade of 33.4. He’s certainly a willing blocker and I have little doubt that he'll be better than he was last season, but I think he and Chris Tyree are much more useful options in the passing game than they are in pass protection.

The more times that Rees can get them matched up on linebackers in coverage, the more problems it’s going to present to opposing defenses.

5. Welcome to the getting way too far ahead of the game department. Here’s something to chew on in regards to Florida State’s offensive line issues last season.

They were 104th in tackles for loss allowed per game and 112th in sack rate. There isn’t much room to go down from there and chances are they will be improved, but they aren’t going to go from horrible to very good up front.

They can have McKenzie Milton at quarterback or Jordan Travis and they are both potentially dangerous athletes to game plan against, but there is just no way that I can see Notre Dame not having a gigantic edge up front against them.

And unless every single transfer they are adding ends up being great for them, it’s tough to envision them going from a defense that managed a measly 13.3% Havoc rate to a game wrecking unit when they couldn’t get much out of a defense that featured Josh Kaindoh, Marvin Wilson, Asante Samuel Jr., and Janarius Robinson.

FSU will be better than they were a year ago. They still have a roster with too many holes.

6. I know there will be many who say that Notre Dame should have done more to help Jordan Johnson succeed. There will be others who say that if there was no one-time transfer rule, they would have still had a chance to keep him around and get him to be the player several projected him to be.

I don’t believe that would have changed much in this particular case. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out and the player is going to have a better chance at succeeding elsewhere.

It could have been the case with Jordan Botelho, who didn’t have the smoothest first year on campus. Look at what he’s done this spring, though. He’s competing to start at Vyper and he’s set himself up to play a big role on defense this season and beyond.

Whenever someone wants to respond to a transfer with it being the fault of the coaches or the player, remember that many times it is no one’s fault. It’s just not the right fit. And with some players, college football in general might not be the right fit.

There were 177 comments on the announcement of Johnson transferring on Irish Sports Daily and a lot of blame was thrown around for it not working the way everyone wanted it to. That ignores the fact that each individual is different and I know it is often judged that way by people who want every former top recruit to be great at Notre Dame.

I’m sure writing this will not prevent anyone from reacting a certain way when the next player decides to transfer. It just felt like something I should write considering I chose to transfer while I was in college and the only thing to blame for it was the fit.

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