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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

May 27, 2021
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Kyren Williams. Julian Okwara. Te’von Coney. Miles Boykin. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Those are five examples of players who made the leap and in doing so helped propel Notre Dame to greater heights.

Williams went from 29 all-purpose yards to 1,438 as the lead running back. Okwara went from a backup defensive end to leading the team in tackles for loss the next year. Coney went from splitting reps at Will linebacker to having a Jaylon Smith type of impact. Boykin went from backup with nine catches in the regular season to WR1. Owusu-Koramoah went from injured and off the radar to one of the most productive defensive playmakers in the country

It happens all the time in college football. It’s kind of what the game is all about. Good players leave and others have to step up and replace them. And if a program is going to sustain success, then they’ll need a few players to make the same kind of leap those guys did.

Notre Dame lost nine players to the NFL Draft and are near the bottom of the country in returning production for this season. They might need more than a handful to make the leap to keep winning like they have been.

The good news is that I see several candidates who could do so.

Kevin Austin should have a making the leap award named after him because he’s been a top candidate twice before. As long as there are no other obstacles that get in his way. He tops the list at a critical position.

Lawrence Keys was the star of the passing game this spring in a way that he hadn’t been previously. He has 18 career catches and only three catches of 20-yards or more. He matched that number in the Blue-Gold game so we’ll see if that can carry over.

A late-career surge has been a common occurrence for Notre Dame in recent years with players like Boykin, Asmar Bilal, and Dexter Williams not making the leap until their fourth year in the program. Jayson Ademilola could join them now that he has a clear path to start at defensive tackle and he’s coming off the two best games of his career to end last season.

Maybe his high school teammate Shayne Simon joins him after a strong spring. Or maybe the linebackers who flashed last year like Marist Liufau and Jack Kiser establish themselves as difference-makers.

Jacob Lacey and Howard Cross could both be thrown into the pot as candidates as well. An injury stunted Lacey’s progress and Cross looked to be thriving in Marcus Freeman’s scheme this spring. It wouldn’t be surprising to see either go from backup to being a force.

Is it time for the leap from young players in the secondary like Cam Hart, Ramon Henderson, or KJ Wallace? Or maybe it’s another late career jump from Houston Griffith or DJ Brown.

I named thirteen players and could list more. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s also a little scary for Notre Dame fans that there is so much unknown about who some of the best players on the team will be heading into the summer.

Season win totals came out for college football this week and Notre Dame’s came out at 9. That seems about right given everything they lost, although I would be on the side of taking the over on that bet.

That’s because in the last four years we’ve seen numerous players make the leap to help keep the Irish an annual double digit win program under Brian Kelly. I think we’ll see that extend to five with plenty of new stars emerging.

2. If I had to predict who will make the leap in 2021, I’m going with Liufau, Cross, Kiser, Austin, Ademilola, and Wallace. I would have added a corner in there too and think we’ll see one or more guys be very good, but I couldn’t make a guess as to who.

We’ll see how right or wrong I’ll be by December.

3. Speaking of those win totals, here’s how some of Notre Dame’s opponents are projected:

Stanford 4 (welp)

Wisconsin 9.5

Virginia Tech 7

UVa 6

USC 9

Purdue 5

UNC 10

FSU 5.5

Cincinnati 10

Four teams are at 9 or above, so even though Notre Dame doesn’t end up matched up with some of these programs whose total is 11 or higher, they won’t be able to avoid some tough matchups.

All of Notre Dame’s eight losses in the four seasons have come against teams who have won 9 games or more. Clemson (twice), Alabama, and Georgia (twice) stick out with five of those eight losses because of the talent advantage of the opponent.

I know some people might want to take Georgia out of that group with the other two programs, but the teams that beat Notre Dame won 13 and 12 games. One came within overtime of winning the national championship.

The only of the eight losses for Notre Dame that came at home was against that Georgia team.

The only team with a total of 9 or more playing the Irish away from home is Wisconsin (in Chicago).

Overall, Kelly is 11-8 against teams with nine or more wins in the last four years and even if Notre Dame were to go 2-2 against those four teams, it’s still hard to project Notre Dame not winning out against the rest of the schedule.

That’s one reason why if you’re going to bet on this, the over sounds like the correct one to make based on recent history.

4. Ian Book’s ability to escape the rush will be missed. There is no doubt about that. He had several players over the last three years where many quarterbacks would have been sacked and he managed to avoid it.

What won’t be missed was his tendency to drift into pressure. It was a huge problem in 2019 where PFF charted that 40.8% of the pressure he faced were plays that he was at least partially responsible for. That was first in the country (or last if you want to take it that way). Book improved significantly to 22.8% in his last season, but that’s still not ideal.

Jack Coan, who is certainly not Houdini in the pocket, was only partially responsible for 10.8% of pressure against him. He was near the bottom (or the top) in that category. Graham Mertz took over at quarterback for Wisconsin last season and was one of the worst at moving into pressure at 32.4%.

Coan is probably going to be the starter for Notre Dame this season and if that happens, then I’m sure the rushing yards from the quarterback will decline significantly. Unnecessary pressure against the quarterback should decline as well.

5. I don’t think there is anyone who doesn’t appreciate Kyren Williams’ grit as a runner. He ran for 702 yards last season AFTER CONTACT. Only seven backs in the country ran for more.

Unfortunately, only one back fumbled more times than him. That’s a problem and something he’ll need to fix.

It doesn’t mean he has to stop fighting for more yards. Other backs who were monsters after contact like Najee Harris, Breece Hall, and Javonte Williams didn’t have the same issues.

I’m sure Williams is well aware that he needs to protect the football better. The key will be doing that while still keeping the same relentless style that makes him so great.

6. The win against Clemson in 2020 was the best of the Brian Kelly era.

Imagine how much better it would have been with a packed stadium?

We won’t have to wonder about that this season. Notre Dame announced that they will be at full capacity this year and I couldn’t be more excited about it.

The thing that separates college football from any other North American sport is the game day experience. Notre Dame’s is unique and I’m sure the best parts of that will stay, but hopefully there is more added to it after such a long absence.

Normally a home opener against Toledo brings out the kind of crowd that sleepwalks through long stretches of the game. I think things might be a bit different this year after so much time away for the fans. I can only imagine what things will be like for that USC game.

I know that Notre Dame Stadium isn’t known for having the loudest crowds. I suspect that this season they may be a little bit louder.

The Irish don’t have Clemson coming to town this fall, but could face three top-20 teams in USC, Cincinnati, and North Carolina. Let’s hope that those produce some great memories with the crowd elevating the experience.

 
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