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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

June 3, 2021

There’s a lot of bad takes out there about Notre Dame football on an annual basis. Most of them come from people who don’t cover the program year-round.

This piece from Ian Boyd is an exception to that and an unsurprising one considering the work he consistently puts out on the Big 12, the Texas Longhorns, and college football in general for Inside Texas. I’ll add a disclaimer that he is a friend of mine, but will also add that a major reason we became friends had to do with how much I respect his work.

It was shared on the board earlier in the week and I know some have read it already. I recommend checking out the whole thing, but I wanted to grab his last words in it that in my opinion perfectly encapsulate the heart of the piece:

Winning in today's world of college football requires more than fielding big guys in the middle of the field. You have to be able to match up in space, or else have some sort of strategy to force the action back into the box. Notre Dame is clearly targeting improvement on the perimeter, we’ll see how it works out.

It’s evident that the Irish can hang with any program at the line of scrimmage. That has been the foundation of their success in recent years. Getting better on the perimeter is a necessity, though, and something we have discussed and I have written about plenty on ISD.

For the most part, the focus has been on the receiver position and the passing game. And because of what they’ve been missing in that aspect of the game, we’ve probably ignored the other side of it.

That would be defending the pass and the cornerback position specifically. To put it bluntly, the program hasn’t amassed enough talent there to match up in one on one situations in the games they’ve lost.

In Notre Dame’s five losses since 2018, the defense gave up an average of 8.4 yards per attempt. The only game where they gave up less than 8.0 was the 2019 Georgia game. That’s not all on the cornerback position, but that’s a huge piece of it.

There is plenty of potential in the cornerback room this season. There’s reasons for optimism with the athletes they have and what we’ve heard about the top four players there coming out of spring. However, there’s reasons to be skeptical of how good they can be against elite competition as well. It all goes back to recruiting.

The staff signed five 4-star cornerbacks from the 2018 to the 2021 recruiting cycles. Only one of those players, true freshman Philip Riley, still plays corner, Two of them switched to safety, Houston Griffith and KJ Wallace, and two others transferred. That means that only one of the nine cornerbacks on the roster this season were a compositie 4-star prospect. That 11.1% Blue-Chip Ratio is by far the worst out of any position on the Notre Dame roster and it’s only one of two positions that are below 50%.

My ratio looks different than the composite as I had Ramon Henderson, TaRiq Bracy, Chance Tucker, and Clarence Lewis as 4-star prospects. 247Sports had Henderson and Bracy as 4-stars as well. None of that changes that Notre Dame needs to recruit better at cornerback to help take that next step on the field.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that Notre Dame is very likely going to play a lot more man coverage this season under Marcus Freeman when considering his corners were in man around 20% more than Notre Dame’s were in 2020. A lot of how good the pass defense depends on how well Mike Mickens develops his corners. In the biggest games, how they defend the perimeter matters just as much as how they play at the line of scrimmage.

2. I’m not going to rail against Bill Connelly’s SP+ preview that has Notre Dame projected to go 7-5 this season. I will be shocked if their record is anywhere close to that, but I think fans have to realize that a lot of that projections has to do with how he projects the other teams on the schedule and there’s a lot more context to that projection than just that record.

Wisconsin, North Carolina, USC, and Cincinnati are ranked above Notre Dame in Connelly’s recent SP+ projections. And if you look at the early point spreads for these games, they all kind of fit as toss up games currently. Spreads change drastically once we get to the season so I’m sure it will look much different at that time as could Connelly’s SP+ rankings.

Notre Dame is near the bottom when it comes to returning production so that has a lot to do with the projection. They will be a top-15 in total talent, though. Out of the14 teams with top-15 talent that ranked 100 or lower in returning production the previous four years, only three teams dropped off that significantly in terms of overall record.

Those programs (Michigan last season, LSU last season, and Tennessee in 2017) all had massive issues on their coaching staff. Notre Dame does not fit that description at all.

Five teams either improved or had the same record from the previous season. Six dropped by one or two games in the loss column. That’s how it went for 11 of the 14 and a dip could happen, but a drop to 7-5 seems unrealistic when you consider other factors. 

For what it’s worth, Alabama, Ohio State, Florida, Texas A&M, Texas, Georgia, Michigan, and Clemson are all 100 or lower in returning production as well. Every team from that group will have top-15 talent in 2021 and I’d be shocked if we saw most of these teams be worse. (Can Michigan get worse?)

Having more talent than your opponent still matters quite a bit in college football.

3. I was working on a piece that didn’t really materialize how I wanted to, but in the process of that I found something that caught my eye in my research.

Will Fuller had 11 100-yard receiving games in 2014 and 2015 for Notre Dame. He had seven alone in his final year.

That kind of production is why there is always going to be pining for the next Fuller to emerge. It’s why he and Michael Floyd stand alone at receiver from the Brian Kelly era above everyone else.

4. Georgia just added two extremely talented players via the transfer portal.

Former 5-star tight end Arik Gilbert has finally settled on coming back to his home state after maybe going back to LSU and they also added a top talent at corner in Clemson’s Derion Kendrick. Obviously those two players are good enough to help on any team. They’re also players who might not end up not helping at all.

Gilbert had some academic issues at LSU and didn’t exactly appear to be an easy player to manage. Kendrick had problems at Clemson that questioned his discipline and work ethic. They are both transferring for a reason.

In an uncapped year for scholarships, there may be no harm in rolling the dice with these two. If they go boom for Kirby Smart’s program, then it could be a big boom. The kind that could help get them over the hump.

But what if they bust? Does Georgia need that headache when the amount of talent they have seems to be the least of their issues when it comes to winning the SEC? The only team who has recruited better than them in all of college football is Alabama.

I’m really interested in seeing how both of those players do in Athens. Bringing them in means that Smart better have a strong culture of accountability to get the best out of them. If Georgia doesn’t, then I’m not sure how much those two will help them win.

5. USC’s Kedon Slovis had his second lowest quarterback rating of the season in 2019 when he went up against Notre Dame. UNC’s Sam Howell had his lowest quarterback rating of 2020 against the Irish.

That kind of thing always interests me. I’ve seen both of them projected as first round picks in way-too-early NFL mock drafts. I do wonder how good they are against top defenses because they didn’t excel when they played against Notre Dame.

Slovis was okay against Utah, the only top-40 defense in FEI they faced in 2020. He threw for 7.5 YPA and his passer rating was one point above his average. He was only pressured on 26.8% of his drop backs or else could have looked a lot worse.  

Oregon pressured him on 49.1% of his drop backs and it’s no surprise that was easily the worst game of the season for Slovis. His rating dropped 50 points below his average in that game.

Their line is projected to be worse than it was last year after losing first round left tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker and if they aren’t keeping a clean pocket against Notre Dame, it’s probably going to be a rough game for Slovis.

Howell played two top-40 defenses in 2020. The first was Notre Dame and we know how that went. The second was Texas A&M and in a game with all of that skill talent electing to opt out, he finished 32 points lower than his average passer rating and -2.8 with his average YPA.

He was pressured 45.2% of the time by Mike Elko’s defense and 47.2% of the time against the Irish. I know the first part of 6 Thoughts today was dedicated to Notre Dame improving the talent and level of play at corner, but when a team is getting pressure that much on a quarterback, it matters a lot less.

I think Notre Dame is going to get plenty of pressure in both of those games.

6. I think it’s going to be a great month for Notre Dame recruiting, which isn’t breaking news by any means. I think it may be even better than us at Irish Sports Daily are predicting it will be.

A lot of that has to do with Marcus Freeman. This is someone who has been winning over recruits on Zoom calls. I think he’s going to be even more impactful when he gets to sit down and talk to these athletes and their parents in person.

I’m sure that many of the prospects who are trending to Notre Dame will end up committing over the next couple of months. I feel fairly certain that there are going to be more than a few who aren’t trending to Notre Dame who end up headed in that direction once they get to campus.

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