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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

June 10, 2021

Like every other program in America, Notre Dame is looking for stars to break out on their roster to become top players nationally. They had Julian Okwara in 2018, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in 2019, and Kyren Williams in 2020.

We’ll see who it will be this season, but there isn’t one obvious choice. Then again, none of those three were obvious choices either.

They certainly wouldn’t have made this list of breakout candidates that PFF recently put out. Before anyone starts trashing PFF about once again not including Michael Mayer on this list, this list is more about highlighting players who were backups or part-time starters. Though Mayer could technically fit into that category, he tied for the team lead in receptions last season. It’s inarguable that his debut season in college was already a breakout campaign.

It is worth noting the teams who have multiple players on the list are teams Notre Dame is trying to catch in terms of talent. Clemson has five players, Georgia has three, Ohio State has two, and Florida has two. (Alabama has one) Those first four schools mentioned make up nearly half of the 25 players mentioned. Throw in the one Alabama player and it’s over half.

Those 13 have flashed enough in college to make the list, but it’s no coincidence that 12 of the 13 were ranked as blue-chip recruits (4 or 5-stars). 11 of 13 were top-100 recruits and eight of the 13 were 5-stars.

Out of the entire list of 25, 13 were 5-star recruits.

It’s not breaking news that top-100 recruits have awesome potential, but it is worth mentioning that one reason why Notre Dame doesn’t have a player on the list is that they don’t sign enough top-100 recruits. They clearly need more of them if they are going to beat Clemson and Ohio State, two programs that they have on the schedule in 2022 and 2023.

A lot of these breakout candidates become game-wreckers and those two programs are going to have multiple game-wreckers on both sides of the ball. Notre Dame only beats those teams if they have close to the amount of those types of athletes opposing them.

One thing that does stand out about who isn’t on the list are the lack of 2021 Notre Dame opponents. Florida State running back Lawrance Toafili is the only one, which is part of the reason why it’s difficult to envision Brian Kelly’s team not winning 10 or more games again this fall.

Sure, they have to replace a lot, but how are more than two teams going to beat them if they are all less talented and don’t have breakout players to help make up the difference? It sets it up to be a weird year where Notre Dame may not be as good as they have been, but still could have the same or better record than they had last season.

The discussion will be much different when it’s 2022 and the challenges that the two juggernauts they’ll play will be unavoidable. That’s why this year it’s not just important for some Notre Dame players to emerge unexpectedly, it will also be important for players to show signs that they can break out the next year.

2. While working on two game-wreckers pieces this week, I realized that Wisconsin doesn’t really have any obvious choices that fit that description.

There is no doubt they will be good, but who are there great players that can take over a game? Who on their roster is someone Notre Dame will have to specifically game plan for because they can change the outcome of the game if teams don’t have an additional focus on them?

Those answers are unclear right now about Wisconsin. Inside linebacker Jack Sanborn is a good player. I wouldn’t classify him anywhere close to the kind of game-wrecker that Georgia’s Roquan Smith was.

There isn’t a clearly dynamic pass rusher returning. They don’t have the typical bell cow back that everyone knows will be great. Unsurprisingly, they don’t have a game breaker returning at receiver.

They have three sophomores at those spots who could end up being great, though it’s far from a certainty.

Outside linebacker Nate Herbig flashed some potential as a pass rusher, but he had only one sack and five total pressures on 142 pass rush snaps. Running back Jalen Berger was a highly rated recruit who averaged 5.0 yards per carry in four games, but his longest run of the season was 23-yards. I don’t think anyone is predicting him to be the next Jonathan Taylor quite yet. Wide receiver Chimere Dike has been talked up after a good spring, but he only had 12 catches on 28 targets last season. He may take a big step this season. That still may not make him a game-wrecker.

They are going to be a good team and I think it’s fair to say that the game is going to be very close. Often in close games it comes down to great players making a big play. It’s undetermined who Wisconsin’s great players are at this time.

3. With news that a 12-team playoff model seems more likely than an eight-team one once the decision makers decide to expand the College Football Playoff, I’m of two minds about whether or not it’s good for college football.

Good: more programs get a taste of the playoff.

It would be fun to see programs like Iowa State, Coastal Carolina, and Cincinnati in a playoff game. All of them were in the top-12 last season.

The best part of the NCAA tournament is the opening weekend. This isn’t that, but it’s the closest thing college football would have to it.

Bad: getting more teams in doesn’t mean it changes anything when it comes to the imbalance of the top teams compared to everyone else.

Alabama is still going to be Alabama when it comes to the personnel they put on the field. All this would do is allow them another shot at winning when they don’t win the SEC. They lost two close games to Auburn and LSU in 2019 and ended up being ranked 12th.

Good luck to the fifth ranked team that season because they’d now be up against an offense with four first round wide receivers on the roster in their opening round matchup.

I think the good will outweigh the bad when compared with how the bowls have been devalued currently, but I don’t know how this changes much for who will ultimately win the title.

4. I’ve always thought that Drew White should probably get more credit for how effective he is as a blitzer, but I have to admit that I was surprised to find out that no linebacker had a higher pass rush win rate than him in 2020.

He pressured the quarterback on 34.2% of his rushes and had more pressures, sacks, and hits on the quarterback than Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. JOK rushed the quarterback twice as much as White did as well.

White did all of that without playing in sub-packages. He was taken off the field for Bo Bauer in those situations. It’s not that Bauer was bad at blitzing and his win rate is probably affected by him mugging up as a rusher more than White, who is typically attacking from off the line of scrimmage. Bauer generated pressure on 11.5% of his rushes.

We’ll see how Marcus Freeman approaches things, but no matter how it plays out, this is another reminder that White’s ability is underappreciated.

5. My friend Michael Bryan from 18Stripes has another great analytics deep dive on Notre Dame football. This time the focus is on the passing offense and there are tons of great nuggets in there.

He always does a fantastic job of bringing context to the numbers. This part in particular did a great job of explaining the job Tommy Rees did as a coordinator in setting up Ian Book to succeed.

Rees could have called more shot plays or pushed harder for Book to toss up some 50/50 balls to his large receivers. But there are trade-offs to those high-upside / low probability throws. A massive reason for Notre Dame’s offensive success was 3rd down performance, primarily through the air. Scheming up more explosive plays would be a conscious choice to do more of what Notre Dame was less equipped to do, at the presumed cost of the efficiency that kept the offense humming.
Book and the offense were primarily able to convert so many chances by staying out of 3rd and long situations, as seen above. The offense averaged 6.47 yards to gain on 3rd downs, 9th easiest among P5 teams last season. Converting third and mediums and avoiding turnovers doesn’t make the most exciting highlight reels, but it led to effective offense. The offense still ranked 19th in FBS in offensive yards per play and 13th in the rate of offensive drives gaining at least four yards per play. That consistency leads to fewer three and outs and easy scoring chances – opponent’s average starting field position was their own 26-yard line, 10th best for Clark Lea’s unit, and crucial for a bend but don’t break scheme.

I think there was a level of frustration with the play-calling at times thinking that Rees was too conservative on 1st down. In some cases, I think the criticism was fair.

On the other hand, putting Notre Dame consistently in 3rd and medium situations allowed the offense to succeed. Book was in class with Mac Jones and Kyle Trask when it came to moving the sticks on 3rd down this season despite those two being in a different stratosphere when it came to overall numbers.

It will be interesting to see if Rees continues to emphasize getting Notre Dame into manageable 3rd downs. That strategy worked well and the Irish finished seventh in the country in 3rd down offense.

This offense will be built much different so we’ll see how much that influences his way of thinking.

6. I think Brian Kelly’s comments about Jarrett Patterson earlier this week indicate the fine line between doing what is best for a player and what is ultimately best for the team.

"There's things in play here. What's good for the five, what's good for Notre Dame and what's good for Jarrett Patterson. I have to look at all those things. I have to look at what's best for his future too.
"We've got some things we have to figure out there. We'll get the right five guys out there."

Kelly also said that Patterson’s best position is center and that’s probably where he is going to play in the NFL. Prior to Cain Madden transferring, I would have said the best move for the team would be Patterson at guard. And it still might be.

The happy medium might be him at tackle and that has a better chance of working out if Madden wins a starting job at guard. There is also the group of young guys who still have a lot to prove and are young enough that a major improvement over the next few months isn’t out of the question for at least a few of them.

I have no idea how it will all play out, but the unknown of it means that fall camp is going to be especially interesting on the offensive line. They’ need to find the right answer for Patterson and then everything else should fail in line after that.

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