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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

July 1, 2021

Notre Dame has played darn good defense the last four years. They went from an average rating of 59th in FEI under Brian VanGorder to an average rating of 14th under Mike Elko and Clark Lea.

Going from average to good almost felt inevitable with better coordinators and a better overall approach within the program. But to say it was just better game plans and adjustments wouldn’t be close to hitting the mark.

It had a lot to do with development and evaluation. The talent level improved. There were 10 defenders who have been taken in the NFL Draft after BVG. The BVG years only had four players from the defense drafted.

It wasn’t just the starters, though. The overall depth of the defense at all three levels was improved. Massive holes on the roster became strengths. It is a credit to all of the defensive coaches for making that happen and aiding in the defense making the leap to where they are now.

It’s the primary job of Marcus Freeman to help make that next jump from good to great. I have to say, he’s doing a pretty great job of it so far. Him, Mike Elston, Mike Mickens, Chris O’Leary, Chad Bowden, and the rest of the recruiting staff have played their part this off-season when it comes to landing the talent it takes to be great.

10 of the 12 commitments on defense in the 2022 and 2023 classes are considered blue-chip prospects in the composite rankings. There is no doubt that there is more to come as well.

To say that they’ve taken it up a notch with this run on defense wouldn’t be accurate. They have hit the turbo button and accelerated the momentum in a way that can’t be ignored. Notre Dame, despite playing well on defense during the 2017, 2018, and 2019 seasons, only landed five 4-stars out of the 18 projected defenders they signed in the 2020 and 2021 classes.

Of course people are going to compare Freeman to Lea for as long as Freeman is the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. He has yet to coach in a game yet so it’s completely reasonable to tell people to slow their role in assuming too much.

We know that Freeman is definitively a more involved and better recruiter than Lea, though. It’s not a debate.

Improving the talent level even more is something that can take the defense from good to great. Freeman saw that at Cincinnati.

In 2017 they were 117th in FEI. They then were 14th, 17th, and second the last three years. It wasn’t a coincidence that the Bearcats climbed from 5th to 2nd in the AAC in total team talent (raw talent still on the roster) over those seasons. They were 72nd in the nation in team talent in ‘17 and jumped all the way to 59th in ‘20. That’s more talent than eight Power 5 programs. T

he talent on Notre Dame’s defense went up a level in the last four years. It can still get to a higher level and if the staff keeps recruiting like they have been, they’re going to get there.

2. Keeping with the theme of defense, I did not know that Drew White was 10th in the Power 5 in run stuffs (tackles made at or behind the line of scrimmage) over the last two years until I read PFF’s 2021 college football preview. He had 22.

To put that into perspective, Drue Tranquill had 25.5 over his last two seasons at Notre Dame. White is in that territory and obviously still has one more season to go. (The forever underappreciated Te’von Coney had 29(!) over his last two years)

I mentioned White’s win rate as a pass rusher/blitzer a few weeks back as well (1st in the nation among linebackers) and when the stuffs are added on top of that, it has become pretty clear that White’s level of play should be recognized more than it has been outside of Notre Dame circles.

3. The Athletic put together a top-100 transfer portal list. Jack Coan (7th) and Cain Madden (9th) are both in the top-10.

Although I’m in the camp that Madden still has to win a starting job, I think it’s a fair assessment that almost all of the top-20 players listed will make an impact for their new programs. Someone like cornerback Derion Kendrick (Clemson to Georgia) is going to be good if he keeps his head on straight. Linebacker Henry To’o To’o (Tennessee to Alabama) is good enough to make an impact no matter where he chose to go.

Once it starts going down the list, though, things become way more of a crap shoot.

Florida State has two of the top-20 in edge defender Jermaine Johnson (4th, Georgia) and quarterback McKenzie Milton (12th, UCF). Especially if Milton is healthy, they are going to make FSU better. They also have three more on the list at 43, 44, and 95. Are DB Jammie Robinson (South Carolina) and DE Keir Thomas (South Carolina) going to be upgrades over Asante Samuel Jr. and Josh Kaindoh? Probably not. Is a receiver from Kansas who’s production dipped from 65 to 24 catches the answer to replace Tamorrion Terry? Again, probably not.

Nothing is certain with a lot of these transfers as to how much of an impact they will make. There aren’t many players that I see making a huge difference who are transferring to Notre Dame’s opponents for this upcoming season.

The one guy who I think could end up being special is DE Keion White (Old Dominion to Georgia Tech). He had 19 TFLs at ODU in 2019 (he sat out 2020) and had 5.5 of those and a blocked kick against Virginia and Virginia Tech.

4. It’s unfortunate that Devin Aupui has decided to transfer and it’s possible that he may have never made the choice to go to Notre Dame if he had been able to visit like he would have in a normal recruiting year. We had heard he had a promising spring for an early enrollee.

I think he was a virtual lock to not play this year, though. He might have had a difficult time cracking the rotation in his second year as well. He was one of the players who missed out on a senior season and didn’t exactly come in as a polished product so there was a question about how far he would be with his development as well as the players who would be projected to play in front of him at Vyper.

His loss is more of a future one than anything immediate. And with the way Notre Dame is recruiting on the defensive line, there are no guarantees for anyone in the future if they aren’t developing at a rate that will put them ahead of the raw talent being added to the roster.

5. We all know about the record and the double-digit win seasons, but here’s another way to back up that Notre Dame has been significantly better over the last four years under Brian Kelly than they were prior to that.

I think it’s pretty obvious to say that any time a team is plus 1.0 yards per play against their opponent, it means they have been the better all-around team on offense and defense. Notre Dame has been +1.0 in 33 games, at least eight times in each season from 2017-2020. They are 33-0. (When they are less than +1.0 YPP they are 10-8).

I know some people have pointed to some bad luck for Notre Dame leading to them going 4-8 in 2016 with seven losses coming in one score games, but the Irish were rarely the better team. They were only +1.0 YPP three times. Unsurprisingly three of their four wins came in those games.

Remember that 2014 team that started 6-0 and almost knocked off number one ranked FSU? We should have seen the evidence that it was smoke and mirrors that got them there as they were +1.0 YPP twice in those six. In the last seven games, they were only +1.0 once (against Navy).

6. Everyone is talking about the job Notre Dame is doing recruiting players for the defense and the only time recruiting on the other side of the ball gets brought up has to do with them not doing enough.

Maybe some of that criticism is fair, but I didn’t hear people ripping the coaches on the defense in the same way when, as mentioned earlier, they signed five composite 4-stars in back to back classes. As it always is with college football fans, the overreactions have been plentiful.

Whenever people get angry about things like this, I always try and take a step back to look at what’s actually going on. The staff on offense has landed seven commitments overall, four of whom are composite 4-star prospects. Here’s the rundown on the three that aren’t currently ranked as blue-chippers:

TE Eli Raridon‍ is someone I have graded as a 4-star prospect (90) and he’s literally on the borderline of being one for 247Sports, Rivals, and ESPN.

OL Ashton Craig‍ is someone I have graded as 4-star (90) and he’s on the borderline of being a 4-star on 247Sports and ESPN. He also earned his offer after working out at a camp.

WR Amorion Walker‍ barely played during his junior season due to an injury and is the lowest ranked prospect in the class, but recently was offered by Alabama and LSU after they saw him compete on campus. He’s going to be someone who sees his ranking improved when senior film is evaluated.

Throw that out for a second and say none of those guys see their ranking improve in a worst case scenario. That could happen and Notre Dame may still end up with nine or 10 total blue-chip prospects who project to play offense. It would be the most they have signed since the 2013 class (12).

That was Kelly’s only top-five class at Notre Dame. I don’t know how this one will end up, but this idea that the sky is falling with who they are landing/are going to land on offense is premature to say the least.

I’m not arguing that the defense isn’t doing better or that the offense can’t do better than they have been. They weren’t cancelling official visits for a handful of 4-stars on that side of the ball. However, acting like things are dire when things are actually better than they have been is not realistic to what is going on at the moment.

When we look back at the 2022 Notre Dame class on offense, a lot of it will depend on how they close with the remaining targets and how good of a job Tommy Rees and the staff did with their evaluation of Steve “Peanut Butter” Angeli at quarterback. It can be reassessed at a later date and everyone knows we’ll all do that.

While we wait for things to progress, it doesn’t hurt to look at the bigger picture with the class. After doing so, you may see that the outlook isn’t nearly as bleak as some are making it out to be on offense.

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