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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

July 15, 2021

If a player is going to make a significant impact at Notre Dame, it typically happens by the end of their third season. Sometimes it happens immediately (Kyle Hamilton and Michael Mayer). Sometimes it happens after a year (Julian Love and Kyren Williams). Mostly it happens in year three (Julian Okwara, Te’von Coney, and several other players).

In rare circumstances it happens in a player’s fourth year at Notre Dame and there are various reasons why it takes that long for certain individuals.

Injuries play a part in the delay for some players. Drue Tranquill is at the top of the list there with two season ending knee injuries that helped delay his growth. Sometimes it’s a crowded depth chart or slow development that holds a player back. If Miles Boykin didn’t have Equanimeous St. Brown in front of him, perhaps his breakout season occurs before year four. Maybe if one or two things were different for Jonas Gray, then he wouldn’t have had to wait until his senior season to score his first touchdown. He racked up 12 in 11 games in 2011.

And with some players, a change needs to be made to ignite a spark. That could be a position change like the one Avery Davis made in 2020. He finally found his right spot and ended up making big plays out of the slot. Tranquill hit the trifecta of a new position, new position coach, and new coordinator. It all worked out brilliantly for him and the team.

Notre Dame could end up relying on more players to have breakouts in their fourth year than ever before. That’s because the 2018 recruiting class has underachieved relative to how they were viewed as recruits.

Highly ranked guys like Shayne Simon, Houston Griffith, and Kevin Austin haven’t done all that much while wearing blue and gold. Austin’s issues have been availability. He certainly has the talent to be this year’s Tranquill. Griffith and Simon don’t have the availability excuse, but they do have new opportunities with new position coaches and a new coordinator. Perhaps that can spark one or both to new heights.

There’s Braden Lenzy who looked like he was on the verge of something really good before a hamstring injury derailed his 2020. We might be talking about Paul Moala as the heir apparent at Rover if not for his Achilles injury that made him miss most of last season. Maybe he’ll be the 2021 version of Nick Watkins.

George Takacs, DJ Brown, Lawrence Keys, Joe Wilkins, and Justin Ademilola could all be added to the list as well. For the most part, these players have underwhelmed when it comes to production. Now is their chance to flip the script.

The odds are that only a few of them can be mentioned as significant contributors at Notre Dame. It’s pretty much now or never for all of them because the list of guys who waited until their fifth year to make the leap is not very long. Javon McKinley’s production last fall was a rare exception to that.

The three I’m the most confident will be a big part of the success for Notre Dame this season are Austin, Takacs, and Ademilola. If the Irish are able to get critical contributions from a couple more, then it could very well change the perception of that 2018 recruiting class.

2. Defensive end Darren Agu‍ could develop into a first round draft pick one day. If that happens at Vanderbilt, it will be discussed like it was a huge loss for Notre Dame.

It shouldn’t be. If the depth chart and early opportunities were a concern for him at a program that recruits at the level of Notre Dame, then he would have never reached his potential in South Bend.

It takes a certain amount of confidence to be able to succeed at any level of football. If there is doubt that overrides it in a game that primarily consists of one on one matchups, then a player is never going to be able to win consistently.

Some athletes thrive on people doubting them and even create the impression that people are doubting them as motivation. Others need constant positive reinforcement in order to thrive. When I heard Agu was worried about if he could play early, especially when you consider how several freshmen on the defensive line have cracked the rotation in recent seasons, it makes me believe that he was going to need a lot of things to go right for him early on to reach his potential at Notre Dame.

I’m not rooting against him to not succeed at Vanderbilt. I just know that for someone who would fit in the developmental category, that kind of mindset wasn’t going to lead to success at Notre Dame.

3. File this away for USC week. The Trojans blitzed 59.2% of the time last season. No one called blitzes more than defensive coordinator Todd Orlando in 2020 and he’s had a reputation for bringing pressure for many years.

That might be not the best move against Jack Coan if he ends up as the starting quarterback for the Irish. He averaged 9.0 yards per attempt against the blitz in 2019 with 10 touchdowns against only one interception. His adjusted completion percentage was 75.4%.

4. For years there was the notion that if a defensive back had a Virginia Tech offer, then that offer meant far more than the ranking of that recruit. I don’t know if that was ever truly the case, but they had earned the reputation as “DB U” so I understood why that offer was so valuable.

Maybe it should still mean something as they did just have former 3-star Caleb Farley get drafted in the first round of the most recent NFL Draft. Bud Foster was still on the staff when Farley was evaluated, though. It’s a different regime on defense and I’d be a bit more cautious about trusting that a Virginia Tech offer for a defensive back means what it used to mean.

If you’re looking for the new program where an offer to a defensive back might mean a little more than an offer from some others, it would probably be Washington. UW has had five defensive backs drafted in the last three NFL Drafts. That’s more than Alabama (three), more than Clemson (three), and tied with Ohio State and LSU. Washington doesn’t recruit at nearly the same level as those programs and they are still able to identify future NFL talent.

If Notre Dame is able to close on cornerback Benjamin Morrison‍ and beat out Washington, it should be considered a significant recruiting win.

5. It’s fair to expect that Kyren Williams will be a better version this fall of the player we watched last fall. It should also be fair to expect that Williams is going to put himself in a position to be a high pick in next spring’s NFL Draft if his season is as good as expected.

The Athletic’s Dane Brugler has Williams as his third ranked draft eligible back heading into the season. If that’s where most NFL teams see him at the end of this season, it’s probably going to be a difficult decision not to leave unless he can take advantage of NIL rules that makes it worth it for him to stay.

6. Marcus Freeman has done so well helping to recruit this class on defense that I think many forgot that it wasn’t the primary reason he was hired. Everyone is already fired up about what he’s done up to this point, while still recognizing that he hasn’t actually called the defense during a game yet.

I just want to remind everyone that the expectations for what he does with this defense should be very high. He was the number one defensive coordinator target for every top program this season because he can flat out coach.

As I pointed out in this piece after he was hired, he did a great job adapting to the different offenses he faced in the AAC and consistently had the defense finish in the top-20 in Havoc Rate while limiting three of the top-20 most explosive offenses in the country (SMU, Memphis, and UCF) to a big play rate of 4.3% (one every 23.3 plays).

There shouldn’t be a question as to whether or not Freeman is going to succeed calling the defense at Notre Dame. The better question should be how quickly can we expect the defense to succeed at the same level his last defense at Cincinnati did? They finished as a top-five group in both FEI and SP+.

It may take a minute to be able to run the exact kind of defense Freeman wants to run at Notre Dame. He ran Cover 1 38.7% of the time at Cincinnati last season (8th) and the Irish only ran it 20.4% of the time under Clark Lea. Even while he is transitioning with the personnel, the group is talented enough to play at a very high level in 2021 and people should expect them to because of the guy they hired to run the defense.

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