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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

July 22, 2021

In a draft in any sport, the idea of taking the best available player is always mentioned when it comes to the philosophy of certain teams. The best teams often ignore need and take the highest ranked player on their board. It’s not a coincidence that most of those teams end up winning a whole lot of games.

We don’t hear about that concept often in college football recruiting. That’s partially because teams can technically get out on the trail and sign a bunch of top ranked players without the restriction of a draft slot.

But there is also the idea of roster construction that maybe takes away from that idea of the best athlete available. Programs like to hit certain numbers when it comes to positions in a recruiting class. It’s something that is discussed often by fans as well.

I had the opportunity to speak with new Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman earlier this week via Zoom and he shared plenty of insight on several topics. One thing that he talked about that greatly interested me is the idea of shifting numbers at certain positions in a recruiting class depending on who might want to sign with Notre Dame.

When Notre Dame fans ask us at ISD if certain elite prospects are a take, the answer is pretty much always yes because those types of players are ones that programs need to make room for no matter what the scholarship situation is.

When I asked Freeman about whether or not it’s going to be about playing to the strength of the personnel or about recruiting to the scheme he wants to run, his answer delved into that a little bit said everything about his willingness to adapt as a football coach and recruiter.

When I came in this past year to Notre Dame we said we're going to take, we need this many D-linemen, this many linebackers, this many DBs...and so we said, okay, we're going to take blank D-linemen, blank linebackers, blank safeties. Now within those numbers, go get the best players in the country, right? Go get the best players in the country. And then towards the end of the class, we got to have difficult conversations.
Well, we said we need this many D-linemen and this many DBs, but we got the number one DB or the number one D-lineman in the country that wants to come, that's going to make your program different. Well, he has to take a number. So let's take this extra D-lineman and that means we're not going to take a DB. Now, my job as a coordinator is to say we got more D-linemen than we have DBs, now can we make this scheme work with more D-linemen because they are better players.
So then as you move forward, say next year we will become a Dollar team (3-3-5). We got five DBs on the field and our best players are DBs. Well, let's keep recruiting that. Let’s get five DBs and three D-linemen because this is what fits us right now. But if all of a sudden you're going to get a better D-lineman than you would a DB, then let's take the D-lineman. And then all of a sudden you're going back to a 4-3-4.
So it's forever changing, but I think what you can't do is that you can't say, hey, these are the hard numbers we've got to take. I think the numbers have to be able to float with the positions because the value of that player can trump the number. Let's make sure let's get the most valuable player we can find and then we can figure out our scheme around them.

When I think of the greatest defensive coordinators in football, whether it is college or pro, I think of that mentality.

I think of the New York Giants knowing that they have two great edge rushers already on the roster, but utilizing Justin Tuck at 3-technique defensive tackle to take their pass rush to a different level. I think of Clemson’s Brent Venables knowing he didn’t have the same type of talent on the defensive line in 2019 that he did the previous year and instead of staying stagnant, playing significantly more three down and unleashing Isaiah Simmons as a blitzer. I certainly think of Clark Lea and the way he adapted to his personnel in each of his three seasons at Notre Dame.

The best defensive coaches adjust to what they have to work with and enhance the strengths of their players by doing that. That is what Marcus Freeman did at Cincinnati and you’ll read more about that in the piece we’re publishing on Friday.

I don’t hear a lot of college coaches speak about taking the best player available even when it’s a position that might already be full in terms of numbers in a recruiting cycle. When that concept is married with the idea of playing to the strengths of the personnel, it can be a beautiful thing that leads to a lot of success on the field.

2. As I was transcribing Freeman’s answers to my questions, it pretty much put it over the top for me in believing that he’s going to be very successful as a coordinator at Notre Dame. I didn’t ask him very much about recruiting and focused more on ball so that really didn’t even factor into my line of thinking, despite knowing how well he has done as a recruiter so far.

Maybe it’s just because I share a lot of the same philosophies as he does when it comes to winning in football, but mark it down that I’m 100% sold that the level Notre Dame plays defense under Freeman is going very, very high.

3. I guess I’m teasing this a bit too much by not sharing more quotes, but he shared some great comments on returning players like Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, the Ademilola brothers, and Drew White that really show why Notre Dame is in good hands in terms of leadership this season.

I asked Freeman about what players maybe surprised him this spring that maybe he didn’t know about when taking the job:

Well, everybody's new to me, right? It's like, I know the Kurt Hinish’s, the Myron’s, I know they played a lot of ball because of what people tell me and the film I watched, but everybody was new. And so it was great for me really, so with Kurt Hinish, let me see why Kurt Hinish is Kurt Hinish, why he started so many games. Then all of a sudden you watch the way he works in practice. Okay, that makes sense.  
Those are guys, the Myron’s, he plays at a level that's so high. He practices on a level that's so high. No wonder why he has success, the same thing with the Ademilola brothers. They practice at a high level. Well, that's why they have success in games, you know?
And so then you get a guy like Isaiah Foskey and you've got to say, okay, you're the first round pick that everyone keeps telling me about you're so pretty, you're long, you're let's make sure you're practicing at this level, that translates over to the game because there wasn't a whole bunch of game film to vouch on.
Drew White. I only had Drew White for one or two practices, but it was really quickly I learned that there's a reason why Drew White is Drew White because I remember seeing him at first and I was like, there's no way that dude is the starting middle linebacker. Like look at the guys around me. And everybody just said, okay, all right. All right, coach. You come in here, you think you're going to change things. And I watched those first two practices and I get it. I get why Drew White is Drew White. You know what I mean? Because he practices at a high-level and he’s got a unique talent level.
It’s the same thing, you can go through every position. But it was great for me to learn who these guys are and what practice habits do they have. Because I believe in that. If you don't practice at a high level, I don't care who you are. I don't believe you play at a high level. It's your job to practice at a high level to create those habits that will come on game day.
So that's been a big motivation of mine. A big coaching point of mine is that we have to practice with unbelievable effort and attitude. I don't care about game day because it's creating habits that will come out on game day.

When the standard is set by players who are multi-year starters like them, the rest of the defense knows they have to meet that. So for a player like Foskey, who has all of the potential in the world, he has four examples on the defensive line he can follow in order to get to where he needs to be. 

It begins with Mike Elston, but it means so much more when there are players like that who set the example.

4. There’s been so much talk about how the class Notre Dame has committed on offense in the 2022 cycle feels underwhelming compared to the offense, but maybe that might start to slow down a bit if Notre Dame can close on one of their top receivers soon.

There’s also the fact that both offensive lineman Ashton Craig‍ was recently bumped up to 4-star status on 247Sport (already a 4-star on ISD) and wide receiver Amorion Walker‍ became a 4-star on ESPN so that doesn’t hurt in convincing fans that the staff did a really nice job with those two evaluations.

But how about offensive coordinator Tommy Rees praising the freshmen on campus in the 2021 class to ISD’s JOHN BRICE? That’s certainly some encouraging feedback from him and fits with what we have heard about several of the players he mentioned.

I know that there will be a lot of focus on the job Del Alexander does at his position the rest of the way in ‘22 and landing CJ Williams‍, Tobias Merriweather‍, and one other blue-chip prospect could change perceptions quickly. Those same feelings towards Alexander probably deserve to be shifted if Lorenzo Styles Jr. is the type of freshman receiver who can make an immediate impact if he makes that jump this summer that Rees was talking to JOHN BRICE about.

5. I really have no idea where things are going to go with NIL and I think the calls that this is going to ruin college football are extremely premature to say the least.

I am very interested in seeing what the return on investment can be for someone like Bryce Young, the projected starter at quarterback for Alabama this year who appears to be already set up with lucrative NIL deals.

I guess the bet is that Alabama has had three straight quarterbacks who are now in the NFL, including two first round draft picks. Young is a former 5-star recruit and the next in line at a place that is going to be playing for a national championship at the very least in the next two years. It would be a surprise if he didn’t become a star player.

He might make a million dollars and he hasn’t started a game yet. That seems shocking to me, until I think about the money companies invest in NFL Draft picks who haven’t started a game in the NFL either. Brady Quinn definitely made a lot of money before he even signed his contract with the Cleveland Browns. Those bets on Quinn didn’t really pay off. We’ll see if they pay off with Young.

What is happening with him pretty much sets the table for any quarterback who can bring the hype train back to South Bend. The next golden boy at quarterback for the Irish is going to get paid.

6. Who knows what will go down with Texas and Oklahoma with the SEC. Whatever happens will have a ripple effect, I’m sure.

But here’s one thing I do know: if you’re reading this right now, you’re very likely a Notre Dame fan. That means that in whatever the direction the dominos fall in conference realignment, the team you root for is going to be fine. Notre Dame isn’t going to get left out.

Things may change and I know many people who follow the Irish closely don’t like to see change in college football, but this is the kind of thing that has been happening for 30 years. Notre Dame was one of the greatest agents of change with their NBC deal.

I have a feeling that not enough schools in the SEC will want Texas and Oklahoma to come in because of what it means in terms of competition so maybe those two schools looking to exit the Big 12 will end up in a completely different direction.

Whatever happens, I think a little bit of chaos in college football is fun. And when all of the dust settles, Notre Dame is going to be one of the programs that can pretty much do whatever they like no matter how it turns out for everyone else.

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