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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

October 14, 2021

It typically takes a month of the season to find out how good a team can be. It’s a lot easier to project a final record after they have played three or four games.

Notre Dame is 5-1 through their first six games and I wouldn’t be surprised if they finished 11-1. I also wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up 9-3 or 8-4. 11-1 is probably more likely than the latter, but there is so much we don’t know about the roster heading into the second half of the season, especially on offense.

Who will be the quarterback? Will it be multiple quarterbacks like it has been in recent weeks? Is the offensive line configuration we saw against Virginia Tech the one we’ll see for the final six games? Will more depth step forward?

These are all pretty significant questions and the answers to them are likely going to determine Notre Dame’s final record. Right now they sit at 97th in yards per play. That’s better than Iowa (121st!), but everyone knows that even with Iowa’s defense, playing offense at that level isn’t sustainable if they want to keep winning.

The coaching staff and players aren’t thinking about next year right now, but there are plenty of scenarios where what happens with some younger players could greatly shape how we perceive next year’s team.

With what Tyler Buchner has done with the offense, he’s pretty much solidified that he’ll have a role in the next six games. How much the offensive playbook will expand for him and how well he can progress as a passer will be the biggest factors in whether or not he ends up starting games for the Irish down the stretch.

If he does and the offense makes a leap with him behind center, then he’s very likely going to be the guy who starts at Ohio State next September.

Is the left side we saw finish against Virginia Tech what we’ll see the rest of the season? Some of that might depend on how Blake Fisher’s recovery from his injury is going. We will have to wait and see with that, but Joe Alt and Andrew Kristofic have a chance to not just make an impact on this year’s team. This is an opportunity for both of those guys to be locked in as multi-year starters. 

Tight end Kevin Bauman had a good camp before being hurt in the first game. He’s expected back this month. Mitchell Evans and Logan Diggs both saw their first bit of extended action against Virginia Tech and I don’t think it will be their last for either of them. There’s the possibility of Fisher being back at some point and we may see more opportunities for Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles at receiver.

That’s nine players on offense who could end up having pretty significant roles during the back half of the season who haven’t played that much football for Notre Dame. Alt and Fisher are the only two who have started a game and there’s a chance it may stay that way.

I can’t remember another year where there were this many young players, Kristofic is the only one in his third year with the program, who could conceivably make a difference after not playing that much during the first half of the season. I suppose that’s a reflection of how inconsistent the offense has been more than anything else, but it’s also undeniable that the ceiling for the offense is much, much higher than 97th in YPP.

They’re going to play worse defenses and some of these guys can help them to produce more than they have been. If they do, then the projection for this year and next year is going to be altered.

2. I know there is a lot of talk about what’s going to happen with Drew Pyne after not playing against Virginia Tech. Notre Dame should be preparing for the worst case scenario with their quarterback depth at all times, but I’m of the opinion that it’s way too early to think about the possibility of him leaving because he didn’t play last week.

Pyne could play against USC. Or North Carolina. Or against any of these teams down the stretch. Everything is on the table at quarterback because Jack Coan could turn back into a pumpkin the next time he sees the field and we have no idea if Buchner will get the same opportunity he got during the Virginia Tech game and if he’ll improve significantly in passing situations.

Pyne should be ready to play because it’s very possible he may have to and that’s not even taking into account injury. Pyne might not even have had his first opportunity against Wisconsin if it weren’t for Coan being injured in that game and Buchner being injured the week before.

It would be understandable if he is frustrated and disappointed that he didn’t get a chance to start or even play last week. That doesn’t mean he won’t be called on to play again this season. There is nothing certain about the quarterback position for Notre Dame at the moment and another opportunity could come again at any time.

3. The Irish are going to face two pretty good offenses right after their open week. USC is ranked 28th in F+ and North Carolina is ranked 10th. Later in the season they play Virginia and they’re 18th.

The strength of those offenses is the passing game, which shouldn’t be surprising to anyone given that USC has Drake London (3rd in the country in receiving yards per game) and UNC has Josh Downs (5th). They are easily the two best receivers Notre Dame will have faced in 2021.

Much like Purdue and David Bell (7th), those players are the primary option for their respective quarterbacks. London has been targeted 88 times (36.8% of the total targets). The next highest on the team is 37 times. Downs has been targeted 70 times (39.5%). The next highest is 26 targets.

Former NFL scout Bucky Brooks said it best about what defensive coaches need to do against the other team’s best players.

That’s what Notre Dame did when they limited Bell and Purdue. They’ll need to do the same against these two elite receivers.

4. Virginia doesn’t have that one elite guy that they always go to. They spread the ball around a lot more.

They are slinging it around with 48.8 passing attempts per game and have four players with over 40 targets each.

One thing to watch before the Irish play Virginia is how they protect the quarterback. They are currently 70th in sack rate and that looks even worse when you consider that 17 of their 18 sacks have come against ACC competition. They gave up only one sack against an FCS opponent and Illinois.

They play Duke, Georgia Tech, and BYU before Notre Dame. Those three teams haven’t exactly rushed the passer well this season so if they are putting up good sack numbers against UVA, that could mean a big day for Isaiah Foskey and company when they face Virginia.

5. Right now Foskey is having the kind of season where him leaving for the NFL will be a conversation at the very least. That’s probably surprising to some who figured his quiet camp didn’t project well for him having a big impact.

One of the reasons his camp was quiet, at least when the media was in attendance, had to do with the player he was going up against most of the time. That would be Blake Fisher at left tackle, who’s the first left tackle to ever earn a day one starting job at Notre Dame.

I’m reminding people of that because there is a lot of excitement about Joe Alt right now. There should be and I can understand why so many are giddy about his potential. Of course everyone would be when there hasn’t been much to get excited about on the offensive line all season.

One game or even multiple games doesn’t make it a lock that Alt will be the left tackle of the future when Fisher is healthy. And no matter who is the left tackle, I don’t think left and right matter as much to players or football evaluators in general like it used to.

The Detroit Lions drafted Oregon’s Penei Sewell seventh overall in the 2021 NFL Draft with the intention to play him at right tackle. Six of the top-10 highest paid tackles in the NFL play on the right side.

Who plays left or who plays right is likely not going to matter much in the long run.

6. I think Notre Dame is going to sign the best linebacker class in the country this cycle. That might not matter much for next year, though, when the depth at linebacker is uncertain. The Irish could have a great starting group with JD Bertrand at Mike, Marist Liufau at Will, and Jack Kiser at Rover.

The problem is that there might only be one scholarship linebacker returning behind them in Prince Kollie. Every other linebacker on the current roster could leave.

Drew White and Bo Bauer technically could use the Covid year to gain another year of eligibility, but both of them have already graduated. I’m not sure how likely it is that they would consider coming back.

Shayne Simon is out for the season and could come back in 2022, but he will be graduated by that time and if wants to continue playing, he might see a better opportunity to start somewhere else. Isaiah Pryor is working on his graduate degree and graduated from Ohio State two years ago. Paul Moala can come back, but he’ll be recovering from his second Achilles injury.

Xavier Watts does have plenty of eligibility left, but is he going to be a Rover? He might be a safety. There might be another defensive back that moves to Rover (Khari Gee?), but that’s not a lock to happen.

The point is that there aren’t obvious choices behind the starters if things don’t work out well with players choosing to return and it’s unclear about Moala’s future given that someone tearing both Achilles’ might be unprecedented.

One or two of Niuafe Tuihalamaka‍, Jaylen Sneed‍, Joshua Burnham‍, and Nolan Ziegler‍ are probably going to have to play next year. Notre Dame may also have to look at adding someone in the transfer portal even if it’s just for depth.

As always, the depth questions could have been avoided with better recruiting. Two players who were recruited as linebackers are now Vypers and Notre Dame chose not to take a linebacker in 2020 and now they are having to deal with that. 

It might not be a big deal, but one important topic for the defense this season has been JD Bertrand playing almost every snap because they don’t have anyone to step in for him. That’s because of the injuries at linebacker, but playing one player that much isn’t something they should want to duplicate next year. So unless a freshman is ready to be in the two-deep right away, the staff may not have a choice but to explore the portal.

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