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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

October 28, 2021

Back in the summer, I had a chance to speak with Marcus Freeman and I asked about what was possible on defense when having a player as talented as Kyle Hamilton.

He was very complimentary of Hamilton and what he can do, but he also brought up something that feels relevant now that Hamilton is injured. I’ve included his full answer:

I think it's going to be really good, you know, and just looking at the film of previous seasons and looking at what he's done really well, I’m going to be able to utilize (his skills) a lot.
But at the same time, it also, it can handicap you because as all of a sudden, you got a period of, what if you don't have Kyle Hamilton? You've got to know the strengths of every person on your defense that's going to take the field and be able to put those guys in different situations and to have success. You can't put a square peg in a round hole at all.
So if Kyle Hamilton's out of the game, just like what happened to us in 2019 at Cincinnati (note: his field safety was injured), what does the next guy in do well? Well, what are we going to ask that guy to do? Because we can't just say, this is our scheme.
No, we've got to say, hey, we've recruited some of the best players in the country to come to Notre Dame. There's a reason why those kids are here. Put them in a position to be successful. ‘Well, coach, I only know two defenses’, well great. I remember Coach Tressel when I was GA, I'll never forget. He said, “Hey, why isn’t Johnny playing more?” Well, Johnny only knows cover 3, Coach. Well, let's find as many ways to play cover 3. You know what I mean? And that's why I'm using that example.
Like, okay, Kyle Hamilton gives us the freedom to do a lot of different things. He's a freak, he’s got some freakish talent, but what else happens when Kyle Hamilton isn’t on the field? What are you able to do with the next guy?
To me, that's the real part of coaching. It's not hard to coach great players. That's why we recruit so hard because great players are great players. But when talent is equal, are you able to put your guy in a position to be successful or are you saying, this is my scheme, make it fit. And then all of a sudden you blame the kid. Like that's what I think I see a lot of coaches do, blame the kid. Well, the kid didn't do his job. Well, it's our job as coaches to make sure that the kid has success.Let's not blame that kid, let's find a way to put him in a position to be successful.

What he said at that time says a lot about how Notre Dame is likely to approach this week against North Carolina and beyond if Hamilton isn’t available. DJ Brown isn’t Hamilton. No one on the roster is. All the coaches can do is ask the players to do their jobs and not the jobs that Hamilton could do.

Hamilton might have matched up with slot receiver Josh Downs, who sees about 40% of UNC’s targets in the passing game, in man coverage on some snaps. I don’t see Brown or Houston Griffith being asked to do that. I don’t see anyone other than nickel back TaRiq Bracy doing that in this game because Notre Dame doesn’t have a Jeremiah Owusu-Koramaoh at Rover that is capable of also covering slot receivers.

He would be asked to do a lot more than just cover Downs, but without Hamilton, Freeman and the coaching staff has to know whether or not that someone like Bracy can handle it by himself at times or if Downs needs to be bracketed on the majority of snaps. They also need to ask if they’re going to need Bracy to be on the field as much as he was against USC, then how will that affect the way they defend the running game? Last season Notre Dame didn’t play a nickel defense against North Carolina other than on 3rd down.

I’m really interested to see what Freeman and the coaching staff has planned for this game. A lot of the success of the defense is going to be predicated on how well the defensive line plays (more on that later), but so much of the defense being successful on Saturday is going to directly related to what they ask the players to do without Hamilton.

2. I think we’re going to see Notre Dame lean on Isaiah Pryor at Rover a lot in this game. Pryor has played only one game this season where he has been on the field for more plays than Jack Kiser and that was against pass-happy Purdue.

Pryor played 28 snaps that day to Kiser’s 25. In total, Kiser has played over 100 more snaps than Pryor this season.

Both he and Kiser have played well in their respective roles and Pryor has seven pressures on only 16 pass rush attempts. This could be a game where he makes a splash as a blitzer.

3. 80.2% of Isaiah Foskey’s snaps are as a defensive lineman. I just wanted to get that out there first because some people act like half of the time he is lined up off the ball, which isn’t true.

That doesn’t mean I’m not of the opinion that it should be closer to 100%. I think he should be played more like Myjai Sanders is utilized in Cincinnati’s defense where every snap he takes is at a defensive line position.

I do wonder if it would be different if Marist Liufau was available this season. Given his versatility where he could line up in the box or off the edge, I think Dollar would have looked a lot different if he was playing. I would have expected him to be deployed much like Darrian Beavers is for Cincinnati (19.2% lined up off the edge).

But Liufau isn’t available so it’s all speculation and not what we’re seeing now. Against Purdue Foskey was lined up as an edge defender on 89.5% of snaps. That’s not all of them, but it’s at least closer to what I hope to see against UNC and the rest of the season with him.

4. Brian Kelly said this about this about Jordan Botelho at his press conference on Tuesday:

"I just think it's hard to get him on the field. He's done some good things. Coach Elston has a rotation there and he's kind of set into that rotation. I think there's a tendency as coaches, we all get into a comfort-level, today when we have our coordinators meeting, I bet we have some coaches who have guys they say should be playing more. Maybe he's a guy we say should play more."

He only played four snaps on defense against USC. Maybe he should be playing more, but are they going to take away any of Foskey’s snaps to accommodate that? That doesn’t seem like a good idea. Botleho would probably take away some snaps from Justin Ademilola, but we just saw Justin make a significant impact on two third down pass rushes in the red zone last week. I’m not sure how many they want to take away when he is playing well in those situations.

I’m a big believer in Botelho’s talent and think the future is bright for him. One area where I think could make some sense is playing him more in that off the ball inside linebacker role when Notre Dame is in Dollar. If they are going to play someone there, he’s a better fit and they could keep Foskey at the line of scrimmage in that scenario, which would still give them an opportunity to play four down without making substitutions.

That to me is a way to get Botelho more opportunities without taking away from Foskey or even Ademilola. I don’t know if the staff has ever thought of doing that, but it’s one way to get another talented player onto the field more often that I’d like to see.

5. Speaking of getting more talented players onto the field, Lorenzo Styles Jr. and Deion Colzie set themselves up to play more after making plays against USC.

Styles has played 40 snaps on offense as a freshman. 15 of them came against USC. Colzie has played 49. 17 of them came against USC.

I think by the time Notre Dame gets to their bowl game, Styles will be a player that other teams are legitimately worried about when preparing to face the Irish. I think he is going to be a star and this second half of the season will be the time we look back on when it first started.

6. I really can’t emphasize enough how significant the pass rush is going to have to be for Notre Dame in this game.

14 of the 27 sacks that UNC has given up were road games against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. It’s not a coincidence that both games were losses and those games were the lowest point totals the Tar Heels put on the board all season.

Carolina has given up 33 sacks in their seven losses the last two seasons, including six against Notre Dame last year. They’re 123rd in the country in sack rate in 2021.

Georgia Tech was not supposed to beat them, but they did partially because they were a much more physical team. I think Notre Dame is going to be the more physical team on Saturday and that’s ultimately going to be a significant factor in the end result.

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