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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

November 4, 2021

The first five games for Notre Dame’s offense were a bit of a nightmare when it came to allowing negative plays. Yes, they played some tough defenses during that stretch, but there were times that the Irish made those defenses look like the ‘85 Bears.

They were handing out Havoc plays against them like candy on Halloween. The rate in each game was 20, 25.7, 16.9, 27.5, and 24.3%.

Things started to flip the last three games (less than 10% Havoc rate against in each) and it’s no coincidence that it started with some personnel changes with the offensive line.

They allowed 22 sacks in those first five games. In the last three they’ve given up four.

It’s been more than just the personnel. It’s also about a change in philosophy on offense with the way Tommy Rees has called the game. They run more duo and inside zone in the running game. They’ve greatly increased the usage of RPOs and play-action passes. The ball is getting out of Coan’s hands quicker and Tyler Buchner has come in the game and thrown the ball more.

These are all good things and he and the offensive staff deserved to be praised for the improvement the offense has shown over the last few weeks.

Notre Dame is better and can keep getting better on offense the rest of the season. All of that is true. It wouldn’t surprise me if they went from an offense that was 96th in yards per play in September to one that ends up in the top-20 in YPP for the month of November.

The difficult question will be how much we can measure that progress when they are playing defenses that aren’t very good. USC is 114th, Virginia is 109th, North Carolina is 96th, Stanford is 88th, and Georgia Tech is 76th in EPA per play on defense.

It may be that the only answer that Rees and the offense can provide is to do what they did to UNC: make a bad defense look bad. After playing like a bad offense for four of the first five games of the season, that’s enough progress to take into next year and expect to be better.

2. Notre Dame doesn’t have a dominant pass rusher on the roster, but they’ve had three good ones in Isaiah Foskey, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, and Jayson Ademilola. Some might argue that Foskey deserves to be mentioned as dominant, but I really think he deserves praise for being a great finisher rather than someone who provides pressure at an elite level.

He’s at a 15.4% win rate as a pass rusher according to PFF (that percentage doesn’t include plays where the rusher is unblocked). Finishing matters, but consider that Daelin Hayes was at 17.7% last season and Ade Ogundeji was at 15.0%. Julian Okwara was at 23% and Khalid Kareem was at 21.4% in 2019.

Pressure matters as well and someone like George Karlaftis is at another level compared to Foskey at producing it. He’s at 27%.

With each sack Foskey gets, it might seem more likely he will be headed to the NFL, but there is more than just sacks that factor into evaluating him as a prospect.

3. There may be no better way to illustrate how Marcus Freeman isn’t playing the way he’d like to play on defense than looking at how much less Notre Dame’s corners are in man coverage compared to how much Cincinnati’s corners played in man coverage last season.

The top three corners at Cincinnati last year played in man to man 46, 43.6, and 40.8% of the time. TaRiq Bracy, Clarence Lewis, and Cam Hart have played man to man on 32.6, 31.2, and 29.6% of coverage snaps in 2021.

None of Notre Dame’s corners are in the top-150 in terms of percentage of snaps they are in man to man. Cincinnati had two in the top-50 in 2020.

If the staff was able to land Akayleb Evans via the transfer portal, I believe those man to man numbers would look a little bit different for the Irish. He’s playing a ton of man to man at Missouri and has been great at this season only allowing a 49.2 passer rating against.

4. The defense isn’t going to magically have a lockdown corner emerge at this point in the season. If there was someone making a move, it likely would have happened after the bye week much like it did with Lorenzo Styles Jr. on offense.

It seems impossible that anyone is close to making a move at safety as well. Exhibit A is converted safety turned Rover Isaiah Pryory getting safety reps over anyone else at safety further down the depth chart.

If Notre Dame fans are looking for someone to step up and make a leap over the next five games, the top candidates would be Jack Kiser and Jordan Botelho.

Kiser was the one who took over JD Bertrand’s 3rd down role as they tried to cut down on Bertrand’s workload. He won’t get sub-package work this week against Navy, but should see plenty more against the rest of the schedule. It’s a big opportunity for him.

All we need to know about Botelho is that his snaps went up over double digits for the first time since Wisconsin and he was in the game rushing the passer in the fourth quarter. He ultimately had the sack that essentially ended up ending the game.

Those two are players to watch on defense that should get more chances to provide a spark on that side of the ball.

5. The current two-deep on defense has 12 of 22 players who were blue-chip recruits (4 or 5-stars). I’m including Kyle Hamilton in there since he’s expected back this season.

That’s not enough and Notre Dame didn’t sign enough composite blue-chip talent in the 2020 and 2021 classes to change that. Out of the 19 they signed in those cycles, only five of them were 4-star recruits.

Compare that to what the staff is doing right now with the ‘22 and ‘23 commitments and there’s been a drastic shift. Drayk Bowen‍ made it 12 of 15 blue-chips committed who are projected to play defense.

What Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said this week really hit the nail on the head about college football and why recruiting is so important.

There's no coach out there that can out-coach recruiting. I don't care who you are. The best coach to ever play the game better be a good recruiter because no coaching is going to out-coach players.

If Marcus Freeman sticks around to coach all of these players, he’s going to look pretty good because the talent they are landing is pretty special.

6. It should also be noted that 10 of 12 recruits that Notre Dame has committed to play offense in the ‘22 and ‘23 classes are blue-chips in the composite rankings as well. Those are recruits they are adding to the 16 (of 23) they signed in the ‘20 and ‘21 classes.

We’re already seeing the impact some of the freshmen are making this year on offense and the staff on offense should probably be getting more credit for the job they are doing and just did recruiting. The talent level is ascending there as well, so it’s not just the future on defense that people should be excited about.

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