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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

November 18, 2021

The 10th game of the season isn’t a typical time for players to have breakout games, but that happened for two Notre Dame defenders against Virginia.

Ramon Henderson had his first career start at safety after playing as the Dime back for a good chunk of this season. With Kyle Hamilton out since the USC game, it opened a door for the coaching staff to move Henderson and he flourished by flashing his range on his first career interception to go with strong play in coverage the entire game.

Rylie Mills didn’t start, but the absence of Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa due to an illness gave Mills the opportunity to move to defensive end. It wasn’t there that he made his greatest impact, though. It was on 3rd down playing in the place of MTA as an interior player and being free to let loose and rush the passer. He was a disruptive force and finished with multiple sacks.

So, what took so long? Why weren’t these players bigger factors earlier in the season?

The easy answer is lack of opportunity.

Necessity is the mother of invention and it became a necessity for Notre Dame to find more answers at safety when Hamilton got injured. Without that injury happening, I’m not sure we see Henderson at safety this season and it’s understandable why. He was one injury away from having a prominent role at corner.

The opportunity presented itself for Henderson with the need at safety and now the Irish have someone there who looks like a real option for more than just the rest of this season.

With Mills, it’s a little bit more complicated. He was very impressive in camp and looked poised to play a bigger role than the one he had as a freshman. The problem was that his path was blocked by a few players.

The first is Jayson Ademilola. He’s having a very good season rushing the passer at 3-technique for the Irish and had waited his turn for more snaps behind MTA for a couple of years. MTA moved to end and that opened the door for Ademilola.

MTA and Ademilola have been the interior duo on 3rd down and they’ve been very good. When that happens, it’s not easy to take one of those two off the field for anyone. MTA has the highest pressure percentage on the team and Ademilola is in the top-15 in pressures from a defensive tackle in the FBS.

Then there’s also the fact that Jacob Lacey has taken reps at 3-tech as well. There just weren’t a ton of reps there for Mills to grab a hold of and he didn’t get a chance to do what he does best, rush the passer, on 3rd downs.

If Hamilton never got injured or if MTA never ended up getting sick, we might not have seen breakout games from either of these players last week. That’s just the reality of the situation. But how those two played has earned them new opportunities that weren’t there previously.

Mills is going to get in on 3rd downs rushing the passer at least some of the time the rest of the way. If Henderson keeps playing like that, not only will he continue to start, he’ll likely be playing with Hamilton if the All-America is healthy enough to get back on the field.

It would have been good for Notre Dame if this had worked out for both earlier in the year, but there is still plenty of ball left to play in 2021. If they build on what they did against Virginia, then two players who were backups are going to end up being critical returning pieces for next year’s defense.

2. Henderson and Xavier Watts are perfect examples of why finding the right position fit matters so much. Looking at these two in September, Henderson was the fourth cornerback playing in Notre Dame’s Dime package and Watts was recently moved to defense from receiver. Up until last week, no one would have considered them to be possibilities to start at safety next year.

Henderson was a better receiver in high school than defender. Watts was a good athlete who could have ended up on either side of the ball, but Notre Dame preferred him at receiver. Now both look like they might have found the right home at safety.

It took a lot longer to put Avery Davis at his best position and if he was moved to the slot sooner, his career at Notre Dame would look a lot different. Henderson and Watts have three more games and at least three more years at what looks like the best fit for both of them and that should make Irish fans excited about their potential.

3. From “why the heck does Notre Dame always elect to receive?” files, the Irish are 113th in the country in first quarter scoring this season.

It’s not like they haven’t been better at scoring early in games in recent years (they never finished lower than 21st in first quarter scoring from 2017-2019), but at this point in the season we know that this offense starts slow.

Defer isn’t a dirty word. I would love to see Notre Dame choose it if they win the toss this weekend.

4. Dabo Swinney has won more than enough games to not receive any kind of serious heat for Clemson’s disappointing season. It still doesn’t make it less shocking that they are 7-3 with the level of talent they have on the roster.

There are 10 players who were 5-star recruits on the team. I can’t imagine what the reactions would be if a Notre Dame coach had recruited that kind of talent and had an offense that was 112th in yards per play 11 weeks into the season.

Clemson is 94th in the month of November in YPP so it’s not like it’s getting much better and they just got done playing UCONN. The only team who averaged less YPP in a game against UCONN was Yale.

The Irish are 17th in YPP so far this month. 

That brings up the question, are we sure Clemson in 2022 is going to be like the Clemson the Irish faced in 2015, 2018 and 2020? Because most people would have bet big money they would have been the same juggernaut in 2021.

I don’t think we know the answer to that yet and it’s going to be interesting to see if Swinney makes significant changes or stays the course.

5. I said this on Twitter already, but I believe this tweet from Jeff sums up the Brian Kelly era better than almost any column I have read on it.

Since Kelly took over in 2010, all of these programs have had at least three head coaches.

Texas is on their 4th coach and it’s not going well in year one. Miami is on their fourth and it feels like it’s about to be five. Florida is on their fourth and also appears headed for a fifth this offseason. Florida State is on their third, but it should be noted that Mike Norvell has had back to back losing seasons. Penn State is on their third and James Franklin looks like he is looking for an exit. USC has had three and it’s about to be four when they make their new hire.

It’s one win away from five straight years of 10 wins or more for Kelly. I think fans are welcome to feel unsatisfied that Kelly hasn’t won a national championship, but what’s been going on with these other programs adds quite a bit of perspective into how successful Kelly has been by comparison.

6. When 2022 4-star offensive tackle Aamil Wagner‍ committed to the Irish recently, it bumped up the current recruiting class to a 77.3% blue-chip ratio (based on composite rankings). If the six commits in the 2023 cycle are added to that, it’s 82.1%.

There is still the finish for 2022 and a long way to go with 2023, but that rate matches up with how Alabama, Georgia, and Ohio State typically recruit. They do that over a four year span so this is simply a start for Notre Dame. Still, it has to be acknowledged that if they continue to recruit at this level, then the odds of them winning a national championship are going to increase.

It’s not easy to keep recruiting this well. They’ll have to keep that up and continue to do everything else that has helped them win 42 of their last 48 games.

They’ve been missing a big piece of the championship puzzle, though, despite all of their success in the last four years. Taking recruiting up a notch is that piece and they’re doing what they need to do at the moment to get them where they want to go.

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