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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on Thursday

January 6, 2022

Notre Dame has had some players declare they will be returning for 2022 and none of them were surprising. It’s not that the staff or the people who follow the Irish wouldn’t want those players back, but it’s not like any one of the players who have announced would have been high picks in the NFL Draft. Many of them likely wouldn’t have been drafted at all.

The next big ones that people are waiting on are Isaiah Foskey, Jarrett Patterson, Jayson Ademilola, and Avery Davis. Kevin Austin is the only significant loss from the recent announcements and if any of these players choose to pursue the NFL rather than come back for another year, replacing them won’t be easy.

Ademilola had a breakout year and his presence as an interior pass rusher is something that could be even more prominent this fall. Patterson could help solidify the line as the fourth starter and bring stability to a critical position. Davis, coming off a knee injury, would not only come back to provide leadership and reliability, but they are in desperate need of numbers at his position.

Foskey is a completely different conversation because it would mean getting back a game-wrecker. He took a major leap in his third year in the program and the scary part is that he’s going to keep getting better. If he’s back, it’s close to the equivalent of Justin Tuck sticking around for the first season of Charlie Weis rather than leaving for the NFL.

If all four of them are back, a real possibility, then those recruiting wins could set Marcus Freeman up for as strong of a returning roster as any new Notre Dame coach has had in a few decades. It would mean 14 starters are returning, seven on each side of the ball.

That’s not to say there aren’t holes to fill or improvements that needed to be made from many of those who are returning, but getting these players back would bring back a star and stability with more stars ready to emerge. It takes more than stars to win in college football, but you can’t win big without them.

Freeman understands that. He knows the only way to get more of them is for Notre Dame to recruit at a higher level than they did under Brian Kelly, but one thing Kelly was able to do was convince some key players to return to school.

The 2015 season isn’t the same if Ronnie Stanley is gone to the NFL. The reboot of the program would have been seriously stalled if Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey didn’t come back in 2017. Clark Lea doesn’t put together a great defense in 2018 if Jerry Tillery, Drue Tranquill, and Te’von Coney aren’t back to solidify it.

Now it’s Freeman’s turn along with his staff to convince these four key players to stay, especially Foskey. The roster might eventually get to the point where losing these players isn’t as critical as it is at the moment. With the way things are right now, getting these four back might be the difference between Notre Dame being pretty good or contending for the College Football Playoff.

2. We have some candidates that we know of right now for the defensive coordinator position and everyone is aware that this might be Freeman’s most important hire he’s yet to make for his staff. No matter who it is, coaching, recruiting, and fit are going to be the critical factors in making the decision, but I do wonder if Freeman is thinking about a veteran coach at that spot for a few reasons.

For one, the staff on defense is relatively young. Someone who has the experience to add to the 20 years of college coaching that Mike Elston has under his belt is something that has a lot of value. The other part is that if Freeman was to go after a young coach on the rise, he could be looking at replacing that coach sooner than later.

I don’t think we’re that far away from Tommy Rees being a candidate as a head coach somewhere in the near future and it would be nice to have some longer term stability on defense if that’s possible. That’s one reason why I like Iowa State’s Jon Heacock and Auburn’s Derek Mason as candidates for the role.

In addition to impressive credentials for both of them, the likelihood of either jumping somewhere else to be a head coach has to be pretty slim. Heacock has been a long time defensive coordinator after his stint coaching at Youngstown State and at age 61, he’s probably settled into a job he’s been very good at. I’m sure Mason still has head coaching aspirations, but his time at Vanderbilt isn’t going to inspire any athletic directors to get him to run their program any time soon. He’s going to have to create some separation from that before he becomes an option again.

Finding the best person for the job is what matters most, but if they were in a similar situation to Heacock or Mason, that wouldn’t be a bad thing to establish some stability in that spot for a longer period of time.

3. Brian Mason hasn’t officially been announced yet, but this appears to be a great hire by Freeman for the role of special teams coordinator. He was previously Director of Recruiting before being promoted to coaching on the field and he’s clearly someone Freeman has trust in with them working together at Kent State and Purdue when Mason was a graduate assistant.

The six blocked kicks from last season stand out above everything else with his unit, but they are sound all-around finishing 35th, 18th, and 12th in FEI’s special teams ratings over the last three years. Brian Polian did a good job improving the special teams from what they were before his arrival, but in no season did his group rank higher than 41st in FEI.

I do like that Mason was coaching Snipers, their version of a Rover at Cincinnati, so he can also play a key role coaching the defense as well.

4. If you read my rewatch notes from earlier this week, then you know that I highlighted the fact that when pressured, Jack Coan only produced three first downs on 20 dropbacks (15%).

There were a few factors that gave Oklahoma State the edge in winning the game, but Spencer Sanders managing seven first downs on the 19 dropbacks he was pressured (36.8%) was one of them.

Coan converted a first down on 19% of drop backs when pressured this season. That’s not all about mobility as Ian Book was someone who could escape pressure and only finished at 20% in 2018, but mobility definitely plays a factor when avoiding/handling pressure.

If Tyler Buchner wins the job or not, Notre Dame has to be better when the quarterback is pressured. They have to be able to flip those into positive plays more than they did with Coan. 

Book converted first downs on 28.7% of pressured drop back in 2020. The two starting quarterbacks in the upcoming national championship game, Alabama’s Bryce Young and Georgia’s Stetson Bennett, are at 30.7% and 32% respectively for this season.

Those plays where Sanders got out of a sack and ended up scrambling for big yards were demoralizing for a tired defense. It would be nice if Notre Dame’s quarterback could do something similar next season.

5. Notre Dame needs more bodies than they are currently projected to have at wide receiver for the 2022 roster, but they also need someone to step in and make an impact as a boundary receiver after Austin elected to go pro. It’s a huge opportunity for Deion Colzie to jump right into that spot after some nice flashes as a freshman, but putting all of the weight on Colzie to step up isn’t exactly fair. He could use some help and some competition. 

They might get that from Tobias Merriweather‍ as a true freshman. Against the best in the country at the All-American Bowl practices this week, he’s looking like a certifiable “dude”.

I thought the staff was a bit too reluctant to get Lorenzo Styles Jr. involved more this season and by the Fiesta Bowl he made it clear that they should have been getting him more touches. They might not have a choice with Merriweather and not only because he may be too good to keep off the field early on, but also because they may need him to be that good early given the current depth chart.

6. The priority for everyone who follows Notre Dame football closely are the assistant coaches who will interview and be hired shortly by Freeman, but what hires are made in support staff roles are going to be as intriguing for me.

I’m interested in not only who gets hired, but in what roles they are taking. That’s likely going to be an indication of not only Freeman’s vision for the present, but also what he’s hoping for in the future. We don’t know how much freedom he was given by Jack Swarbrick and the administration to build out the football and recruiting departments.

We already saw Freeman as a reason why Chad Bowden was brought on to coordinate defensive recruiting and that led to Dre Brown to come in to do the same role for the offense. Now that this is Freeman’s show, I would be shocked if we didn’t see new positions created whether it’s with recruiting, scouting, or something else.

The first hire that we know we’ll see is someone being brought in or promoted to director of recruiting, the position held previously by Aaryn Kearney, who recently left to take another opportunity with an independent recruiting company. Who gets hired there should give us an idea of where things are headed.

Right after the Fiesta Bowl his message was this.

“I’m more motivated now to go, go, go. Everything we do, from staff to personnel to recruiting to whatever it is, this organization needs to improve. That’s all my mindset is.”

The director of recruiting will be the first domino. I’m sure there will be plenty more to come after that.

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