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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

January 20, 2022

For anyone hoping for Derek Mason to be Notre Dame’s next defensive coordinator, it looks like he’s leaning somewhere else at the moment.

The fact that he might leave Auburn for Okie Lite says a lot about the tenuous situation at a program in the toughest division in college football. It likely also says that he wants to go into a situation where he can run the show.

Jon Heacock and Derek Mason were early candidates for the defensive coordinator position. Most people would have been happy if either were hired. It looks like Notre Dame is headed in another direction rather than bringing in an established veteran and that fits with the idea of Freeman wanting to still play a big role on that side of the ball.

That’s not at all uncommon. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, the two guys who coached in the national championship, both still have plenty of oversight with their respective defenses. I’d say it has worked out more than okay for both of them.

Saban’s defensive coordinator is Pete Golding. Before he got to Alabama he had two years experience as a coordinator at the Group of 5 level. He was co-DC for a year at Alabama before being promoted to running the entire defense.

Smart’s coordinator is now leaving to be the head coach at Oregon. Dan Lanning had zero coordinator experience before Smart promoted him at Georgia.

Luke Fickell, another defensive minded head coach, hired Freeman as a coordinator at Cincinnati. Fickell was heavily involved in shaping that defense with Freeman as a first-time coordinator. Fickell still plays a big role overseeing the defense with Mike Tressel, who had two years of coordinator experience before going to UC.

Three of the four head coaches who were in the College Football Playoff this year have a background on defense and how they have done things has proved to be successful. It’s pretty convincing evidence that Freeman might want to do the same.

Now the question becomes who is the right fit for Notre Dame who also understands that it’s not going to be about them having total control. Maybe that’s a star on the rise like Houston’s Doug Belk or Minnesota’s Joe Rossi. Maybe it’s a young position coach who is ready for that next step much like Clark Lea was in 2018.

Whoever it is, it doesn’t appear like it will be a flashy hire like Freeman was last year. That could work out just fine because this won’t be a one-man show.

2. Why is landing Al Washington for Notre Dame’s staff over him taking a job with Georgia so important? Beating the current national champs for a coach is nice, but it really comes down to recruiting.

College football news right now is dominated by the transfer portal, but the teams who win championships will always be built by strong recruiting. Brian Kelly at LSU is getting some buzz right now because they have landed a ton of transfers, but those are mostly stop-gap solutions. They aren’t going to beat Alabama and Georgia with a team built on “free agency”.

Georgia had 18 players on their national championship game depth chart that I had ranked in the ISD Fab 50 between 2018 and 2021. Recruiting dominance got them to a championship.

3. You don’t see a lot of outside of the box hires in college football, which is why Michigan State hiring former private pass rush coach Brandon Jordan to their staff with the title “Pass Rush Specialist” is so intriguing.

Jordan was a defensive line coach at Austin Peay back in 2014 and 2015, but he got into private coaching with his own company in 2018. Bruce Feldman does a great job telling his story for the Athletic, but the shortened version is that some stuff he posted on social media caught the attention of an NFL player and then things blew up from there.

He’s worked with almost 200 NFL players since.

It’s definitely a unique story. I’m rooting for it to go well for Jordan because there’s this rigid structure in college coaching that often involves being a graduate assistant or analyst at a smaller program and then hopefully getting connected with the right people to allow that coach to advance with their career.

I hope we see more coaches like Tucker who are open to finding coaches or support staff who haven’t necessarily followed the same path most other coaches have.

4. Notre Dame started winter workouts this week and we still don’t know if TaRiq Bracy will be returning or not. That makes me think “or not” feels more likely and the nickel job is going to be wide open this spring.

The two young players that I think will be heavily in the mix for the gig are Jojo Johnson, if he’s healthy, and early enrollee Jaden Mickey.

Johnson was maybe the most impressive freshman corner before hurting his knee last summer and his ball skills were evident. Mickey is very polished at this stage of his development and he has the versatility that can help him thrive there. The question will be whether or not he can thrive right away or if it will take some time.

The Irish are set to face what looks like the two best slot receivers in the country in 2022 so saying nickel/slot corner is a critical position is an understatement. Good luck to them having to cover Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba and North Carolina’s Josh Downs this fall.

5. Howard Cross may be the starter at nose tackle for Notre Dame this season, but I can’t help but think he’s playing out of position and should be at 3-technique. Al Washington might not have a choice of where to play him, but now that Mike Elston is gone, I do wonder if Freeman and Washington will shuffle things around a bit up front.

What happens with Cross and Jacob Lacey is something worth watching. I think both of them are quality players, but neither have played with enough consistency to prove they deserve to be starters. The best of what they’ve shown could be great. Where they are with their physical development is going to be very important.

6. There isn’t one Notre Dame player that is on the roster at the Senior Bowl this season. I can’t even remember the last time that happened as they’ve seemed to have at least a few players there every year.

If Jarrett Patterson was leaving for the NFL, I’m sure he’d be there. Not having anyone else invited says a lot about where things stood with Notre Dame’s team last season. It was a mostly young group.

There’s a chance that only Kyle Hamilton and Kyren Williams get drafted this year, which would be the lowest number of picks for the Irish since 2017. That may be disheartening in the moment if that happens, but it should also be a reminder that most of the best players on the team still have plenty of room to grow and they still finished 11-2.

The 2022 team has a chance to be really good and it’s not just because Patterson, Isaiah Foskey, and the Ademilola twins are back. Most of the top NFL prospects on the roster are going to be sophomores and freshmen next season.

That should make for another year where the team should play their best ball in November and they’re going to need that to happen with Clemson and Boston College coming to South Bend and that last game of the season facing Lincoln Riley’s USC.

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