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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

January 27, 2022

I should have known better.

Bringing up his name to a Notre Dame fan is like looking into a mirror and saying “Bloody Mary” three times.

Brian VanGorder.

I think I scared some people with the mention of “BVG vibes” in reference to Al Golden when discussing Notre Dame defensive coordinator candidates. This is the whole section I wrote about Golden.

This feels like a weird time for Golden to get back into the college game after being in the NFL for the past six years, but that could have been said about John McNulty and that has turned into a great hire for Notre Dame. Golden was a college teammate of McNulty’s at Penn State.
It’s been a while since Golden ran a defense as a coordinator, going all the way back to 2005 at Virginia, but he did a heck of a job at Temple as a head coach before being one of many who fizzled out at Miami. They didn’t play great defense while he was there. They didn’t play great in any phase.
Not necessarily when it comes to his style, but if you look at his resumé there are some BVG vibes in terms of distance from the time he was a successful coordinator in college. That’s a pretty significant question mark attached to him that none of the other candidates have.

For context, I wanted to add a few things to this.

The first is that BVG failed at Notre Dame for various reasons. Part of that was being out of the college game and not being ready for the difference in schemes, but largely it was because he came in with a mentality that made the defense harder to learn for college kids.

I haven’t heard anything to where Golden might do the same and with oversight from Freeman being a part of the job, there is no way he’d be a candidate if his plan was to run a highly complicated scheme. So we can safely take that off the table.

Of course there are differences between college football and the NFL that are obvious. No one is getting ready to play Navy and the triple-option every year, that’s for sure. The RPO game is more prevalent in college and more legal with blockers allowed to go down field further. That makes it harder to coach against and more difficult when it comes to reading keys for linebackers and safeties especially.

The differences are a lot less than they used to be, though. 11 personnel (one back, one tight end) is essentially base personnel in the NFL today much like it is in college football. Nickel has become more base defense as well to combat that.

There’s Air Raid concepts in the NFL now. That’s not something BVG was seeing when he was with the Falcons or Jets. High school and college concepts have trickled up faster and become more prevalent in the NFL so the adjustment wouldn’t be the same as it was eight years ago.

Jeff Hafley had zero coordinator experience and was away from college football for eight years before Ryan Day hired him to be defensive coordinator at Ohio State. That worked out more than okay. Michigan defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald had zero coordinator experience and was also eight years removed from college football when he was hired by Jim Harbaugh. That worked out pretty good as well as he’s heading back to the NFL to run John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens defense.

I know many fans are guilty of only seeing things through a Notre Dame lens. If a kid is from Fresno, forget about him ever coming to Notre Dame. If they get a commitment from a big, bruising running back, then he’s the next Jerome Bettis. I’m guilty of that too at times and me mentioning BVG in relation to Golden is probably part of that.

I don’t know if Golden is going to be the move at defensive coordinator. I don’t know if he’s going to be more like Hafley or more like Lovie Smith. I don’t even know if he’s someone who can be viewed as someone who would stay long term because the last four defensive coordinators who succeeded at Notre Dame became head coaches. And anyone who did what Golden was able to do at Temple probably deserves another chance to be a head coach at some point.

I do know that the guy knows how to coach the linebacker position pretty darn well and with no previous connection to Freeman, other than them possibly crossing paths in Cincinnati, Golden must have really connected with him in the interview process to get to this point.

At the very least it would be intriguing to see how it will work. There’s a bit of mystery with all of the defensive coordinator candidates on the board so I’m eager to see how it will play out.

2. When Freeman was a candidate for defensive coordinator, it was easy to see why he was a top choice. His defenses checked all of the boxes statistically and he was a strong recruiter. He was a top choice for any program looking for a DC.

Those guys that check every box aren’t always out there, but there’s circumstances why it’s not all perfect.

Golden hasn’t run a defense in a long time and he hasn’t recruited in a long time as well. (He wasn’t calling a defense because he was busy being a head coach a lot of those years. That’s not exactly his fault.)

Minnesota’s Joe Rossi has been a coordinator three years and two of them his defenses were very good (29th in F+ in 2019 and 12th in 2021). The other year the defense was bad (2020). (2020 was a shortened season where they were trying to replace seven starters and he missed a game after testing positive for Covid.)

Boston College’s Tem Lukabu hasn’t coached a great defense yet. They finished 61st in F+ this past year. (Lukabu took over a defense that was terrible (108th in F+) so getting it to average in two years is a significant accomplishment.)

Doug Belk had a great debut at Houston (21st in F+), but it’s his only year running a defense. (Why hasn’t Belk had more years running a defense? He’s in his early 30s.)

The important part is hiring the guy who can take this Notre Dame defense to the next level. Whoever Freeman thinks will check that box will be the guy, but no one will come in as a sure-thing. Heck, Freeman was considered a sure-thing and people weren’t exactly thrilled with his first two games calling the defense.

3. The ideal recruiting class is one where about half become starters and about nine or 10 players become NFL Draft picks.

That’s what happened with Notre Dame’s 2016 class, which was loaded with future professionals (nine who were picked and four more who were on NFL rosters last season). It’s not a coincidence that they won a ton of games while those players were the core of the team.

The 2019 class isn’t going to match that group with how many future pros they have, but looking at what they’ve done and what’s ahead, it might not be that far off.

We know Kyle Hamilton and Kyren Williams are going to be pros with Hamilton a lock to be a top pick and Williams having a good chance to be a day two selection. Isaiah Foskey came back for a fourth year and he could be on his way to developing into a first round pick. Those three players are as good of a top-three from any class Notre Dame has signed recently, but it’s after that which will determine how it will be remembered.

Marist Liufau may have been included with that group if he was healthy in 2021 and should be in line for a major breakout this season. Cam Hart had a strong debut as a starter last fall and Jack Kiser was solid in his first starting role at Rover.

It’s after those three where things could get interesting. Jacob Lacey and Howard Cross have a massive opportunity in front of them now at defensive tackle. At this moment, both have some issues to overcome if they are going to play in the league. They will be key players this year and likely the next one.

Andrew Kristofic has a chance to take a big step after starting the second half of the season at left guard. Harry Hiestand knows how to make future pros so Kristofic could very well be on his way to getting there.

Many Irish fans are thinking about missed tackles from JD Bertrand in the Fiesta Bowl so it’s easy to forget that he made 101 at a position that isn’t his best in a year where he wasn’t supposed to be the starter. He left some Havoc plays on the field that could greatly change the narrative about him if he finished half of those plays.

I don’t think the odds are great that nine from the class are going to end up getting drafted, but seven seems like a fair expectation. The 2013 class, which was the highest ranked during the Brian Kelly era and came with significantly more hype, only had five drafted by NFL teams.

4. For most college football players, we really don’t know how good they are until year three or four. The ones who are great earlier than that typically don’t make it to year four.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in regards to Clarence Lewis. In the “you’re only as good as your last game” department, he might be at the bottom of the list when looking at returning starters. When a corner has a minus on a play, it can show up in a big way and it did for Lewis in the Oklahoma State game.

It wasn’t just that game or else maybe it could be written off as a bad day. The move to the boundary wasn’t a successful one for him and the promise he showed in 2020, especially in finding the football, faded away.

There are questions about his speed and whether or not he should move to safety. His status as a starter would seem to be in question heading into spring as well and many are a bit scared about him running out there with the ones against Ohio State’s receivers to start next season.

All of these questions with him are fair to ask, but it probably should be mentioned that if Notre Dame had recruited, evaluated, and developed better at corner in the years before he arrived, then he likely wouldn’t even have been competing for a starting spot until this year.

He was pretty much forced onto the field as a freshman because TaRiq Bracy was struggling and then as a sophomore he was pretty much forced to move to the boundary after they benched Cam Hart at the end of the Toledo game. I don’t think Lewis is going to magically make this big step because it’s now year three for him at Notre Dame, but I also don’t know that he won’t make a move or be put in a better spot to help him succeed.

My approach with him this spring is to wait and see before making any sweeping judgements on his ability to help Notre Dame this fall. I hope others do the same rather than completey write him off.

5. Greg Flammang and I did a breakdown of Tyler Buchner on our YouTube show that I think is worth checking out if you haven’t already:

One thing from it that I wanted to mention here is how Notre Dame ran play-action on 29% of Jack Coan’s drop backs, but that number went up to 39.5% for Buchner (these include RPOs).

I know the sample size is significantly smaller for Buchner and some of what he ran was a package set up for him, but I see this as the direction the Irish offense will go if Buchner is QB1. It just makes sense to lean in this direction with how dangerous he is as a runner and how even as a young player, his ability to make decisions in the RPO game stood out.

Tommy Rees isn’t going to try and make Buchner a pure drop back passer. The thing that has impressed me the most about Rees as a play-caller is his willingness to adapt to his personnel in the last two seasons. It’s a lock that he will adapt the offense to fit the strengths of Buchner if wins the starting job.

It’s pretty incredible that only 22.5% of Ian Book’s drop backs involved a play-action fake in 2020. That number should be around 40% in 2022.

6. Well, well, well…things certainly seem to be getting interesting with Caleb Williams. Whether it’s Wisconsin or LSU, he’s not locked with at USC when it seemed like a formality shortly after he announced he was transferring.

If he ultimately doesn’t end up playing for Lincoln Riley again, who will be the quarterback for the Trojans this season?

It won’t be Kedon Slovis or Jaxson Dart. Miller Moss is the only scholarship quarterback on the roster and he hasn’t taken a college snap yet. They also don’t have a quarterback in their recruiting class after Devin Brown‍ ended up at Ohio State. They will have to go into the transfer portal to at least get a couple of options.

If Williams ends up at USC, then just about everything Riley did ended up according to plan. If he doesn’t, then they almost have to hope for another good quarterback to opt out of playing somewhere with the intention of playing at USC.

There has been a lot going on with Notre Dame football in the past couple of months, but this would be at a different level if Williams chooses to go elsewhere. Throw in Jim Harbaugh potentially leaving Michigan for the NFL and this is the kind of chaos I’m rooting for.

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