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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

March 17, 2022

The baseball team is ranked #1. The men’s and women’s basketball teams are back in the NCAA tournament (a heck of a win by the Irish against Rutgers to start things off right). Spring practice starts TODAY.

It’s undeniable that it’s a pretty great time for Notre Dame sports. Mixed in with all of that is Notre Dame sending out their “Pot of Gold” to several 2024 recruits and spring visits kicking into gear.

It’s the latter that is equally important to how the current team looks in the spring. That’s because the staff is hitting the ground running this week with a handful of elite targets visiting campus.

The Irish have three players committed who will be in the first ISD Fab 50 (which will be released tomorrow if some technical difficulties get fixed). Four other targets either have been or will be on campus visiting Notre Dame this week.

I have written a lot in 6 Thoughts over the past few years about Notre Dame needing to land more top talent and get these types of players on campus more often. I’ve done it enough times that I’m sure some are sick of it. Well, I’ve got exciting news for those people because I don’t think I’ll be writing about that again with the current staff.

They are playing from behind against Ohio State with Carnell Tate‍ and they certainly will have to battle to land Samuel M'Pemba‍, Jaiden Ausberry‍, Malik Hartford‍, and Jeremiyah Love‍, but they are in the game, which was too often not the case even though the recent Brian Kelly run should have equalled to more momentum.

That’s the one thing that some who don’t follow recruiting closely may not realize. Winning helps and so does putting players into the league, but it doesn’t make up for the work it takes to build relationships.

The staff has been putting in the work, which is why any Notre Dame fan can feel more confident than they have in a long time that if a recruit is a fit with the program, the Irish are going to have a chance to sign them.

They currently have the top ranked recruiting class in the country and at this time of year that means less than nothing. But this is different from previous hot starts. They have a chance to build on what they’ve done rather than fit pieces around the top guys they already have in the boat.

The offseason for football can drag at times and it helps when Notre Dame is having success in other sports to keep everyone engaged. That’s great, but even an NCAA tournament win doesn’t get people going like landing a commitment from a top prospect.

Recruiting like this will keep everyone looking for board updates and scrolling Twitter for bat signals. When that happens, the offseason becomes almost as exciting as Saturdays in the fall.

2. Greg Flammang and I did a spring practice preview last night on Hit & Hustle where we talked about five big questions before things start today. At the top of the list was the question of whether or not Tyler Buchner can make the leap this spring and what Notre Dame is going to do at boundary cornerback.

Those questions don’t necessarily need to be answered in the spring for things to work out well for Notre Dame, but if both of them get answered in a positive way for the Irish in the next couple of months, I think it can change the ceiling for the team.

Looking at the roster and the schedule objectively, I see a team that should have a good shot to win 10 games for the sixth straight season. Whether or not they can get back to the College Football Playoff will depend on a lot of things, but how good they are at quarterback and cornerback are more important than any other spots on the roster at the moment.

3. In 12 games in 2020, Notre Dame’s linebackers produced 49 Havoc plays (tackles for loss, pass breakups, interceptions, and forced fumbles). In 2021, with one extra game, they produced 38.5 Havoc plays.

Losing Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Marist Liufau missing the season played a big part in that, but it’s not just the linebackers who need to make more plays. The total Havoc Rate for the defense dipped from 20.9% to 16.5.

I don’t think that was scheme driven. I think that was player driven. Kyle Hamilton and Shaun Crawford, who started at safety in 2020, combined for 20 total Havoc plays. Crawford didn’t play at an elite overall level, but he contributed 9.5 of those. Hamilton had nine playing in only half of the games in 2021. The rest of the safeties combined for 6.5.

Brandon Joseph is expected to replace some of those plays that Hamilton made, but they have to get more from the other spot. Whether it’s a combination of guys or someone like Ramon Henderson developing in his first full year at safety, they need to find playmakers in the middle of the defense.

4. There is a ridiculous amount of quality edge rushers in the 2023 cycle. It's like a bunch of kids realized that they are too short to play in the NBA and have now figured out that rushing the passer is also pretty cool.

Jevon Kearse had the nickname “The Freak” and there was no doubt his combination of size and speed made him a unicorn 20 years ago. I’m not saying Kearse would be just a guy today, but the fact that I can point to a handful of guys who have similar athletic traits to him in a single recruiting class shows how much pass rushers have evolved over the years.

5. If we’re looking at early returns for recruiting at USC under Lincoln Riley, then it’s tough to argue against the players he flipped to the Trojans who were previously committed to Oklahoma. The three guys they have committed right now are all big time skill players that might be better than any other program ends up with in this entire cycle.

Riley is going to have that offense humming. I don’t think anyone has any misgivings about that. The question for me is whether or not they are going to be able to attract the players that can help them be different on defense.

Defensive end Mykel Williams‍ was committed to them at one point last year (he eventually flipped to Georgia). He’s a 5-star talent and from an area of the country where most of the top defensive linemen are from. USC has missed on those kinds of players in recent years. They haven’t had issues finding the skill talent even when they have struggled.

Since 2013 the Trojans have signed 21 offensive skill recruits ranked in the top-100. There’s plenty of those on the west coast that are happy to go to USC and they’ll likely do even better with Riley’s offense attracting them.

It'll take more than that to get back to where they were under Pete Carroll, though. They need some studs on the defensive line as well and the top recruits aren’t as plentiful out west at that position.

I don’t doubt that USC is going to be a much tougher game every year while Riley is there and I expect him to win a lot of games behind a prolific offense. They’ll very likely end up as the class of the Pac-12 again in the next few years, if not sooner. We’ll see if the next couple of recruiting classes can start to make waves at other spots or if they’re only going to be a slightly better version of Oklahoma.

6. Rylie Mills was 17th in “pass rush win rate” for interior defensive lineman last season according to PFF (10th in Power 5). His sample size wasn’t big, but these numbers are solid evidence that the sample size probably deserved to be bigger.

I think when people are talking about analytics in football, they are mostly thinking about going for it on 4th down or the chart that tells a coach when to go for two points or not. Most people aren’t thinking about player evaluation.

For as long as coaches have watched film, they’ve graded players on each play, giving them pluses or minuses. Things like “pass rush win rate” make things more specific and it’s the kind of statistic that can be extremely useful with so much of the game being broken down into situational football.

How deep are teams getting into it with this kind of charting for individual players? How much or how little will Marcus Freeman emphasize it? With every program in American looking to gain any kind of advantage they can to win on Saturdays, deeper player analytics is something that more teams should be examining in college football if they aren’t already doing so.

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