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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

April 28, 2022

Al Golden didn’t inherit Jaylon Smith or Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah when he took the job as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Notre Dame. One of those types might be all that is missing from who he did inherit, though.

There’s two returning starters and a guy who was supposed to start last year before breaking his ankle. There’s four linebackers who are in their fourth or fifth year with the program, all of whom have plenty of experience. He has a true sophomore who won the High School Butkus Award, a former Vyper who might be the most physical hitter on the team, and a group of early enrollees with exciting potential.

It’s not a question of whether or not Golden can find a quality starting unit from that group. The questions are who the starters will be and how many linebackers will end up being significant contributors this season.

If I had to guess who is starting in week one against Ohio State, I would put Marist Liufau at Will and Jack Kiser at Rover in pencil. I wouldn’t say pen because we simply didn’t see enough this spring to get a read on how things will shake out.

Bo Bauer is the veteran who has played a key role in sub-packages the last two seasons. It would make sense for him to graduate to a starting role at Mike linebacker, but then again, we didn’t see much of JD Bertrand because of an injury. To say he’ll go from basically never leaving the field last season to not in the mix would seem foolish.

There’s also true freshman JR Tuihalahmaka, who looked beyond his years on the field during the Blue-Gold game and in the open practice we watched a month ago. It could be an open competition during camp for that job and if it’s about getting the best three on the field, maybe we’ll see someone else compete there.

That could be a possibility because behind Liufau at Will is Prince Kollie, who flashed as well during the spring. If he takes a step, who’s to say he isn’t one of the best three linebackers and that could lead to shuffling things around.

Speaking of shuffling things around, if Jordan Botelho is ascending this summer at Rover, is it out of the question that Jack Kiser gets slotted somewhere else? I don’t believe so, which only would make things more intriguing.

I think Liufau and Kiser are two of the best three linebackers on the team. It makes sense that they will start and I think both are in line to have great seasons. It looks like there may be up to five more linebackers who could play a lot of football for the Irish, but that’s too many players for not enough snaps.

It’s a good problem to have and there are multiple scenarios at linebacker that are intriguing to me. Golden, Marcus Freeman, and the rest of the staff are going to have to work out who are their three best and who best fits where this summer.

The exciting part is that I think there are several good answers they could come up with. It just may take some time to settle on the right one.

2. I guess not enough people care about the “don’t overreact to the spring game” thing because it didn’t take long for the discourse about Drew Pyne to get out of hand.

You know it’s a problem when even being critical of him is not critical enough. And forget about the extremely tiny minority of Notre Dame fans who thought he might win the starting job. The “he sucks” crowd has to relentlessly dunk on those people like they were a large portion of the fanbase.

Pyne wasn’t great at the other spring practice that was open to the media, but he definitely wasn’t as bad as he performed in the Blue-Gold game. Based on what we saw from him in two appearances in games last season, he’s probably a lot closer to the guy in that first practice than he is the guy who struggled in the Blue-Gold game.

All of the reactions, for Pyne in a negative way and for Steve Angeli in a positive way, pretty much prove my point about Tyler Buchner that I made last week in 6 Thoughts. I’m glad he didn’t play in the B-G game because the discussion about him all summer would have been fixated on that one day rather than the 13 other practices we didn’t get to see.

3. I know many were unhappy with the broadcast for the spring game on Peacock and for good reason. It was pretty bad on multiple levels and definitely seemed like something NBC didn’t really care about putting much effort into.

I don’t think the same can be said for the regular Notre Dame broadcasts over the last five years. They easily could have used a young unproven play by play person, but had Mike Tirico on the call. When they moved on from Doug Flutie, they brought in Tony Dungy before Drew Brees took over last season. Tirico and either of those analysts is better than most NFL broadcast duos.

Brees was seen as a coveted free agent for the networks before he chose NBC. Now it’s possible he may leave NBC for Fox, which could make things interesting for Notre Dame games this fall after it was announced Tirico will call Sunday Night Football.

I’m very intrigued by what NBC might decide ot do with the booth (I already advocated for Paul Burmeister to do play by play) for one specific reason: the direction they go could be an indication of how much they want to invest in Notre Dame football going forward.

The contract with NBC is set to be up after the 2025 season. Right now based on the contracts that are being handed out currently. NBC has a pretty good deal to broadcast these games. The price is going to go up. Are they going to be willing to pay it?

CBS has only two more years of SEC football before they move to ESPN. They could be looking to add something to replace it. ESPN also has a deal with the ACC so it makes sense for them to make Notre Dame part of that as well in many respects.

NBC still wants to be in the college football business and was even bidding on Big Ten rights recently, so the assumption would be that they want to stay involved with Notre Dame. Who knows, maybe even some streaming services will want to explore it with Apple TV+ just adding Major League Baseball games and Amazon Prime adding Thursday Night Football as an exclusive property.

I don’t know if Notre Dame fans have a preference. I think it would be for whoever pays Notre Dame the most money. Someone is going to pay them a lot in a few years. We’ll see if it will still be NBC.

4. This piece on Lane Kiffin’s approach to the transfer portal at Ole Miss was really good. This approach by him is how I imagine just about every program is looking at the portal.

“We have people (evaluated), kind of like a draft board, that we have no idea whether they’re going to go into the portal or not,” Kiffin said. “So we could actually look like right now and say, OK, here’s the 10 best non-SEC linebackers right now, if someone were to go in the portal we really need at that position.”

There’s no doubt that there are players Notre Dame likes that they hope might enter the portal, but there is the added issue of not every one of those guys ends up being an option for them even if they do decide to transfer. That’s why going that route in a big way is never going to be something any Notre Dame coach would be able to do.

This from Kiffin also explains what everyone hopes for, but rarely finds in the portal:

“I tell our (staff), find guys that are productive and playing well at the place they’re at, versus they were really talented but they’re not playing,” said Kiffin. “And find guys that the places wanted to keep versus that the places ran out.”

Notre Dame’s two big transfers, Brandon Joseph and Chris Smith, check those boxes. The moment that we start seeing them routinely take guys who don’t fit that description, we’ll know things are trending in the wrong direction with the program.

5. With the recent additions of 2024 defensive lineman Brandon Davis-Swain‍ and 2023 defensive lineman Boubacar Traore‍, it made me think that Notre Dame could end up loading up so much with similar players that it could lead to eventual shift with the defensive scheme or being more multiple at the very least.

Let’s say that they do end up landing Jason Moore‍ in this current class to go with Traore and Brenan Vernon‍. Throw in Tyson Ford in the previous class, Davis-Swain the next one, and any others who project to play 3-technique defensive tackle, that’s a lot of really talented players who may also fit at end in a more traditional three down front.

It’s something to think about if Al Washington keeps reeling in a plethora of players who project to play 3-tech and I know Freeman will be happy to adjust what they do if it suits the talent on the roster.

6. With the NFL Draft starting tonight, this year will be a reminder of how things can ebb and flow with Notre Dame and NFL Draft picks.

Kyle Hamilton is going to be a first round pick, but the Irish might not have anyone else taken until Saturday. Even then, there’s a chance they might only have three more players selected this year.

Since 2016, Notre Dame has averaged 5.5 NFL selections per year. Ohio State has averaged nine since then and that’s greatly a product of the work Urban Meyer did and Ryan Day built on with recruiting.

Marcus Freeman knows that having three or four more NFL Draft picks on a team each year can make a significant difference for a program and he knows that it all starts with recruiting. When he was asked what he was going to do in the next 100 days, the answer was obvious.

Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting.

Notre Dame should be going on a bit of a run in the next few months with the 2023 and 2024 classes. That run could exclusively be blue-chip prospects (4 and 5-stars) committing to the Irish. It’s logical to think that not just because of who Notre Dame is leading for at the moment, but also because since he took the job, landing blue-chips is all Freeman has done.

More blue-chips lead to more NFL Draft picks leading to not many more days where Notre Dame fans will have to wait until day three for most of their guys to go off the board to NFL teams.

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