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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

August 4, 2022

July used to be a quiet time for college football fans when coaches would go on vacation. It’s changed to a frenetic pace where as much recruiting is done as possible before camp starts for both high school players and college programs.

There’s been so much focus on Notre Dame’s current recruiting class and the developments that have happened in the last week that some people might have forgotten that camp opens on Friday. This always tends to be the case, though. People get so excited about the next recruiting class that is coming in, or even the class after it, that they forget about the young players who are already on campus.

There are several freshmen in the 2022 recruiting class who are going to make a significant impact for Notre Dame. Chances are that less than a handful of them will have it happen this year, though. That’s the norm everywhere in college football unless a freshman can prove he is ready to play during preseason camp.

That’s what Kyle Hamilton did in 2019, what Michael Mayer did in 2020, and what Blake Fisher did in 2021. They were highly ranked recruits, but it wasn’t their status coming in that earned them a chance to play. It was that they came in and proved they not only belonged on the field, but that they were just as good or better than players who have spent a lot more time in the program.

That’s not an easy thing for a freshman to do. Reps aren’t given. They are earned. Every freshman starts out getting a limited number of snaps and the only way that number increases is by making plays/doing their job at a high-level. Those three did it and that is why the first two played significant roles as freshmen and why Fisher would have had he remained healthy.

This leads into a big question heading into fall camp: who is the next Hamilton, Mayer, or Fisher? I guess that also leads into another question: is there a Hamilton, Mayer, or Fisher in this freshman class?

The answer might have been JD Price, but we’ll never know now after his Achilles injury in the summer. The obvious candidate on defense is cornerback Jaden Mickey, who looked terrific in the spring and he’s already shown the confidence necessary to play the position as a freshman. It’s not out of the question that he becomes the first freshman corner to start for Notre Dame in week one since KeiVarae Russell.

JR Tuihalamaka looks like he could play this year, but he’ll be competing with two players who have a lot more experience than him in Bo Bauer and JD Bertrand. He’ll have to have an exceptional camp to jump the line to either start or split reps at Mike linebacker.

Jaylen Sneed was the highest ranked recruit Notre Dame signed in the 2022 class, but he was just getting his feet wet in the spring and he’ll have to make a lot of plays to shake things up at Rover.

Maybe Eli Raridon can come out and look like a young Kyle Rudolph this August to complement Mayer at tight end? That seems like a lot to ask of someone whether he is fully cleared or not from a torn ACL he suffered as a senior in high school.

Hamilton was a three-and-out player. Mayer will be as well. We’ll have to see with Fisher, but it’s a good bet he could follow those two as first round picks. If one of these players or another freshmen I haven’t named ends up creating the buzz that these players did in their first fall camp, then that player could well be on his way to also being three-and-out.

That’s a long time from now and not something worth discussing yet, but it would be a great sign for the future if a freshman can break through the wall put in front of them this summer.

One thing that can take Notre Dame to a higher-level as a team would be having someone be great who isn’t projected to be immediately. There is precedent and it’s one that the staff has to be hoping becomes tradition.

2. Fisher didn’t get a chance to fulfill all of that promise last season, but the Irish were blessed to have Joe Alt step in and get everyone excited about another young offensive tackle. Now Notre Dame has two potential stars at tackle as sophomores where most programs would love to have even one.

Alt has something in common with Hamilton and Mayer as well. All three of them enrolled in the summer and weren’t on campus for spring ball. They were simply too talented to not play as freshmen, although it should be mentioned that Alt might not have ever had the opportunity if not for all of the injuries on the offensive line last year.

What eventually happened with Alt has me thinking about Tobias Merriweather.

Injuries and overall depth chart issues are going to present Merriweather with an abundance of reps this summer compared to if he enrolled while Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin, and Chase Claypool were on the roster at the same time.

We don’t know when Joe Wilkins will be back and fully participating and while Deion Colzie should be set up to snatch the starting boundary receiver position in camp, Merriweather will get a lot of snaps to prove whether or not he is ready for prime time this fall. If he can come out and dominate his matchups against some young corners who are deeper down the depth chart, he’ll rise up to get more chances against a player like Cam Hart.

It’s rare for a freshman receiver to be someone who is relied upon by any offense, but Merriweather should have plenty of opportunities to try and become an exception.

3. Someone asked us on Power Hour this week whether or not Merriweather could be the next Michael Floyd in terms of making an immediate impact as a freshman. I said no and wanted to add more context here

First, let me say that I incorrectly mentioned Floyd’s first game was against Nevada. That was in year two for him, so my apologies for that. He actually missed two games as a freshman, but still set freshman records for receptions (48) and receiving yards (719). He averaged 65.4 yards per game, which pretty much on par with what Miles Boykin did during his final year at Notre Dame in 2018 (67.1). He also had seven touchdowns compared to Boykin’s four.

(Note: this originally said that he missed the first two games of his career, but as was pointed out, he caught a touchdown against San Diego State in the opener. He missed two games, but not the first two. My apologies for the error. )

That’s how good Floyd was. He put up the same numbers of a WR1 for the Irish as a true freshman.

There’s a reason he is the bar for any freshman receiver. The standard he set is so high that it would be very difficult for any young receiver to match.

LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase didn’t come close to matching what Floyd did as a freshman (24.1 yards per game). Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy (18.9) and DeVonta Smith (11.1) aren’t even in the conversation. JuJu Smith-Schuster (55.7 and five touchdowns) was closer.

Justyn Ross was one of the best freshman receivers of the last decade and his numbers are only slightly better than Floyd’s (66.7 and nine touchdowns). That’s the company Floyd is in in terms of immediate impact.

Yes, Merriweather will have an opportunity to compete for a starting job and that could equate to plenty of production for him. The bar Floyd set will be very difficult to reach, though. He was special.

4. Taking any freshman off the table, is there a player who has a greater difference between ceiling and floor than safety Xavier Watts?

If you told me that the former wide receiver was a rising star for the Irish defense in a few weeks, I’d believe it. If you told me he was the fifth safety and not someone who is expected to play much this season, I’d believe that too.

He flashed enough in his 88 snaps last season to suggest he can be a player for the Irish, especially with the way he attacked downhill versus plays on the perimeter. He also looked like someone who was making the transition to a new position and appeared lost in coverage on some plays.

There was the thought that the bowl practices could prove to be big for him, but he only saw the field for six snaps against Oklahoma State. There was a noticeable lack of buzz around him in the spring and there are four other safeties who are more established and have more experience. It felt like he needed to make a move in the spring to be heavily in the mix at the position, but it doesn’t appear that that happened.

The depth chart could open up in a big way next season with DJ Brown, Houston Griffith, and Brandon Joseph all potentially gone. Even if Watts doesn’t make a significant leap this year, his time at safety for Notre Dame isn’t necessarily done.

That’s true, but it’s going to be important for either him or Justin Walters to show enough to give the staff confidence they are heading towards competing to be starters at some point. If that doesn’t happen, then we’re likely going to see a corner move to safety at some point this fall.

5. If I had to guess which position could look a lot different in terms of who comes out with the ones day one of camp compared to who is working in with the ones for the next full practice viewing two weeks later, I’d pick linebacker.

I do wonder if we’re going to see even more of a split at certain spots this year because of the depth and we’ve seen in recent years where players like Marist Liufau and JD Bertrand jumped the line at certain positions over others with more experience. I think it’s entirely possible that we’ll see something like that happen again.

Here’s the biggest question for not just third down, but for the defense as a whole: who are the two linebackers when Notre Dame plays with a nickel?

The Irish are going to have play with a nickel for most of the game against Ohio State with 11 personnel (one back, one tight end) as their base package and they aren’t going to want situations where they have a linebacker covering Jaxon Smith-Njigba in the slot.

North Carolina spreads things out with their Air Raid attack and Notre Dame isn’t having a linebacker cover Josh Downs. Clemson and USC are built to play with 10 and 11 personnel as their base and the Trojans have Jordan Addison and Mario Williams as options in the slot. Those are all matchups that will require Notre Dame to play with a nickel on the field for a good chunk of the game and not just on 3rd down.

It seems pretty easy to suggest that Jack Kiser and Marist LIufau are going to be prime candidates to be the two linebackers when the Irish are in nickel, but Bo Bauer has spent the past two seasons as an effective part of the Notre Dame’s 3rd down defense and there definitely will be other candidates who are in the mix as well.

I know people will be paying close attention to who starts and who is playing where when Notre Dame has three linebackers on the field. It should get even more interesting when they end up playing with two.

6. Keon Keeley‍ and Peyton Bowen‍ are committed to Notre Dame, but they both took visits to other programs last weekend. The general line of thinking is that people should get used to it because this is “big boy” recruiting.

If we’re keeping it 100, this isn’t “big boy” recruiting. This is simply recruiting. This is how it’s been for a long time. Notre Dame fans have just been protected from it because the previous staff wasn’t typically involved with the top prospects in states like Florida and Texas. 

I don’t know what’s going to happen with any of this and neither does anyone. All I know is that assuming it’s over for everyone involved would be a mistake. It’s been proven time and time again that things can change drastically with recruits and that it's a marathon, not a sprint.

If you think these players are gone and will end up at other programs, then you’re jumping way too far ahead.

We’ve seen players who Notre Dame lost out on that ultimately flip to Notre Dame (TJ Jones, Daelin Hayes, Josh Barajas, Gunner Kiel, Houston Griffith, and Caleb Johnson). We’ve seen Notre Dame gain commitments, lose commitments, and then regain commitments from players in a recruiting class (Braden Lenzy, Deion Colzie, Philip Riley, Aaron Lynch, and Stephon Tuitt). We’ve seen a lot of things happen with Notre Dame recruiting in the last 15 years and it doesn’t even come close to how things have gone down at most other top tier programs.

Calling recruiting unpredictable is like saying Michael Mayer is good at football. Of course it’s true, but it doesn’t come close to fully describing it in detail. Who could have predicted that both Lynch and Tuitt would have ended up back in Notre Dame’s class after they committed to other schools?

It’s easy to say that Keeley and Bowen will stick with the Irish or that one or both will end up somewhere else. There’s no way of knowing what twists and turns that will happen along the way before they actually sign, so I don’t really see any reason to be optimistic or pessimistic.

Whatever happens, Notre Dame’s staff is not about to concede anything. Brian Kelly’s staff didn’t concede with numerous players that they flipped (or flipped back) and this current staff as a whole works harder and is better organized. Having a head coach who has built relationships with these players doesn’t hurt either.

These are two critical recruiting battles for Marcus Freeman. Fair or not, there’s a very good chance that most people will look back on this recruiting class and judge it by whether they win or lose with Keeley and Bowen. Freeman has a lot more Ws than Ls so far as a recruiter at Notre Dame so we’ll have to see how this all plays out. Black Notre Dame Fighting Irish Backpack

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