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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

December 15, 2022

How do you replace the irreplaceable? That’s what Notre Dame has to deal with right now while preparing for the Gator Bowl without their two most impactful players.

Michael Mayer and Isaiah Foskey are more than just the most prolific tight end and most productive pass rusher in the history of a storied college football program. They were the drivers for the 2022 Fighting Irish. Without them, things on offense and defense have to shift in a different direction.

Not having those two would make it seem like South Carolina is going to have a massive advantage going into this match up, but they have to deal with losing players as well.

Cornerback Cam Smith, a projected first round pick, and defensive end Zacch Pickens, a former 5-star who accepted an invite to the Senior Bowl, have opted out of the game as well. That’s also in addition to starting running back Marshawn Lloyd and their top two tight ends, Jaheim Bell and Austin Stogner, entering the transfer portal. Bell is more than just a tight end too. He was their Swiss Army knife. The equivalent of former NC State star Jaylen Samuels. (Bell and Stogner have already committed to their next destination already)

Pickens played more snaps than any defensive linemen on their team this season. Smith is one of the best corners in the SEC.

With Lloyd and Bell gone, that’s 47.3% of the total carries out the door for them. Without Lloyd, Bell, and Stogner, it’s 24.1% of South Carolina’s total targets missing from their offense. Add in injured receiver Malik Vann and the percentage jumps up to 33%.

Not having two of their best players on defense and players who accounted for about ½ of their carries and a ⅓ of their targets is going to be an issue for them. It would be an issue for anyone, no matter how good the depth is with a football program.

As much as Notre Dame is going to have to change things for this game, South Carolina will be forced to be different as well. The Irish are also likely to roll with a quarterback who hasn’t played since week two or a freshman who hasn’t seen any meaningful snaps this season and that’s a whole different dynamic we are talking about.

What all of those missing pieces are going to mean for this game is anybody’s guess. If I told you that the Irish have the clear advantage or that they were going to suffer more from not having two elite players, I’d be lying. I have no idea what these teams are going to look like in the Gator Bowl other than knowing they are definitely going to look different than the last time we saw them.

The Notre Dame team who won five of their last six after starting 3-3? That’s not the same team we’ll see on December 30th. That South Carolina team that finished the season by beating Tennessee and Clemson? That team is gone.

Not having all of these players won’t make the game better, but it should make the game more interesting. It’s also going to make it very difficult to evaluate anything we see from them because this game is more of a transition to next season than the finish of the current one.

2. I think Tyler Buchner is going to start and it will be his offense for the most part against South Carolina. He may even light it up and I wouldn’t be surprised if Notre Dame’s offense looked fantastic running the football with the added element of his athleticism added to the mix.

No one should get carried away with making sweeping judgements about the potential of the offense with him if it happens. It’s not just that Notre Dame would be doing it against a bad run defense (123rd in EPA per rush, 129th in stuff rate) that is missing a player like Pickens up front. It’s that we already know that Buchner is capable of being a dangerous runner and that the Irish running backs are only going to benefit from the defense having to worry about Buchner as well.

What I’ll be looking for with Buchner in this game is his 3rd down passing numbers. He was not good in those situations in his limited sample size to start the season (39.9 NFL passer rating. Oof)

South Carolina was 20th for Power 5 teams in opponent passer rating on 3rd down in 2022. They were 10th when it was 3rd and medium (4-6 yards). I want to see if Buchner can be effective moving the chains on 3rd downs in passing situations, even if he’s using his legs to scramble in those situations.

3. When any new quarterback goes into the portal, Notre Dame fans are like a dog waiting at the front door for their owner to come home.

They see car lights coming down the street and wonder, is this our guy? Could he be Notre Dame’s next quarterback? Then people start looking up stats, weighing pros and cons of the player, and most of it won’t matter because Notre Dame is only going to land one of these players and we don’t know who that is yet.

The odds of it being a perfect fit are slim. The key will be finding someone who can adapt to what Notre Dame does on offense compared to what they did in their previous offense. Jack Coan fit with a lot of what the Irish did. The biggest piece missing was the dual-threat part of the equation. He was still a good addition even without that. 

I think one of the hardest parts of evaluating the different quarterbacks is trying to assess the ones who play in unique offenses.

Wake Forest Sam Hartman is not in the portal, although Dave Clawson suggested that he might end up there if Hartman doesn’t go to the NFL. Wake’s slow mesh scheme has been fantastic for them, but it’s so drastically different from what Notre Dame and what everyone else does on offense that it’s hard to gauge how good Hartman can be when he isn’t running it.

He can throw a great deep ball, but his post-snap reads are so different from an average drop back. Wake ran play-action/RPO on over 40% of his passes and teams blitz them far more frequently to try and disrupt the mesh. How he’ll adjust to a different offense will be fascinating whether it’s the NFL or another college football program.

Grayson McCall is another interesting player because no one is doing what Coastal Carolina is doing. He clearly was great with his decision-making on RPOs and he has the physical talent to be successful, but the scheme sets up so many wide open throws and again it comes back to reads.

I don’t think either would be flops if playing in another system, but there will be an adjustment for McCall (and possibly for Hartman) and I wouldn’t be surprised if immediate success doesn’t happen for anyone making a drastic change in the type of offense they are used to playing in.

4. No one could have blamed Miles Boykin if he was down on himself during the 2017 season. He had nine catches for 151 yards.

Then he got a chance at a bigger role in the Citrus Bowl and had his first 100-yard game and one of the best catch-and-run moments you’ll ever see. It helped propel him to new heights and he rode it to becoming WR1 in 2018.

Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah had flashes of greatness during the 2019 season, but he also had his share of mistakes. He was phenomenal against Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl and it basically acted as an appetizer for his Butkus Award win the next season.

That kind of thing doesn’t happen in every bowl game and sometimes a big bowl game doesn’t lead to the breakout season everyone expects. It didn’t go that way for Lorenzo Styles after his game against Oklahoma State. (I’d also add that that game is reason enough not to give up on the player Styles could be.)

It has happened enough times for it to be noteworthy, though, because going into the off-season with confidence can be a big boost for a player. If CJ Prosise doesn’t have a 50-yard house call on a jet sweep in the Music City Bowl, is he rushing for 1,000 yards in 2015? Maybe he’s not even moving to running back. If Ian Book hadn’t had the game he had in the Citrus Bowl, would Notre Dame have stuck with Brandon Wimbush for longer in 2018? It’s impossible to say, but that game had to be lingering in the back of the coaching staff's minds before making the switch to Book.

Boykin wouldn’t have even been on my list of candidates for a breakout game that day so maybe making a list is pointless, but what the heck, I’ll do it anyway.

On offense, Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas feel like obvious choices to me. On defense, Jordan Botelho and Gabriel Rubio are two that stick out. I’d love to include a young linebacker as well, but i’m not getting my hopes up. 

I’m excited to see who it might be on December 30th and maybe it can be more than one.

5. I think Notre Dame fans were not-so-secretly hoping for Jason Garrett to get the Stanford job for obvious reasons. Maybe they weren’t thinking about Sacramento State head coach Troy Taylor being the other leading candidate, but that probably should have been the biggest reason why.

Taylor just turned around a Sac State program that was bad and transitioned them into an exciting offense. Anyone who watched his opening press conference after being named Stanford’s new head coach should also understand that Taylor sounds like he has the right approach to rebuilding that program.

Unfortunately for Taylor, it’s probably going to take some time.

There are no quick fixes in the transfer portal for Stanford. Even compared to Notre Dame, where there’s hoops to jump through that don’t exist at most other schools, it’s a completely different story when it comes to bringing in transfers and getting players through admissions as freshmen.

In the last four cycles, Stanford has signed 63 players and has 14 commits in this current class. They may add some more, but probably not a lot this late in the cycle with a new coach. So let’s put them at 77 signees over four years.

They have 14 scholarship players in the portal at the moment. They lost 21 more in the portal over the last four years for a total of 35. They only added one transfer. The losses relative to how many they have signed is significant and they aren’t adding through the portal to counter-balance that.

Over that same time, Notre Dame has lost 38 players to the portal, but brought back 10 transfers. Both of those numbers are likely to grow, but what’s more important is that fact that Notre Dame signed 66 players and have 26 commits in this cycle for a total of 92. Add in the 10 transfers and it’s over 100 scholarship players brought in compared to 37 lost transfers or in the portal over that, but they also signed 10 from the portal.

102 for ND compared to 78 with a pretty similar number of players who transferred out is a massive gap. That’s not a level playing field.

It is, however, the reality of what Taylor inherits and the obstacles he is going to have to overcome to compete with Notre Dame, not to mention Oregon, Washington, and the rest of the Pac-12 who have very few limitations when it comes to adding transfers and signing bigger classes.

David Shaw inherited a program and he followed the formula that Jim Harbaugh used to build it. When that formula had to change, Shaw was hopeless in trying to fix the issues that existed and left the program in a much worse spot than when he was promoted.

Taylor is going to have a very difficult task ahead of him. He’s going to have to slowly build things to get them back to where they need to be and even then he’ll be at a disadvantage compared to everyone else he is competing against.

6. Notre Dame has 26 players committed. They would have loved to sign 28 players (or more) and maybe they’ll sign less than 25, but they’re going to come in with a good number no matter what happens with Peyton Bowen‍ or anyone else.

It’s all because they planned ahead.

Losing Dylan Edwards‍ might have felt like a crushing blow to a Notre Dame class in previous cycles. Losing his commitment now is anything but ideal, but they have so much speed and skill overall that it’s not a crater that can’t be filled.

It will shape how the class is perceived with Bowen’s decision to sign with ND or flip to another program, but no one can say that the Irish didn’t prepare for the possibility. They took Benjamin Minich‍, who I ranked as a 4-star before he was offered and is now a composite 4-star, when previous staff would have played the waiting game that has got them burned in the past. They took Brandyn Hillman, another 4-star prospect, who could play safety or be a weapon on offense. They didn’t sit back and pin all of their hopes on whether or not Bowen sticks.

The program isn’t at the point where they can go into the portal and easily fill all of their needs like some others can. They know they have to continue to be aggressive with adding to the recruiting class because they can’t afford to have more Amorion Walker situations where one or two decisions can put the roster in a horrible position.

This staff has done a good job navigating the ups and downs of the current recruiting climate. If they finish like the best programs do, it will be a great job.

The most important thing is that this is going to be a strong class no matter what happens with a couple of prospects because they didn’t rely on hoping everything would work out. They planned ahead and it’s going to pay off with the roster going forward.

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