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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

January 19, 2023

Difference-makers. Game-wreckers. All-Americans. I probably write about how important they are way too often, but however they are labeled, they matter a lot for a college football team.

They’re the ones who can help the good teams become great. They’re the ones who can help lift up a team from losing games it shouldn’t.

The more you have, the better your team can be.

One thing they can do is cover up deficiencies on your roster. Not every starter needs to be an elite player, but having one of them in a position group can make up for a lot.

That was something that was evident with this season at safety and the last two seasons at linebacker.

Notre Dame only had 11 havoc plays (tackles for loss, pass breakups, interceptions, or forced fumbles) from the safety position in 2022. In only half of a season, Kyle Hamilton had nine in 2021. At linebacker, they managed to compile 29.5 havoc plays in ‘21 and 27.5 in ‘22. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah had 18 on his own in 12 games during the 2020 season.

(It should be noted that the Irish played nickel more than they did during the 2021 season. There were 239 less snaps from linebackers in 2022.)

Foskey had over double the amount of sacks of the player with the second most sacks on the team. He did that for the second straight season. Notre Dame finished 13th in sack rate primarily because of him. One player can make that big of a difference at a position and when you have multiple players in the same position group, then you can get something special.

They didn’t have enough of them last year. They knew they were going to have Foskey and Mayer, but they needed more. They got one in freshman All-American Benjamin Morrison. They weren’t as lucky with more than that, though, Audric Estime doesn’t appear that far off from being mentioned.

Out of all the questions this offseason for Notre Dame this one looms largest in my mind: who are the difference-makers at the skill positions on offense and at all three levels of the defense?

There were a bunch of candidates last year who didn’t live up to lofty expectations. Cam Hart didn’t become a lockdown corner. Marist Liufau didn’t become a playmaker at linebacker. Lorenzo Styles' season will be remembered more for his drops than anything else. Chris Tyree didn’t provide an explosive element to the running game.

I guess with some of them, maybe it could have been a year early. Maybe it won’t happen at all. I know that a lot of people will want to anoint the next great players based on potential they’ve shown on the field or the recruiting hype they came in with, but Morrison is a perfect example of no one knowing when it could happen with someone.

It wasn’t like I didn’t like what I saw from his senior film. I wrote this about him when I updated my grades after his senior season.

I really loved what I saw from cornerback Benjamin Morrison‍ as a senior. I think he’s faster and a better athlete than some have portrayed him to be. I bumped him up to a 92 from my previous grade of 90.

Or that I didn’t like what I saw from him this summer during camp.

Morrison really starred in both 7on and team today. It’s not just his ability to play man coverage. He was passing off routes in zone like a veteran and he made a few plays on the ball.
He had a pass break up against Joe Wilkins on an in route in 7on, he closed in a hurry on a short route to Logan Diggs (more on this later), and almost came up with a pick on a play where he broke off his coverage in team.
Morrison and Mickey both look like they are going to be very good for the Irish. They should help the defense out this season.

There’s a big gap between “help the defense this season” and become a starter and finish tied for third in the country in interceptions. I liked him more than most as a recruit, but I definitely wouldn’t have predicted he’d be this good this soon.

I guess the piece to add to original questions about difference-makers would be, “Is there going to be another Morrison?” It doesn’t have to be a freshman. It just has to be someone unexpected.

The unexpected might be the thing that really propels Notre Dame from good to great. And if others live up to expectations and there’s a surprise or two on top of that, great then has a chance to become elite.

2. Notre Dame released their 2023 football schedule yesterday and no matter who was on it or when, no one was going to be completely satisfied.

Maybe they hate that Notre Dame is finally playing an FCS team (Tennessee State). Maybe they hate that the Irish don’t get an open week until October 21st. Maybe they hate that the first two home games are against non-Power 5 teams. I imagine they will be giving away plenty of tickets for those ones.

There’s a lot that can be nitpicked with the schedule and I know that many are doing it, but what stands out to me is that Notre Dame has three games against Group of 5/FCS competition in the first month of the season and that they don’t play Ohio State until game five.

In previous years, they would end up playing top tier programs early. Notre Dame would still be in the process of finding an identity and breaking in new starters, but would have to do that while facing Michigan, Georgia, or Ohio State. To call that less than ideal would be putting it lightly.

Having to wait for an open week until after USC isn’t the best scenario, but I would take that if it meant Notre Dame had an opening month like this every year. When was the last time Notre Dame faced less than two Power 5 programs in August/September? I’m not sure it has happened in decades if it’s happened at all.

In terms of getting butts in the seats, this isn’t going to help in that department. In terms of allowing Notre Dame to work out the kinks with the roster before they face what should be an elite team, this sets up nicely for Marcus Freeman and the coaching staff.

3. As for the ACC teams having inevitable bye weeks before they play Notre Dame, it’s probably time for Irish fans to embrace it. It clearly isn’t helping the ACC win any of those games.

It’s now been 28 straight in the regular season for Notre Dame when playing ACC opponents. I think it might be time for the ACC to pull a Costanza and do the opposite of what they’ve done because their first instinct has proven to be wrong again and again.

Who knows, maybe eliminating those byes can help persuade Notre Dame to join as a full-time member and save their conference? That’s definitely not happening, but it’s going so poorly for the ACC so they might as well change up the strategy.

4. I’m in the process of getting the Final ISD Fab 50 together for the 2023 class and also watching a ton of 2024 recruits to publish the first Fab 50 for that cycle. It’s an interesting exercise in looking at where some players start and where they finish.

Where prospects finish when it comes to rankings obviously mean a lot more than where they start. I saw someone mention during our live Hit & Hustle show the other day that the recruiting services bumped down Brenan Vernon‍ and Drayk Bowen‍ from 5-star status because they committed to Notre Dame.

Vernon started as the 9th ranked player in the country in 247Sports’ composite rankings and Bowen started out 29th.

I think it’s fair to say that neither of those players should have been 5-stars. Recruiting sites probably shouldn’t give out 5-star status until much later in the process, but that’s a whole different topic.

Bowen finished as a top-100 prospect overall and that’s where I’ve had him for a long time. Vernon dropped considerably and is still ranked as a 4-star, but didn’t show the kind of pass rush potential that would elevate him closer to his initial lofty ranking.

Early rankings are a lot like mock drafts before a college football season. They’re fun to look at, but they can often be wildly incorrect. That’s how you get Matt Miller, at the time it was for Bleacher Report, projecting Corey Robinson as a first rounder. That’s also how you get people projecting Spencer Rattler as a possible number one pick and two years later he’s at a new school and still playing college football because he’s probably not getting drafted at all. It’s also how you get someone like Ricky Town who can go from phenom status to forgotten in a short amount of time.

Recruiting rankings are a marathon, not a sprint. Kenny Minchey was the 570th ranked recruit less than a year ago. He’s currently 157th. That’s not abnormal for that to happen. It’s part of the process.

Tl;dr this is me saying that no one should freak out that I’m not going to have defensive tackle Justin Scott‍ in my initial Fab 50 for 2024. I think he has all of the tools to end up in my final 50 and I’m excited about the player he can become, but he’s not consistently dominant enough for me to project him as a top-50 prospect at this time.

That could certainly change by the time the process is finished.

5. Here’s something that is wildly abnormal: Notre Dame’s red zone defense went from 4th to 131st in red zone touchdown percentage.

It’s really inexplicable.

I know that we at ISD have been pretty vocal about Notre Dame’s talent on defense not being as good as it was in recent years because of recruiting misses, but this isn’t a talent issue. To go from one of the best at preventing touchdowns in the red zone to literally the worst in the country at it is baffling.

What is especially concerning about it is that nothing ever got fixed with it. If you look at the numbers every month, they remained bad throughout. They had no answers.

I know some people will point to the run defense being the issue, but it really was everything. The pass defense was 110th in opposing quarterback rating in the red zone. They weren’t great in short yardage against the run, but they weren’t terrible either. They finished middle of the pack in power success rate (63rd in stopping runs on 3rd or 4th and short). It wasn’t like teams just loaded up and ran it into the end zone every time.

They were so bad in this one category that even being average at it could have taken them from a top-25 scoring defense (based on points per drive) to somewhere closer to the top-10. They were really strong in many other areas, which is why it doesn’t make much sense.

I plan on going back and watching a lot of red zone snaps from the season, but it sticks out like a sore thumb that they didn’t create enough havoc in that area of the field. They finished with an 11.3% Havoc rate inside their own 20. The previous season the red zone Havoc rate was 19%.

They forced more negative plays in 2021 and I’m not sure if it was Freeman being more aggressive than Al Golden in that area of the field or not. I just know that the drop off when it came to forcing field goals was drastic.

6. While the red zone defense is an area that needs to be addressed this offseason, 3rd down offense is one of things that pleasantly surprised me as the season went along in 2022.

It’s incredible that they were 98th in 3rd down conversion percentage in September and managed to finish the season 13th in that statistic. It really took off after the third game when they leaned into running a ton of “check with me” plays or the scan offense. Tommy Rees did a fantastic job with this and after only converting 26.3% percent in the first three games, they converted 52.9% in the final 10. (That would have put them in the top-3 for the season)

They managed to do that despite Drew Pyne being the 84th ranked passer in the country on 3rd down. Tyler Buchner struggled on 3rd down in the first two games, but was significantly better in the bowl game.

The newest addition to the quarterback room, Sam Hartman, finished the regular season first in 3rd down passer rating and after the bowl game he dropped to fourth behind Bryce Young, CJ Stroud, and Caleb Williams. (Who? Never heard of them)

Rees also found a solution on 3rd or 4th and short with Mitchell Evans on quarterback sneaks (converted five of six attempts) while Buchner was out (converted 4 of 4 on 3rd and short) that helped as well.

I don’t want to minimize the task of finding someone to replace Mayer as a go-to option on 3rd down, his 16 receptions (13 for first downs) led the team, but they did convert 11 of 19 3rd downs in the bowl game without him. That’s a nice start.

The Notre Dame defense was better overall than the Notre Dame offense in 2022, but it’s fair to say that the staff on offense did a much better job than the staff on defense on 3rd down and in the red zone (19th in red zone touchdown percentage on offense). That’s encouraging for the offense heading into this offseason and something that needs to be a primary focus for Golden and company in the next eight months.

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