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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

March 2, 2023

The NFL Combine is a reminder that the football calendar is turning over.

It’s draft and free agency season for the NFL. It’s recruiting and spring ball for the college game. The fall is what we love the most, but the spring is not too shabby to keep us all invested.

One thing the NFL Draft does every year is make it clear how there’s hierarchy of positions in football. Quarterback is always at the top, but behind it there are three spots that stick out when it comes to building a roster.

In no particular order, those would be pass rusher, left tackle, and cornerback.

If you’re looking for a reason to be bullish on the 2023 version of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, consider that they can match just about any program in the country at three of those four positions with Sam Hartman at quarterback, Joe Alt at left tackle, and Benjamin Morrison at cornerback. That’s a pretty great foundation for a team to have three who can/should be elite.

When that’s in place, it’s pretty difficult to not at least be pretty good.

Great is another thing and that’s when it becomes less clear about the next most important positions on a football team. They have a void to fill with a top pass rusher and they need someone like Jordan Botelho to have a big year. I think he will.

They don’t have an obvious WR1 and could get away with not having that last year because of how special Michael Mayer was at tight end, but he won’t be there this fall. That’s a position where they desperately need someone to step up and there isn’t an obvious leading candidate to become that player. Maybe that changes after the spring and summer like it did with Chase Claypool in 2019.

They also don’t have a dominant defensive tackle and unless they get a Jerry Tillery in 2018 or Sheldon Day in 2015 kind of surge from Howard Cross or Rylie Mills, they likely won’t have one.

A football team is much more than those key positions, but those spots are more valued for a reason. Having Hartman, Alt (and Blake Fisher), plus Morrison does paint a very rosy picture for the outlook of this current Notre Dame team. If they had more options who project to be elite at wide receiver and defensive tackle, then the conversation would move away from how high the ceiling could be for the Irish to how high the floor actually is.

Spring ball is now officially three weeks away and the most critical positions to watch will be wide receiver and defensive line. If stars are emerging there, then big things may lie ahead for this team.

2. When is the last time that cornerback was the strongest position group for a Notre Dame defense heading into the season? I think that’s the case this year and I don’t think any other spot is particularly close.

They have an All-American candidate in Morrison. The duo of him and Cam Hart should be the best starting pair they’ve had since Julian Love and Troy Pride. They could do a lot worse in a third or fourth corner than Clarence Lewis. Jaden Mickey should be ready to take a step in year two and they’ve added a couple of very talented freshmen. Out of those two, I think Christian Gray has a chance to play a lot this season.

They have to find someone who will replace TaRiq Bracy at nickel, but corner easily has the least questions out of any position group on the defense and maybe on the team other than possibly running back.

There’s plenty of things that need to be figured out up front with the defensive line rotation and who knows what the depth chart will look like at linebacker in the fall, but being very good at corner can make Al Golden’s job a lot easier.

3. The two players on defense that I want to see/hear about having great springs are Jordan Botelho and Xavier Watts. Both of them had terrific finishes to last season where it looked like they turned a corner and Notre Dame needs that to be the truth.

They don’t have enough great players on defense and Botelho and Watts are candidates to be that if they build on what they showed late in 2022. Our guy Drew Mentock is at the NFL Combine and he captured this from Isaiah Foskey, who was very complimentary of Botelho.

Watts finished 11th in the Power 5 with PFF’s run defense grade for safeties and had four havoc plays in his final four games. His best football is clearly ahead of him and that’s exciting to think about.

4. Pick a metric, any metric and USC’s defense was bad in just about all of them except for one.

111th in points per drive. 124th in yards per play. 125th in EPA (expected points added) per rush. 91st in EPA per pass. 94th in DF+ (combined FEI and SP+ ranking).

Woof. They stunk. They made Drew Pyne look like Drew Brees.

They did one thing well, though: they created a ton of turnovers. 28 put them sixth in the country.

They also were very lucky. As ESPN’s Bill Connelly pointed out in his recent piece on turnover luck, they had a lot of things go their way in the turnover department.

In the first five USC games of 2022, there were nine fumbles, and the Trojans recovered all nine. Fumble recoveries revert to 50% over a long enough period of time, but USC got to an 11-1 record by having recovered 18 of 23 (78%). While a team typically intercepts about one pass to every four pass breakups, their regular-season ratio was 1-to-1.9, and their interceptions total was seven higher than national averages would suggest.

USC led the country in fumbles recovered over expected (6.5) and they had 6.8 interceptions over expected as well. The odds of them being this lucky two years in a row are extremely slim.

Connelly had USC gaining 5.3 points per game because of their turnover luck, which is first in the country. I really like some of the additions USC made on defense in the transfer portal this offseason. DL Anthony Lucas and LB Mason Cobb in particular have the potential to be difference-makers for them. Cobb popped on film when I was watching Thomas Harper at Oklahoma State.

They could be significantly better and get to the middle of the pack statistically on defense, but that might not make up for how lucky they were in 2022.

Connelly had Notre Dame 69th in turnover luck and they were -0.3 points per game because of it. Better turnover luck against Stanford and USC could have swung Notre Dame to 11 wins rather than nine. They forced two fumbles against Stanford and didn’t recover either of them. They also had a forced fumble called back after JD Bertrand popped the ball out and it was recovered by Marist Liufau. Notre Dame would have had the ball with the lead at midfield in the fourth quarter and that play getting overturned would have changed the game.

Against USC, there was that unforced error by Pyne that bounced right to USC and the forced fumble by Foskey that got right back to Jordan Addison. A little bit unlucky and that’s the ball game when facing a Heisman trophy winner at quarterback.

Liufau had that recovery against Stanford called back and that scoop and score against Boston College taken off the board as well. There probably wasn’t a player on the defense more in need of some good luck to go his way than him. He could have used the confidence boost and those plays went the other way even though he recovered the football.

Notre Dame’s defense could use some of that luck this year to go their way. The luck has to be spread around a bit because USC isn’t likely to be nearly as lucky as they were last season.

5. One of my first freelance opportunities in this industry was doing recruiting evaluations for a Virginia Tech site. Through that, I got to learn a lot more about their program, roster composition, and the type of talent they recruited.

There’s a pretty significant difference between them and a program like Notre Dame, especially regarding offensive and defensive line recruits. They don’t land blue-chips (4 and 5-stars). They might pull the rare one or have someone rise up the rankings over time, but for the most part, it’s a lot of prospects who either need a ton of physical and technical development or players who simply don’t have projectable elite traits (bad feet, short arms, etc).

It’s the type of program that fits into the same category with the majority of other Power 5 programs on the offensive line. With a roster loaded with upperclassmen and experience, they can have an above average offensive line. Without that, they are going to be in trouble.

There’s no denying that the O-line at Virginia Tech as well as the offense in general was bad last season. I don’t need to post numbers to back that up. Trust me, none of them are good.

One look at the roster composition adds the proper context when it comes to evaluating the job soon-to-be new Notre Dame offensive line coach Joe Rudolph had to do there, though. He inherited a group that had seven of the 10 in the two-deep who were freshmen or sophomore in eligibility and that number was 10 of 13 overall for scholarship linemen. They had zero blue-chips on the roster.

I’m sure Virginia Tech fans were hoping for chicken salad, but the material he had to work was closer to chicken (fill in the blank). No one was going to come in and work miracles with that group.

The best offensive lines in college football aren’t composed of freshmen and sophomores. The ones Rudolph was working with at VT were also not the kind of players who would be ready to shine early on at the Power 5 level. In my opinion, you can pretty much throw that year out of the window when it comes to judging how Rudolph will do coaching at Notre Dame.

It’s not even apples to oranges. It’s honey crisp (yum) compared to red delicious (someone should sue for false advertisement because they are red, but not delicious).

Rudolph had plenty of success working as Wisconsin’s O-line coach and what he did there is a better way to assess how that might translate to Notre Dame.

6. Right before the combine, the NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah released his second top-50 ranking for the 2023 NFL Draft and there are a ton of familiar names for people who have followed most of these players from the recruiting process to the college game.

Michael Mayer (22nd) was an elite recruit before he was a record-breaking tight end. Bryce Young had offers before he started playing high school football. CJ Stroud won the MVP at the Elite 11. Bijan Robinson, Paris Johnson, Nolan Smith, Myles Murphy, and many more were recruits who were projected to be and became stars in college.

However, there’s several other players in that top-50 who weren’t recruits that Notre Dame fans or fans from most of the top programs in college football would have been familiar with.

Cornerback Devon Witherspoon (5th, Illinois) wasn’t even ranked as a recruit by Rivals or 247Sports. Illinois was his only Power 5 offer. He didn’t start playing football until his junior year of high school and was a basketball player.

Tight end Dalton Kincaid (10th, Utah) signed with the University of San Diego out of high school and transferred to Utah as a junior. He only played one year of high school football and also played basketball.

Defensive end Keion White (15th, Georgia Tech) originally went to Old Dominion out of high school. This is not a typo: he was 3141st in the 247 composite rankings as a tight end as a recruit. ODU was his only FBS offer. He flashed great twitch and had freaky measurables in high school. For whatever reason, programs flat out missed on him.

Defensive end Lukas Van Ness (18th, Iowa) was the 1063rd ranked recruit in the 247 composite. Wide receiver Zay Flowers (29th, Boston College) was 1202nd. Defensive tackle Calijah Kancey (30th, Pitt) was 850th. Defensive end Felix Anudike Uzomah (34th, Kansas State) was 2421st. Defensive end Will McDonald IV (36th, Iowa State) was 787th. Cornerback Deonte Banks (42nd, Maryland) was 859th.

Teams who land more 4 and 5-star recruits win more in college football. That’s a fact.

It doesn’t mean that programs and recruiting sites don’t miss on evaluations. For every one of these players who went from being a low profile recruit to a now top NFL prospect, there’s a lesson to be learned.

Sometimes it’s about not judging some of these players too early when there are great athletes who arrive late to football. Sometimes it’s about the right position fit. There’s a lot of different factors and it mostly comes down to projection.

Notre Dame already has more offers out this cycle than they did for all of the 2023 class. Yes, most of them are out to players who already have a 4 or 5-star next to their name on a recruiting site. They also have a bunch out to players who don’t even have a ranking yet. 

I know a lot of those players will have their rankings adjusted to the point where they will be considered blue-chip prospects, but a lot of the time that happens because a program like Notre Dame jumps in to offer a player. Identifying those players and getting into the game with them earlier is important, especially because some of these players could be on Daniel Jeremiah’s top-50 big board four or five years from now.

I wish I had more time to dive into why each one of these players was an evaluation miss, but seeing all of these players made me think how Notre Dame is doing a better job to attempt to not miss on these types of athletes today.

Recruiting and personnel departments in college football are growing bigger and getting smarter. It’s not going to completely prevent programs from missing on some of these prospects, but it can hopefully help them get more hits on these players who end up at places that don't match their potential.

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