Story Poster
Photo by Rick Kimball/ISD
Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

March 9, 2023

Just over two minutes into the first round of their main event last Saturday, Jon Jones submitted Cyril Gane to win the UFC heavyweight championship. It was the 27th win of Jones’ career and might cement him as the greatest mixed martial arts fighter ever.

What has made Jones so great is that he has proven he can win in any way he needs to on any given day. It was the same with Georges St. Pierre. If Jones is one on the list of greatest MMA fighters of all time, GSP is probably two. Both could win in any type of matchup.

They say styles make fights, but no matter the style, these two could adapt and overcome to win. That’s MMA, but adapting to win is pretty much all sports in a nutshell. It’s definitely true for football.

Teams who can only win a certain way are often incapable of winning every game. Teams who are good enough to change to exploit different matchups are typically the teams who end up holding a crystal football at the end of a college football season.

Great offenses and defenses adapt week to week. Notre Dame’s foundation on offense will be the offensive line and the running game, but they’ll be stuck against certain teams if they can’t be successful in the passing game when they need to be.

Notre Dame couldn’t be that team last year with the quarterback and wide receiver situation they had. They beat Clemson by running it on them, but if they had to throw to get the W, they’re likely losing that game.

It’s pretty obvious that Marcus Freeman knows they have to be different this season. The foundation on offense can be the same, but they wouldn’t have added Sam Hartman as a graduate transfer if Freeman didn’t understand that they need to be much better in the passing game.

A huge piece of that is also being better at receiver. That’s why they added Kaleb Smith via the transfer portal and why new offensive coordinator Gerad Parker specifically mentioned the growth of their wide receivers as being critical this spring and summer. The good news about that is that Notre Dame doesn’t lack talent and there should be healthy competition at every receiver spot. And with Notre Dame being short at tight end this spring, it’s going to open up a lot more reps for those receivers.

No one wants to see Eli Raridon and Kevin Bauman be unavailable during spring ball, but with only three tight ends who should be full-go in March and April, it means we are going to see a lot less 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends) and more three receiver sets this spring. Players like Lorenzo Styles, Deion Colzie, Jayden Thomas, Tobias Merriweather, and the three early enrollee freshmen receivers can really use those reps to ignite that growth.

Notre Dame’s last College Football Playoff team in 2020 had an offensive line that finished as a finalist for the Joe Moore Award. They had Kyren Williams and three tight ends (Tommy Tremble, Brock Wright, and Michael Mayer) who are going to be playing on Sundays this fall.

It was obvious what the strength of that offense was and they rode it to wins in their first 10 games. They averaged 5.4 yards per carry and 7.8 carries of 10+ yards per game.

They couldn’t win that way against Clemson in the ACC Championship game or against Alabama in their CFP matchup. They averaged 2.7 YPC and only had five total runs of 10+ yards in those games. They were the MMA fighter who was a dominant wrestler, but who was unable to do much of anything when their opponent stuffed their takedown attempts.

Notre Dame has to be able to go into any game and say they can throw for 400 if they have to in order to win. I’m not there in saying they will be capable of doing that yet, but more opportunities for growth at receiver this spring can help that significantly.

2. One other thing that missing so many tight ends can do this spring is allow Parker to experiment with Jayden Thomas’ role in the offense.

He can be the big slot for the Irish, but also has some chess piece potential in the running game with him as more of a hybrid tight end. We saw some of that down the stretch with Thomas and quite a bit of it with him against South Carolina.

Thomas isn’t Tommy Tremble, but his size and versatility as both a receiver and blocker make him a unique piece for the Irish. He already is on the radar for NFL teams with what he can do and he should allow Parker to play with 11 personnel (one back, one tight end) while doing some things that would be more typical of an H-back.

3. Here’s one pretty more important question for spring that I’m not sure I have the answer for: where are they going to play Jaylen Sneed?

They found a way to get him on the field in the bowl game. He played 17 snaps and the majority of those were him rushing the passer. It’s the kind of thing that made sense given that Notre Dame did not have Isaiah Foskey that day and they were playing an offense that wanted to throw it ⅔ of the time.

Where does he fit best in this defense? If it’s Rover, are they going to play more with three linebackers this season? If they aren’t, should he be competing at Will? Maybe they see his greatest potential as a pass rusher and that becomes more of a permanent transition.

I think most Notre Dame fans are expecting to see a lot more of Sneed this season. Right now it’s unclear how that is going to work itself out because not only does he have to earn playing time, but they have to find what his best position is going forward.

4. Sneed falls into that category where he might be making a slight position switch, but because he’s still likely to play linebacker, it’s not going to get a ton of attention. That’s probably the same for Rylie Mills, who should be making a move back to 3-technique defensive tackle after playing more at defensive end last season out of necessity.

Mills is one of the rare physical freaks on Notre Dame’s roster. Everything about his size and athleticism suggest he should have had a breakout season in 2022 with more snaps, but I think playing outside stalled that from happening.

Three of his four sacks last season were when he was aligned inside as a defensive tackle. In 2021, he finished 10th in PFF’s pass rush win rate out of all Power 5 interior D-linemen. He was there with Georgia’s Jalen Carter, Oklahoma’s Jalen Redmond, and Baylor’s Siaki Ika and they are three of the top defensive tackles in this current 2023 NFL Draft class.

Mills is much better suited to have success as an interior pass rusher and we’ll see if his breakthrough can happen now that he's back in what I believe is his best position.

5. Notre Dame came out of the NFL Combine with three players likely to be selected in this spring’s NFL Draft. With the two who were taken last year, that would make it five total draft picks in consecutive years.

That’s the lowest number in back to back years since the end of the Weis/beginning of the Kelly era.

The Irish won 20 games in the last two seasons and I don’t want to ignore the contributions of several players who weren’t drafted, but were good players for the Irish. Jack Coan, Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Drew White, TaRiq Bracy, and the Ademilola brothers were core players who did a lot for the program. Anyone would gladly take those types of individuals on their college football team.

Five draft picks is five draft picks, though. Georgia had five selected in the first round last year. South Carolina is going to end up with more players picked in the last two drafts than Notre Dame.

The last two recruiting classes have improved the overall talent level on the roster and there are several players who aren’t yet upperclassmen who look like they will hear their name called by an NFL team, but the last two NFL Drafts for Notre Dame are a reminder that change was necessary in recruiting and evaluation.

6. Former Michigan corner DJ Turner was offered by Notre Dame as a recruit and was a big fan of his at the time. I was higher on him than anyone else was (at least that I know of) and had him just missing the final Fab 50 back in the 2019 class.

He just tore up the NFL combine and ran the fastest 40 time there.

I’m not going to pretend that I thought he was going to be a sub 4.3 40 guy, but I knew from his film that he played a lot faster than the 4.63 he was timed at prior to his senior year of high school. For every Nolan Smith who had ridiculous testing numbers in high school and had ridiculous testing numbers in Indianapolis, there are players like Turner who are clearly better athletes than high school testing numbers would indicate.

Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen had an offer from Notre Dame and was a safety/linebacker prospect for most programs. We heard he ran a reported 5.0 40 time at one camp and I think that pretty much squashed the interest that many programs had with him at the time. A few years later he is #18 on Bruce Feldman’s Freaks list at 235 pounds with a 10-yard split of 1.49. That’s quicker than Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs ran at the combine.

Last week I wrote about Notre Dame not taking exceptions and some of that is wanting to see certain measurables or testing numbers. There’s also something to be said about not everyone being a testing freak in high school even though they show freaky traits on the football field.

I didn’t need to see a 40 time to know Brandyn Hillman can fly. Any NFL team that had to see a 40 time from Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah to check how fast he is probably needs new decision-makers.

How fast someone plays always trumps how fast they time. College programs now have GPS trackers that measure that, but that kind of thing isn’t available for high school players and sometimes common sense has to take over. A kid’s testing numbers are likely going to look a lot different when he’s 16 compared to when he is 22.

Testing numbers are and always will be valuable. They don’t always tell the whole story about an athlete, though, especially when they are still a teenager.

Men's Cutter & Buck Green Notre Dame Fighting Irish Adapt Eco Knit Hybrid Recycled Full-Zip Jacket

subscribe Verify your student status
See Subscription Benefits
Trial only available to users who have never subscribed or participated in a previous trial.