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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

March 16, 2023
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People who deeply care about Alabama football don’t care a lot about academic standards. Most fans of power programs are the same.

That’s not how it is with Notre Dame.

There’s a decent percentage of the fanbase who place the academic integrity of the university on the same level (or maybe even higher) than the level of the football program. That’s uncommon for a football team that has a handful of subscription sites dedicated to covering it. And the people who subscribe to a site like ISD really care about football.

What happened this week with signee Brandyn Hillman “parting ways” with Notre Dame has a lot of fans at odds against each other. There are many who want to blame the university, specifically the admissions department. There are some who want to blame Hillman. There are some, for whatever reason, who used this as an excuse to take a shot at the coaching staff or the state of the program.

I don’t know the specific circumstances of why Brandyn Hillman isn’t going to be a student at Notre Dame, but I know that there is a bar that every student has to meet to get into Notre Dame and then a different bar for a scholarship athlete. Anyone who thinks Notre Dame doesn’t adjust the bar for athletes would be incorrect.

Everyone can have their opinion on what Notre Dame should do in a situation like this and there are always going to be people who argue that Notre Dame should adjust even more for football players (or athletes in general). But here’s the thing: everyone else who just signed with Notre Dame had to meet that same bar that was set for Hillman and reached it. That’s not an opinion. That’s a fact.

As the kids say, they (the other signees) understood the assignment. They did what they had to do and Notre Dame isn’t the kind of program that isn’t clear about communicating what needs to be done.

As for the overreaction from some people claiming that this somehow means Marcus Freeman is a Brian Kelly level recruiter because a player who SIGNED WITH NOTRE DAME is no longer in the class, I want to remind anyone who feels that way that this literally had nothing to do with him, Chris O’Leary, or anyone else on the coaching staff.

This one athlete is exactly that. It's one athlete. It’s not dozens of guys wanting to commit and getting denied. There is no one else Notre Dame has signed where this scenario played out and he wouldn’t have been allowed to sign if admissions didn’t think he couldn’t do what needed to be done.

Ultimately, he didn’t, but it’s one person. Whether this causes admissions and the football staff to look at things differently going forward, I couldn’t say because as I mentioned, I don’t know enough about the specifics of the situation. I just know that there is no indication that this result is a reflection of Freeman’s or anyone else’s recruiting ability or a predictor of the future.

2. The issue here is that it’s one athlete who happens to be a very talented athlete. Even though there is no one at fault on the coaching staff for Hillman leaving the class, the fact remains that it is one more loss on top of Peyton Bowen and Dylan Edwards. That is something everyone can be justifiably upset about.

Losing those three players in particular makes the overall class a lot less dynamic when it comes to speed.

That same kind of dynamic speed hasn’t been added to the 2024 class yet and needs to be. It should be a priority this cycle and it will be interesting to reassess where the Irish are with that after spring visits.

3. Labeling someone as a run blocking tight end is about as sexy as labeling someone a well dressed accountant. Apologies for the strays sent out towards the accountants out there, but no one is hiring an accountant because of their suit game.

If I was going to label Mitchell Evans' role last season, it would have to be as a run blocking tight end. He was primarily an in-line blocker and he was very good at it. He finished 14th out of all Power 5 tight ends in PFF’s run blocking grade (Michael Mayer was third).

That’s only a couple of years removed from being a high school quarterback. It’s not a stretch to think that he’ll be one of the best blocking tight ends in college football in 2023.

I was much higher on Evans as a recruit than the industry was. I gave him a grade of 92, which I define as a top-200 level prospect with potential to be an all-conference level player with proper development. (He was 493 in the 247Sports composite rankings)

I wrote this about him back then:

My grade is higher on him than the national composite because of his ceiling. He could be a monster with the size to be a force in-line and the athleticism to be a beast after the catch.

At a place like Notre Dame, he won’t be rushed onto the field because of the depth in front of him and he’ll need that time to develop, but if he puts in the work he has all of the tools that project for him to become another NFL Draft pick at tight end for the Irish.

Evans has plenty he hasn’t shown us yet as a receiver and I think we’ll see/hear about some of it this spring. He’s a big man with some wiggle as he displayed in high school.

via GIPHY

I think there’s a really good chance we are talking about him as a lot more than a run blocking tight end this fall.

4. I know Marist Liufau has become a bit of a punching bag for many fans during the offseason as they expect for him to be replaced in the starting lineup and he clearly wasn’t a playmaker or an elite player versus the run.

One of the reasons to not give up on him, though, is how well he played in coverage. I thought he played really well in that area, but I didn't realize just how well.

Out of Power 5 linebackers last season, he finished first in yards per reception given up and gave up the lowest passer rating out of any Power 5 linebacker when targeted.

I think we can all agree, first is pretty good.

Notre Dame would benefit greatly if he plays more like the player he was in the 2021 preseason before his injury. Even if he doesn’t quite find that form again, he still could be a great sub-package player for the Irish.

5. The Big 12 had 25 players selected in last year’s NFL Draft. That was 40 less than the SEC. They are about to lose a program that produced seven of the 25 drafted to the SEC. In most recent years they have had the lowest number of total draft picks from a Power 5 conference.

For those reasons alone, this idea to start a conference wide pro-day in 2024 in partnership with the NFL is a great move for their programs.

General managers and decision-makers aren’t showing up to many pro-days. They are often selective showing up to schools who have multiple first round picks or to a place that has a prospect that they are looking at taking off the board with their first pick. Now with all of these schools coming together, there are going to be more high-level personnel people in attendance to watch players test in-person where they likely wouldn’t have seen them before.

Notre Dame is obviously not a part of a conference, but this kind of idea is something I’d love to see them partner with ACC on. Much like the Big 12, the ACC is nowhere close to generating as much interest from NFL teams as the SEC. It would be a mutually beneficial thing for Notre Dame to partner with them on something similar to this and get eye-balls on some players who didn’t get a chance to compete at the NFL Combine.

The big message with the NFL Draft is that it only takes one team to fall in love with you in order to get selected. Some players don’t find that team because the right person who might have fought for them didn’t get a chance to be impressed with an in-person workout to force a deeper look at a prospect.

There are players this year like TaRiq Bracy and Jayson and Justin Ademilola who could have potentially benefited from something like this. I hope we see every conference and Notre Dame follow the Big 12’s lead because it might just help someone get drafted who wasn’t going to be.

6. My comp for Kurt Hinish back when he committed to Notre Dame was Kyle Budinscak because I thought they were cut from the same cloth: tough as nails and would bring it on every snap. I’d say that comp proved to be pretty accurate and Hinish even surpassed Budinscak as a player at Notre Dame.

I don’t think a lot of people predicted Hinish was going to play in the NFL before he arrived in college. He might be a nice player and maybe even a starter, but he shattered expectations and it’s pretty wild to see him in this kind of company as a player in the NFL.

The biggest thing that stood out about him was how he clearly worked hard to get to a place physically where he could get to the next level. When they say “Built by Balis”, there should be a picture of Hinish included because the developments he made putting on weight, getting stronger, and then eventually getting into peak condition is pretty much what that phrase is all about. He put in the work and it paid off in a big way.

I bring him up today because we’re a week away from seeing an updated roster where we see weights for current Notre Dame players. There’s going to be some players who need to be on that Hinish program, his own brother included.

Each one of them has a limit as to how much weight they can add to their frame, but they have to push that limit as much as possible. That’s a big part of being a college football player.

Expectations have to be realistic for some of the players who have spent less than a year on campus, but at the same time, it’s a different experience being part of a program where it’s football year round and these guys don’t have to worry about another sport in the spring (Drayk Bowen excluded).

There should be some massive gains for players and I hope to see it specifically from the likes of Aamil Wagner, Joshua Burnham, Jaylen Sneed, and Tyson Ford. Those players have some measurables that Hinish never had, but the road to becoming an eventual starter at Notre Dame and then moving on to the NFL is all about following the lead of someone like Hinish. He put in the work off the field and that allowed him to beat the odds and now be in the position he is in today.

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