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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

April 13, 2023

Well then, no one expected to get another full practice viewing from Notre Dame this spring, but Marcus Freeman decided to be generous and allow a five period viewing to extend to a 10 period viewing and then said why not the whole thing while the media was at practice.

I wasn’t there, but ISD’s Matt Freeman and Drew Mentock both were and I highly recommend checking out their practice reports.

It might not seem like a big deal to get a second open practice, but it gives another data point for us to work off of to learn about the team. Tyler Buchner having another day where he was better than Sam Hartman is not insignificant. Neither is Andrew Kristofic struggling at right guard again.

As they say, two times might be a coincidence. Three times is a trend. We’ll get a bit more information after the spring game.

These are clearly situations that are worth monitoring and especially with Buchner and Hartman, it adds quite a bit of intrigue to the off-season if we’re talking about this at the conclusion of spring. It’s great that Buchner is proving that his play in the Gator Bowl wasn’t a fluke and that the arrow is pointing up with him.

One notable thing about his performance in that game was how well he handled pressure. He was better when facing it than when he had a clean pocket, which is extremely rare. As Drew noted in his report, “(Buchner) did a good job of hanging in the pocket when necessary and escaping or throwing the ball away at appropriate times as well”.

That’s a significant sign of maturity with his game and something to be greatly encouraged by. In the practices we’ve seen, Buchner versus Hartman when pressured has been the difference between them. Hartman struggled dealing with it in the first open practice and both Drew and Matt acknowledged that happened again yesterday.

It’s something we were asked about on Monday’s Power Hour and it once again has to be reiterated that the adjustment Hartman is having to make with a new offense and new personnel is real. It’s a much more drastic than what Jack Coan had to make with the differences in scheme and so far with Hartman, it hasn’t all clicked for him yet.

From Matt’s report:

Hartman is still processing and it’s led to him getting the ball out late. Now, I do think he tends to throw late to let windows open up based on Wake Forest film, but in this offense, Hartman needs to start to make quicker decisions. And I’m not sure one can fully master an offense in nine practices to add a touch of reality into the equation.

I do think he will get there because of how he performed when pressured. He had the sixth best NFL passer rating out of Power 5 quarterbacks last season with a clean pocket (via PFF) and he was still good when pressured. He finished 11th in NFL passer rating when pressured in 2022 and 12th in 2021.

It’s all different for him right now, though. He had spent years in that system and working with those teammates. He’s had weeks at Notre Dame and only nine practices. As he gets more comfortable with the protection, with his teammates, and with the system, things should process more quickly and he will get better.

Buchner should continue to get better too, which could make things very interesting this summer. Competition is a good thing and it should only push both players to be better. Having Buchner playing better will force Hartman to work even harder to get where he needs to be. He knows if he doesn’t, Buchner will take the job from him.

2. I’m shoving a few quick thoughts into number two because there were some other notable developments from yesterday’s practice I wanted to hit on.

The first is that Chris Tyree caught the ball much better and looked to be growing as a receiver. That’s certainly a positive after he had more of a down day in the previous open practice. They don’t really have anyone quite like him at the position so his development could end up being important.

I liked hearing that Marist Liufau was constantly in the backfield and playing downhill. That sounds a lot more like the guy we saw heading into the 2021 season prior to his ankle injury.

Lastly, Lorenzo Styles taking some reps at corner in one on ones might not mean much, but it’s not nothing. They don’t just move guys around for fun.

Spring ball is the time to experiment with your roster. I feel like I mention it enough that it could be part of an ISD drinking game, but I keep saying it because it’s true. This is the time to look at that kind of thing.

Styles is too good of an athlete to not make an impact somehow on this team. When he committed to Notre Dame, I thought he was as good of a cornerback prospect as he was a receiver. If they had recruited him there, he easily would have been the most talented corner prospect they had signed in a long time.

It’s not surprising the staff would want him to take reps there or that he might even have asked to take some.

Maybe it won’t amount to much. Xavier Watts cross training at receiver last August sure didn’t.

Or maybe it will. He can help this team win and has the raw talent where his future should be playing in the NFL on one side of the ball or the other.

3. There are some important visits coming up with some key 2024 offensive line targets.

Styles Prescod‍ is visiting this weekend and Guerby Lambert‍ is scheduled to visit for the Blue-Gold game. Both of them project to play offensive tackle and that’s a position that the Irish desperately need to hit on this cycle.

One thing worth keeping in mind with the offensive line is that the Irish ended up signing three players in the last three years who were offered in May or later. One of them was Joe Alt and at the time he was viewed as a reach by most when it looked like they were going to miss out on another elite tackle in the class to pair with Blake Fisher.

It turned out that Alt was that elite tackle and it was a pretty fantastic evaluation by the Notre Dame staff.

The next year, Ashton Craig was someone who came to camp in June and earned an offer before committing to the Irish. This past cycle it was Joe Otting who was evaluated in person in May and then after he worked out at camp in the summer, he ended up in the class.

This is one of the weaker offensive line classes in recent memory with the least amount of top-100 talent in quite some time. Of course Notre Dame wants to land their top options on their board, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see another rising senior join that list of priority targets during May or June.

4. Here’s the list of rising senior prospects over the last 10 years who worked out at camp, earned offers from Notre Dame, and then eventually committed: Craig, Otting, Jonathan Bonner, Jamir Jones, Ade Ogundeji, Paul Moala, Ben Minich, and Drue Tranquill.

(I’m including Otting in here because even though he had an offer before he worked out, it was pretty clear that he became a take after the workout)

It’s to be determined with players like Craig, Otting, and Minich, but that’s a pretty outstanding hit rate with the guys who have already played for Notre Dame. Tranquill and Ogundeji are the standouts, but Bonner was a multi-year starter as well. Jones was very good in his final season for the Irish and in hindsight, they probably wished that he had a fifth year to take advantage of.

The only one who didn’t play much was Moala and injuries were what held him back.

The camp evaluations for seniors in June are important and though they may not produce any headliners in a class, the success Notre Dame has had with these players who ended up being valuable contributors is something to keep in mind as everyone gets caught up with all of the current visits.

5. People who follow recruiting closely know about Texas Tech Director of Player Personnel James Blanchard, but the average fan has likely never heard of him. He runs the recruiting department for Tech and came over from Baylor, where head coach Joey Maguire had previously worked with him.

What makes Blanchard unique is that he has full autonomy in who Tech offers. He controls the roster, much like a general manager would in the NFL. McGuire was interviewed by On3’s Matt Zenitz and explained what makes their process with Blanchard different than other programs.

I think number one, we have a personnel department and our recruiting is run more like the NFL from the standpoint of my four guys in the personnel department, they are the beginning and the end if we’re going to offer a kid. It doesn’t have to be OK’d by the defensive coordinator, the offensive coordinator or special teams. If (director of player personnel) James Blanchard and his crew want to offer a kid, then we’re going to offer him, so I think that speeds up the process. At first, it was probably a little different. I know it’s a lot different with other coaches. And I was like, ‘You’ve just got to trust the process because it’s how we’re going to do it, and they have. And now they’ve seen the classes that we’re signing, the kids that we get on so early that it gives us an opportunity to create a relationship before everybody else. But I think that’s the most unique thing, like literally the only guy that can tell James Blanchard we’re not going to offer a guy is me. And he and I have worked together for so long, I don’t think I’ve said no to him. I think that’s the biggest difference. A lot of people, they might have a personnel department, but they don’t really, truly trust that department and what they’re doing.

I wanted to highlight this not only because Blanchard is known as someone who is very good at his job, but because there have been so many coaches recently who have decided to leave college football with the demands of recruiting being a big reason for the exodus. Though I think many coaches relish the fact that they get a large say in who gets offered and trust their own evaluations over anyone else’s, this type of personnel department for more programs should be worth exploring because it would seem to lighten the load significantly for a college coach.

They have to not only be a salesman, but also a scout in addition to coaching on the field. They are essentially doing three jobs.

I don’t know if I’d advocate for Notre Dame position coaches and coordinators to not have at least some input into who is getting offered. I think there are some really good evaluators on the current staff. This just feels like a direction that more programs should veer towards in terms of evaluation of recruits that could also make things a lot easier when there is inevitable staff turnover.

Recruiting at a place like Texas Tech is vastly different from Notre Dame for many reasons, but having someone with similar responsibilities to Blanchard as DPP (a currently open job at Notre Dame) makes a lot of sense to me. A more NFL style model in recruiting evaluation might also be where everything is going because there is too much on the plates of these coaches today with recruits being offered earlier and earlier in additions to the evaluations that have to be done with the transfer portal candidates.

6. Notre Dame had a five year run from 2017 to 2021 where they won 54 games and had two College Football Playoff appearances. During that stretch, it was primarily the defense that carried them.

From Mike Elko to Clark Lea and then Marcus Freeman, the average finish in DF+ (combined FEI and SP+ defensive rating) was 15th. They never finished below 18th.

There’s always this notion that if a team plays well in a certain area, that will attract better talent who want to play in that system. Notre Dame was playing really good defense and had 10 NFL Draft picks from that side of the ball who were on the roster from 2018-2020. Hypothetically that should have amounted to even more talent wanting to play for a very good defense that was developing NFL picks.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

The Irish dipped to 36th in DF+ last season and it would be easy to point to Al Golden being the new coordinator or the new staff members as to why they dropped off so much. It really comes down to recruiting and evaluations that weren’t nearly as good as one would have expected them to be.

From the 2017-2021 classes, there’s only three defenders who were recruited to play defense that were or are projected to be selected by NFL teams: Kyle Hamilton, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and Isaiah Foskey.

After Hamilton, there have been starters at defensive back like TaRiq Bracy, Clarence Lewis, and DJ Brown. Ramon Henderson could be a starter this season. From the 2021 class, Chance Tucker looks like the best defensive back from that group and he is yet to become a contributor. (Cam Hart is someone I didn’t include because he was originally recruited to play receiver. Ditto for Xavier Watts.)

That’s not an elite group when you compare that to many other programs and as of today, I’m not sure any of those players would be projected as NFL picks.

For front seven recruiting after JOK and Foskey, there were valuable multi-year starters from the 2017 class like Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, and Drew White. The 2018 class had the Ademilola brothers and the 2019 class that had Hamilton and Foskey also had Howard Cross, Rylie Mills, Marist Liufau, Jack Kiser, and JD Bertrand who have developed into starters.

Even if Jayson Ademilola gets selected this spring and Mills has everything click for him on his way to getting drafted, that’s still not enough NFL caliber talent in the front seven and if any of those linebackers were in this spring’s draft, they wouldn’t go off the board.

There’s Jordan Botelho from the 2020 class who will have an NFL future if he continues to take the necessary steps as the starting Vyper this season, but the 2021 class doesn’t have anyone who is projected to start for the 2023 defense as of today. We need to see a lot more from Prince Kollie, Gabriel Rubio, and Jason Onye before anyone can be certain they are NFL prospects.

It’s impossible for every blue-chip recruit (4 or 5-star) to hit, but Notre Dame signed 28 blue-chip defenders in those five classes and the only ones who became NFL picks so far are Hamilton and Foskey. The best NFL prospect on defense right now signed in in 2022 (Benjamin Morrison).

The only member of the current staff on the defensive side of the ball who worked at Notre Dame as a full-time coach during the ‘17-’21 recruiting cycles was Mike Mickens. He was hired late in the process and recruited the 2021 class during the very start of the pandemic. Chris O’Leary was an analyst and graduate assistant from 2018-2020 before being promoted to the safeties coach in Freeman’s year as defensive coordinator.

The recruiting misses weren’t on the guys who are coaching defense right now. I want to make that abundantly clear. And the way the newer staff has recruited the last two and a half cycles is a significant step up from some of the previous coaches. I feel confident that we’re going to see more of NFL Draft picks on Notre Dame’s defense going forward.

It’s startling to look at it over five classes and see how the staff failed to build off of what was a really strong run on defense. On the other hand, this could be the start of an even better run if they follow up with what they did in the 2022 and 2023 classes on defense. They need that to happen in order to get back to being a CFP contender before they can transition to a national championship contender.

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