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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

April 20, 2023
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For the media, the Blue-Gold game will be the third time we get to see Notre Dame in a full practice environment this spring. For fans, it will be the only time.

With everyone starving for football and knowing that this will be the last time we see the Irish on the field for months, it’s expected that there will be overreaction to any good or bad we see this Saturday.

Sometimes the spring game can be a predictor of things to come. (“Jayden Thomas looks like he can play!”)

Sometimes it can be misleading. (“Drew Pyne looks rough.” Okay, maybe that was somewhat accurate, but he played much better than he looked during last year’s B-G game.)

It’s best not to get too high or too low on anything that happens because a lot can change during the summer and once they start playing games in the fall. That isn’t going to stop me from looking out for something specific from certain players, though.

My focus is going to be on the players entering their second year with the program. The ones who signed as members of the 2022 recruiting class could be critical in assessing the ceiling for the team this upcoming season. Not only that, but how much they play in 2023 is also likely going to determine what the future holds for them during their careers at Notre Dame.

From 2017-2020, Notre Dame had 27 players in their second season who played 200 or more snaps. Out of that number, 13 ended up as NFL Draft picks, two of them will definitely be drafted next week (Isaiah Foskey and Jarrett Patterson), six of them became multi-year starters, and one was undrafted, but has played multiple seasons in the NFL and led Notre Dame in rushing for one season (Tony Jones Jr.).

To put it in simpler terms, 22 of 27 players hit for Notre Dame if they were good enough to play 200 or more snaps in their second season.

The five that didn’t hit were Devin Studstill, Lawrence Keys, Braden Lenzy, Jafar Armstrong, and KJ Stepherson. I think it’s pretty fair to say that Stepherson would be included with the majority of players if not for his problems outside of football.

That already says a lot about predicting the future for players who hit that threshold of snaps, but this says even more: Notre Dame has had 16 players selected in the last three NFL Drafts and 12 of them are in the 200 club. The only ones who aren’t were Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (broken foot as a sophomore), Liam Eichenberg (back up to Mike McGlinchey), Ade Ogundeji (not quite ready for the rotation), and Alohi Gilman (transfer from Navy). Take Gilman off the board and 80% of Notre Dame’s recently picked players are in the 200 club.

That bodes well for all of the sophomores who hit that threshold on the 2021 and 2022 teams who are still on campus or already declared for the NFL Draft. It’s Michael Mayer (add him to the top of the hit list) and 12 others, which includes Chris Tyree, Clarence Lewis, Ramon Henderson, Rylie Mills, Joe Alt, Blaker Fisher, Jayden Thomas, Lorenzo Styles, Audric Estime, Mitchell Evans, Logan Diggs, and Tyler Buchner. Not all of those guys are going to end up being picked, but most of them are going to start at Notre Dame for multiple seasons and just about all of them will be key players on the team this fall.

Spring games are in the category of glorified scrimmage so a good day or a barely noticed him type of day isn’t the be all and end all either way, but the important players to watch are going to be the ones from the 2022 recruiting class. That includes wide receiver Tobias Merriweather, linebacker Jaylen Sneed, Vyper Josh Burnham, end Aiden Gobaira, defensive tackle Tyson Ford, Vyper JR Tuihalamaka, tight end Holden Staes, and linebacker Nolan Ziegler.

If any of that group show out on Saturday and appear to be on their way to being contributors this fall, consider it a positive sign for their futures and what they will accomplish at Notre Dame.

2. I didn’t include Benjamin Morrison or Jaden Mickey when listing those rising sophomores. That’s because they are already part of an even more exclusive club. Those two are the only two from the 2022 team who joined the 200 snap club as true freshmen.

They are in there with 10 others in eight of the last nine years (I excluded 2016 for reasons I will get into). The others are Joe Alt, Lorenzo Styles, Michael Mayer, Kyle Hamilton, Robert Hainsey, Josh Adams, Jerry Tillery, Jacob Lacey, Clarence Lewis, and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa.

That’s a pretty impressive list and while you could say that Lacey didn’t work out because of injuries or that Lewis and MTA are in a different tier than the others, there are no scrubs included and if Mayer and Alt go where they are projected, there will be four first round picks and counting. Morrison could eventually be that next one.

Simply as a comparison, I looked at Ohio State’s true freshman participation over the last nine years (PFF only has snap counts going back to 2014 so that’s the reason I started then). They had 11 true freshmen in the 200 snap club over that time, which is right about where Notre Dame has been with first year players. So just in case you were thinking that Notre Dame needs to find more snaps for true freshmen, it falls right in line with how another top program has been in terms of playing time with college football rookies.

3. Styles being on that list is one reason why it would seem like such a waste for him not to be an important player for the Irish this fall.

It doesn't have to be him at wide receiver. If this switch to defensive back becomes permanent, he is talented enough to help this team and be more than just another depth piece in the defensive backfield.

Obviously, time is not in his favor. Making a position switch after a couple of years isn’t an easy adjustment and if things aren’t working out for him this fall, he might not be at Notre Dame after this season. He has to catch up and catch up quickly.

Talent is not an issue, though, and it would be different if he had never played defensive back in his life. That is not the case.

It’s not just that he played as a freshman either. He made big plays against USC, North Carolina, and Virginia. He wasn’t racking up numbers during garbage time opportunities. No receiver during the 2021 season had more yards against Oklahoma State’s defense than Styles had in the Fiesta Bowl. The Cowboys defense finished 4th in DF+ (combined FEI and SP+ ratings) that season.

That kind of thing typically doesn’t lead to “And he was rarely heard from again…” when someone can do that as a freshman. He was ranked as an elite recruit for a reason.

We’ll see if he can be the next Tony Driver, Bennett Jackson, Cam Hart, KeiVarae Russell, Jeff Burris, Pat Terrell, Matthias Farley, or Xavier Watts. I’m still a believer in his talent and I’m excited to see where he’s at in August.

4. Okay, so about that 2016 Notre Dame team and why I purposely left it out from the 200 snap club for freshmen…

It wasn’t specifically because that team was a tire fire during the 4-8 season, but the fact that there were five freshmen who played over 200 snaps pretty much backs up that yes, it was a dumpster bin filled with tires that were on fire.

Stepherson and Julian Love were probably good enough to contribute as freshmen in any year, but I don’t think anyone would say the same about Studstill, Troy Pride, or Dante Vaughn. They got that much playing time that season because of injuries, suspensions, and general dysfunction in the secondary that left the Notre Dame coaching staff with no choice but to play them.

The circumstances with that team made it an outlier compared to every other Notre Dame since 2014, which has won at least 9 games each season and won 10 or more in all but two.

Georgia lost 15 players to the NFL Draft last spring and even though they landed the third ranked class in the country, which included five 5-stars and 22 blue-chip prospects overall, they only had three freshmen who played more than 200 snaps last fall (two of them were 5-stars). That’s a sign of a healthy program that even when they are “rebuilding”, they aren’t relying on freshmen.

The opposite of that is Texas A&M. They signed a loaded recruiting class and of course some of those freshmen were good enough to earn playing time immediately, but they had nine play 200 snaps or more in 2022. That fits with going 5-7.

There’s always going to be exceptions like Mayer, Hamilton, and Morrison who can’t be denied playing time no matter if they have a returning starter in front of them or not. There aren’t many of them, though. If a program has to rely on too many rookies, think about betting the under with their win total.

5. By the time they are all finished at Notre Dame, I think we’re going to look back on the 2021 recruiting class as one of the better ones on offense in recent memory. There’s going to be a lot of future pros out of that Alt, Fisher, Thomas, Styles, Estime, Diggs, Evans, and Buchner group who played a lot as sophomores. We’ll see what happens with Rocco Spindler, Pat Coogan, and Deion Colzie as well.

It is conspicuous that there were zero defenders from the 2021 class who were in the 200 club as sophomores.

Gabriel Rubio, Jason Onye, and Prince Kollie should be important pieces for the 2023 defense, but that’s really it as of right now unless Chance Tucker or Ryan Barnes break into the mix.

There are six defenders from that class that are no longer on the team. Kahanu Kia isn’t included in those six and he can make things appear slightly more respectable if he returns from his mission and becomes a good player for the Irish, but only slightly because they are going to need a lot from the others who are still around to make that happen.

I can’t recall a class that Notre Dame signed in recent years where there was a bigger gap between the talent on offense and defense. The fact that 9 of the 12 defenders they signed were offered after the start of the pandemic and that the recruitment and evaluation process was so different during that cycle is might have led to where they are now with that class.

On the other hand, Alt, Estime, and Diggs were offered later in the process so all of the blame can’t be placed on that.

6. Last year during the B-G game, there were people getting hyped up seeing Junior Tuihalamaka, Jordan Botelho, and Marist Liufau as a trio of linebackers on the field at the same time. Oh, the possibilities!

Two of those guys don’t even play linebacker anymore and the most notable thing about Liufau this spring might be that he was working off the edge in sub-packages.

It doesn’t make it less fun to think about that kind of stuff with mixed up teams due to the spring game fantasy draft, but we’re going to see offensive line combinations who won’t be playing together in the fall and quarterbacks throwing to receivers that they might not ever target on Saturdays.

All of it is a glimpse of this team. Nothing is permanent about what we’ll see, so enjoy the flashes and try not to make any sweeping conclusions.

The main thing will be to get out of the day healthy. Logan Diggs hurt his shoulder in last year’s B-G game and it ended up with him having a stunted start to the season before averaging 16.4 touches per game after missing the match up against Cal.

Keeping everyone healthy is the main goal. Seeing some early enrollees and second year players show exciting flashes is next on the list. Let’s all hope for both of those goals to be accomplished with some recruiting momentum sprinkled on top of all of that.

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