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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

April 27, 2023

The first round of the NFL Draft is taking place tonight and it always reminds me of signing day in college football.

It’s a time when it’s all about upside. A team makes their first round pick and there is hope that they can be the next great Pittsburgh Steeler, Green Bay Packer, or (fill in your favorite team here). A program like Notre Dame signs a highly ranked recruit and there is that same feeling of hope.

There were great expectations for Tyler Buchner, Prince Kollie, and Lorenzo Styles when they signed as recruits. For various reasons, they did not meet those expectations.

Buchner had injuries, didn’t have a senior year of high school football, and had someone completely change his throwing mechanics. That was all before he even got to Notre Dame! It wasn’t a smooth ride for him during his two years on campus either.

I think I summed up Kollie’s two years at Notre Dame pretty succinctly here.

Styles’ story is unique and has been talked about a lot in the last two weeks, so there’s no need to rehash it here.

Their stories are different, but the results ended up being the same. They all entered the transfer portal and none of them were projected to start for Notre Dame this fall.

Buchner left the door open to stay, but I don’t believe anyone is thinking that he will at this point. If he leaves, these three all get lumped together with others like Max Redfield, Brandon Wimbush, Phil Jurkovec, Houston Griffith, Kevin Austin, and Jordan Johnson who Notre Dame fans had so much hope for, but who never met the expectations that accompanied them during their careers for many different reasons.

It’s easy to dwell on the players who missed when another former elite recruit decides to transfer. It’s nothing new, though. Way back before anyone followed the Godfather for Notre Dame recruiting updates, there were players whose production didn’t match the hype. It’s always been a part of the story of college football and focusing on it from that perspective is misguided. It ignores that Notre Dame has done as good of a job as the other top programs in the country when it comes to developing the talent they sign. (More on this in a bit)

I know many have brought up that this is a sign of how healthy the program is when these types of players are electing to transfer because they aren’t starters. While that is notable, I think the bigger picture with this is that these are three players who clearly value football over academics. Football is more important to them than finishing a Notre Dame degree. There is no debating that.

Some will see that as sad because it's those individuals (and their families) putting the athlete before the student, which is not what choosing Notre Dame is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be the best of both worlds where someone can get that prestigious degree and play big time football. There is no other program in the country that can offer that.

Maybe that was the draw for them initially and maybe it is for many of the players on Notre Dame’s roster, but the program should continue targeting recruits whose top goals include starting at Notre Dame, making the NFL, and winning a national championship. Some of those guys don’t work out, but the there are plenty of them that do (Michael Mayer, Kyle Hamilton, and Kyren Williams to name a few) and they can be difference-makers.

Football is the most important thing to Buchner, Kollie, and Styles and and having the type of success they envisioned in football at Notre Dame wasn’t going to happen for them. The cycle continues like it always has and it’s on to the next guys who it could happen for.

2. Buchner (likely) leaving means the backup quarterback job is up for grabs. Never say never with Notre Dame going into the transfer portal to find someone to compete there, but it’s more likely that it will be Steve Angeli and Kenny Minchey battling it out for that role.

It’s impossible to know what to expect from either of them right now. I liked what I saw from Angeli the brief times we watched him in practice last spring and summer. Quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli had a ton of praise when speaking about Angeli earlier this spring as well.

"Steve Angeli has had a phenomenal spring camp. His decision-making has been great. His ball placement has been great. We have to find a way to get him more reps and continue to develop Steve. I think Steve has a shot to be a really good quarterback as well. I'm not in here just hyping everybody up, but I think all three of those guys are having a great camp. Enjoy Steve and he's getting better every day."

I did hear that Minchey showed a lot in the spring scrimmage that was not open to the media as well. That’s something that is always good to know about an early enrollee who is just getting his feet wet at the college level.

The thing to remember with both of them is that they didn’t get the opportunity to truly compete this spring for that job. Buchner and Sam Hartman were getting most if not all of the reps because they had to see as much from those two as possible with that competition for QB1. Angeli and Minchey were working with and against the third and fourth team on the roster. Those reps are completely different when you are throwing to and getting protected by walk-ons and mostly young players who are still trying to grasp the playbook.

I was talking with my friend who covers Texas today about Arch Manning and that was the first thing he brought up when assessing Manning’s spring. He was throwing to walk-ons and the returning quarterbacks had a lot more advantages with the talent they were throwing to.

One of the reasons why Ian Book had the career he had at Notre Dame is that DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire left before his second year. If Kizer had returned to school in 2017 and Brandon Wimbush was the backup while Book was stuck with the threes rather than getting reps with the twos during the entire 2017 season, maybe his career trajectory doesn’t look the same.

I think it’s fairly obvious that the threes and fours on defense are better than the threes and fours on offense at Notre Dame right now. That factors into the incomplete evaluation of Angeli and Minchey as well. Now they will get to work with and against better players.

From there, Notre Dame can get a good evaluation of whether or not one of them can be a solid backup this fall, but also get a grasp on if either of them have the potential to start in 2024.

3. The Athletic had a piece last week on which schools were the best and worst at developing NFL Draft talent. This is the kind of thing I like to do as well, with more of a specific focus on Notre Dame, and I thought they did a pretty good job with the data from the last 11 years.

The main part that stood out with Notre Dame is that they are right there with LSU, Ohio State, Alabama, and Georgia when it comes to developing 4-stars into NFL players. Out of the 4-stars who signed with those programs, LSU led the way with 33.8% drafted. OSU had 32.9%, Alabama had 30.6%, Notre Dame had 30.5%, and Georgia had 28.3%.

That’s the kind of group Notre Dame wants to be included with and the sample size is large enough for that to matter. (I think some might be shocked to know that 30% is a good hit rate when it comes to developing NFL Draft picks, but that’s simply how hard it is to make it to the next level. Players like Buchner, Kollie, and Styles get added to the 70% majority)

Every one of those programs signed 127 or more 4-stars over the 11 years so the percentages matter a lot more than Baylor having the highest percentage (37.9%) when they signed 102 less 4-star recruits than Notre Dame.

It also matters that Alabama signed the most 4-stars (170) because even though their hit rate is good, the margin for error can be bigger for them because of how well they recruit.

The writers who put together the piece (Ari Wasserman, David Ubben, and Mitch Light) also tracked 5-stars, but the sample size difference is so drastic for so many of the programs that taking the percentages didn’t make much sense.

Stanford technically had the highest hit rates on 5-stars (83.3%) because five of the six who they signed were NFL Draft picks. Alabama signed 44(!) 5-stars and had 30 of them drafted (68.2%). Georgia signed 34 and had 22 (64.7%) drafted.

The number drafted means a lot more than the percentages when the total signed is so small. Notre Dame had three of seven 5-stars drafted. The percentage is irrelevant because what matters is the three and the seven.

Even if it’s four and someone like Tommy Kraemer who started four years is an NFL Draft pick instead of an undrafted free agent, that percentage means nothing when it’s only one more player.

I’m not delusional thinking that Notre Dame is ever going to be at a point where they are signing four 5-stars in each cycle like Alabama averages, but everyone knows that the total number has to eventually go up under Marcus Freeman.

4. Recruiting and development go hand in hand because to have one without the other gets you stuck in the middle like NC State (28.6% hit rate with 4-stars, but only signed 21) or Texas A&M (signed 100, only had 13 of them drafted).

I dove into the tail end of the Brian Kelly era recruiting a couple of weeks ago. On defense, Freeman and Al Golden inherited a situation that was trending down towards the middle with less raw talent signed (28 blue-chips from 2017-2021) and a lot less development (only two NFL Draft picks from that group so far).

The development part of it we can assess at a later date after Freeman has been on the job longer, but in his first two recruiting classes, the Irish signed 17 blue-chips (4 and 5-stars) on defense and I imagine they’ll end up around the same number (another eight or nine) when this cycle is finished. Even if things stay the same and Notre Dame doesn’t recruit much better than they are currently, it would still end up around 50 blue-chips over five classes.

That’s a lot better than 28 and a lot more talent to work with.

Notre Dame’s total average of blue-chips per cycle over that 11 year time period was 12.5. The two year average for Freeman is 18.5. They have eight of 10 commitments who are blue-chips in the current class and are going to add more (and soon).

Development is always best examined over years and we’ll see how that works out for Freeman down the road, but any notion that recruiting hasn’t taken a big step forward under the new coaching staff would be completely inaccurate. Keep doing this and it’s inevitable that some players with great expectations attached to them will end up in the transfer portal, but it probably won’t be a bad thing because of how the roster is going to have many more blue-chip recruits than they did last season. 

5. I expected to talk more about ball this week over everything else, but there is never a dull moment when it comes to Notre Dame football news. If you’ll allow me to get into something I’ve been thinking about with the Irish offense since the spring game, though, I’ll gladly do it.

Yes, it’s the spring game. Yes, they aren’t showing much of anything when it comes to schemes on either side of the ball. Yes, everything is going to look much different when they start playing real games during the season.

But… I think what we saw from the second drive with Sam Hartman at quarterback is a bit of a sneak preview of what we’ll see more of this season. He’s someone who came from an RPO heavy offense and though it was different in terms of timing with the slow mesh, it was evident that his experience making good decisions with RPOs is something Gerad Parker can take advantage of. They were very successful when he pulled and threw it during the Blue-Gold game.

So many defenses this season are going to prepare to try to stop the run against Notre Dame and do it with extra bodies. That will lead to opportunities with RPOs to exploit match ups when defenses try to cheat and load up the box. I think we’re going to see Notre Dame take advantage of that a lot in 2023 with a higher frequency of RPOs.

6. Be careful out there with the takes this week. I’ve heard some wild reactions to Kollie and Buchner entering the portal.

I don’t go searching for these takes. Somehow people I know want to share with me these wild opinions that I can’t even seem to find any reason to say “Sure, I could see that”. I try to be pretty open minded and fair about Notre Dame football, but I can’t find common ground with some of it.

There were a lot of people who had opinions when Notre Dame brought in Hartman. One of the ones that I disagreed with is that he had accuracy issues. That didn’t match up with what I saw from him and I thought his overall completion percentage (63.9% in 2022) was a bit misleading.

Numbers don’t lie, but diving deeper into the numbers can paint a clearer picture.

I know I wrote previously that his average depth of target (second in the country) had an impact on his percentage, but another thing that PFF tracks that gives added context is adjusted completion percentage. That takes away throwaways and dropped passes that were on target. More specifically, when looking at how accurate he is throwing intermediate routes (10-19 yards down the field), Hartman was 5th in adjusted completion percentage at 68.9%. His receivers dropped 11 passes on those targets.

That matches up with the film I watched and it also showed up with this throw where the ball has to be in the right spot to Davis Sherwood to help them convert on 3rd down.

Drew Pyne had a 55.8% adjusted completion percentage on intermediate targets. The sample is small with Buchner, but his was (gulp) 38.5%.

I think that kind of throw is what would have ultimately been what separated Hartman from Buchner. I guess it’s over by default now, but completing that kind of throw is going to matter during the season. The only thing that changed is that now I’m certain we’re going to see Hartman make it rather than seeing where the offense would have gone if things were different.

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