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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

May 4, 2023

2017 feels like forever ago. Six years is a long time, but so much has happened in those six years with Notre Dame’s football program that it feels even longer.

For Irish fans, it was the first year of the reboot. The one that, when measured strictly by wins and losses, was inarguably a success.

For Georgia fans, it was a glimpse of what was to come. It was the first College Football Playoff run for the Bulldogs in year two of Kirby Smart. Even though they lost in overtime in the national championship game, it was supposed to be the first step until they took the next step.

That next step took longer than many thought it would. Going 31-7 over the next three seasons is pretty darn good, but it wasn’t what people thought would happen after being so close so early in Smart’s tenure at UGA.

It took four years, but Georgia got back to the national title game and won it. Then they won it again the next year. Now they are the envy of college football with a roster that is loaded with NFL talent. I’m not ready to completely throw out Nick Saban and Alabama as the standard in college football quite yet, but there’s a lot of “the student has now become the master” vibes because his ex-defensive coordinator has built a powerhouse that looks frighteningly sustainable.

This brings us back to Notre Dame and that 2017 match up against Georgia.

No one likes to celebrate a one-point loss, but going toe to toe with Georgia that night was one of the things that helped show the players on that team that they were back. They gained confidence from that and ended up winning 10 games in ‘17 before taking it a step further in 2018 with an undefeated regular season and the program’s first CFP appearance.

The Irish lost to Clemson then and it wasn’t close. It was an indication that they still had a lot of work to do in order to reach the next level.

Brian Kelly knew it. He gave an interview to Pete Thamel, at that time for Yahoo!, where the primary topic was catching Clemson and Alabama. It’s the article where he first mentioned a gap in skill talent and then everyone who covers or follows Notre Dame has been talking about closing that gap ever since.

Georgia didn’t just close that gap. They established a new bar that everyone else now has to attempt to reach. I guess that does make them the new standard. (The student has become the master!)

Despite Kelly knowing and openly talking about how they needed more talent to beat the best programs, the gap for Notre Dame got wider.

In ‘17 when Georgia and Notre Dame faced each other, the talent level was pretty even. Out of the players who actually played in the game (not who were on the roster), Notre Dame had 14 future NFL Draft picks on the field. Georgia had 15. When they played two years later in 2019, Georgia had an edge, but only a slight one. 19 future NFL Draft picks played for them that day. 16 played for Notre Dame.

Looking back on it from that perspective, it made sense that those games were so close. The Irish did have the talent to hang with them then.

It’s a completely different story now.

If Notre Dame faced Georgia in 2021, Kelly’s final season at Notre Dame, they would have had five future NFL picks playing. Georgia would have had 25. I wish I could say that was a typo, but it’s not.

They have had 25 players selected in the last two NFL Drafts, which is a record for any school. Notre Dame has had five.

Maybe some would say it’s unfair to measure Notre Dame against a team that is up there with the most talented in college football history, but it’s relevant because of how close the programs were when they played six years ago and because Kelly pretty much stated his goal was to do what Smart actually did.

It’s not even that Notre Dame wasn’t able to close the gap. It’s that Kelly and his staff as a whole got them to a point where they had less NFL talent on the roster than they had at the beginning of the now infamous reboot.

They played Cincinnati in ‘21 and Notre Dame fans were rightly upset to lose that game at home, even if it was to a team who eventually was selected to the CFP. In hindsight, they shouldn’t have been as upset about losing to what was then a Group of 5 program. They should have been more upset about Notre Dame having 5 future NFL picks playing that game against 14 for Cincinnati.

It feels like beating a dead horse to keep bringing up Kelly’s mistakes when he won 54 games and made two CFPs in his final five years. He’s clearly a coach who knows how to win football games, specifically when he has more talent than the opposition. He did many good things after 2016, including greatly improving the strength and conditioning program and establishing a culture that had been missing from the program for a long time. That’s a big reason why they were able to keep winning despite the decline in talent.

However, if it wasn’t clear already, the latest NFL Draft made it abundantly so: Notre Dame was in need of a change if they wanted to move forward from where they were. They needed someone else to improve the whole operation when it came to acquiring and developing talent. So far, Marcus Freeman has done that and the changes he’s made within the staff and on the recruiting and personnel side of things have been very positive.

Time will tell if he can take care of the rest of it because he will ultimately be judged by wins and losses, even though he is clearly improving other areas that should lead to more success in the future.

He definitely didn’t inherit a roster that is close to the one Kelly had back when Notre Dame played Georgia in 2017. The good news is that he’s building towards having a better one than that and not just talking about it.

2. That leads into this year’s team.

Five players picked in the last two years explains a lot about how talented the 2021 and 2022 teams were.

Notre Dame had some great players on those teams. Kyle Hamilton, Michael Mayer, Kyren Williams, Isaiah Foskey, and Jarrett Patterson were fantastic for the Irish. They also had plenty of good college football players and great leaders on those teams like Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Drew White, the Ademilola twins, Avery Davis, and TaRiq Bracy.

Those teams weren’t as talented as the three previous ones, though. It was evident when watching them and not just with the NFL Draft results.

How does the 2023 team measure up in terms of draft-eligible NFL talent? Better, but not significantly enough to put them close to where they want to be.

I mentioned the 200 snap club a couple of weeks ago and it’s one of those things where playing 200 or more snaps as a sophomore has been a strong indicator for career success at Notre Dame and a strong predictor for players when it comes to developing into NFL Draft picks.

Notre Dame has had 20 players drafted since 2020. If we exclude Alohi Gilman and Ben Skowronek as transfers who weren’t at Notre Dame during their second year of college footbal, then it’s 18. 15 of 18 were in the 200 snap club (83.3%). (The exceptions were Liam Eichenberg, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and Ade Ogundeji)

These are the current members of the team who were in the 200 snap club as sophomores: Chris Tyree, Clarence Lewis, Ramon Henderson, Rylie Mills, Joe Alt, Blaker Fisher, Jayden Thomas, Audric Estime, Mitchell Evans, and Marist Liufau.

That’s 10 and I think it’s fair to include Sam Hartman (transfer), Cam Hart, Jack Kiser, Xavier Watts, and Jordan Botelho as possible exceptions.

Alt and Fisher are the only potential first round picks from that group. Estime is someone I think will likely go pro if he has a big year (I expect that to happen). If Hart is healthy and plays back to 2021 form, he’s leaving and will get drafted. Hartman is going to get drafted and won’t have eligibility left.

After that, it feels like a crap shoot with most of the guys having eligibility left. The majority of the list has a lot to prove this fall to establish if they could get picked this year or in the future. If Fisher isn’t projected to be a first round pick, he could come back as well.

Notre Dame has a lot of talented players who won’t be draft-eligible who are probably going to play significant roles on the team (Benjamin Morrison, Tobias Merriweather, and Jaden Mickey at the top of the list). I’m not trying to put a ceiling on how good the team can be by saying they aren’t loaded with obvious top NFL picks. But if you’re thinking that next year’s NFL Draft is going to be a lot better for Notre Dame than this year’s, it’s not a certainty.

It should be better, but it will depend on how several of the upperclassmen perform this season.

3. On that 200 club list, Liufau is easily the most polarizing player. Anyone who watched him play last year would say zero chance he’s going to the NFL after this season. It’s unclear if he’ll even be the starting Will this fall.

The lack of production combined with the flashes of violence in 2022 made him look like someone who was closer to the player he was in 2020 than the one who was supposed to be a breakout star for the Irish in 2021 before a season-ending injury in camp. People went into last season with high expectations for him. That has flipped to low expectations or no expectations.

ISD’s Greg Flammang interviewed former Notre Dame captain Drew White for Hit & Hustle and asked about Liufau and what White thought of Liufau’s play last season. White gave a very thoughtful answer. He also made sure to mention that he was not in the building and was watching as a fan, which doesn’t give someone the full perspective on calls or responsibilities on any given play. What White did offer was an insightful response as someone who played beside him and was in the linebacker room with him for three years.

“I think Martist is really gifted. I talked about it before, but physically. And he’s very violent. I think when he overthinks, I kind of alluded to that before too…like, when he overthinks and has a lot going on in his head, I think he plays a lot slower and will let blockers come up to him and is looking for the ball instead of playing fast, defeat the block, be the missile, make the tackle.
“So when you’re playing with a little bit of hesitancy, I don’t think you maximize your full game and that’s what I thought Marist struggled with last year. I think he has the ability to, this year, to progress from that and be more comfortable and not play as hesitant. Being able to know where he’s going, read the offense better, and you know, not even the defense wise, but playing in games and seeing sets. You start to build in gun near, gun far, condensed formation, these are the plays they are going to run for…this is a high probability draw or screen power or counter and then you’re able to play to your full potential.
“I think that his ceiling is very high. I think it could be a really good breakout season for him. Last year could have been okay, he’s starting, he’s the man, he’s getting snaps. But if he progressed through the off-season studying film, building his mental game, and being able to play more fast and free, his physical nature is one that you really like coming from a linebacker. I mean, that’s all you want: a big, lengthy guy…”
“Playing more relaxed will really benefit him this year. I can see where everyone wants that breakout season because he has the ability to do so.”

(If you haven’t checked out Greg’s interview with White yet, I highly recommend you do because he shares a ton of great stories about his time at Notre Dame.)

White’s answers fit with everything I have thought about Liufau and what we’ve seen from him at times. The ceiling is high for him if he puts in the kind of offseason work that White was talking about, but no one is going to believe it until they see it on Saturdays this fall.

Asmar Bilal was someone I gave up on as an impact defender. He proved me wrong in his final season. Liufau has this year and potentially the next to do the same.

4. One last thing about Georgia that jumped out with their incredible run at the last two NFL Drafts is that 24 of 25 picks were players they originally signed out of high school. Only one of them transferred in (cornerback Derion Kendrick, a sixth round pick in 2022).

It’s not like they are immune to taking transfers. They landed Missouri’s leading receiver and Mississippi State’s leading receiver out of the portal this year. They also brought in cornerback Smoke Bouie from Texas A&M, but he was originally committed to Georgia in high school so they know what they are getting there.

The fact that they have built this beast through recruiting and development is significant. Programs can fix holes through the portal, but I won’t believe anyone can build a championship team with that as a foundation until I see it happen.

Short term solutions can help a lot. The additions of Jon Sot, Blake Grupe, Jack Coan, Nick McCloud, and Ben Skowronek were necessary and important to the success of recent Notre Dame teams. Hartman should prove to be even more important this season.

No one is going to build a championship program through the portal, though. The best way for Notre Dame to build is through recruiting and development.

5. Now feels like a good time to mention that Freeman and company are once again doing well with recruiting. There’s still a lot of positions that need to be filled, but the May evaluation period, camp season, and summer official visits are going to add a lot more clarity.

This run they had after the spring game with some key targets sets them up nicely for that. With 14 commitments added to the last two classes they signed, they’ve continued to keep the kind of pace that they need to with an 81.4% blue-chip ratio (percentage of composite 4 and 5-stars).

How many are they going to take in 2024? The answer seems to always drift towards more than you think and that’s been the smart way to approach it with inevitable roster attrition. I know there used to be this focus on not being over 85 scholarships, but I just don’t see that ever being a concern going forward because it hasn’t been for quite some time.

One thing that I forgot to add to the equation with this recruiting class is that they are basically getting another Vyper who isn’t being accounted for at the moment. Unless something changes, the expectation is that Kahanu Kia will return from his mission and rejoin the program.

In case anyone is concerned about the numbers at that position, he’s another player with four years of eligibility to add to that mix. This what Freeman said about him about him as a Vyper back when they originally moved him there in August of 2021:

”We're just looking at numbers, we're looking at numbers in terms of depth. That probably is more, we had some questions in terms of the depth at the end and Vyper position, we thought it was best for him right now in terms of depth-wise to just move him. Who's a guy that could move there and help us for fall camp, really? Then all of a sudden he started playing well and (you say), 'Holy cow, this might be a spot for him.' He's pretty natural at it. He's had a really, really good camp as a freshman.”

It’s going to be interesting to see where Kia is at with his size when he returns and he’ll have to get acclimated back into the strength and conditioning program, but he impressed me back in that first fall camp and he was one of my favorite prospects in the 2021 class when he originally signed.

6. Since 2019, Notre Dame has had at least one freshman arrive in the summer and eventually become a significant contributor.

Kyle Hamilton, Michael Mayer, Joe Alt, and Benjamin Morrison all did and out of that group, Alt was the only one who was forced into action because of injury. The other three walked into situations where the Irish had good depth at the positions, but they were too talented to keep off the field.

Even with Alt, it could be argued that he might have been good enough to play day one, but I don’t believe Notre Dame wanted any scenario where they were starting two freshmen tackles and Blake Fisher had already established himself as a potential starter before Alt got to South Bend.

I think there are three primary candidates to join that aforementioned group.

The first is Jeremiyah Love, who now will have a greater opportunity to get into the mix with Logan Diggs leaving the program. Love also might have been someone who found a role because there just aren’t many backs who arrive running a sub-4.4 40.

The next is Charles Jagusah. Even though it’s incredibly difficult for any freshman offensive lineman to play immediately, there have been recent exceptions like Alt, Fisher, and Robert Hainsey. I doubt Jagusah is beating out the competition at guard to start in week one, but if he’s 100% healthy, he’s more mature physically than most freshman offensive linemen and possibly pushes as the season progresses.

The other candidate for me is Micah Bell, but not at corner. I don’t think he is nearly as ready to compete there as I thought Morrison could be early in his career. I do, however, think he could get into the mix immediately as a returner. He has electric potential in that regard.

The three incoming defensive linemen (Boubacar Traore, Brenan Vernon, and Armel Mukam) would all fit into the dark horse category for me, but some of that is because I just didn’t see enough from Traore and Vernon as seniors, so I’m not quite sure what to expect. I think it will be awfully tough for either to crack the rotation because that would mean them jumping the line in front of some others who are already on campus, but we’ll find out soon enough where they are at.

It might be surprising to some for me to include Mukam. The reason I did is that he’s up to 265 and sometimes with these players who aren’t as experienced can make unexpected leaps once playing defensive line in college becomes a full-time focus. It’s more likely he redshirts, but he’s near the top of the list of freshmen I’m excited to see on the field this summer.

If the summer freshman trend continues, at least one of these players is going to be a factor this fall. And if that happens, recent history would suggest that they are going to be pretty special players at Notre Dame.

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