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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

May 11, 2023

Notre Dame has been a finalist for the Joe Moore Award three times.

They were in the first year it was awarded in 2015. They won the award in 2017. They were a finalist again in 2020. It’s not a coincidence that those three offenses were the highest rated offenses of the Brian Kelly era. They finished 6th, 11th, and 17th in OF+ (combined FEI and SP+ ratings).

Having a great offensive line matters at Notre Dame and Marcus Freeman clearly understands that. Notre Dame should sign one of the best offensive line classes in the country every year and if you look at the total number of blue-chips (4 and 5-star recruits) or the number of top players overall they sign up front, they do.

In the last four recruiting cycles, Georgia has signed the most top-20 O-line prospects from those classes. They have eight. Alabama is second with seven. Notre Dame is tied for third with six along with Ohio State, LSU, and Penn State.

I pointed out earlier in the week that it’s more difficult to determine that in this cycle because this isn’t as strong of a class at the position (zero unanimous top-50 prospects this cycle) and there is extreme variance on who the top prospects are.

Every program is doing their own evaluations and will have vastly differing opinions on players. Landing elite prospects are important, but the opinions on who projects to be elite are going to be different from program to program.

Guerby Lambert‍ is considered to be one of the top prospects at the position in the cycle, but I would place him a tier below players like Paris Johnson or Blake Fisher when they were in high school. I’d say the same for just about every O-line prospect in the class. There’s a big difference between the top-20 at the position in this cycle than many others.

Still, Lambert and Grant Brix‍ (another in the top-20 at the position this cycle) are the caliber of prospects that Notre Dame has and should continue to land. That official visit weekend when both are scheduled to be on campus with commitments Peter Jones‍ and Anthonie Knapp‍ is going to be huge. Some lower ranked players could end up being better than many of the top guys four years from now, but the reason many of them are ranked lower is that they have more questions about how they project than the top ones do.

It’s been brought up often about Notre Dame losing Keon Keeley because of more than just NIL. Alabama has done a much better job at developing players at Keeley’s position into top NFL picks and that was certainly a factor as well. That’s not an issue for the Irish on the offensive line.

They need to continue to recruit at the level they have been or even better up front because they aren’t taking the next step on offense if they don’t have one of the best lines in college football.

2. Yes, you read that correctly about Penn State’s offensive line recruiting. They have been at that high level since Phil Trautwein took over coaching that position for them in 2020.

I know not many Notre Dame fans are grinding Penn State film, but they are significantly better on the O-line than they were during the early James Franklin years. They have had three players drafted at the position in the last two years and they have their Joe Alt in Olu Fashanu, who is projected to be one of the top offensive tackles off the board in the 2024 NFL Draft.

When I mentioned that Anthonie Knapp had a Penn State offer and that they liked him at offensive tackle, this is why that means something. They aren’t just taking anyone because they have proven they can land elite prospects.

If you’re one of those people who is putting a lot of stock into offer lists and you’re ignoring that one for Knapp, then it’s worth re-examining based on what Penn State has done recently.

3. What’s the difference between when the offensive line is strong and when it’s not in a given recruiting cycle? It can be pretty drastic.

Just look at the 2017 class compared to the 2018 class that followed. There were six three-and-out first rounders from the 2017 class. Andrew Thomas, Jedrick Wills, Tristan Wirfs, Austin Jackson, Isaiah Wilson, and Mekhi Becton. Out of that group, Becton was the only one who wasn’t a blue-chip prospect (4 or 5-star).

Alex Leatherwood and Alijah Vera-Tucker were also top prospects from the ‘17 class and were first round picks the next year. Rashawn Slater was a 3-star who ended up being a first rounder that same year. Christian Darrisaw was another lower ranked first rounder from that cycle who went to Fork Union Military Academy for a year before joining Virginia Tech.

Walker Little was a starter as a freshman at Stanford and was a second round pick. Trey Smith was another true freshman starter at Tennessee and if not for some injury issues would have been selected a lot higher than the sixth round. Robert Hainsey was a four-year starter and eventual day two pick. Jack Anderson was a day one starter at Texas Tech.

That class was so loaded that guys like Creed Humphrey (second team All Big-12 as a redshirt freshman), Wyatt Davis (two time All-American and third round pick), and Aaron Banks (All-American and second round pick) aren’t even in that first group mentioned.

There’s a massive difference between that and the 2018 class.

Penei Sewell was the only three-and-out first rounder. Some of the top rated players had good college careers (Jamaree Salyer, Nicholas Petit-Frere, and Jackson Carman), but none of them became first round picks.

The only other eventual first round pick from the class was Tyler Linderbaum, who was a composite 3-star and ranked as a defensive tackle out of high school.

There were a number of misses from the top group in that class and if you take a peek at the players outside of the top-200, someone like Jarrett Patterson is one of the few that had a great college career.

The 2019 class was much stronger and the 2020 class already produced three three-and-out first rounders in the most recent NFL Draft. Some years are going to be stronger than others at certain positions and I think everyone who follows recruiting closely has at least some grasp of that.

I think this 2024 offensive line class is a lot like that one from 2018. With that in mind, this isn’t a year to take someone just to take someone. This year is a lot stronger and a lot deeper on the defensive line and that’s why taking six or seven there would be a lot better than trying to add an extra offensive lineman.

It’s a far better approach to go heavy on a position when that position is deep than it is to try and take as many shots as possible hoping to get lucky when the talent pool is shallow.

4. The comps I do for who a recruit could become are an easy way for people to relate to the projected ceiling when that player commits to Notre Dame, but they can be difficult for me to find the right match.

Sometimes it’s easy if there is a recent Notre Dame player that everyone already knows, but when it’s not that obvious, I often have to dig into some players who I may have watched years earlier when they were recruits or think about specific players with other programs who have similar traits to the player Notre Dame just landed.

When the Irish flipped Armel Mukam from Stanford, my comp was former Notre Dame defensive end Ade Ogundeji. This is what I wrote about Mukam’s ceiling when he committed.

Notre Dame has signed some projects on the defensive line in recent years and targeted a few others. I would put Mukam in the category of a former target David Ojabo as a raw prospect rather than an Alex Ehrensberger or Jason Onye. Mukam is someone that I believe could end up being a 4-star before this cycle is over. (Note: I did bump him up and 247Sports did as well)
Consistent twitch can go a long way with any defensive linemen and he’s someone who brings that to the table. If he works hard at the finer points of the game, I could see eventually him leaping over some others on the depth chart for the Irish.
He has legitimate NFL potential and has the tools to develop into a starter for Notre Dame. He could be someone who eventually grows into a 3-technique defensive tackle, but I see him as a strongside end. My Notre Dame comp for him is Ade Ogundeji, but I think Mukam’s junior film is quite a bit better than Ogundeji’s.

I feel pretty good nine months later about putting Mukam in that Ojabo category. I think I would prefer to have a do-over with the Ogundeji comp because Mukam is a lot more physically developed than Ogundeji was at the same time. Ogundeji also finished his career listed at 268. I think that Mukam is going to be close to that weight when he reports in June.

I’d switch it now to former Georgia Tech defensive end Keion White. He might not be quite as long as White, but Mukam has similar tools and the same motor that were big pieces to White eventually developing in a day two pick.

5. Electric was a good way to describe JD Price’s ability as a running back. It seemed even more appropriate because he seemed poised to add a spark to Notre Dame’s offense as a true freshman.

Unfortunately, it didn’t happen in 2022 because he tore his Achilles last summer.

I have no idea what to expect from Price after this injury, both in the short term and the long term. There haven’t been a lot of running backs who have had the same injury so it’s not like there are a ton of examples to choose from to say he’s going to be just fine or he’s never going to be the same again.

Two recent examples of backs tearing their Achilles are D’Onta Foreman with Houston Texans and Mohammed Ibrahim with the University of Minnesota.

Formen tore his in November. He then missed the next full season and came back in 2020. He didn’t find a ton of success in the NFL until 2022 where he had a really good year for the Tennessee Titans. Was it him just taking that long to get back to the player he was after the injury or was there more to it? I don’t know the answer.

Ibrahim tore his Achilles in the first game of the 2021 season. I think to the surprise of many, he was back for the beginning of the 2022 season and rushed for 1,665 yards. I’d say that’s a pretty good bounce back.

The one problem with looking at those two players and comparing them to Price is that they may play the same position, but their games are different. Both of them have a physical style and are bigger. The thing that made people excited about Price’s potential was his cutting ability and burst to run away from defenders. It’s uncertain if he’s going to be at that same level in those two areas, at least right away.

I know an ISD subscriber asked about him and used Shaun Crawford as a comparison because he tore his Achilles and in some ways, they are similar quick twitch athletes. I don’t even think that is a fair comparison because Crawford tore his ACL, then tore his Achilles, and then later tore his ACL again. Even then, Crawford still had good testing numbers at Notre Dame’s Pro Day after all of that. His 4.13 shuttle time was comparable to other smaller, explosive players (Tutu Atwell 4.09, Rondale Moore 4.10, Asante Samuel 4.09) and none of those players dealt with the same kind of injuries.

My wife is a physiotherapist who works with Olympic athletes and her educated guess is that someone like Price will likely be the same kind of athlete he was prior to the injury. It just might not be right of the gate for him this season.

6. Culture beats talent is one of those things that’s become a popular saying in sports. Without a good culture, Notre Dame isn’t winning 20 games in the last two seasons with less talent than they had the previous three seasons.

I think that’s fair to say. However, culture isn’t going to help many teams overcome everything. I don’t think anyone would be willing to argue that Lincoln Riley turned things around in year one at USC because of the culture he built. He won because they upgraded the talent, especially at quarterback where they had a Heisman trophy winner in Caleb Williams.

Adding someone as good as Williams is only going to uplift everyone. He plays the most important position on the field took them to another level almost by himself. No quarterback in college football had a higher passer rating when pressured and no one had a longer average time to throw than Williams because he was Houdini at avoiding sacks.

There is no doubt they have improved the overall roster since last season and they have five projected starters in their front seven who they added this year as transfers. On paper, even after losing a few key players to the NFL, it’s a better team than the one they had last fall.

In terms of the culture of the program, what they’ve done in upgrading the roster is sure to be something looked at by other programs to see how it works.

I know most programs would have gladly signed up to take Bear Alexander (Georgia) and Anthony Lucas (Texas A&M). They were both top-100 recruits and have incredibly high ceilings. They do have the potential to become better than anyone USC has on the defensive line.

From a talent standpoint, it’s a no-brainer to add them. When it comes to a culture, it’s less clear.

These are some recent quotes from them and, well, they were a bit eye-opening to me.

"Not to brag on myself, but everyone wants the Big Bear," Alexander told ESPN. "Everyone needs a big 300-pounder that can move with the twitch, the burst, the explosion that I bring to the game. Everyone needed that as a part of their defense."

Okay then, he sounds pretty confident for someone who wanted to be a starter, but had yet to earn that at Georgia. Now, here’s a quote from Lucas this spring

“Football, I just don't think there's anybody who has been like me or will ever be like me if I choose to continue and work on the path that I'm on,” Lucas said matter-of-factly. “I'd like to take after Myles Garrett because he is that big defensive end who can do whatever he wants pretty much. Just go wreak havoc. He's a fun guy to watch along with Von Miller. I like Warren Sapp a lot. There's a bigger guy. I used to play inside, so he was an inside guy I liked to watch a lot back in the day.”

Okay, another extremely confident young man. Nothing wrong with it…if you back that up on the field. And both of these guys might do that.

But what if they don’t? Either USC just got Fletcher Cox and Myles Garrett or these guys might be getting ahead of themselves.

That’s the kind of quotes that Caleb Williams could give (but didn’t). If he did and then played like he did last year, I don’t think anyone could hate on him for it because he backed it up.

One of the things that helps a lot of players who are as talented as Alexander and Lucas is having leaders who can show them the way. That’s culture and it’s something that Notre Dame has had and it’s helped with the development of a lot of players.

Can you have that when you are constantly bringing in transfers and relying on them to be your best players? Georgia didn’t build that way. Alabama hasn’t built that way. No one has won anything of significance in college football by building their team through the portal yet.

I guess USC is going to be a test case because they know they have Williams for one last year and they wanted to do everything to try and buy (err, build) a defense that was good enough to help them win a championship. It’s going to be interesting to see how that works out in both the short and long term for them.

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