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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

November 30, 2023
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Development is a word that is used constantly when talking about college football programs. Recruiting might be the word that is mentioned first when it comes to successful ones, but development is typically mentioned right after.

Everyone wants to know what a player’s ceiling could be when they commit to Notre Dame. It’s a climb to get to that ceiling and it takes years to get there with thousands of reps in practices and games and what seems like an infinite amount of hours in the weight and film rooms.

That’s why the best college football teams aren’t made up of freshmen and sophomores. Georgia, the back-to-back national champions, had 25 players drafted by the NFL after the last two years. The first thing that says is that they were loaded with talent. The second thing it says is that they were loaded with draft-eligible talent. The vast majority of the best players on those teams were older players.

Notre Dame’s 2023 defense has plenty of talent. They might have as many as eight starters end up being NFL Draft picks. They also aren’t young. Seven of those eight are draft-eligible and out of 22 players who logged 100 snaps or more during the regular season, only six were freshmen or sophomores.

I’m highlighting this because it’s been a completely different situation on the other side of the ball for Notre Dame. For three years in a row, they’ve been young on offense. (How is that possible? More on that later)

In 2021, they had 22 players log 100+ snaps on offense. 11 of them were freshmen or sophomores. In 2022, it was 10 of 18. This past season it was 11 of 21 with five of those 11 being true freshmen.

2015 had Notre Dame’s best offense in recent memory. They only had four freshmen or sophomores log 100+ snaps. In 2017 it was seven. It was six in 2018, five in 2019, and four in 2020.

I realize no one is looking for excuses regarding Notre Dame’s offense, specifically in regards to their performances against the top defenses they faced. I’m not looking to provide excuses. I’m just stating the fact that, for the third straight season, Notre Dame ended up playing more young players than any program would like to play.

The top-six teams in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings are Georgia, Michigan, Washington, Florida State, Oregon, and Ohio State. None of those teams have had more than four freshmen or sophomores play 100+ snaps for them on offense.

Development can mean a lot of things. It can be physical (bigger, stronger, faster). It can be mental as well as technical. Whichever way development is talked about, it’s a process and that takes time. Talent can certainly trump process with some unique individuals like Benjamin Morrison and Joe Alt, but even the most talented players need to be developed. We saw it with those two who grew by leaps and bounds in the second half of their freshmen seasons and who have continued to get better at Notre Dame.

Even with a sixth-year transfer quarterback, this offense wasn’t set up to be as successful as every Notre Dame fan would have liked them to be because of how many young players had to play this season. Sam Hartman definitely needed more time to develop within this different system, but unfortunately for him, he doesn’t have any time left.

It’s practically impossible to be elite on offense or defense when playing so many young players. Notre Dame has been too young on offense for three straight years and that’s not a trend that can continue no matter who is calling plays.

2. So, how the heck is it possible to be young for three straight years on offense? As with most things in college football, it ties back to recruiting.

Notre Dame signed eight offensive linemen in the 2018 and 2019 classes. Only one of them, Jarrett Patterson, ended up being an NFL Draft pick. Five of them never played a significant down for Notre Dame. That meant Blake Fisher, Joe Alt, Tosh Baker, and Michael Carmody were pretty much forced to play during the 2021 season.

Alt and Fisher might have been good enough to play regardless, but they wouldn’t be pressed into action if they had the 2020 starting offensive line (four NFL picks) in front of them. Carmody and Baker weren’t ready to play and have never become starters.

Everyone knows about the receiver recruiting issues for the Irish and Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles saw the field that season as freshman because of it. That didn’t end up being the start of something for either of them at Notre Dame.

Tyler Buchner played over 100 snaps that season mostly because of them missing at quarterback in recruiting classes before him. Players like Michael Mayer, Mitchell Evans, and Chris Tyree are the exceptions where talent got them on the field, but a few exceptions are okay. Not all of these players were exceptional.

If Buchner, Styles, Colzie, Carmody, and Baker were hits, they would have been the players who were leading the charge on offense this season much like Audric Estime and Mitchell Evans did. I know it sounds harsh to qualify them as misses, but there really isn’t another way to describe them as anything else because a big reason why freshmen like Rico Flores, Jaden Greathouse, and Jordan Faison had to play a combined 775 snaps this season has to do with players who didn’t hit for Notre Dame.

Flores and Greathouse in particular may have been those rare exceptions as freshmen, but there is no way Flores is leading the receivers in snaps as a freshman if any other receiver from the 2020 and 2021 classes had hit outside of Jayden Thomas or if they had signed more than one receiver in 2022. (Again, many thanks to Del Alexander)

It goes without saying that they need the majority of Flores, Greathouse, Faison, Billy Schrauth, Ashton Craig, Eli Raridon, Cooper Flanagan, JD Price, and Jeremiyah Love have to develop into foundational pieces for the 2024 offense and beyond so history doesn’t keep repeating itself with Notre Dame’s offense being forced to play young players because they don’t like their options with the upperclassmen.

3. ISD’s Matt Freeman published a piece yesterday on Notre Dame’s explosive plays on offense this season. I’m sure many will be surprised where the Irish rank in terms of explosiveness, especially given their lack of dominant playmakers outside of Estime.

Being 12th in explosive plays (20+ yards) is dang good in any context. Being 12th when Notre Dame is 122nd in plays per game (119th in total plays) looks even better when that is taken into consideration.

All of that should probably be discussed more than it has been because Gerad Parker was able to produce that despite the youth movement on offense. And if you look at this graph with successful play rate differential and explosive play rate differential (for offense and defense), I think many would be surprised where Notre Dame is situated and who they are bunched in with.

(Click the pic to enlarge it)

Being there with UGA and Michigan should be equal parts encouraging and frustrating for anyone who follows Notre Dame since those teams have zero combined losses and the Irish have three. Obviously there is more that goes into winning and losing than just these metrics.

The big piece that remains on offense is taking it up a notch with the explosive passes. Notre Dame finished 19th in passing plays of 20+ yards this season. This is what I wrote about explosive passing in terms of making and winning the CFP back in August.

In the last five years in college football, an explosive passing game has been essential for an offense to be elite. 15 of the 20 CFP teams since 2018 have finished in the top-15 in explosive passing. None of the five teams who weren’t in the top-15 of explosive pass plays have won a game in the CFP.

Being this close without a dominant receiver (or two) is a very good thing. They have to get over the hump, though.

In terms of the CFP contenders this season, six of the current top-eight teams in the CFP rankings are in the top-15 in explosive pass plays: Washington (second), Georgia (seventh), Ohio State (10th), Florida State (11th), Oregon (13th), and Alabama (15th).

The two exceptions are Michigan and Texas (weirdly both tied for 44th).

The good news for Notre Dame fans is that Michigan would be an outlier to even win a CFP game. The bad news is that the Houston Astros of college football will probably luck out and get matched up with an FSU team without an injured Jordan Travis at quarterback.

4. Every college football fan from a top-tier program was hoping Drake Maye would transfer to their school last year, but he ended up staying at North Carolina. Most of the guys that would get unanimous approval from fans are either staying put or going to the NFL.

That sticks out to me with any transfer quarterback. No one is going to have unanimous approval unless it’s someone on Maye’s level and outside of Caleb Williams when he transferred from Oklahoma, there hasn’t been anyone else close to that level.

People can talk about Jayden Daniels, Michael Penix Jr., and Bo Nix after the fact, but no one was hyping them up as Heisman contenders when they originally went into the portal.

I won’t go too deep into my thoughts on Riley Leonard, but since I’ve seen more than a few people who wouldn’t be too thrilled if he ended up being the transfer Notre Dame takes, I did want to mention that I am in the opposite camp of those people.

I think Leonard would be a great fit.

For one, this isn’t someone who would have to make a big adjustment to Notre Dame’s offense like Hartman had to do. He has experience in a pro-style offense at Duke and he originally was recruited and coached by David Cutcliffe. He’s also a legitimate dual-threat who has to be accounted for in the running game.

He scored 17 rushing touchdowns during the last two seasons and averaged close to seven yards per carry on designed runs. I don’t think anyone should judge him based on his play when he came back after the Notre Dame game. He was playing on one ankle and lost all of his mobility. He had zero designed rushing attempts in the two games he played. He had eleven against Notre Dame for over 100-yards.

His passing numbers aren’t anything to write home about, but Duke simply didn’t have anything close to top talent at receiver. That greatly impacted those numbers. His adjusted completion percentage this season was 70.7% because his receivers had 11 drops. 10.5% of his catchable passes were dropped.

He also didn’t have any legitimate downfield threats to throw to. No one should judge him too harshly from how he played against Notre Dame either. Not one single quarterback had a good day against Al Golden’s defense as a passer and Duke was also minus left tackle Graham Barton that game, their best offensive linemen. That hurt them a lot.

I’m not saying he is Drake Maye, but there were legitimate reasons why he was being hyped as a top prospect at the position before his season was derailed. He’s a good decision-maker, has a plus arm, and has proven he can do real damage as a runner against top defenses (ask Clemson and Notre Dame).

They certainly could do a lot worse than Leonard. I watched a lot of him prior to them playing the Irish this season and I’m a fan of his game. I think he can also get better and even with some of the uncertainty about the rest of the personnel on offense at the moment, he’ll still be working with major upgrades across the board than he would have played with at Duke.

5. I’m going to get this one off really quick because I don’t think we have to dig too deep on it.

This 2023 defense was absolutely a championship-level group. I thought they could be after fall camp and they proved they were over the course of the season.

They checked the necessary boxes.

Did they have NFL talent on the defensive line (at least three NFL Draft picks)? Yep, Howard Cross, Rylie Mills, and Javontae Jean-Baptiste are future NFL picks.

Did they finish in the top-15 in DF+ (combined FEI and SP+ ranking for defense)? Yep, they were 11th.

Did they create negative plays at a high enough rate? Yep, they did. All champions but one have had a Havoc rate of 18.6% or higher. The Irish finished 15th in havoc rate at 19% this season.

There are a lot of things that can be pointed out that made Notre Dame’s defense this season championship-caliber. The pass defense, which includes the pressure they put on the quarterback, was elite.

The 2018 and 2019 defenses checked the first two boxes, but fell just short of the threshold for havoc rate (17.5% and 18.4%). I think this defense is the best Notre Dame defense in the last decade.

6. Tobias Merriweather entering the transfer portal was unsurprising to say the least. It’s also unfortunate for Notre Dame.

He clearly has a unique skill set as a long, fast deep threat. That’s something the Irish need.

He also finished with the lowest PFF grade out of any Notre Dame receiver this season and the highest drop rate (12.5%). It’s fair to say he wasn’t exactly ready to be the player the staff wanted/needed him to be.

Now they don’t get to see if he would have ended up being that player at Notre Dame. I’m not sure I’d bet on him becoming that player somewhere else either, but even a slim chance is better than no chance.

The most unfortunate thing about Merriweather leaving is that Del Alexander’s final three classes at receiver have ended up even worse than even the most pessimistic Irish fan could have anticipated. There were zero career catches for the 2020 class, two transfers from the 2021 and 2022 classes and that could end up being three if Deion Colzie ends up moving on. The only one who would remain at receiver would be Jayden Thomas, who ended up having a wasted 2023 season because of a hamstring injury.

It’s incredible that three freshmen receivers combined for more touchdowns this year than the receivers in the three previous classes over the last three years. Think about that for a second while also contemplating that they only had one full-season of Kevin Austin, had KJ Stepherson ruin his career, had Avery Davis tear his ACL, had Michael Young and Lawrence Keys find success after transferring to other programs, and they brought in graduate transfer Kaleb Smith who didn’t even make it until the end of spring ball.

All of that on top of the injury situation this season could convince someone that the position is a bit cursed.

Things can get on the right track quickly with the correct hire to replace Chansi Stuckey. I really think the players in the room have the potential to grow into something great with the right guidance.

Flores and Greathouse not only have the talent and work ethic to be highly productive players for Notre Dame, they both have the mentality to be culture setters. That’s exactly the kind of player Jayden Thomas is as well. He’s a selfless player who will be in his fourth year and Notre Dame literally didn’t have a fourth year receiver last season. (I’m excluding Chris Tyree because he new to the position)

I like those players. I like the other young talent at the position. It’s entirely possible to get an upgrade over Merriweather and find a couple of players who can solidify the position through the transfer portal. The hard part is landing those players.

They went out and got Sam Hartman last year. They look to be in a strong position with Riley Leonard this year. Do the same with a couple of receivers and they can finally dig out of the Del Alexander sized hole at the position.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish 20'' x 20'' Season's Greetings Circle

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