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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

December 7, 2023

The first class for a head coach is often considered a transition class. That’s why the next class is typically mentioned as the “first full class”.

If you look at Brian Kelly’s transition class at Notre Dame, it worked out pretty well with him inheriting future impact players like TJ Jones, Louis Nix, Bennett Jackson, and Prince Shembo who were already committed when he was hired. There were also starters like Christian Lombard, Austin Collinsworth, Tommy Rees, and Danny Spond that came from that class.

Kelly had the extremely good fortune of what turned out to be an outstanding 2009 class from Charlie Weis’ final class. Manti Te’o, Tyler Eifert, Zack Martin, Zeke Motta, Theo Riddick, Chris Watt, and Cierre Wood were core pieces on Kelly’s 2012 team that went undefeated in the regular season.

Freeman wasn’t as lucky with his class before the transition one. That 2021 class (from the Covid recruiting cycle) already has 16 players who are no longer with the program. Only three of those players started a game at Notre Dame.

His transition class has shown signs of working out really well, though. There are nine players from the 2022 class who played 150+ snaps and are returning next season. That doesn’t include JD Price, who is under that number, but appears to have a bright future with the Irish. (It also doesn’t include Tobias Merriweather or Holden Staes, who have decided to transfer)

Two years in, Ben Morrison is the only elite player out of the group. We’ll see where they’re at next year with ascending players like Craig, Schrauth, Josh Burnham, Jaden Mickey, Eli Raridon, and Jaylen Sneed. There also could be more opportunities for players like Price, Steve Angeli, and Aamil Wagner as well. 

Considering the circumstances, it’s worked out pretty well so far with hope for even better results going forward.

Lincoln Riley took over as USC head coach fiive days before Freeman was announced as Notre Dame’s coach. Riley didn’t have the benefit of being on-staff like Freeman and with USC struggling on the field, they hadn’t put together a great class for him to hold together.

Riley decided to go the quick fix route and went heavy with transfers in year one and it wasn’t like it didn’t work out pretty well right away. They won 11 games, Caleb Williams won the Heisman trophy, and Jordan Addison was a first round pick. It was quite the glow up from the final four years of the Clay Helton era.

However, that short term success fizzled in year two, even with Williams back at quarterback. They’re also not exactly set up well to be at the top of the Big Ten once they make their move to a new conference next season.

A lot of that has to do with Riley’s transition class.

They signed only eight high school prospects and took 20 transfers. Out of all of those, high school recruits and transfers, only three who played 150 or more snaps and are back for USC next season. Two top-100 prospects they signed in that 2022 class have either transferred or intend to transfer.

Riley finally made a move to upgrade at defensive coordinator by hiring UCLA’s D’Anton Lynn, but that initial class means he doesn’t have a ton of material to work with who have been on campus for multiple seasons. The offensive line also has to be patched together again by the transfer portal and that hasn’t proven to be something any program can get away with.

Instead of a bunch of players ready to make a leap in year three, they need several to be elite as sophomores from his first full class.

Oklahoma and LSU, both of whom brought on new head coaches at the same time as Notre Dame and USC, didn’t go that route. Yes, they went heavy in the transfer portal too, but both Brent Venables and Brian Kelly are in better shape to get their programs to a higher level because they signed enough high school prospects in their transition classes who are ready to be core players for their teams next season.

Xavier Watts, Howard Cross, Rylie Mills, Marist Liufau, JD Bertrand, and Cam Hart are examples of development within a program and not one of them became a full-time starter until their third year at Notre Dame. Those are the types of players that members of Freeman’s transition class can become.

USC won’t have that, which is why it’s going to be very interesting to see if Riley will have another underwhelming season because Williams and Addison aren’t there for them in the portal this year.

2. There’s a big difference between going into the portal like Notre Dame is now at the receiver position and what USC did with most of the roster when Riley took over.

What Riley did saved some short term pain, but it kicked the can down the road. Freeman and the staff are trying to bring in some receivers to help them immediately, but that’s in addition to bringing in Cam Williams‍, Micah Gilbert‍, and Logan Saldate as freshmen for next season.

I don’t see this current approach by Notre Dame as a shortcut. They are still trying to recruit long term answers throughout the roster. What they are doing now isn’t that different from what they did with Javontae Jean-Baptise and Thomas Harper last season. They knew they had needs and identified players who fit.

This is much of the same and it’s something Kelly needed to do a much better job of during his last couple of seasons. They shifted two defensive tackles, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Rylie Mills, to fill a need at defensive end in 2020 and 2021. Neither of them were the right fit there and Notre Dame was hurt by not having more of a Khalid Kareem or JJB type in those seasons. It hurt MTA and Mills as players too because they could have made more of an impact inside.

There were less options then than there are now in the portal, but it never even seemed to be a discussion of the Irish actually pursuing that spot. (The problem could have been solved by better recruiting, but too many misses by Mike Elston at that position put them in that spot.)

Notre Dame could still use one more year with some help at defensive end because they are still playing catch up at that spot after Aiden Gobaira tore his ACL in camp back in August. If he stayed healthy, then maybe it wouldn’t have been a need for them to land someone like former Duke defensive end RJ Oben.

Oben is a very similar player to JJB before he got to Notre Dame. He has NFL traits and plus pass rush skills, but needs more consistency versus the run. Landing him for that spot allows them to not have to rush the younger players who might be ready to be rotation players, but maybe not ready to be high-level starters quite yet.

3. If Joe Alt and Blake Fisher don’t play in the Sun Bowl, then it’s sure going to be interesting to see who starts and plays at tackle for Notre Dame.

It’s also going to be interesting to see how much this offensive line group differs from the starting five the Irish will start against Texas A&M. In addition to Rocco Spindler being healthy and available, there’s always movement in the spring and summer and we don’t know if Notre Dame will end up targeting an offensive tackle in the transfer portal or not. (There aren’t a plethora of options at the moment)

One thing worth pointing out is that the number of snaps returning is going to be a lot better than what they had coming back in 2021. They had a total of 1,240 snaps returning on the offensive line from the previous season. Almost half of those were from Jarrett Patterson. After this bowl game, they’ll be returning over 2,000 snaps from the 2023 season. They are currently at 1,757 and as long as everyone who is expected to return does so, they’ll hit that mark.

Most of those snaps are from interior offensive linemen, which is why an offensive tackle transfer will continue to be on the radar.

There is one thing Notre Dame fans can be comforted by in terms of what is coming back on the offensive line, though. At the moment, Mike Elko hasn’t done a great job of retaining all of those stud defensive linemen at Texas A&M.

DT McKinnley Jackson is off to the NFL and their other stud defensive tackle Walter Nolen is in the transfer portal. Edge LT Overton is another former 5-star like Nolen was and he’s in the portal too. Another produce edge rusher, Fadil Diggs, is also reportedly going to join them in the portal.

That potentially stacked defensive line doesn’t look nearly the same as it did a couple of weeks ago. LB Edgerrin Cooper, a great edge rusher as well, is also off to the NFL and will be at the Senior Bowl with Jackson.

Elko and general manager Derek Miller will try to fill in the gaps, but it’s going to be difficult to replace all of that talent.

Another program who Notre Dame is going to face in 2024, Florida State, had their best returning edge rusher enter the portal as well. Patrick Payton was very good playing opposite of Jared Verse and now both won’t be on FSU next season.

Not that any time is a good time to lose both starting offensive tackles, but retooling up front might not be as bad when two 2024 opponents who had great defensive lines this season are going to be retooling as well.

4. One thing that matters a lot with these bowl games is all of the extra reps that these players are getting in practices. It really is like a mini spring ball where players are able to gain experience when they didn’t get those same reps during the season.

The circumstances were different, but Ashton Craig and Billy Schrauth getting to play meaningful snaps with the first team for several weeks is invaluable to their development. It can be the same for someone like KK Smith, who goes from just starting practice to now getting to work in with the main offense.

WIth Liufau not playing, it means more reps for the young linebackers who are going to fight to replace him at Will next season. It also means that someone gets to audition for his role on 3rd down and that may mean more on the plate of Jaylen Sneed and others like Boubacar Traore could benefit if that shift happens.

More players gain experience and Notre Dame’s staff also learns more about where certain players are in their development as well. They get a much better evaluation of their own roster and that’s always a good thing.

I’m not sure if they were thinking that Craig was definitely going to be their starting center before the Clemson game. Now that they’ve seen more of him, that had to have shaped how they viewed him and their offensive line as a whole heading into December.

We could see the same thing with other positions as well. Something that looks like a need today might not look like one when they get to January.

5. Ever since the NCAA instituted that graduates could transfer without sitting out, Notre Dame has had plenty of players transfer and there have been many success stories for those players that have been great to see.

Ja’mion Franklin at Duke, Micah Dew-Treadway at Minnesota, and Dillan Gibbons at Florida State are three examples standout because none of them were going to get a significant opportunity to play at Notre Dame, but they showed they were capable of starting and doing well at the Power 5 level with the right opportunity. That is easy to cheer for.

With those three and most other Notre Dame transfers who did well at their next program, they wouldn’t have had the same success if they had stayed. That seems to get forgotten when fans get upset about players who are not starters that move on.

Logan Diggs was a good player at Notre Dame and RB1 at LSU. He certainly would have helped Notre Dame if he had stayed, but he wasn’t going to be the feature back over Audric Estime this season.

Jacob Lacey was on the field for the most snaps he’s ever played in a single season at Oklahoma. He could have stayed at Notre Dame, but he wasn’t going to start over Cross or Mills this season.

I think Holden Staes will start at a good Power 5 program and will have a chance to eventually get drafted. I also wouldn’t have been surprised if he played less snaps next year for the Irish than he did this year if he had stayed.

I think Rico Flores can be a very good receiver. I’m also not sure he would start over newly committed transfer Kris Mitchell for Notre Dame in 2024. Who knows about 2025 with Cam Williams and others.

We didn’t get a chance to answer questions on Power Hour this week because of all the news going on, but ISD subscriber wschramm asked, “Who was the last player who transferred from Notre Dame who made a significant impact at a new program that likely could have made that same impact at Notre Dame?”

I’m sure someone will think of someone I’m forgetting, but I couldn’t come up with anyone in the last decade. There have been more than a few recruits who qualify as “the one who got away” for Notre Dame. Transfers have been a different story. 

6. Just over a year ago, Tyler Buchner not only started the Gator Bowl for Notre Dame, but he won MVP. He amassed over 330 yards of total offense, threw for three touchdowns and ran for two more.

If Buchner hadn’t won MVP, it might have been Diggs and his 169 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. A casual viewer could have watched that game and predicted that these would be the stars of the 2023 Notre Dame offense. Almost one year later Diggs was at LSU and Buchner bet on himself as a quarterback and lost at Alabama. He’s now headed back to Notre Dame to play lacrosse.

I wouldn’t even call that happening the new normal in college football. It’s really not that different than the 2014 Music City Bowl when Malik Zaire won the MVP and he and Everett Golson were tag team quarterbacks in a win for the Irish. Fast-forward to the fall and Golson is Florida State and Zaire ends up injured with DeShone Kizer taking over the keys to a Ferrari of an offense.

No one would have predicted it, but it happened and it can happen again.

We’ve reached a point in college football where lower level bowl games are no longer seen as the capper to a season. It’s more about the transition to next season.

In many ways the Gator Bowl wasn’t that for Notre Dame after the 2022 regular season with Buchner and Diggs as obvious examples. In other ways, it was.

Watts played his most snaps in that game and it was the only game all season where Mills played exclusively at defensive tackle. Those were two key pieces for Notre Dame’s defensive success this most recent season.

There is still so much unknown about who is going to play and not play for Notre Dame and Oregon State. Players are declaring their intentions with the NFL Draft, some are still trickling into the transfer portal, and it’s unclear who to focus on for either team right now.

We just know what we know right now.

For Notre Dame, we know all of the transfers who are no longer with the program. Eight of them were starters or contributors this season. We also know that Marist Liufau won’t be playing in the bowl game and there will be others as well. The team Notre Dame fans watched all season won’t be the same one they get to watch in the Sun Bowl.

For Oregon State, we know that their head coach is leaving and at least three other staff members are joining him. Their top two quarterbacks are transferring, their second team all-conference tight end, and their all-conference running back won’t be playing. It sounds like they will have more opt-outs on offense as well. They won’t exactly be the same offense that finished 13th in OF+ (combined FEI and SP+ rankings).

One of their top corners and a starting safety just entered the transfer portal too. We’ll see if there are more who will join them.

I guess some might take this as an excuse not to tune into the game because it’s not really two top-20 teams playing each other when the rosters are so different. Last year the rosters were different as well and it still made for an entertaining game.

If Angeli starts this game and lights it up, then maybe we can say this was the beginning of something great for him at Notre Dame. Or maybe it’s a blip on the radar like Zaire and Buchner.

Ian Book winning the Citrus Bowl could have looked like a blip as well, but then he took over after three games in 2018 and led Notre Dame to two College Football Playoff appearances.

I don’t know if any of what we will see will be a sneak preview of next season or not for Notre Dame. I don’t think it matters because these types of bowl games should be viewed as a bonus for fans while everyone is already thinking about next year.

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