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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

December 28, 2023

Losing sucks. No one likes it and it hurts when everything is put into winning and it still results in losing.

But there is something worse. That would be losing when you know you could have done more. Or perhaps that you should have done more.

That might be the most frustrating thing in sports.

For years Notre Dame hasn’t won like their fans have hoped they would. I know some who would give just about anything for the Irish to win another national championship. The most disappointing part of not doing so was the fact that it seemed like not everything was being done to reach that goal.

Maybe it was not enough money for assistant coaches. Maybe it was not enough money put into NIL for players in today’s landscape. Maybe it wasn’t enough effort from coaches when it came to recruiting. Whatever the case was, Notre Dame seemed to fall short while other programs were doing that extra in order to help them win.

I think we can say that things are different at Notre Dame right now.

They weren’t going to let what happened last year happen again, whether that was landing the right pieces in the transfer portal or retaining coaches. They weren’t going to let money be a reason why someone like Mike Denbrock would choose to not come back to Notre Dame.

No one wants to be Texas A&M where they are using money to cover up for past mistakes, but the one thing Texas A&M fans can say is that the people supporting the program do everything they can to try and help them succeed. I don’t think Notre Dame fans could say that for most of these past couple of decades because there always seemed to be more obstacles to winning rather than finding solutions.

Notre Dame is still Notre Dame and they aren’t going to be like everyone else in college football. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is that there seems to be more people helping to find solutions to overcoming obstacles from everything from undergraduate transfers to coaching salaries.

That’s a different than many Notre Dame fans are used to, but sometimes change is good. I think even the most loyal supporters of the program over the last few decades can agree that this kind of change needed to happen and it’s great that it is happening now.

2. I’ll have a couple of deeper dive film posts on Denbrock next week, but the number one area where Notre Dame needs to improve offense is on 3rd down. I have watched a lot of 3rd down stuff from Denbrock over the past week. 

Notre Dame’s offense on 3rd down was the 2023 version of the 2022 red zone defense. The Irish finished 39th in 3rd down conversion rate, which is extremely misleading because they were 97th in the month of October. More importantly, they converted less than 30% of the time against Duke, Louisville, USC, and Clemson.

The LSU offense finished 9th and 1st on 3rd down the last two seasons. The Irish need to be trending in that direction next season. 

3. The situation with Charles Jagusah getting his first significant reps in the bowl game isn’t unprecedented for Notre Dame. It’s not that dissimilar from when Max Redfield got an opportunity in the Pinstripe Bowl back in 2013 after not playing much at all during the regular season.

This also might be something that becomes the norm for many bowl games. Having a touted redshirt, who is likely going to start next season, just makes sense.

The Irish have only three starters on offense from the end of the season who are set to start this game, but that doesn’t feel true because receivers like Jayden Thomas and Jaden Greathouse have just as much experience as the other receivers and Jordan Faison was playing the same amount of reps that Chris Tyree was playing.

Eli Raridon played 38 to Holden Staes 45 snaps in the Wake Forest game. Notre Dame also has four backs who have carried the football who are available for this game.

Not having Joe Alt and Blake Fisher is a pretty significant adjustment, but it’s not the complete makeover on offense that it seems like on paper.

It’s a bit different for Oregon State. Their starting right tackle for the Sun Bowl played only 63 snaps this season, all in garbage time. Their starting left tackle had one start late in the season, but before that had only played in garbage time. Three of their top-four receivers in this game have a combined 30 targets this season.

On defense, they have a true freshman starting at linebacker whose only experience was playing 24 snaps in a blowout win vs Stanford.

How the guys who haven’t played a lot do could be a deciding factor in this game. Notre Dame doesn’t have as many of those in this game as Oregon State does.

4. I was crunching numbers looking at what Notre Dame is losing in terms of returning production next season and what they are gaining in terms of transfers. I did that until I realized I’m not sure how important it will be.

Experience is a good thing. I think it helped Notre Dame’s defense go up a level this season.

Experience isn’t everything, though. USC had plenty of it returning last season plus a boatload of transfers. They were 15th in returning production on defense and added some of the top rated transfers at all three levels of their defense. All that led to was a jump to 100th in DF+ (combined FEI and SP+ ranking) from 101st the previous season.

Bad scheme, bad development, bad defense.

It’s important that Howard Cross, Rylie Mills, and Jack Kiser are returning next season. It’s even more important that players develop like Xavier Watts did last season. It’s important for players to be used within the scheme the proper way to help them succeed like Marist Liufau was this season. He went from 11 pressures in 2022 to 26 this season.

Some of the most important players on the defense next season will be guys like Gabriel Rubio, Adon Shuler, Josh Burnham, and Jaylen Sneed. They aren’t bringing elite production back with them, but they’ll need them to take a big step with their development in 2024.

5. Experience would favor Clarence Lewis as the nickel in this game, but it is interesting that Al Golden mentioned both Christian Gray and Micah Bell competing for that spot with Thomas Harper opting out.

The nickel is essentially a starter in Notre Dame’s defense with how often teams are in 11 personnel (one back, one tight end). They have to match three receivers so they aren’t putting out an extra linebacker when that happens.

Maybe part of it is preparing those young guys for next season because we don’t know what the future will hold with Lewis. If he’s back, does he finally make the move to safety to compete there? Jordan Clark is also being brought in to play the nickel, so Lewis might be looking for a change as well.

Lewis is a valuable piece to have in the secondary because of his ability to play multiple spots, but he’s not necessarily going to start at any of them. If he were to move on, it certainly wouldn’t classify as a devastating loss, but intelligent football players who have played as much ball as he has are players who are worth keeping on the roster in my opinion.

6. We’re already seeing a new batch of players enter the transfer portal immediately after Christmas and with some bowl games wrapping up. That’s a good thing for a lot of programs who didn’t fulfill all their immediate roster needs early on in December.

It’s an even better thing for a program like Notre Dame, who went to work early and landed commitments from several key transfers. It almost feels like anyone they added at this point would be a bonus.

I don’t know what will happen with Notre Dame's interest in some of the newer names in the portal who don’t fit positions of need (offensive tackle and safety). One thing I would love to see happen is Notre Dame entertaining the idea of adding players with multiple years of eligibility left.

ESPN’s Jordan Reid put out an early top-50 for next year’s NFL Draft and there are double digit former transfers listed within the first 32 players. Eight of them just finished their second year at a new school (Caleb Williams, Michael Penix Jr., Jayden Daniels, Laiatu Latu, Jared Verse, Chop Robinson, Tyler Guyton, and Kingsley Suamataia).

Some of these players never would have been options to transfer to Notre Dame, but it’s always worth pursuing the ones that might because they could develop into impact players like they did. Each of them benefited greatly by developing at a program over the course of a couple of years.

I look at the jump many of the players on Notre Dame’s defense made this season while working with the coaches on that side of the ball and it was significant for so many from year one to year two. I’d love to see that with a transfer or two with this staff as well, maybe even as soon as next season.

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