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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

January 4, 2024

For the last five years, being very good wasn’t good enough to win a national championship. A program needed to be elite.

Every champion in the previous five seasons hit these benchmarks:

Top-8 in OF+ (combined FEI and SP+ ranking on offense)

Top-15 in DF+

Top-15 in explosive passing plays (20+ yards)

Had at least one day one or day two NFL pick at WR/TE

3 future NFL picks on the D-line

Joe Moore semi-finalist for their O-line

2.0+ net points per drive (basically whooping teams all season)

60% blue-chip ratio (built an elite roster through recruiting)

None of the four College Football Playoff teams this year hit all of those benchmarks. The only program that did this season was Georgia. The four CFP teams all missed the mark on at least three.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that what let Alabama down in their loss to Michigan was their offense and offensive line and what let Texas down in their game against Washington was their passing game. Star receivers Xavier Worthy and Adonai Mitchell combined for only six catches and 77 yards.

We’ll see what happens in the national championship game, but it's a safe bet that either Washington’s defense or Michigan’s lack of explosive passing will be a deciding factor. Either way, this will be the most flawed national champion since Alabama with a not quite great offense won in 2017.

Maybe it’s a sign of things to come or maybe this season will be looked at as an outlier.

Notre Dame is not going to have to check all of those boxes in order to make the CFP next year, especially not with twelve teams making it. They had the defense this season, had an O-line that was a semi-finalist for the Joe Moore Award, had a defensive front with three future NFL Draft picks, and were over the 60% blue-chip ratio threshold. They fell short on offense, in explosive passing plays, and at wide receiver/tight end.

None of that should be surprising given what Notre Dame fans watched this season. The question now turns to if they can hit more of those marks next season.

All of those marks on defense seem like a reasonable expectation for 2024. They will have a defensive line that hits the mark with Howard Cross and Rylie Mills returning plus the addition of RJ Oben. If they get the right development from some young players, the defensive line could contend with the secondary as the strongest group on the team. There is no reason why this defense shouldn’t be finish the top-15 this fall.

It’s on offense where things are less certain.

How good can Notre Dame be on the offensive line? That’s going to be the critical piece for them even with Mike Denbrock coming in as offensive coordinator and an improved receiver group. It’s tough to see them replacing two tackles and being better, but I don’t believe they have much chance of being a top-8 offense unless they are. It’s like at Alabama where they had a freak athlete at quarterback and stud recruits at the skill positions, but they couldn’t be a top offense because of their offensive line.

Mitchell Evans could very well be a day two pick at tight end in the spring of 2025, but it would be presumptuous to say that Notre Dame will have a top pick at receiver at the moment. Almost everything seems like it will be set up better for the offense in 2025, but no one wants to see another great defense with an offense that isn’t as good as it needs to be.

The defense has the chance to be elite. It’s going to be on the offense to join them if they want to do more than just make a 12-team playoff.

2. Former NFL scout and current director of the Senior Bowl Jim Nagy tweeted this out before the CFP in regards to how many draft-eligible players from the four teams would get drafted if the NFL Draft was today.

Just comparing the total picks to this recent Notre Dame team, the Irish weren’t that far off. Throw in the three returning who would be drafted (Cross, Mills, and Xavier Watts) plus the three who left early (Audric Estime, Joe Alt, and Blake Fisher), and the three who accepted invites to the Senior Bowl (Marist Liufau, JD Bertrand, and Cam Hart) and that’s nine. Javontae Jean-Baptiste probably deserves to be included as well and that makes 10. (I’m not including Sam Hartman because I believe he is trending more towards being undrafted at the moment)

10 players is in line with those CFP teams and it’s significantly better than the last couple of years for Notre Dame when they had five drafted overall. It goes to show how the talent level on this team was better than the previous two. (That 2021 team had some luck and a much easier schedule to get to 11 wins)

The biggest difference between ‘23 Notre Dame and Michigan, Washington, Alabama, and Texas lies in the top tier talent. Those teams all have at least six projected day one or day two picks. I think it’s closer to three for Notre Dame and I wouldn’t be shocked if Alt ended up being the only one.

The day one and day two number has to go up after year three and four under Marcus Freeman. That’s the separation between them and top that needs to be closed.

3. Now that the season is officially over, I can update which second year members made “The 200 Snap Club”.

I wrote about the club in April of last year and the gist of it is that playing 200 or more snaps as a sophomore tends to be a good predictor of things to come for a player at Notre Dame. There’s a high likelihood of those players either developing into NFL Draft picks or becoming multi-year starters.

Taking out the two 200 club sophomores who transferred (Holden Staes and Tobias Merriweather), there were three on offense who joined the club: Ashton Craig, Billy Schrauth, and Eli Raridon. There were another three on defense: Benjamin Morrison, Jaden Mickey, and Jaylen Sneed.

So, why exactly should everyone feel confident about these players over the next few years?

Minus players who transferred before they graduated (eg Kevin Stepherson and Logan Diggs) there have been 20 members of the 200 club from 2017-2022. Nine of them have already been drafted and Alt, Fisher, Estime, Jayden Thomas, and Mitchell Evans are likely to join them. That would make 14 of 20 drafted (70%).

The other six are Tony Jones (played in the NFL), Tommy Kraemer (multi-year starter), Chris Tyree, Lawrence Keys, Braden Lenzy, and Jafar Armstrong. I’d call it fair to say 17 of 20 of them hit.

There were 15 in the 200 club on defense from 2017-2022. Seven have been drafted with two more that likely will be (Liufau and Mills). The others are Jayson Ademilola (multi-year starter), Kurt Hinish (NFL player), TaRiq Bracy (multi-year starter), Devin Studstill, Clarence Lewis, and Ramon Henderson.

Even if you don’t count Lewis and Henderson, that’s still 12 of 15 that hit on defense.

Well, we can already put Morrison in the group with them when it’s all said and done. And it might be unclear about the right fit for Sneed within the defense and the others are all playing positions where there will be a lot of competition, but the odds say that five of the six are going to keep ascending and help Notre Dame win a lot of games on their way to likely NFL futures.

4. Jack Kiser is returning at linebacker in 2024 for his sixth year at Notre Dame. He signed in the class of 2019, which also featured JD Bertrand and Marist Liufau. It’s kind of crazy what followed at linebacker after that ‘19 class.

They chose not to sign a linebacker in 2020 after bringing in four the previous cycle. They signed two in the 2021 class (aka the Covid class), but Kahanu Kia was moved to Vyper before leaving on a mission and that left Prince Kollie as the lone linebacker from two recruiting classes.

When he transferred last spring, it was on to 2022 where they signed four…but four shrunk to two after moving Josh Burnham and Junior Tuihalamaka to Vyper (mostly out of necessity). Then two turned into one with Sneed as the last man standing with how things turned out with Nolan Ziegler.

That’s how we got to Kiser, Sneed, and the 2023 class of Drayk Bowen, Jaiden Ausberry, and Preston Zinter as the returning linebackers for Notre Dame. It’s also why Kyngstonn Viliamu-Asa is such an important piece as an early enrollee who could be ready to contribute immediately.

It’s too early to say the Irish need him to, but that might change after we get through the spring depending on the development of Sneed and the ‘23 trio.

It’s important to note that Notre Dame’s base defense is Nickel. They don’t have any teams on their schedule who are likely to play with two tight ends on the field at the same time more than infrequently, so if anyone is worried about them putting three linebackers on the field, it’s not something they will have to do for more than a small percentage of plays all season.

Even with that acknowledgement, it’s a young linebacker group. It doesn’t look as young if Kiser and Sneed are the starters, but they’ll need at least four linebackers they are confident who can play and two of them are going to be freshmen or sophomores. There should be some new 200 Snap Club Members at linebacker.

The ceiling on the group is very high in my opinion. Sneed, Bowen, Ausberry, and KVA were ranked as elite recruits for a reason. Notre Dame needs at least two from that group to be good this fall, though. There is no buffer between them and Kiser, so the future stars at linebacker have to be on the road to stardom this season. 

5. It’s pretty awesome to see Kyren Williams show the NFL exactly what Notre Dame fans saw from him for two years. I don’t even think it can be considered surprising that he’s been this successful (second in the NFL in rushing despite only playing 12 games). He was only a fifth round pick because they thought he was only a sub-package player in the NFL and he showed in college against top competition that he is capable of more than that.

Notre Dame hasn’t had an elite skill position player in the NFL in a very long time. It sounds great to people who know Notre Dame to suggest that someone can be the next Michael Floyd or Will Fuller, but that’s a lot different than the coaching staff comparing a recruit to someone who is currently balling in the league.

Williams is the first 1,000 rusher from Notre Dame since Ryan Grant in 2009. It’s important that someone like Estime is a great college football player. Having a big back like that puts up numbers is huge for the program and hopefully huge for him in helping him become a day two pick this spring. However, using Estime as an example for recruiting lasts longer if he can become a stud feature back in the NFL like Williams is now.

He hasn’t played for Notre Dame for the last two seasons, but I guarantee he’ll be featured plenty when selling future running backs on why they should choose the Irish now that he’s proven himself at the next level.

6. I mentioned the Covid Class of 2021 and normally a class that is heading into year four is going to be the most important one to a team’s success. That can’t really happen with Notre Dame because of how things shook out with it.

That class had some big hits. Joe Alt, Audric Estime, and Blake Fisher already heading to the NFL puts them in that category. Mitchell Evans is another who is going to be playing on Sundays and Jayden Thomas should as well. If not, he's a multi-year starter at the very least.

That class also has 15 other players out of the 27 they signed who never made it to year four at Notre Dame (10 of them transfers). That leaves only nine players who are still around at this time who signed in ‘21.

This isn’t something unique to them, though. This kind of thing has happened at a ton of programs with their ‘21 classes.

Alabama (the top ranked class) had 11 transfers out of 27. LSU (3rd) had 10 of 25. Georgia (4th) had nine of 20. Ohio State (2nd) had 10 of 24. All of their top guys from those classes are off to the NFL already as well. Much like Notre Dame, they’re going to rely heavily on the 2022 class to be bigger factors this fall.

The good news for the Irish is that many from the class look like they are on their way to making a leap next season. Schrauth and Craig are set up to be multi-year starters up front and we’ll see if Aamil Wagner can join them at tackle. JD Price has everyone excited about his potential as a runner. Steve Angeli has put himself in a position to compete at quarterback and Eli Raridon should be in line for a much bigger role at tight end in ‘24.

Benjamin Morrison is already a star and Jaden Mickey should compete to start opposite him at corner in 2024. This is a huge year for Sneed, Josh Burnham, and JR Tuihalamaka in terms of their development and we may see Donovan Hinish and Aiden Gobaira (if healthy) crack the rotation on the defensive line as well.

Notre Dame needs a few of these guys to be more than starters. They need some of them to jump up closer to that BMo level and they’ll be in a position to do so.

I always think of year three being huge for several players when it comes to things clicking at Notre Dame. There are numerous examples of it with Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem, Cole Kmet, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Tommy Tremble, Isaiah Foskey, Cam Hart, and Evans as some recent ones worth highlighting.

Now is the time for at least a few of these year threes and because of how things went with the class before them, Notre Dame needs that to be the case.

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