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Notre Dame Football

Part I: Ranking the positions Notre Dame has developed the best based on 2023 NFL success

January 13, 2024
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Like it or not, most blue-chip prep prospects aren’t concerned about how their lives will turn out over 40 years from now. They want to go to the league, make millions of dollars and figure it out from there.

“It's hard for them to see beyond the game of football,” coach Marcus Freeman said. “I was that person at a time; all you can see is yourself making the NFL. You're not worried about life after football.”

Thus, Notre Dame’s “4 for 40” mantra (no matter how effective it is, which writer Jack Sacco recently pointed out) is typically more effective on a recruit’s parents than it is on the young man themselves.

That’s especially true for those with fathers who played in the NFL, such as Bryce Young and Kennedy Urlacher.

“When your dads are Hall of Famers, the fathers can say, ‘This game will end,’” Freeman said. “You want to make a decision that will help you reach all your athletic goals. Don't cheat your athletic goal but understand the game of football ends so fast. And you're talking about guys that have played multiple years — 13, 14, 15 years — in the NFL.”

Notre Dame loves to brag that 525 former members of its football program have been drafted, the most of any university in the country. The Fighting Irish are also tied for first with Georgia, Oklahoma and USC with five No. 1 overall selections each since 1936

Of course, that overlooks the fact that only five Notre Dame players were taken in the last two NFL Drafts combined and that the school’s last top overall draft pick was defensive end Walt Patulski in 1972. The other four played for the Irish in the 40s or 50s.

Still, the Irish are still tied for sixth among college programs with 41 active NFL players, who’ve earned a combined $623.6 million in their professional careers thus far (This somehow pales in comparison to Alabama’s 71 active players with $1.5 billion in earnings. Sheesh. Maybe Nick Saban was, in fact, a players coach.).

Notre Dame’s success in this area is made more impressive by the fact that the program hasn’t produced top players at many of the premier money-making positions. 

That said, here’s a ranking of the positions the Fighting Irish coaching staff can most easily sell to prospective recruits based on how former players performed in the 2023 NFL season.

The position groups are listed from worst to best. 

No. 13 Quarterback

▪️Ian Book - Signed a futures contract with the Kansas City Chiefs for the 2024 season.

▪️Jack Coan - NFL Free Agent/San Antonio Brahmas.

The Saints drafted Book in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft and he spent the first two seasons of his professional career as the third-string quarterback in New Orleans and with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Coming out of the preseason, the Eagles waived him and he spent the 2023 regular season hoping to get back on a roster. He served a brief stint on the New England Patriots practice squad and tried out for the Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers

Coan went undrafted in 2022 and looks to reprise his role as QB1 for the XFL’s San Antonio Brahmas. He technically shouldn’t be a part of this list, but he’s Notre Dame’s only former quarterback to actually play in a meaningful professional game over the prior calendar year (no, I’m not counting the preseason). 

In the last five seasons, Book’s start against the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 27, 2021, is the lone appearance by a Notre Dame signal-caller in the previous five years. The Saints lost 20-3 that day, with Book completing 12 of his 20 passes for 135 yards and two picks.

It’s a sad state of affairs for the Irish at the most pivotal position in team sports, and that’s putting it mildly. Sam Hartman might get drafted, but he’s unlikely to change this narrative given how much he struggled to take snaps under center or throw out play-action in 2023.

On the bright side, the program is recruiting for the position better than it has since former coach Charlie Weis signed five-stars Jimmy Clausen and Dayne Crist in back-to-back classes. 

Incoming transfer quarterback Riley Leonard has legitimate first-round talent, underclassmen signal-callers Kenny Minchey and CJ Carr are both bonafide blue-chippers and 2025 commit Deuce Knight is a top-100 prospect oozing with natural talent. 

No. 12 Cornerback

▪️ Nick McCloud - New York Giants (Second String)

▪️ Troy Pride Jr. - Houston Texans (Practice Squad)

McCloud appeared in all 17 games this fall for the 6-11 New York Giants, earning more and more snaps on defense as the season progressed and started the final two contests. He racked up 28 tackles, three forced fumbles, two pass deflections and an interception. 

Pride Jr. missed the 2022 season with a torn ACL and subsequently bounced around the league this fall. He worked with the Saints in training camp, spent time on the Las Vegas Raiders practice squad and active roster and signed onto the Houston Texans practice squad for the end of the regular season and playoffs.  

Ultimately, there’s not very much NFL production for the Notre Dame coaching staff to sell here, and it’s one of the most important positions in football. 

The perception of this position should change dramatically over the next few years. 

Cam Hart declared for the 2024 NFL Draft and could vault up draft boards after scouts see his freaky athleticism at the combine. 

Rising junior Ben Morrison is already generating buzz as a potential Day 1 pick in 2025. Notre Dame hasn’t had a corner drafted in the first round since the Washington Redskins selected Tom Carter with the No. 17 overall pick in 1993.

Cornerback coach Mike Mickens is working miracles in South Bend.

No. 11 Wide Receiver

▪️Ben Skowronek - Los Angeles Rams (Second String)

▪️Equanimeous St. Brown - Chicago Bears (Second String)

▪️Chase Claypool - Miami Dolphins (Second String)

▪️Miles Boykin - Pittsburgh Steelers (Second String)

Notre Dame has sent plenty of talented wideouts to the league over the last decade or so. Will Fuller and Michael Floyde were first-round picks, while Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin vaulted up draft boards after running 4.4-second 40-yard dashes at 6-foot-4. 

Still, Golden Tate is the last Domer to sustain a long, standout NFL career. 

None of the four listed above made consistent plays in the pass game this fall.  By combining their 2023 numbers, their production still doesn’t equate to a team’s third receiver — 24 catches for 222 yards and two touchdowns.

The best of the bunch might be Skowronek, and that’s because he’s such a strong blocker.

Nevertheless, Notre Dame just signed Cam Williams, the program’s highest-rated receiver prospect since Floyd, so at least there’s hope for the future.

No. 10 Edge Rusher

▪️Adetokunbo Ogundeji - Atlanta Falcons (Injured Reserve)

▪️Romeo Okwara - Detroit Lions (Second String)

▪️Julian Okwara - Detroit Lions (Third String)

▪️Khalid Kareem - Chicago Bears (Practice Squad)

▪️Isaiah Foskey - New Orleans Saints (Third String)

▪️Isaac Rochell - Free Agent

The volume of players is there for this position, but the group needed more production this season to be higher on the list.

This fall, Notre Dame’s six professional edge rushers combined for 36 tackles, 4.0 sacks, nine QB hits, 5 tackles for loss, 4 pass deflections and a forced fumble. Most of that comes from the Okwara brothers in Detroit.

Ogundeji showed promise after two seasons but spent 2023 on Injured Reserve with a foot injury

Kareem also dealt with injuries and played one game for the Chicago Bears.

The Saints drafted Foskey in the second round of the 2023 NFL Draft, but Notre Dame’s all-time sack leader failed to record a sack in his rookie campaign.

Rochell played eight games in Las Vegas, only for the Raiders to cut him shortly after releasing a video on his brother’s military and athletic achievements. Ouch. 

From a big-picture standpoint, it’s way too early in this list to have already named four of the five most impactful positions: quarterback, cornerback, wide receiver and edge rusher.

Ultimately, those are the positions that the program must get better at developing to be a serious contender for championships. 

No. 9 Defensive Tackle

▪️ Kurt Hinish - Houston Texans (Second String)

▪️ Jerry Tillery - Las Vegas Raiders (Second String)

▪️ Sheldon Day - Minnesota Vikings (Second String)

Hinish and Tillery possess very different physical traits. Hinish is generously listed at 6-foot-2 and a stout 300 pounds while Tillery is 6-foot-6 and a lean 295. Yet both put up quilty numbers as second-team defensive tackles for their respective teams.  

Hinish: 22 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 2 QB hits, 2 TFL and a pass deflection. 

Tillery: 31 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 6 QB hits, 2 TFL and a pass deflection. 

Day actually spent the first half of the season on the Vikings practice squad before the franchise released him in November, only to resign him later in the week. He ended up playing in Minnesota’s final six games, recording eight tackles and a TFL.

There are only three former Irish defensive tackles in the league. They’re technically all backups, but their numbers are easy to point to when selling recruits. 

No. 8 Center

▪️ Robert Hainsey - Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Starter)

▪️ Liam Eichenberg - Miami Dolphins (Starter)

▪️ Jarrett Patterson - Houston Texans (Injured Reserve)

▪️ Sam Mustipher - Baltimore Ravens (Second Stringer)

So, I broke down the offensive line by center, guard and tackle (Offensive line as its own categories would easily be No. 1, and that’d make this ranking a little too boring.).

To be honest, this position could’ve been even higher with three one-time starters on NFL playoff teams, but it lacks the star power of other spots on this list. 

It also hurts that Patterson suffered a mid-season injury that ended his rookie campaign after starting the first seven games

At the time, the Texans were thrilled with his performance. 

“It is difficult losing your center,” Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said following Patterson’s injury. “Jarrett has been a staple for us throughout this season. Very pleased with what he was able to do stepping in. Smart player, tough player, played well for us, so we'll be doing some more shuffling around there."

What’s interesting is Hainsey, Eichenberg and Patterson all played tackle at some point in their Notre Dame careers yet had the wherewithal to learn how to snap the ball at a professional level. 

When it comes to recruiting, it also doesn’t hurt that there are six other NFL offensive linemen much higher on this list. 

Stay tuned for Part II. If you want the latest scoop on the Fighting Irish, sign up for our newsletter and become an ISD Premium Subscriber: Sign Up for ISD

 
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