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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

January 25, 2024
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From an outsider’s perspective, it was easy to say that Marcus Freeman inherited a really good situation when he was promoted head coach when Brian Kelly left. Others who knew the roster well thought differently.

There were and still are culture carriers on the roster that have helped with the transition to the Freeman era in the last two years. There wasn’t a ton of elite talent and that showed with the most recent NFL Drafts. The Irish only had five players selected, which is less than programs like Illinois, Pitt, Iowa State, and Minnesota.

That’s not the tier Notre Dame wants to be lumped in with and it’s an indication of the recruiting and evaluation misses in the years leading up to those two drafts.

This spring should produce a much better outcome for the Irish in terms of draft picks. They have seven players ranked in PFF’s top-200 prospects (Joe Alt, Marist Liufau, Audric Estime, Blake Fisher, JD Bertrand, Cam Hart, and Sam Hartman). Javontae Jean-Baptiste is a legitimate NFL prospect as well who could get drafted.

He’ll be competing at the upcoming East-West Shrine Bowl. Liufau, Bertrand, Hart, and Hartman all accepted invitations to compete in the Reese’s Senior Bowl. Alt is very likely going to end up as a top-10 pick and Estime and Fisher are virtual locks to be selected at some point.

Things are clearly moving in the right direction in this area and the results showed out on the field with the Irish being much better in 2023 than they were in 2022. That leads into what Notre Dame has on the roster with draft-eligible NFL caliber talent in 2024 and I wouldn’t expect a regression back to what they had in 2021 and 2022.

Ben Morrison is an elite NFL prospect. He’s very much on his way to becoming a first round pick in the 2025 NFL Draft. While no one else is considered on that same level as him at the moment, the Irish have Howard Cross, Rylie Mills, and Xavier Watts returning with him on defense. They all project to play on Sundays and could have been selected in this spring’s draft if they had elected to enter.

The staff added defensive end RJ Oben from Duke as a transfer and he was a projected day three pick if he had chosen to go that route this year. We’ll see if Jack Kiser can play his way into a shot at getting drafted much like Bertrand and Liufau did this past season at linebacker.

Those players combined with some emerging young talent show exactly why Notre Dame will once again have a great defense this fall.

It’s not as clear on offense with the best three draft-eligible prospects being quarterback Riley Leonard, tight end Mitchell Evans, and wide receiver Jayden Thomas. There are questions with all three of those players at the moment. The answers are going to determine how they are viewed by the NFL and how successful Notre Dame can be on offense.

Leonard has to stay healthy, grow as a passer, and thrive in a new setting. Thomas didn’t have the type of season anyone hoped for due to injury, but his size and versatility should still make him a unique prospect in the eyes of NFL scouts. Evans is coming off an ACL injury that happened later in the season and we don’t know when he is going to be ready to play.

There’s all of that in addition to what we’ll see from wide receiver transfer Kris Mitchell and Beaux Collins. There is still a lot to prove with the offensive line as well. Notre Dame has had at least two future NFL Draft picks starting for them up front for over a decade and they need plenty of development from that group to show they have that or more.

There are reasons to be optimistic that things will go well on offense and trading Gerad Parker for Mike Denbrock at offensive coordinator is the type of upgrade that could go a long way. They are in desperate need of some good luck at receiver and must find the right answers on the offensive line, though.

Freeman now has a defense that has developed the type of NFL talent required to compete at the highest level, but it’s to be determined if the offense can match that.

2. Out of all the current Notre Dame players who entered the NFL Draft this year, Alt is the only one who is projected to go in the top two rounds. That’s where the gap lies between them and the top teams from this past season.

Texas has six projected to go off the board according to The Athletic’s Dane Brugler’s two round mock. Washington has five and Alabama also has five. Michigan only has three, which once again shows how they are an outlier when it comes to being a College Football Playoff champion. They should have double digit selections overall, but right now the only projected first round pick from that team is JJ McCarthy. 

As mentioned, the Irish should have a high number of NFL picks on the roster again in 2025, but they don’t have many who project to be day one or day two NFL talents. Right now the prime candidates after Morrison would be Leonard, Evans, and Watts and each of them would need to check a lot of boxes for that to happen.

Having more first and second round picks on a roster starts with recruiting and having more composite top-100 prospects in the 2024 cycle is a good thing in that respect. More than that, it’s about identifying players who have the kind of elite traits that could lead to that eventually.

That’s why we see Notre Dame’s staff focusing heavily on measurements and athletic testing because they are trying to develop more of these guys into the next Alt and Morrison. They need more of them if they’re going to win a championship in this era.

3. Going back to that Brugler mock, it’s a reminder that the majority of the projected first round were blue-chip (4 or 5-star) prospects.

11 of the top-32 were composite top-100 recruits. 21 of 32 were blue-chips overall.

To me, it’s also worth mentioning that while six of those 11 top-100 prospects were 5-stars, four of the other five weren’t ranked in the top-50. Hopefully that acts as a reminder that an arbitrary cut off for a star ranking doesn’t mean as much as many think it does. The difference between the 20th ranked high school recruit and the 72nd is a lot smaller than most realize.

Landing blue-chips: still very important. It’s better to sign them than the alternative. Notre Dame has a 71% blue-chip ratio over their last four cycles, which means Freeman’s three classes have them at their highest ratio since BCR was even a discussion point.

4. Of the 11 projected first rounders who were ranked 3-stars or lower as recruits, eight of them are offensive or defensive linemen. That doesn’t include Alt, who was a composite 4-star by the slimmest of margins. (He was literally ranked 400th overall)

This isn’t something that has to do with poor evaluations during the pandemic. The recruiting industry and college coaching staffs can’t blame it on that. This is consistent with how things have been in recent years.

They were five offensive or defensive linemen who were lower ranked as recruits who were drafted in round one in 2023. There were seven in 2022 and six in 2021.

I think this says a couple of things about recruiting on both sides of the ball. The first is that it’s extremely difficult to project these spots because it requires the most physical and technical development out of any of the positions on the field.

Time in the weight room and adding or subtracting the right weight matters a lot. Who a player is physically at 16 or 17 years old isn’t that far off of who they might be at 21 for a receiver or defensive back. It’s not comparable for linemen, some of whom end up plus or minus 40 pounds or more.

Bigger, stronger players can also dominate with poor technique at the high school level even against stronger competition. That and bad habits won’t translate to college without work ethic and the right coaching.

I’m also of the opinion that many in the media aren’t qualified to evaluate line play. It’s difficult enough to project players for those who understand the positions thoroughly and when lack of understanding is added to less opportunities to evaluate (7-on-7 and unpadded camps aren’t set up to watch linemen), that’s how some who end up being elite players can end up flying under the radar.

That’s something everyone should keep in mind with those who Notre Dame lands on both sides of the line of scrimmage. The evaluation and development part of line play is just as important and star rankings. A perfect example of that is the difference between Alt and Fisher right now compared to how they were ranked as recruits and where they were as freshmen.

5. The offensive line class is considered a loaded one in the NFL Draft.

The fact that Alt is considered by most to be at the top of it speaks to how highly regarded he is as a player.

With a deep class at the position, Fisher making his decision to leave early feels even more perplexing than it did when I learned he was leaning that direction. I really hope it works out for him and where he gets drafted may not matter all that much. What team drafts him probably matters a lot more because he won’t be plug and play at the next level like Alt.

The coach is going to matter and the veterans in front of him are going to matter. Having mentors who can help his development as a professional will be critical for him in my opinion That’s the one thing he didn’t have at Notre Dame compared to a lot of others.

He didn’t join the program at a time when there was Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley, or Mike McGlinchey to learn from. His time in college began when the Irish were the thinnest they had been in years at the tackle position and Fisher didn’t have someone like his Alt had in his father as a resource.

Since Martin and Chris Watt started this most recent run of Notre Dame offensive linemen becoming high draft picks, Fisher will have played the least amount of career snaps out of any Irish O-linemen who's been drafted. That wouldn’t have been the case if he hadn’t missed most of his freshman season, which included months of practice as well as 11 games.

But he did miss that time and I think he could have used it before moving on to the next level. Without it, I really hope he is drafted into the right situation.

6. Everyone knows to expect the unexpected when it comes to Notre Dame’s roster in the offseason. It happened again with defensive tackle Gabriel Rubio not listed on the roster and not at school this semester.

Whether or not he’ll be back playing is anyone’s guess right now. We’ve seen it go both ways where players who are gone find their way back (Julius Jones and KeiVarae Russell are two examples) and others who don’t. The only way Notre Dame’s staff can approach it is to plan for him not to be back and if he is, then that’s a wonderful bonus for the defensive line.

If Howard Cross and Rylie Mills weren’t back for this season, this could have been a significant blow for the Irish defense. They are back, though, and should again be one of the better starting duos in the country at the position.

Instead of replacing a starter, they have to replace someone who averaged 15 snaps per game. Rubio was very good against the run as a rotation player in 2023, but he certainly isn’t irreplaceable and him missing four games last season already backs that up.

They have Jason Onye and Donovan Hinish, both of whom played 100+ snaps last season. They also have some young guys who I’m very excited to see compete this spring like Devan Houstan and Armel Mukam. We could see Brenan Vernon potentially play 3-technique defensive tackle as well and they do have true freshman Sean Sevillano on campus as an early enrollee too.

Hinish in particular is one to watch. Ignore his listed weight that Notre Dame put out with their roster (I’m confident many of those are inaccurate). I saw him before the season last year and was worried about his size, but he gets after it like his brother and is very similar to Cross with his quickness and hand violence.

I think he has the potential to surprise some people this spring.

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