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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

February 8, 2024

ESPN’s Bill Connelly released his 2024 returning production rankings. It would be a difficult thing to put together in any year, but with the transfer portal and extra seasons of eligibility available for many players, I can’t imagine the amount of work it takes to track every player who is leaving or staying at every FBS program.

He tweaked his formula for returning production this year to better account for transfers and percentages are weighted based on what has been found to be more important for both offense and defense.

For offense:

Percent of returning WR/TE receiving yards: 23.5% of the overall number

Percent of returning QB passing yards: 24% Percent of returning

OL snaps: 47.5%

Percent of returning RB rushing yards: 5%

For defense:

Percent of returning tackles: 69.5%

Percent of returning passes defensed (intercepted or broken up): 12%

Percent of returning tackles for loss: 10.5%

Percent of returning sacks: 8%

(If you have more questions about the math, please @ mention Bill on Twitter. He loves when people do that)

Notre Dame is 74th in overall production (67th on offense and 63rd on defense). All of the production from the incoming transfers is included with that. They are lumped in with the middle of the pack and have 60% of their production returning.

Returning production means different things for different programs. It can mean really big things for programs who have a lot of raw talent and develop players well.

Florida State was first in Connelly’s rankings last season. All of that talent returning led them to an undefeated regular season. Michigan was fifth and that was huge for them. Missouri was ninth and they jumped from six wins to 11.

Notre Dame had the most returning production on defense heading into the 2018 season. That side of the ball helped lead them to a College Football Playoff appearance.

It can mean a lot. Context is critical in interpreting it, though.

Notre Dame was 35th in returning production on defense last season and having most of their back seven return played a big part in them improving from 31st to seventh in DF+ (combined FEI and SP+ rankings). However, that didn’t mean nearly as much as Howard Cross and Xavier Watts becoming All-American caliber players or the impact of Rylie Mills moving from end to defensive tackle or Al Golden and the staff doing a better job of adjusting to the personnel.

The Irish also picked up a sixth-year defensive end in Javontae Jean-Baptiste who had more tackles for loss last season than he had in his entire Ohio State career. The returning production didn’t project anything about the season JJB ended up having.

Here’s the returning production rankings for all of Notre Dame’s opponents without context added.

Now, here’s added context for some of those teams.

Texas A&M was seventh in returning production last season and with how they’ve recruited, one would assume they would have had a massive bounce back after five wins in 2022. They only made the jump to seven, though. Jimbo Fisher is still very rich, but unemployed.

This year they’re 18th, but most of that production comes from their 23 transfers. A large chunk of that production is from 10 transfers who put up numbers at Group of 5 and FCS programs. Iny my mind, it means more that they upgraded the coaching staff than whatever they are ranked here.

I think Notre Dame fans should be monitoring Georgia Tech (47th) because an offense that is seventh in returning production jumped from 114th to 40th in OF+ last season. That might be one of the best offenses the Irish face in 2024.

That defense, though…105th for a unit that finished 87th in DF+ might mean the offense has to be great to even have a shot at scaring good teams.

Circle the matchup with Chuck Martin’s Miami (Ohio) team as one Notre Dame won’t be able to sleepwalk through. They are ninth overall and won the MAC last season.

Virginia might need to be circled as a potential trap game as well. They are fifth and I think they have a chance to be a bowl team this season. They lost their first six games in 2023, but finished 3-3. Four of their losses were by three points or less.

Army (106th) and Purdue (96th) having that little returning is bad news for them and good news for Notre Dame considering how those rosters are constructed.

I’ll be diving a lot deeper into every Notre Dame opponent after the spring, but returning production is an extra piece of information that helps in assessing the strength of their schedule. Although. strong isn’t exactly the word I would use to describe the schedule after seeing these rankings.

2. One thing I am interested in and have looked into a little bit is how many offensive linemen are returning for the four programs who look like they’ll give Notre Dame the toughest games this fall.

Florida State is 83rd in returning production and are losing a ton of talent overall, but I was surprised to learn that they are bringing back four of their six O-linemen from last season. For years the O-line was their Achilles heel on offense. They should be pretty good again this season and they might not take as big of a step back on offense as many anticipate because of that.

A&M finished 92nd in PFF’s pass blocking grades last season. They might be only losing one key player up front, but it’s not a guarantee that all of the players they have returning will be great or that the transfers they are bringing in can help all that much.

Notre Dame fans are worried about their O-line in the opener against A&M’s D-line, but the matchup on the other side of the ball favors the Irish.

Louisville and USC are losing a lot up front on the offensive line.

Louisville is 92nd in returning production on offense and are losing both starting tackles and their starting center. They went to the portal looking for replacements, but that’s always a roll of the dice. Their defense should be nasty, but their O-line could be patchy at best.

USC is losing three of their top-six on the O-line. So far they have brought in no one from the portal on the O-line to replace them. From USC’s 2020-2022 recruiting classes, they only have two O-linemen still on the roster. They are going to rely on 2023 recruits who redshirted last season to step up and considering how much they lost on both sides of the ball (99th overall in returning production), there is a real possibility they are in rough shape by the time Notre Dame travels to Los Angeles.

Notre Dame has their own problems to work out on the O-line, but in no way are they alone.

3. They have far less to figure out up front on the defensive line, especially because Howard Cross and Ryle Mills are back at defensive tackle. The pair combined for 71 total pressures with 39 for Cross and 32 for Mills.

Cross finished fifth in PFF’s pass rush grades versus true pass sets and Mills finished seventh. Mills’ 24.7% win percentage against TPS was third in the country among interior defensive lineman.

To add more perspective to both of them having 30+ pressures, there were only nine Power 5 defensive tackles who had that many last season. Only five of those players are returning to college football this season and the Irish have two of them.

The Irish aren’t going to face very many strong offensive lines this fall. Good luck to all of them preparing to block Cross and Mills.

4. When thinking of a breakout player, it’s rare that there aren’t signs from the previous season. Watts is a perfect example of that with his production where things took off for him after the Navy game in 2022. 

All the signs were there for Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem to have breakout seasons in 2018. I believe pass rush win percentage against true pass sets (passes without play action, without a screen, without a rollout, with time to throw between two and four seconds, and with more than a three-man rush) is a strong indicator of how effective a defensive lineman is as a pass rusher. Both Okwara and Kareem had win percentages over 18.7% vs TPS in 2017 according to PFF and both improved on those percentages in 2018.

Daelin Hayes’ percentage in 2017 vs TPS was only 7.4% and though he improved in 2018, he didn’t have his pass rush breakout until his final season in 2020 (19.7% vs TPS, 33 total pressures). It was steady progress for him rather than a breakout.

Signs were pointing to a Jordan Botelho breakout as pass rusher based on how he finished the 2022 season and his (somewhat insane) 30.8% win percentage vs TPS. That’s part of the reason why I still have hope that a healthy Botelho can have his breakout happen in 2024.

In terms of who else could be a breakout pass rusher this season, there weren’t enough signs to suggest that we know who it could be outside of being impressed with everything I saw from Boubacar Traore in fall camp. The sample size and flashes aren’t substantial enough for me to point to anyone else at this time.

The good thing is that teams will have to focus on blocking Notre Dame’s interior players and transfer RJ Oben has proven he can get after the passer (two of the last three seasons he has recorded a win percentage of 20% or more vs TPS). If they add one or two more defensive linemen to that group this season, then the pass rush can cook without having to blitz as much.

5. The last sophomore to start at linebacker for nine or more games at Notre Dame was Te’von Coney in 2016. It will stay that way if Jack Kiser and Jaylen Sneed end up as the primary starters at inside linebacker this fall.

That’s no guarantee because both of them have to win a starting job and the other four scholarship linebackers competing this spring are in their first or second year at Notre Dame. If someone like Drayk Bowen or Kyngstonn Viliamu-Asa ends up as the full-time starter, they’d be the first to do so since Coney. (Marist LIufau started three games in his second season in 2020)

Former Notre Dame linebacker Mike Goolsby was on Hit & Hustle with us talking about the 2024 Notre Dame roster earlier this week. For those that remember him when he was a recruit, he was ranked in the top-100 prospects overall. He mentioned how difficult the transition was for him from high school to college in terms of playing the position and even though that was over 20 years ago, not much has changed with young linebackers. Very few are ready to play even in their second season in college.

I think it’s worth mentioning with the linebackers this season because Notre Dame has four linebackers who were ranked in the top-15 at the position in their respective recruiting classes (Bowen, KVA, Jaiden Ausberry, and Sneed). Raw talent is not an issue.

Will youth be one? It could be, but that all depends on Sneed’s development as well as whether or not one or more of these other young players might turn out to be exceptional. 

6. I don’t know if anyone saw the news that Bengals defensive backs coach Robert Livingston is leaving the NFL to be Colorado’s defensive coordinator or that Eric Henderson left the Los Angeles Rams to be USC’s co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach.

All of these coaches are just ready to get up and leave the NFL because they want that grind of dealing with recruiting, NIL, and the transfer portal. It’s becoming a problem.

Oh, that’s not how it is? I guess it’s the other way around because Jeff Hafley left his job as head coach at Boston College to be a defensive coordinator in the NFL because of all the extra he has to do when coaching college football.

It couldn’t have been him leaving because he has a losing record in his four seasons at BC and is one bad year away from being fired. There is no way that he left because he would have been stuck at a place with no chance of advancing to a better job or that he didn’t recruit and develop well enough to give himself hope that he could win more than seven games.

Hafley left a job that wasn’t even in the top-50 in college football. He did what those other two former NFL assistants just did. He left his gig for a better one.

That says less about the state of college football and more about what he did in four years to not make BC a better job than it is right now.

Chip Kelly is interviewing to be an offensive coordinator in the NFL. If he ended up getting a big extension and a big raise at UCLA at the end of last season rather than the administration leaking to the press that they were planning to fire him if he lost to USC, then I bet things would be a lot different.

But he has no job security, he’s at a program that doesn’t spend big money on assistants (their DC got poached by USC), and he has never liked recruiting. Add that to the current state of their roster and it doesn’t take Rust Cohle to figure out this mystery. 

There have been several college coaches who have left for the NFL or who want to leave for the NFL to have better work-life balance or to get away from dealing with the time spent recruiting high school kids and transfers. That’s definitely something that is happening and it would be ridiculous to not acknowledge that.

That’s not always the story with coaches switching jobs, though, no matter what someone like Hafley is trying to spin. If he bet on a different horse other than Phil Jurkovec as a transfer quarterback, if he did a better job identifying and landing talent at BC, or if he simply stuck at Ohio State as their DC for a little bit longer and took a better Power 5 head job, then I seriously doubt it would have worked out this same way for him.

Being a college coach is a grind, but it becomes worth it for many if they are having success and getting rewarded for it. Hafley was not experiencing either of those, so let’s not pretend he was walking away from something when he wasn’t all that far away from being pushed out the door.

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