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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

February 29, 2024

There are always complaints about play-calling in football, even when a team’s offense is very good. Offensive coordindator’s get hired and fans start to question things even before they call a play. It’s the nature of the beast in one of the most criticized coaching roles in all of sports.

When a goalie lets in five to lose a game in hockey, the fingers are pointed at the player and not the goalie coach. When a pitcher gives up three home runs and doesn’t make it to the third inning, no one is bringing up the failures of the pitching coach. When a quarterback plays poorly and throws interceptions, he definitely gets heat.

The OC takes on some of that heat as well, though. (“Why doesn’t he call the good plays?!”)

The reaction to Mike Denbrock being hired as OC at Notre Dame drew close to universal praise. It’s hard for even the most pessimistic fans to complain when the program rolls out a Brink’s truck to bring back someone who just coached the top offense in college football.

When Denbrock spoke to the media for the first time since he’s been hired, it continued to generate a positive reaction from most fans. I think many were happy to read that Denbrock planned to run, in his words, “a little bit more 11 personnel than they have the last couple of years”.

There were some others who questioned it, citing Michigan as an example of being successful while playing with multiple tight ends more often, but I think many understand this is a direction Notre Dame needs to go.

11 personnel means one back and one tight end. That also means they are playing with three receivers on the field with that personnel grouping. Offenses might be more creative and multiple than they’ve ever been before in football when it comes to formations, but in terms of personnel groupings, 11 has become the dominant one in the NFL and college football. It’s why nickel has become base defense for most programs as well.

With Denbrock calling plays at LSU, they were the number one offense in the country last season while using 11 close to 90% of the time. Part of that is what Denbrock wanted to do on offense. The other part was having a Heisman winning quarterback and two projected first round picks at receiver.

They led the country in explosive passing plays (20+ yard gains). Washington was second and were in 11 personnel 77% of the time on offense. Ole Miss was third and they were in 11 personnel close to ¾ of their snaps last season.

Oklahoma was fifth (76%). Georgia was sixth and they were in 11 60% of the time. Oregon (61%) and Ohio State (65%) were also in the top-12 in explosive passing plays.

That’s the group Notre Dame wants to be included with and the Irish were in 11 only 47% of the time last season. I think that is more of a reflection of the depth issues at receiver than the talent at tight end, but that’s still a pretty big difference between them and those other offenses with more explosive passing games.

Michigan was in 11 personnel on offense only 35% of the time. I guess people can point to that as a model Notre Dame could follow, but Michigan is also a national championship outlier with their explosive passing. They joined Alabama in 2015 and 2017 as the only programs in the College Football Playoff era to not finish in the top-15 in explosive passing plays (29th).

It’s better for Notre Dame to follow the rule than to also try to be an exception.

Matt Freeman highlighted this quote from Denbrock in Matt’s always great Sunday Reflections column. This really hits the nail on the head on why more 11 personnel and spreading defenses out more is the right move for Notre Dame’s offense.

“I think any great offense revolves around the ability to be able to run the ball. Having said that, I will say that I think I'm more open than I was years ago to not just pounding my head against a brick wall and just understanding that the game has changed.
“The more athletes you can get out in space and create mismatches is also a good way to play offense. There'll be a good balance of that. There'll be afternoons where we run it 50 times and there'll be afternoons where we may throw it 50 times.”

Every Notre Dame fan should want an OC who is willing to adapt to not just what fits the personnel on his own team, but also adapt to what is needed in the modern game.

They don’t have to stop being “Tight End U” and having the versatility to play heavier on offense is great. Notre Dame does have to be more explosive in the passing game than they have been if they want to keep up with the other top dogs in college football.

A little bit more 11 is a step towards that.

2. The counter to this is that two of Notre Dame’s best 11 players on offense could inclued two tight ends. It was in 2020 with Tommy Tremble and Michael Mayer. It can be argued that it was in some other years as well, but the offense didn’t play that way.

When Mitchell Evans is healthy, he should be one of the best tight ends in the country based on what he did last season.

He was averaging more yards receiving per game than Cole Kmet in 2019 and Tyler Eifert in 2012. Despite only appearing in eight games, he finished second on the team in total targets (40) and his 5.9 yards after the catch per reception was better than any Notre Dame tight end in the last decade.
24 of his 29 receptions went for first downs. He also finished third in PFF’s receiving grades out of all Power 5 tight ends and was also third in yards per route run.

Matt has mentioned recently that Eli Raridon has been a standout in winter workouts as well. He’ll have an opportunity this spring and possibly this fall to establish himself as a breakout star while Evans gets back to full health.

I think frequently having two tight ends on the field at the same time can be a really good thing, but despite having several seasons with multiple future NFL tight ends on the same team, Notre Dame hasn’t had a one-two punch that other defenses have to prepare for every week.

It’s nice to have two (or maybe even three) great options at tight end, but it would be nice to see the offense take more advantage of that in the passing game.

3. On3 and Rivals both released rankings updates for the 2025 class this week and it’s a perfect reminder of just how wildly different rankings can be with these sites. There’s several factors that influence why that is and I talked about some of them on Tuesday’s Hit & Hustle.

The important thing to remember is that context needs to be taken into account with any of these rankings. It’s so often ignored with all of this stuff.

Notre Dame commit Will Black‍ is On3’s number one ranked offensive tackle in the country and is sixth overall. He got bumped up to a 4-star on Rivals, but didn’t crack their top-250.

Black is one of seven Notre Dame commits ranked in On3’s top-250 prospects along with Deuce Knight‍  (54), Ivan Taylor‍ (121), James Flanigan‍ (126), Chris Burgess‍ (156), Owen Strebig‍ (234), and Joseph Reiff‍ (240).

Rivals has six Notre Dame commits ranked in their top-250, but it looks drastically different. Burgess (39) and Strebig (44) rose up to the top-50. They are joined by Knight (52), Taylor (111), Cree Thomas‍ (233), and Reiff (234).

According to Rivals, Burgess and Strebig are the crown jewels of this class for the Irish (at the moment). For On3, it’s Black. It’s Taylor for ESPN (30) and 247Sports (34), but he’s outside the top-100 for the other two sites.

No one should get too excited or too upset about a players ranking either way at this point. It can all be assessed again because they are going to have several updates over the next 10 months.

The fun part is looking back on who got more right when all of these players are finished with college football. When people go out on a limb, they could either look really smart or...not smart at all. I appreciate them taking that chance.

4. It might seem incredible to some that former Notre Dame graduate assistant James Laurinaitis is now the Ohio State linebackers coach and the graduate assistant who replaced him, Max Bullough, is now Notre Dame’s linebackers coach.

But then there’s also the fact Bullough was promoted because former Notre Dame graduate assistant Chris O’Leary moved on to the Los Angeles Chargers. O’Leary was hired to coach safeties and beat out former graduate assistant Nick Lezynski for the job. He’s now the defensive run game coordinator and linebackers coach at Vanderbilt.

Maurice Crum was a graduate assistant at Notre Dame and is now coaching linebackers at SMU. Christian Parker was an analyst at Notre Dame and is now the pass game coordinator/defensive backs coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. There’s also Larry Black (Vanderbilt, defensive line), Tyler Santucci (Georgia Tech, defensive coordinator), Harland Bower (Duke, defensive ends), Donovan Raiola (Nebraska, offensive line) and Ronnie Regula (Cincinnati Bengals, defensive assistant).

They were all graduate assistants and analysts who have been at Notre Dame over the last decade and there are others who are at the Group of 5 level who are going to continue to advance as coaches. I think there’s more really good young coaches on the staff right now who will be next.

There’s a lot of Mike Elko and Clark Lea influence with many of them, but it has continued with Marcus Freeman. That’s clearly something he was able to take from Luke Fickell as well.

Developing coaches is as important as developing players. Notre Dame has done a pretty good job with both.

5. There is a need to change signing day in college football and I think the intent of making three separate ones was good, but the dates they are proposing make very little sense.

The last Wednesday in June sounds great for all of the players who want to get the process over with, but it’s also going to lead to players being let out of their letter of intent when there are inevitable coaching changes during the season. Either that or it’s going to be the awkward situation of a new coach coming in who might not want the players who already signed.

The first Wednesday following the regular season is also a disaster because there are teams still preparing to play in conference championship games that week. This date is also going to cause more firings in November and we’ll finally get to see coaches opting out of regular season games as they leave to take on new jobs.

Forget Brian Kelly leaving while Notre Dame was still waiting to see where it would rank in the final CFP rankings. This would have led to Kelly leaving before they played the Stanford game.

I like Matt’s idea to only have the early enrollees sign in December and then have everyone else only be allowed to sign in February. It also adds a little bit of intrigue to the old February signing day with more time to flip prospects.

Previously I thought that having an early signing day in the summer or spring was a great idea, but there’s too much coaching movement that happens every year for a June signing day not to add an extra layer of chaos to an already crazy time for recruits and coaches.

I know they want to try and lessen the load on coaches during December with this because the transfer portal opening up has made that time of year insane, but I’m not sure this is a fix. I think we’ll start to see recruits who signed in June pop back on the radar again due to the coaching carousel. That’s just another log on the fire for programs because they have to explore any possible opportunities to add recruits who are now suddenly available again.

I don’t have the answer to fix it because coaches being able to leave at any time means a new name can pop onto the radar in an instant. I do know that this answer they came up with is the wrong one.

6. No position brings more drama in recruiting than quarterback. We have seen quite a bit of it with Notre Dame in the last decade.

Blake Barnett left the class and Brandon Wimbush flipped from Penn State to take his place in 2015. They missed on their top targets in 2016, but backed into flipping Ian Book from Washington State.

It was a mostly uneventful 2017 cycle with the Irish landing Avery Davis and then zero drama when they added an early commitment from Phil Jurkovec in 2018. (The drama came after)

They had their guy in Cade McNamara in 2019, until they didn’t. He flipped to Michigan and they scrambled to add Brendon Clark. Maybe that’s why they went the safe route with Drew Pyne in 2020. They didn’t have to sweat that one at any point in time. They also targeted Tyler Buchner in the next class and he stayed committed the entire way.

It wasn’t Real Housewives levels of drama in the next class when they added Steve Angeli, but they flirted with others, including trying to flip Walker Howard from LSU. It felt like a reality show in the next cycle with all of the will he or won’t he with Dante Moore. He didn’t, so they ended up flipping Kenny Minchey from Pitt.

Notre Dame fans were comforted by having CJ Carr commit very early and never waver from it despite a head coaching change and two offensive coordinator changes. They then went and landed their top guy in this current cycle when they were able to get Knight to jump on board. Since then he’s been a vocal recruiter trying to add talent to the class.

He’s a special athlete at the position, which means teams weren’t ever going to stop trying to recruit him. He still has Ole Miss and Alabama after him and Notre Dame will have to fight to hold on to his commitment.

The good news is that he already has a couple of important visits set up to get back to Notre Dame. He’ll be there for a practice in March and then return for the spring game.

The potential bad news is that Notre Dame had a similar situation with a couple of elite commits in the 2023 class. Keon Keeley and Peyton Bowen took those visits to Notre Dame while others were in hot pursuit. The staff was never able to get either to shut things down, though. We know what happened there with both.

They can’t let it go on like it did with those two. After these spring visits, they need to convince Knight to shut it all down. They can’t afford to not know where things are headed with the most important position in the class.

Sometimes the biggest recruiting wins are when a staff is able to hold on to a commitment. Keeping Knight committed would be as significant as any other recruit they are able to add down the stretch.

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