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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

March 7, 2024

One of the biggest storylines last spring for Notre Dame was how much the defense would improve in Al Golden’s second season.

That story had a happy ending. They became a top-10 defense with several individuals making significant leaps in their level of play, but it was far more than individual development that sparked the improvement.

Golden trimmed the menu with the playbook. Notre Dame became a heavy man coverage team (up 23% from 2022) and brought pressure frequently. I don’t think anyone can argue with the results.

The Irish defense finished first in EPA (expected points added) per dropback, finished sixth in percentage of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and first in opponent passer rating.

In one sense, if it ain’t broke, there’s no need for Golden and the staff to try and fix it. With corners who can play man to man at an elite level, led by Benjamin Morrison, I doubt we’ll see Notre Dame be less of a man defense this fall. That means Golden should still be able to dial up the pressure as often as he wants to.

With all of that being said, playing great defense is all about adapting. I would be surprised if the staff didn’t tweak at least a few things this season. Spring presents an opportunity to experiment with some personnel and some scheme. It will be interesting to see if they stick with the “Spear” package on 3rd down and perhaps add pieces to enhance it. My guess is they’ll add more to it and the “Aztec” (DJ Brown last season) will be more involved with pressure packages.

Golden mentioned that the opponents they were going to face was something that caused them to make some changes last year and I would expect at least some changes to accommodate the new opponents this fall. Collin Klein is Texas A&M’s new offensive coordinator after leaving Kansas State. That’s a game where we might see more three linebackers on the field than other weeks with what they do running the football. We could see the same against Georgia Tech as well to combat their running game.

Nickel is still going to be base most weeks because that’s how it has to be against most college offenses, but not all of them.

Golden set out a plan for the defense last spring and that led to great things. Maybe the the plan this year is going to be to stick pretty close to the same one as last year, but I have a feeling the staff will have a little bit more up their sleeve.

2. I was able to watch a clinic talk from new Notre Dame linebackers coach Max Bullough this past weekend and it was easy to see why JD Bertrand, Marist Liufau, and Jack Kiser all improved significantly last season.

With Bertrand in particular, it was evident how he implemented what Bullough was teaching in order to be more successful as a pass rusher. He went from a 10.7% pass rush win rate in 2022 to 20.2% (fourth best out of Power 5 linebackers). Those stats aren’t from when he was schemed up as a free rusher either. That percentage is from when he beat a blocker to get pressure.

The linebacker room at Notre Dame is filled with fast players with good reactive athleticism. I think you’re going to continue to see them thrive as pass rushers under Bullough.

3. I am anticipating big things for Boubacar Traore this spring and we might see great development with someone like Josh Burnham as well. If both of these guys have big springs, I think many will assume that Jordan Botelho could become the next Jay Hayes.

Hayes was a starter at defensive end in 2017 and he never made it to the fall in 2018 because Khalid Kareem was about to pass him on the depth chart. This is why it’s a huge spring for Botelho because he has to essentially win the spot he had last year as the starting Vyper and try and put himself in a position to be a mainstay in Notre Dame’s sub-packages.

The main priority for him is to be healthy, which he wasn’t for most of the 2023 season. He had 6.5 tackles for loss in the final six games of the 2022 season. He only had 4.5 in 13 games and 301 more snaps last fall. He had nine total pressures versus true pass sets in ‘22 and only 13 with three times as many pass rush opportunities in ‘23.

Health, confidence, whatever the recipe is, Botelho has to get his groove back as a pass rusher.

I believe one of the things he was dealing with was with his lower body last season and that had an impact on how explosive he was. He doesn’t have Isaiah Foskey measurables and he is someone who has to win with a great get off. The guys who are great at his size win with their first step.

This spring I want to see Botelho look like the pass rusher he was at the end of ‘22. The key will be how explosive he is off the ball.

4. Joe Alt, Marist Liufau, and Cam Hart were all players that didn’t elicit wild celebrations when they committed to Notre Dame. All three of them were considered either under the radar/low rated prospects at the time they committed.

I revisited Hart and Liufau as recruits about a month ago and I highlighted why there were reasons to be optimistic about their futures when they originially committed. They were developmental prospects, but they also had things that were uncommon that set them apart.

Hart was a multi-position player with great size and some elite athletic testing (37.5 inch vertical). Liufau was another multi-position stud who had the length and frame to put on a ton of weight.

We saw that again at the NFL Combine with Hart’s combination of size and athleticism. Running 4.5 and jumping 39.5 inches at his size is pretty special. Liufau measured in with the longest arm length (34 ¼ inches) of any linebacker in attendance and all but three edge defenders.

Alt was the one who really shined at the combine. Already projected as OT1 by many people, he pretty much cemented that status with his athletic testing.

The pieces were there with him as a recruit. Even before he had a nice rise up the rankings as a senior, he had the frame, the pedigree, and his athleticism was obvious when watching him play basketball.

Here’s what I wrote about him back when he signed with Notre Dame.

Alt has had a chance to play as a senior and his physical and technical development was obvious. He took a big step and is only scratching the surface with the player he’s going to become.
He has left tackle athletic traits and they show up on film. He can mirror pass rushers and bends naturally for a player who is 6’7”. His ceiling is as high as any of the other players Notre Dame has signed in the entire class in my opinion.
He’ll get time to add strength and build up his technique once he moves to offensive line full-time at Notre Dame, but I would be surprised if he doesn’t eventually develop into a starter and a very good one for the Irish.

My guy Matt Freeman had a Q & A with Marcus Freeman last June where Notre Dame’s head coach emphasized searching for elite traits when it comes to identifying hidden gems. There were elite traits with all three of these players (add violence to Liufau’s traits) and that separated them from some other lower ranked guys who signed during the Brian Kelly era.

5. Howard Cross will be at the NFL Combine next year. He’ll likely be invited to the Senior Bowl too. He’s not going to wow any scouts with his measurements at either of those events. He might wow them with some of his other testing, but we’ll see what happens there.

Regardless if he does or not, the main thing that matters with him is the film.

There were two interior offensive line prospects that matched up with Cross this season who put up great numbers at the combine. NC State center Dylan McMahon had the fourth best overall athleticism score according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats.

Duke center/guard Jacob Monk had a great day as well. His 10-yard split of 1.66 seconds is tied for the fastest ever for an offensive lineman.

Both of these guys are getting drafted this year. Neither of them could handle blocking Cross this past fall.

McMahon allowed five pressures and committed two penalties when he was playing Cross and Notre Dame. He gave up only seven pressures in his other 12 games. Monk played 30 snaps at guard against the Irish until they moved him to center because his teammate was getting eaten alive by Cross play after play. Monk played 40 snaps at center and suffered the same fate with his worst pass blocking efficiency in a game all season.

Riley Leonard was the one who suffered the most.

Cross had a good day even though he is a year away from testing at the combine. Good luck to all those centers who have to block him this fall.

6. Matt and Christian will be there to cover practice today (I’ll be there in April). There won’t be a lot to get worked up over on day one of spring ball, especially because they won’t be wearing pads.

It is always interesting to see how players have physically changed over the course of the last few months, though. We get a bit of a preview of it when they release an updated roster with weights, but it’s different seeing the players on the field move around.

I don’t know what to make of Tyson Ford being listed at 290 because he dropped a ton of weight before last fall, but has now seemed to gain it back. Aamil Wagner being listed at 281 sure doesn’t sound encouraging, but I’m going to at least wait to get a bit more context added to that before writing him off as a contender at offensive tackle.

However, there is one player who really jumped out to me when I saw what weight he is listed at on the roster. Joe Otting is 297, up from 289 last year. He's gained about 40 pounds since the time he committed to Notre Dame and how quickly he could physically develop was going to be the biggest question for him in college. It sounds like he has done so very quickly. 

I thought Otting was the most athletic offensive line prospect the Irish have signed in the last decade. A basketball player who also competed in track, he had nine sacks playing defensive line as a high school junior. If he is carrying this weight well, then he’s someone who can quickly go from off the radar to someone who can compete at guard or center this spring.

He’s now shot up the list for me as one of the players I want to watch the most over the next six weeks. Notre Dame wasn’t athletic enough inside in 2023. That needs to improve this season and someone like Otting could change that.

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