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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

March 28, 2024

Notre Dame’s training staff doesn’t want to give timelines as to when a player might be ready to return from an injury.

That’s understandable for many reasons. It may be partly because some players in recent years have possibly come back too early and then suffered another injury (Kevin Austin in 2019, Avery Davis in 2022). It may be because everyone has hoped some players would be ready by a certain time, but it didn’t happen that quickly (Eli Raridon in 2023).

It’s probably that they don’t want to over promise anything because all athletes are different. Saying the ideal time to return to play only gets people anxious when it doesn’t happen.

None of that is comforting for Notre Dame fans seeing that Ben Morrison had shoulder surgery. Without knowing any specifics, the fact that he’s expected to return for the 2024 season isn’t exactly saying he’ll be back in time for camp and ready to go against Texas A&M.

Marcus Freeman was also purposely non-committal about the return of others from injury when asked last Saturday as well. That’s another way of saying that we really have no idea when Morrison and tight end Mitchell Evans, coming off a knee injury he suffered in late October, could be available this fall.

Considering they are two of the top players on the team this season, no new isn’t good news for Irish fans to think about.

Morrison is probably the most valuable player on the entire roster. A likely first round pick in 2025, he’s arguably the best cornerback the Irish have had since the Lou Holtz era. There just aren’t many corners in college football who were asked to cover receivers like Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr., Louisville’s Jamari Thrash, USC’s Brendan Rice, and Stanford’s Elic Ayomanor who also only allowed 46.7% completions and didn’t allow a single completion longer than 19-yards.

Praising him is not a knock on Notre Dame’s other corners either. Christian Gray could very well be the next great Irish boundary cornerback and he and Jaden Mickey handled themselves very well against Pitt when Morrison and Cam Hart were out.

But the thing that Morrison proved last season is that he was far more than a player with a dominant performance against Clemson as a freshman. He did his job at a high level week in and week out to the point that it didn’t matter who he was facing each week, anyone would take Morrison in that match up.

At least on paper, Notre Dame doesn’t look like it’s facing a gauntlet of elite receivers this season.

Texas A&M is bringing a couple of solid receivers back in Jahdae Walker and Moose Mohammed III, but they are hoping to hit big with Troy transfer Jabre Barber and Louisiana Tech transfer Cyrus Allen.

Purdue is hoping that underachievers at Georgia, De’Nylon Morrissette and CJ Smith, can flourish with more opportunities. Louisville is hoping to hit big with the portal again with Alabama transfer Ja’Corey Brooks and South Alabama transfer Caulin Lacy.

Of course Stanford is bringing back Ayomanor as well, who looked great in the second half of last season…except against Morrison and Notre Dame.

Those are the receivers Notre Dame will be facing in the first half of the season and if Morrison is there, I won’t predict that any of them will have a good day when he’s covering them. If he isn’t there, then we’ll have to wait and see because no other corner has proven to be close to Morrison’s level yet.

Maybe this is just needless speculation in March, but until we get to August and start to have a better idea of when Morrison will be back, then all we can do is speculate. Hopefully we see him back and fully healthy for most of the season because that should put him in a position to garner plenty of accolades before moving on to the next level.

2. Notre Dame’s defense found part of their identity in being a mostly man coverage team in 2023. It made sense with Morrison, Cam Hart, and Thomas Harper.

The only Power 5 programs to play their corners in man coverage more often than Notre Dame were Purdue, Illinois, and Clemson last season. Morrison was in man coverage 55.9% of the time according to PFF’s tracking data. He was the key to it all.

Playing more man coverage meant they could pressure and play cover one more often. The percentage was closer to 35% man to man in 2022 and that confidence to play man so frequently combined with bringing five pass rushers often had a lot to do with opposing quarterbacks having the lowest EPA (expected points added) per drop back and being sixth in overall pressure rate.

I think that with or without Morrison, Notre Dame is still going to put their corners in man coverage quite a bit. But having someone like Morrison out there can give Al Golden the confidence to call a pressure and man up with any receiver at any time. There’s simply more risk involved when the best cover corner in the country is not on the field.

3. Clarence Lewis is not a Morrison replacement. Morrison actually replaced Lewis as a starter in 2022 and never looked back.

That doesn’t mean that having Lewis in a situation like this isn’t extremely valuable. I wouldn’t want him to match up against top tier receivers on the boundary week after week, but he can play the field, play the nickel, and he knows how to find the football.

He has 23 career starts and 28 career havoc plays (pass breakups, interceptions, tackles for loss, and forced fumbles). That’s a pretty good option to have if needed and having him on the roster means that a young corner doesn’t have to play unless they are ready.

I’m not sure if he’ll be able to carve out an NFL career like Matthias Farley did, but in many ways Lewis is another version of Farley for the Irish. He’s not a star. He’s just someone you want on your football team.

4. I have to say that I was a bit surprised to see the kind of questions that were asked by ISD subscribers this week about Steve Angeli.

I didn’t expect to see so many people practically anoint him as the starter when Riley Leonard’s injury is not considered long term. There was nothing vague about that with Freeman mentioning that it was a possibility he could return later this spring.

I guess the saying that everyone’s favorite is the backup quarterback kind of fits with Angeli, but he also has the distinction of being a polarizing player in many respects. There’s the people who have seen him be darn close to perfect in garbage time and in the bowl game against a weakened Oregon State defense who also believe he should be the guy for Notre Dame.

Then there’s the other group of people who almost begrudgingly accept that he played well, but can’t get over his perceived limitations.

It kind of seemed fitting that the first practice viewing after the news of Leonard’s injury didn’t include Angeli, who was out with an illness. That led to Kenny Minchey and CJ Carr getting reps with the first and second team (like we all predicted!).

I think the simple way to break down the quarterback room is like this:

Leonard has proven himself on Saturdays while leading a flawed Duke offense against some very good defenses, but he still has room to grow to approach his ceiling.

Angeli has established that he can be a good backup at the very least and his next step is proving he can make good decisions and continue to be accurate against a defense like Notre Dame’s first unit.

Kenny Minchey and CJ Carr are two extremely talented young players who probably weren’t going to get many reps to prove themselves this spring before Leonard’s injury. Now they’ll get a chance to have the kind of reps where they can showcase whether or not they are ready to compete this year and get a head start on the race for the 2025 QB1 gig.

I still expect Leonard to be the starting quarterback versus Texas A&M, but his absence this spring makes this a lot more interesting for the three other quarterbacks. All of them, including Angeli, still have a lot to prove.

5. Athletic testing for high school kids is valuable. So is getting track times and translating that to what players can do on the football field.

It’s a great thing for evaluators to see outstanding testing numbers that project well to the next level. However, I’ve always been a big advocate to not cross players off who don’t test as well as 15, 16, or 17 year olds.

Context matters.

Does the player train at a facility that has worked with him on athletic testing? Does the player have experience running track where they’ve been taught how to run properly? Does the player go to a high school that has good strength and conditioning coaching as well as facilities?

There are those questions and a whole host of other factors that need to be taken into account with testing these players who aren’t very close to reaching their physical peak yet.

Looking at the consensus top two receivers in this NFL Draft is more evidence to not ding players who don’t light up athletic testing in high school. Neither Marvin Harrison Jr. or Malik Nabers would have come close to registering as “freaks” back then.

Nabers just tore up LSU’s Pro Day with a reported 4.35 40 and a 42 inch vertical jump.

That’s almost four tenths faster in the 40 and it’s 13 inches higher with his vertical.

We’ve seen similar results happen with quite a few former Notre Dame players as well with improved testing compared to what they did in high school. Running backs coach Deland McCullough just mentioned yesterday that Gi’Bran Payne’s vertical went from 32 inches to 37, which is the kind of thing that could show up on Saturdays when it comes to him breaking tackles or being quicker through the hole than he was in 2023.

I think people who follow recruiting closely can get a bit too caught up with poor testing results and don’t realize that some players have a pretty big head start when it comes to strength and conditioning/athletic testing. I know it’s not easy to project which guys will take off when they get into a college program, but it’s more important to not write anybody off who hasn’t had the same training as others at that age.

6. Spring ball is the time to experiment with personnel in different positions, so it’s not exactly groundbreaking to see Jeremiyah Love work with the receivers.

There have been others who have had a cup of coffee at positions during the spring to have it not amount to much when they get to the fall. There are plenty of reasons to think that this could be a real thing, though.

If the goal is to get as many touches for Notre Dame’s best playmakers, then having Love work at receiver as well makes a ton of sense. Having him on the field at the same time as JD Price also makes a lot of sense because not having one of them on the field means not having one of Notre Dame’s most dynamic athletes available to get the ball to.

I wrote this about Love back when he committed to Notre Dame.

I can’t help but think of former Notre Dame Swiss Army knife CJ Prosise when watching him. It took some time for Prosise to find the right role. I don’t think it will take as long for Love and he could develop into a star for the Irish.

I know I’m not the only one who saw similar traits to Prosise. As a receiver in 2014, he averaged 9.4 yards after the catch per reception (seventh amongst Power 5 receivers). When he switched to running back in 2015, Mike Denbrock still had him heavily featured as a receiver with 26 catches and his 100-yard day against Clemson helped Notre Dame come back in the second half of that game.

The Irish offense will be as explosive and dynamic as the personnel dictates it can be, but the coaches also have to put the best athletes in a position to make big plays. Love getting some work at receiver as well as running back is the coaching staff doing exactly what they should be to help the offense reach its full potential.

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