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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

May 9, 2024

Go back to last summer and check any preseason All-American team. Two names that you wouldn’t have found on any website or preview magazine as the best in the nation at their position were Xavier Watts and Howard Cross.

How could they have been? Watts wasn’t even a full-time starter until last fall and Cross had been a good player, but not an elite one. All of that changed for both of them in 2023 and they deserve to be hyped up as stars after having breakout seasons.

To go from where they were to All-American caliber as fourth and fifth year players respectively is pretty rare. It hasn’t happened all that often at Notre Dame and the only defender that comes to mind from the last 25 years who had a similar career trajectory was Shane Walton.

Getting to that level is typically something that either happens almost immediatley or it’s more of a gradual build. I’m not sure if we’ll see another player on Notre Dame’s roster make that late surge in their college career quite like Watts or Cross did this fall.

Rylie Mills is heading into his fifth year and while I think he is a candidate to get to that level in 2024, it’s been something that has been building towards that. He’s going to be starting for his third season and he was very good last fall. It would just seem like the next logical step for him and that wouldn’t be the same as what happened with his two teammates last season.

There may not be many of those types of candidates to become breakout stars on either side of the ball for Notre Dame, but this Irish team is loaded with others who could be the next Kyren Williams, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, or Benjamin Morrison. I don’t believe there has been a roster in the last 15 years with as many candidates.

From Jeremiyah Love, JD Price, Eli Raridon, Jordan Faison, and Jaden Greathouse on offense to Boubacar Traore, Drayk Bowen, Jaylen Sneed, Kyngstonn Viliamu-Asa, and Christian Gray on defense, it’s a long list of players coming out of the spring who have the potential to be stars for Notre Dame and there are others who should arguably be included there as well.

Not all of them are going to hit that big, but a few of them will and it could be as early as this season.

Elite individual talent doesn’t guarantee anything in college football, but not having it on your roster guarantees you can’t win a championship. The potential is there on the roster to develop into a championship-level team and I don’t think that was true for even the best teams of the Brian Kelly era.

2. There hasn’t been a lot of hype around Jaylen Sneed as a true breakout player, which is partly because he’s going into year three rather than year two and he doesn’t have the shiny new toy feel of the early enrollees.

The freaky athleticism has always been there with Sneed, but much like Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah early on at Notre Dame, he wasn’t where he needed to be physically and mentally in his first two years.

That’s changed. As linebackers coach Max Bullough said, Sneed flipped the switch this spring.

“Jaylen Sneed has gone from when we ended bowl practice, to now, has made the biggest jump, maybe of anybody in terms of being locked, in terms of playing in football position, starting it in (his) stance, moving with purpose. All those little things that Jaylen knows, 'If I can do those things, the sky's the limit. If I can focus in on the details and do the little things, I can make the plays.' And that's something I'm really proud of him for. He's done it on first, second down. He's done it on third down. We're still working, but he is someone who has flipped the switch and understands what's at stake here.”

There are a select few types of athletes who can be as good as they want to be. Sneed fits into that category. He clearly wants to take advantage of his opportunity this season.

3. Every football player who signs with Notre Dame has talent. Not everyone maximizes that talent.

Howard Cross has. He’s developed into one of the best defensive tackles in college football. There wasn’t a switch that needed to be turned on for him, though. Sure, he had a lot of physical and technical development he had to do, but he attacked everything right away and was willing to work.

This is what Kurt Hinish said about Cross back in 2019, Cross’ first fall camp.

“He is incredible. He has great hands. He has good feet. He’s one of those guys who will always stay after with me and work extra stuff because he wants to get better.”
“He has a great get off. Probably one of the best get offs from our defensive line all-around. He penetrates the offensive line better than I’ve ever seen from any freshman.”

Maybe he understood the willingness to do the extra to get better because of his father, a former New York Giants tight end. Regardless of where it came from, the work ethic was there right away.

I’m very confident about the present and the future of Notre Dame’s defense because I heard a lot of similar things from coaches and players about several freshmen and sophomores. It’s something I heard from other sources around the program as well.

There’s a lot of young guys putting in extra work on the field and in the film room because they want to be great. That’s the kind of culture that existed when Hinish was at Notre Dame and has continued to exist after he left.

4. I’m going to update this piece I wrote last January on what it takes to win a national championship in the College Football Playoff era, but we discussed it a little bit on Hit & Hustle earlier this week and I wanted to expand the explosive passing play part of it more here before I dive into the rest next week.

Michigan became the only third team to win a CFP title joining Alabama in 2015 and 2017 to not finish in the top-15 in total explosive pass plays (receptions of 20+ yards). That was the only box they didn’t check, but some context deserves to be added to them finishing 29th.

They averaged an explosive play every 7.1 pass attempts, which was slightly better than Ohio State and the Buckeyes finished 12th. They didn’t have Marvin Harrison Jr. or Emeka Egbuka to throw to either.

Notre Dame finished 17th in total explosive pass plays and averaged one every 6.5 pass attempts. That’s a better average than USC (6.7) and they finished tied for third in total explosive pass plays. Notre Dame simply threw the ball a lot less, but considering all of the injuries and limitations at wide receiver, it might be shocking to some that the Irish offense was that efficient with explosive passing.

For all of the criticism of Gerad Parker last season, he deserves credit for that.

The main issue for the offense was the lack of explosive passing against certain teams. To be fair, we can take Duke off the table because they only had three healthy receivers that they felt comfortable playing in that game. That wasn’t the case against Ohio State, Louisville, and Clemson.

Indianapolis Colts head coach and former Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen talked about this philosophy on offense and it’s one that I think every play-caller should have.

"My philosophy is we're going to Throw to Score Points and Run to Win."

Notre Dame averaged 19 points per game in their three losses. It’s not a coincidence that that happened while the receivers averaged 108 yards per game in those matchups and Sam Hartman averaged only 6.2 yards per attempt (in all other games he averaged 10.2 YPA).

They averaged an explosive passing play on every 8.5 attempts in those losses and the average was every 6.0 attempts in all other games.

Ohio State and Clemson specifically had outside corners who had zero fear against Notre Dame’s receivers. The Irish completed only two passes that went 10+ yards down the field that were outside the numbers against them. They need to win more of those matchups against teams with NFL corners.

They are better at receiver in 2024, but we won’t know how much better until we see them have success against the better corners they’ll face this fall.

5. I guess that leads into whether or not they’ll face corners on a similar level to what they saw last fall. Now that spring ball is done and the final portal additions are trickling into programs, I’ve started digging deeper into Notre Dame’s opponents.

I’m definitely open to changing my opinion on it as I learn more and once teams actually play this season, but at least on paper, I don’t think they’ll see any secondaries that are that close to what Ohio State and Clemson had.

Quincy Riley is a very good corner at Louisville and before he decided to stay in school, he had accepted an invite to the Senior Bowl. He’ll be paired up with UCF transfer Corey Thornton, who was very good for the Golden Knights in the Big 12 last season. They might be the best duo that Notre Dame’s receivers will go up against.

They have the least amount of questions at corner.

After Louisville, it’s going to be about how good Florida State’s replacements for Renardo Green and slot corner Jarrian Jones, both day two picks in the NFL Draft, will be. It will also be about whether or not Purdue can get Georgia transfer Nyland Green to be the great press man corner people thought he’d be coming out of high school and how good the other corners can be for USC compared to UCLA transfer John Humphreys. He was one of the top cover corners in the Pac-12 last season.

At worst, Texas A&M has a solid group at corner with returning starter Tyreek Chappell and they brought in a handful of transfers like Will Lee (Kansas State), Jaydon Hill (Florida), BJ Mayes (UAB), and former 5-star recruit Dezz Ricks (Alabama). They could be a lot better than solid, though. They added the equivalent of three returning starters in Lee, Hill, and Mayes, an obvious talent in Ricks, plus Donovan Saunders from Cal Poly who is 6-3 and had 14 passes defended in 2023.

It pretty much comes down to whether or not the transfers hit for all of these teams. A&M has taken enough swings that they are going to hit on at least a couple of them. 

I don’t really understand why so many corners who were starters at other programs would all go there when some of them won’t end up playing all that much, but throwing that many players at a weakness on defense is the smart way for Mike Elko to avoid a rebuild on defense.

6. It’s a slower time for college football and I can empathize with anyone who has to create CFB content in May and June. However, it being May doesn’t mean standards have to change. Apparently they did for whatever the heck this ranking is from Brandon Marcello.

You know things are bad when even people who aren’t Notre Dame fans are asking why they aren’t included on this list. Then Marcello has to go and make things worse with an explanation that is complete nonsense.

Sir, you’ve got Iowa 20th on this list. The excuse about being concerned about a new quarterback and receivers when you have a Kirk Ferentz team ranked in your top-20 pretty much destroys that argument.

There’s quite a few in top-30 who are also breaking in new quarterbacks and receivers (Michigan, USC, LSU, Florida State, I can keep going), so what are we talking about here?

Marcello is a national college football reporter. He probably doesn’t want to admit that he simply forgot to include Notre Dame. He probably doesn’t want to also admit that he, like a lot of national writers and reporters, don’t know most of these teams very well.

He pointed out the slow start for Notre Dame on offense last season as his reasoning for not having them as a top-30 team. Who can forget those first four games when they couldn’t move the ball and Sam Hartman was ice cold?

I’m sorry, what was that? Oh, I’ve been told that’s incorrect. It turns out they scored over 40 in each of the first four games and there were people prematurely calling Hartman a Heisman candidate.

Marcello also loved Notre Dame’s coaching late in the season. I guess it was a good thing that Clemson was a noon kick. He probably missed that one. Might have also missed how Notre Dame changed offensive coordinators. (Great news, they hired Mike Denbrock)

It’s not that hard to fake knowing things for people who don’t cover teams as closely as beat writers do or know the team as well as fans do. Marcello could have pointed to some legitimate questions about Notre Dame to say why he didn’t include them. Most would disagree with him, but at least then people might respect that he actually knew something about the team.

I’m not going to pretend that I know a lot about Marcello as a reporter. I don’t know how often he breaks news compared to others he competes against. I have no reason to believe he’s a troll looking for clicks. Maybe that’s the case here, but I don’t want to assume that when I don’t know it to be true.

What I do know is that he didn’t know much about last year’s Notre Dame team and doesn’t know much about this year’s one either. And if someone doesn’t know the bare minimum about a blue-blood program, then it’s going to be pretty difficult to take that person seriously when they share any opinion about college football.

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