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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

May 30, 2024
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Zack Martin was the first great offensive lineman at Notre Dame during the 2010’s. If Harry Hiestand is the Helio Gracie of this era of O-line U, then Martin is Royce. From Ronnie Stanley to Mike McGlinchey to Quenton Nelson and jumping all the way to Joe Alt, it started with Martin.

There seems to be a notion that the offensive line and tight end positions recruit themselves at Notre Dame. That’s not entirely true, but it sure doesn’t hurt Joe Rudolph and Mike Denbrock to have recent NFL talent to point to while they currently recruit those positions.

No program has had more offensive linemen or tight ends drafted in the modern era than Notre Dame. (Add two to the number listed on the O-line in this tweet)

The program hasn’t had the same track record of development at other positions, but they are definitely competitive at every position on defense. They are sixth in linebackers drafted in the modern era, fifth in defensive linemen, and tied for fourth at defensive back.

The programs they are tied with are Alabama and LSU. That’s not bad company to keep at all, but the big difference between those two and Notre Dame is recent numbers at the position.

The Irish have produced six defensive backs who’ve been drafted in the last decade. LSU has had 14 selected. They’ve had eight taken in the first two rounds. Alabama has had 19 (!) selected in the last decade. They’ve had 11 drafted in the first two rounds.

Just like Notre Dame can point to all of those recent high draft picks on the offensive line, Alabama can point to Terrion Arnold, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Patrick Surtain, Marlon Humphrey, and more at DB.

With Alabama, a lot of it is as simple as pointing to elite recruiting leading to a boatload of future NFL players. For most programs, it starts with identification and elite development. That can then translate into elite recruiting.

That’s how it happened with Lincoln Riley with his quarterbacks. Three straight transfers who experienced great success helped lead to top ranked high school quarterbacks wanting to play in that offense. (More on that in a bit)

It happened with Clemson on the defensive line. Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley, and Kevin Dodd were low 3-stars who developed into NFL players. Shaq Lawson was barely a 4-star who became a first round pick. Those players helped pave the way to landing 5-stars like Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins. It just continued from there with them signing 16 defensive linemen ranked in the top-150 as recruits over the following eight years. That doesn’t even count the three who have committed to them in the 2025 class.

What happened with Clemson on the defensive line is the dream scenario and that’s a high bar to shoot for, but we might just be seeing the start of something similar with Notre Dame at defensive back.

It all starts with examples like Julian Love as an All-American in 2018 and Alohi Gilman and Troy Pride being drafted the next year. That’s been followed up by a first round pick in Kyle Hamilton and Mike Mickens establishing himself as one of the premiere cornerback coaches in the country.

Cam Hart went from 3-star receiver to NFL Draft pick at corner. Xavier Watts developed into an All-American under Chris O’Leary. Benjamin Morrison is on his way to becoming Notre Dame’s first cornerback selected in the first round in decades and there are more than just him and Watts as future NFL defensive backs on the roster.

It’s not that Watts or Morrison won’t be difficult to replace, but it doesn’t seem so daunting with the way the staff is developing and recruiting those positions. Normally not having a former 4-star like Micah Bell hit would be seen as a huge issue. It barely even registers because there’s belief in Mickens as an evaluator with Leonard Moore and Karson Hobbs enrolling next month.

Throw in Mark Zackery IV‍ recently becoming the third top-100 talent to commit this cycle, joining Ivan Taylor‍ and Dallas Golden‍, and this is how it pretty much has worked on the offensive line for years. Maybe a blue-chip recruit doesn’t hit like he’s expected. Don’t fret because the next guy will.

It didn’t happen overnight, but there’s been a gradual shift at defensive back where it feels like this is how it’s going to be at DB with everything from high school recruiting to graduate transfers. It might be a while before anyone can claim the program as “DB U”, but things are looking brighter in the secondary than it has since the early ‘90s.

2. Since Lincoln Riley became offensive coordinator at Oklahoma back in 2015, he had three years of Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray for a season, Jalen Hurts for a season, Spencer Rattler for a season and a half, and Caleb Williams for two and half seasons.

That’s three number one picks, another second rounder, and the “dud” of the group was a fifth round pick who threw 39 touchdowns against 12 interceptions while completing 70.2% of his passes.

It’s been a long time since he’s had anywhere close to average quarterback play, which is why it’s very hard to imagine USC not getting good play from the position whether it’s Miller Moss (six touchdowns in their bowl game) or UNLV transfer Jayden Maiava who settles in there during the season.

Riley’s offenses have ranked third, first, first, first, fourth, eighth, fourth, third, and fourth at Oklahoma and USC in OF+ (combined FEI and SP+ rankings). Only once has he had an offense finish lower than seventh in points per drive (16th). His offense is like pizza. Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good. 

There’s a lot of reasons to dunk on Riley and USC. He clearly has made some mistakes there and it feels like they just wasted a generational talent in Williams. Not making the College Football Playoff with him is not good, but eight losses in two years with him at quarterback is much worse.

I’ve highlighted how they’ve made mistakes and how they shouldn’t be this thin at key positions in year three for Riley. It might ultimately be his undoing there against a tough 2024 schedule and a reason for him to move on somewhere else.

Despite all of that, I think it would be crazy to think that USC won’t be great on offense again this fall. They are projected fifth on offense in Bill Connelly’s SP+ projections and I would be very surprised if they aren’t a top-10 offense at minimum. It’s very likely going to be the best offense Notre Dame faces all season.

3. According to those same SP+ projections, Notre Dame’s defense is only supposed to face four top-40 offenses: USC, Texas A&M (11th), Florida State (16th), and Georgia Tech (35th).

After that it’s Louisville at 57th and then everyone else is projected outside of the top-70. Stanford, Purdue, and Virginia are 71st, 74th, and 75th respectively and then it dips all the way down to 110th for Miami (Ohio), 112th for Army, 118th for Northern Illinois, and 122nd for Navy.

I think Stanford and Louisville could overachieve on offense based on those projections, mostly because of head coaches Troy Taylor and Jeff Brohm making those groups better. I also think A&M and FSU could end up being worse for different reasons.

Former Kansas State offensive coordinator Collin Klein could do some very interesting things with A&M’s personnel and K-State was ninth and 20th in OF+ the last two seasons, but the offensive line at A&M is still unproven. They finished 94th in PFF’s pass blocking grade in 2023.

I don’t see them being close to a top-15 offense if they aren’t drastically improved up front.

With FSU, it’s all about replacing the production from the skill talent. There’s no doubt they have athletes at running back and receiver who are capable of stepping in for running back Trey Benson, tight end Jaheim Bell, and receivers Keon Coleman and Johnny Wilson, but matching what they did won’t be easy. And for me, the biggest question is former Clemson and Oregon State quarterback DJ Uiagalelei replacing Jordan Travis at quarterback.

They are two very different players and Travis seemed much better suited for what Mike Norvell has had success with on offense for many years. Uigalelei said he specifically chose Oregon State as a transfer destination last year because of the pro-style scheme fit him. This feels like square peg and round hole vibes to me, but we’ll see how it plays out.

I’ll save some thoughts on these offenses for my opponent previews that I’m going to begin publishing next week, but as I mentioned on Power Hour on Monday, Notre Dame isn’t going to see too many true game wreckers on offense this fall compared to some previous years. There isn’t a matchup heading into the season that I wouldn’t give Notre Dame’s defense an edge against.

4. It’s a mixed bag in terms of the defenses Notre Dame’s offense will go up against as well.

FSU (10th), Texas A&M (21st), Louisville (23rd), and Chuck Martin’s group on defense (26th) are projected above everyone else according to SP+. While I’d be reluctant in predicting Miami (Ohio) to be this year’s version of Marshall’s 2021 defense, I could see A&M and Louisville being even better than projected on defense. FSU as a top-10 group does seem feasible even with some of the talent they lost to the NFL.

USC (87th) is going to be better than expected with the staff upgrade and the key pieces added in the secondary to make them at bare minimum a competent group.

I think Purdue (68th) is going to be better than where they are slotted as well. Head coach Ryan Walters had top-25 defenses in every full season as a coordinator at Missouri and Illinois. Even after losing a stud pass rusher like Nic Scourton (Texas A&M), they upgraded the talent in the secondary and should be able to play the way he wants to play at a higher level.

Georgia Tech (99th) might just be better because of the change at coordinator with former Duke DC Tyler Santucci taking over and they are the lowest projected defense the Irish will face in the regular season.

NIU (45th), Navy (61st), Army (63rd), and UVa (81st) are groups I don’t have a strong feeling about at the moment. Stanford (94th) is the only one that I feel fairly confident in stating that they are going to be bad again, mostly because they simply don’t have enough talent on that side of the ball.

I don’t know if there’s going to be too many bad defenses the Irish will see, but I think there’s a very good chance they will match up against three very good to great ones against FSU, A&M, and Louisville.

The best defenses Notre Dame faced last season were Ohio State (second in DF+), Clemson (10th), NC State (18th), Louisville (26th), and Duke (24th). They scored 45 against NC State, but averaged 19.5 points per game against the other four. 23 was the biggest number they put on the board in those games.

People are going to evaluate how well Mike Denbrock has done his job this year based on how the Irish offense performs against FSU, A&M, and Louisville. Averaging less than 20 per games in those matchups simply won’t cut it. 

5. I always like the idea of going back and re-evaluating recruiting classes after they’ve finished playing college football. It rewards not only development and talent identification, but retention. It was strange for University of Washington fans to brag about Laiatu Latu and Puka Nacua as part of their 2019 class when those two didn’t make significant contributions at UW.

The Athletic’s Max Olson’s re-ranked 2020 recruiting classes using this formula to assess who signed the best classes during that cycle.

5 points: All-American, award winner, top-50 NFL Draft pick
4: Multi-year starter, all-conference honors
3: One-year starter or key reserve
2: Career backup
0: Minor or no contribution

Notre Dame, with a class that featured Michael Mayer, Xavier Watts, Rylie Mills, Chris Tyree, and Jordan Botelho as the headliners, was re-ranked 12th. That class was 18th in the composite rankings at the time those players signed.

There’s a few of the list that stuck out to me that far exceeded their class ranking.

Iowa at sixth with that class finishing 34th at the time is an incredible, but not surprising, story of what Iowa has generally been about as a program for a long time.

Western Kentucky at 15th with a class that finished 84th in the composite is even more amazing and an absolute credit to the work Notre Dame alum Zach Grant did as the head of their personnel department. He’s now at Cincinnati as their general manager. Watch out for them in the next couple of seasons while Grant is there. He did a great job with WKU in the portal and I’d bet on him unearthing some gems again.

Cincinnati’s 2020 class being 16th after initially finishing 43rd in the composite rankings is the other one I want to highlight, but I’ll have more on that in a bit.

It seems like every story about Iowa in recent years has either been about their scandal with their former strength and conditioning coach or Brian Ferentz leading a completely inept offense and managing to stay employed because his father was his boss. That has taken away from them winning 10 games in three of their last four full seasons with an elite defense that has finished in the top-four in DF+ in each of the last five years. The last time they finished worse than 17th in DF+ was 2014.

They deserve more credit than any other program for their talent identification and development on that side of the ball. They’ve had 18 defenders selected in the NFL Draft since 2017, which is one more than Notre Dame has had. It’s also eight to six for them with defenders in the first three rounds over that time span.

The UC Report has become an essential database for college football programs. Every single power conference school uses the service with one exception: Iowa.

There’s a lot Iowa has done wrong and if I was an Iowa fan, I’d be irate that they wasted years of great defense with incompetence on offense where simply adequate might have led to a Big Ten championship or two. But they’ve done it their own way in terms of evaluating high school recruits and it’s hard to argue with the results.

When Notre Dame offers a player, there’s rarely buzz about that recruit having an Iowa offer. If that recruit plays defense, then there probably should be.

6. Cincinnati’s 2020 class was adjusted up 27 spots. According to this same formula, their 2018 class was adjusted all the way up to fourth. That’s 45 spots higher than the original composite ranking.

Their 2019 class wasn’t adjusted into the top-25, but that group still got them top-five pick Sauce Gardner, third round pick Tre Tucker, and they brought in two transfers, LB Darrian Beavers and OL James Hudson, who ended up as multi-year starters and NFL Draft picks.

I’m sure it’s obvious why those classes should stand out for Notre Dame fans. There’s a number of people who were part of the Cincinnati staff who are now at Notre Dame, led by head coach Marcus Freeman and general manager Chad Bowden, that helped put together those classes.

They are shopping down a different aisle at Notre Dame. It’s an aisle with way more options than they had at Cincinnati and recruiting results get a lot more attention at Notre Dame as well. It means they get a lot more criticism when they gain commitments from recruits who aren’t highly rated by recruiting services or have offers from programs considered to be national championship contenders.

They don’t seem to be fazed by that at all and they shouldn’t be. I think they’ve proven that they know how to identify talent better than most. The results at Cincinnati speak for themselves and when these classes are done at Notre Dame, we’ll see how they look when they re-rank them.

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