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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame Opponent Preview | Texas A&M

June 10, 2024
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After signing what some people consider to be the best recruiting class of all time in 2022, Notre Dame’s 2024 matchup with Texas A&M looked like it was going to be a beast.

On the road, in the heat, against a roster that could have a handful of first round picks. It was a couple of years away, but it didn’t exactly seem like a fun way to start a season for the Irish.

A lot has changed since then.

That loaded 2022 class? Five of the eight 5-stars they signed have left. 14 of the 30 signed didn’t make it to year three at A&M.

The coach who signed them is gone too. Jimbo Fisher was paid an enormous amount of money to leave Florida State and then given a huge raise after A&M went 9-1 during the disjointed 2020 season. He finished his time in College Station with a 45-25 record and was 11-11 in his final 22 games.

The program was badly in need of a culture change and they went back to a former Fisher assistant to solve that. Normally that might sound like a bad idea, but it made perfect sense for them to bring back former defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

A&M was 20 games over .500 at A&M when Elko was on staff. He followed that up by having surprising success right away at Duke. They went to two straight bowl games after only winning 10 games total in the previous three seasons.

They’ve upgraded the staff. They’ve reworked the roster with a ton of transfers. They might not be the Georgia or Alabama level juggernaut that they could have been, but it’s still a roster with significant talent who will present a difficult challenge for Notre Dame to open the season.

Post-Spring SP+ Ranking

They are 13th in the post-spring SP+ projections. They are ranked 11th on offense, 21st on defense, and 73rd on special teams.

Key losses

A&M had four players drafted and over 30 players are no longer with the program after last season.

LB Edgerrin Cooper and DT McKinnley Jackson were day two picks and were the two best defenders from a defense that finished 19th in DF+ (combined SP+ and FEI rankings). Cooper led the team in tackles and was also their most productive pass rusher.

G Layden Richardson was their best offensive lineman and was drafted in the fourth round after being named second team All-SEC in 2023.

WR Ainias Smith was drafted in the fifth round after leading their team in receiving while also being a threat as a returner.

DT Walter Nolen (Ole Miss) was the top player A&M signed in 2022. He finished with 8.5 tackles for loss last season and should be one of the top DTs in the SEC this fall. DT Isaiah Rakes (USC and now Auburn) was in the rotation last season and is a quality run defender.

Another former 5-star from the 2022 class, edge LT Overton, transferred to Alabama.

Edge Fadil Diggs (Syracuse) probably decided to leave because he wouldn’t start at A&M, but he was a quality depth piece as a pass rusher (25 pressures).

S Jacoby Matthews elected to enter the portal during the spring. He started nine games last fall.

WR Evan Stewart (Oregon) is easily the most significant loss for them on offense. He had 38 receptions in only eight games and would have been the projected WR1 for them if he had stayed.

Bryce Foster was a starter at center, but didn’t play all that well in 2023. Then again, losing an offensive lineman with over 1,800 career snaps is always going to be notable.

Key additions

Elko brought in Collin Klein to coordinate the offense. He was a candidate for the open OC job at Notre Dame back in 2023 and had two successful seasons calling plays at Kansas State. They finished 9th and 20th in OF+ in those two years.

They were 14th in EPA (expected points added) per rush last season.

Notre Dame fans should also be somewhat familiar with Elko’s defensive coordinator, Jay Bateman. Bateman was the DC at North Carolina under Mack Brown when the Irish played them in 2020 and 2021. He was let go after that ‘21 season and was most recently the inside linebackers coach at Florida.

Bateman was viewed as a savvy hire by Brown when he started at UNC, but struggled to find success despite having a number of elite recruits at all three levels of the defense. His last defense at UNC finished 95th in DF+.

Elko and Bateman have been friends for a long time and were on staff together at Richmond all the way back in 2004. It’s fair to say Elko’s fingerprints will be all over what A&M does on defense.

They brought in 26 transfers, not including a few who transferred in and already left the program after the spring.

Edge Nic Scourton (Purdue) is the headliner. He had a dominant spring and is rightly considered one of the top returning pass rushers in college football. His spin move is nasty.

A 30.6% win percentage against true pass sets is elite and he racked up double digit sacks. He’s projected as a first round pick next spring.

A&M is also bringing in edge Cashius Howell from Bowling Green. He was an impact pass rusher with a 30.5% win rate against true pass sets and 9.5 sacks. He probably could have been an immediate starter at a lot of Power 5 programs, but he might have a tough time cracking the two-deep at A&M.

DT Rodas Johnson started 22 games at Wisconsin and should be a depth piece for them at defensive tackle.

LB Scooby Williams was the third leading tackler for Florida last fall. He also graded out as the fifth worst Power 5 linebacker by PFF last season. The fact that he’s considered a contender to start for A&M is probably a strong indication that they aren’t loving their linebackers.

Perhaps that’s why they added LB Solomon Deshields from Pitt in the spring portal period. He had eight tackles for loss for the Panthers and was a solid run defender.

They absolutely loaded up in the secondary to improve a depleted group.

CB Dezz Ricks (Alabama) was a former 5-star recruit. Jaydon Hill (Florida) was an average player as a nickel defender, but he’s played over 1,400 snaps in his career. BJ Mayes (UAB and Incarnate Word) had 13 havoc plays in his first season in the FBS last fall. CB Will Lee (Kansas St) is 6-3 with NFL potential. He was very good in his first season at K-State after transferring in from a junior college.

S Marcus Ratclliffe (SDSU transfer) is another big body (6-3 210) who started 11 games as a true freshman. S Trey Jones (Central Michigan) has played over 1,800 career snaps and led CMU in tackles last season.

WR Jabre Barber (Troy) injured his foot this spring and won’t likely be back for the beginning of the season. He was projected to make an instant impact for the Aggies.

WR Cyrus Allen (Louisiana Tech) was a big play option who averaged 16.7 per reception in 2023 and 22.7 in 2022. WR Jacob Bostick (Iowa) made zero impact in his two years in the Big Ten, but has elite athleticism. They’re basically taking a flier on him because they have questions at the position.

They brought in three tight ends and it’s notable because they will likely play a lot more 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends) than they did previously. Klein used two tight ends a lot at Kansas State.

RB EJ Smith (Stanford) had a frustrating season playing behind a bad line, but he’s a talented runner who is better than his numbers would indicate.

They added a couple of potential starters on the offensive line. G Ar’maj Reed-Adams (Kansas) has starting experience and is a contender to start at guard. C Kolinu’u Faaiu (Utah) started eight games last season and is the projected starter for A&M this fall.

The one true freshman with the best chance to make an immediate impact is Terry Bussey. He’s an elite athlete (10.66 100m) who could end up on either side of the ball or in the return game.

Top returners and returning production

They are 38th in returning production (35th on offense and 53rd on defense).

The Action Network created a metric called Transfer Activity and Returning Production (TARP). That metric puts extra weight on experience and gives extra credit to fifth and sixth year seniors on a roster. They have A&M 12th in TARP on offense. They are sixth in TARP on defense.

A&M was second in sack rate and 26th in pressure rate last season. The pass rush should be as strong with who they’ve added and who’s returning.

DT Shemar Turner is moving inside after playing defensive end. He’s a very good pass rusher (24.7% vs TPS) who finished with 10.5 tackles for loss. He’s 290 pounds, so the transition shouldn’t be overwhelming. It was surprising that he decided to come back to school because some had him projected as a day two pick.

Edge Shemar Stewart (yes, they have another Shemar) didn’t have a ton of production (only two TFLs), but he’s another strong pass rusher (27.3% vs TPS).

LB Taurean York (74 tackles, 9.5 havoc plays) is the only linebacker returning with experience.

CB Tyreek Chappell (8.5 havoc plays) entered the portal, but decided to come back. He has good ball production in his three years as a starter. Chappell is joined by Bryce Anderson (55 tackles, 13 havoc plays) as the likely primary nickel. He’s an elite athlete and a playmaker.

There’s a number of former highly ranked recruits in the front seven (DT Gabriel Brownlow-Dindy, edge Enai White, edge Malick Sylla, LB Martrell Harris Jr.) who haven’t done much yet, but will have opportunities to contribute this fall.

The most important player returning on offense is QB Conner Weigman. He only played four games before a knee injury knocked him out for the season, but he showed why he was considered an elite prospect. There are people who think he could be a surprise first round pick next spring, but he still has a lot to prove with only seven career starts.

He lit up New Mexico and Louisiana Monroe last fall, but his numbers against Miami and Auburn weren’t very good (58% completions, 6.1 yards per attempt).

LT Trey Zuhn is a two-year starter and was solid for them. They had two other tackles with experience in Dametrious Crownover (369 snaps at right tackle) and Chase Bisontis (540 snaps at right tackle and started the bowl game at right guard). Bisontis struggled a lot as a true freshman.

RB Le’Veon Moss (5.0 YPC) is the returning RB1 and Rueben Owens (elite speed, big run in the spring game) was a 5-star recruit who has home run potential.

WR Noah Thomas (29 catches, five touchdowns) caught seven of nine contested targets. He’s the most likely breakout candidate from the receivers, but they also return WR Moose Muhammad (27 catches) and WR Jahdae Walker had three 100-yard games in his first season in the SEC after transferring from Grand Valley State. With him and Thomas (6-4 and 6-6 respectively), that’s a couple of big bodies that Notre Dame will have to defend.

TE Donovan Green tore his ACL last season, but looked poise to make an impact after showing flashes in 2022. He’s the top projected target at tight end for them.

Three big questions

It starts with this: can Mike Elko get all of those new players to gel right away?

That’s a lot of new pieces working together in the secondary and there may be as many as a dozen new faces in the two-deep. We’ve seen this work at other programs, but not many of these programs open against a team like Notre Dame.

I know one big talking point heading into this game will be Elko’s knowledge of Riley Leonard’s game, but the flip side of this is Elko still getting to know his own roster.

Can the offensive line be a lot better than they were last year? They are bringing back all of these snaps from last season, but it always seems to get brushed over that they were bad as a unit.

They were 94th in PFF’s pass blocking grades and A&M’s QBs were pressured on over 40% of dropbacks.

They didn’t do a great job in the running game either. They finished 110th in percentage of designed run plays with a blown blocking assignment and were 80th in EPA per rush.

Offensive line coach Adam Cushing, who worked previously at Duke with Elko, has to integrate a couple of new starters and get this group to play well together right away. That would be an easier task if he wasn’t going up against a defense that loves to bring pressure in week one.

Can they stop the run as well with the new defensive tackles and linebackers?

They were 12th in EPA per rush last season, but they lost three of their top-four defensive tackles and they don’t appear to have anyone who is close to the level of Cooper at linebacker. He could make plays all over the field. Cooper also would have been the kind of linebacker who could spy Leonard as a scrambler and containing Leonard will be a factor in this game.

How they’ve recruited

Their blue-chip ratio over the last four classes is 82.2%. That’s basically Georgia/Alabama level of recruiting and hypothetically should have set them up to be not just a national championship contender, but amongst the top group of favorites.

The problem for them is that 25 of the blue-chips they signed from the 2021 and 2022 classes are no longer on the roster. Combine the two classes and there are 12 who were ranked as top-100 prospects who aren’t there anymore.

Part of how they’ve recruited is also about how they’ve done in the transfer portal, though. Elko and general manager Derek Miller have added eight who are ranked as 4-stars by 247Sports. Scourton should be in contention with Caleb Downs (Alabama to Ohio State) as the most impactful transfers this season.

They did a tremendous job of filling some holes in the short term while also adding some intriguing small school talents with high ceilings. The key will be developing those players and the high profile recruits who are still on campus. Elko should have them in a position to win in year one, but it’s still uncertain how good they can be this season and how fast they can hit the ground running against Notre Dame.

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