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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

June 13, 2024
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Every college football player’s path to playing time is different. Jaylon Smith and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah were both Butkus winners as the top linebacker in the country, but the journey to get there wasn’t similar.

Smith started as a freshman, was a finalist for the Butkus as a sophomore, and then won the award in his third year. Owusu-Koramoah didn’t play in his first two years. He was an immediate playmaker as a first-time starter in year three before winning the Butkus in year four.

Maybe things don’t end up the same if a couple of things go differently. If Danny Spond didn’t have to medically retire, maybe Smith’s rise would have been a bit slower. If Owusu-Koramoah didn’t break his foot as a sophomore, maybe he ends up becoming a playmaker for the 2018 defense.

The destination ended up roughly the same for them. Some make an immediate impact and others hit big a little later. The journey seems less important if they end up developing into good or even elite players.

I guess some would consider Howard Cross III and Xavier Watts late-bloomers, but I don’t really see it that way. There was a progression with both of them and their development. It didn’t happen overnight and it rarely does.

All anyone wants to see is the arrow pointing up for a player. Individuals need to move forward or else they are in danger of getting passed by others. Year three in the program is almost always a crucial season for a player when it comes to predicting their future. Not everyone is going to break out, but they better at least be in the mix for playing time.

If they aren’t, the odds of them ever making an impact at Notre Dame are slim.

That’s not just conjecture. That’s how it’s been with just about everyone over the last decade.

If someone doesn’t play at least 100 snaps in their third year in the program, they generally never “hit”. By hit, I’d qualify that as an impact starter or eventual NFL Draft pick. The list of guys who played less than 100 snaps who fit that description is tiny. There are only three. (Note: Kevin Austin and Marist Liufau were excluded because both missed their third year due to season-ending injuries)

Running back Dexter Williams played only 85 snaps in his junior year. He managed to have an outstanding final season and was drafted in the sixth round despite only playing nine games.

Wide receiver Javon McKinley didn’t look like he was going to make it to year four at Notre Dame after playing only five snaps in year three. He flashed in garbage time in his fourth year and surprisingly emerged as the leading receiver on the team in 2020.

Avery Davis would have probably contributed a lot more if he hadn’t bounced around from position to position early on. He practiced at quarterback, running back, and defensive back, and managed to play only 70 plays as a junior. He settled in as a slot receiver in his last two years and was a key contributor before a knee-injury ended his time at Notre Dame abruptly.

That’s the list.

Cross was a key rotation player in his third year. Watts started the final four games in his. Not being a full-time starter in year three doesn’t mean someone can’t hit big. Not playing much at all means that it’s highly unlikely that player will become an important piece for Notre Dame.

That’s something to think about with Tosh Baker. The fifth-year senior may win the right tackle job, but there isn’t a lot of prior evidence to suggest he could play his way into an NFL future.

The other side of this is that it may be “now or never” for players from the 2022 recruiting class like Aamil Wagner and Aiden Gobaira. Wagner doesn’t necessarily have to win the right tackle job to start the season, but it’s not a great sign for his future if he’s relegated to garbage time snaps this fall.

Gobaira unfortunately didn’t have a chance to prove anything in his second season at Notre Dame after tearing his ACL in August. It’s going to be a critical fall camp for him because he’ll have to compete with Josh Burnham and Bryce Young to crack the rotation at defensive end behind RJ Oben. It’s not an ideal situation to be coming off of an injury, but it’s the reality of how easy it can be to get lost in the shuffle.

There’s a number of players from that ‘22 cycle who already found a role for themselves last season. Many of them are looking to start this fall or expand on what they did in 2023. A few of them may become stars. A few may still get passed by others on the roster.

Whatever happens, if they are healthy this season and not contributing, history says it’s not likely they’ll develop into a key player going forward.

2. I know that is specific to Notre Dame, but I would apply it when evaluating transfers as well.

Maybe a coach or someone in personnel was a big fan of a kid as a recruit and thought they could develop into a special player, but if someone was at any program three years and can’t earn playing time, that would make them a cross off unless there were other factors involved like with Austin.

When Nolan Rucci became available as an offensive tackle in the transfer portal, I know he was a name Notre Dame fans were familiar with as a recruit. He played 70 plays in three seasons at Wisconsin, though. I’m highly skeptical he’ll find success after transferring to Penn State.

LB Reid Carrico was a top-100 prospect when he signed with Ohio State, but 20 snaps in three years is what it is. Even with a lot less competition at West Virginia, I’d be surprised if he comes anywhere close to what people thought he could be.

There’s a number of Notre Dame opponents this year who are taking big swings in the transfer portal with players who were once elite recruits. Mike Norvell probably sent Nick Saban a thank you card after he retired. Florida State brought in multiple former Alabama players who were blue-chip recruits. Nickel Earl Little and LB Shawn Murphy have barely played in two years for the Crimson Tide, but they are entering their make or break year at Florida State.

FSU also added edge Marvin Jones Jr. (Georgia) and WR Jalen Brown (LSU). Both of them were top recruits who haven’t found stardom yet, but still have enough time on the clock for it to happen. 

Purdue added CB Nyland Green (Georgia) and Texas A&M added CB Dezz Ricks (Alabama) as transfers. Those are two other high reward prospects who haven’t played much, but they have elite traits worth developing.

Notre Dame is likely never going to be in the business of adding a lot of these types in the portal and that’s not a bad thing if they are doing well with their own recruiting and development. They’ll probably continue to bring in more established older transfers to fill holes on the roster, which is a lot different than what FSU is doing.

That’s the smart play and they should continue to do that. But if they ever want to swing big for someone who was an elite recruit who hasn’t played much at his previous school, don’t let it be someone who has been at that school for more than two years.

3. If you haven’t checked out my opponent preview on Texas A&M yet, here’s me pointing you in the direction to do so.

My only warning is that it is not short. That’s primarily because the “Key additions” section might be as long as the entire North Illinois preview.

They added almost 30 transfers in the portal and the most impressive thing about it is that it’s not just a bunch of guys getting them to 85 scholarships.

Ricks, a former 5-star recruit, is one of the only players they brought in who doesn’t have proven experience somewhere else. Most of that experience is not equivalent to the SEC, but there’s a number of guys who have the athletic profile that fits the conference. It really stands out at cornerback where they’re flooding the zone with options.

Will Lee (Kansas State) and Jaydon Hill (Florida) were starters at Power 5 programs and they’re also bringing in Donovan Saunders (Cal Poly) and BJ Mayes (UAB via Incarnate Word) from lower level programs. Saunders and Lee are both 6-3. Mayes and Ricks are both 6-1. Saunders, Lee, and Mayes played a ton of press coverage at their previous programs.

The transfer portal has exploded in the last three years once they allowed the one-time transfer rule (it’s now unlimited). There’s more transfers being drafted than ever before and three positions with the most transfers selected are wide receivers, corners, and edge rushers.

Those are also the three positions where players from the Group of 5 or lower have transferred up to the Power 5 and found the most success. If teams are going to take chances on players who are moving up to play against better competition, corner is a good position to target because long athletes with speed translate at every level.

4. With all of the questions Notre Dame fans have about the Irish O-line situation heading into the season, it’s worth highlighting that A&M has even more questions at that position.

From the A&M preview:

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.

Adam Cushing is the new offensive line coach. He coached Duke’s O-line the last two years and while people can point to first round pick Graham Barton being a stud and center Jacob Monk being drafted as well, no one would confuse that group as being good.

Duke was 80th in blown block percentage. I’m not putting all of that on Cushing. I’m just saying that him being inserted as A&M’s O-line coach isn’t going to be a cure-all for their issues.

They have four linemen with 395 snaps or more returning and brought in two transfers to compete at guard and center. The best player is Trey Zuhn at left tackle, but outside of him, there’s not a lot of certainty about the group.

Chase Bisontis struggled as a true freshman and just because he was a top recruit doesn’t guarantee anything with him in year two. He had a miserable 39.0 PFF grade in true pass sets. Compare that to someone like Joe Alt as a true freshman and there is no comparison. Alt’s grade in true pass sets in 2021 was 72.5.

If I was a Texas A&M fan, I wouldn’t feel too confident that the line is going to be close to good to start the season and that’s not great for them against a very good, very experienced Notre Dame front four.

5. As ISD’s Matt Freeman reported, the vibes are good with 2025 LB target Madden Faraimo‍. I’m a big fan of his game and much like Kyngstonn Villiamu-Asa and Marist Liufau, versatility is the main reason why.

He can play off the ball and has exciting traits to rush off the edge. There’s the possibility he could grow into a Vyper, but if he wants to play multiple roles, there might not be a better scheme fit for his skill set than Notre Dame’s defense.

Many other programs can talk about hypotheticals about his role. Notre Dame can show him film of Liufau and Jaylen Sneed to demonstrate exactly what he would do.

Liufau lined up as an edge defender on 148 snaps last season. Sneed aligned there on 90 snaps. They rushed the passer 129 and 83 times respectively.

Sneed and Liufau rushed the passer the first and fifth highest percentage of Power 5 linebackers last season. Al Golden’s defense embraces hybrid defenders and that has to be enticing to someone like Faraimo.

6. I’ve been thinking about what Marcus Freeman said about Riley Leonard at a media availability a couple of weeks ago. For those that missed it, here it is:

“If I didn’t know Riley Leonard, I would think he was, I don’t want to say arrogant, but dang, I wouldn’t think he’s as humble as he is because he plays with a passion and a demeanor that’s like, ‘Holy cow, man.’
“But off the field, he’s the most humble and hungry. He’s obsessed with improvement, with information and preparation. That’s something that I’ve gotten to know about him. He’s not easily distracted. Sometimes he’s oblivious to how good he is, which is great. He can tune out some of that outside noise.
“I guess I’m also surprised when I hear from Landow and some of those guys, he’s one of the most competitive individuals even in this football program now. Yeah, he’s a good football player. Yes, he competes on the field, but when you hear that and it’s not in practice, you’re talking about workouts, that tells you a lot about who he is. He’s a leader.”

This is the kind of thing that any coach would love to see with their quarterback. It’s also the same type of stuff I had heard about him during spring ball from people around the program. He’s made a very good impression even though he was barely able to practice during most of spring ball.

The part about him tuning out some of the noise is important for every quarterback, but seems especially important for a Notre Dame quarterback. It also fits with what I saw from him against Clemson and Notre Dame last season.

He had a 91.0 in ESPN’s QBR against Clemson last season despite being pressured on 50% of his drop backs. His passing numbers weren’t stellar, but no quarterback’s would be when pressured that frequently.

And he had a massive impact as a runner. He had five missed tackles forced, ran for four first downs, and 98 yards rushing. Without his performance in this game, Elko probably isn’t the coach at Texas A&M this season.

via GIPHY

He struggled a lot against Notre Dame. He was pressured even more (55.9% of drop backs) and was sacked three times. Golden and the defensive staff had an exquisite game plan and Howard Cross was borderline unblockable.

Leonard managed to find a way to get Duke the lead. Again, he made a huge difference with his legs with five missed tackles forced. He carried the ball six times for 56 yards in the fourth quarter for three first downs and he made this throw on 3rd and 5.

via GIPHY

If this ball is thrown a couple of inches left, it’s behind the receiver. If it’s a couple of inches right, it’s either broken up or picked off by Junior Tuihalamaka. Leonard was having a miserable game throwing the ball, but still had the confidence to make this throw.

Notre Dame’s 2023 defense had four starters taken in the most recent NFL Draft. There’s at least four more starters from that group who will eventually be drafted. Clemson’s 2023 defense just had five starters drafted. There’s at least a few more who will hear their names called at the draft. Those were two of the top defenses in the country and Leonard made plays against them with minimal NFL talent on his side.

The Irish offense won’t have it easy against Texas A&M’s defense. Leonard is used to it and he’s shown he can turn negative plays into positives against top defenses, which is exactly why he was the right quarterback for Notre Dame to add this offseason.

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