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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

July 11, 2024

Winning 10 games is a good thing, but it’s not what anyone wants at Notre Dame. It’s not good enough to get you into the College Football Playoff and now that the CFP field has expanded to 12, anything short of qualifying for it should be seen as a disappointment.

And no one wants to just get invited to the dance. They want to be holding the crystal football when all the games are finished.

In order to do that, Notre Dame has to be better than they were in 2023. Good is the enemy of great and if the Irish want to be great in 2024, they have to be better in specific areas.

Heading into last season, any list of areas where Notre Dame needed to improve started with the red zone defense. It literally could not have been worse in 2022 as they finished dead last in red zone touchdown percentage.

They jumped all the way up to third in 2023. Calling that improvement would be a vast understatement.

Performing better against top defenses is at the top of the list this offseason. They simply weren’t good enough against the best they faced in ‘23. If we just go by the numbers against unranked teams, the Irish offense feasted. They averaged 7.53 yards per play, which was good for fourth in the country behind LSU, Oregon, and USC.

Against ranked teams that dropped all the way to 5.69 YPP (22nd). LSU and Oregon were still in the top-five in YPP. Georgia was Georgia. They were third in YPP versus ranked opponents.

Going specifically by defensive ratings, Notre Dame played five defenses who finished in the top-26 in DF+ (combined FEI and SP+ rankings): Ohio State (2nd), Clemson (10th), NC State (18th), Duke (24th), and Louisville (26th).

This is why I think the focus on Notre Dame’s struggles on the road are a bit overblown. They faced four of these five defenses away from home. The emphasis should be on them not being able to find answers against better competition no matter where the game is played. They just so happened to face most of the best defenses away from home.

NC State was an outlier. They scored 45 and averaged 7.48 YPP. That was a game that made many optimistic about Gerard Parker as an offensive coordinator. That optimism faded as the season progressed as they managed to score only 14 against Ohio State, 21 against Duke, 23 against Clemson, and 20 against Louisville (with only 13 coming in non-garbage time).

Parker may have moved on to Troy as their head coach, but if he had returned, it would have been hard to find confidence in him as a play-caller knowing how those games went. That isn’t the case with Mike Denbrock, especially after his successful last two seasons at LSU.

There is no denying that there were some personnel obstacles that were difficult to overcome last season, but Notre Dame is better and deeper at receiver. They should be better with the interior of the offensive line and hopefully will have better health with Mitchell Evans and Eli Raridon at tight end. The biggest questions are at offensive tackle.

We’ll see what Denbrock can do with this group, which doesn’t have Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr. (both first round picks) at receiver like LSU did.

The projected top defenses Notre Dame plays this season based on SP+ are Florida State at 10th, Texas A&M at 21st, Louisville at 23rd, Miami (OH) at 26th. How the offense performs in the first three games in particular will be critical in determining whether or not Notre Dame is a CFP team when all is said and done this fall.

2. As I was preparing my opponent preview for Florida State late last week, I had the realization that this will be the third straight year that Denbrock will be going up against FSU defensive coordinator Adam Fuller.

LSU opened the last two seasons against FSU and only scored 23 and 24 in those two matchups. That first game was marred by special teams mistakes (two fumbles and an unforgettable missed extra point to tie the game). The second game they averaged 7.17 YPP and were in the 82nd percentile in EPA (expected points added) per rush and 81st percentile in EPA per dropback. Only one other offense had more than 6.0 YPP vs FSU during the regular season.

The issue for LSU was on 4th down where they failed to score on 4th and goal from the 1, were stopped on 4th and 1 at the FSU 13, and had another failed 4th down in plus territory. Those plays can and did swing the game in addition to a Jayden Daniels interception that also happened over the 50-yard line.

It might not look great seeing those points for LSU in those games, but the context of why it happened reveals a different story. 

3. After pointing out how critical those failed fourth downs, it probably isn’t the best time to make an argument that Marcus Freeman needs to be more aggressive on 4th down. I’m going to do it anyway and not just because those were necessary gambles due to LSU’s trash defense allowing 45 to FSU.

As a coordinator, Freeman had a reputation for being aggressive. Al Golden is definitely aggressive as well with the amount of pressure he chooses to bring and the percentage of man coverage Notre Dame plays.

As a decision-maker on 4th down, Freeman has been anything but aggressive. Notre Dame finished tied for 110th in 4th down attempts last season. I don’t think it can be argued that Freeman was doing it because he was content to rely on his very good defense, though. They were 115th in 4th down attempts in Freeman’s first year as a head coach when the defense wasn’t as good at getting stops. I think this is just what Freeman does in those situations.

I guess it could have been that he wasn’t confident enough in his offense in 2022 and that would be understandable. He probably had too much confidence in his kicker, Spencer Shrader, last year. He had the leg to make it from anywhere, but he only made seven field goals on 13 attempts over 40 yards.

The 4th down attempts against Ohio State were the right call. They were poor in execution.

The fake field goal at the beginning of the Duke game was great. Not going for it on 4th and 3 at the Duke 43 in the 4th quarter was a mistake. That’s a spot where I would love to see Freeman be more aggressive and hopefully that’s something we see. 

4. I think people aren’t hyping up Jordan Faison as much as they should be. Not taking part in most of spring ball is the main reason for it, but he didn’t miss with an injury. He was busy as a freshman standout on Notre Dame’s national championship lacrosse team.

I’ve been digging into the numbers a bit more with Faison last season and I noticed one thing that stood out from the rest of Notre Dame’s receivers. He averaged 3.74 yards per route run, which was the highest on the team. It’s a way to measure production based on opportunity and he made the most of his opportunities.

I was curious to see how that ranked compared to others and it wasn’t just good. It was the best out of any Power 5 receiver in the country with 25+ targets.

Others in the top-10 were LSU’s Malik Nabers (first round pick), Oregon’s Tez Johnson (1,182 yards), Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. (first round pick), Oregon’s Troy Franklin (1,383 yards), Missouri’s Luther Burden (projected top receiver in 2025 NFL Draft), and Ladd McConkey (first round pick). In case you might have thought it’s not a statistic worth monitoring, there’s a pretty strong correlation between it and being a stud receiver.

From the eye test of seeing him win versus Notre Dame’s secondary in camp, to him beating fifth round pick Jarvis Brownlee deep for his first career touchdown against Louisville, to being named the MVP of the Sun Bowl, those are the kinds of things that would normally have people buzzing about him as a breakout star as a sophomore.

Maybe it’s him missing the spring. Maybe it’s his size. Maybe it’s that he was a walk-on.

Whatever it is, he could be a star for the Irish this fall. What we saw from him in only seven games as a freshman should be enough to remind people it’s a possibility he become one.

5. Mitchell Evans finished second in receiving for Notre Dame and only played eight games. Faison finished fourth and was out there for 20 snaps or more in only four of them.

That pretty much sums up the receiving production for the Irish. They didn’t have a single receiver crack the 500 yard mark in 2023 and Michael Mayer had over double the amount of receiving yards of the next closest receiver in 2022.

In the Ohio State, Duke, Louisville, and Clemson games, they only had two receivers with 40 or more receiving yards: Jaden Greathouse against Ohio State and Faison against Louisville.

Evans missed the Clemson game, but he went for 7 for 75 vs OSU, 6 for 134 vs Duke, and 4 for 71 vs Louisville.

There’s a lot of things I want to see from Notre Dame during fall camp. Near the top of the list is Evans looking like the player he was last season. He proved he can be a weapon and can rise up in  the moment in those big matchups like the one they have to open the season against Texas A&M.

6. This past week is a perfect example of how quickly things can change with recruiting. A coach who is being ripped can be celebrated after one decision. Things can be trending in one direction and then it can flip back in an instant.

Speaking of flipping, it is a bit surprising to me how many people aren’t used to this being the norm. 

Maybe it’s because the process is so much longer than it was before. Recruits are on the radar for fans almost two years before they ever enroll in college. There was plenty of drama back when Mike Frank first got into the game of covering Notre Dame football, but players weren’t committing so far in advance and the coverage of these players wasn’t anywhere close to as expansive as it is now.

I think some people have it in their head that what happened with Ivan Taylor, a highly ranked commitment who flipped to Michigan, is something that always happens with Notre Dame. They land a highly ranked player early and then he leaves the class.

And people never like when the program ends up having to go to “Plan B”, even though Notre Dame could be perfectly fine if they stick with what they have at defensive back in the 2025 class.

While Notre Dame has had a few high profile targets flip in the last few years, people seem to forget that it didn’t happen with the 2024 class. CJ Carr and Cam Williams stuck the whole time. The noise about Kyngstonn Villiamu-Asa flipping was only noise. What happened with Taylor, Keon Keeley, or Peyton Bowen happens with every big program. It actually happened twice with Bowen with him announcing for Oregon and then going to Oklahoma.

Oregon is considered a national championship contender this season. Imagine if they had OT Kelvin Banks, WR Tetairoa McMillan, RB Jadyn Ott, and WR Nic Anderson? They were all committed to them in 2023 at one point in time. Banks, McMillan, and Ott are three of the highest ranked offensive players in the new EA Sports college football game. Anderson was a freshman All-American at Oklahoma.

Ohio State had DT Justin Scott and WR Jeremiah McClellan committed in the last class before they went elsewhere.

Alabama has had three top-100 kids decommit in this class and four other 4-stars.

Georgia lost commitments from five top-150 kids in the 2024 cycle. LSU had the top ranked WR in the 2025 class, Dakorien Moore, decommit and lost six 4-stars in the 2024 class and four in the 2023 class. That doesn’t include having highly ranked players like WR Jalen Brown, OT Lance Heard, and DE Jaxon Howard who bolted after less than a year.

Brian Kelly is truly shopping down a different aisle. He has access to more 5-stars, but he now has to deal with kids leaving like it’s 2016 in South Bend.

Notre Dame isn’t going to be immune from losing top commits. The more they are in the mix for coveted recruits, the more teams are going to continue to pursue them until they officially sign (and sometimes even after).

No one is immune and it’s always going to be hard to keep recruits committed in this day and age. It’s even harder to develop and retain them once they get to campus, but what matters is having enough of the right pieces together to have a great roster.

Freeman and his staff have put in lot of work to accomplish that and one thing that I’ve seen through his time at Notre Dame is that even when they lose someone in a class, they never stop trying to get the roster where it needs to be.

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