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Breaking Down Notre Dame’s 2021 NFL Draft Prospects

By Michael Bicknell | April 17, 2021

The 2021 NFL draft is right around the corner, and there are numerous Notre Dame football alumni looking to land a spot on an NFL roster. The best bet for the number of Irish players […]

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Projecting 2021 Freshmen Contributions

By Michael Bicknell | March 4, 2021

With the addition of RB Logan Diggs during the February signing period, the 2021 Notre Dame recruiting class is officially set. The Irish add 27 incoming freshmen, including a record-breaking 14 early enrollees (the previous record for early enrollees in a single class was 10 from the 2019 class). The overall size of the class ties the mark set in 2018, where the Irish also inked 27 recruits, for the largest class of the Brian Kelly era.

According to both Rivals and 247sports, the 2021 class is tied with the 2011 class (both ranked #9) for Kelly’s 2nd highest ranked recruiting class with the Irish, trailing only 2013’s #3 ranked class. However, it is important to remember that class recruiting rankings are also heavily weighted by the number of recruits in a given class. Therefore, larger classes with perhaps a lower average recruiting ranking tend to have their class ranking slightly inflated. It is also important to note that ND has been able to leverage its talent from the last several recruiting classes (typically within the mid-teen class rankings) into two CFP births in 3 years. ND still needs to crack into that elite top-5 talent pool, but it cannot be argued that the Irish are targeting and developing the “Tier 2” talent at a better rate than anyone in the country.

As noted above, the Irish will be bringing in a plethora of talent with this 2021 class, but opportunities for playing time will be scarce going into next season. Returning talent combined with Coach Kelly’s aversion to playing inexperienced freshmen seem to indicate a narrow path to immediate contribution for the 2021 class, but the added benefits of so many early enrollees could present an interesting situation for the Irish coaching staff heading into next season. Here are the best bets for the freshmen class during the 2021 season:

Competing for Playing Time (7)

Ryan Barnes (Early Enrollee), Tyler Buchner (EE), Blake Fisher (EE), Khari Gee, Philip Riley (EE), Gabriel Rubio (EE), Rocco Spindler (EE)

To reiterate, it is always tough for true freshmen to break the 2-deep, and there is a decent chance that no one from this group sees significant snaps next season, but each will be given a legitimate look to compete for a spot in the gameday rotation. Barnes, Riley, and Gee will all have opportunities to showcase their speed and awareness for wide-open defensive backfield spots. Fisher and Spindler both arrive with the strength and size to immediately compete for playing time on an inexperienced OL. Rubio comes in as one of ND’s most talented prospects and will perhaps allow the coaching staff to feel comfortable moving one of their upperclassmen DTs to the edge. Buchner will face an uphill battle at QB, but his status as an early enrollee will allow him to compete in the QB race right from the start.

Special Teams Contributors (3)

Kahanu Kia, Prince Kollie, Lorenzo Styles Jr. (EE)

Hawaii-native Kahanu Kia and 2020 Prep Butkus Award winner Prince Kollie arrive as talented LB prospects who the coaching staff will look to for help on special teams next season. Kia arrives with less fanfare than Kollie, but history seems to indicate that Hawaiian prospects are typically vastly underrated. Meanwhile, consensus seems to indicate that Kollie is indeed the real deal, and Irish fans would love to see Kollie follow in the footsteps of the only two players to win both the high school and collegiate Butkus awards – ex-Irish LBs Manti Te’o and Jaylon Smith. Styles will compete for return roles on special teams starting on day one.

Likely to Redshirt (4)

Cane Berrong (EE), Deion Colzie, Logan Diggs, Audric Estime

There is an outside chance that TE Cane Berrong will be given a chance to compete for playing time if OC Tommy Rees wants to utilize certain 14-personnel sets in the red zone again this year. WR Deion Colzie and RBs Logan Diggs and Audric Estime will face deep competition at their position groups, but special teams contributions are still on the table for 2021.

Locks to Redshirt (13)

Joe Alt, Devin Aupiu (EE), Josh Bryan, Pat Coogan, Mitchell Evans (EE), Caleb Johnson (EE), JoJo Johnson, Jason Onye, Ron Powlus III (EE), Will Schweitzer (EE), Jayden Thomas, Chance Tucker, Justin Walters (EE)

All of the linemen in this group will benefit from a redshirt year in Matt Balis’s strength program. Mitchell Evans will be converting from playing QB on his high school team to TE in South Bend. WR Jayden Thomas and CBs JoJo Johnson and Chance Tucker will likely be behind the curve as summer enrollees. Josh Bryan will likely have to really impress in the summer in order to unseat Jonathon Doerer as the starting kicker.

Last Thoughts – Rest in Peace to former Notre Dame DT and fan favorite, Louis Nix III, who passed away over the weekend. “Irish Chocolate” was such a joy to follow on and off the field, and I think I speak for many Irish fans when I say I am forever grateful to Louis for all of the fun he brought to an unforgettable 2012 football season.

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Notre Dame Position Rankings Heading into 2021

By Michael Bicknell | February 8, 2021

1. Running Backs – Notre Dame’s deepest and most talented position group heading into 2021 is hands down located in the running back room. 1,000-yard rusher Kyren Williams burst on to the scene this past season to set the tone for the offense. Williams is borderline infallible in the backfield and will be a candidate for an early NFL draft entrant if he builds on his 2020 success. Former Top 100 speedster Chris Tyree will only improve and will benefit from a full off-season in the weight room. 3rd string option C’Bo Flemister runs at defenders like they personally dishonored his family. This is all on top of talented incoming freshman Audric Estime, who will be crunched for playing time during his true freshman season.

2. Defensive Tackles – Notre Dame will return every player from its 3-deep at both DT spots in 2021, including 5th year senior Kurt Hinish (7.5 TFL, 2 sacks), who decided to exercise his free year of eligibility provided by the COVID-19 pandemic. Fellow 5th year Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (5.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks) was also a force in the middle this past season. Look for Jayson Ademilola to return to his 2019 form after a knee injury sidelined him for a portion of this past season and for rising sophomore Rylie Mills to continue to progress and push the upperclassmen for playing time.

3.  Tight Ends – Rising sophomore Michael Mayer is coming off a record-breaking freshman season, in which he set the mark for receptions (42) and receiving yards (450) by a Notre Dame freshman TE. His physicality in the blocking game steadily improved throughout last season, and his rapid rise likely played a hand in physical bruiser Tommy Tremble’s early departure for the NFL. Although ND loses two key blocking cogs to departure in Tremble and Brock Wright, there are high expectations surrounding George Takacs, a 6’6, 245-lb “late bloomer” who has impressed each time he has seen the field in limited action. The coaching staff is also high on rising sophomore Kevin Bauman, who should provide the TE room with plenty of weapons in their defense of the “TE U” title.

4.  Linebackers – The Irish will take a big hit in losing the 2020 Butkus Award winner, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who displayed his versatility in both the run and pass games. It’s safe to say that no one on ND’s current roster will be able to replicate what JOK provided to the Irish defense. On the other hand, ND does return a slew of talent and experience at LB. MLB Drew White finished 4th on the team in 2020 with 56 tackles and seemed to bring his best in ND’s biggest games.  MLB Bo Bauer also provides great depth at the position and should see a good deal of playing time in 2021, especially on blitz packages, where he finished last season with 4.5 TFL and 1 sack. ND began the past season with a 3-player race at WLB between Shayne Simon, Marist Liufau, and Jack Kiser, and pretty much ended the season where it started. Each flashed signs of excellence throughout the season, but none seized hold of the position. I fully expect Liufau to emerge as the “go-to” guy in 2021. The Rover/Sniper role in Marcus Freeman’s defense will be a battle between Ohio State transfer Isaiah Pryor and rising senior Paul Moala. Pryor (who physically looks like he could put up a decent fight with Floyd Mayweather in the ring) struggled to see the field at safety last year before being moved to the “Rover” LB position following Moala’s season-ending Achilles tendon tear. Given the tricky nature of an injury like Moala’s, I predict that Pryor will emerge from spring practice as the first option at the position.

5. Safeties – Kyle Hamilton. That’s pretty much it. Hamilton led the Irish in tackles last year with 63, which is even more impressive when you consider that opposing teams try to throw the ball as far away from Hamilton as they possibly can. Hamilton covers essentially 2/3 of the field in zone coverage due to his length and speed. ND fans should enjoy Hamilton’s unique skill set as much as possible this upcoming season, since there is a good chance it will be his last in South Bend. On the opposite side of the field, Houston Griffith, who the coaches convinced to stay with the program, will compete with DJ Brown, who filled in admirably when called upon at both nickel and safety. I also expect incoming true freshman Khari Gee (a late flip from LSU) to immediately press for playing time.

6.  Offensive Line – The OL takes the biggest hit of any position group heading into next season. ND loses 4 of its 5 starters on the OL, many of whom will likely find homes in the NFL, but the Irish have plenty of talent to reload. Jarrett Patterson is the lone returning starter of the bunch. Patterson, who PFF ranked as the #9 C in college football last season, is recovering from season-ending surgery for a broken foot and is expected to be moved to LT. I’m personally skeptical of the ability to move from an interior OL position to LT with extremely limited mobility in the spring and lean more towards Patterson ending up at LG, but either way, he will likely not return to center in 2021. That’s because the center position will be manned by rising junior Zeke Correll, who started in two of ND’s biggest games this past season (UNC and Alabama) and performed quite nicely. Josh Lugg will likely slide into RT, where he impressed while filling in for Robert Hainsey to end 2019. Outside of Patterson, Correll, and Lugg, it’s really anyone’s game. Players to keep an eye on include 5th year senior guard Dillan Gibbons, junior tackle Andrew Kristofic, 6’6 300-lb junior guard Quinn Carroll, and 6’8 300-lb sophomore tackle Tosh Baker, with Top 100 true freshman guard Rocco Spindler a dark horse.

7. Wide Receivers – The WRs flat out disappointed in 2020. Javon McKinley, Ben Skowronek, and Avery Davis performed to the best of their abilities, but it simply was not enough. Blocking was never an issue, but the inability to make quick bursts in route-running really handicapped Ian Book and the offense last year. The WR room has nowhere to go but up in 2021. Although this seems to only exist in hope rather than reality, a fully healthy Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy should provide ND with the type of playmakers they need on the outside to compete with the “big boys.” Avery Davis (24 rec, 322 yds in 2020) provides a reliable threat in the slot and look for Lawrence Keys to really press Davis for playing time heading into next season. And of course, to the satisfaction of message boards across the country, I fully expect rising sophomore and former 5-star recruit Jordan Johnson to emerge and finish near the top of the team lead in receptions in 2021.

8. Special Teams – Although not *technically* a position group, I decided to include special teams in my position rankings given its unique impact as a unit. In 2020, the Irish special teams play started out incredibly strong before stumbling across the finish line. Senior kicker Jon Doerer began the season with a solid 11-14 (79%) FG mark while building off his incredibly strong 2020, only to see his confidence vanish amidst a 4-9 (44%) finish. I expect Doerer to land somewhere between his 2019 and 2020 performances heading into next season. ND should be able to carry over their success in both kickoff and punt coverage, which consistently ranked in the top tier from the season’s start to finish. I also expect incoming freshman Lorenzo Styles Jr. to immediately compete for the punt returner role, with a quiet confidence that he will provide a significant threat at the position. ND will also return reliable pieces in punter Jay Bramblett and walk-on long snapper Michael Vinson, who had a quietly successful 2020. As the adage goes, you only notice the long snapper when something has gone terribly wrong.

9. Defensive Ends – Although ND does lose both starters from this past season in Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji, I am really high on both Isaiah Foskey and Justin Ademilola heading into next season and would not be shocked if the DE’s actually outperform their 2020 production as a unit. Foskey has flashed major NFL potential in his first two seasons at ND, including last season where he finished with 5 TFL and 4.5 sacks. At the other end, Justin Ademilola has displayed major progress each year with the Irish, and I am convinced that Mike Elston should tweak his DL rotation to only include rotations where the Ademilola twins play next to each other in order to maximize the twin telepathy. Rising sophomore Jordan Botehlo should get a ton of opportunities this season, and fans are excited to watch him translate some of the monster hits he displayed on special teams last year to opposing teams’ QBs. Depth will certainly be an issue at DE in 2021 following Ovie Oghoufo’s departure, but look for Nana Osafa-Mensah to step up or else Elston will be forced to look at a potential position conversion from the incredibly deep DT cupboard.

10. Quarterbacks –Ian Book will go down as a legendary player for the Irish who will perhaps best be remembered for the most important single statistic in team competition – wins. Notre Dame loses its all-time program leader in wins (30) with Book’s departure, but a potentially exciting future awaits. Grad transfer Jack Coan from Wisconsin will step onto campus as the early favorite to win the starting job, and reports out of Madison are glowing for the Long Island native’s leadership and team-first attitude. Coan’s experience gives him a leg up on rising junior Brendon Clark, who is dealing with a lingering knee injury, and rising sophomore Drew Pyne, who similar to Book, is a bit undersized. The wild card in the QB race is true freshman Tyler Buchner, another Top 100 recruit who has the potential to be ND’s next game changer but missed his entire senior season in California due to COVID-19. Buchner finished his junior season at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, CA throwing for 4,474 yards to go along with 53 TDs and 6 INTs. Much has been written about the connection between the “next step” for the program and an elite, game-changing QB. Buchner can be that guy. In a perfect world, Coan would start the first chunk of the season next year, while gradually phasing Buchner into the game plans. There is a ton of uncertainty, but if Buchner is able to compete with Coan by the middle of next season, ND will have a really positive situation in their hands.

11. Cornerbacks – True freshman Clarence Lewis excelled in 2020 at the field corner position, finishing tied for 5th on the team with 33 tackles and 2nd on the team with 7 pass deflections. He solidified himself as the starter over Tariq Bracy, who should provide some great depth at the field corner position next season. On the boundary side, things are less certain. Rising junior Cam Hart should have an inside track in the spring, and coaches are hoping he can seize that role while utilizing his 6’3 frame. Other candidates for the boundary position include 6’2 early enrollee Ryan Barnes and 6’1 freshman Philip Riley. The corners will have plenty to prove.

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A Daunting Task: Notre Dame vs. Alabama Preview

By Michael Cannon | December 31, 2020

In a year full of crazy events, Friday’s matchup of Notre Dame and Alabama is sure to fit that bill.  For the first time since 1942, the Rose Bowl will not be played in Pasadena, California, but will instead take place in Dallas, Texas.  The fourth ranked Fighting Irish are set to take on the top ranked Crimson Tide of Alabama for the first time since the 2012-13 BCS National Championship.  Friday’s matchup, according to all of the “experts”, seems to be unfavorable for the Irish, but that’s why the game is played – nothing is impossible.  Was Notre Dame’s most recent showing against Clemson favorable?  Absolutely not.  But is that a reason to be down on this year’s version of the Irish?  Not at all.  Alabama’s offense is full of playmakers and Heisman Trophy finalists but, in my opinion, the Crimson Tide’s defense is nothing crazier than what the Irish have previously gone up against.  It will come down to Notre Dame’s ability to stop Alabama’s high-powered offense that will ultimately give the Irish a chance to shock the world.

The Crimson Tide are led by quarterback Mac Jones who is surrounded by multiple first round NFL draft picks in numerous positions.  The AP player of the year, Alabama’s wide receiver, DeVonta Smith, is an unbelievable talent.  In the Crimson Tide backfield is Najee Harris, another completely daunting task to go against.  Alabama’s offense is full of top-tier talent from top to bottom.  So what can Clark Lea and the Notre Dame defense do to stop them?  In my opinion, it comes down to two key factors: playing zone coverage on the Crimson Tide wide receivers and forcing the pocket to collapse on Mac Jones.  If the Irish are able to get relatively consistent pressure on Jones and force him in to errant throws, a turnover forced by the Irish defense could be a huge momentum swing.  Alabama’s offense is averaging nearly 50 points per game and have only scored below 40 points one time this season – that coming in their season opener.  So, needless to say, stoping them is going to be a tall task.  Alabama has not been forced to put the ball more than twice in a game all season.  Notre Dame needs to play a similar defensive scheme as to what they showed in the first outing against Clemson.  Contain the pocket and pressure the quarterback.  I personally don’t trust the Irish cornerbacks against Alabama’s wide receivers, which is why I think zone coverage would be more beneficial for the Notre Dame defense.  It’s not an impossible task, but the Irish defenders will undoubtedly have to bring their A-game.  It is also important to note that similar to the Irish, Alabama is also going to be missing their starting center who went out with an injury in the final quarter of the SEC Championship Game.  Notre Dame will need to focus on exploiting this potential weakness in the Crimson Tide’s offensive line to get pressure on Jones and to contain Harris and the run game.  Even with that being said, Alabama has not had to punt more than twice in a game throughout this entire season, so Notre Dame will really need to keep the Tide’s offense in check if they want this to be a competitive matchup.

When it comes to Notre Dame possessing the ball, it is going to come down to establishing the running game and stringing together long, sustainable drives.  As the saying goes, sometimes “the best offense is a good defense”.  If Notre Dame is able to string together a few longer drives, getting Kyren Williams and the ground game going, they will be able to chew up significant time on the clock, keeping the high-powered Crimson Tide offense off the field.  When Notre Dame’s ground game opens up, it allows for Ian Book and the offense to be multi-dimensional, getting the Irish wide receivers more involved in the game.  Notre Dame’s biggest struggles have come when one facet of the offense has been shut down and they have been forced to rely on a single aspect for success.  The running and passing games need to be working in tandem if the Irish want to keep up with the Tide.  If I were Tommy Rees, coordinating Notre Dame’s offense, I would call multiple play-action passes that allow Book to get out of the pocket and stretch the Alabama defense horizontally.  This will not only create the potential for confusion with the Crimson Tide defenders, but also give the ability for Book to use his legs in the running game when necessary and get out of a potential collapsing pocket.  In the most recent matchup against Clemson, the Tigers seemed to be getting a lot of pressure up the middle, so if Book can escape from that earlier, I think he will have more success.  On the offensive side of the ball, I am not very intimidated by Alabama’s defense and hope that a combination of play-action calls, an established running game, and some crossing routes favoring Notre Dame’s tight ends against Alabama’s linebackers, will be the recipe for success.  

With the Irish coming in as nearly three touchdown underdogs, this is the largest spread in College Football Playoff history.  Alabama has had no problems scoring the ball this year, putting up 40 or more points in every single game other than the season opener.  That doesn’t come as much of a shock with the amount of talent they have on that side of the ball, however I would put up the argument that Notre Dame’s defense might be the best defense they have faced this year.  I think this game will have shades of the first matchup against Clemson this year, if Tommy Rees’s play calling is advantageous and allows Ian Book time and space to run, I think the Irish have the ability to put up a decent amount of points.  As I have done all year, I am not going to pick against the Irish in my final score prediction; we have made it this far!  I am going to go with a 34-31 Notre Dame victory.  At the end of the day, the Irish are one of four teams left playing meaningful college football – nothing to be ashamed of.  Go Irish.  Beat Crimson Tide. 

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