Thoughts on Notre Dame football, its recruiting efforts and college football.
AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT - DEFENSE EDITION
Notre Dame played outstanding defense in 2019, ranking 12th in the nation in scoring defense, 18th in total defense, 8th in yards allowed per play, 3rd in pass defense, 3rd in yards allowed per pass attempt and 5th in pass efficiency defense. Notre Dame also ranked 5th in defensive efficiency according to the Fremeau Efficiency Index.
It marked the second season in a row that Notre Dame’s overall success was driven by the defense, and with five starters and a high number of key rotation players returning in 2020, and the continued maturity of the talented 2018 and 2019 recruiting classes, the Irish are poised to once again be strong on that side of the ball.
Despite the jump in production and play the last two seasons there are still areas where the defense can and must get better in order to take the final step and become an elite defensive squad. In the last Midweek Musings we discussed the areas where the offense must get better, and now let’s focus on the defense.
RUN DEFENSE MUST GET BETTER — Telling the story of the 2019 run defense isn’t easy. Overall, the run defense simply wasn’t good enough, with the Irish ranking 59th in rushing yards allowed (151.7). Notre Dame allowed at least 212 yards on the ground in four games and gave up 303 yards in the loss to Michigan.
Notre Dame ranked 36th in rush defense in 2018 and 44th in 2017. All three seasons are significantly better than what we saw from the defense from 2014-16, but it’s still not where the defense needs to be. Ideally, getting under 120 yards per game is ideal, and the closer the Irish defense gets to 100 yards per game the better.
There are signs that Notre Dame started to move in the right direction at the end of the 2019 season. After giving up 172.7 yards per game and 4.18 yards per rush in the first seven games of the season the Irish defense made a quick turnaround. It seemed the unit took the poor performance against Michigan to heart and not only got back on track, they played excellent run defense the next six games.
Notre Dame allowed just 127.2 rushing yards per game and 3.34 yards per attempt in the final six games. Part of that number is due to the 281 yards it allowed against Navy and its triple option offense, but that was almost 80 yards below Navy’s season average. A week later, Notre Dame held Boston College to 125 yards below its season average. Three of its final six opponents were held to less than 100 yards and Stanford went for just 118 yards against the Irish defense.
Navy and Boston College were both Top 10 rushing offenses, which means Notre Dame played its best run defense against strong competition. If that level of play carries into the 2020 season the Irish run defense will be able to finally match how good the unit has been against the pass the last two seasons.
Holding up better at the point of attack inside and tackling better are two areas where improvement needs to come. Notre Dame was a poor tackling team early in the season, but later in the year it got much, much better, and it’s not a coincidence that coincides with improved run defense.
FINISH MORE AT THE QUARTERBACK — Notre Dame has been a highly effective pass rushing team the last two seasons, ranking in the Top 5 nationally in pass rush grade according to Pro Football Focus. Notre Dame has been highly disruptive from a hurries standpoint, but there is still another level for the pass rush to get to if it wants to be truly elite.
Notre Dame has thrived at getting pressures and disrupting quarterbacks, but if it can start to make more hits the result will be more negative plays. That means sacks, forced fumbles, inerrant passes and ideally more turnovers for a defense that already ranked fourth in turnovers gained in 2019 (45th in 2018).
According to PFF, only 17.9-percent of Notre Dame’s passing snaps ended with a hit on the quarterback, which is either a sack or just a hit as the ball is released. Compare that to 27.8-percent to Michigan, 23.0-percent for Ohio State, 22.3-percent for Clemson and 21.0-percent for Florida.
If Notre Dame can get that number over 20-percent you will see the defense take a big leap in disruptive production next season.
RED ZONE DEFENSE MUST GET BACK ON TRACK — What’s amazing about the fact Notre Dame held opponents to just 17.9 points per game is that it was one the worst red zone defenses in the country. Notre Dame ranked 129th in red zone defense and 45th in red zone touchdown percentage.
That was quite the drop off from the unit that ranked 11th in red zone defense in 2018, and 27th in red zone touchdown percentage.
Despite being a poor red zone defense, Notre Dame still ranked 12th in scoring defense. The reason for this is opponents just couldn’t get into the red zone against the Irish. Notre Dame ranked 4th nationally in fewest red zone trips allowed, and despite ranking 129th in red zone defense (which is the percentage of times opponents score once they reach the end zone), the Irish ranked 18th in total red zone scores allowed.
Notre Dame is right on the cusp of being an elite defense, and this is an area where it can make a big leap, and that leap would make the Irish incredibly hard to defeat.
Improving the run defense is certainly a big part of this.
IMPROVED CORNERBACK PLAY — Notre Dame had outstanding cornerback play in 2018, but that took a dip in 2019. In 2018 the cornerbacks allowed 6.16 yards per pass attempt, 10.68 yards per completion, held opponents to a pass efficiency rating of 114.96. The 2019 cornerbacks allowed 6.29 yards per attempt, 11.95 yards per completion and held opponents to a pass efficiency rating of 122.09.
Now the Irish will have to replace Troy Pride Jr., who was by far the team’s best cornerback in 2019. There is talent returning at the position, but it is young and wildly unproven beyond Shaun Crawford and TaRiq Bracy.
Notre Dame needs to get back to playing cornerback like it did in 2018, and perhaps even a step better. There is a reason this is ranked last. If the run defense and pass rush are top notch it takes a great deal of pressure off the cornerbacks. Also, Notre Dame has the talent at safety to help protect the corners if the need arises.
TOSH BAKER IS ONE OF THE NATION'S PREMIER BLOCKER
When I released my final ranking for Notre Dame’s 2020 recruiting class in December I gave Phoenix (Ariz.) Pinnacle offensive tackle Tosh Baker high marks. The 6-8, 275-pound blocker has tremendous upside and talent, and he’d earned a Top 50 national ranking by both 247Sports and Rivals. That Top 50 ranking matched up perfectly with where I had Baker as a prospect based on game film.
My Top 50 ranking came from watching two years worth of film, which is where the services likely got their evaluation for him. I’ve broken down about 10-12 games of Baker, and there is little doubt he has five-star upside and is one of the nation’s top blockers.
That’s what made his recent drop by Rivals head scratching, to say the least. Baker’s film over the previous two years — let me emphasize the years part there, years — resulted in him being a Top 50 prospect. Then, after a handful of practices at an all-star event, Baker not only saw his ranking drop, but he fell completely out of the Top 100, falling all the way to No. 136.
I’ll leave the evaluation of that ranking to others, and services can rank players where they want to rank players. Here’s what I know about Baker. He has elite length, he has a tremendous frame that will allow him to get well over 300 pounds once he stops playing basketball (this is quite important) and he has a game that reminds me a great deal of former Irish All-American Ronnie Stanley in that he grades out as a potential elite pass blocker with good run blocking potential.
Baker has rare athleticism for his size and a good punch, and after some time in a college weight room his ability to move people will take off. I feel quite good about the Top 50 ranking that I and 247Sports have for Baker.
If it makes Notre Dame fans feel any better, Stanley was ranked No. 176 in the nation by Rivals and Mike McGlinchey wasn’t even in the Top 250. So Baker still ranks ahead of two former Notre Dame blockers that were Top 10 NFL Draft picks, and being ranked No. 136 doesn’t mean they don’t think he’s a really good player. If you are a four-star recruit they think you can play.
But in my view, there is little doubt that Baker is a Top 50 national recruit and an offensive lineman Irish fans should be very excited about landing, no matter where he might be ranked.
WHERE SHOULD NOTRE DAME RANK IN 2020?
I’ve seen several way-too-early Top 25’s and there is a common theme, Notre Dame will be in the Top 10 to start the 2020 season.
Sports Illustrated, Sporting News and ESPN have the Irish ranked between No. 8 and No. 10 in their first crack at formulating a preseason Top 25 for next season. Is that accurate, or should Notre Dame be higher, or even lower?
Based on the talent Notre Dame has coming back, the schedule it plays and the way it finished the 2019 season there is no doubt in my mind the Fighting Irish should be a Top 10 preseason team. While some might not view it as being overly important, I believe it is.
With teams starting to schedule softer in the non-conference and certain leagues not being as competitive in the middle-to-bottom, there was a higher number of one and two loss teams in 2019, which I broke down recently. That means it is a bit harder to climb up the rankings unless you go undefeated, or start much higher. This is especially more challenging if you lose in the early to middle part of the season, which is the opposite of how it used to be.
We saw that with Notre Dame in 2019. Despite a preseason ranking in the Top 10 and five straight wins to finish the regular season (by an average margin of 23.6 points), the Irish could climb no higher than No. 15 in the College Football Playoff ranking.
The higher you start the higher you rank if you suffer a loss, which makes climbing back up even more important. This is especially true for Notre Dame, who does not play the kind of daunting schedules it did back in the Lou Holtz era, or even early in the Brian Kelly era.
Notre Dame’s schedule is set up well for another run at the College Football Playoff, which I broke down recently. You can read that HERE.
Clemson and Ohio State should certainly be Top 10 teams in the preseason, as should Georgia, Oklahoma and Penn State. Notre Dame is certainly in that mix along with programs like LSU and Oregon.
If Notre Dame can get an early season win over Wisconsin and win the rest of the games they are supposed to win, a high ranking to start the season means we could be looking at a matchup of a Top 5 teams when Clemson travels to South Bend for the first Saturday of November.
TWEET OF THE WEEK
If you are more of a college football fan than an NFL fan, or if your favorite NFL was knocked out of the playoffs - or like my team, the Denver Broncos, didn't make the playoffs, there's certainly plenty of reason to still watch the Super Bowl.
This tweet shows four good reasons for Notre Dame fans to tune in:
FILM TO WATCH
Defensive line coach Mike Elston has been a very busy man lately, throwing out a number of offers to talented 2021 and 2022 defensive linemen. The list of 2021 offers is quite impressive. I'm going to continue sharing film of some of the 2021 linemen I like the most, which I started in the last Musings.
Up next is Suffield (Conn.) Academy defensive end Kechaun Bennett, whose game reminds me a great deal of former Irish standout Julian Okwara when he was the same age.