Midweek Musings: Sophomores Looking To Make A Major Impact In 2021

Thoughts on Notre Dame football, its recruiting efforts and college football
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Thoughts on Notre Dame football, its recruiting efforts and college football.

SOPHOMORES LOOKING TO HAVE A MAJOR IMPACT IN 2021

Notre Dame's talented sophomore class is poised to have a major impact in 2021. We all know about tight end Michael Mayer, running back Chris Tyree and cornerback Clarence Lewis, but the list of potential impact players in the class is much longer than that.

Here's a look at the rising sophomores to watch, beginning with the offense.

Drew Pyne, Quarterback - Grad transfer Jack Coan heads into the summer as the likely starter at quarterback, but Pyne is making Coan work hard to win and keep the job. Pyne's advanced intellect and precision passing makes him a highly effective thrower. Those traits allow him to overcome his lack of elite size, athleticism or arm strength.

If Pyne doesn't earn the starting job he would likely have his number called should Coan falter or go down with an injury. Him pushing Coan also will make the veteran a better player.

Xavier Watts, Wide Receiver - Watts was hampered by a minor hamstring injury during the spring, but he'll get another chance to charge up the depth chart this summer and in fall camp. The departure of classmate Jordan Johnson also opens up rep opportunities for Watts, who projects as a potential impact player on the outside just as much as he does in the slot.

The Omaha, Neb. native isn't a burner, but he's a dynamic athlete that can stretch the field, do damage after the catch and he's a developing pass catcher when it comes to making plays on the ball down the field. If he can stay healthy, continue expanding his knowledge of the offense, and if he gets an opportunity to earn real reps he could become a much-needed YAC playmaker in the offense.

Watts came to Notre Dame as a raw player from a technical standpoint. It would be wise for the coaching staff to spend extra time with him to help advance his route running. Once his technical game improves Watts could be a breakout player.

Tosh Baker, Offensive Tackle - Baker added a lot of weight in one year and it looked like he gained some bad upper body weight, which can happen with young players who have to eat a lot early on to gain weigh. Now that the weight was added Baker can focus on reshaping that weight and continuing to improve his technique.

Baker is a very long and athletic edge blocker, and his ceiling is as high, if not higher, than any tackle on the roster not named Blake Fisher. He's still developing, and his technique (footwork and hand play) both still need a lot of work. Getting whipped a bit this spring should be good for Fisher, and if he can have as good of a summer as he had in the fall he'll take a big jump forward in the fall.

Baker's spring struggles might keep him from making a legitimate push for a starting job this fall, but he'll likely be the third tackle, which means if there's an injury or a tackle struggles he'll be called upon. Baker and Fisher appear to be the tackle tandem of the future, but how much growth he makes in the next four months will go a long way towards determining how quickly the future arrives.

Jordan Botelho, Vyper - Despite the loss of Daelin Hayes - a 5th round pick of the Baltimore Ravens - Notre Dame appears to still be loaded at the Vyper position. Junior Isaiah Foskey is an emerging player with first-round NFL Draft pick potential, and the emergence of high-motor sophomore Botelho gives the Irish a chance to have a dynamic one-two punch at the Vyper position.

Botelho flashed big-time edge rushing skills all spring, and it culminated with an outstanding performance in the Blue-Gold Game. If his brilliant spring carries into the fall the Irish could have a 2021 Vyper combination that could be as good - if not better - than the 2018 duo of Hayes and Julian Okwara.

Botelho's ability to play off-the-ball and Foskey's ability to play with power should allow defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to find ways to get Botelho and Foskey on the field together.

Rylie Mills, Defensive Tackle - The Vyper position isn't the only spot where Notre Dame has a chance to have a dynamic one-two punch. Mills is expected to combine with senior Jayson Ademilola to form an explosive, playmaking duo at the three-technique. Ademilola had a brilliant spring and is expected to become a difference maker in the fall, but Mills also had a big spring, which gives the Irish as talented of a three-technique depth chart as we've seen in a long time at Notre Dame.

Ademilola and Mills both have the ability to play on the edge, which means there could be instances where Notre Dame can use them together in certain looks, although the expectation is that they will primarily be in a rotation. Ademilola is about 285 pounds and Mills is listed at just 273 pounds, so both are a bit undersized for the interior. 

That combination means the staff can use them in a way that eases the workload burden on both, which prevents them from wearing down and protects Ademilola a bit from the injuries that have hindered him at times the last two seasons. 

Aidan Keanaaina, Nose Tackle - The presence of Kurt Hinish, Howard Cross III and Jacob Lacey could make it a bit difficult for Keanaaina to get a lot of snaps in 2021, but he impressed during the spring. Keanaaina brings size (6-3, 312) that no one else on the roster possesses, which means if he continues to play as well as he did this spring the staff could be forced to find a role for him.

I could see a scenario in which Keanaaina finds an early role as a short-yardage goal line player, and if he thrives in that role it could result in him getting expanded minutes later in the season, especially against opponents who like to run the football. 

Ramon Henderson, Cornerback - Head coach Brian Kelly praised Henderson's development, but we didn't get to see much of the strong play Kelly talked about during the practice highlight videos. Henderson had a quality performance in the Blue-Gold Game and he has an impressive combination of size (6-1, 189) and speed. As his technique improves his ability to make a push for playing time will increase.

POST-SPRING RANKINGS ARE A BIT OF A HEAD SCRATCHER

The post-spring rankings are coming out and not a lot has changed. I'm still puzzled by the low view of Notre Dame, and it's ability to reload, and I'm just as puzzled at the hype being thrown around to other programs.

Notre Dame is ranked 11th in the CBS Sports post-spring Top 25 and the Irish are ranked 12th by ESPN, which is actually up from the No. 15 ranking the program had prior to spring. Notre Dame, of course, finished the 2020 season ranked 4th in the polls after making the College Football Playoff for the second time in three seasons.

Notre Dame just had nine players drafted, which was just one behind Alabama and Ohio State, who led all programs in drafted players. Alabama is the preseason No. 1 squad by CBS and No. 2 by ESPN, while Ohio State is ranked No. 4 and No. 5, respectively.

The message is clear, those media outlets believe Alabama and Ohio State will simply reload despite those heavy personnel losses, while Notre Dame is going to fall back, and fall back behind programs like Georgia, Iowa State, North Carolina, Cincinnati, Oregon, Texas A&M and in ESPN's case, even behind Indiana.

Yes, ESPN ranks Indiana ahead of Notre Dame in this year's post-spring Top 25. I shouldn't be surprised considering the source, but it's certainly a head scratcher. Iowa State is ranked 6th by both CBS and ESPN, despite going 9-3 last season, a record that includes a 31-14 home loss to Louisiana-Lafayette.

North Carolina - a program that went 8-4, got smacked at home by Notre Dame, and lost a pair of 1,000-yard rushers and a 1,000-yard receiver - is ranked ahead of Notre Dame in both rankings. The Heels are 7th in the CBS ranking and 8th by ESPN.

The good news for Notre Dame is several teams ranked ahead of them or just behind them in the early rankings are on the schedule, so the Irish will have a chance to prove the media wrong, or confirm their doubts about the program.

CBS Sports Rankings - ND Opponents

#7 - North Carolina
#10 - Cincinnati
#12 - Wisconsin
#14 - USC

ESPN Rankings - ND Opponents

#8 - North Carolina
#9 - Cincinnati
#13 - USC
#18 - Wisconsin

BREAKING DOWN THE RUNNING BACK BIG BOARD

This edition's video of the week is also our recruiting topic for the week, and that is the running back position. In the video I break down why Notre Dame is looking for two backs in the class, we break down the film/game of the "big three" backs on the board, the case for just one back if the Irish don't land one of those three backs and then do a long Q&A session.

You can find this and all of our other videos on our YouTube Channel.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

Notre Dame has started another recruiting/branding push on social media, and it shows ND players talking about why they chose Notre Dame. One of the best was from Houston Griffith.

Irish Breakdown Content

Notre Dame 2022 Commits Big Board: Offense
Notre Dame 2022 Commits Big Board: Defense

2022 Big Board: Running Back
2022 Big Board: Slot Receivers

Notre Dame 2022 Scholarship Offers

Notre Dame 2022 Class Big Board

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