Friday Five: Notre Dame Gets One Step Closer To Rare Linebacker Haul
He joins four-star Grand Rapids (Mich.) Central Catholic product Nolan Ziegler. That’s two four-star linebackers. The Irish haven’t snagged a pair of them in one cycle since 2018.
This linebacker class, though, is set up to grow more. Notre Dame is allotting lots of space for the position. It’s taking advantage of defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s recruiting ability.
I’ll take my colleague Mike Singer at his word about the Irish’s standing for top-150 linebackers Sebastian Cheeks from Evanston Township (Ill.) High and Junior Tuihalamaka from Mission Hills (Calif.) Bishop Alemany. He has a FutureCast pick in for both to land at Notre Dame.
That would be a quartet of four-star linebackers in one cycle. Notre Dame is also still involved with two more four-stars: Hilton Head (S.C.) High’s Jaylen Sneed and Omaha (Neb.) Burke’s Devon Jackson. Each has real interest in Notre Dame.
Any foursome of four-star linebackers would be an impressive and infrequent haul. It has happened only nine times since 2014 among Football Bowl Subdivision teams: 2021 (Alabama), 2020 (Alabama, LSU, Michigan), 2018 (USC, Ohio State), 2017 (Alabama), 2016 (UCLA) and 2015 (USC).
Not every team signs four linebackers in a class, of course, but to achieve that mix of quantity and quality is still a rarity. It would also be the kind of haul the Irish need to grab at multiple positions each cycle if they’re going to make up ground on the select few teams that have kept them at arm’s length.
2. Interior Pressure
In 2019, Notre Dame ranked 13th in sack rate (9.2%), third in standard downs sack rate (10.1%) and 66th in passing downs sack rate (8.0%). Its 2020 rankings in those areas changed to 42nd (7.3%), 32nd (6.5%) and 60th (8.3%), respectively.
The first one is important. The number of sacks per game is largely the same (2.58 this season, 2.61 in 2019), but the Irish sacked opposing quarterbacks on 2% fewer of their dropbacks.
Yet Notre Dame was still one of the country’s most disruptive defenses, with a 21.1% havoc rate. A 3.6% drop in standard downs sack rate (first down, second-and-7 or shorter) didn’t hurt the defense’s third-down effectiveness – which improved from 2019 to 2020.
It can point to more pressure and havoc from its interior defensive line, which had the same cast of characters both seasons, as a big reason its pass-rush activity didn’t decrease despite the sack rate decline.
With the exception of one small drop in one area by Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, the three primary interior players each upped their pressure rate (pressures divided by pass-rush snaps), total pressures (sacks, hits and hurries) and pass-rush productivity (more on that here), per Pro Football Focus.
• NT Kurt Hinish
2019: 2.5% pressure rate, .38 pressures per game, 1.9 pass-rush productivity
2020: 8.9% pressure rate, 1.41 pressures per game, 5.4 pass-rush productivity
• DT Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa
2019: 9.6% pressure rate, 1.85 pressures per game, 5.7 pass-rush productivity
2020: 10.2% pressure rate, 1.73 pressures per game, 5.8 pass-rush productivity
• DT Jayson Ademilola
2019: 7.9% pressure rate, .82 pressures per game, 4.4 pass-rush productivity
2020: 10.3% pressure rate, 1.88 pressures per game, 5.6 pass-rush productivity
Furthermore, the combination of backup nose tackles Jacob Lacey and Howard Cross III had a 6.7% pressure rate and 1.0 pressures per game, up from Lacey’s 6.3% and .58 in 2019. Tagovailoa-Amosa and Hinish also combined for 13.0 tackles for loss in 2020 after totaling 7.0 in 2019.
All told, that was an under-appreciated contribution from a group that didn’t get enough attention for its consistency.
3. Speaking Of Under-appreciated...
I tracked individual defensive wins last season, which I’m now calling splash plays. Splash plays are sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, pass breakups, interceptions, third- or fourth-down stops and goal-to-go tackles that net less than half the needed yards for the offense.
The 2020 Notre Dame leaders in splash plays:
• LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah: 30
• LB Drew White: 23
• S Kyle Hamilton: 22
No. 2 might be a surprise to some. I don’t think White earns enough credit for his week-to-week steadiness. Bo Bauer’s emergence as a capable complement and the nickel linebacker seemed to hide it. His presence probably means White is still not going to play on many third downs, but a two-down linebacker who delivers his impact is still a commodity.
An illustration: White’s 11.2 percent run-stop rate was 30th among Football Bowl Subdivision linebackers who played at least 180 snaps in run defense. That figure led the team. (Owusu-Koramoah had a 7.8 percent run-stop rate, for comparison). White did allow 12 of the 15 passes thrown his way to be completed, but for only 8.3 yards per catch and zero touchdowns.
4. Jack Coan's Deep Ball
I wrote about this earlier in the week, but a recent Pro Football Focus ranking of the top 30 transfers in college football had Jack Coan at No. 19 and said to expect more of the same play that Ian Book provided as Notre Dame’s quarterback. Specifically, it cited downfield passing concerns.
“Coan's deep ball, however, was far too errant,” PFF’s Anthony Treash wrote. “There were several instances of him getting overconfident and forcing deep shots that weren’t there. Exactly 20% of his 20-plus yard throws were deemed turnover-worthy [in 2019], the worst rate in the Power Five.”
There’s a little more context needed, though. Coan’s 34.4 big-time throw percentage on passes at least 20 yards downfield was fifth among Power Five quarterbacks. His 59.4% adjusted completion rate was fourth. He was one of nine FBS quarterbacks who attempted at least 30 deep passes and completed at least half of them.
Isn’t it a good thing for Notre Dame to have a quarterback who, as Treash noted, is willing to throw downfield? The numbers say more of those throws were big-time than turnover-worthy. That’s a net positive and a source of explosive plays the Irish could use.
I look at Coan’s low deep throw rate in 2019 (9.4% of dropbacks) as mostly a product of the offense he played in at Wisconsin. He’s not afraid to wait for shot plays to develop or let a downfield pass fly when he’s about to get hit. Maybe he’s more of the same as Book in that neither is a likely high-round draft pick, but the deep-ball upside he provides feels like a boost from Book’s 2020 season.
5. If One Forgotten ACC Team Can Rise Up
Georgia Tech, long an afterthought in the ACC and without an NCAA tournament appearance since 2010, emerged from its long buildup under fifth-year coach Josh Pastner to go 17-8 (11-6 in the ACC) and grab No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament when no one expected it.
My venerable colleague Lou Somogyi wondered if that’s a realistic benchmark for Notre Dame to shoot for next year as it tries to crack the tournament field for the first time since 2017. There are some similarities.
Georgia Tech’s three best players are all upperclassmen (two seniors), and its entire rotation was in the program the year before. Notre Dame will have a team full of seniors if the current roster construction holds. The two teams have recruited around the same level and mix transfers with high school players.
Now, winning the ACC tournament, having the conference player of the year and defensive player of the year like the Yellow Jackets did is a lot to ask and probably a reach. Same time, they’re an example of development over four years. Notre Dame should have the continuity that often fosters it.
The comparison becomes shakier, though, when looking at the season before the breakout. Georgia Tech was 17-14 and 11-9 in the ACC in 2019-20. Its prior four years were largely linear improvement, with the conference record improving each of the last three.
Notre Dame took a step back this season after going 10-10 in the ACC. In a down year for the league, the Irish trudged to seven wins and an 11-15 overall record. In that context, how much junior-to-senior development should really be expected?
Mike Brey’s messaging since the season-ending implosion against North Carolina has conveyed a real sense of urgency. He understands the expectation is to make the tournament. He had the team over to his house to watch the NCAA tournament selection show on Sunday as a way of letting the sting of another exclusion kick in.
“A year from this Selection Sunday, our goal should be to see our name flash up,” Brey said. “That's the crossroads we're at, absolutely.
“The line is drawn in the sand, and we've got to get back.”
Georgia Tech might be a source of motivation or “anything’s possible” example. It’s certainly an exemplar of urgency. But to achieve a similar result, Notre Dame needs a long internal look at itself and a commitment to finding some other gear. Without one, it’ll be hard to punch out of what feels like a cement ceiling on this roster/staff combination.
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