Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s completed spring spurs ‘What ifs’ of 2020; NFL draft notes

Lawrence Keys
Notre Dame Athletics
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The 2020 season will always be looked at through the prism of the pandemic. There is no other way to view it, or anything of the last 14 months. In many respects, that tint makes Notre Dame’s Playoff run even more impressive.

To work through the first major in-season shutdown in college football, to lose starters only hours before games, to maintain some semblance of sanity from June into January without any typical mental relief — none of that came easily for the Irish. Of course, none of this came easily for any of us.

Looking at individual players, rather than the whole team, this spring’s progresses may illustrate some development that was lost amid last year’s canceled spring practices, truncated and interrupted summer work and stuttering preseason camp. There is no way to ever know, obviously, but it is easy to imagine a real 2020 off-season program could have positioned now-senior receiver Lawrence Keys better.

Some of Keys’ growth in the last few months is simply that — growth — but jumping from five catches for 51 yards in eight games in 2020 to five catches for 115 yards in the abbreviated Blue-Gold Game on Saturday warrants notice. A hamstring and other muscular issues “backed [Keys] up” in 2020, to use his phrasing, a frustration he was intent on not continuing into 2021.

“My goal for this spring was to come in, get stronger to help me be more explosive on the field, be more versatile,” Keys said Saturday. “This spring you can definitely feel there’s a huge difference from last spring because last spring I didn’t really get to anticipate much.”

Having only one spring practice will do that.

Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees cited a similar time crunch in discussing the differences between 2020’s offense and what he intends 2021’s to be. There were only so many opportunities to change last year’s scheme, to try something new compared to what was already known to work.

“We had a shortened offseason that didn’t allow us to develop some of the areas we needed to improve on,” Rees said. “We attacked the season the way we felt that gave us the best opportunity to win every single game.”

That approach got the Irish into the Playoff, so suffice it to say, it worked. But on an individual level, losing that chance to develop may have pushed Keys’ breakout season back a year.

Houston Griffith
(Notre Dame Athletics)

THE SAME CAN BE WONDERED WITH Houston Griffith
The senior safety’s spring statistical jump was not as drastic — 14 tackles in 12 games in 2020 and three tackles in the spring finale — but his description of his spring-time growth comes ripe with intangibles. Those may trace to a change in position coach or to a change in personal approach for a player who was in the transfer portal only four months ago, but they also may trace to simply getting the chance to work.

“I feel like we grew pre-snap readiness, just understanding what we have,” Griffith said. “Our football IQ has increased in that room. Coach (Chris) O’Leary has emphasized putting us in game situations, sometimes we are going to have to be players out there. We can’t always rely on what coach is telling us. We have to play with instincts and be able to beat balls. That’s what they preach, just be a player.”

Griffith’s underwhelming career to date undoubtedly has many roots. For one, quality safeties were ahead of him for two years in Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott. For another, this is supposed to be hard.

But to some degree, the pandemic created an unknown that will never be pinpointed. There have been many greater losses, but to Keys and Griffith, something may have been lost on the field in 2020, too.

ON THE FLIP SIDE
That lack of an offseason, the lack of a true summer, the lack of an in-season rhythm makes what true freshmen Chris Tyree, Michael Mayer and Clarence Lewis all did that much more impressive.

And it should and will forever underscore the achievement of going 10-0 in the regular season.

BUT LET’S NOT REPEAT ANY OF THAT
Fans should anticipate filling Notre Dame Stadium this fall. As Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick said at halftime, “We’re very optimistic.” He outlined a decision-making timeline of early June, but as long as trends continue the right direction … That is all to say if you want to go to a Notre Dame football game in 2021, get vaccinated. As much for your personal protection as to help the entire fan base’s hopes and tailgate dreams.

SOME DRAFT THOUGHTS
The fact that Notre Dame has produced only one first-round linebacker in the history of the NFL draft  (1982, Bob Crable, No. 23 overall) took on yet another asterisk last week. First Manti Te’o’s personal life explosion knocked him down to No. 38 overall in 2013, seven picks outside the first round. Then Jaylon Smith’s career-threatening injury dropped him from a certain top-five pick to No. 34 overall in 2016, missing the cut by three slots. Now a vague heart issue sent Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah to No. 52 overall.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Monday a heart issue “that came up late in the process and was a concern for most teams” led to Owusu-Koramoah falling from mid-first round likelihood to late second-round pick. Given doctors “ultimately cleared” the former Irish linebacker, and Owusu-Koramoah spoke Tuesday with complete confidence about his health, the late in the process aspect may have been the most costly.

Whatever the issue, and as long as he is cleared then there is no reason to pry, if NFL teams had dug into it for a month rather than a week or however long they had, there may have been less draft-night hesitancy.

Te’o and Smith have both put together fine careers despite their draft-night miseries. There is no reason to think Owusu-Koramoah won’t add to that trend.

THE 2016 DEFENSIVE END CLASS
Credit to Notre Dame’s talent evaluators. Credit to defensive line coach Mike Elston. Credit to former defensive coordinators Mike Elko and Clark Lea. Credit to head coach Brian Kelly.

But also credit to Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem, Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji. Rivals.com considered the quartet of defensive ends a five-star (Hayes), a pair of four-stars and a three-star (Ogundeji). The recruiting service considered Ogundeji the worst recruit in the Irish class of 2016, long snapper John Shannon excluded.

Setting aside their collegiate stats and roles in two Playoff berths and four consecutive double-digit win seasons … Four captains, four NFL draft picks.

“It starts with the young men that we recruit to Notre Dame and knowing that we’re looking for somebody that is much more than just about football, that they have leadership skills,” Kelly said Monday. “They can overcome the academics that are extremely difficult here, and it’s going to shape them into being the best versions of themselves.”

For context, a few higher-rated players in the Irish class of 2016, per rivals.com, and obviously chosen for dramatic effect (Note: Hayes was the highest-rated player in the signing class): receiver Javon McKinley came in before Okwara; offensive lineman Parker Boudreaux and defensive back D.J. Morgan were ahead of Kareem; defensive backs Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill, quarterback Ian Book and running back Deon McIntosh were all rated higher than Ogundeji.

“Stars are important, I get that,” Kelly said.

Other things are, too, and that 2016 defensive end class can long serve as an example of such.

INSIDE THE IRISH:
‘Tight End U’ finds its next piece with Iowa TE Eli Raridon committing to Notre Dame
Notre Dame WR Jordan Johnson announces transfer, never records a catch for the Irish
Things We Learned: Notre Dame still good, ‘not good enough’

NFL DRAFT COVERAGE
Absurd Notre Dame left tackle streak ends with Liam Eichenberg drafted in the second round
All-American Aaron Banks heads to the 49ers with the No. 48 overall pick
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah’s wait ends at No. 52 thanks to the Cleveland Browns
‘Tight End U’ — produces yet another NFL draft pick in Tommy Tremble at No. 83 overall
Ian Book heads to the New Orleans Saints in the fourth round
Former Notre Dame DE Daelin Hayes drafted in the fifth round
Ade Ogundeji picked in the fifth round by the Falcons
Ben Skowronek’s selection sets new Notre Dame mark

OUTSIDE READING:
A preposterously early look at the 2022 NFL Draft
Biggest 2021 NFL draft reaches: All seven rounds
Colts exercise Quenton Nelson’s fifth-year option
Browns sign top undrafted rookie Marvin Wilson with $192,000 guarantee
College football post-spring Top 25 topped by Alabama, Georgia and Oklahoma