Leftovers & Links: Handing out Notre Dame’s annual awards

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Rose Bowl Game Semifinal Game - Notre Dame v Alabama
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With no break between the regular season and Christmas, let alone the Playoff semifinal, Notre Dame did not hold its annual awards banquet (ECHOES) in mid-December like usual. Since the players will not return to campus for another couple weeks, it is quite possible there will not be an awards banquet at any point, even a spaced-out, team-only event.

Of course, that makes complete sense given the peak of the coronavirus pandemic may have (hopefully) finally arrived.

That does not mean some awards should not be given out. The Irish may yet do so, particularly as the social media content machine always needs to be fed, but until they do so …

Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year, Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year, Special Teams Player of the Year, Walk-On Players Union Award: The lack of an awards banquet may actually hurt most here. There is no chance at speculating on the appropriate recipients, but those revelations usually inform future successes. Exhibit A: Linebacker Bo Bauer was named the 2019 Special Teams Player of the Year, hinting at how the coaching staff appreciated his all-out efforts, even if they sometimes came with the expense of exuberance. A year later, Bauer was an underrated piece of Notre Dame’s passing-down sub-package.

Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Freshman tight end Michael Mayer finished the season tied for the team lead in catches with 42, second in receiving yards with 450 and tied for third in receiving touchdowns with a pair. As senior right tackle Robert Hainsey said after the Rose Bowl loss, “Mike, seeing you step in as a young guy, I did the same thing. It was a blast, and seeing you excel and do that stuff is what made this season so much fun.”
Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Graduate transfer cornerback Nick McCloud exceeded any and all expectations from his pandemic-delayed arrival from North Carolina State. He was always a presumed starter, but his becoming Notre Dame’s top cornerback and a possible draft pick was a key piece to making the 2020 defense tick.

Offensive Impact of the Year: Fifth-year receiver Javon McKinley’s 42 catches for 717 yards and three touchdowns — all three coming in his final game at Notre Dame Stadium in a 45-21 win against Syracuse — were all that kept the Irish offense from becoming too one-dimensional to survive the regular season unscathed. Not to mention, his fingertips catch to vault Notre Dame into scoring position just after Clemson tied up the November game will long remain one of the most unexpected clutch plays in recent history. (If the possession had not ended in a fumble through the end zone, the 45-yard snag would be better remembered yet.)

Javon McKinley Clemson
(ACC Media)

Defensive Impact of the Year: Sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton led Notre Dame with 63 tackles including 51 unassisted tackles, adding six pass breakups. The only reason he did not lead the Irish in that latter category, or build on his one interception, is that opposing quarterbacks knew to throw away from him more often than not. Finishing his sophomore season as a first-team All-American sets lofty expectations for Hamilton’s final season in South Bend.

Next Man In: In a season defined by a pandemic, Notre Dame was relatively healthy throughout. So as to not draw much attention to the pandemic on a night of celebration, it is likely the Irish would not have handed this award to sophomore linebacker Jack Kiser for his showing against South Florida, when he went from scout team-to-starter just hours before kickoff due to pandemic protocols.

Instead, the only traditional injury that befell a starter was a foot injury to center Jarrett Patterson, at which point sophomore center Zeke Correll only impressed.

Moose Krause Lineman of the Year: Consensus first-team All-Americans Aaron Banks and Liam Eichenberg would likely have split this honor at an ECHOES ceremony, and fittingly so, being they manned the left side of the Notre Dame line in a way befitting a growing tradition.
Defensive Lineman of the Year: Leading the Irish with seven sacks gives this nod to fifth-year defensive end Ade Ogundeji, conveniently so as part of the blueprint for the awards ceremony is to not honor players twice in a year and to focus awards on outgoing seniors. With both defensive tackles Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa returning in 2021 — Hinish taking advantage of the pandemic eligibility waiver while Tagovailoa-Amosa fits in an expected fifth year to make up for losing 2018 to a broken foot — only Ogundeji needs to be singled out here.

Pietrosante Award for leadership, teamwork, etc.: Part of why only Ogundeji needs to be acknowledged in the previous category is fifth-year defensive end Daelin Hayes would assuredly receive this honor, the result of both a driven athletic career capped off with a solid final season as a response to 2019 getting cut short with a shoulder injury and a motivated off-field career, particularly leading Notre Dame’s Juneteenth rally and furthering that needed voice all season long.

Daelin Hayes Juneteenth
(Fighting Irish Media)

Offensive Player of the Year: Sophomore running back Kyren Williams could have won the Offensive Newcomer of the Year designation if not for the impetus to avoid handing two awards to one player, and this is the recognition most appropriate for the breakout ball carrier who gained 1,125 yards in 12 games and ran for 13 touchdowns.
Defensive Player of the Year: Is there any question? The best linebacker in the country, arguably the best defensive player in the country, a unanimous All-American, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.

Monogram Club Most Valuable Player: Just like the Heisman, quarterbacks should not always win the MVP, hence receiver Chase Claypool winning it in 2019, but Ian Book should win his second Notre Dame MVP award (2018). In the literal sense, without Book, the Irish would have turned to an unheralded freshman to helm their offense. In the records sense, Book goes down as the winningest quarterback in Notre Dame’s 133 years of history.

“He’s a winner, he’s won more games than any quarterback in Notre Dame history, period, end of discussion,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said after the New Year’s Day loss. “The guy’s a winner and we’re going to miss him. He just wins football games, and there is no other story, just a winner.”

If there is an award that will almost assuredly eventually be dispensed, it is the Monogram MVP. The rest, well, again, social media’s content hole needs to be filled these next few weeks and naming a player each day may end up filling that gap.

The redeeming value in Notre Dame’s Rose Bowl loss; on transfers and All-Americans
Things We Learned: In 2020, Notre Dame reaching a disappointing football end was a success
Things We Learned: Freeman hire underscores Kelly’s run of success in building Notre Dame’s staff

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Things We Learned: Freeman hire underscores Kelly’s run of success in building Notre Dame’s staff

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Drew White and Kyle Hamilton put their trust in Brian Kelly when it came to hiring Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator. Their trust was understandable, given Kelly’s hires the last five years have consistently found success with the Irish.

White arrived at Notre Dame with the first of those, signing his National Letter of Intent weeks after Kelly brought Mike Elko and Clark Lea on board as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, respectively.

“Coach Kelly has done a great job in his hires through my four years here,” the senior linebacker said after the 31-14 Irish loss in the College Football Playoff semifinal. “I have full trust in him to pick the right candidate.”

Kelly hiring Marcus Freeman from Cincinnati may matter more for White than anybody else. While Kelly’s 11 years and 100+ wins have largely secured his legacy at Notre Dame, White has one more year to impress NFL front offices. After making eight tackles for loss in 2019 and nine in 2020 (in one fewer game), his play diagnosis abilities may make him an intriguing prospect for some at the next level, but not yet, clearly, since he is returning for one more season with the Irish.

Enter Freeman.

“He has had great success on the field, both running a defense and in his direct work with his linebackers,” Kelly said upon Notre Dame’s announcement of the hire. “Additionally, he is considered among the elite recruiters in the coaching ranks.”

Much has rightfully been made of Kelly luring Freeman away from LSU’s trappings, not to mention Texas’ interest, Michigan’s vacancy and presumed heir apparent status at Cincinnati, but the value in the hire goes beyond the University cutting a bigger check.

Kelly getting his top priority at a coaching position has led to success after success since the 4-8 debacle in 2016.

First, there was Elko and then Lea at defensive coordinator. Not much more needs to be said about either’s work, one parlaying his Irish season into a massive paycheck at Texas A&M (after Notre Dame matched an initial offer) and the other building up his coaching stock for three seasons to such a degree he landed his literal dream job.

“Coach Lea’s shoes are big to fill,” Hamilton said. “He’s going to do great at Vanderbilt. I believe that with my whole heart. He’s a great guy, great coach, and I think coach Kelly knows that we respond well to that.

“He’ll try to find a guy that’s as cerebral, as dedicated and as focused on making us better football players as well as better men.”

Only time will tell if Freeman and his aggressive defensive approach are up to those steep charges, but Kelly’s focus on player development should continue with Freeman. Just as Elko sparked Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney, and Lea spurred Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and White, Kelly’s hires involved with the program reboot have taken middling recruits or questionable positions and turned them into strengths.

In his first season, cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens unearthed a potential four-year starter in Clarence Lewis. The other 2020 hire, tight ends coach John McNulty positioned Tommy Tremble for an early entry into the NFL draft while also prioritizing freshman Michael Mayer.

The most notable 2019 staff addition, Lance Taylor took a running backs room without any clear playmaker and made Kyren Williams into a freshman All-American a year later, Williams now possibly a dark horse Heisman candidate in 2021.

These are not the exceptions held aloft. Kelly’s hires since 2016 have nearly had a 100 percent hit rate, as Tommy Rees created an offense that averaged 33.4 points in 2020, a number pushing 38 before the Irish stumbled in their final two games. That only came after (and as) Rees found the talent within a hardly-noticed quarterback recruit in Ian Book.

Offensive line coach Jeff Quinn has matched nearly peerless recruiting with on-field performances warranting constant Joe Moore consideration. A storyline to trot out a few times in 2021: Jarrett Patterson was Quinn’s first recruit, arguably the best Notre Dame lineman in a year when two others were named first-team All-Americans.

If any assistant coaches have fallen short during this four-year stretch of double-digit victories, it has been safeties coach Terry Joseph, now reportedly off to Texas, or receivers coach Del Alexander, but the former turned a 2017 liability into the defense’s backbone in 2018 and 2019 while the latter created NFL prospects from the rough in Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool and now perhaps Javon McKinley.

When those are the mistakes, that highlights the strength of the coaching staff and the reason the players trusted Kelly to make another solid hire.

If Kelly had needed to move down his shortlist, perhaps that trust could be called into question, but in bidding for and landing Freeman, Kelly and Notre Dame made it clear they intend for the current trend to become status quo.

Now to see if they can apply that thought process to finding a new safeties coach. Of course, Freeman will have a say in such.

Editor’s Note: Truth be told, the intention was to hold this column until said safeties coach would be hired, but the content churn must carry on, even in this momentary calm period, perhaps the first such stretch for the Irish in about 50 weeks. Make no mistake, the calm is welcomed.

Things We Learned: In 2020, Notre Dame reaching a disappointing football end was a success

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Capital One - Alabama v Notre Dame
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When looking back on Notre Dame’s 2020, the unfortunate instinct of college football fans will be to simply lump it in with 2012 and 2018, a good season with a great run that ended up short on the biggest stage.

But there were 11 games played before the Rose Bowl for a reason, and that 31-14 semifinal loss erased neither those 10 wins nor the key pieces that led to them. For that matter, the fact that there simply was a semifinal remains a differentiating factor to 2020.

Ian Book still set the Irish record with 30 career wins as the starting quarterback, going 30-5, appearing in two College Football Playoffs, never losing at home, leading Notre Dame to three straight double-digit win seasons. The list goes on to such an extent that at this point, Book’s 2017 Citrus Bowl miracle to Miles Boykin is an afterthought.

“I can’t wait to see what he does next,” Irish senior right tackle Robert Hainsey said after the season-ending New Year’s Day loss. As Book’s last pass fell incomplete, Hainsey had already turned to hug his quarterback, soon joined by fifth-year right guard Tommy Kraemer. “The kid’s a winner, and all he’s going to do is go on and be the best he can be, the best Ian Book can be, and that’s all that he needs to be.”

Book’s critics will linger, just as Tommy Rees’ have for the better part of a decade, but they will miss the bigger picture. Book’s 2020 established him as a standard of consistency for future Notre Dame quarterbacks to strive toward, and it will be at least a few years before one reaches it. That deserves a tip of the cap and much more.

Similarly, the defensive conclusion to the year, giving up 65 combined points to Clemson and Alabama, will render the immediate memories of Clark Lea’s performances as negative ones. That misses the fact that the Irish held both the Tigers and the Tide to fewer points than their expected totals or the fact that once again Notre Dame’s defense covered for the offense’s shortcomings throughout the season to push the Irish to the Playoff.

If anything, Monday night showed how impressive it was for Notre Dame to keep Alabama to 31 points. Even if the Tide had intended to run that score up, it was not going to score 52 as it did in winning the national championship against Ohio State.

“Our job is to go out there and limit the offense to zero points if we can,” sixth-year safety Shaun Crawford said. “We don’t try to take moral victories by holding them to 31 points. If our offense can’t get it going, then our job is to go out there and limit them to no points, if we can, limit them to field goals in the red zone.

“We stepped it up as a defense in the second half, and we fought to the end as a defense, but this unit, we don’t believe in moral victories. We pride ourselves on trying to shut out teams. If our offense can’t get it going, then 3-0 should be the game-winning score for us.”

That standard is largely unattainable in the current era of college football, but Crawford’s insistence upon it speaks to the expectations set by Lea. In three years, he created a defensive attitude Notre Dame had lacked for a long time. The 2012 exception aside, it could be argued that mindset had not been seen since the early ‘90s.

The biggest piece of it, of course, was senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. There is no single quote, moment or fact that exemplifies his development from a three-star afterthought in 2017. In the last 23 years, Notre Dame has seen exactly one defensive player drafted in the first round, safety Harrison Smith at No. 29 overall in 2012. The Irish have not had a linebacker drafted in the first round since Bob Crable at No. 23 in 1982.

That three-star afterthought should break both those trends this April, a testament to both Lea and Notre Dame strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

“Coach Balis has done a tremendously awesome job with understanding how the body works, understanding how to get one stronger, but even above that, you have a mental aspect of it that is really prominent,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “… Notre Dame has always been known for its physicality, and we just wanted to get back to that. Coach Balis has done a great job.”

Balis’ fingerprints can also be seen in how the Irish offensive line cleared a path for running back Kyren Williams’ intensity. Williams’ emergence will be dissected thoroughly this coming offseason, as his churning legs should be the key to Notre Dame’s offense in 2021, but there may come a time when it is realized the departing offensive line had more to do with his sophomore success than yet acknowledged.

Unfortunately, for a second consecutive Playoff, the Irish offensive line that set the tone for the season and may have been the best in the country only reached the semifinal without arguably its best player. Losing Alex Bars in the middle of 2018 clearly set back that unit, and without center Jarrett Patterson, the 2020 version could not maintain its absolute dominance. In both instances, the offensive lines were still elite, but no longer transcendent.

And that remains the lesson of 2020 for Notre Dame as much as anything else: Its margin of error remains non-existent when hoping to compete with Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. As Irish head coach Brian Kelly repeatedly and briskly said after the Rose Bowl loss, that is not a problem “unique” to Notre Dame, but as this space’s headline said afterward, it is an undeniable problem for Notre Dame all the same.

In 2020, though, there was hardly a margin of error in simply getting on the field. Book’s wins, Lea’s schemes, Owusu-Koramoah’s dynamism, Williams’ physicality will all be footnotes to the Irish simply playing in 2020. Even after the loss to Alabama, Kelly brought the focus back to the discipline and sacrifice it took to play during a pandemic.

“You signed your name to a team that would never give up, that would never give in, that never gave in to the adversity of a pandemic, that never gave in when things got difficult, you kept fighting back,” Kelly said in the postgame locker room, the emotion of the moment palpable even via social media.

Crawford spent six years playing for Notre Dame, and he insisted this was the closest team he had been on, understandably so given its circumstances. The defensive mantra became “for the brotherhood.”

That brotherhood played 12 games in 2020. Setting aside the questions that will never be sufficiently answered of if the University should have pushed for the season, if it enabled the pandemic, if it exposed the players to more risk than deserved given their lack of standing in the decision-making process, it remains impressive the Irish roster held together through 12 games of a pandemic.

“We battled through a lot of stuff, fought a lot of adversity through 2020,” senior linebacker Drew White said. “In August, going back, we didn’t even know if we were going to have a season. So having a successful season, going undefeated in the regular season is special.”

No ACC title game or Rose Bowl loss should detract from that. No individual records or development should overshadow it. In this season and this season alone, the fact that there was a football end to it was accomplishment enough.

Leftovers & Links: The redeeming value in Notre Dame’s Rose Bowl loss; on transfers and All-Americans

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Capital One - Alabama v Notre Dame
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Rhapsodizing about the rare lasting wonders of college football is not necessarily appropriate immediately after a blowout loss. The thoughts following Notre Dame’s 31-14 Playoff semifinal loss to Alabama were better spent focused on where and how the Irish fell short in the Rose Bowl.

But even in the defeat, perhaps especially in the defeat, the redeeming quality of this hypocritical, exploitative sport showed itself.

The usual Notre Dame season broadly lasts from the start of August to the end of November with a weekend or two off in August and at least one off weekend during the season. In 2020, that would have been a 17-week stretch broken up by those reprieves.

But of course, this was not a usual season. Instead, the Irish buckled down under pandemic protocols in June and did not relent until January 2. Once the football aspects of the stretch intensified, the season extended from mid-August to the new year, a 20-week stretch with no mental break and rare outside contact amid the added stresses of the pandemic. All so these 18-to 23-year-olds could play football without proper pay or representation.

At the very end of it, though, Notre Dame senior right tackle Robert Hainsey explained why he put up with it all.

“All the seniors, like Ian (Book) and Tommy (Kraemer) and Liam (Eichenberg), (Aaron) Banks, all the guys I’ve left with, it’s been a great couple of years,” Hainsey said.

That isn’t the rare lasting wonder of college football. Nearly every college senior will say his or her closest classmates defined their last couple of years.

“But the guys to my right and left,” Hainsey continued, pausing in his postgame Zoom availability to nod toward a sophomore running back and a freshman tight end, “Kyren (Williams) and Mike (Mayer), sophomore, freshman coming in, those are the guys — you guys made this season an absolute blast to play.”

Hainsey then stopped talking to the media, turning his head from one side to the other, rather than facing the webcam some feet ahead of him.

“Kyren, your tenacity and the way you play, it was some of the most fun I’ve had playing football. Mike, seeing you step in as a young guy, I did the same thing, it was a blast, and seeing you excel and do that stuff is what made this season so much fun.

“So thank you guys for being there and doing that.”

There is a lot wrong with college football, but there is still redeeming value in the relationships it creates.

Coming out of that semifinal and the 49-28 Ohio State victory against Clemson following it, the topic du jour — and appropriately so — was that 10 of 14 Playoff semifinals have been won by at least three possessions. Heading into tonight’s national championship game, take comfort in knowing only three of the six Playoff championships have been blowouts. The other three were 3-, 4- and 5-point games.

Among the lot wrong with college football is the overreaction, hand-wringing and judgment from many fans whenever a player announces an intention to transfer away from a program. They are quick to insist either the player failed or the program did, the transfer clearly a sign of a problem.

Sometimes it is simply best for both parties. If a player does not see a path to playing time as he enters his junior or senior season, and he prioritizes said playing time, then it is in his best interest to go find it elsewhere, and it is in the program’s best interest to not have resentment within the locker room.

The outgoing transfers from Notre Dame this winter are largely such situations, and the influx is a natural effect of the last 10 months. Typically, players can sort out their standing in the depth chart in spring practices. If they want to make one last surge, they can test the waters in the preseason.

There was no 2020 spring practice, and preseason practices were disjointed at best. On top of that, any move from one campus to another in August would have included quarantine logistics at the cost of a player’s fitness.

Thus, there were fewer transfers in the spring and summer than would normally be the case, not just from South Bend, but from everywhere. The Irish saw players like linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath and defensive end Kofi Wardlow announce intentions to transfer during the season, having found their depth-chart standing to be lower than they hoped and not wanting to endure the aforementioned 20 weeks of pandemic protocols if not playing.

Understandable in every regard.

Players like defensive end Ovie Oghoufo, safety Houston Griffith and cornerback Isaiah Rutherford may have known they were falling behind classmates or players younger than them in April if there had been spring practices. That may have prompted their transfers then as learning such over the last few months did now.

It is less an influx in transfers and more a shift in timing due to the pandemic.

The expected one-time transfer waiver has also served as an allure to many of the 12 Irish players in the transfer portal, graduate or otherwise. If the NCAA changes course on that expectation this offseason, it will be doing a disservice to such players, which is to say, do not put anything past the NCAA.

These two factors, along with the universal 2020 eligibility waiver granting a blanket extra year, will combine to leave many players across the country without a home when all is said and done. Some projections suggest as many as 1,000 players will be left in the transfer portal without scholarships. That may sound extreme, but with 11,050 players typically rostered (130 teams x 85 players per team) and the extra year of eligibility inflating the number of eligible players closer to 14,000, then the thousand makes some sense.

It seems unlikely any of the Notre Dame dozen will be among those 1,000, as such misfortune generally trickles downward, but it is regardless yet another ripple effect of the pandemic not realized, and certainly not accounted for by the NCAA.

Linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah became the first unanimous Irish All-American since left guard Quenton Nelson in 2017, and with left tackle Liam Eichenberg and left guard Aaron Banks joining Owusu-Koramoah as consensus first-team All-Americans, Notre Dame had its most since 1990, when four players were unanimous selections.

Under head coach Brian Kelly, the Irish had multiple consensus first-team All-Americans in 2017 (left tackle Mike McGlinchey, Nelson) and 2015 (linebacker Jaylon Smith, left tackle Ronnie Stanley), as well as unanimous selection linebacker Manti Te’o in 2012 and consensus cornerback Julian Love in 2018.

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Reports: Notre Dame safeties coach Terry Joseph heading to Texas

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 13 Notre Dame Spring Game
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Newly-hired Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman will immediately have a hire to make, with reports late Friday indicating Irish safeties coach and passing defense coordinator Terry Joseph has accepted a job at Texas.

FootballScoop.com first reported Joseph’s decision.

Joseph was somewhat a candidate for the role Freeman ended up getting, that announced just a few hours earlier on Friday. Instead, Joseph will join new Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian’s staff before he even hires a defensive coordinator. Apparently, the soon-to-be-former Alabama offensive coordinator was not much dismayed by Notre Dame’s passing defense in the Tide’s 31-14 Rose Bowl victory on New Year’s Day.

Joseph joined the Irish in 2018, then taking over a position group that had failed to make an interception the previous season, breaking up just five passes. In the 2018 Playoff run, safeties broke up 16 passes and intercepted seven, suddenly a pivotal group in leading Clark Lea’s defense. Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman kept that momentum alive in 2019 with four breakups and three interceptions between them, buttressed by a surging freshman’s six breakups and four interceptions.

Kyle Hamilton will be the crown jewel for whoever steps in to coach the safeties next. The All-American will be widely considered the best in the country leading into the 2021 season and is already a presumptive first-round draft pick in 2022 after finishing this season with six pass breakups and one interception, numbers deflated by opposing offenses outright avoiding him downfield.

Hamilton’s running mate will be determined between now and the season-opening trip to Florida State, with rising senior D.J. Brown the most likely starter though incoming freshman Khari Gee may demand a look. With sixth-year Shaun Crawford (finally) heading to the NFL and Houston Griffith in the transfer portal, there are only so many options remaining.

That depth chart is well-known to current defensive analyst Kerry Cooks, one year into his return to Notre Dame after being part of the staff in head coach Brian Kelly’s first five years in South Bend. Cooks then spent four seasons with Oklahoma and 2019 with Texas Tech, always working with defensive backs, before rejoining Kelly’s staff.

Kelly and Freeman may not turn to Cooks to fill this hole, but he is an obvious candidate.

Whoever is hired as the safeties coach, an emphasis on recruiting should be presumed. Adding the four-star Gee at the 11th hour in the 2021 cycle redeemed this class for Joseph, otherwise including only consensus three-star Justin Walters as a true safety recruit. Even past recruiting successes have struggled to develop the last few seasons, Hamilton the exception. Exhibit A: Griffith —  more reflected by Crawford’s moving to safety from cornerback in the preseason than in Griffith’s transfer.

Admittedly, it is early in the 2022 cycle, but the Irish have not yet found any safety commitments in the next class.