Things We Learned: Notre Dame still good, ‘not good enough’

Jack Coan Blue-Gold Game
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The marching orders for a spring practice should be very clear: Do not overreact to any performance by any player in any circumstance. But when the only two touchdown drives of Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game are led by the early-enrolled, highly-touted freshman quarterback who had not played in a game in nearly 18 months, there may be little other choice.

Tyler Buchner is still not an integral part of the Irish quarterback competition this offseason — Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan pulled a bit further ahead in his battle with sophomore Drew Pyne — but Buchner’s 6-of-9 day for 140 yards and a rushing touchdown was the defining performance of the day and perhaps of Notre Dame’s entire spring.

But to reiterate, do not overreact, and Buchner is not yet pushing for playing time.

“He took a big step in terms of his growth,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said after Saturday’s spring finale ended 17-3, for whatever that score is worth. “He was given more of an opportunity, obviously, by being live, and I thought he took advantage of it. He had some really good throws down the field. …

“We’re never going to close the door on one that can help our offense be a better offense. We’re not going to say, ‘Well, Tyler’s a freshman, you can’t play.’ Tyler Buchner, if you can help our football team, we’ll find any role for somebody that can help us.”

Buchner handled the moment just fine in front of a few thousand fans. Both his first two drives ended in touchdowns, something neither Coan nor Pyne achieved even once. If Buchner’s performance is a harbinger for things to come in 2022 or 2023, Notre Dame should be encouraged.

That is the proper reaction, though. Buchner’s showing proved he has a solid foundation that should reap rewards in years to come, but not this year.

This year remains Coan’s to lead.

While there are 65 Power Five teams, and thus 65 starting Power Five quarterbacks, there are not 65 players who belong as starting Power Five quarterbacks. Coan does. Early and often he showed both an ability and a want to push the ball downfield. Finishing 18-of-32 for 197 yards and an interception when working without his best target (sophomore tight end Michael Mayer sat out as a precaution) and a running back that will be a threat in the aerial game (sophomore Chris Tyree was on Pyne’s half of the roster) is a decent day.

Coan’s very first pass attempt set a tone, connecting with senior receiver Joe Wilkins down the sideline for 32 yards. His arm strength is as advertised, even if that was not realized when Coan announced his transfer in January. His progressions appeared quick and decisive.

“We want to see decision making, we want to see management of the game, we want to see how the quarterbacks handle themselves in the pocket, out of the pocket,” Kelly said. “What kind of throws they’re making, on platform throws, some of the things that they need to work on.”

If that was the checklist, Coan ticked off each item.

The truest blessing of the Irish spring, though, is that Pyne ticked off each item, too.

A stat line of 11-of-23 for 146 yards and an interception is underwhelming, but he looked equally comfortable in the offense. If Buchner had merely shown Pyne’s poise, then Notre Dame would have been thrilled with its youngest quarterback. Pyne’s lack of hype, however, diminishes that response for no other reason than that is how these things go.

It shouldn’t.

For once, the Irish can leave spring practice confident in their quarterbacks. The starter may not be a Heisman dark horse, but the drop-off to his backup will be less than it has been in years, and a third capable passer will be around, as well. That is not the luxury expected from a position ripe for scrutiny, but it is a luxury, nonetheless.

 

Notre Dame’s offensive line remains in flux, a natural byproduct of a spring finale that inevitably invites sacks, and one compounded by the potential starters being mixed and matched on two separate teams. Listening to the NBC broadcast with a trained ear, Paul Burmeister’s and Corey Robinson’s praise of early-enrolled freshmen Blake Fisher and Rocco Spindler made it apparent the Irish coaching staff had built up that duo in pregame production meetings. That hint alone makes it increasingly likely at least one of the two will start on Labor Day Eve.

Questions remain aplenty along the offensive line, perhaps intentionally so. Not having senior Jarret Patterson available this spring made it so Notre Dame would never have its five best linemen together no matter what permutation was tried.

“We have work to do, but we’re going to get there,” Kelly said. “Having days like today allows us to not fool ourselves into saying we’re this finished product. We’ve got work to do. Today allows us to evaluate much more clearly about where we need to go to be a championship football team.”

A championship football team remains the Irish goal, as it should, but the gap in January remains the gap in May, one exacerbated by Monday’s news of sophomore receiver Jordan Johnson’s impending transfer. Notre Dame does not have the exterior playmakers to compete with the best teams in the country.

Senior Lawrence Keys established himself as a starter this spring, adding a second piece to fifth-year Avery Davis, and pairing them with Mayer will be enough for a functional offense. But even Keys’ emergence did not suggest bona fide explosiveness in September.

“They’re capable of doing it,” Kelly said. “We’re going to stay the course. When they get there, they will ascend to the level that we need them to play at. We’re enjoying the process with them. They’re 100 percent all-in. I thought they flashed today, but we’ve got some work to do with details.”

Obviously, the Irish defense played Saturday, as well, and getting a look at new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s scheme was worthwhile, but Notre Dame kept that scheme to its bare bones to have a more genuine look at the offense. The Irish did not try to disguise coverage to fool a quarterback, did not try to use line stunts to confound young linemen and did not send all-out blitzes to tag passers in red jerseys.

However, fifth-year Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa’s quickness off the edge did stand out. He always wanted to play defensive end rather than defensive tackle, he lost the weight to make the move, and Notre Dame had the interior depth to accommodate it. After Saturday, that position switch looks to be a win for everyone involved.

The praise of Tagovailoa-Amosa all spring was not hyperbole. His success on the edge will not only help depth concerns there, keeping senior Justin Ademilola’s legs that much fresher, but it will also bolster the performances of the young pair on the other side of the line. Opponents may have hoped to avoid junior Isaiah Foskey and sophomore Jordan Botelho, but that option disappears with Tagovailoa-Amosa (and Ademilola) such a viable pass-rushing threat.

Four Irish defensive ends have been drafted in the last two years, yet Notre Dame will still have an imposing defensive line in 2021. There may be no greater testament to the program’s floor than that, a floor then raised by Coan’s arm strength and Buchner’s ease. All that instilled confidence considered, the ceiling is still not as high as Kelly wants.

“We’re a good team, and good teams are not good enough,” Kelly said. “We want to be a great team. Good teams don’t win a national championship. We need to be a great team. So, how do we get from good to great? That’s where we are in this process.”

In other words, a successful (and healthy) spring practice did not change where Notre Dame was on New Year’s Day, not that it should have been expected to.

Notre Dame WR Jordan Johnson announces transfer, never records a catch for the Irish

Jordan Johnson transfer
Notre Dame Athletics
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Looking for “a fresh start,” sophomore receiver Jordan Johnson announced an intention to transfer from Notre Dame on Monday morning. The highest-rated receiver recruit of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s 12 years in South Bend, Johnson appeared in two games at Notre Dame and recorded no other statistics, including in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. He was targeted on one pass in the spring scrimmage.

Not that fan demand and message board conversations should drive Irish roster decisions, but they often drive questions asked at press conferences. In early April, Kelly acknowledged that head-on when discussing Johnson, though also hinting at what may have kept Johnson sidelined through much of 2020.

“I know you guys love Jordan Johnson, and he’s doing a nice job,” Kelly said. “I think what I’m most impressed with Jordan is what he’s doing in the classroom right now. He’s really turned the corner there. And you can start to see that confidence showing itself on the football field too.”

That confidence will show itself on someone else’s football field now. Johnson has four years of eligibility remaining, and with the recent implementation of a one-time transfer waiver, the St. Louis-native will be immediately eligible at his next stop. (The one-time transfer waiver: All players may transfer once in their careers without sitting out a season afterward. Simple as that.)

Fellow St. Louis-native and junior running back Kyren Williams consistently offered promising words for Johnson’s future, including just a week ago.

“I look at him as a little brother, so I’m always over there trying to help him get to where he wants to be,” Williams said. “I think he’s had a great spring. He has to keep working on the little details of everything, but that just comes with being a wide receiver and being a football player. You’re never going to be perfect, so he knows that he has to keep working and come fall camp, it’s time for him to really excel and get to where he wants to be as a player.”

In order to crack the receiver rotation in fall camp, Johnson would have needed to surpass one of a senior trio in Braden Lenzy, Kevin Austin and Joe Wilkins. While Johnson’s idling for a year should scream volumes about expecting immediate playing time from praised recruits, even a five-star All-American rated as the No. 3 receiver in the class, the arrival of three more highly-touted freshmen only further clouded the receiver depth chart.

When it comes to those three — Lorenzo Styles, Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas — an indicator of their paths will be that Kelly has never shied away from using the same concerning words. When he addressed Johnson’s lack of playing time in October, Kelly’s phrasing echoed that once used to discuss Austin, once used to discuss Chase Claypool, and so forth. Sometimes it pans out into a second-round NFL draft pick, sometimes it ends up with a transfer after one year.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame gets the letter: Five-star WR Jordan Johnson

“He had been making some progress in how he is dealing with the transition to college,” Kelly said. “This has never been an issue of lack of ability. We knew of Jordan’s ability. There are other things that are important here at the University and we all know that. He’s been focused heavily on making the transition, the things that are really difficult are in the classroom. He’s made some progress, enough that we brought him up. He’s a talented player. In the rotation? We’ll kind of have to see how that goes, but I think that we all see that he’s got the skill set. Now we’ll have to kind of build that as we go forward.”

With Johnson’s transfer, Notre Dame expects to have 87 scholarship players on its roster next season, now meeting the NCAA maximum of 85 adjusted for two pandemic exceptions (fifth-year kicker Jonathan Doerer and fifth-year nose tackle Kurt Hinish).

‘Tight End U’ finds its next piece with Iowa TE Eli Raridon committing to Notre Dame

Eli Raridon
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At some point, describing Notre Dame as “Tight End U” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Admittedly, that point was probably a few NFL draft picks ago, but with Tommy Tremble becoming the 10th Irish tight end selected in the last 16 drafts and then a new tight end commitment to come the same weekend, it is clear how the years of success can appeal to the next players likely to succeed.

Consensus three-star tight end Eli Raridon (Valley High School; West Des Moines, Iowa) announced a commitment to Notre Dame on Sunday. Suggesting any high school junior should be looked at as a future draft pick is unnecessarily bold — although it is also the premise of recruiting rankings — but the cause-and-effect at this particular position in South Bend seems clear.

The No. 22 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Raridon chose the Irish over homestate offers from Iowa and Iowa State, as well as from the majority of the Big Ten, Auburn and Vanderbilt. Standing 6-foot-6, he will need to add weight to his 220-pound frame, but that is to be expected at this stage in his development.

Raridon is comfortable using his height to attack a pass in the air, a comfort that can be associated with his talent playing above the rim on the basketball court. Looking at his basketball clips, Raridon’s athleticism could not be more apparent.

He has enough speed to warrant notice downfield. Not to throw more lofty comparisons around, but that speed is evident on the same seam route that Tyler Eifert and Cole Kmet both relished at Notre Dame, forcing a linebacker to turn his hips in close coverage or a safety to risk getting blown by if he comes downhill in support. Add in Raridon’s possible catch radius, and those routes could make him a model of the modern tight end.

Before then, though, the Irish will need to get some muscle onto his body. While a willing blocker, and largely successful at such in the Iowa prep ranks, Raridon will need to widen his shoulders to handle that responsibility at the next level.

The 12th commit in Notre Dame’s class of 2022, Raridon fills a vacancy created by the de-commitment of consensus three-star tight end Jack Nickel (Milton H.S.; Ga.) a few weeks ago, a de-commitment that signaled Raridon’s decision was likely not far off.

Raridon’s father played for the Irish along the offensive line in the early 2000s.

Ben Skowronek’s selection sets new Notre Dame mark

Ben Skowronek Boston College
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Notre Dame has sent more players into the NFL draft than it had in any year since 1994’s 10. Receiver Ben Skowronek going to the Los Angeles Rams in the seventh round at No. 249 overall gave the Irish nine total draft picks, topping the 2014 peak of eight during the Brian Kelly era.

A graduate transfer from Northwestern, Skowronek gave Notre Dame a tall target on the outside as the younger receivers struggled to find traction. Highlighted by three touchdowns in a win at Boston College, Skowronek caught 29 passes for 439 yards and five touchdowns in his one season wearing a gold helmet.

Obviously, it is a talented receiver class this year, but I believe I’m one of the most unique prospects in this draft with my height, weight and speed, as well as my physicality, my ball skills, just my overall football skills,” Skowronek said in March. “You can pop on the tape and I’m going to set myself apart from the majority of those prospects, so yeah, it obviously is a deep receiver class but I’m very confident in my ability.”

Though he did not enjoy the pre-draft rise that Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool did the last two years, Skowronek makes it three years in a row that Notre Dame’s best red-zone receiver was drafted. Looking at the 2021 roster, that could serve as a carrot for senior receiver Kevin Austin as he gets healthy after breaking his foot twice last season.

Offensive lineman Tommy Kraemer leads the crop of Irish players to go undrafted, with cornerback Nick McCloud also of note, and Skowronek’s bookend Javon McKinley hoping to catch on somewhere, as well.

Ade Ogundeji picked in the fifth round by the Falcons

Ade Ogundeji Clemson
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He practiced patience in his recruitment, patience in waiting for playing time at Notre Dame and now Ade Ogundeji’s patience during the NFL draft has paid off with the Atlanta Falcons selecting the defensive end with the No. 182 overall pick in the fifth round on Saturday.

“Patience is definitely one of my virtues,” Ogundeji said this past season. “I always tell young guys, there’s going to be times where you feel like you should be playing but you’re not, but you always got to wait for that opportunity.”

Ogundeji’s opportunity came as a result of that patience.

Ogundeji arrived in South Bend after a slow recruitment finally picked up the summer before his senior year in high school. In that July (of 2015), he flipped his commitment from Western Michigan to Notre Dame, neither far from his home in West Bloomfield, Mich. He first flashed for the Irish as part of the defensive end rotation in 2018, including being one of the few Notre Dame players who looked up to the task against Clemson in the 2018 College Football Playoff, but thanks to 2020 draftee Khalid Kareem, Ogundeji did not have a starting role until this past season.

He made that count, leading the Irish with seven sacks and adding seven more quarterback hurries. The most notable of those sacks came in the second overtime against No. 1 Clemson on Nov. 7. On the Tigers’ first snap of that added period, Ogundeji got to quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei. A play later, Daelin Hayes sacked Uiagalelei, and before long students had rushed the field to celebrate the upset.

Ogundeji is the eighth former Irish player picked in this draft, tying a Brian Kelly-era record set in 2014.

The last time Notre Dame exceeded eight draftees was 1994 when 10 Irish players were drafted. With offensive lineman Tommy Kraemer still a draft probability, setting a new high for Kelly’s tenure is expected, but it would take both Kraemer and perhaps cornerback Nick McCloud to still be drafted to reach 1994’s peak. Receivers Javon McKinley and Bennett Skowronek, tight end Brock Wright and cornerback Shaun Crawford are unlikely to be drafted.