There are a lot of good feelings around the Notre Dame football program right now after a 5-1 start and a look of dominance the last four weeks. I’ve written a lot about all the good things we’ve seen on the field this season, from the running game to the stout defense. This is for good reason. There is a lot to like about this team and what it has done.
But, like any team at the midpoint of the season, there are areas of concern that need to be improved on. This is just a matter of fact. A writer for Clemson or Alabama could do the same thing. Notre Dame wants to be a great team, and they will have their chance to get there in the final six games. Right now, they are a good team that generally plays the game at a high level. Lets look at how they go from good to great.
Make More Plays On Defense
The defense is vastly improved in the playmaking department from a season ago, so credit for that, but going from plain noodles to adding some marinara and parmesan cheese doesn’t make me a chef. This is mainly a story about Nyles Morgan needing to take his next step as a player. I admit I’m grading on a curve here. He’s having a good season, but I expect a heck of a lot from Morgan and if he’d stop missing tackles in the back field he’d be having a monster season.
A play against North Carolina perfectly encapsulates the season Morgan is having. He comes on a blitz, isn’t picked up by the back, and gets a clean shot on the quarterback. He bounces off and the quarterback escapes. Morgan then jumps up, takes off after the quarterback and ultimately makes the tackle for about a ten yard gain, but short of the first down. On the one hand, it’s great effort, phenomenal effort. On the other hand, missed plays like that will kill the defense against the better teams on the schedule that are upcoming. Especially in games that are decided by a play here or there.
I’m a big believer in the idea a team is only as good as their best players play. Morgan is a microcosm of the defense right now. To this point, he is playing well, not great. Second in tackles to Te’Von Coney (by a half tackle), tied for the lead in tackles for loss, by far the leader in run stuffs with 11. But, Morgan has another level to reach and in my opinion has to reach it for Notre Dame to manage the back half of this gauntlet.
More Production From The Secondary
On the theme of more playmaking on defense, this is a group that is good in coverage, poor in ball skills. The secondary is tied for 93rd in touchdown passes given up with 10, and most of those have via the jump ball or contested in the end zone. They’ve been in position to make the plays, but have been unable to do so more often than not. As mentioned in my article highlighting the defensive line, the secondary is 108th in defensive back havoc rate, per Bill Connelly, and 111th in passes defensed to incompletions (the percentage of incompletions by the offense either batted down or intercepted by the defense). Between Same Darnold, Ryan Findlay, and Malik Rosier, the secondary will be tested in ways they haven’t been in the first six weeks, Notre Dame needs more out of this group.
Get Equanimeous St. Brown Going
On the theme of only being as good as your best players, the best receiver on the team is currently sitting on 15 catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns. His catch rate is terrible (40.5%), and his success rate is even lower (35.1%). Chase Claypool has been the best receiver on the team this season (80% catch rate, 67% success rate) and the problem is he is not their best receiver. Notre Dame has not been successful, when throwing it to their top target and it’s impossible to imagine Notre Dame building off of their first half start if that trend continues.
This isn’t a question of numbers. Notre Dame is clearly going to run the ball a lot more this season than they have in the past, and with the way they rip off big chunks of yards on the ground there aren’t as many yards out there. This is a question of efficiency. A 35% success rate is abysmal. And with a team that’s so good on the ground, it’s unfathomable there aren’t opportunities threw the air.
This isn’t a referendum on St. Brown, clearly quarterback play has been poor this season and that, obviously, plays a big role. But, we’ve also seen St. Brown get manhandled a little too often, and the desire to fight for the ball has left some wanting. Everyone involved in the passing game, from Wimbush to the wideouts, needs to step up their play and if it can’t be counted on from the best player then that’s a big problem.
Clean Up Kickoff Units
Notre Dame is 114th in kickoff success rate and 72nd in kickoff return success rate, the former is terrible, the latter is below average. In standard stats, the Irish are 108th in average per return given up, and that doesn’t include the 90+ yarder given up to Georgia that was called back.
Beyond those numbers, there is just a sense that opponents are about ready to break a big one, and I don’t need to explain what a home run on kickoff return can do in a big game.
Prior to the season, special teams coach Brian Polian stated receiver Chase Claypool, who starred on the kickoff unit last season, would be a fixture this season as well. As a big, athletic athlete, that made a lot of sense. But, that has not materialized this season as Claypool’s role as a receiver has grown, and no one has filled the role as the guy who flies down on kickoff, blowing people up.
Kickoff return has been better than it’s counterpart of coverage, but hasn’t performed up to it’s potential. The Irish have a returner more than capable of big plays in the return game, and he has had a couple returns on the verge of breaking into the open field.
Field position is a big deal in close games against evenly matched teams, and it is part of the hidden yards that play a significant role in those outcomes. Notre Dame has been poor in close games the last few seasons, as has been discussed ad nauseam, and if the Irish could consistently win the kickoff unit battle that would go a long way to curing that problem.