Of all the teams of the Brian Kelly era, I think I have the least amount of feel for this one. Notre Dame’s top five ranking is brought up a lot on the message boards and social media, with most wondering “are they really that good?” In truth, they don’t feel like a top three or top four team. They haven’t shown the explosiveness on offense and they aren’t really dynamic on defense, forcing turnovers and sacks, etc.
But, then again, when you win your games and you started the season ranked high and the people above you start losing, then you rise in the rankings. That’s how it’s worked since the beginning of time. And this will all sort itself out in the end, so while it gives us something to go back and forth about, the question will be answered for us eventually.
In trying to get a feel for what this team is though, I tried to take a birds eye view of the team, what they are good at, and what they are not, and came up with some things I haven’t seen discussed much.
TaRiq Bracy Is Really Good
For a junior who has played a lot since his true freshman season, Bracy is a pretty overlooked player. We all point to Nick McCloud as being Notre Dame’s best corner, almost by default, and while he has played well, Bracy has been very good for Clark Lea‘s defense playing the field this year.
Keeping in mind he missed the game against USF entirely due to COVID related reasons, Bracy is second on the team in tackles, with 18 (all solo), has two tackles for loss, and is tied for the team lead in break-ups with three. It is his small stature and the lack of elite athletic ability that contributes to his being overlooked for being as good as he is, plus his struggles late in his freshman season against USC that hangs in the minds of fans. (Should be noted those struggles came against Michael Pittman who was a finalist for the Bilitnikoff Award a year later.)
Bracy has always been effective with the ball in the air, doesn’t give up much after the catch, and is constantly around the ball. He’s also been a lot better in run support than would have been anticipated given his stature.
3rd And Short Conversions Are A Strength
This is one that can be filed under assumed and now confirmed. Being able to run for first downs has always been a bit of a telltale sign for the offensive line and running game and this year, so far, all the trends are pointing up.
The team has run the ball 18 times on 3rd down and between 1-3 yards, converting 12 of those into first downs, a 67% clip. At the current rate they will convert 36 first downs on the (12 game) season in this situations. Both numbers are notable improvements from last year, when they only converted 20 first downs in 13 games on a 50% conversion rate. That total first downs number could double by seasons end.
The reasons for this are fairly obvious, but worth noting. First, the line is playing at a much higher level. They are moving teams off the ball and winning at the point of attack much more consistently. Second, they have a backfield running behind them much more adept at finding holes and grinding for extra yards. The Williams and Tyree combo has been very good, perhaps unexpectedly in short yardage.
Tackles For Loss Numbers Are Way Up
When I think about the defenders in the front seven who are playing well, the first player that pops into mind is obviously Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. This is for good reason, he’s playing very well at the moment. He’s on pace for an 18 tackle for loss, 12 game season, and has been generally wreaking havoc all over the field.
But, beyond him it’s hard to single out a player or group, other than Jack Kiser or Isaiah Foskey in limited duty. Then I took a look at the tackles for loss numbers and was genuinely shocked. Notre Dame has posted 35 tackles for loss in four games, about nine per game. Last seasons group was Brian Kelly’s high water mark for tackles for loss with 92 through 13 games, just over seven per contest. Should Notre Dame be lucky enough to play 13 games this season, they’ll be around 114.
Even more shocking are the numbers for nose tackle Kurt Hinish. Generally assumed to be a plugger for the Irish in the middle, Hinish already has four tackles for loss this season and is on pace to reach double digits. Such a tally would be a boon for the defense at a position that isn’t known for that kind of production.
Avery Davis Could Be Having A Much Bigger Season
Just speaking for myself, I’ve underestimated what Davis could bring to the lineup and have wanted to see Lawrence Keys available more than he has been (I still do want to see Keys, but I just like his talent and doesn’t have anything to do with Davis per se). I have just kind of assumed that the passing game would improve a lot more once more talent was inserted into the lineup. And maybe there are more talented players, but the slot position has been lost in the shuffle between the tight ends and running backs, and Davis has made the most of the opportunities he’s been given and Book has missed some plays where Davis was in position to make huge plays.
Davis was wide open on a seam route against FSU that Book opted to throw to Tommy Tremble instead, was open on a wheel route for a TD in the same game when Book opted to scramble for nine, and was open on a crossing route for a TD against Louisville where Book tucked the ball and ended up getting sacked. It’s not the fault of Davis the ball isn’t getting thrown to him when he’s open, and the one time he was given the chance to fight for one against Duke, he secured the touchdown and the game.
Sometimes success comes from being given the opportunity and the more opportunity Davis gets, he’s available to make plays.