SOUTH BEND, Ind. — When defensive tackle Gabriel Rubio stepped away from the Notre Dame football program earlier this month for personal reasons, his departure was a football story that was really a math problem.
If Rubio returns to Notre Dame for next season, he’d be a senior stuck behind a pair of starting defensive tackles who wouldn’t be here in normal times. Howard Cross will be back for a sixth season and Rylie Mills will return for a fifth, opportunities created by COVID-19 waivers and empowered by NIL funding.
Neither of those elements were natural to college football when Rubio committed to Notre Dame four and a half years ago, the summer before his junior year at Lutheran St. Charles outside St. Louis. Players always knew they had to compete for time, knew that their programs would attempt to recruit over the top of them from the moment they signed. But that’s different than losing reps due to seismic changes in college football governance.
What hasn’t changed in that time is judging how a staff feels about a position group or how a coach feels about a player. Because the math behind snap counts isn’t any different today than before college football threw itself into a permanent tumult. While that math may have given Rubio pause about Notre Dame, it’s also a straightforward approach to digging into Notre Dame’s roster to find strengths, weaknesses and every in-between.
(Snap counts are per Pro Football Focus.)
Notre Dame’s defensive line was top heavy
The Irish had 10 defensive linemen hit 100 snaps last season, but only starters Cross, Mills, Javontae Jean-Baptiste and Jordan Botelho cleared a modest 260 snaps. The 610 total snaps by Cross were a high mark for a Notre Dame defensive lineman since Jerry Tillery logged 666 during the College Football Playoff campaign of 2018. Rubio finished ninth at the position with just 136 snaps, although that was limited by a September injury and not playing against Louisville.
The problem for Rubio is the same one facing the rest of Notre Dame’s reserve defensive linemen. It’s hard to figure out where the opportunities are going to come next season barring a change in approach. And considering the success of defensive coordinator Al Golden’s scheme, a change in approach doesn’t make much sense.
With Rubio, Notre Dame would return eight of its top 10 defensive linemen in terms of snap counts, losing the 779 snaps split between Jean-Baptiste and NaNa Osafo-Mensah, who transferred to TCU as the Irish welcomed the turnover with R.J. Oben incoming from Duke (477 snaps last season). That’s where Rubio’s snaps get difficult to project. He averaged just 14 snaps in Notre Dame’s contested games against Ohio State, Duke and Clemson.
An offseason earlier, Notre Dame lost 1,732 snaps from the defensive line, including three of the top four linemen in usage: Isaiah Foskey, Juston Ademilola and Jayson Ademilola. That created opportunity for upward mobility among Notre Dame’s returning linemen. The starting four seniors filled almost all of it. Now three of them are back, with Cross and Mills surefire 500-snap players.
Can the Irish be deeper on the defensive line? There’s a good chance the staff will claim it can be as Josh Burnham, Boubacar Traore and Jason Onye continue to evolve. It’s just not clear where those reps will come to prove it.
It’s not hard to understand why the Irish wanted a transfer tackle
When Joe Alt and Blake Fisher both declared for the NFL Draft, it removed 1,423 snaps from the lineup, leaving Tosh Baker (118), Charles Jagusah (66) and Aamil Wagner (52) returning. And of those 236 snaps, 128 of them came in the Fiesta Bowl because Alt and Fisher chose to opt out. For all the potential Jagusah, Baker and Wagner may have, their collective inexperience sent offensive line coach Joe Rudolph looking in the transfer portal.
The problem, at least for a program that’s recruited as well as Notre Dame, is that finding a transfer offensive lineman good enough is more challenging than any other position. The only transfer offensive lineman Notre Dame has signed in recent seasons was Cain Madden from Marshall, who PFF rated as the second-best returning offensive player in all of college football. But Madden was overmatched in his one season in South Bend, even on a team than went to the Fiesta Bowl.
The last time Notre Dame was cleared out at tackle like this, it lost Robert Hainsey and Liam Eichenberg in the same offseason, along with Aaron Banks and Tommy Kraemer. Eichenberg and Hainsey combined to log 1,670 snaps that 2020 season, which ended in the College Football Playoff. They were replaced by Josh Lugg, who’d been a career utility lineman as well as two freshmen … Fisher and Alt.
That offense ranked among Notre Dame’s worst of the Brian Kelly era at 4.14 yards per carry and was dead last under Kelly in sacks allowed with 35. By contrast, the Irish allowed just 16 sacks last season, combining strong tackle play with an experienced and mobile quarterback. The Irish got even more mobile with Riley Leonard, but the tackle spot will be a work in progress.
Experienced at quarterback? Book double-digit wins
Yes, there’s more to Notre Dame’s recent run of success than quarterback experience.
But it’s easy to pick out the one blip during the past six seasons and point to Notre Dame being unsettled under center (or the shotgun), even if the change in head coaches had something to do with it. Entering Marcus Freeman’s debut, the Irish quarterbacks returned just 188 snaps from the season prior, split between Tyler Buchner (163) and Drew Pyne (25). The results were perhaps predictably erratic as Notre Dame struggled with Buchner and struggled without him as Pyne tried to fill the role.
Compare those 188 snaps with previous seasons’ experience by Notre Dame’s starting quarterbacks in the run of 10-win campaigns that included two trips to the CFP. Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book returned 929 snaps entering the 2018 season. Book returned 674 snaps entering 2019 and 825 going into 2020. Jack Coan didn’t play the season before transferring to Notre Dame but played 925 snaps in his final season at Wisconsin. And Sam Hartman logged 898 snaps in his final year at Wake Forest before moving to Notre Dame.
As for Leonard? He played 891 snaps in his first season as Duke’s starting quarterback before last season’s injuries limited him to 381 snaps as a junior. As much as Leonard needs development as a passer, he brings the kind of snap-count experience to Notre Dame that predicts a 10-win season … maybe more.
Could the Irish have the nation’s most-tested secondary?
Experience isn’t everything in a defensive backfield. Notre Dame’s least-experienced defensive back entering last season was Xavier Watts. He won the Bronko Nagurski Award and was a unanimous All-American. Only slightly more experienced? Benjamin Morrison. The cornerback was just fine, too. They joined a starting lineup with Cam Hart, DJ Brown and Thomas Harper, a collective that began last season with 4,792 combined snaps. That experience showed in the nation’s No. 1 pass efficiency defense. The group’s talent showed too.
Now Watts and Morrison return, but they’ll be surrounded by three new starters, likely Jaden Mickey, Rod Heard and Jordan Clark. Heard joined after a five-year career at Northwestern. Clark transferred in following a five-year career at Arizona State.
Notre Dame’s starting secondary could open next season with 7,020 career snaps on its resume, an almost unbelievable number made possible by those COVID-19 waiver seasons. For the sake of context, Heard arrives at Notre Dame with almost 1,000 more career snaps than Brown had entering last season when he was a sixth-year senior.
The curiosity for Golden and secondary coaches Mike Mickens and Chris O’Leary is how to put all that experience to best use. Last season that meant leaning on the front seven, where the Irish started all seniors. In terms of pressure packages and schemes, the experience (and Golden’s ability to maximize it) took a defense with very good talent and made it great. The challenge for Notre Dame is creating that same greatness in the secondary next season.
(Photo of Notre Dame defensive tackle Howard Cross: Michael Miller / ISI Photos / Getty Images)