Opponent preview: Purdue Boilermakers

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This will be the first of many opponent previews, leading us into the opening week of the season. Any suggestions or comments, please leave below or send me an email.

The Overview:

The Brian Kelly era kicks off against one of Notre Dame’s traditional opponents, in-state rival Purdue. Danny Hope enters his second season as the head coach of the Boilermakers, returning after a debut season that had its share of heartbreak, with gut-wrenching losses to Oregon, the Irish (more on that later), Northwestern, and Michigan State. While the end result was a wobbly 5-7 season, Purdue’s 4-4 conference record included a upset win over #7 Ohio State, a sign that the Boilermakers had the talent to play with just about anybody when they kept their turnovers in check.

Last time against the Irish:

It’s tough to forget the late-game heroics of Jimmy Clausen, who rifled a two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph to escape West Lafayette with a win. The Irish, playing without starting running back Armando Allen and wide receiver Michael Floyd, were dogged by penalties, including a procedure call on Golden Tate that cost both the Irish and his stat ledger a touchdown.

Purdue quarterback Joey Elliott built on the alarming trend of quarterbacks having career days against the Irish with 289 yards passing and three touchdowns, with Keith Smith catching 11 balls while tying a then personal record with 136 receiving yards and a touchdown. Purdue took the lead with four minutes to go on a play-action pass with broken coverage, resulting in Jaycen Taylor running untouched out of the backfield for a 38-yard touchdown. While Clausen’s heroics are what remain in the memory of Irish fans, some befuddling play-calling that included a failed draw play to Robert Hughes with no timeouts left and a defensive timeout by Danny Hope that stopped the clock for the Irish resulted in the final touchdown with 24 seconds left.

Said after the game by the Purdue blog Hammer & Rails:

“Even when we did stop them on 3rd down, I knew we couldn’t do it on fourth down. We’re Purdue. It does not work out that way for us.”

Degree of Difficulty:

Ranking the 12 opponents of the Irish, I slot Purdue in as the eighth-most difficult game on the schedule. That said, getting Purdue on opening day is both a blessing and a curse, as the Boilermakers will have all summer to get up for a game in Notre Dame stadium, a place they only won twice in the last 26 years. 

The Match-up:

Purdue played some pretty solid football down the stretch last season, going 4-2 in its last six games including the upset win over Ohio State. They’ve also added high-profile transfer quarterback Robert Marve to the mix, giving them a dual threat former blue-chip recruit to replace Joey Elliott. While running back Ralph Bolden is still recovering from an ACL tear that has him at only 50-60 percent, wide receiver Keith Smith returns along with three of the top four receiving targets. The offensive line is a question mark, returning only two starters.

On defense, the secondary needs to replace all four members, but early returns on freshman Ricardo Allen are good. The front seven returns almost in tact, with the defensive line considered one of the best in the Big Ten, anchored by All-Big Ten defensive end Ryan Kerrigan.

How the Irish will win:

Want to neutralize a good pass rush and swarming front-seven? Get the ball out quickly and spread the field, a Brian Kelly specialty. While Robert Marve isn’t a freshman, walking into Notre Dame stadium for Game One of the Brian Kelly era is hardly ideal. Doing it behind the least experienced offensive line the Irish will see all season doesn’t help either. Plagued by penalties, a gimpy Jimmy Clausen, and missing two of the Irish’s best offensive weapons, the Irish still managed to win in West Lafayette, bad game management and all. On home turf, the new defensive system will bring effective pressure from near and far, and torture a Purdue offense that needs to find time to throw. Vegas has this a double-digit victory for the Irish. If things go the Irish’s way, that should be the case on September 4th.

How the Irish will lose:

Nothing takes a crowd out of a game like an effective opposing offense, and a mobile quarterback like Marve will take his cues from Tate Forcier and keep the chains moving with his feet. Keith Smith wreaked havoc last season, and he’s a year better on the edge, racking up big gains and explosive plays. Ryan Kerrigan feasts on newbie offensive tackles, forcing a turnover and spending much of the afternoon in the backfield. Dayne Crist, in his first start as the Irish quarterback, turns the ball over a few times, giving the Purdue offense the extra chances it needs. Purdue has a chance to surprise some people, and they begin on opening day.

Gut Feeling:

I’m having a hard time trying to figure out how Purdue wins this football game, even though I think they’ll finish the season in a bowl game. I wouldn’t run to Vegas and lay down the point spread, but I think Bob Diaco’s defense, with very little game tape of the Irish personnel available, is the key to victory.  

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Receivers, finally a filled depth chart

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Notre Dame’s next generation of receivers is already on campus. The trio of four-star recruits of Jayden Greathouse, Braylon James and Rico Flores all enrolled early, though Greathouse and Flores arrived with nicks that are expected to no longer be issues when spring practices begin Wednesday, but a touch of caution could still slow them all the same.

Along with them, the Irish welcome Virginia Tech graduate transfer Kaleb Smith. When an incoming freshman by the same name arrives in the summer, Notre Dame will suddenly have 10 receivers on hand.

That may seem an odd way to begin an article previewing a position before spring practices, but it is the biggest difference between where the Irish were and where they are. Notre Dame simply having receivers on hand is a drastic change. Last preseason, it was working with just six receivers, including a former walk-on and an incoming freshman. The sole veteran in the group, Braden Lenzy, would lament that there were not enough receivers on hand for he and an underclassman to both stand by during a rep so Lenzy could coach up the youngster.

Building the depth chart back out to nine or 10 receivers will give position coach Chansi Stuckey time to work with players individually, players like Greathouse, James and Flores. That said, there may be no established veteran like Lenzy to pass along insights. Only the former Hokie would qualify, and he openly acknowledges he is facing his own learning curve.

“I’ve had four or five different receiver coaches at this point,” Smith said earlier this month. “It’s been a rotating door. We’re teaching an old dog new tricks here at Notre Dame is what I can sum it up as.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Injuries decimated this group in 2022, and in turn, they compromised the Irish offense. Joe Wilkins suffered a foot injury in the preseason that effectively cost him his season. Avery Davis tore his ACL for a second time, ending his career. Then-sophomore Deion Colzie injured his knee, slowing his start to what was expected to be a breakout season.

A November concussion would cut short then-freshman Tobias Merriweather’s progress, eventually leaving Notre Dame with just four receivers it could rely on toward the end of the year. More than anything else — more than former Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’s preferences, more than Notre Dame’s deep backfield — that lack of receivers limited the Irish offense.

The more wide-open the Irish offense ran, the more those few receivers would wear out. Notre Dame could not operate as such.

2022 STATS
Lorenzo Styles: 13 games; 30 catches for 340 yards and one touchdown.
Jayden Thomas: 13 games; 25 catches for 362 yards and three touchdowns.
Braden Lenzy: 13 games; 24 catches for 309 yards and three touchdowns.
Deion Colzie: 12 games; 9 catches for 192 yards and one touchdown.
Matt Salerno: 13 games; 5 catches for 62 yards and one touchdown.
Tobias Merriweather: 7 games; 1 catch for a 41-yard touchdown.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Styles may return more catches than any other Irish receiver, but he also returns more drops than the rest combined, with six just last season. The headlines may focus on Notre Dame’s new receivers — alternately the three freshmen and the veteran transfer with size for new Irish quarterback Sam Hartman to throw to — but Styles rediscovering his focus and/or his confidence would be the biggest step forward for Hartman’s pass catchers.

Smith will battle rising junior Jayden Thomas to be Hartman’s primary big-bodied target. Thomas’s run-blocking abilities could even turn him into a pseudo-slot receiver, allowing them both to conceivably start.

There are options, unlike a year ago. Further development from Merriweather would only add to them, as would any of Greathouse, James or flores quickly progressing.

“We know what the offense has looked like, and the coaches have talked to me since I started being recruited about what it could look like in the future with me a part of it,” Greathouse said to Inside ND Sports earlier in the winter, before Rees left for Alabama. “I definitely think that they want to start airing the ball out.

“That’s what the coaches have been telling me, is that they want to be throwing the ball all over the field. And I think once our recruiting class starts making an impact, we’ll definitely be able to start doing that.”

That would have been the case regardless who the offensive coordinator was in 2023. Gerad Parker will have more receiving options at his disposal than Rees did in 2022, adding layers of possibilities to the Irish offense.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive line, suddenly inexperienced and unproven
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Tight ends, moving on from an all-time great
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, led by a familiar ‘three-headed monster’
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Linebackers, led by a trio of veterans and little change
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive backs, with a star sophomore and an Oklahoma State transfer
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Offensive line, returning bookend tackles and a three-year starter at center

FUTURE DEPTH
The younger Smith’s arrival will almost certainly be a non-item for 2023, sparing us all any extensive confusion between one Kaleb Smith beginning his career and one Kaleb Smith ending his career in the same season.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Offensive line, returning bookend tackles and a three-year starter at center

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When Brent Pry arrived at Virginia Tech last offseason, the new Hokies head coach understood he had a deep hole to climb out of if he wanted to return Blacksburg to ACC contention. Pry set out to hire coaches who would stick around and help with that climb, including offensive line coach Joe Rudolph.

One season later, Rudolph is now preparing for Notre Dame’s spring practices beginning March 22. That departure is not a reflection of Rudolph dismissing his original intentions, but rather of how alluring the Irish offensive line coaching job was after Harry Hiestand retired following Tommy Rees’s departure for Alabama.

Notre Dame is an appealing coaching gig in a vacuum, the Irish offensive line position duties just as much so. But the 2023 possibilities attracted a few of the better line coaches in the country, given two future first-round draft picks should start at the tackle spots and Zeke Correll will start at center for a third season. Add in a plethora of highly-sought former recruits on the depth chart, and Notre Dame’s offensive line should make nearly any coach look good.

On top of all that, Irish head coach Marcus Freeman sold Rudolph with his favorite catchphrase.

“That’s not always in fashion to say, ‘This is an O-line driven place and the O-line sets the tone,’” Rudolph said earlier this month of his interview conversations with Freeman. “He took a lot of pride in saying it and said it in a few of the meetings we had. That hits deep to me.

“It’s how I grew up when I played. I felt that responsibility as a player. It really hit home for me.”

The opportunity to lean into the offensive line at Notre Dame was simply too much for Rudolph to turn down to stay at Virginia Tech.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
The Irish lost two captains, two multi-year starters, two massive human beings in guards Jarrett Patterson and Josh Lugg. Their combined 79 starts is not simply a stat in the rearview mirror.

Here is a 2023 prediction: When Notre Dame struggles to run through Central Michigan on Sept. 16, the fanbase’s consternation will be met with this space repeating Lugg’s accurate philosophizing a year ago about how an offensive line needs some time to coalesce. In each of the last three seasons, that was an Irish need, and in each of the last three seasons, that became an Irish reality.

In 2022, it was because Notre Dame was working in a pair of green tackles. In 2023, it will be because the Irish are finding their footing with a pair of green guards.

2022 STATS
Joe Alt (two years of eligibility remaining entering the 2023 season): 13 starts at left tackle
Jarrett Patterson: 12 starts at left guard
Andrew Kristofic (two years of eligibility remaining): 11 games, started the season opener at left guard in place of Patterson
Zeke Correll (two years): 13 starts at center
Josh Lugg: 13 starts at right guard
Blake Fisher (three years): 13 starts at right tackle

Tosh Baker (two years): 13 games
Rocco Spindler (three years): 12 games
Michael Carmody (two years): 1 game

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Those three starters are established. It would take injury to change them.

Alt (pictured at top) will be a preseason All-American at left tackle and likely first-round draft pick 13 months from now.
Correll will start for a third season at center and about halfway through the year the Irish will start pondering if they should talk him into a sixth collegiate year in 2024.
Fisher will start at right tackle and could join Alt in the NFL draft with a strong year. While that may panic Notre Dame fans, a season producing a pair of first-round tackles should be a season with some substantial successes in the fall, as well.

But those two guard spots will lead to much springtime and preseason wonder. Rudolph does not know who will emerge, obviously, but he indicated he will take the same approach that Hiestand did and find his best five players first, their positions second.

“You’d be selling the group short if you weren’t trying to find the best five,” Rudolph said. “You have to do that with some vision of how the whole group fits together.

“There might be someone who is competing their tail off, and they might back up [Alt] or back up [Correll], but if they play in a way this spring where you see they’re one of those five (best), you can easily move them to a position and have them ready in fall camp and all summer to take that over.”

The initial candidates should be rising junior Rocco Spindler, fifth-year Andrew Kristofic and perhaps rising sophomore Billy Schrauth. Kristofic has starting experience, most notably stepping in at left guard for the second half of the 2021 season, with much success. The other two are unknowns since high-profile recruitments.

For the moment, presume the starting guards come from that trio. The player to nominally come up short should still anticipate playing in 2023. Notre Dame’s offensive line health in 2022 was absurd. Aside from Patterson suffering a foot injury in August, no offensive lineman endured notable injury.

That may have been karmic justice for the historical string of injuries at left tackle in 2021, needing four underclassmen to take their knocks just to get through the first half of the season, but it was still the first time since 2017 the Irish enjoyed such fortune up front, needing at least two reserves in each of the four intervening seasons.

It would be irrational to expect such luck again, giving tangible motivation to the three other rising sophomores as well as a pair of rising juniors, none of whom have seen the field yet.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive line, suddenly inexperienced and unproven
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Tight ends, moving on from an all-time great
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, led by a familiar ‘three-headed monster’
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Linebackers, led by a trio of veterans and little change
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive backs, with a star sophomore and an Oklahoma State transfer

FUTURE DEPTH
Hiestand pulled in a total of 10 offensive linemen in the last two classes, though Joey Tanona was already forced into retirement due to a concussion suffered in a car accident last winter. Nonetheless, those nine underclassmen present Rudolph plenty of options moving forward, all notable recruits, part of the luxury of taking this job.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive backs, with a star sophomore and an Oklahoma State transfer

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One common misperception about college football in the modern era is that base defenses still focus on a 3-4 or a 4-3 defensive front. More and more often, defenses spend more time with at least five defensive backs on the field than with seven defensive linemen and linebackers. The nickel defense is the most common look.

That has changed mostly in reaction to college football so heavily leaning on the pass — one of the reasons the NCAA may opt to keep the clock running following incompletions beginning next season, a rule change pending approval this offseason — but also as a luxury of more multi-faceted defenders.

Tariq Bracy may not have looked like a physical player on paper, listed at 185 pounds and 5-foot-10 ⅛ last season, but the veteran carried much of that weight in his legs, making him a powerful tackler as well as quick enough to keep up with most slot receivers.

When Notre Dame lost Bracy to injury at USC to end the season, freshman Jaden Mickey hardly stood a chance in the pivotal position.

Enter Oklahoma State transfer Thomas Harper.

Harper is usually listed as a safety, but even he admits what is most likely his destination in the Irish defense.

“Really just kind of get in where I fit in and playing some free safety, some nickel,” he said last month on his coming role. “Getting in where I fit in, wherever I’m needed, that’s where I’ll be.”

RELATED READING: Oklahoma State safety Thomas Harper transfer gives Notre Dame needed depth on back line

For a veteran with one season of eligibility remaining, any transfer comes with the thought of showing off for the NFL. At 5-foot-11, Harper is self-aware enough to know an NFL career at safety is unlikely. Proving himself as a three-down defender near the tackle box, though, could give Harper a chance at the next level.

“Going somewhere that I felt like would benefit me the most as far as help me maximize my potential and get me to that next level,” he said. Some of that ties beyond playing nickel back at Notre Dame and to the stage he’ll be playing on. “Being able to be on a team where I can show my ability vs. other teams other than just the Big 12, that’s a really big reason why I wanted to come here.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Brandon Joseph did two things as expected in his one year with the Irish. He made a big play, returning an interception for a touchdown on the first play of the game at Syracuse, though only one such big play. And he jumped to the NFL after only one year.

Notre Dame was better off with Joseph than it would have been without him, but his impact was far from as exclamatory as expected based on some of his days at Northwestern and his work in preseason practices.

Thus, Bracy’s matriculation may have been the bigger concern for the Irish, that is, until Harper transferred in.

Notre Dame will take some time figuring out its safety rotation, something that could seemingly be said each of the last three seasons, but it is not inherently starting from a position worse than it ended last year.

2022 STATS
DJ Brown: 13 games; 48 tackles with 0.5 for loss, plus two pass breakups.
TaRiq Bracy: 11 games; 39 tackles with six for loss including one sack, plus one interception and one pass breakup.
Xavier Watts: 13 games; 39 tackles with two for loss including one sack, plus three pass breakups.
Houston Griffith: 13 games; 33 tackles with one for loss.
Benjamin Morrison: 13 games; 33 tackles with one for loss plus six interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and four pass breakups.
Brandon Joseph: 10 games; 30 tackles with one interception returned for a touchdown and one pass breakup, as well as one forced fumble.
Clarence Lewis: 13 games; 29 tackles with one for loss, plus one interception and four pass breakups, as well as one fumble recovered and one fumble forced.
Cam Hart: 11 games; 24 tackles with three for loss, plus four pass breakups.
Ramon Henderson: 11 games; 23 tackles with two for lossi including 0.5 sacks, plus one fumble recovered.
Jaden Mickey: 11 games; 9 tackles.
Justin Walters: 4 games; two tackles.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
There may be a hole at safety, one likely filled by rising senior Xavier Watts and a starter to be named later, and Harper’s arrival at nickel back may generate some buzz as shiny new toys always tend to. But make no mistake, there is one name that defines the Irish secondary in 2023 and one name only: Benjamin Morrison.

The sophomore cornerback should land on some preseason All-American lists, and hype around him may reach heights too high by the time Notre Dame heads to Dublin (166 days). If intercepting six passes as a freshman was not impressive enough on their own, snagging two and returning one 96 yards for a decisive touchdown in the biggest Irish upset of Marcus Freeman’s debut campaign was certainly a moment that will linger in Notre Dame lore.

“He’s an ultimate competitor that doesn’t get shaken,” Freeman said after that 35-14 win against Clemson. “It’s really uncommon for a freshman to be like that.”

Those reservations for six in the end zone may have been the highlight, but Morrison’s first interception against Clemson may have been more impactful. The Tigers were backed up near their own end zone, already trailing 14-0, when Morrison intercepted a crossing route, a throw rushed by defensive end Justin Ademilola.

Morrison less jumped that route and more remembered his coaching and the play call. He was intended to undercut the receiver and place his trust in the safeties behind him to limit a big play. Consider that a moment where DJ Brown’s experience aided the defense in a way that never showed up on the stat sheet. He was the sole deep safety, mirroring the crossing route from 10 yards behind, giving Morrison the coverage to gamble.

Morrison gambling was not the mark of a player starring beyond his years. Him doing so within the play design, however, was the mark of a player thoroughly understanding the defensive scheme.

Opposite him in 2023 will be another such player in fifth-year Cam Hart, though a shoulder injury should limit his contact this spring, creating more opportunities for Jaden Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis to reassert themselves.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive line, suddenly inexperienced and unproven
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Tight ends, moving on from an all-time great
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, led by a familiar ‘three-headed monster’
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Linebackers, led by a trio of veterans and little change

FUTURE DEPTH
Incoming freshman Brandyn Hillman’s sudden Sunday departure from the program robs Notre Dame of something of a shotgun approach at safety this past recruiting cycle. The Irish pulled in three safeties in Hillman, Ben Minich and Adon Shuler, presumably hoping at least one would pan out. Now that is a 50/50 proposition, with Shuler sidelined by a shoulder injury presently.

In terms of the next Morrison, a thought that no prospect should be burdened with, many spring practice praises will fall upon Christian Gray, a lengthy and athletic early enrollee, while Micah Bell’s speed may make him a special teams contributor when he arrives in Augst.

Dynamic incoming freshman safety Brandyn Hillman exits Notre Dame before enrolling

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The last commitment of Notre Dame’s class of 2023 is the first of the 24 players to depart the Irish program. In a very literal sense, rivals.com three-star safety Brandyn Hillman hardly joined the program, receiving a release from his National Letter of Intent before even enrolling at Notre Dame.

Hillman announced his departure on Instagram on Sunday evening.

“Due to personal reasons, I have asked for and been granted my release from my NLI with the University of Notre Dame,” he wrote. “I would like to thank Coach [Marcus] Freeman and the Notre Dame staff for their interest.

“I ask you to respect my privacy and my family’s privacy as I explore my options on where to attend school this fall.”

Hillman went from no FBS offers in September of his senior season to a Notre Dame commitment the first week of December. His profile rocketed upward in large part to his spring and early summer showings at recruiting camps. Hillman’s physical abilities were quite clear, further so as he played on both sides of the ball in high school.

Irish defensive coordinator Al Golden expected Hillman to join his depth chart at safety, though a future at Rover was also possible.

“Obviously, he could play safety,” Golden said when Hillman signed his National Letter of Intent in December. “He’s big enough to be a Rover, if you will. What’s not to like about him?

“He’s a team captain. Anytime you can get a quarterback, you’re basically taking a player that his high school coach has already deemed good enough to give him the keys to the car. If that high school coach and their staff careers and success depend a lot on that quarterback, so when you make that guy your leader and make the face of your program, that says a lot about him.

“When you look at the competitive nature of the kid and his makeup and just the type of family background he has, I’m really excited about him.”

Instead, Hillman will head elsewhere. His Instagram story — a social-media feature that disappears in 24 hours — suggested he had already received renewed offers from Michigan, LSU and Wisconsin on Sunday, as well as a handful of other programs.

The Virginia native had also heard from both Virginia and Virginia Tech.

In situations like this, the first instinct is to assume some family worries forced a player to reconsider his location. That is only an assumption, and one less and less accurate as college football rosters churn in the modern era.

Without Hillman, Notre Dame has six safeties on its roster, led by sixth-year DJ Brown and rising senior Xavier Watts (Nos. 2 and 26, above, respectively).

If the quick count of the operating depth chart is accurate, the Irish currently have 92 players expected to be on scholarship this fall. The NCAA allows a maximum of 85, so a decent amount of turnover should be anticipated exiting spring practices, which begin on March 22.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame lands dazzling athlete recruit, Brandyn Hillman, with signing day just two weeks away
Notre Dame gets the letter: Brandyn Hillman, athlete who may end up on defense