Floyd returns: How Brian Kelly brought back his star receiver

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Apologies to Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, and Ishaq Williams, but the Irish coaching staff landed their biggest recruit of the offseason with Michael Floyd’s return to Notre Dame for his senior season.

Armed with a PowerPoint presentation, a plan to have Floyd graduate next December, and a detailed focus on how he’ll be used in the second iteration of the head coach’s offense, Brian Kelly and his offensive coaching staff essentially re-recruited the 6-3, 227-pound junior from St. Paul in a closed door meeting yesterday, bringing back the most important member of the Irish roster for a season basically nobody saw coming.

“This was one of the toughest decisions I have ever had to make in my life,” Floyd said.

Heading into the holiday break, many assumed Floyd had said goodbye to South Bend. Reports on the internet quoted his dislike for the city and weather (never mind that he’s from Minnesota), his lukewarm relationship with Kelly, and his family’s modest economic standing as reasons he’d all but decided to forgo his senior season at Notre Dame and enter the NFL Draft.

But Monday’s initial reports that Floyd was already set to announce his intent to leave misunderstood the key elements that went into Floyd’s decision to return for a fourth season in blue and gold.

“I’m returning to Notre Dame for three reasons: to earn my degree, return Notre Dame to the top and improve myself as a player,” Floyd released in a statement. “First, I promised my mom I would graduate from Notre Dame and I am 40 credit hours shy of attaining that goal. I chose to attend Notre Dame in part because I knew it was a 40-year decision and not a four-year decision. Graduating from Notre Dame will help me for the rest of my life. Second, I want to get Notre Dame back to a BCS game. I believe we are very close to returning the Irish to where we belong and I want to be part of something great. Lastly, I want to show everyone in the country that I’m the best wide receiver in college football in 2011. There are many things I need to improve, but I feel with the coaching I have at Notre Dame, I can become the best at my position in this game.”

The desire to graduate from Notre Dame can’t be understated. Both Floyd and his mother, Theresa Romero, put great value on getting a Notre Dame degree, and the Irish coaching staff put in detailed plan in place that would help Floyd earn the 40 credit hours needed. He’ll have the spring semester, a summer session, and next fall to meeting the university’s obligations before leaving school next December with a diploma to begin preparations for the 2012 NFL Draft.

But if Floyd’s decision came down to anything, it was the thawing of a relationship between the team’s star wide receiver and his head coach.

Barely a month after Kelly’s hiring at Notre Dame, his star wide receiver was caught up in an embarrassing underage drinking fiasco, after a fight on the University of Minnesota campus over Christmas break. From there, whether it was real or perceived, Floyd often felt he was the scapegoat for the previous regime’s inability to win games, a dangerous tactic to take with your offense’s most important player.

During Kelly’s first media day with the national press, he took a shot at a consensus preseason All-American.

“Michael Floyd… I thought Michael Floyd was over-hyped. I thought he was, at times, average,” Kelly said. “He ran down the field and they threw it up. He wasn’t a precision route runner. He wasn’t asked to be. He was a match-up guy. You never saw him in a position to run the dig or the drive or one-on-one where he had to beat press coverage on a slant on 4th and one. All those things that go to winning football games, I didn’t see that. Maybe it’s because they had Golden Tate and he did all that for them. So my evaluation of Mike was based upon the film I’ve had.”

(Looking back now, that statement reads almost like a tactical strike against Floyd. Preseason kudos? Undeserved. Physical abilities? So what. Anybody big and strong can go up and get the football. When the team needed to win last year, they didn’t call #3’s number, they looked to Golden Tate. Go ahead and look for yourself, the film doesn’t lie…)

If that statement was meant to be a message to his star wide receiver, Floyd apparently received it loud and clear, making it a personal mission to work harder than everyone throughout the spring and summer months. Even though Floyd was used to the special rules Charlie Weis had for him, Golden Tate, and Jimmy Clausen, and was confused why his head coach would take dead aim at a player that was responsible for carrying most of the offensive load, he grinded on, showing both his teammates and a new coaching staff what kind of player he truly is. In the days before the season started, it was clear that Kelly noticed.

“In my 20 years, I have not had a player who has worked as hard as Michael Floyd has worked,” Kelly said in August. “And I mean that. He has out-worked everybody on the offensive side of the ball to the point where he has single-handedly set the bar for where everybody else needs to bring their play.”

From there, Kelly learned that while he might not have seen what made Floyd special on tape, his opponents did. Complacent to keep Floyd stationed in one place, he watched as Dayne Crist struggled to connect with his best receiver. Against Purdue, Floyd was only targeted seven times, with three completions going for less than 10 yards. Against Michigan, more than half the throws to Floyd went incomplete, and his five catches for 66 yards were inconceivable numbers against a ravaged secondary that Floyd lit up the year before in Ann Arbor. It took until Notre Dame’s decisive loss to Stanford for Floyd to break the 100-yard mark in a game, the longest stretch since his freshman year to reach that number.

But as the season evolved, both receiver and head coach understood what Floyd meant to the offense, and his 13 targets against USC were critical to the Irish beating the Trojans for the first time since Bob Davie coached Notre Dame. After his six catches, 109 yards and two touchdowns torched a talented secondary, it sounded as if Kelly knew keeping Floyd for another season would be difficult.

“We have a young man here at Notre Dame that has given everything to Notre Dame,” Kelly said of Floyd. “If he decides it’s in his best interests to come back next year, we’ll be very, very happy for him. But we want what’s best for Mike Floyd. Today he showed why he’s a championship football player.”

It turns out that both Floyd’s best and personal interests brought him back to Notre Dame. While reviews of his draft stock were mixed, the easy thing for Floyd to do would have been leaving for the NFL. Whether it was bottom of the first round money or third round money, it would’ve done enough to instantly change the life of both him and his mother.

“This was a tough decision because my dream has always been to play in the NFL, but I didn’t think that this was the best time to make that jump,” Floyd said. “Ultimately, I wanted to be at Notre Dame for my senior season because you never get college back.”

That senior season will likely see Floyd break just about every major receiving record in Notre Dame’s history books. He already sits atop the books in receiving touchdowns and yards per game, as well as holds a slew of freshman records from his 2008 season. With Theo Riddick, Tyler Eifert, TJ Jones, and Cierre Wood back, Floyd will also have diversified set of skill players that’ll help take the focus off the senior receiver as well as a quarterback (playing behind a veteran offensive line) that has likely played significant minutes.

What’s next for Floyd likely will be determined by the relationship that he and his head coach forge over the next nine months. Floyd returned to Notre Dame in many ways in spite of his relationship with his head coach, not because of it. Yesterday’s meeting, a candid session between Floyd and Kelly, could have been the breakthrough needed for both parties to leave the past behind and begin building a team that’s well positioned for a BCS run.

“We had a great meeting yesterday,” Floyd said in his statement explaining his return to school. “I felt (Kelly) was very truthful and candid in our conversation and I really appreciated that.”

Whatever was said behind those doors in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex resulted in Notre Dame’s most prolific wide receiver passing up the NFL for the chance to take a shot at some unfinished business.

If Notre Dame is going to take the leap from good to great next season (see Auburn’s jump from 8-5 to BCS Champions), they’ll need their head coach and star receiver to be on the same page. After a rocky start, Floyd’s unlikely return to Notre Dame is a sign that after wondering what might have been with stars like Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate and Kyle Rudolph, the stars could finally be aligning above the Golden Dome.

Drew Pyne to transfer from Notre Dame; Tyler Buchner reportedly a bowl possibility

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Notre Dame may start its third quarterback of the season in its bowl game after junior Drew Pyne announced he will transfer from the program on Friday. A graduate, Pyne has three seasons of eligibility remaining.

ESPN’s Pete Thamel first reported Pyne’s intention to transfer, with Pyne soon thereafter taking to Twitter to confirm as much.

“One of my proudest honors is to have been a student-athlete at the University of Notre Dame,” Pyne wrote. “… It’s time for me to take on a new challenge, and I will be entering the transfer portal.”

Pyne took over as the Irish starter after sophomore Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second week of the season. Pyne went 8-2 as a starter, completing 64.6 percent of his passes for 2,021 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.

His final action at Notre Dame may have been Pyne’s best game of his career, throwing for 318 yards and three touchdowns at USC while completing 23 of 26 passes, the second-most accurate game in Irish history.

He appeared in two games in 2021, stepping in for Jack Coan when he struggled against Wisconsin and Cincinnati. Keeping Pyne to minimal appearances in 2021 was intentional, preserving a season of eligibility for him.

That eligibility will now be used elsewhere.

Without Pyne, Notre Dame will have freshman Steve Angeli and possibly Buchner available in the bowl game, a location and opponent to be announced on Sunday. Football Scoop’s John Brice reported Friday afternoon that Buchner will play in the bowl game, though perhaps that optimism should be measured throughout practice this month.

Regardless, the Irish are expected to pursue an incoming transfer quarterback this month. With names like Texas’ Hudson Card and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong already in the transfer portal, Notre Dame will have a few options to chase.

That is why Pyne’s transfer makes sense, even if he spoke earnestly about the bowl game following that 38-27 loss in Los Angeles.

“I think we have a lot to play for,” he said. “We’re going to be in a bowl game, I want to send all the seniors out the right way. We have a lot to play for. We have another game, I’m going to prepare as hard as I can for that and finish the season off on a positive note.”

Reversing course from those words is understandable given they came minutes after a competitive game, and the last week has shown Pyne how quickly the quarterback transfer market will move.

In the game of musical chairs that is quarterbacks moving across the country, Pyne waiting until after the bowl game to transfer could serve only to leave him with fewer destinations as options. Not that Pyne may have been looking at Iowa, but the fact that one Power Five starting gig appears to have already been filled by Michigan transfer Cade McNamara presumably underscored the rapid nature of this process.

Understandably, Pyne needs to make the most of this opportunity, coming off a strong season as Notre Dame’s starter but knowing he is unlikely to start for the Irish in 2023. Depending on the level of transfer joining the Irish and Buchner’s health, it was distinctly possible Pyne would be Notre Dame’s third quarterback next year.

For someone who grew up as a Notre Dame fan, specifically a Brady Quinn fan, assuredly this decision was not an easy one for Pyne.

He had a lengthy and notable offer sheet coming out of high school, but Pyne at his best this season would not draw interest from the likes of Texas A&M, Alabama and LSU as he did three years ago. It may be more pertinent to point out he is a Connecticut native, so schools in the northeast could be most logical for his landing spot.

The Irish should also have quarterback commit Kenny Minchey in the pecking order this spring, expected to sign with Notre Dame on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s QB room creates a friendly trust that has been crucial to Pyne’s success
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 10 Drew Pyne, junior quarterback

Notre Dame adds a fourth receiver commit to recruiting class, helping a roster need

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Notre Dame is addressing its most glaring roster deficiency with a numbers approach. The Irish had only five true scholarship receivers for much of this season, a number they will nearly match in next year’s freshman class alone after adding a fourth receiver commitment on Thursday. Consensus three-star receiver Kaleb Smith (Rick Reedy High School; Frisco, Texas) announced he will join Notre Dame’s class, and he should sign with the Irish on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

Smith was committed to Texas Tech for more than nine months before he backed off that pledge in early November. Marcus Freeman does not welcome official visitors who are committed to other programs, so if Smith wanted to take an official visit to South Bend to watch Notre Dame play Clemson, he needed to open up his recruitment.

The Irish 35-13 win against the then-No. 4 Tigers assuredly helped tip the scales away from his homestate Texas Tech.

Otherwise, Smith has hardly been recruited by anyone. The only other Power Five program to chase him was Baylor when current Notre Dame receivers coach Chansi Stuckey was there.

Listed at only 6-foot and 168 pounds, it is easy to pencil in Smith as a slot receiver, but he is also willing to go up in the air to get the ball. His highlight footage features him repeatedly and astonishingly open.

His size, or lack thereof, will make Smith unique among the quartet of incoming signees. By snagging four receivers in this class, the Irish are proactively fixing an undeniable roster problem. In last year’s Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame had only four receivers available. Through most of this season, in part due to injuries to Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins, the Irish had a total of six receivers available, including former walk-on Matt Salerno.

While Braden Lenzy will not return for the Irish in 2023, current sophomores Jayden Thomas, Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles should all come back, along with current freshman Tobias Merriweather. With these four commitments, a position group of eight may allow Notre Dame to have a genuine two-deep.

If signing four receivers in a class and seven in two years seems like an unsustainable influx, keep in mind two things. First of all, the Irish desperately need to find receiver depth. Lenzy was famously and admittedly exhausted at the end of that Fiesta Bowl faceplant 11 months ago. One more injury this season would have further crippled Notre Dame’s passing game in 2022. Secondly, the one-time transfer allowance will make departures from the program both more common and more alluring to the players. Natural attrition will occur.

RELATED READING: A third four-star receiver commitment, Jaden Greathouse, elevates Notre Dame’s class of 2023 from good to Great
Four-star receiver Rico Flores Jr.’s commitment gives Notre Dame some receiver hope for 2023
Four-star Texas receiver Braylon James gives Notre Dame needed offensive piece in class of 2023

CB Cam Hart out for Notre Dame’s bowl game, but will return in 2023

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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Perhaps earlier than expected, Notre Dame has already received good news this offseason. Senior cornerback Cam Hart will return for a fifth year in South Bend, though he will not put on pads for the Irish in any bowl game, he announced Tuesday evening.

“Due to a shoulder injury that I sustained during the Boston College Game [sic], I could not participate in our final regular season game and will not be able to participate in this year’s bowl game,” Hart wrote on Twitter. “Consequently, I believe my time here isn’t necessarily complete. Choosing to attend the University of Nore Dame has been the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life.

“In light of that, I’ve decided to return for a fifth season and look forward to taking the field with my brothers in 2023!”

Hart’s 2023 return should give the Irish four returning cornerbacks with starting experience, only fifth-year nickel back Tariq Bracy a notable departure from this year’s cornerbacks group.

Note: The use of “should” is not meant to imply anything about other possibilities. The conditional verb is chosen as recognition of the constantly changing rosters in college football in 2022.

Hart took part in Notre Dame’s Senior Day festivities before facing Boston College, which suggested he was at least considering jumping to the NFL. This quick announcement indicates the injury ruled out that thought process, though the injury had plagued him at points earlier in the season.

A shoulder injury first flared up for Hart this year in the spring of 2022, costing him spring practices. A concern had previously cost him some of 2019, as he adapted from playing receiver in high school. He nonetheless played in 11 games in 2022, starting 10 and making 25 tackles with three for loss and breaking up four passes.

His passes defensed fell from nine in 2021, along with two interceptions, in part because opposing quarterbacks were less enticed to test the increasingly-experienced cornerback. His 6-foot-2 ½ length made Hart something just short of a shutdown cornerback.

With current freshman Benjamin Morrison surging to close this season and classmate Jaden Mickey stepping in for Hart at USC, Notre Dame should enjoy a plethora of tested cornerbacks in 2023. (Current junior Clarence Lewis is the aforementioned fourth.)

In many respects, this will allow the Irish defense to begin the 2023 season with the same calm it had in 2022, when Hart, Lewis and Bracy provided experienced pass defense.

“You have three older veteran corners that can really play at any moment, which makes you feel good,” head coach Marcus Freeman said in August. “Those three guys can play those two corner spots and I don’t feel there will be a drop off with any of them.”

There are a few key decisions left on Notre Dame’s defense — most notably, defensive end Justin Ademilola and safety Brandon Joseph could return in 2023 — but most of them may come after any Irish bowl game. Hart’s choice was presumably expedited by his apparent exclusion from the bowl game due to this injury.

HART CAREER STATISTICS
2020: 8 games; 3 tackles, 2 passes defended.
2021: 13 games, 10 starts; 42 tackles with four for loss, 9 passes defended and two interceptions.
2022: 11 games, 10 starts; 25 tackles with three for loss, 4 passes defended.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 5 Cam Hart, senior cornerback, second-year starter

Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s offensive shortcomings again highlighted by an explosive counterpart

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Notre Dame at USC
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There are two ways to look at USC’s 38-27 win against Notre Dame on Saturday, and they both tie back to the Trojans’ being the best Irish measuring stick.

USC beat Notre Dame in a way that underscores how short-handed the Irish always were this season. When Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams began to cement his status as the Heisman frontrunner with a performance that will be long remembered, Notre Dame had no way to consistently counter him.

“We didn’t stop them,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said simply enough.

Without the offensive skill position players needed to match Williams’ explosive play for explosive play, Notre Dame needed its defense to play perfectly, clearly an unfair ask against a Lincoln Riley offense.

“USC is a great team,” Irish quarterback Drew Pyne said. “That was a really good team we played out there. They’re going to go on and do great things for the rest of their season. Caleb Williams is a great player.”

If the Irish had not had junior tight end Michael Mayer — eight catches on nine targets for 98 yards and two touchdowns — they may not have been able to stay in even vague distance of the Trojans. Three heaves to Deion Colzie gained 75 yards and three first downs, but each felt like Pyne was hoping more than anything else.

Notre Dame still made it a game, but the discrepancy in offensive playmakers stood out in Los Angeles on Saturday night.

And while both programs will undergo some turnover — most notably Mayer for the Irish; receiver Jordan Addison and running back Austin Jones will both likely be at the next level next year, among Trojans’ contributors this weekend — Notre Dame will need to close that gap to compete with USC next season.

The variance of a schedule may keep the Irish from too staunchly improving on their 8-4 record this year, but a certainty is that Williams will be ready to dazzle again in South Bend on Oct. 14, 2023.

Notre Dame right now does not have the offensive firepower to keep up with such a dynamic attack. As soon as the Irish gifted the Trojans chances to take a lead, their running game was mitigated and Notre Dame’s best hopes were reduced to Mayer and those heaves to Colzie.

Williams can dance his way through any defense, perhaps shy of Georgia’s. Even if the Irish secondary had been fully healthy, Williams’ rhythmic scrambles still would have broken down the defense. If Utah helms him in this weekend, it may be as much due to a USC letdown as it is to any Utes’ scheme. His stardom is an extreme, but this is college football in 2022, again aside from Georgia.

Many will instinctively point to Pyne’s shortcomings, ignoring how well he played in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. He made two mistakes, yes, but one of them (the cross-body interception) came as Notre Dame was more and more desperate and the other (the fumbled exchange) was in part a result of the Irish abandoning their ground game as they fell further behind.

Pyne finished 23-of-26 for 318 yards and three touchdowns. Every version of breaking down those stats yields praise for Pyne. A reality of a loss and a reality when the opposing quarterback broke through as a national star, no time was spent in postgame press conferences discussing Pyne’s efficient night.

But it was, regardless.

His final incompletion, the interception from Notre Dame’s own red zone, also overshadowed the second-most accurate day in Irish passing history, but it was an understandable mistake. Notre Dame was trailing by two scores with only five minutes remaining. Wasting a play on a throwaway was low on Pyne’s priority list.

If Pyne had established more of a season-long rapport with Colzie, maybe he sees him down the left sideline as highlighted by Kirk Herbstreit on the broadcast. If Braden Lenzy is a bit less worn down by a season-long receiver shortage, maybe he is able to charge into Pyne’s ill-advised pass rather than try to settle in for a low catch. If … maybe, if … maybe.

Only twice this season has USC managed as few as 31 genuine points — discounting the short-field touchdown in the final three minutes courtesy of Pyne’s pick, though not all that necessary given the Trojans fell short of 40 points just twice in their first 11 games. Oregon State and Washington State had the luxuries of facing Williams before he had reached the peak of his powers with this new, transfer-obtained complement of receivers.

The Irish defense did its part against USC. Notre Dame’s offense just could not match the star of the season.

Williams will star again next year. The Irish defense will most likely still be stout. Those truths this season will carry over. Notre Dame then has to wonder only if its offense can develop and/or find more playmakers, a known need this entire season and now the pressing concern entering the offseason, a need emphasized by the Trojans’ offense, the foe that should again define 2023.