IBG: And on to Air Force

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We’re back with another edition of the Irish Blogger Gathering. If you’ve missed the last few, you’ve missed me comparing the Irish quarterbacking depth chart to TV’s leading ladies, Little Mac’s journey to beat Iron Mike, and other answers to questions that I’ve retro-fit to keep this blog family friendly and  my job safe.

This week’s questions are presented by the godfather of the IBG, the Subway Domer himself. I’ll do my best not to step in any bear-traps he’s left for me, and get us ready for the pregame six pack, coming sometime in the wee hours of the morning.

Alright, let’s get to the questions:

1. So, uh, the defense has looked pretty good. Give me a stat that most exemplifies what this defense is all about. Are we really as good as we think, or are we inflating the results?

Wait — I feel like I’ve done this multiple times. (Here and here.) The Irish running defense is good. Just ask Troy Calhoun.

““They are exceptional,” Calhoun said earlier this week. “Nobody’s been able to run the ball on them. Flat out, have not.”

Here’s the think with this Irish defense. It isn’t set up to dominate statistically, but rather to win games. When defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was asked about trying to generate more turnovers, he hinted at the fact that this defense was good enough not to need to engineer results.

“It seems like it should be the case every week, ‘Get turnovers, get turnovers’. Well, yes and no,” Diaco said. “There’s a particular style of calls that create more turnovers, and whether that will be functional to the team winning or not, you have to see. There is definitely a style of play that is more disruptive, but it could also end up being feast or famine.”

If you’re looking for something that exemplifies how good this Irish defense is, just consider that two years after Jon Tenuta thought he needed to bring blitz pressure on practically every down to keep the defense from imploding, the coaching staff thinks they’ve got a system and personnel good enough to not risk things by even bringing blitzes.

2. What concerns you the most about Air Force? How will ND be able to ease your fear?

The Falcons’ offense. While I just got done praising Diaco for his ability to stay committed to the foundation of the defense, the commitment to reading and reacting against Air Force could spell doom — Navy style, 2010.

Tim Jefferson and the Air Force offense is incredibly multiple. And Calhoun is a pretty incredible coach for Air Force to have on the sidelines. This guy was an NFL offensive coordinator, coming up under Mike Shanahan in Denver and then coordinating Gary Kubiak‘s offense in Houston. That’s pretty impressive.

As for easing my fear? Well — I’ll be just fine if I see the Irish defensive front dominating Air Force’s offensive line, blowing up the inside option game and forcing the Falcons to work the pitch and throw the ball. As for regular Irish fans? I don’t think there’s any ability to ease their fears. It’ll be white-knuckled panic until the final whistle, and once that happens, most likely a lot of complaints that it wasn’t a truly dominant victory.

3. You’re the long snapper. You get into a bit of a fracas on the field and break your hand… just how dumb are you feeling right now?

Like 2+2=5 dumb.

There is really nothing quite like getting dressed down by a coach for doing something stupid and undisciplined. I can vividly remember all the high-decibel lectures all the way back to grade school and through college and your tail stays pretty firmly tucked between your legs for a few days.

If Cowart isn’t able to snap because he decided to throw a right hook into a football helmet, well — he’ll be feeling pretty low for quite some time.

4. FYI: Tommy Rees will have 2 more years of eligibility after this year. How is Notre Dame’s QB situation going to shake out over the next couple of years?

I guess this is the million dollar question. Is Rees Matt LoVecchio or… well — that’s really the question. Assuming Rees continues to get better and start for the next two years, it could be Rees sitting at the top of Notre Dame’s passing records.  something that reminds me of the fact that Autry Denson is sitting atop Notre Dame’s rushing record books.

I’m not fully comfortable making assumptions, but you’ve got to think that Dayne Crist might choose to explore other options after this season. That’ll leave Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson to battle with Rees (and potentially Luke Massa), and that three-way race would almost have to favor Rees if he continues to handle his business throughout the second half of the season.

Good question and an admittedly bad answer. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

5. Subway Domer has always championed a “People’s Champion” if you will. This year, however, I just couldn’t make the call before the season began. We dig great hair, tattoos, and at least some playing time.  Who would you name as the Subway Domer People’s Champ? Keep in mind, at no point in time were guys like Te’o or Floyd eligible and that should help guide you.

I’m not sure that I completely understand the question, but that’s never stopped me before. People’s champion? I’ll throw out some nominees:

Jonas Gray, RB — It’s not a coincidence that after Gray dominated Screech in stand-up comedy, his confidence and running game exploded.

Trevor Robinson, RG — He’s quoted Billy Madison in an official UND.com video. Even though he said Entourage was his favorite TV show, he’s still a People’s Champ candidate for dropping a “Business Ethics” line.

Robert Blanton, CB — After waiting his turn to start, Blanton has brought some serious swagger to the field corner position. He’s a talker on the field and keeps it clean off. My kind of guy.

I’ll let you choose from there.

6. OK, talk to me about Saturday. Give me:

  • 2 reasons we lose — Turnovers and Special Teams.
  • 2 reasons we win — Better Talent and Air Force’s defense.
  • Any prediction you might have for the game — They will serve hot dogs in the press box.

7. I love hardware. There is no hardware on sale this week… bummer. Give me your thoughts on Notre Dame’s “rivalry trophy” situation, and would you change anything about it?

When the players don’t even known about some of the rivalry trophies, I think we’ve already said enough about their importance.

I’m a huge fan of rivalry games — and trophies like the Little Brown Jug, Floyd of Rosedale, and Paul Bunyon’s Axe are just awesome. (Can you tell I’m from Minnesota?) But maybe it’s because Notre Dame plays for shillelaghs, that it’s tough to get too excited about it.

But really, it’s Notre Dame. You really don’t need trophies to get up for that game. So what would I change? I’m not sure anything, but I agree with what I think you’re asking — there’s a way to probably do more with them.

BONUS: If the 4 Notre Dame scholarship quarterbacks could be quantified as a present or former country in the world; who they be?

I think my head is going to explode trying to even consider this question. If anybody here wants to take a stab at it, do so in the comments.

 

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Quarterbacks — Sam Hartman and Tyler Buchner and Co.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 12 North Carolina at Wake Forest
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For a position that has undergone a run of tumult since the start of the 2022 season, Notre Dame’s quarterback depth chart somehow still could not be more stable now.

Since Marcus Freeman’s first game as the Irish head coach, his starter was knocked out for the season, the backup that fought and clawed his way to eight wins in 10 games opted to transfer before the bowl game, one of the most prolific passers in NCAA history transferred into Notre Dame, and then the offensive coordinator left.

All of that to end up with Wake Forest graduate transfer Sam Hartman as the presumptive Irish starter, backed up by 2022’s initial starter in Tyler Buchner, and coached by quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli and offensive coordinator Gerad Parker. Not to mention, two more quarterbacks filling out the depth chart.

Hartman opted to join that chaos partly because, as he figured it, he was going to start over anew somewhere regardless. After five years at Wake Forest, the veteran wanted to move. Whether it was in the NFL or at Notre Dame, he would need to win over a new locker room.

“Often I see people that are done with school or run out of eligibility or even have eligibility (but) declare, that (college) opportunity never comes again,” he said earlier this month. “… On the NFL side of it, this is what you have to do when you go into the league, come into a new place where there’s not a lot of familiar faces. The battle is definitely uphill. You have to come in and establish a leadership role while also trying to figure out and follow.”

Hartman’s logic was sound, but there is one key difference between the NFL and Notre Dame: He will be the starter in South Bend this fall.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In that respect, this will be the third straight year the Irish have insisted on the optics of a quarterback competition in the spring and perhaps the preseason. When Jack Coan transferred to Notre Dame in January of 2021, it was obvious he would start against Florida State to open that season, yet freshman Tyler Buchner and sophomore Drew Pyne were still mentioned as competing with Coan for that gig throughout the spring and a week into the preseason.

Despite Buchner rather clearly surpassing Pyne that season, the entire exercise was conducted all over again in the spring of 2022, Buchner named the starter as expected a week into preseason practices last August.

Hartman will start in Dublin on Aug. 26 (159 days), no matter what Guidugli may say now. That much did not change with the coaching changes this winter and spring.

“Tyler Buchner and Steve Angeli and Sam Hartman, Kenny Minchey, all those guys are going to get an opportunity,” Guidugli said. “I come in with a clean slate, not knowing any of those guys, so I’m anxious to see what all of them can do, I’m anxious to see how they lead, I’m anxious to see how they retain information, I’m anxious to see how they perform, how they execute, how the offense responds to them.”

That quarterback competition may have had an ounce of authenticity if Pyne had stuck around South Bend, a somewhat proven starter to go up against Hartman, but even that would have been only a matter of time. As it stands, Pyne’s focus is on keeping his job at Arizona State in front of the most controversial recruit of the class of 2023, Jaden Rashada.

2022 STATS
Drew Pyne: 11 games; 2,021 yards on 8.0 yards per attempt and a 64.6 percent completion rate; 22 touchdowns and 6 interceptions.
Tyler Buchner: 3 games; 652 yards on 7.9 yards per attempt and a 55.4 percent completion rate; 3 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.

Sam Hartman at Wake Forest in 2022: 12 games; 3,701 yards on 8.6 yards per attempt and a 63.1 percent completion rate; 38 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Sam Hartman in his career at Wake Forest: 12,967 yards on 8.1 yards per attempt and a 59.1 percent completion rate; 110 touchdowns and 41 interceptions.

HARTMAN’S CAREER STATS COMPARED TO NCAA RECORDS
Don’t scoff. A prodigious season could propel Hartman into some lofty air. That is obviously partly due to the benefit of a sixth season, granted by the universal pandemic eligibility waiver. But Hartman also missed up to 18 games in his career to injury, depth chart and the pandemic. If he plays 13 games this season, Hartman will appear in a total of 61 games in his career. That will be more than any of the players yet ahead of him in career passing touchdowns or career passing yards, but that aside, Hartman should move his name up the NCAA record books this season.

Career passing touchdowns
No. 1 — Case Keenum, 155 touchdowns
Tied at No. 4 — Colt Brennan, Rakeem Cato, Baker Mayfield, 131 touchdowns
No. 10 — Luke Falk, 119 touchdowns
No. 15 — Derek Carr, 113 touchdowns
No. 18 — Sam Hartman, 110 career touchdowns

Career passing yards
No. 1 — Case Keenum, 19,217 yards
No. 5 — Ty Detmer, 15,031 yards
No. 10 — Rakeem Cato, 14,079 yards
No. 15 — Philip Rivers, 13,484 yards
No. 19 — Sam Hartman, 12,967 career yards

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
It feels like a quip to be offered in March so that April progress can be that much more lauded.

“With the coaching change prior to me coming in, [Hartman] thought he should be further along in February than what he was,” Guidugli said. “There wasn’t anything I could do about that.”

Games are not won in February film sessions. Weight room work, perhaps, but not in studying film. Habits are built then, but Hartman should not need earnest discipline. He has already begun moving forward with Guidugli.

“[Guidugli] has taken this thing by the reins for the quarterbacks, and along with that is just the quarterback room, we stuck together,” Hartman said. “I knew Tyler (Buchner) a bit before, had no idea who Steve (Angeli) was, obviously [early-enrolled freshman Kenny Minchey] is showing up just like I was. It’s a really tight-knit group.”

None of that group holds Rees’s departure against him — “Obviously, it was a great opportunity for him,” Hartman said — but they all know they need to learn the same language now. That will be the springtime priority.

“The key there is my communication with [newly-promoted offensive coordinator Gerad Parker],” Guidugli said. “I have to be speaking the same language.”

From Parker to Guidugli to four quarterbacks from three different backgrounds, finding the same language might take a few weeks. Guidugli has already been picking Hartman’s brain off old Wake Forest film, learning what his eventual starter is used to in terms of pre-snap procedures, etc.

“I’ve been learning from the guys as much as they’ve been learning from me,” Guidugli said. 

Ignore the spring platitudes about a quarterback competition. If they carry into the preseason, they will provide a headline some Saturday in August when in-depth writing is not yet applicable. Beyond that, there is no meaningful quarterback competition.

There are, however, spring priorities. Primarily, getting Hartman onto the same page as Guidugli and Parker.

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

FUTURE DEPTH
Minchey did not commit to Notre Dame until late November, de-committing from Pittsburgh not long before he did so. He enrolled early, anyway.

“I feel like it’s big, as far as any quarterback across the country, you want to early enroll, get in as early as you can, learn the playbook, because that’s big compared to any other position,” Minchey said. “Coming in, learn the playbook, mesh with the guys, everything like that. I like just getting in, building that connection.”

A shoulder injury truncated Minchey’s senior season, but he expects to be full-go in spring practices, beginning tomorrow.

“I am working back into it,” he said two weeks ago. “I am reconditioning my arm right now, building back, working back, building up strength.”

He does not need to rush into that, though, given Notre Dame expects him to be fourth on its depth chart this season.

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

Brigham Young v Notre Dame
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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

Clemson v Notre Dame
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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

Clemson v Notre Dame
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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
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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.