Pregame Six Pack: Time for the Trojans

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If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then The Observer’s Irish Insider saved me a few columns. As Douglas Farmer and his crew aptly note, “the wait is over.”

Sure, it’s been tough waiting those 21-odd years for a night game, but I’m just happy we’re finally approaching the annual Notre Dame vs. USC game. In a series marked by dominant stretches between teams, the Irish might be primed to finally flip the script on a story that’s long been dominated by Pete Carroll and the renaissance he brought to Heritage Hall.

Yet those glimmering days where SC dominated the talent pool not just in their Notre Dame match-up but in just about any game they played is over. A long contentious fight with the NCAA, the removal of Mike Garrett from the athletics director’s chair, and Carroll’s well-timed departure to the NFL have all contributed to the current probationary plight of the USC — a school that has already seen its NCAA missteps trampled by places like Ohio State, Miami and almost Auburn.

If there’s been luster lost on this rivalry, you’d have a hard time proving it. While the 83rd meeting between the Trojans and Irish is only the 10th time in the intersectional battle that neither team is ranked, the nation’s attention — not to mention its blue-chip recruits — will be watching.

As always, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as Notre Dame prepares to take on University of Southern California at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC. (Live blogs to follow!)

***

After a long stretch of dominance the tide is turning in the battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh. 

For much of the last decade, while the Irish recruiting classes may have looked comparable to the Trojans, once the two teams got on the field, the personnel difference was overwhelming. As Pete Carroll continued to hand-pick elite athletes from Southern California and pluck others from around the country, there was a noticeable difference in the athletes wearing cardinal and gold from those wearing the blue and gold.

Not any more.

“To me, I think Notre Dame has a higher talent level right now,” NBC analyst Mike Mayock said. “USC is comparative at the wide receiver position – two very gifted kids with Woods and Marqise Lee. They’re as good as anybody in the country. So at wide receiver it’s similar. However, I think Notre Dame’s offensive line is better than USC’s defensive line. And I think their front seven is better than USC’s front seven. I think where USC has the edge right now is the quarterback. He’s a three-year starter and a potential All-American. And a better quarterback is a great equalizer.”

We’re saving up some thoughts on Tommy Rees for tomorrow, but let’s finish the exercise.

Quarterbacks:USC (Top player: Matt Barkley)
Running backs: Notre Dame (Top player: Cierre Wood)
Wide receivers/tight ends: Even (Top players: Michael Floyd > Robert Woods, Tyler Eifert > Rhett Ellison)
Offensive line: Notre Dame (Top Player: Matt Kalil > Zack Martin)
Defensive line: Notre Dame (Top Player: Nick Perry)
Linebackers: Notre Dame (Top Player: Manti Te’o)
Secondary: Notre Dame (Top player: Harrison Smith)

If my talent evaluations leave a little to be desired, let’s let the best evaluators in the world determine things: Las Vegas. If you’re looking for a statistical trend, take a look at the point spreads from the last four match-ups between Notre Dame and USC:

2008: Opening line — USC -28.5. (Final score: USC 38, ND 3)
2009: Opening line — USC -10.5 (Final score: USC 34, ND 27)
2010: Opening line — USC -4.5 (Final score: ND 20, USC 16)
2011: Opening line — USC +8.5

We’ll see how Vegas did tomorrow night.

***

The balance of the Irish offense could be the difference on Saturday night. 

When Brian Kelly made the controversial decision to replace senior Dayne Crist with Tommy Rees, he mentioned giving Tommy the ability to play with a balanced offense. In the Irish’s four game winning streak, that balance has been pretty amazing.

The Irish have scored 18 touchdowns in their wins over Michigan State, Pittsburgh, Purdue and Air Force. Nine have come on the ground, while nine have come through the air.

The run-pass mix has been close to perfect as well: The Irish are running on 48 percent of their plays and throwing on 52. Even more incredible, during this four game run, the Irish have averaged 6.4 yards a rushing play and 6.5 yards a play when passing. (Kudos to Andrew Hendrix’s long gallop for making the stats work just so.)

Mayock mentioned that in his conversations with the Trojans defensive architect Monte Kiffin, the thing that impressed him the most was the balance the Irish displayed on offense. It’s also what could be the Trojans demise.

If USC has to commit seven men to stopping the run, the passing game with Floyd, Eifert, Theo Riddick and TJ Jones will be tough to stop. If the Trojans try to roll coverage over Floyd and employ a nickel base, Notre Dame could run all over Southern Cal.

It’s balance that’s been key to the offensive renaissance in South Bend. It could also spell trouble for an SC defense that is far from dominant.

***

It could have been a much different story for Manti Te’o and Michael Floyd. 

It’s not much of a leap to say that Manti Te’o and Michael Floyd are the two most irreplaceable players on the Irish roster. They’re also the two guys on the Irish team that were most likely to be donning the cardinal and gold, with both Irish stars having eyes for Southern California before ending up in South Bend.

Earlier in the week, Brian Kelly allowed himself to wonder openly what life would be like without Te’o. While losing the production on the football team would’ve obviously hurt the Irish, the linebacker brings so much more to the team.

“We could have lost Manti Te’o in terms of the football player,” Kelly said. “What we would have never overcome is the leader that he is.”

In many ways, it seems like Lane Kiffin is still feeling Te’o’s absence, with the middle linebacker (along with Arizona State’s Vontez Burfict, another last minute USC defector) haunting the Trojan head coach.

“USC thought they had him locked up three years ago,” Mayock said of Te’o. “And Lane Kiffin the other day was like, could you imagine us with Manti Te’o on our team?  You know, I mean, he’s – and then he went on for about three minutes describing Manti Te’o and how great a football player he is.”

Of course, the Irish could also be game planning for life against Michael Floyd, a treacherous thought when paired with Robert Woods. Floyd had eyes for the Trojans as a prep star at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, but struggled to get the attention of the Trojans coaching staff.

Floyd’s high school coach reached out to a former player and certain new resident to Los Angeles’ South Bay, asking for help to get his star player’s recruiting tapes into the hands of the Trojans’ offensive staff. (I’m proud to say that I gave less than my best effort.)

Both Te’o and Floyd’s names will go down in the Irish record books at Notre Dame. They could’ve just as easily been enshrined in Heritage Hall.

***

Both teams had gotten off to quick starts. It’ll be the team that finishes that wins the game. 

Trudging deep into the numbers gives you an interesting look at both Notre Dame and USC six games into the season. First, the resounding similarity: Both teams get off to fast starts.

The Trojans have come out of the gates smoking, out-scoring their opponents 46-10 in the first quarter. Likewise, Notre Dame has been just as impressive, shaking off a -13 opening stanza against USF to outscore their opponents 63-22 in the first quarter.

Here’s a quarter-by-quarter look at what both teams have done this season:

1st Quarter

USC 1Q: 46-10 (+36)
ND 1Q: 63-22 (+41)

2nd Quarter

USC 2Q: 56-36 (+20)
ND 2Q: 49-32 (+17)

FIRST HALF TOTALS:

USC 102-46 (+56)
ND 112-54 (+58)

3rd Quarter

USC 3Q: 44-52 (-8)
ND 3Q: 42-6 (+36)

4th Quarter

USC 4Q: 34-43 (-9)
ND FQ: 44-62 (-18)

SECOND HALF TOTALS:

USC 78-95 (-17)
ND 86-66 (+20)

Obviously, Notre Dame’s fourth quarter totals are dragged down by the implosion against Michigan and the garbage time touchdowns by Air Force. But for a team with a 5-1 record, the fact that the Trojans have played losing football in the second half of games has to be a major source of concern.

There’s winning football games and then there is finishing football games. After the 28-7 beating the Irish took in the fourth quarter in Ann Arbor, they’ve rallied, and their third quarter scoring margin (a staggering 42-6) is a testament to how well coached this football team is.

If the Irish can keep Matt Barkley and the Trojans from jumping out to a fast start, they should feel really good about their ability to win this game in the second half.

***

 The Irish need to take advantage of the Trojans’ mediocre red zone play.

If you’re looking for another trend that’s kick-started the Irish, take a gander at their red zone offense. After two of the most horrific games you could ever put in your stats ledger, Notre Dame is starting to play some efficient red zone football.

The Irish have scored on 13 of their last 14 trips inside the red zone. More importantly, they’ve cashed 11 of those 13 scores in for touchdowns. After a slow start to the season, Tommy Rees has piloted the Irish offense to 10 straight scoring drives inside the opponent’s twenty yard-line, with nine of those scores going for touchdowns.

Here’s a closer look at the work the Irish have been doing on both sides of the ball in the red zone, courtesy of the Sports Information Department at Notre Dame:

source:

Meanwhile, the Trojans have been mediocre on both sides of the football. Whether its a lack of a consistent running game or lapses in Matt Barkley’s accuracy, the Trojans are 92nd in the country in touchdown percentage offensively and their 76% scoring clip only barely ekes out the Irish’s 72% rate that’s still weighed down from six early and ugly turnovers.

If the offensive numbers are surprisingly bad for the Trojans, the defensive numbers are down right ugly. USC is 107th in the country, giving up scoring drives 90% of the time their opponent gets inside their 20 yard-line. They get even worse when it comes to giving up touchdowns, with 15 of 20 drives going for at least six points, good for 109th in the nation.

In a rivalry match-up like this, the Irish absolutely need to take advantage of what looks like a fatal flaw in the Trojans.

***

USC’s sour grapes is just part of the Trojan’s charm. 

Driving through Michigan City last night around 2:30 a.m., I felt like stopping by to see if Kiffin and the Trojans were enjoying the sights and sounds. Because if you actually listened to Kiffin, you’d think the Irish pulled a fast one on Southern Cal, forcing them into town early with nowhere to stay, then changing the kickoff time at the last minute for an additional home field advantage.

“I wish they would have told us before,” Kiffin complained about the “unexpected” night start. “We wouldn’t have left a day early. We’ll just have to figure out something to do in Michigan City.”

As our friends over at Her Loyal Sons pointed out, the Trojans might need a new travel coordinator. The Irish didn’t exactly spring this change on USC, they did announce it almost seven months ago.

Funnily enough, even then USC was complaining about it.

USC’s game at Notre Dame will kick off at 7:30 p.m. (EDT), the first home night game for the Irish in 21 years. The idea was not warmly embraced by USC athletic director Pat Haden, who worked as a broadcaster at the Irish’s last home night game against Michigan in 1990.

“We won’t get back until three or four in the morning,” Haden said. “That could be a long week for our players.”

USC did not have a say in the start of the game but Haden understood the move was made by Notre Dame for financial reasons.

“I wish we could play every game at 12:30 p.m.,” he said. “But I’d also like to triple our rights fees.”

I poked a little fun at Haden back then and he probably deserves a little more now. The 7:30 start is earlier than any of the games the Irish played in the Coliseum in recent memory, when you take into consideration a little concept called time zones. The Trojans also are flying home to the West Coast, earning back three hours on the way. When USC put the Irish on a red-eye after last year’s game I don’t think they were too worried about the sleep patterns of the Irish players.

Still, consider the Trojan gripes just part of the “charm” in this rivalry. Hopefully the late start lets Trojan fans enjoy more time on Michigan Avenue.

300-pound defensive tackle Sean Sevillano joins Notre Dame class of 2024

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Notre Dame added its second defensive lineman commitment in two weeks with the Friday announcement from consensus three-star defensive tackle Sean Sevillano (Clearwater Academy; Fla.). The massive interior prospect is the first defensive tackle to join the Irish class of 2024.

And “massive” might not be saying enough. At 6-foot-2, Sevillano weighs more than 300 pounds. Keep in mind, he has yet to start his senior year of high school.

And while he is big, Sevillano does not play slow. If there is a hole in the offensive line protection, he is quick enough to get up the field and bother the quarterback, logging 22 sacks last season. If there is not a hole, his sheer size is likely to create one.

He uses his body weight to bring down ball carriers, content to drop his weight on them and force them to consider moving forward with 300 added pounds rather than using that force to knock through them. While that is an example of his size as an asset, some college running backs will be able to shimmy out of that trap or strong enough to even carry him for an extra yard, so some discipline to actively tackle will need to be developed.

In a similar respect, Sevillano’s size represents raw potential. He is already clearly strong, but if more of his frame becomes devoted to muscle, he could become a genuine collegiate force.

How much of that size and frame is immediately functional may determine if Sevillano is a day-one contributor for Notre Dame in 2024. Starting tackles Rylie Mills and Howard Cross both have eligibility through 2024, but both could also consider the NFL draft after this season. Cross, in particular, will be a multi-year starter and would be a sixth-year veteran in 2024; it may simply be time for him to move on. There are other players between Sevillano and Cross, namely current junior Gabriel Rubio and sophomore Donovan Hinish, but none with a bounty of experience. Furthermore, no defensive line rotation can ever be too deep. If Sevillano arrives on campus as a hard body to move, a situational role in goal-line packages could await him, but if he arrives as needing conditioning work above all else, it could be a season on the scout team while suffering under strength coordinator Matt Balis’s tutelage.

Sevillano chose Notre Dame over finalists Ohio State, Auburn and Miami, becoming the 17th Irish commitment and the fourth defensive lineman, following consensus four-star end Loghan Thomas’s pledge last week.

Notre Dame’s class of 2024 now ranks No. 3 in the country, behind only Georgia (with 16 commits) and Michigan (17), though not behind the Wolverines by much. Ohio State and Oregon loom at Nos. 5 and 6 with just 13 and 14 commitments, respectively.

Those team rankings will obviously continue to fluctuate plenty between now and the December signing period, but spending a second straight summer in the top five should reflect only well on Marcus Freeman’s continued recruiting emphasis.

Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 78 Pat Coogan, junior interior offensive lineman

Brigham Young v Notre Dame
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Listed measurements: 6-foot-5 ⅛, 309 pounds.
2023-24 year, eligibility: A junior, Coogan has three seasons of eligibility remaining.
Depth Chart: An interior offensive lineman through and through, expect Coogan to spend some preseason practices working among the guards before being listed as the backup center on the public depth chart, behind fifth-year Zeke Correll.
Recruiting: The recruiting rankings industry rarely respects centers, thus effectively capping Coogan’s ceiling at a consensus three-star prospect. Yet, Stanford and Michigan chased him until he chose Notre Dame, a clear choice all along given the Chicagoland product was a lifelong Irish fan.

CAREER TO DATE
Correll started all 13 games of 2022 after Jarrett Patterson did so at center in 2021, limiting any chances for Coogan. He appeared in just the snowy blowout of Boston College last season.

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
Anyone pushing back against athletes making money off their name, image and likeness rights (looking at you, Eli Drinwitz) is missing many realities. One of them is that college athletes may be the best on-field instructors for high-school players, having recently been in those shoes, helping both understand what those younger players are trying to do and aid their credibility with the next wave of recruits.

Yet, college football players have been able to profit from teaching football camps only in recent years.

Their tutelage can and does extend further to far young players, again nothing but a good thing.

QUOTES
Coogan was viewed solely as a center while recruited, and his first couple of seasons at Notre Dame featured a similar outlook. New Irish offensive line coach Joe Rudolph gave Coogan a shot at guard this past spring, and while Coogan is unlikely to win a starting role over the likes of fifth-year Andrew Kristofic, senior Michael Carmody, junior Rocco Spindler and sophomore Billy Schrauth, the chance at competition may have reinvigorated him a bit.

“There’s been a really good battle at left guard, Billy Schrauth has been working along with Pat Coogan,” Rudolph said in April. “They’ve got the majority of the reps there. I think it really freed Pat up, going to guard. I’ve seen his footwork getting better and I think it’s a little more natural for him.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“A springtime meniscus injury that required surgery and cost Coogan nearly all of spring’s practices has him behind the proverbial eight-ball this year. That absence forced (former Irish offensive line coach Harry) Hiestand to take a look at Carmody at center, and Carmody’s athleticism shined. (That may become a theme for Carmody until he finds a permanent home on the Irish offensive line.)

“That likely elevated Carmody to the ‘break glass in case of emergency’ role at center rather than Coogan.

“There are worse fates. Coogan is only a sophomore, after all, and the entire idea of the emergency glass is to not be broken. Even if he had not injured his knee, Coogan was probably going to spend this season fine-tuning his game under Hiestand’s watchful eye.”

2023 OUTLOOK
Expect Schrauth and Kristofic to prevail as Notre Dame’s starting guards in 2023, and if the Irish have their way, the world will never genuinely know who their backups are. Of course, football likes to skew such plans, so it is more likely Spindler reveals himself.

In other words, Coogan will probably not find playing time at guard in 2023, and with Correll returning as a three-year starter and possible captain, finding it at center would depend entirely on injury.

Some action should await Coogan, presumably starting with special teams protection units, a clear step forward from not even seeing that last season.

DOWN THE ROAD
Correll could return in 2024. He will have the eligibility to do so. But instinctively, a three-year offensive line starter at Notre Dame is going to seek a chance in the NFL, and a three-year offensive line starter at Notre Dame will be given a chance in the NFL, though it may begin by earning a roster spot.

If Correll does make that leap, Coogan will be the presumptive leader to start at center in 2024, but early-enrolled freshman Sam Pendleton could challenge him. With a bit stronger recruiting profile, Pendleton may have a higher ceiling than Coogan. If he continues to take to the collegiate strength and conditioning program, and avoids a hard collision with the proverbial freshman wall in the fall, then Pendleton could be nearing Coogan’s level by next spring.

At the very least, that could lead to a more honest position competition than is usually the case in spring practices.

NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
The summer countdown begins anew, Rylie Mills to Deion Colzie
No. 99 Rylie Mills, senior defensive tackle, moving back inside from end
No. 98 Devan Houstan, early-enrolled four-star defensive tackle
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, junior defensive tackle, one of three Irish DTs with notable experience
No. 95 Tyson Ford, sophomore defensive tackle, up 30 pounds from a year ago
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, a senior defensive tackle now ‘fully healthy’ after a 2022 torn ACL
No. 91 Aiden Gobaira, sophomore defensive end, former four-star recruit
No. 90* Brenan Vernon, incoming freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 90* Boubacar Traore, incoming freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, the next starter at ‘TE U’
No. 86* Cooper Flanagan, incoming freshman tight end, four-star recruit
No. 85 Holden Staes, sophomore tight end, up 20 pounds in a year
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, senior tight end coming off a torn ACL
No. 83 Jayden Thomas, junior receiver, probable No. 1 target in 2023
No. 79 Tosh Baker, senior tackle, again a backup but next year …
Rhode Island transfer safety Antonio Carter gives Notre Dame desperately needed backline depth
Penn State RB transfer Devyn Ford gives Notre Dame newly-needed backfield depth, experience

Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 79 Tosh Baker, senior tackle, again a backup but next year …

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game
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Listed measurements: 6-foot-8, 310 pounds.
2023-24 year, eligibility: A senior, Baker has two years of eligibility remaining.
Depth Chart: Baker had the misfortune of arriving at Notre Dame just one year before the increasingly-heralded tackle duo of Blake Fisher and Joe Alt. Thus, Baker remains a backup as a senior, presumably penciled in as the No. 2 left tackle behind Alt on the public depth chart but perhaps the immediate option at both tackle positions if injury befalls either Fisher or Alt.
Recruiting: The No. 5 offensive tackle in his class, per rivals.com, when he signed with Notre Dame, Baker fell to No. 13 by the end of the recruiting cycle, another example of recruiting rankings being fickle and confounding. Baker chose the Irish over the likes of Alabama, Michigan and Ohio State, a high-profile recruitment despite coming from Scottsdale, Ariz.

CAREER TO DATE
Baker had one chance at a prolonged starting career at Notre Dame despite Fisher and Alt bearing down behind him. His headstart was mitigated by the loss of strength and conditioning effectiveness felt by freshmen across the country in 2020; Baker quite literally could not log the 12 months of intense weight-room work that is a pillar for freshman offensive linemen. That made it less surprising when Fisher beat out Baker for the starting left tackle gig in 2021, making Fisher the second freshman to ever start on the Irish offensive line in a season opener, but then a meniscus tear in that very first half sidelined Fisher until the bowl game. Current senior, then-sophomore, Michael Carmody stepped in for Fisher until a sprained ankle forced Baker into action.

Alas, a concussion ended Baker’s starting cameo two games later, two games with middling success but encouraging enough success given Baker was a sophomore, as well. Alt then took over, and the rest has become history.

Baker missed just one week due to the concussion, but Alt was already off to the races.

2020: 2 games.
2021: 11 games, 2 starts.
2022: 13 games as a reserve, largely as field-goal protection.

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
The life of an offensive lineman at Notre Dame has long seemed an enviable one: Eat effectively as much as you want, have a built-in close friend group of about a dozen other behemoths, dodge most of the spotlight that can make being a top-tier football player less enviable.

Scroll to the third photo in this Instagram post and see a few examples of that: Having fun at a minor league baseball game with other offensive linemen. Look closer, and realize Baker towers behind comedian Bret Kreischer, who while only 6-foot has made some of his fame on being a rather robust individual, himself.

On that note, the previous entry in this “99-to-0” series was on No. 83 Jayden Thomas, a junior receiver often referred to as a tight end last season by broadcasters. They were imprecise in that description, but their reasoning was clear. Thomas is a wide-bodied target. And now realize Baker stands 6.5 inches taller than Thomas and weighs 90 more pounds.

QUOTES
New Irish offensive line coach Joe Rudolph shares an ethos with his predecessor, Harry Hiestand: Always get the five best offensive linemen on the field together and figure out positions as need be from there. In that respect, Rudolph mentioned Baker could be a backup at guard as well as tackle. In other words, Baker may be Notre Dame’s clear No. 6 offensive lineman, and barring an injury at center, he could have a chance to play if any shuffling is needed.

“You have to concentrate on always having a plan together in terms of what are the things you need to address,” Rudolph said in April. “… You have to have trust that there’s a vision that sees you and always has a vision of trying to put the five best buys on the field together.

“Those things probably have to go hand-in-hand. That’s what I’ve shared with [Baker] along the way, told him I’d get most of his reps at tackle, but he’s absolutely someone that could go inside.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“No offense to Baker, but the Irish would undoubtedly not mind a season of relative health at left and right tackle, keeping him on the sideline. The run of injuries last year was unprecedented in recent times, and played a distinct part in Notre Dame’s early-season offensive struggles. Now with a young quarterback, a stable offensive line will be crucial.

“To some extent, though, having Baker as a backup provides some stability. His two starts last season were not stellar, but they were promising enough. He has all the makings of a strong left tackle, should that opportunity arise.

“It is more likely he spends the season working behind Alt and learning under returned offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.”

2023 OUTLOOK
Let’s offer some transparency here: While this space refrains from speculating on transfer candidates, it keeps an in-house list in an attempt to be loosely prepared for the chaos of the winter and spring transfer windows. Baker’s name was at the top of that list this spring.

Obviously, he did not transfer.

The logic was simple: He should be close to his degree and he could start for most Power Five teams. Furthermore, quality offensive line talent is rare in the transfer portal, so a generous response could have awaited Baker.

A few things can be gleaned by Baker not transferring: Rudolph was well-received this spring, the Notre Dame offensive line culture so maintained by Hiestand has not wavered, and Baker is satisfied with how he is treated, both on the field and off.

All that said, it is still hard to see Baker as a starter in Dublin or one at all barring injury. Alt and Fisher are clearly entrenched at each tackle position, fifth-year Andrew Kristofic has starting experience at guard and three other interior linemen are competing to start opposite him. Rudolph may say Baker could play inside, but at 6-foot-8, he is very much an outside body type.

Another year of support work likely awaits Baker.

DOWN THE ROAD
But then, and this may be the other thought to him not transferring, a starting role could await Baker.

It will be an absolute stunner if Alt does not jump into the NFL draft after this season. He should be a top-10 pick, if not top-5. Fisher may go with him, if he has an impressive enough season. At some point, some offseason research needs to be done on teams that have sent two tackles into the same draft’s first two rounds, first round and first 15 picks, just to set some historical precedent.

Regardless of Fisher’s choice, Baker should be the clear beneficiary of Alt’s success. While it has forced Baker to the bench for years now, with Alt gone after 2023, Baker should start in 2024. Maybe that is at right tackle with Fisher flipping to left, maybe not. Either way, outside of Carmody and Fisher, no one else on the Irish roster has any collegiate experience at tackle.

That carrot presumably played a significant part in Baker not transferring despite there undoubtedly being a market for him. And one strong season as a starter on Notre Dame’s offensive line could be enough to propel him into an NFL career.

NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
The summer countdown begins anew, Rylie Mills to Deion Colzie
No. 99 Rylie Mills, senior defensive tackle, moving back inside from end
No. 98 Devan Houstan, early-enrolled four-star defensive tackle
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, junior defensive tackle, one of three Irish DTs with notable experience
No. 95 Tyson Ford, sophomore defensive tackle, up 30 pounds from a year ago
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, a senior defensive tackle now ‘fully healthy’ after a 2022 torn ACL
No. 91 Aiden Gobaira, sophomore defensive end, former four-star recruit
No. 90* Brenan Vernon, incoming freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 90* Boubacar Traore, incoming freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, the next starter at ‘TE U’
No. 86* Cooper Flanagan, incoming freshman tight end, four-star recruit
No. 85 Holden Staes, sophomore tight end, up 20 pounds in a year
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, senior tight end coming off a torn ACL
No. 83 Jayden Thomas, junior receiver, probable No. 1 target in 2023
Rhode Island transfer safety Antonio Carter gives Notre Dame desperately needed backline depth
Penn State RB transfer Devyn Ford gives Notre Dame newly-needed backfield depth, experience

Penn State RB transfer Devyn Ford gives Notre Dame newly-needed backfield depth, experience

Ball State v Penn State
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Entering spring practices, Notre Dame looked stocked at running back, returning two juniors who each rushed for at least 800 yards last season as well as a senior with 285 career touches. With three underclassmen supporting them, the Irish were wealthy in both depth and experience at running back.

But then Notre Dame moved Chris Tyree to receiver, in part due to that bounty at running back and in part to be more assured the speedster would find playing time regardless, and Logan Diggs transferred to LSU. One of those underclassmen, sophomore Jadarian Price, is recovering from an Achilles injury that, on a common timeline following that devastating injury, could hinder him yet in August and September, if not longer should there be any version of a setback. Incoming freshman Jeremiyah Love has yet to arrive on campus.

Junior Audric Estimé may look the part of a workhorse, but the Irish depth is no longer as thorough and the experience has quickly diminished.

Enter Penn State graduate transfer running back Devyn Ford, adding depth back into the Irish backfield and possibly some untapped talent with his Friday commitment. Ford fell out of the Nittany Lions rotation the last two seasons simply because younger players impressed. He had 131 touches in his first two seasons, gaining 622 yards and scoring six times.

Ford focused on kickoff returns in 2021, taking 12 for 258 yards, an average of 21.5 yards, while getting just 14 carries for 61 yards. Then he was only a special teams contributor in 2022 as a pair of freshmen took over the rushing workload (Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen combining for 1,928 yards on 323 carries) and the kickoff return duties (Singleton had 14 returns for an average of 24.9 yards and one touchdown). Ford’s on-field roles were gone, so he called it a season after just four games in order to preserve a year of eligibility, transferring with up to two seasons still ahead of him.

Ford arrived at Penn State in 2019 as the No. 1 running back in the recruiting class, per rivals.com, and the No. 40 overall prospect. As anyone would expect from a recruiting profile like that, he was also sought by Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State, to name a few, as a high-school prospect. Players with that background somewhat rarely hit the transfer wire, making Ford an intriguing lottery ticket for Notre Dame.

Bringing in Ford gives the Irish 83 scholarship players expected for this fall, two less than the NCAA maximum allowed.

He wore No. 28 at Penn State, digits currently unclaimed on the Notre Dame roster aside from walk-on receiver Griffin Eifert, so unless Ford is proactively seeking a fresh start in all regards, he may end up in those familiar numbers in preseason practices. But let’s use his transfer announcement as an excuse to rattle off his “99-to-0” thoughts now.

Listed measurements: 5-foot-11, 200 pounds per Penn State’s website.
2023-24 year, eligibility: Ford enrolled at Penn State in 2019, so he has played four years, but 2020 did not count toward his ticking clock thanks to the universal pandemic eligibility waiver, and he stepped away from the Nittany Lions’ season after four games in 2022 in order to preserve an additional year of eligibility, meaning Ford has two years of eligibility remaining if wanted as he arrives in South Bend.
Depth Chart: Audric Estimé will start for Notre Dame in Dublin (88 days), barring injury. Behind him, sophomore Gi’Bran Payne is the most probable candidate to be the secondary Irish ball carrier, though he has his own history of injuries. Price should be given a lengthier runway to find full speed this season, a reason all on its own to want to bring in Ford. He could end up Estimé’s primary backup with an impressive preseason, but for now, presume Payne has that inside track while Ford begins his career in a gold helmet ahead of Love.
Recruiting: Some wondered if Ford’s collegiate career was concluded when he did not enter the transfer portal during the winter window. Instead, he entered the database in late April.

Notre Dame offensive coordinator Gerad Parker was Penn State’s receivers coach in 2019, Ford’s freshman year, giving the Irish some direct knowledge of Ford as both a player and as a person, as well as a connection while he looked for a new school.

CAREER TO DATE
Ford came out of the gates strong in Happy Valley before his playing time dwindled, the kind of start expected from a recruit of his caliber, no matter how his Penn State career ended.

2019: 12 games; 52 rushes for 294 yards and three touchdowns with five catches for 30 yards.
2020: 6 games; 67 rushes for 274 yards and three touchdowns with seven catches for 24 yards.
2021: 8 games; 14 rushes for 61 yards and three catches for 18 yards while returning 12 kickoffs for an average of 21.5 yards.
2022: 4 games; 7 rushes for 37 yards.

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
If Ford spent a chunk of May in Paris, then delaying his transfer decision was an exceedingly understandable decision.

2023 OUTLOOK
Ford’s freshman year highlights show a player who should contribute for Notre Dame this fall. He does not run with the same force as Estimé — who does? — but Ford is an all-around back with able hands as a safety valve in the flat. Presuming he devotes himself to pass blocking, there should never be a moment when his being on the field gives away a play’s intention to the defense.

His tendency to keep his feet moving through contact allows Ford to maintain balance even after an initial hit, wearing out the defense a bit at the very least.

All of which is to say, Ford should be more than a place-filler transfer. Logically, at least one of Payne, Price and Love will be slowed by injury or fatigue this fall, a probability among any three running backs but a higher one among two with injury concerns and a third being a true freshman. If one of them gives pause, Ford will be no lower than Notre Dame’s fourth running back.

Because Estimé and Diggs were so durable last season, the Irish never leaned on a fourth back, but as often as not, one is needed. Consider the 2017-2019 averages from the fourth Notre Dame running backs in each season, taking 37.3 carries per season for 141.3 yards and 1.3 touchdowns. Those were backs by the names of Tony Jones Jr., Avery Davis and Jafar Armstrong, respectively.

Ford could add something similar to the Irish backfield in 2023. He certainly once had the physical skillset to do so. And if that becomes reality, no one should be more grateful than Estimé.

DOWN THE ROAD
Just because Ford will have eligibility in 2024 does not mean he will use it. That will be up to both the Irish coaching staff and Ford.

But given the likelihood Estimé heads to the NFL after 2023, keeping Ford around as an able body in the running back room would make sense. That may be where Diggs’ departure has the greatest impact. The odds were against both Estimé and Diggs having a strong enough 2023 season to justify jumping to the NFL, so one of them would have returned in 2024 and Notre Dame would have had four backs returning plus a freshman or two. (The No. 1 all-purpose back in the class, consensus four-star Aneyas Williams is currently the only Irish commitment at the position in the class of 2024.)

The Irish would now need Ford or yet another transfer to have those kinds of numbers, and the advantage of Ford will be familiarity.

NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
The summer countdown begins anew, Rylie Mills to Deion Colzie
No. 99 Rylie Mills, senior defensive tackle, moving back inside from end
No. 98 Devan Houstan, early-enrolled four-star defensive tackle
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, junior defensive tackle, one of three Irish DTs with notable experience
No. 95 Tyson Ford, sophomore defensive tackle, up 30 pounds from a year ago
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, a senior defensive tackle now ‘fully healthy’ after a 2022 torn ACL
No. 91 Aiden Gobaira, sophomore defensive end, former four-star recruit
No. 90* Brenan Vernon, incoming freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 90* Boubacar Traore, incoming freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, the next starter at ‘TE U’
No. 86* Cooper Flanagan, incoming freshman tight end, four-star recruit
No. 85 Holden Staes, sophomore tight end, up 20 pounds in a year
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, senior tight end coming off a torn ACL
No. 83 Jayden Thomas, junior receiver, probable No. 1 target in 2023
Rhode Island transfer safety Antonio Carter gives Notre Dame desperately needed backline depth
Penn State RB transfer Devyn Ford gives Notre Dame newly-needed backfield depth, experience