IBG: Struggling to focus on football

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It’s been a weird week. Apologies for maybe coming up a little short on columns this week, but I’ve just been transfixed to the situation evolving in Happy Valley. What a sad state of affairs, and it makes it pretty difficult to get excited about a football game when you’re watching a horrific scandal that’s unfolding like this.

Luckily, we’ve got the Irish Blogger Gathering forcing my hand here, with our friends at We Never Graduate putting the questions out there. It’s a good mix of water cooler topics, hypotheticals, football talk and what’s going on in State College.

Here we go:

This year more than most, there seems to be an inordinate amount of attention spent on peripheral topics like the jumbotron, field turf, and apparel. Kelly is responsible in large part because he’s so candid about his take on them during his press conferences, making it perfectly clear his preferences that stoke the NDNation’s ever-burning fire. Do you think he’s going too far to push for these “enhancements” or do you think he’s doing what’s necessary to push Notre Dame’s program into the modern age?

I think a big reason these topics are holding such traction is because we all assumed we’d have a BCS run to talk about. Now, with three early losses, we’ve lost the number one conversation topic thanks to fluky self-inflicted wounds that have taken this season out of the enjoyable place it started.

That said, Brian Kelly certainly is a progressive, something people probably didn’t see coming when the early narrative on Kelly was being written. But if I’m a head coach at a major college program, I’m fighting for everything that’ll get me up to speed — a video board, a playing surface that doesn’t stink, and uniforms that appeal to players and recruits.

Do I think he enjoys tweaking the hard core traditionalists? Not really. I think he understands it doesn’t matter what he says as long as he wins. It’s like the old Crash Davis quote in Bull Durham.

“You’ll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you’ll be classy. If you win twenty in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press will think you’re colorful. Until you win twnety in the show however, it means you’re a slob.”

Coach Kelly made it clear today in his press conference that he couldn’t care less what you think about the helmets and uniforms…but I care what you think. Give the world your take on the helmets we’ll be wearing this weekend.

I’ve hit this topic pretty hard this week. I’m glad he said what he did, and while it might have come off as a little too definitive, he’s 100 percent right.

Do I like the helmet? Not especially, at least not when it’s by itself looking like a disco ball with a shamrock on it. But could it look cool under the lights with green jerseys? Probably.

That said, I think the process of hiring a world class helmet designer from a different sport makes this cool regardless, just because it shows that Notre Dame has made a decision using a forward-thinking perspective.

That will be all from me on helmets. I promise.

The Irish are starting to incur some injuries that are forcing new players to emerge and contribute. Identify one guy who hasn’t made a big contribution thus far that will show up big over the next three games.

I’m not quite sure what you call a big contribution so I’ll answer this question twice. First and foremost, I think the injuries along the defensive line, and his development over nine games, has freshman Stephon Tuitt primed for a monster home stretch. (I already consider his contribution sizable, but I’m not sure if he’s done enough to qualify for this question.)

While Aaron Lynch was the story of last year’s spring game, I sounded smarter than usual when I  mentioned Tuitt then as a guy that might have a bigger impact this year, and I think we’ll see that come to fruition as November rolls along. (I also pegged George Atkinson as the guy on the offensive side of the ball. So partial credit there, I guess. Just saying.)

Otherwise, I’m expecting Robby Toma to start making a push and getting involved. Toma is the kind of guy that just seems perfect for late season football. He may not have the skillset Theo Riddick does, but there’s just something about him that has me thinking he’ll put up some numbers in these final three regular season games.

There was a short time during the Notre Dame coaching search when it appeared current Maryland head coach Randy Edsall was the front runner. How different would things be for the Irish program right now if he was chosen in front of Kelly?

I think Randy Edsall’s agent would have you believe that there was a time when Randy Edsall was the frontrunner for the Notre Dame job. That said, I don’t think it was ever really that close, and if you stack Edsall’s resume up with Brian Kelly’s, it’s really no comparison.

That said, Edsall is a good football coach, but he’s also the type of hire that would’ve been absolutely crushed by the Notre Dame faithful as not being sexy enough. This is a group that was looking at Hall of Fame coaches as the bar. (A group that earlier today, had someone on a prominent board saying Tom Coughlin should leave the New York Giants and coach the Irish.)

As for trying to guess how things would be if it was Edsall and not Kelly taking the reins? That’s a tough game that I’m not all that comfortable playing, but you’ve got to think that Edsall’s struggles at Maryland after losing some good talent would’ve been a sign for how things would’ve gone with the Irish losing Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, etc.

Let’s briefly step away from South Bend and address the talk of college football right now: the mind-boggling Penn State scandal. What’s your take on the entire situation and what do you think needs to happen moving forward in Happy Valley?

This story haunts me. After reading the Grand Jury findings, I don’t think it can be covered enough. It’s one of the most reprehensible stories that I can think of and I know it’s going to get a whole lot worse, as reporters track this all the way back to 1999, when Jerry Sandusky, then a 54-year-old defensive coordinator coming off being named assistant coach of the year, slipped into “retirement.” That Sandusky decided to walk away during the prime of his coaching career is going to be cross-checked pretty seriously, and I fully expect documents to come out that all but point to the fact that Penn State and Paterno got rid of the coach because of questionable behavior surrounding the initial investigation into his wrongdoings with underage children all the way back then.

If that’s the case, well — this is bad. Really bad. Blow up the program bad. That the leadership of Penn State thought they did enough just to remove him as a coach is egregious. It’s akin to the Catholic Church pulling a child-molesting priest from a parish, slapping him on the wrist,  then reassigning him to somewhere else. That Sandusky brought kids around the program and had unfettered access to facilities and the ability to still run youth camps and profit off his past Penn State glory is just disgusting.

I’ve heard an Albert Einstein quote referenced that’s been pretty appropriate for this situation:

“The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

Jerry Sandusky isn’t guilty of anything yet, but it’s very likely that he’s an evil monster. That said, he’s far from the only one that failed people here. It was the good people at Penn State — something we all thought Paterno was — that brushed this evil under the carpet, and for that, they deserve every bit of hell coming to them, and it won’t be close to enough to make up for the terrible things that happened to those defenseless children.

Lastly, the State College community reaction, at least the vocal portion that shouted questions during last night’s press conference,  the students that cheered in the Paterno’s yard and flipped a news van, was pathetic. It’ll be something that embarrasses that mob for years to come. I don’t think I could ever be so bold while doing it, but Craig Carton said what a lot of people wanted to when undressing a student-journalist from Penn State this morning.

I’ve spent a better part of the week digging into this story, and it’s taken me an hour just to put together 400 words on the subject. It’s just a horrific horrific mess and something that will forever plague Happy Valley.

 

 

 

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.