Kelly breaks down training camp

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With Brian Kelly meeting the media in just a few days, our friends at Fighting Irish Digital Media got a head start, posting a great interview with Jack Nolan talking with the Irish head coach on the state of the program.

I’ll post the video below, but here are a few bullet points that I found interesting.

* Strength & Conditioning: It’s been fun to watch Notre Dame be the team that gets better as the game/season goes on as opposed to the team that wilts down the stretch. It wasn’t too long ago when the Irish had one of the ugliest November records you could imagine (it’s probably the main reason Charlie Weis was shown the door).

Kelly talks briefly about how strength and conditioning have made a big difference, entering the fourth year of Paul Longo’s training program. That difference should be seen up front along the offensive line, where fifth year players Zack Martin and Chris Watt are joined by fourth year veteran Christian Lombard, while the “youngsters” likely joining the starting lineup, Nick Martin and Conor Hanratty, each have spent multiple years in the training program. (A pleasant reminder that this program has come a long way since 2007…)

* Replacing Leaders and Contributors: Nolan wouldn’t have been doing his job if he didn’t ask Kelly about the unenviable task of replacing a transcendent player like Manti Te’o or a great leader like Kapron Lewis-Moore on defense. But Kelly rightly pointed to the fact that while the program will miss both players, they’ll also have ten guys returning that started at least two games for a defense that finally took the leap from good to great.

“You’ve got a group of players coming back that understand how to play championship defense,” Kelly said. “We couldn’t talk in those terms before.”

On offense, Kelly talked about the challenges of replacing an offense that looked to Tyler Eifert to carry the load in the passing game and Theo Riddick (with a smattering of Cierre Wood) on the ground. While the offensive philosophy with Everett Golson was basically to find single coverage with Eifert and throw him the ball, Kelly talked about the evolutionary step this offense will take and how it will use camp to “(fit) players to where they can help us the most.”

“We really love the players we have,” Kelly told UND.com. “Camp will be sorting out who is the playmaker and how we can get them the football.”

* Staff Continuity: Only in the rearview mirror will most be able to appreciate the staff that Kelly has put together. A few years down the line, we’ll likely see both Bob Diaco and Chuck Martin running their own college programs and guys like Mike Elston and Tony Alford on track to lead their own as well.

That Kelly has built a staff that seamlessly preaches the same message, has wonderful camaraderie, and is relentless on the recruiting trail is a credit to a head coach that took a lot of heat for bringing in a staff that he trusted, not one with national visibility.

***

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qO1C-mdNX4o&w=560&h=315]

Things We Learned This Season: Notre Dame’s culture created progress, though inexperience begat losses

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If the transfer portal window has genuinely changed anything about college football, it is when one season feels like it has ended and the next has begun. That transition used to wait until mid-January, but now the transfer portal window opening on the Monday after conference championship weekend kickstarts the offseason ramp-up to spring-practice impressions from new arrivals, which obviously creates the summer’s anticipation and then preseason hype. Thus, before the portal leads to a new quarterback at Notre Dame and a couple of receivers that create nine months of hopeful hypotheticals, let’s ponder what was learned in 2022 …

A talented football team, one largely “driven” by its offensive and defensive lines, one led by a first-time head coach not yet well-versed in game-management challenges, and one lacking the types of perimeter playmakers that raise ceilings in college football this decade.

By the end of the 2022 season, Notre Dame was what it was expected to be, even though its 8-4 record was a bit disappointing way of reaching this expected end. The No. 21 Irish should never have been ranked as high as No. 5 in the preseason, not when replacing the experience that comes with 22 career starts from a quarterback and three decades of head-coaching mishaps, the former again a need after Drew Pyne’s entry into the transfer portal but one that may be solved with a modern-day shortcut.

But at the core, Notre Dame was exactly what first-time head coach Marcus Freeman wanted it to be, not a team reliant on a single star but an “O-line and D-line driven program,” a phrasing he first trotted out early in preseason practices and one that held on well into November, though this space never quite found the right way to format it. That being the Irish focus made last Saturday’s 38-27 loss at USC all the more frustrating for Freeman, because Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams’ repeated evasions of Notre Dame’s defensive line eventually rendered the offensive line’s greatest strength, run blocking, less an asset.

“As I just told the team, I’m sure everybody is disappointed, from me on down,” Freeman said that night. “You want to see how you compare against a team like that when you’re playing at your best. We didn’t play at our best. …

“They are a dang good football team, really good. We have a really good football team, and that’s just a disappointment. You want to see when two really good football teams both play really well, you want to see what the outcome is.”

The loss may have made Freeman a bit more self-critical than was deserved, as the Irish forced Williams’ to grow into a headline-dominant star a bit quicker than he had in the season to date, a standalone star for only a week before a hamstring limited the Heisman Trophy finalist on Friday night in the Pac 12 title game against Utah. But Freeman’s point was valid, Notre Dame was not at its best at USC.

For that matter, college football fans were deprived of any such moment all season when it came to the Irish. “Two really good football teams both playing really well” never quite came to be. Either Notre Dame’s gameplan was too conservative to allow for excellence (the 21-10 loss at Ohio State), the opponent was utterly outmatched along both sides of the line (the 35-14 win vs Clemson) or one star forced the Irish out of their ideal game (Williams). While Notre Dame fans relished beating the constant-nemesis Tigers on Nov. 5, the lack of any heavyweight bout in Freeman’s debut campaign may be regretted in years to come, if for no other reason than the memory to look back upon but more likely because testing Freeman’s resolve in the biggest of moments would have been a welcomed Irish luxury in this down-and-up season.

That is in years to come, though.

This year, Freeman’s naivete caught up with him in one regard or another first against Marshall and then against Stanford, the kinds of games Brian Kelly excelled at winning in his final five seasons in South Bend. It is not a welcomed excuse, but such missteps are common from first-year head coaches, especially ones coming from the defensive side of the ball. The instincts needed to press the right buttons on a Saturday afternoon come with time and frustration.

The surprise of the Irish season may have been that those two frustrations in Notre Dame Stadium did not ruin the entire year.

Fifth-year left guard, four-year starter and two-time captain Jarrett Patterson expressed that frustration immediately after the Irish fell to Marshall, Patterson playing on an injured foot that undoubtedly added to his dismay. As Notre Dame lined up to sing the Alma Mater after the game, Patterson instead headed up the tunnel, jersey and pads already removed.

In his defense, the Irish had lost at home only once in Patterson’s entire career, what to do following a loss was not ingrained in his muscle memory. Also, Notre Dame had just been beaten along both lines; his frustration was well-founded.

Yet, the Irish rallied, inexplicable Stanford shocker aside. They beat up Clemson as badly, if not worse, as Marshall had beaten up Patterson & Co. two months earlier. USC needed Williams’ escapes because Notre Dame’s defensive line had the Trojans’ offensive line beaten. Freeman’s engines arrived for the Irish this season, even if a couple weeks later than ideal.

“I’m proud of the way our team continued to progress, continued to fight, continued to get better,” Freeman said. “… We didn’t win today, they played their hearts out, and that’s what I told them in the locker room.

“I’m proud of the way you played, because you never quit, you continue to get better.”

Plenty of teams lose that program-wide drive toward progress after their season goes awry. Immediate examples were seen this year in College Station, Chestnut Hill and East Lansing.

“Shoot, after week two, you could have went an opposite direction,” Freeman said. “After week six, when we lost to Stanford, it could have gone in a bad direction. But these leaders and these guys continue to fight.”

Disappointment has become the norm at Stanford, Wisconsin and Florida. Only time will tell if new coaches will change that. Freeman did not have that mandate, courtesy of Kelly’s resurgence following the 2016 debacle, and Notre Dame’s response to losing to Stanford suggests there need not be panic or continued frustration following the loss in Los Angeles. The Gator Bowl matchup with No. 19 South Carolina on Dec. 30 (3:30 ET; ABC) can serve to prove that to some regard, but not definitively given the increasing exhibition nature of bowl games.

“They’ll fight after this one,” he said. “It hurts, because you gave it your all, but our leaders will keep us together.”

The season-opening loss at Ohio State made it clear the Irish lack the playmakers to hang with college football’s best in 2022, hence some transfer portal focuses, and the botched two-minute drill against Stanford further exposed the inexperience at Notre Dame’s two most-critical positions, but the Irish did not falter after either occasion.

When Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick promoted Marcus Freeman, he cited a want to further the culture in the Irish locker room. Its response to those losses may have confirmed that culture more than winning ever could. Patterson’s public frustrations embodied it, but the wins that came after proved it.

Holding onto that culture and even furthering it this offseason will be Freeman’s next challenge, beginning with the thought of importing a starter at the position most focused on come any given Saturday. Not just in the Gator Bowl, but for 2023.

Leftovers & Links: Transfer portal opens fast, but slow for Notre Dame … for now; Mayer & Foskey status TBD

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The transfer portal is open.

The difference between this year and the previous few years is that there is a set window for undergraduate players to enter the database better and more ominously known as the portal. And that window began today, Dec. 5.

There was uncertainty about how this opening day would go. Like the first moments of National Signing Day, with announcement after announcement after announcement? With a trickle throughout the day and the week? Would players be out of the portal (again, it’s just a database) as quickly as they entered it?

Through half a day of it, the answers are all somewhere in between.

For Notre Dame’s concerns, only two players have jumped into the portal thus far today: junior quarterback Drew Pyne, as expected since his announcement on Friday, and freshman cornerback Jayden Bellamy. More will assuredly follow in the coming month, likely this week if not even yet Monday night.

“We’ve had individual meetings with a lot of our players,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said Sunday night. “Really just talked to them about taking it a little bit at a time to kind of figure out their plans for the transfer portal, for playing in the bowl game and other decisions they have to make.”

Some players already have homes — most notably, Phil Jurkovec may finally get his return to Notre Dame Stadium next season, date to be determined, having already committed to Pittsburgh — while others are piling up. The quarterbacks draw the most attention, and understandably so, with North Carolina State’s Devin Leary joining the fray on Monday, perhaps a name for Irish fans to note.

The possibility of Leary, of course, is presumably part of why Pyne is transferring and not playing in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30 against No. 19 South Carolina (3:30 ET; ABC). Along with names like Texas’ Hudson Card and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong (though the Syracuse rumors around Armstrong are noticeable and logical), Freeman has quarterback candidates to chase and intends to do so.

“We had a conversation this week, myself and Drew, as well as many of the other players that we have on our team in terms of our intentions, my intentions into certain positions, look for transfers,” Freeman said. “I’m always looking for ways to enhance our roster. I always want to be up front and honest, and I was with Drew, told him that we would possibly look at taking a transfer quarterback.

“I did not want him to leave, but he made the decision to enter the portal, and I definitely respect his decision.”

With the quarterback carousel moving at lightning speed — Michigan’s Cade McNamara to Iowa and Jurkovec to Pittsburgh already underscoring how quickly that specific position will develop each offseason; Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei is widely expected to land somewhere on the West Coast — Pyne skipping the Gator Bowl makes sense. He needs to secure his next position now, not in January.

“What he has done for our program, the ability for him to step in week 2 and throughout the season, he did a tremendous job,” Freeman said.

In Pyne’s stead, Freeman said sophomore quarterback and initial 2022 starter Tyler Buchner is “full go.” Now, let’s add in this space’s continued disclaimer that coaches are almost always more optimistic publicly about injury timelines than they should be, and all initial expectations for Buchner’s return from a serious shoulder sprain, one that necessitated surgery, ruled out a bowl game. But, Buchner has participated in Notre Dame’s two practices this week.

“We still have three quarterbacks on the roster,” Freeman said. “You have Tyler Buchner, Steve Angeli and Ron Powlus. All have been practicing the past two days that we practiced and could see any of the three play. They’ll all be ready to play.”

Neither junior tight end Michael Mayer nor senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey partook in those practices, something Freeman said was intentional as Notre Dame gears some of its bowl prep toward developing younger players. It also gives the two biggest NFL draft candidates on the Irish roster a chance to consider if they’ll play against the Gamecocks.

“We had a plan to sit out some guys as recovery for these last two practices of development and trying to really focus on the younger guys and developing the younger guys on our team,” Freeman said. “So I told both of those guys just take the week and take a couple of days to really think about what they want to do for their future.”

Freeman outright acknowledging the possibility of Mayer and/or Foskey skipping the bowl game represents both the changing of the times and the program’s understanding of the logic to such a decision.

“We will discuss it sometime this week, probably early this week.”

ON JAYDEN BELLAMY
Bellamy was one of three cornerbacks signed by Nore Dame last recruiting cycle, and while the other two blossomed into starters — Benjamin Morrison snagging five interceptions in the final two Irish home games and Jaden Mickey stepping in for Cam Hart at USC — Bellamy never saw the field.

With Hart returning next season, though missing the bowl game due to a shoulder injury, Notre Dame’s top three cornerbacks for 2023 are established, and there remain three sophomores on the depth chart for Bellamy to compete with and five defensive backs committed in the recruiting class that should sign on the dotted line on Dec. 21, when the early signing period commences.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 23 Jayden Bellamy, early-enrolled freshman cornerback

UPDATE: ON Osita Ekwonu
Senior defensive end Osita Ekwonu joined Bellamy and Pyne in the portal late Monday, finishing his Irish career with six tackles in 16 appearances, two of those tackles coming on Senior Day against Boston College, his only defensive snaps in his Notre Dame career. In his previous 15 games, Ekwonu had appeared on only special teams.

An Achilles injury sidelined Ekwonu in 2021, costing him some traction on the Irish depth chart amid its most talented position group.

His transfer can illustrate some of the folly around transfer portal discourse, something this space somewhat and regrettably encouraged with an embedded tweet on Monday. When pointing out only half — give or take — of portal entrants eventually find homes, it is too easy to ignore that many entrants are former walk-ons looking to elongate their playing careers or graduates who would have needed to transfer following their undergraduate careers all along, including long before terrifying concepts like a “transfer portal” existed. Ekwonu would have transferred 10 years ago, too, but his next stop always would have been uncertain.

Those numbers also neglect to remember there are more players than ever eligible thanks to the universal pandemic eligibility waiver. The vaguest of math suggests it is up to 20 percent more than usual roster size allocates for. As a result, some players are inevitably not going to have homes even if they want to keep playing.

Maybe that will not be Ekwonu; the intention here is not to suggest his career is over. The intention is to remind that Ekwonu would have been transferring somewhere as soon as graduate students were allowed immediate eligibility after a transfer, a rule instituted in 2006.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 34 Osita Ekwonu, senior Vyper end coming off an Achilles injury

ON TIMING
This outgoing roster flux will continue for a week or two, and then there may be a few more departures immediately after the bowl game, though most players will want to get a head start on the transfer process.

Freeman is in communication with all those weighing options, so few possibilities should catch him completely off-guard, but he is not pressuring players to decide today or tomorrow.

“We haven’t set a firm date, deadline, but we told them, … we need to kind of have an idea of what the future plans are for certain guys,” Freeman said. “For our guys that are deciding if they’re going to play or opt out for the NFL draft, they understand the sooner the better. I just didn’t want them to have to rush into a decision.”

Players debating the NFL draft or another season at Notre Dame are more likely to make that decision following the bowl game, completing the second wave of outgoing decisions.

The timing of incoming transfer possibilities will reveal much about what Freeman has or has not been able to accomplish in working with the academic side of the University in the past year. The greatest struggle for Notre Dame admitting many incoming transfers has not been their academic standing, although that itself is a clear hurdle, but the delay in academic decision-makers communicating the academic standing to potential transfers.

Traffic in the portal moves fast; making highly-sought playmakers wait to hear if they will lose one semester of academic progress or two if they transfer to Notre Dame is a sure way to lose those players.

So if a receiver or a quarterback — undergraduates, to be clear — commits to the Irish this week, even if there is no official Notre Dame welcome, that would indicate Freeman has made headway.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Notre Dame will face South Carolina in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30
Drew Pyne to transfer from Notre Dame; Tyler Buchner reportedly a bowl possibility
Notre Dame adds a fourth receiver commit to recruiting class, helping a roster need
CB Cam Hart out for Notre Dame’s bowl game, but will return in 2023
Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s offensive shortcomings again highlighted by an explosive counterpart
Chris Terek’s flip from Wisconsin gives Notre Dame five OL commits in third straight class
Highlights: USC 38, Notre Dame 27 — Arm, legs and foot of Caleb Williams too much for Irish upset bid
USC defense, Caleb Williams’ Heisman-worthy performance never give Notre Dame an opening

OUTSIDE READING
College football’s transfer portal window is open. Buckle up for a frantic 45 days
Several Stanford players set to transfer as search for David Shaw’s replacement continues
Transferring Western Michigan D-lineman Fiske set to visit Notre Dame
Inside Luke Fickell’s move to Wisconsin, why he decided to leave Cincinnati now

Notre Dame will face South Carolina in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30

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Notre Dame and South Carolina will meet for the first time in nearly 40 years in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Dec. 30 at 3:30 ET (ABC). The Irish and Gamecocks have not played since 1984, a South Carolina win in South Bend. That was part of Notre Dame’s struggles (going 12-11 in 1984 and 1985) that led to Lou Holtz being hired; Holtz, of course, went on to coach the Gamecocks for six seasons after he left the Irish.

Though the No. 21 Irish (8-4) finished the season strongly, including competing gamely at USC a week ago in a 38-27 loss, a driving storyline over the next month will be wondering if head coach Marcus Freeman can handle this bowl game better than the second half of the Fiesta Bowl faceplant last year in his first game as Notre Dame’s leader.

No. 19 South Carolina (8-4) enjoyed an even more impressive finish to the season, knocking both Tennessee and Clemson out of the College Football Playoff in its final two games of the season. Not that gambling spreads mean anything on the football field, but to give an idea how unexpected those two wins were, realize the Gamecocks were expected to lose them by a combined 37.5 points and instead won them by a combined 26 points.

There may be some rough parallels between South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer and Freeman, though Beamer is a year ahead in his head-coaching career.

Beamer was an unexpected hire in Columbia in 2021, never having been a head coach before and most recently the associate head coach and tight ends coach at Oklahoma for three seasons. The Gamecocks went 7-6 in his first year, his head-coaching inexperience perhaps rearing its head as they lost their first three games against Power-Five competition and four of their first five, the exception coming against worse-off Vanderbilt.

Thus, the surge to end the 2022 season stands out, particularly since it again took until October to notch a win against a Power-Five opponent, losing to both Arkansas and, more understandably, Georgia in September.

South Carolina found its most success this season through the air, led by former Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler. He averaged 230.5 yards per game and 7.9 yards per attempt while completing 66.6 percent of his passes. The Gamecocks managed just 123.3 rushing yards per game and 3.8 yards per attempt.

Their rushing defense is one of the worst in the country, which could play right into the Irish offensive strength. Opponents gained 0.194 expected points per rush attempt against South Carolina, the No. 123 ranking in the country, per cfb-graphs.com.

Notre Dame fell to Ohio State, 21-10, to open Freeman’s genuine tenure, a worthwhile loss though one quickly diminished when the Irish fell to Marshall just a week later. Of course, the Buckeyes’ relied on that season-opening win to successfully burgeon their Playoff résumé today.

The Irish already know they will be without both senior cornerback Cam Hart and junior quarterback Drew Pyne in the bowl game. Hart announced last week he will return for a fifth season at Notre Dame, but a shoulder injury will sideline him this month, while Pyne announced Friday he intends to enter the transfer portal, presumably when it officially opens tomorrow.

Star tight end Michael Mayer will almost certainly opt out of the bowl game, his top-20 draft stock assured, and senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey could logically, as well.

Notre Dame nearly ended up in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 28, per reports. The ACC could place the Irish in any of three bowls, the top tier of ACC-affiliated bowls below the Orange Bowl, with some input from the bowls and from the University. That give-and-take seemingly delayed the announcement for a stretch of Sunday.

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