Pregame Six Pack: The present and future of a key rivalry

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Expectations have been recalibrated. But it doesn’t take a view from 30,000 feet to understand the importance of Notre Dame’s annual battle with USC.

While the four losses each team has suffered this season have muted the national view of the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football, a good Notre Dame-USC football game is usually a great thing for college football.

Especially now. As we get ready to go through the first, and only, vote of the College Football Playoff selection committee that actually matters, games like this one — a high-profile, non-conference, national matchup will be the type of game that the committee will view as important. Especially when it goes apples-to-apples against the cupcakes we’ve seen scheduled the last few weeks from SEC programs looking for a rest before a tough in-conference finish.

Both programs will limp into the Coliseum. Notre Dame both literally and figuratively, with a defense more battered and bruised than any we’ve seen in the recent past. The depth on the Trojans roster is far from healthy as well, with scholarship sanctions and a few key injuries also depleting a talent-rich but razor thin team.

In our regular-season finale, we’re changing things up a bit. As we run through the pregame six pack, consider these six Notre Dame players vital to the rivalry game success of the Irish on Saturday afternoon, both now and in the future.

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Cole Luke. Notre Dame’s sophomore cornerback is playing his way into quite a player. After contributing only part time as a freshman, Luke ends the year as the team’s No. 1 coverman, facing another difficult assignment a week after being matched up with Louisville’s DaVante Parker.

Kelly talked about the ascent of Luke this season, calling him one of the best developments of the season.

“Cole Luke is turning into an A player. He’s not an A player yet. He was a C player coming into the year. He’s a B-plus player right now,” Kelly said on Tuesday. ”

The Arizona native will likely take on the assignment of Nelson Agholor, USC’s top receiver and a junior potentially playing his final college game in the Coliseum. Agholor isn’t the physical handful that Jaelen Strong or Parker are, but he’s a smooth athlete that’s electric with the ball in his hands both as a receiver and in the return game.

As Luke prepares to transition from a sophomore to an upperclassman, he’s going to face yet another challenge that should prepare him for next season, when he’ll be ready to be a force at cornerback, finally lined up across from KeiVarae Russell.

“He did a heck of a job against the kid from Louisville,” Kelly said. “We matched him up all day. So that was clear that he’s a player that’s ascending for us.”

 

Nick Martin, Matt Hegarty & Steve Elmer. All three interior offensive linemen have more eligibility. But they aren’t likely thinking about next year when they face the challenge of USC’s Leonard Williams. The USC All-American is a wrecking ball in the middle of the defensive line, with the 6-foot-5, 300-pound junior a menace who will likely be in the hunt for No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft.

“Leonard Williams is probably singularly the best defensive player front guy we’ll see this year. He’s simply that good of a player,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We’ll have to find ways to double him and slow him down.  He’s one of the best defensive linemen I’ve seen in a few years.  He’s that good of a player.”

This trio is likely to form this double team, with Elmer or Martin teaming with Hegarty to do their best to slow down Williams, the Trojans sack-leader with six, and who in 37 career games nearly matches that in tackles for loss, with 35.5 in his career.

Very quietly, the ground game has rounded into form this season. Much of that credit has gone to Tarean Folston’s emergence, but the front five should be given some of that credit as well.

That entire group will be tested on Saturday. And with the running game essential if the Irish are going to keep the ball away from the Trojans up-tempo offense, keeping Williams from a gigantic finale in the Coliseum will be critical.

 

Will Fuller. Notre Dame’s sophomore receiver is on record watch, his 14 touchdown catches just one behind Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate’s single-season mark. Match him up with a young Trojan secondary that’s talented but ranked 111th in the country in passing defense and Fuller could be poised to write a big chapter in a rivalry game he could dominate for the next three seasons.

While Luke’s ascent on defense has been the surprise of the year on that side of the football, Fuller is poised to break 1,000 receiving yards for the first time since Michael Floyd did it. His touchdown numbers show you a player that’s efficient at finding his way to pay dirt, even as he grows into the role of a No. 1 target.

Kelly talked about that growth earlier this week, with the still stick-skinny Fuller now tasked with growing into his body.

“He’s not a guy that can carry it by himself.  He’s not physically able to just go out there and knock off double coverage,” Kelly said. “He can beat any man coverage around with his speed.  But he’s not physically able to go and play like Megatron (Calvin Johnson) and those beasts.

“His next step is to continue to work on his physical development.  And that’s the next step for him.”

 

Max Redfield. The sophomore still seems stuck in the doghouse. But he’s the future at a safety position where he’s physically capable of filling the role, only still taking baby steps as he’s learning his way through his second system in as many years in South Bend.

Saturday’s game means quite a bit to Redfield. He’s a former USC commit who starred in Southern California as a prep athlete. So if there’s ever a Saturday for Redfield to play with the type of tenacity and mental sharpness that Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder demand, this is the one.

Drue Tranquill’s ACL injury almost forced Elijah Shumate out of the doghouse. But if Shumate’s playing strong safety and Austin Collinsworth is playing as the free safety, it’s only a matter of time before Redfield gets his opportunities, because a one-armed Collinsworth just isn’t a good physical matchup for the athleticism that runs two-deep in the Trojan’s receiving corps.

While Kelly preaches patience with Redfield’s development, some fans have seemingly already tabbed Redfield a bust. It’s the same thing that happened with Harrison Smith, who three years into the position seemed a lost soul before the lightbulb switched on and Smith emerged as a force at safety in his (redshirt) junior season. It might take until next year for Redfield to take that leap, but there’s reason to believe it’s still coming.

Redfield will learn this defense — if he can take on Mandarin Chinese in the classroom, he can learn VanGorder’s system.

It’s his athleticism that you just can’t teach.

 

Greer Martini. That Notre Dame’s freshman middle linebacker is starting is a nice reminder in the not-so-scientific state of the modern recruiting world. Because only former walk-on Joe Schmidt had a lesser recruiting profile than Martini. Schmidt’s worked out pretty well for the Irish. And it looks like Martini is going to be a pretty good linebacker as well.

Martini is starting in the middle because even the best laid plans can go belly up. Jarrett Grace is still in the middle of a daunting rehabilitation. Schmidt’s departure all but signaled the demise of this defense. Fellow freshman Nyles Morgan is sitting out a half-game suspension after his targeting penalty, leaving Martini to take over the job as middle linebacker, just 11 games into his college career.

“I’m kind of blown away, I never thought as a freshman I’d have the opportunity to have my first start at the Coliseum,” Martini said Wednesday.

But Martini’s worked his way up the depth chart because of an advanced football IQ that the Irish coaching staff identified very early. Martini was the earliest pledge of the group, with the Irish staff watching Martini grow up as a football player at Woodberry Forest, where C.J. Prosise and Doug Randolph played before him.

Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated caught up with Woodberry Forest head coach Clint Alexander, who isn’t surprised that Martini is making an early mark.

At Woodberry, Martini played football, basketball and baseball. Alexander discovered him during a junior high sports camp when the Irish freshman excelled in soccer, lacrosse, softball, golf and tennis.

When the junior high kid had free time during that camp, he found Alexander to talk more football.

“That’s when I told my wife that if Greer comes here, he’ll be the best inside linebacker we’ve ever had,” Alexander said. “He ended up being a coach on the field for me. He could give adjustments, make checks, see the big picture.

“I know he certainly takes that ‘slow, white boy linebacker’ concept and gets a chip on his shoulder. When (Joe Schmidt) got hurt, Greer was probably a bigger version of him with more athleticism.”

Now it’s up to Martini to hold the fort against one of the most athletic offenses the Irish have faced all season. And even without Schmidt, Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones — the only projected upperclassmen starters outside of Austin Collinsworth — it’s time to find a way to beat the Trojans on Saturday.

“We all know that we’re young. But we’re all going to challenge each other to be better,” Martini said. “It doesn’t matter how young we are. We’ve got to perform, and I think that’s what we’re going out to do.”

 

Everett Golson. Make no mistake, Notre Dame’s best chance to win on Saturday is a big game by Golson. And after battling back in the second half against Louisville, Golson will face another attacking defense that aims to confuse and disrupt the second-year starter.

Reminding fans and media members that Golson is only in his second year as a starter is likely a fruitless endeavor, but one that remains important. Golson has fewer career starts than Ronnie Stanley. Irish fans understand that Stanley’s still growing into the player that he’ll become. So is Golson. For better, and at times, for worse.

After playing the role of conservative game-manager as a freshman, Golson’s responsibilities as a quarterback grew considerably this season. We’ve seen that in his production, with his 29 touchdown passes and 3,280 yards both Top 10 in the country. Combined with his eight touchdown runs and two two-point conversions, Golson is fourth in the country in points responsible for. That’s no small feat.

But those points have come at a cost. And while Golson’s early-season success had some (ESPN’s Desmond Howard the most visible) calling his 2013 season spent training with George Whitfield a value-add, no amount of practice time can make up for lost game experience.

The lumps Golson has taken are the type of struggles you get with a second-year quarterback, especially one who is the focal point of the offense. So on Saturday, Golson will have one more opportunity to balance his responsibilities as a game-manager with his skills as a playmaker.

His ability to successful walk that line will determine whether Notre Dame or USC emerges victorious on Saturday.

 

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.