Pregame Six Pack: A Music City Finale

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The 2014 season comes to a close on Tuesday afternoon, with Notre Dame playing the role of underdog against LSU in the Music City Bowl. After finishing the regular season on a four-game slide, a date with Les Miles’ young and talented Tigers isn’t the type of opponent that instills a lot of hope in the Irish faithful.

But Brian Kelly said he wanted a challenge for his team and they’ll have one on Tuesday afternoon.

First and foremost is LSU’s defense. With Malik Zaire getting his first start, he’ll meet John Chavis. The SEC’s top-rated unit, Zaire will face a worthy adversary as he hopes to start 2015 in the drivers seat for a quarterback job that should be wide open.

In our last Pregame Six Pack until next September, let’s get ready for the Music City Bowl.

 

Can Notre Dame stop the run?

That’s likely the difference in this football game. And while the Irish are still missing Joe Schmidt and Jarron Jones, the month off to restructure the front seven will likely make a difference.

If you’re reading between the lines, a few things seem fairly clear. First, Sheldon Day may be officially healthy, but he’s got a long way to go before he’s able to be the every-down player the Irish need. Kelly tabbed Day’s play count around 40 or 50 snaps, which is roughly the number of carries the Tigers will likely attempt.

Secondly, it appears Isaac Rochell will be asked to take on the bulk of the work inside. After Jacob Matuska struggled in his first significant action, Rochell will slide inside to try and combat the power advantage the Tigers have in the trenches. Matuska battled a shoulder/nerve injury that limited his strength and ability to hold his own against USC, but healthy or not, it’s a tough battle for a first-year player still finding his way.

But that’s what the Irish have to choose from. So Brian VanGorder’s unit will have to patch things together, not their best strong suit this season. LSU will help as well, with a passing game that’s one of the least efficient the Irish have faced. But none of that matters if Notre Dame can’t hold its own against a running game that’s intent on breaking the will of the Irish.

 

What will the Irish get out of Malik Zaire?

There are few better opportunities than the one Malik Zaire will get this afternoon. The sophomore quarterback who finally saw the field against USC gets the start against the Tigers. Welcome to the Big Leagues, kid.

What that means from a playing time perspective remains to be seen, with Kelly still committed to playing Everett Golson. But if Zaire wants a chance to prove he can be the man driving the Irish offense, there’s no better litmus test than against LSU.

The Tigers secondary is one of the toughest in college football. Their run defense has not lived up to that standard, with Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn all having big games on the ground. Zaire’s skills as a runner are often discussed. Now we’ll see if they’re more than just a talking point, with the zone read key to the Irish’s game plan with the young quarterback on the field.

(And no quarterback playing for Brian Kelly is going to get by as a bad passer.)

After a nice performance against USC, Zaire handled the media well, looking the part of a starting quarterback at a big-time program. If he can move the offense and lead the team against LSU, we’ll have ourselves a very interesting spring.

 

What type of performance can we expect from LSU?

For all the skepticism out there about Notre Dame’s chances right now, it’s worth noting that the Tigers aren’t coming in as world beaters. After ripping off three straight wins, including a victory over No. 3 Ole Miss, the Tigers seemed to have the wind ripped from their sails after Alabama snuck out of Tiger Stadium with an overtime victory.

The loss to the Crimson Tide was followed up by a 17-0 skunking by Arkansas. And while LSU rallied in their season finale to beat Texas A&M, the Tigers haven’t exactly been the best bowl performers the past few years, sleepwalking past Iowa last year 21-14 and losing to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A bowl the year before.

The Tigers’ passing offense is a mess, with quarterback Anthony Jennings completing less than 50 percent of his passes and throwing just 10 touchdowns against seven interceptions. (Three of those TD passes came against someone called Sam Houston.) And defensively, the architect of the LSU attack might have other things on his mind.

John Chavis was offered a three-year extension worth $4 million weeks ago. But while other defensive assistants have signed their contract extensions, the Times-Picayune reports that Chavis hasn’t. An offer to join Kevin Sumlin’s staff at Texas A&M seems to be a sticking point.

Does any of this matter? Maybe not. But it’s worth noting that after a disappointing four-loss season of its own, the Tigers aren’t exactly happy to be in Nashville, either.

 

Can Will Fuller make a statement — and set a record in the process?

Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller’s big sophomore season flew surprisingly under the radar on the national scene. With four 100-yard efforts and the best single-season totals for a sophomore in school history in catches, yards and touchdowns, Fuller has the chance to make an impact against a secondary that’s among the most talented in the country… not to mention catch Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate in the process.

Fuller’s season was the breakout of the year. But it still saw the wispy Philadelphia native go through some growing pains. For all the catches Fuller made, you can’t help but think about the ones he missed. A few drops took some large plays off the board, and likely a few scores off the stat sheet.

Cornerbacks Jalen Collins and Tre’Davious White are a talented duo, with safeties Jalen Mills and Ronald Martin excellent as well. LSU has built its defensive brand playing man coverage. If Fuller breaks loose this afternoon, he’ll set the stage for a monster 2015 after a record-setting 2014.

 

Stay or Go? A good performance in the Music City Bowl could be the decision maker. 

Junior left tackle Ronnie Stanley has been discussed as a potential first-round offensive tackle as way-too-early mock drafts begin to emerge. While opinions on where he’ll go seem to vary, Stanley’s talents will be tested early and often against an LSU front that’s combined for 69 tackles for loss.

While the pass rush hasn’t necessarily been the strong suit of the Tigers defense, Stanley will provide another piece of excellent game tape for NFL talent evaluators to pick through, if Stanley decides that three seasons in South Bend are enough.

Brian Kelly didn’t want to discuss the NFL evaluations that Stanley, Nick Martin, Sheldon Day and Everett Golson received. But multiple sources confirmed to me that Stanley didn’t receive a coveted first-round grade when he heard back from the league.

That’s usually enough to get a return for a senior season. But after losing three players with eligibility left after last season and none of them going in the first round, there’s still a tough decision to make. And while his return would be a huge recruiting victory for Kelly and the Irish staff, Stanley will likely weigh his performance in the Music City Bowl before making any decisions.

 

Can Brian Kelly — and the offensive line — control the game with the Irish offense?

If there was something more disappointing than the Irish’s total defensive collapse against USC it was the brutal start for the offense. While back-to-back turnovers eventually took Everett Golson off the field, starting the game with four straight punts should’ve been even more worrying.

Against the Trojans, the Irish leaned heavily on the possession passing game and struck out. Golson’s inaccuracy, along with a lack of running game, put the vulnerable defense in a tough spot and they certainly didn’t fight their way out of it. (It might have been Paper Bag 49, Irish 14 in the Coliseum that afternoon.)

Kelly has talked openly about the blame he places on the offense for this season’s second-half collapse. And he is the head of that unit. So with one more opportunity to make Kelly the first Irish coach to win eight-or-more games in his first five seasons, he needs to get back to calling the type of game that had the Irish nearly pull off the upset against Florida State.

With Malik Zaire starting, it appears Kelly understands that he needs a strong running game to perch up the defense and possess the football. And after a mediocre season, the starting five has one last shot to prove they’re an ascending position group, not a unit that needs rebooting this spring.

Running the ball won’t just be a necessity to beat the Tigers defense. It’ll keep the ball away from LSU, making it harder for the Tigers to break down the Irish defense with a ground and pound mentality.

But when Golson plays, he’ll also need to run the football, not just drop back and throw it. He’s shown the ability to control the chains with his feet, like he did against Florida State. (He did it even better against Oklahoma in 2012, the ultimate 3rd-and-short weapon.)

Kelly desperately wants to leave Nashville with a victory. He’s going to have to do his best coaching job of the year to do so.

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.