Pregame Six Pack: Finishing spring practice strong

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With the quarterback battle taking center stage, Notre Dame’s spring practice focused on Everett Golson and Malik Zaire. Yet Brian Kelly spent this spring making sure his team was improving heading into this September, where the Irish’s high hopes will either live or die.

Saturday afternoon’s spring game is just one of 15 practices leading into next season. But the Blue-Gold game is a rare opportunity for a progress report not just of the high-profile quarterback battle, but for a look at the state of the Irish roster, with each team playing at full strength as the offense battles the defense.

You have viewing options. It’ll be live on NBCSN. It’ll also stream live on NBCSports.com.

With most of our attention this spring stuck on the battle between Golson and Zaire, let’s take a run through the Pregame Six Pack, and take a look at some roster battles that may factor into the equation come September 5.

 

For Jarrett Grace, the hard part is finished. 

Earlier this week, the latest entry of Onward Notre Dame aired on NBCSN, and it featured linebacker Jarrett Grace. We’ve talked about his long road back to the field after a devastating leg injury in 2013. But Grace talks about it himself in some of the finest moments of the half-hour documentary.

On the field, Grace gives the Irish great flexibility at the inside linebacker positions. In the locker room, his return gives Notre Dame another true leader.

See for yourself the battles Grace faced as he fought his way back to the field.

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Blink and you might miss them. But safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate’s progress this spring is critical. 

No, you shouldn’t expect to see a bunch of big plays from Notre Dame’s starting safeties. That’s because with little depth behind Redfield and Shumate, there’s zero reason you’ll see the starting battery at the back of the Irish defense for the whole game. But after a big spring, Brian Kelly is talking like Notre Dame’s safety problems are a thing of the past, and that’d be very good news for Brian VanGorder’s defense.

In Redfield and Shumate, the Irish have two elite athletes to play safety. The two former top recruits are starting in front of a bunch of… well—a lot of question marks.

While Avery Sebastian has been on campus a few times taking notice of the defense, the third safety currently on the roster is a huge step behind the starting duo of Redfield and Shumate. With Nicky Baratti recovering from shoulder surgery and Drue Tranquill being held back because of an ACL surgery he’s recovered quickly from, the Irish depth chart this spring is thin.

So even if we don’t necessarily see the progress on the field on Saturday, the Irish coaching staff thinks the safety position has taken a huge step forward this spring, something that’s crucial to Notre Dame’s success in 2015.

 

What impact has Todd Lyght had over the cornerback play?

While the safety position took the brunt of the criticism, the Irish’s cover game suffered during November’s collapse last year as well. While Cole Luke had a breakout sophomore season, the loss of KeiVarae Russell was badly felt after Cody Riggs began having foot problems.

The battle opposite Luke this spring is one to watch, with rising sophomore Nick Watkins taking on soon-to-be junior Devin Butler. Last November, Butler made some highlight reels for a talented group of opposing wide receivers, not exactly where you want to see your number displayed.

Barring anything crazy, Russell will be back on campus this summer and back in the starting lineup. But while former Pro Bowler and Notre Dame All-American Todd Lyght’s first job was fixing the communication problems at the safety position, infusing some of his knowledge at a cornerback position that needed a confidence booster after a rough November was also on the docket.

The message seems to have been received. Watkins has worked his way even with Butler, the battle for the third cornerback job getting a jumpstart before talented freshman Shaun Crawford hits campus this June. Against a tough opponent—Notre Dame’s wide receiving corps—let’s see if the cover men can hold up.

 

Will we see Mike Sanford’s impact on the offense during the Blue-Gold game? 

Brian Kelly didn’t pull Mike Sanford from Boise State to just run Kelly’s offense. He brought him to shake things up. So while a televised spring game might be heavy on vanilla, it’ll be interesting to see if any of Sanford’s influence shows itself during this afternoon’s contest.

Sanford’s primary work this spring was coaching the quarterbacks. But after the Boise State offense took a journeyman quarterback and scored nearly 40 points a game, hopefully we’ll see some of that rub off in South Bend.

Focus on the running game. Last year, Jay Ajayi was one of college football’s biggest and best work horses. With three backs being shuffled through this spring, it looks like it’ll be an ensemble cast, but the commitment that Sanford showed to the run last season would do the Irish some good.

 

Can C.J. Prosise take a big spring and turn it into a big Blue-Gold game?

Nobody expected C.J. Prosise’s breakout this spring to be at running back. But the Irish might have found a new home run-threat runner at slot receiver.

Of course, fellow slot receiver Amir Carlisle was the former running back, Notre Dame’s starter in the season opener at the position in 2013. But Prosise is looking less like a contingency plan and more like a guy that’s going to play a significant role in the offense.

Kelly talked about getting him 10 carries a game while praising his natural talents at running back. Mike Denbrock called him one of the team’s best offensive players, period. After breaking off a huge 70-plus yard touchdown run last Saturday in the team’s biggest full-contact scrimmage, will we see the same from Prosise this Saturday?

 

What will Jerry Tillery do next?

At this point, what could Jerry Tillery do next to surprise us? Goal line quarterback, beating out Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones in the Irish Chocolate package? The early-enrollee freshman has been the talk of spring, working with the first-unit defense and displaying dominant traits that have many believing the 6-foot-6 defensive tackle is a star in the making.

Brian Kelly spent the early part of spring praising Tillery. Brian VanGorder and new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore have gotten in on it, too. So while they’ve also tried their best to tamp down some of those expectations, it’s too late: At this point, some of us are expecting a hybrid of Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt.

Tillery was set for the offensive line, a spot he’d have likely redshirted at while Ronnie Stanley manned the left tackle position. But with Jarron Jones extremely limited this spring and Sheldon Day held back, Tillery’s move to defense has been critical.

One of Notre Dame’s quirkiest and most interesting freshman—he took an official visit to Dartmouth and participates in recreational triathlons— is also one of the best.

 

In a crowded wide receiving depth chart, will another star rise to match Will Fuller? 

Last year we saw a record-setting season from sophomore Will Fuller. This year, Mike Denbrock’s hoping to find someone else to join him in the bright lights.

Senior Chris Brown seems to be rising to that challenge. After making one of the 2012 season’s best highlights against Oklahoma, Brown’s had just average production since then.

Tools wise, he’s got the ability to be much better than average. The former prep track star has elite speed. He’s got good size at 6-foot-1.5. And if it’s not Brown stepping to the forefront, there are plenty of other candidates.

Corey Robinson has been slowed this spring by nagging injuries, but should advance his game in his third season. Torii Hunter Jr. may have made headlines for moonlighting with the baseball team this spring, but Hunter has made his move on the gridiron, cross-training between the slot and outside positions.

Young freshmen Justin Brent and Corey Holmes have had their chance to get into the depth chart. And if they don’t, freshmen Miles Boykin, Jaylon Guyton, CJ Sanders, and Equanimeous St. Brown plan on making their move come fall.

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.