Five things we learned: Notre Dame 38, Texas 3

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When it comes to season openers, you can’t ask for much more than that. On a beautiful night for football, Notre Dame kicked off the 2015 season with a performance nearly as perfect, trouncing the Texas Longhorns 38-3.

Backed by a flawless night by junior quarterback Malik Zaire and a strong defensive effort that held Texas to just 163 total yards, the Irish played a stress-free season opener and looked every bit the part of a playoff contender by out-classing one of college football’s blue-bloods in every phase of the game.

If you were looking to the season opener for the Irish to check off some boxes, you likely left happy. Notre Dame’s depth and skill flashed from the start. The Irish defense, a question mark after imploding late last season after injuries, dominated.

The offense showed balance on the ground and explosiveness through the air. And after watching a season go up in smoke courtesy of self-inflected mistakes, the number probably most impressive was the very large zero in the turnovers department.

The night was not without some worries, namely the health of starting running back Tarean Folston, who left the game with an early knee injury that had most on the Irish sidelines prepared for the worst. But after the first Saturday of the college football season, Notre Dame served notice that this was a football team prepared to do big things.

Let’s find out the five things we learned in the Irish’s 38-3 win.

 

 

With Malik Zaire at quarterback, Notre Dame’s offense looks as good as ever. 

Those worries about Malik Zaire? Put them away for another week. The junior quarterback, making his first home start and just the second of his career, put together a near perfect performance. He completed 19 of 22 throws for 313 yards and three touchdowns, showing accuracy, a power arm and great feet in the running game as well.

Zaire did everything his head coach asked of him, making the ordinary plays and doing a good job moving the chains early, converting on multiple third downs when the Irish offense needed it. While the unit made a few mistakes that knocked the Irish out of scoring range and kept points off the board, Zaire did a few things that just made you say wow—including a perfect dart to Will Fuller for a 63-yard touchdown.

Zaire hit his star receiver for two touchdowns on Saturday evening, throwing his third to Chris Brown on a nifty play-fake in the red zone. The junior quarterback did everything you could ask for, managing the game, being aggressive when the moment called for it and burying the Longhorns when the game was ready to be put away.

“We believe in Malik and we trust in him,” Kelly said. “I think we put him in a good position to succeed.”

This is just the first step in a season-long evolutionary process for Zaire, and you can bet that Brian Kelly, Mike Sanford and Mike Denbrock will have some game tape to look at come tomorrow morning. But after an offseason where many wondered how the Irish would cope without Everett Golson, the early returns are in: Just fine.

 

 

Notre Dame’s offense is likely bracing itself for very bad news with Tarean Folston’s injury. 

It didn’t take a medical degree to see things looked quite grim for starting running back Tarean Folston, who was injured on his third carry of the season, a seemingly ordinary tackle after Folston burst through a big hole for a nice gain.

We saw Folston get his knee checked out by head trainer Rob Hunt on the sideline, and we also saw the junior get emotional as teammates came by to give encouragement or a quick hug, with the NBC camera catching the back taking the long walk up the tunnel, ice bag on his knee and just about everybody bracing for a season without the talented runner.

Without Folston, C.J. Prosise came in and carried the load, running for 98 yards on 20 carries before he was subbed out. Prosise seemed to do just fine, though he likely wasn’t fully prepared for the increased workload, with Prosise himself still on the way back from a hip flexor injury that kept him out of two weeks of camp.

Brian Kelly said Folston will get an MRI tomorrow. Perhaps the results will be less serious than we expect. But most are bracing for a season without Folston, the depth chart at running back perilously thin after just one game.

 

 

The Irish front seven totally overwhelmed the young Longhorn offensive line. 

Maybe Brian VanGorder knew a camera would be focused on him. Because Irish fans were ready to see another viral moment from Notre Dame’s intense defensive coordinator, who was likely very pleased with the effort of his embattled defense. VanGorder didn’t throw any mega-fist rockets or get “turnt up,” but you have to expect that the “D-Boys” celebrated this completely dominating performance, especially as the front seven swarmed Texas quarterbacks Tyrone Swoops and Jerrod Heard.

Texas receiver John Burt got behind KeiVarae Russell for a 48-yard gain. But other than that? The Longhorns were held to a ridiculous 2.2 yards a play, with the Longhorns only gaining 60 yards total on the ground and 103 in the air, Burt’s long catch included.

After spending all offseason wondering how Notre Dame would get pressure on the quarterback, Swoopes and Heard were constantly under pressure. Sheldon Day may only have notched one tackle—a sack—in the box score, but he was in the backfield all day, with Swoopes continually pressured by the Irish senior. Jaylon Smith, Romeo Okwara and Jerry Tillery also earned sacks.

Notre Dame’s linebacking corps looked every bit as athletic as you wanted it to look, with Smith playing excellent football and wreaking havoc off the edge and Joe Schmidt his normal solid self. The Irish took on Texas’ up-tempo attack with little problem, forcing the Longhorns off the field as quickly as they could move on it, setting up their defense for a horrific time of possession deficit that saw the Irish hold the football for over 39 minutes.

Whether it was from a three-down front or four, the Irish looked stout in the trenches. Daniel Cage lived up to Kelly’s comments earlier this week, while Andrew Trumbetti and Isaac Rochell destroyed the pocket and made Texas’ undermanned offensive line look like a group trying to break in two true freshmen.

 

 

Josh Adams had quite a debut. 

You’ve got to wonder what tonight feels like for Josh Adams. Notre Dame’s freshman running back took the road less traveled to the end zone tonight, with Adams one of Notre Dame’s earliest running back commitments, even when he was recovering from a torn ACL.

Notre Dame identified Adams as a back they wanted early and didn’t care if recruiting services collectively shrugged their shoulders at the former three-star prospect. But Adams showed good size, great speed a nose for the end zone on Saturday evening, scoring on the first carry of his career and then shaking off a major collision with Malik Jefferson to bounce back and score a second time to finish off the game.

Kelly talked about how Adams was able to make such an immediate impact.

“He was able to pick up all the protections early on,” Kelly said. “Any time when a freshman can come in and pick up all the protections early on, it’s been my feeling that he’s ready to play, provided he’s got the skill and also what kind of skill he has.

“We felt like he was a kid that was under the radar last year. He had a knee injury that kind of took him off the radar a little bit. But he’s just scratching the surface. He’s got elite speed. He’s got great size. He’s got good ball skills and obviously he’s a kid that we believe in.”

Adams is now the No. 2 back in Notre Dame’s offense. (That redshirt that was planned for Dexter Williams? Likely off as well.) Now Adams will need to continue learning the intricacies of the position, with first-year position coach Autry Denson ready to earn his keep as he works with a position group that’ll find out tomorrow if it’ll be without its leader.

 

 

 

Will Fuller: As good as he ever was. 

I know most of the mainstream media forgot Will Fuller when they were filling out their preseason All-American ballots or short-lists for the end of the year banquet circuit. But I didn’t think Charlie Strong’s defense would forget to account for him.

Notre Dame’s star receiver was once again a difference maker and took over the football game, hauling in seven catches for 142 yards, including touchdowns from 16 and 66 yards out. Fuller’s early season chemistry was on-point with Zaire, an interesting data point, especially for those who worried that the passing game would take a step backwards without Everett Golson behind center.

Fuller has now scored 17 touchdowns in his last 14 games, notching a score in every contest he’s played in the last two seasons except on a rainy Saturday against Stanford last October. More importantly, we didn’t see any mental mistakes by the blazing receiver, with Fuller reeling in the routine balls and making a very nice play on a sideline throw from Zaire, dragging his foot on a catch that needed to be overturned by replay.

Fuller is a quiet guy, a player who prefers to do his talking on the field. But to get a glimpse of how the junior thinks, I spoke with him briefly on Media Day about the difference between playing with Golson and Zaire.

And while most would expect a receiver to like the quarterback who shows more comfort throwing the ball (that’s still Golson, though Zaire will certainly have a say in that), Fuller mentioned that he didn’t have a final conversation with his former quarterback, with Golson heading to Tallahassee without even a goodbye.

So one game is hardly a conclusion. But even if the Irish find a better running game, expect this season to be another big one from the duo of Zaire and Fuller.

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.