3-0: Assessing the Irish at the quarter-turn

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Step back from the computer. Or perhaps imagine yourself at a summer barbecue, talking football over a cold one with your friends. If someone told you the Irish would be 3-0 with decisive victories over Texas and Georgia Tech, you’d have taken it, right?

Well that’s where Brian Kelly’s team finds itself, undefeated at the end of the first quarter of the season. And while the cost of doing business has been steep—six key players, including starters at nose guard, running back, quarterback, tight end, and in the nickel and dime package—the Irish are No. 6 in the country heading into their weekend tilt with UMass.

Let’s take a look at each position group and take stock of where we are.

 

QUARTERBACK

After starting out elite, Malik Zaire struggled at Virginia before ending his season with a broken ankle. Zaire had passed with pinpoint precision in a victory over Texas and then averaged nearly nine yards a carry as a runner at the time of his injury against Virginia.

DeShone Kizer came in and after a slow start rallied the Irish with a late-game touchdown against the Cavaliers, with a touchdown throw for the ages to Will Fuller. Then Kizer executed a conservative game plan against Georgia Tech in his first start, throwing an interception but leading the Irish to victory.

Combine both quarterbacks work through three games and their collective stat-line—55 of 83 (66.2%) for 762 yards, 7 TD, 1 INT—it’s tough to ask for much more.

Overall: All things considered, this is a great result for a position currently living on the edge. And it’s a credit to new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford. Limiting the interceptions while being explosive in the pass game has been critical. But more difficult challenges are ahead, starting next weekend with a road trip to Clemson.

 

RUNNING BACK

On his third carry of the season, Tarean Folston saw a hole, cut hard off the back of his offensive line and exploded for a gain of 15 yards. It was his last play of the 2015 season. Folston’s ACL tore on the run, an injury that even slowed down and rewound is inexplicable. After losing Greg Bryant to academics and Folston to a knee injury, the door opened for C.J. Prosise to carry the load.

He’s done all of that, currently fifth in the nation in rushing yards with 451. At 150 yards a game, if Prosise can stay healthy he’s likely to shatter the single-season record held by Vagas Ferguson, and right now has an outside chance at running for 2,000 yards. A powerful runner still learning how to be a back, Prosise’s big-play potential has been obvious, he’s scored touchdowns on runs of 24 yards, 17 yards and a Notre Dame Stadium record 91-yards.

Behind Prosise, Josh Adams and Dexter Williams are still figuring things out. Adams started quickly against Texas, and really only saw minimal time against Virginia and Georgia Tech. Williams has seen even less, with Justin Brent still working with the scout team.

Overall: Limiting Prosise’s pitch count is the next order of business, though he’ll likely take just about every carry against Clemson, especially on the road. But if the young backs can build confidence against UMass and Navy and Prosise can carry the load against Clemson and USC, getting to the bye week healthy should be the goal.

 

WIDE RECEIVERS

It’s been the Will Fuller show. Notre Dame’s most explosive offensive weapon leads the nation in touchdown catches with five, not missing a beat with the quarterback change and growing attention in coverage. Senior Chris Brown has emerged as the No. 2 receiver, somewhat of a surprise, considering where Corey Robinson and Brown left things last season.

The depth at this position makes early returns tough to analyze. Other than understanding that Fuller is going to be fed the football, Brown could give some of his receptions to Robinson, Torii Hunter or Amir Carlisle and there’s nobody that would be that surprised. Freshman Equanimeous St. Brown has seen the field early, but it requires Fuller to stay off of it, a bad trade for the Irish offense. A redshirt is still possible for the lanky freshman, so we’ll see how they go there.

Overall: It’s hard for this group to do much more, especially considering the movement at the quarterback position. But Fuller is on pace to shatter single-season records, Brown is on pace for 60 catches and the depth at the position should help Kizer to stay comfortable, with too much talent to cover if the Irish receivers can find 1-on-1 matchups.

 

TIGHT ENDS

When Durham Smythe went down, the minimal experience the Irish had went down with him. Sure, Tyler Luatua played last season. But he was a glorified blocker, who’ll now have every opportunity to take more snaps.

We saw Brian Kelly force feed Alizé Jones the football. The freshman has done some good things, but has a drop and a critical fumble that nearly cost the Irish big time. Nic Weishar made his first catch against Georgia Tech and will likely be a safety valve, a solid pass catcher even if he’s still learning how to block.

With the running game explosive and the receiving corps stacked, there just aren’t a lot of footballs to go around. But Jones has potential, Luatua will be asked to do multiple jobs and even Chase Hounshell has seen some time, likely an option as a blocker. This group hasn’t done anything outstanding through the first quarter of the season. But ordinary and assignment-correct football will be just fine.

Overall: It’s not like Tyler Eifert or Kyle Rudolph is out there. Jones has a bright future that Kelly and company want to jump start, but this offense could stay conservative with Kizer at the helm.

 

OFFENSIVE LINE

Outside of a tough afternoon in Virginia blocking in obvious running situations, Harry Hiestand’s offensive line has protected the quarterback and helped trigger an explosive ground game. There’s been some difficulties handling presnap responsibilities—too many false starts. But a starting five of Ronnie Stanley, Quenton Nelson, Nick Martin, Steve Elmer and Mike McGlinchey already looks like a rock-solid group.

Dictating the tempo of the football game is on the offensive line’s plate. And we’ll get a valuable datapoint against Clemson next weekend, with the Death Valley night crowd doing its best to make communication nonexistent and the Tigers challenging the Irish at the point of attack.

Overall: This is a group with a tremendously high ceiling. Stanley looks like a first rounder and Nick Martin is playing with more confidence now that he’s fully healthy. Seeing McGlinchey in space and you begin to understand why Kelly loves him, and Nelson and Elmer are two mauling guards. The numbers tell us one thing—this team can control play. But this season will be determined by this group keeping Kizer upright and the Irish in control, especially in upcoming tests against Clemson and USC.

 

Part Two on the defense next… 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drew Pyne to transfer from Notre Dame; Tyler Buchner reportedly a bowl possibility

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Notre Dame may start its third quarterback of the season in its bowl game after junior Drew Pyne announced he will transfer from the program on Friday. A graduate, Pyne has three seasons of eligibility remaining.

ESPN’s Pete Thamel first reported Pyne’s intention to transfer, with Pyne soon thereafter taking to Twitter to confirm as much.

“One of my proudest honors is to have been a student-athlete at the University of Notre Dame,” Pyne wrote. “… It’s time for me to take on a new challenge, and I will be entering the transfer portal.”

Pyne took over as the Irish starter after sophomore Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second week of the season. Pyne went 8-2 as a starter, completing 64.6 percent of his passes for 2,021 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.

His final action at Notre Dame may have been Pyne’s best game of his career, throwing for 318 yards and three touchdowns at USC while completing 23 of 26 passes, the second-most accurate game in Irish history.

He appeared in two games in 2021, stepping in for Jack Coan when he struggled against Wisconsin and Cincinnati. Keeping Pyne to minimal appearances in 2021 was intentional, preserving a season of eligibility for him.

That eligibility will now be used elsewhere.

Without Pyne, Notre Dame will have freshman Steve Angeli and possibly Buchner available in the bowl game, a location and opponent to be announced on Sunday. Football Scoop’s John Brice reported Friday afternoon that Buchner will play in the bowl game, though perhaps that optimism should be measured throughout practice this month.

Regardless, the Irish are expected to pursue an incoming transfer quarterback this month. With names like Texas’ Hudson Card and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong already in the transfer portal, Notre Dame will have a few options to chase.

That is why Pyne’s transfer makes sense, even if he spoke earnestly about the bowl game following that 38-27 loss in Los Angeles.

“I think we have a lot to play for,” he said. “We’re going to be in a bowl game, I want to send all the seniors out the right way. We have a lot to play for. We have another game, I’m going to prepare as hard as I can for that and finish the season off on a positive note.”

Reversing course from those words is understandable given they came minutes after a competitive game, and the last week has shown Pyne how quickly the quarterback transfer market will move.

In the game of musical chairs that is quarterbacks moving across the country, Pyne waiting until after the bowl game to transfer could serve only to leave him with fewer destinations as options. Not that Pyne may have been looking at Iowa, but the fact that one Power Five starting gig appears to have already been filled by Michigan transfer Cade McNamara presumably underscored the rapid nature of this process.

Understandably, Pyne needs to make the most of this opportunity, coming off a strong season as Notre Dame’s starter but knowing he is unlikely to start for the Irish in 2023. Depending on the level of transfer joining the Irish and Buchner’s health, it was distinctly possible Pyne would be Notre Dame’s third quarterback next year.

For someone who grew up as a Notre Dame fan, specifically a Brady Quinn fan, assuredly this decision was not an easy one for Pyne.

He had a lengthy and notable offer sheet coming out of high school, but Pyne at his best this season would not draw interest from the likes of Texas A&M, Alabama and LSU as he did three years ago. It may be more pertinent to point out he is a Connecticut native, so schools in the northeast could be most logical for his landing spot.

The Irish should also have quarterback commit Kenny Minchey in the pecking order this spring, expected to sign with Notre Dame on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s QB room creates a friendly trust that has been crucial to Pyne’s success
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 10 Drew Pyne, junior quarterback

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