Five things we learned: Notre Dame 62, UMass 27

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On paper, Notre Dame did everything you’d expect on Saturday afternoon. The Irish’s dominant 62-27 victory looked every bit the lopsided win you would’ve expected from a 30-point favorite, with Notre Dame running for 457 yards and scoring 62 points, the first time over 60 since Lou Holtz pasted Rutgers in 1996.

So while most scoffed when Brian Kelly did his best to tell everyone this Tuesday that Notre Dame couldn’t afford to look past the Minutemen, the Irish head coach was also telling the truth.

The Minutemen delivered. At least for the game’s first 25 minutes.

Late in the second quarter, UMass was outgaining the Irish. They had 261 yards of offense and were averaging 9.0 yards a play, thanks to a 56-yard pass and an 83-yard touchdown run. They led the turnover battle and also scored touchdowns in both their red zone appearances.

Yet they were still down a point.

From there, the Irish pulled away, capitalizing on a great series of events on special teams. Tyler Newsome pinned UMass inside their one-yard-line. CJ Sanders followed some great blocking and scored Notre Dame’s first punt return touchdown since Golden Tate. And after the Irish put up seven points on the first series after halftime, the route was on. And when the onslaught stopped, the Irish put together a 34-point run that turned Saturday afternoon into a track meet.

Notre Dame accomplished all of their goals this afternoon, setting up an undefeated showdown next weekend in Death Valley as the Irish travel to Clemson.

Let’s find out what else we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s depth is overwhelming. 

Brian Kelly made quite a statement this preseason when he was asked how his 2015 team matched up with the 2012 team that played for a national championship. Kelly said this team was deeper and more athletic than the team that went 12-1. And we saw that on display this afternoon.

In the 62-27 victory, Notre Dame showcased the bottom-half of their roster, a group of players who may be short on experience but are very heavy on athleticism and talent. The Irish offense had its way with UMass from the start, with DeShone Kizer, C.J. Prosise and Will Fuller doing what you’d expect. But when the reserves started getting snaps, the dominance kept coming.

We got a look at Notre Dame’s bright future on Saturday afternoon. And while some fans may have turned the channel during garbage time, Kelly knew how important it was to see young players like Brandon Wimbush and Dexter Williams get opportunities.

Wimbush showcased his rocket arm on a deep ball to Will Fuller. (First called a 50-yard completion before replay overturned the call.) Williams showed a nice burst on the first touchdown run of his career, a 14-yard run that was the highlight of a seven-carry afternoon. Josh Adams went over 100 yards, a 70-yard touchdown the latest highlight for the freshman.

Defensively, Brian VanGorder’s backups got an opportunity to play all of the fourth quarter. Linebackers Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan ate up tackles almost immediately, collecting 15 combined. Te’von Coney played big minutes as well, while young cornerbacks Nick Coleman and Nick Watkins mixed into the secondary.

Getting those snaps is crucial in a game like this. And it also allowed the Irish to make progress even with the back-ups in, showcasing the impressive talent that Kelly and his staff have stockpiled as the program continues to build.

 

The Irish’s first half defense leaves quite a few unanswered questions heading into Clemson. 

Yes, Brian Kelly told us that UMass would challenge Notre Dame’s defense in the first half. But did anybody really believe him?

That the Irish were on pace to give up over 500 yards of offense to the Minutemen has to have people a little worried as Notre Dame prepares to take on Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. And the early holes in the Irish defense will likely have Brian VanGorder at the greaseboard all night looking for a fix.

Led by Blake Frohnapfel and Tajae Sharpe, the UMass offense has some talent. And Mark Whipple’s use of unbalanced fronts and heavy-doses of screens and draws kept the Irish off-balance before they settled down in the second half.

At 22-21, most Irish fans were grumbling. But if you’re looking for a silver lining, it’s the recover the Irish made after halftime.

In the third quarter, UMass had the ball four times. They gained a total of 51 yards, punting twice, then turning the ball over to Notre Dame twice, once on downs the other time courtesy of a Matthias Farley tip and Cole Luke interception.

That’s a much-needed step forward after a slow start. But 21 early points and two game-changing big plays allowed are cause for concern with one of the toughest challenges of the season awaiting the Irish next Saturday.

 

Notre Dame’s special teams—that’s right, the special teams—triggered this victory.

Time to once again tip the cap to Scott Booker and the Irish special teams. It was Notre Dame’s third unit that played a huge role in breaking this game open, something we don’t always say. And it all started with punter Tyler Newsome.

Newsome had a monster day this afternoon, not exactly something you equate with winning. But the first-year punter averaged 52.4 yards a kick, good for the single-game record in school history.

While two of those five punts ended up in the end zone, it was the one that Devin Butler pinned inside the one-yard line that triggered Notre Dame’s explosion. The Irish defense got a three-and-out from UMass and then excellent blocking on the punt return, setting up CJ Sanders with open real estate in front of him. The freshman did the rest, zig-zagging his way through the Minutemen, following his blocks into the end zone for a 50-yard touchdown.

We’ve gotten used to Notre Dame’s excellent kick coverage, with the Irish once again doing a good job on punts and kickoffs. Add to it Jarrett Grace and Greer Martini sniffing out a fake punt by the Minutemen and even Justin Yoon’s missed extra point (the hold didn’t look perfect) can’t sour a great day by the special teams.

 

Notre Dame has established its offensive identity with a power running game. 

Notre Dame ran for 457 yards on Saturday, the most since 1996, when Lou Holtz was still running the option. And the Irish ground game was consistently dominant, there from the opening minutes of the afternoon.

C.J. Prosise ran for 149 yards and two touchdowns, then took the afternoon off after 15 carries. Josh Adams went for 133, his 70-yard score pushing him past Prosise as he averaged 10.2 yards a carry. Dexter Williams was the low man on the totem pole, and he averaged 6.9 a touch, showing great explosiveness and good vision running behind a dominant offensive line.

Each played a key part in Notre Dame’s offensive attack, something Kelly wanted to see as they put together this week’s game plan.

“I think we had made that decision that even last week, that we probably redlined C.J. a little bit, and we had to really get Josh involved early, which we did, and then it was nice to see him run well,” Kelly said. “And then Dexter obviously is a very gifted player, and we saw that today. He’s got great speed. He’s just still learning, but I think we all saw today what kind of athletic ability he has.”

On the day, the Irish averaged nine yards a carry against the Minutemen. Take away the 20-yard team loss when Sam Mustipher rocketed a snap over Brandon Wimbush’s shoulder and that average would’ve been 9.5.

Heading into the toughest road contest on the schedule, the Irish ground game seems to be hitting on all cylinders. That was reflected in Notre Dame’s improvement on third down, converting 8 of 13. It’s also a credit to an offensive line that bullied and pushed around UMass from the opening snap. Again, Clemson is a different beast, and the rebuilt Tiger defense looked impressive against Louisville.

But getting all three backs significant carries—and just as importantly, success—was crucial. So was allowing Prosise some time to rest. Because come next weekend, the Irish are going to ask Prosise to carry the load. And you can bet he and the offensive line will be up for the challenge.

 

Getting Brandon Wimbush experience this afternoon was critical. But DeShone Kizer will determine whether or not Notre Dame can run this pre-bye week gauntlet undefeated. 

In case you didn’t know heading into today, Brandon Wimbush is an exciting player. He’s got the arm strength to overthrow Will Fuller on a go-route and the speed to nearly run for 100 yards, coming up eight yards shy on just four carries.

Wimbush showcased why his future is tantalizingly bright on Saturday. He officially completed three of five passes, yet two throws that didn’t count—the replay overturn on the Fuller deep ball and the flag erasing Equanimeous St. Brown‘s touchdown—give you a better idea of his playmaking ability.

But equally clear is the fate of this team will be decided by DeShone Kizer. The sophomore didn’t play perfect in his second start, but he kept taking positive strides on Saturday afternoon, putting together a solid day at the office completing 15 of 22 for two touchdowns.

Kizer did throw another interception, a slight underthrow on a deep post to Fuller, who had one-on-one coverage until a safety came over late. (Kelly put that on Fuller, a grab the All-American understandably should make). Kizer also showed some shaky accuracy, skipping a few curl routes at receivers’ feet, throws that should be easy completions.

But you can also see the game slowing down for Kizer. Sure, part of that was UMass’s defense. But the rest is Kizer understanding what a defense is showing him, and the cerebral first-year player is taking advantage.

“One thing about him is that if you do a good job of showing him something, he’s going to pick it up,” Kelly said. “If you remind him about it, he can self-correct. Some can’t. Some need more film. Some need more repetition. He’s not that kind of guy.”

So while Wimbush showed some flashes of talent, Kizer will be asked to lead this team to victory. And while he wasn’t given much of a challenge on Saturday, he’ll be pushed to the max next weekend.

 

Georgia OL prospect the first commit for new Notre Dame OL coach Joe Rudolph

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New Notre Dame offensive line coach Joe Rudolph pulled in his first recruit by continuing to chase a prospect he initially wanted at his last job. Three-star offensive lineman Anthonie Knapp (Roswell High School; Ga.) committed to the Irish on Wednesday afternoon, picking Notre Dame over Rudolph’s former employer, Virginia Tech, as well as Georgia Tech and North Carolina.

In total, more than half the ACC offered Knapp a scholarship. The Irish offer came only this past weekend with Knapp in South Bend catching up with Rudolph, who was the first Power Five coach to offer a scholarship to Knapp back at Virginia Tech.

“The hospitality and the heritage it kept made the school stand out,” Knapp said to Inside ND Sports in a text message.

At 6-foot-5 and less than 270 pounds, Knapp will need to put on weight at the next level, though that can be said of most high school juniors. He played left tackle last season, but unless the weight piles on quickly and consistently, Knapp will most likely play guard at the next level.

His footwork already looks more fundamentally sound than most high schoolers display, all the more impressive because Knapp could simply rely on overpowering his opponents as most offensive line prospects understandably tend to do. Knapp is content to use his length and footwork to let a pass rusher charge upfield, well past the quarterback.

Strength and mass will come with age and entering a collegiate conditioning program, and Knapp needs both of those, but length is uncoachable and footwork fundamentals hold up early careers as often as lack of strength does.

He is the second offensive lineman in the class, joining four-star offensive guard Peter Jones, also a preps tackle that is expected to move inside in college.

Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s biggest offensive progressions this spring will be smallest to spot from afar

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Notre Dame at USC
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When Marcus Freeman was first hired as Notre Dame’s head coach in December of 2021, it was widely expected he would retain three-fifths of his offensive coaching staff. Instead, promotions elsewhere awaited two of those coaches, leaving only Tommy Rees as a constant.

Then Rees and one-year returnee Harry Hiestand departed this offseason, meaning Freeman’s entire offensive coaching staff turned over — and the offensive line coach twice — within 15 months of that supposedly being a piece of stability he could lean on as a young first-time head coach. Yet, one thing has not changed about Freeman’s relationship with the offensive coaches: He is trying to stay out of their way.

“Most of the [newcomers] are on the offensive side of the ball, so really I just try to stay out of the way and let those guys meet,” Freeman said last week at the start of the Irish spring practices. “Give them time to be together. They’ve been together a lot and met a lot and really, you have to meet to get everybody on the same page. A lot of that is cohesion, that ability to view these guys as teammates.

“… I’ve been in there a bit, and then we have our staff meetings to make sure everybody understands our culture, understands our expectations. It’s not where it’s a finished product, but it’s definitely progressing to where we want to see it.”

A year ago, the cohesion Freeman was most worried about on the offensive side of the ball was between Rees and a pair of inexperienced quarterbacks. Now, it’s the collaboration between an offensive coordinator, a quarterbacks coach and an offensive line coach who had never worked together before a month or two ago. Freeman, of course, knew offensive coordinator Gerad Parker for more than a decade, quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli for seven years and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph since Freeman’s playing days at Ohio State beginning in 2004.

That has been a common theme in Freeman’s hires, tying to former Notre Dame special teams coach Brian Mason, current cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and defensive line coach Al Washington.

“There’s nothing more important than experience with somebody,” Freeman said. “I don’t have to wonder what this person is like when I’m not around. … When I can find a quality coach that I know can be the best at his profession, but also I have personal experience with them — I’m not saying we’re friends, but we’ve worked together. Coach Rudolph was at Ohio State when I was a player, but I knew what type of person he was.”

That is the commonality between those three new offensive hires, though a few pieces of similar backgrounds can be found between Parker and Guidugli. At 42 and 40, respectively, they both grew up in the Ohio River Valley and played college football along the same Kentucky-Ohio Interstate corridor. Parker then went straight into coaching while Guidugli knocked around the Canadian Football League and various iterations of short-lived secondary leagues in the United States until he went into coaching in 2010.

At the least, though, their formative years should have shared enough to lay a foundation now, the foundation upon which Freeman is counting on them to build an offense. That progression may be as important as any other made on the offensive side of the ball this spring.

After just one practice, Freeman saw value in a quarterbacks coach who can somewhat ignore the rest of the offense. Rees’s focus was assuredly on the quarterbacks, but Sam Hartman, Tyler Buchner & Co. are quite literally all Guidugli needs to concern himself with each day.

“When you take some of that responsibility off their plate, and it’s just coach the quarterbacks and see if they made the right decision because there’s so much that falls on [the quarterback’s] plate that isn’t really his fault,” Freeman said. “I know he gets the praise and he gets the criticism, but my biggest thing, did you make the right decision? That’s so important at the quarterback position.”

Parker thinks there may be more to the gig than the right decision. Wake Forest graduate transfer Sam Hartman should have little trouble with any intangibles of acclimating to a new campus and a new roster, even if he did not have to run many huddles with the Demon Deacons, but there will be one tangible shift to his quarterback play that Hartman might need to work on.

“Just in its simplest form, just taking snaps under center,” Parker said this weekend. “As simple as that. Just being able to secure a football under center.”

Parker wants to emphasize that because even as Notre Dame presumably opens up its offense a bit more with a deeper receivers room chasing passes from a stronger-armed quarterback, the Irish offense will still hinge on its veteran offensive line and trio of proven running backs.

Finding that balance can come in August. For now, finding that snap will be Hartman’s focus while Parker, Guidugli, Rudolph and a litany of offensive analysts strive to learn the same shorthand.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Sam Hartman’s practice debut features Notre Dame veteran Chris Tyree move to receiver, at least for now
Thomas’ leadership, freshmen arrivals already improve Notre Dame’s receivers room
Dynamic incoming freshman safety Brandyn Hillman exits Notre Dame before enrolling

OUTSIDE READING
Here’s the actually interesting thing about that Notre Dame NYT op-ed
Notre Dame AD says NCAA could break apart without stronger NIL guidelines
Ryan Bischel, Trevor Janicke will return next season for Notre Dame hockey
2023 NFL draft Big Board: PFF’s Top 150 prospects
Bears tight end Cole Kmet fulfills promise, returns to Notre Dame for degree
Increase in countable coaches rule reportedly unlikely to pass
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1 in 4 prospective students ruled out colleges due to their states’ political climates

Thomas’ leadership, freshmen arrivals already improve Notre Dame’s receivers room

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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As much criticism as Drew Pyne and Tommy Rees received for Notre Dame’s ground-bound offense last season, much of that approach was due to a reality beyond their control. The former Irish quarterback and offensive coordinator could not run the routes or catch the passes.

Notre Dame had few who could run the routes and among them, it seemed even fewer who could catch Pyne’s passes. Thus, the Irish threw for fewer than 200 yards in six games, not even reaching triple digits in the 35-14 upset of Clemson to start November. They threw 21 or fewer passes four times; raise that to 26 pass attempts and three more games qualify.

Of Notre Dame’s 192 completed passes in the regular season, 35 percent of them landed in the hands of tight end Michael Mayer. Another 22 percent found running backs. Six Irish receivers combined to catch 94 passes for 1,306 yards total last year. Seven receivers across the country caught 94 or more passes on their own in 2022, and three topped that yardage tally.

There simply were not ample options among the receivers for Rees to draw up plays with Pyne targeting them, particularly not after Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins were injured in the preseason, Deion Colzie was hampered in the preseason and Tobias Merriweather’s season would be cut short by a concussion.

The Irish moving running back Chris Tyree to at least a part-time role at receiver this spring will help solve that dearth but not nearly as much as the arrivals of Virginia Tech transfer Kaleb Smith and a trio of early-enrolled freshmen will. With them, Notre Dame has nine receivers on hand this spring, though who exactly leads them is a vague wonder.

Smith has the most collegiate experience with 74 career catches, and his size should place him into the starting lineup, but he is just as new in South Bend as early enrollees Rico Flores, Jaden Greathouse and Braylon James all are. Of the three rising juniors on the roster, each had a moment or two of note last season, but Jayden Thomas’s may have been the most consistent, finishing with 25 catches for 362 yards and three touchdowns.

“That’s the challenge I’ve had for that entire room,” Freeman said of finding a leader in the position group. “Guys that have been here. … I hope Jayden Thomas continues to excel on the field and then in his leadership roles.

“What he’s done in the weight room, I think he’s matured and said, okay, I can play at a higher level when I take care of my body or I’m at a weight I feel really comfortable at.”

Those were mostly generic platitudes, but Thomas’s 2022 stats alone are impressive enough to garner a leading role when dug into a bit. Of his 25 catches, 18 of them gained a first down. Of those 18, eight of them came on third down and another two were on second-and-long. If Notre Dame needed a chunk gain and Mayer was covered, Thomas was the most likely outlet.

That should give him pole position to be the boundary starter heading into 2023, with Colzie and/or Merriweather pressing him forward. Smith’s experience and size should pencil him in as the field starter, leaving the slot the question on the first unit for the next 14 spring practices.

Tyree could emerge there, but he is more likely to be a utility knife type of option, concealing any offensive alignment until the snap. Instead, rising junior Lorenzo Styles may get a chance at the slot. He has the tools if he has the focus.

Styles dropped six passes last season, more than anyone else on the roster and a bothersome number regardless of his final stats, but one that stands out in particular when realizing he caught only 30 passes for 340 yards and a score.

“It became I think mental last year,” Freeman said Wednesday. “Lorenzo Styles is a talented, talented football player, really talented. With him last year, it almost became a mental struggle, even just the basics of catching the ball.”

Last year, those mental struggles were enough to somewhat undo Notre Dame’s offense, because the Irish had no choice but to play Styles through his missteps. Now, whether it be injury or some headspace frustrations that Chuck Knoblauch could relate to, the Irish have some depth at receiver if needed. As the season progresses, that depth will become only stronger with the freshmen rounding into form.

“The young wideouts caught a couple balls, and it’s going to be good to see the progression of all those freshmen,” Freeman said. “They’re all going to be in different places on the road. That’s what I spend a lot of time talking to our team about, we’re all freshmen, you can’t compare your journey to this guy’s journey.”

Wherever those journeys are, they are welcome additions to Notre Dame’s offense. As much as newly-promoted offensive coordinator Gerad Parker will relish the luxury that is veteran quarterback Sam Hartman, simply having options on the perimeter for Hartman to look for should be an Irish improvement.

Sam Hartman’s practice debut features Notre Dame veteran Chris Tyree move to receiver, at least for now

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Notre Dame at USC
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Marcus Freeman’s second spring as Notre Dame’s head coach has begun. As he pointed out Wednesday, it is quarterback transfer Sam Hartman’s sixth spring practice. Both are still looking around a bit for their proper cues, though Hartman’s hesitance now should be short-lived.

“He’s like a freshman, it’s new,” Freeman said. “I was joking with him, this is his sixth spring ball, but you’re at a new place, a new system, still figuring out where to go, what a drill is called, so you can see him at times just trying to say, ‘Okay, where are we going, what’s the drill, what are we doing, how many plays?’

“But he’s got some natural ability when he throws the ball and when he plays the game of football. You’ll see the leadership traits that he possesses grow because I know he has them. He’s a leader the first time you meet him. You can tell that he really commands respect.”

Freeman mentioned a “quarterback competition” between Hartman and rising junior Tyler Buchner only once, something that will reoccur throughout the next month, though more in name than in reality. Whoever takes the lead at quarterback, and it will be Hartman, will have a new target to get comfortable with in rising senior Chris Tyree.

Tyree spent the first spring practice working at receiver after lining up at running back the vast majority of the last three years. Freeman would not commit to that being a full-time shift for Tyree, but given the Irish depth at running back — led by rising juniors Audric Estimé and Logan Diggs, with rising sophomore Gi’Bran Payne the next in line for the spring while classmate Jadarian Price continues to “progress” from a torn Achilles last summer — Tyree working at receiver for the long-term should make some sense.

“He’s a guy that has multiple skill sets, and we know Chris Tyree is a guy we have to have on the football field,” Freeman said. “The ability to put him at wideout, we know what he can do as a running back, to really be a guy that can do multiple different things.”

Tyree took 100 rushes for 444 yards and three touchdowns and caught 24 passes for 138 yards and two more scores last year. The ball-carrying was a step forward compared to his previous seasons, but he caught 24 passes for 258 yards in 2021. In three games in 2022, Tyree gained more than 20 yards through the air. He was one of the more reliable pass-catchers on Notre Dame’s roster last season, finishing tied for fourth in receptions, one behind Jayden Thomas’s 25 catches and just six behind Lorenzo Styles, the leading returning receiver.

“You’re seeing more of that in college football and in the NFL,” Freeman said. “Guys that can play multiple different skill positions on offense, so do you treat him as a running back, do you treat him as a wideout? That’s what we have to do, and gain confidence in the quarterbacks in him as a wide receiver.”

Tyree’s shift was the most notable on the field on the first day of spring practices, but a handful of absences also stood out.

Junior linebacker Will Schweitzer, junior safety Justin Walters and junior quarterback Ron Powlus III have taken medical retirements, while junior cornerback Philip Riley, junior offensive lineman Caleb Johnson and junior kicker Josh Bryan are all no longer with the program, presumably each pursuing a transfer following this semester.

With those departures, Notre Dame’s roster now has 87 players on scholarship, two more than the NCAA maximum allowed when the season starts.

ON SPECIAL TEAMS COORDINATOR Marty Biagi
In hiring Marty Biagi from Mississippi, Freeman strayed from his usual habit of hiring coaches he has previous experience with. He did, however, have some mutual connections to reach out to about Biagi.

“I remember when we were playing Purdue when I was defensive coordinator (at Notre Dame in 2021), I was sitting in a special teams meeting, and they did some unique things on special teams.

“I still know some people back in West Lafayette from my time there, and he does, too. Somehow his name got brought up, so I was interested in interviewing him last year before I hired [former Irish special teams coordinator Brian Mason]. I didn’t know [Biagi] personally, but I had talked to him before, I knew enough about him. It’s important because you need to know when you’re not around, you can trust those guys that you’re working with.”

INJURY UPDATES
Defensive backs Cam Hart and Thomas Harper will both be held out of contact for at least the near future as they recover from winter shoulder surgeries, while early-enrolled defensive lineman Devan Houstan Will Likely miss all springtime work due to his own recent shoulder surgery.

Tight ends Eli Raridon and Kevin Bauman will not take part this spring due to ACL injuries in the fall.

Freeman expressed some optimism about Price’s timeline, but even that was measured.

“I don’t know if he will be full go, but he has done a lot of running and I see him progressing to more and more actual football practice.”

Given Price is still less than a calendar year from a ruptured Achilles, it is most likely he is limited well into the summer.