Jarron Jones ready to (finally) make his impact

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Earlier this week we speculated about the role senior nose guard Jarron Jones would play against Ohio State. After meeting with the local media on Monday, it might be time to adjust those predictions.

The 315-pound defensive lineman missed the entire regular season because of a knee injury suffered in August. But Jones declared himself ready to play against Ohio State, hoping to give the team 30 snaps after a month of conditioning and practice with his teammates. It’d be a nice finish to a frustrating season for Jones. And according to the South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen, Jones was kicking himself that he wasn’t back in time to play Stanford.

“I blame myself a lot for that game,” Jones told Hansen on Monday. “Even though I didn’t play, I blame myself for that game. … What happened was I ended up not traveling, because I was late to practice. And I actually had the intent of suiting up that game.”

Jones blamed a marathon session of videogame Call of Duty for the tardiness, the type of fall-asleep-with-the-controller-in-your-hands move that can only be understood by college students (or those of us that played videogames back in their dorm days). While it’s questionable (and probably far-fetched) that the Irish coaching staff would’ve risked putting Jones in a game when he hadn’t even fully re-engaged in the team’s practice regimen, Jones’ return for the Fiesta Bowl will be coming just in time.

Last week, I might have pegged Jones for 15 to 20 snaps late last week. But Brian Kelly thinks Jones will have the chance to do much more—as much as his conditioning level allows.

“Where he’s really going to help us is on first and second down,” Kelly said, pointing to the challenge of slowing down Buckeyes star Ezekiel Elliott. “But he can help us on third down. His push inside is undervalued in terms of what he can do internally in his physical push to the pocket.”

While it certainly won’t be all game, seeing Jones paired with classmate Sheldon Day will be bittersweet not just for Irish fans, but for Jones himself. Expected to form one of the best defensive tackle tandems in the country, Jones can only wonder what this season would’ve been like had he not suffered an MCL injury just weeks before the Irish were slated to play Texas.

When talking to Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, Jones asked a question that pained just about every person who cheered for the blue and gold this season.

“If I had played, what kind of season would we have had defensively?” Jones wondered. “If we had everybody, what kind of team would we have had then? That’s the ‘what if’ we’ll have to live with the rest of our lives.”

The consolation prize is a 2016 season spent on the same team as his brother, incoming freshman Jamir Jones. Not to mention another fully-loaded roster that might have to replace some key contributors, but looks every bit as talented as the team that won 10 regular season games.

But before that, Jones finally gets his chance to do more than rehabilitate a balky foot and a torn-up knee in 2015. And if the Irish can beat Ohio State, Notre Dame’s 127th team may not have accomplished their overall mission, but they will have done something mighty impressive.

 

 

 

 

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.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Quarterbacks — Sam Hartman and Tyler Buchner and Co.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 12 North Carolina at Wake Forest
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For a position that has undergone a run of tumult since the start of the 2022 season, Notre Dame’s quarterback depth chart somehow still could not be more stable now.

Since Marcus Freeman’s first game as the Irish head coach, his starter was knocked out for the season, the backup that fought and clawed his way to eight wins in 10 games opted to transfer before the bowl game, one of the most prolific passers in NCAA history transferred into Notre Dame, and then the offensive coordinator left.

All of that to end up with Wake Forest graduate transfer Sam Hartman as the presumptive Irish starter, backed up by 2022’s initial starter in Tyler Buchner, and coached by quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli and offensive coordinator Gerad Parker. Not to mention, two more quarterbacks filling out the depth chart.

Hartman opted to join that chaos partly because, as he figured it, he was going to start over anew somewhere regardless. After five years at Wake Forest, the veteran wanted to move. Whether it was in the NFL or at Notre Dame, he would need to win over a new locker room.

“Often I see people that are done with school or run out of eligibility or even have eligibility (but) declare, that (college) opportunity never comes again,” he said earlier this month. “… On the NFL side of it, this is what you have to do when you go into the league, come into a new place where there’s not a lot of familiar faces. The battle is definitely uphill. You have to come in and establish a leadership role while also trying to figure out and follow.”

Hartman’s logic was sound, but there is one key difference between the NFL and Notre Dame: He will be the starter in South Bend this fall.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In that respect, this will be the third straight year the Irish have insisted on the optics of a quarterback competition in the spring and perhaps the preseason. When Jack Coan transferred to Notre Dame in January of 2021, it was obvious he would start against Florida State to open that season, yet freshman Tyler Buchner and sophomore Drew Pyne were still mentioned as competing with Coan for that gig throughout the spring and a week into the preseason.

Despite Buchner rather clearly surpassing Pyne that season, the entire exercise was conducted all over again in the spring of 2022, Buchner named the starter as expected a week into preseason practices last August.

Hartman will start in Dublin on Aug. 26 (159 days), no matter what Guidugli may say now. That much did not change with the coaching changes this winter and spring.

“Tyler Buchner and Steve Angeli and Sam Hartman, Kenny Minchey, all those guys are going to get an opportunity,” Guidugli said. “I come in with a clean slate, not knowing any of those guys, so I’m anxious to see what all of them can do, I’m anxious to see how they lead, I’m anxious to see how they retain information, I’m anxious to see how they perform, how they execute, how the offense responds to them.”

That quarterback competition may have had an ounce of authenticity if Pyne had stuck around South Bend, a somewhat proven starter to go up against Hartman, but even that would have been only a matter of time. As it stands, Pyne’s focus is on keeping his job at Arizona State in front of the most controversial recruit of the class of 2023, Jaden Rashada.

2022 STATS
Drew Pyne: 11 games; 2,021 yards on 8.0 yards per attempt and a 64.6 percent completion rate; 22 touchdowns and 6 interceptions.
Tyler Buchner: 3 games; 652 yards on 7.9 yards per attempt and a 55.4 percent completion rate; 3 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.

Sam Hartman at Wake Forest in 2022: 12 games; 3,701 yards on 8.6 yards per attempt and a 63.1 percent completion rate; 38 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Sam Hartman in his career at Wake Forest: 12,967 yards on 8.1 yards per attempt and a 59.1 percent completion rate; 110 touchdowns and 41 interceptions.

HARTMAN’S CAREER STATS COMPARED TO NCAA RECORDS
Don’t scoff. A prodigious season could propel Hartman into some lofty air. That is obviously partly due to the benefit of a sixth season, granted by the universal pandemic eligibility waiver. But Hartman also missed up to 18 games in his career to injury, depth chart and the pandemic. If he plays 13 games this season, Hartman will appear in a total of 61 games in his career. That will be more than any of the players yet ahead of him in career passing touchdowns or career passing yards, but that aside, Hartman should move his name up the NCAA record books this season.

Career passing touchdowns
No. 1 — Case Keenum, 155 touchdowns
Tied at No. 4 — Colt Brennan, Rakeem Cato, Baker Mayfield, 131 touchdowns
No. 10 — Luke Falk, 119 touchdowns
No. 15 — Derek Carr, 113 touchdowns
No. 18 — Sam Hartman, 110 career touchdowns

Career passing yards
No. 1 — Case Keenum, 19,217 yards
No. 5 — Ty Detmer, 15,031 yards
No. 10 — Rakeem Cato, 14,079 yards
No. 15 — Philip Rivers, 13,484 yards
No. 19 — Sam Hartman, 12,967 career yards

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
It feels like a quip to be offered in March so that April progress can be that much more lauded.

“With the coaching change prior to me coming in, [Hartman] thought he should be further along in February than what he was,” Guidugli said. “There wasn’t anything I could do about that.”

Games are not won in February film sessions. Weight room work, perhaps, but not in studying film. Habits are built then, but Hartman should not need earnest discipline. He has already begun moving forward with Guidugli.

“[Guidugli] has taken this thing by the reins for the quarterbacks, and along with that is just the quarterback room, we stuck together,” Hartman said. “I knew Tyler (Buchner) a bit before, had no idea who Steve (Angeli) was, obviously [early-enrolled freshman Kenny Minchey] is showing up just like I was. It’s a really tight-knit group.”

None of that group holds Rees’s departure against him — “Obviously, it was a great opportunity for him,” Hartman said — but they all know they need to learn the same language now. That will be the springtime priority.

“The key there is my communication with [newly-promoted offensive coordinator Gerad Parker],” Guidugli said. “I have to be speaking the same language.”

From Parker to Guidugli to four quarterbacks from three different backgrounds, finding the same language might take a few weeks. Guidugli has already been picking Hartman’s brain off old Wake Forest film, learning what his eventual starter is used to in terms of pre-snap procedures, etc.

“I’ve been learning from the guys as much as they’ve been learning from me,” Guidugli said. 

Ignore the spring platitudes about a quarterback competition. If they carry into the preseason, they will provide a headline some Saturday in August when in-depth writing is not yet applicable. Beyond that, there is no meaningful quarterback competition.

There are, however, spring priorities. Primarily, getting Hartman onto the same page as Guidugli and Parker.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive line, suddenly inexperienced and unproven
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Tight ends, moving on from an all-time great
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, led by a familiar ‘three-headed monster’
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Linebackers, led by a trio of veterans and little change
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive backs, with a star sophomore and an Oklahoma State transfer
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Offensive line, returning bookend tackles and a three-year starter at center
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Receivers, finally a filled depth chart

FUTURE DEPTH
Minchey did not commit to Notre Dame until late November, de-committing from Pittsburgh not long before he did so. He enrolled early, anyway.

“I feel like it’s big, as far as any quarterback across the country, you want to early enroll, get in as early as you can, learn the playbook, because that’s big compared to any other position,” Minchey said. “Coming in, learn the playbook, mesh with the guys, everything like that. I like just getting in, building that connection.”

A shoulder injury truncated Minchey’s senior season, but he expects to be full-go in spring practices, beginning tomorrow.

“I am working back into it,” he said two weeks ago. “I am reconditioning my arm right now, building back, working back, building up strength.”

He does not need to rush into that, though, given Notre Dame expects him to be fourth on its depth chart this season.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Receivers, finally a filled depth chart

Brigham Young v Notre Dame
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Notre Dame’s next generation of receivers is already on campus. The trio of four-star recruits of Jayden Greathouse, Braylon James and Rico Flores all enrolled early, though Greathouse and Flores arrived with nicks that are expected to no longer be issues when spring practices begin Wednesday, but a touch of caution could still slow them all the same.

Along with them, the Irish welcome Virginia Tech graduate transfer Kaleb Smith. When an incoming freshman by the same name arrives in the summer, Notre Dame will suddenly have 10 receivers on hand.

That may seem an odd way to begin an article previewing a position before spring practices, but it is the biggest difference between where the Irish were and where they are. Notre Dame simply having receivers on hand is a drastic change. Last preseason, it was working with just six receivers, including a former walk-on and an incoming freshman. The sole veteran in the group, Braden Lenzy, would lament that there were not enough receivers on hand for he and an underclassman to both stand by during a rep so Lenzy could coach up the youngster.

Building the depth chart back out to nine or 10 receivers will give position coach Chansi Stuckey time to work with players individually, players like Greathouse, James and Flores. That said, there may be no established veteran like Lenzy to pass along insights. Only the former Hokie would qualify, and he openly acknowledges he is facing his own learning curve.

“I’ve had four or five different receiver coaches at this point,” Smith said earlier this month. “It’s been a rotating door. We’re teaching an old dog new tricks here at Notre Dame is what I can sum it up as.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Injuries decimated this group in 2022, and in turn, they compromised the Irish offense. Joe Wilkins suffered a foot injury in the preseason that effectively cost him his season. Avery Davis tore his ACL for a second time, ending his career. Then-sophomore Deion Colzie injured his knee, slowing his start to what was expected to be a breakout season.

A November concussion would cut short then-freshman Tobias Merriweather’s progress, eventually leaving Notre Dame with just four receivers it could rely on toward the end of the year. More than anything else — more than former Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’s preferences, more than Notre Dame’s deep backfield — that lack of receivers limited the Irish offense.

The more wide-open the Irish offense ran, the more those few receivers would wear out. Notre Dame could not operate as such.

2022 STATS
Lorenzo Styles: 13 games; 30 catches for 340 yards and one touchdown.
Jayden Thomas: 13 games; 25 catches for 362 yards and three touchdowns.
Braden Lenzy: 13 games; 24 catches for 309 yards and three touchdowns.
Deion Colzie: 12 games; 9 catches for 192 yards and one touchdown.
Matt Salerno: 13 games; 5 catches for 62 yards and one touchdown.
Tobias Merriweather: 7 games; 1 catch for a 41-yard touchdown.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Styles may return more catches than any other Irish receiver, but he also returns more drops than the rest combined, with six just last season. The headlines may focus on Notre Dame’s new receivers — alternately the three freshmen and the veteran transfer with size for new Irish quarterback Sam Hartman to throw to — but Styles rediscovering his focus and/or his confidence would be the biggest step forward for Hartman’s pass catchers.

Smith will battle rising junior Jayden Thomas to be Hartman’s primary big-bodied target. Thomas’s run-blocking abilities could even turn him into a pseudo-slot receiver, allowing them both to conceivably start.

There are options, unlike a year ago. Further development from Merriweather would only add to them, as would any of Greathouse, James or flores quickly progressing.

“We know what the offense has looked like, and the coaches have talked to me since I started being recruited about what it could look like in the future with me a part of it,” Greathouse said to Inside ND Sports earlier in the winter, before Rees left for Alabama. “I definitely think that they want to start airing the ball out.

“That’s what the coaches have been telling me, is that they want to be throwing the ball all over the field. And I think once our recruiting class starts making an impact, we’ll definitely be able to start doing that.”

That would have been the case regardless who the offensive coordinator was in 2023. Gerad Parker will have more receiving options at his disposal than Rees did in 2022, adding layers of possibilities to the Irish offense.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive line, suddenly inexperienced and unproven
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Tight ends, moving on from an all-time great
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, led by a familiar ‘three-headed monster’
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Linebackers, led by a trio of veterans and little change
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive backs, with a star sophomore and an Oklahoma State transfer
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Offensive line, returning bookend tackles and a three-year starter at center

FUTURE DEPTH
The younger Smith’s arrival will almost certainly be a non-item for 2023, sparing us all any extensive confusion between one Kaleb Smith beginning his career and one Kaleb Smith ending his career in the same season.