Talking Irish: On to Stanford

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Another week, another conversation with JJ Stankevitz at CSN Chicago, as we try to make sense of what’s going on in South Bend. Here we tackle last week’s hurricane, “blaming” players, where to go next with a defensive coordinator hire, and if Brian Kelly’s job is really in trouble. 

Oh yeah. And Stanford. That, too. 

***

JJ: Well Keith, the good news is my clothes are finally dry from last weekend, and my rage from N.C. State towing my car has subsided. Before we dive into Stanford, what — if any — takeaways did you have from that miserable game of “football” last Saturday?

KA: Mostly that it should’ve at least been delayed.

JJ: **nods furiously**

KA: I know — I know — My initial answer should be, at least according to some, that the football program should be shut down and that BK should have been fired on the runway, but seriously. That wasn’t football.That wasn’t close to football.

And the fact that they jammed that game into that window — just so ABC could keep their broadcast window — is beyond lame. I checked around, and ND didn’t have a say. It was an ACC and NC State call.

JJ: Yep, exactly. It’s more on the ACC than anything else. It’s a miracle nobody got seriously injured, too, or no fans got their cars stuck in flooding (that I know of).

KA: I know, I should be in umbrage mode, but I have a hard time counting that as a football game — and that’s the one thing that doesn’t really get me all that worked up, though if ND ends with five wins or fails to get the bowl bid, you will wonder… (Though again, it’s NOT why they lost. It just shouldn’t have been played in the eye of a freaking hurricane.)

JJ: I guess if Notre Dame does go 5-7, you can point to playing the game in a hurricane as being a problem, but…losses to Duke, Michigan State and Texas are far worse, in my opinion. Especially since two of those three teams might not make a bowl either!

KA: Yes, that’s where I’m at, too. This first half of the season feels like a hurricane. And not in an impressive way, but rather like “oh my god, look what you’ve done” way.  To that point, let’s get right into it.

It’s been a weird week. And a toxic one. I haven’t seen it this bad since early 2010, and it actually feels a lot like the second half of 2008 — not quite the demise of 2009, but not that far away, either.

I’m not asking you to name third hand sources that may or may not be around the locker room. But do you think BK has lost his team? Or will we find that out against Stanford?

JJ:  So I’ll say this. This week, I’ve been reading up on Oregon a lot to see how other writers are covering an unexpected disaster of a season. And from the looks of it there, Mark Helfrich has lost the team.

Whether or not Brian Kelly has lost the Irish locker room, they’re not getting blown out or giving up 70 points a game. That would, to me, show a lack of effort that can’t be recovered. So I don’t know how much emphasis I put on the whole “lost the team” notion when they’re playing in close games.

Does that make sense?

KA: And my conversation with Do at the Stanford Daily, there are people at Stanford who want David Shaw fired, too.

JJ:  WHAT

KA: Some people just want to see the world burn. Two straight five-touchdown losses.

JJ: You have gotta be bleeping me.

KA: And look at Dantonio — same thing. Lotta Spartan fans thinking the guy lost it. Crazy pills are the universal drug of choice in college football.

JJ: Look, I get that Brian Kelly has soured himself to people because of the yelling and postgame criticisms of players.

JJ: But oh my gosh, wanting David Shaw fired. And Dantonio. What is happening?! That’s madness!

KA: Seriously. You hit on something interesting. I got hammered in some parts of the ND sphere (you can probably guess) for having the nerve to point to BK’s locker room talk after Kelly got killed for some comments from the postgame.
But I tend to think what BK says to the team is more important to them than what he says to the media right after.

JJ:  I thought DeShone Kizer had a really, really good answer to that whole debate.

“Blame is definitely not the word. In this game there are 11 guys who are required to do their job. And in order for us to go out there and to give a better result than we have in these last six games, you have to challenge guys. And when you guys sit up here and ask about specifics on guys, he’s going to let you know exactly what happened and in order for us to not up come out successful.

“That can be perceived as blame, but perception is part of what we do here working with the media. James walks in and he gives an answer, and it’s perceived as if he’s saying that it’s a horrible thing that coach puts blame on guys. But I’m sitting here having a conversation with him, and all he’s trying to say is, hey, yeah, it’s tough when the coach calls you out. But we take that as a challenge here.

“We accept everything as a team. But individually you’re going to have to get challenged to play your best. And when you’re 2-4 right now, everyone has to point their finger at themselves and look at themselves in the mirror and accept those challenges so that we can come out and be more successful and hopefully put together the wins that we need to put together in the second half of the season.”

That’s his full quote (he even went out of his way to help clarify a quote from James Onwualu that could’ve been mis-interpreted. This guy is a whiz with media.)

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that everything is okay inside the Gug, because Notre Dame is 2-4. But it’s worth noting this debate hasn’t affected recruiting, at least yet.

KA:  True. Somehow those 17 year-old kids aren’t reading message boards or my comments or the guys arguing under your articles. Weird.

***

KA: Let’s take this thing forward — because that’s the only way we can look at this. There’s a very real chance that McCaffrey isn’t playing this weekend.
Stanford’s got a few maulers on the defensive front, but they’ve had a tough two weeks.

Before I get your prediction, what are some battles you think that are mission critical to a win?

JJ: So Notre Dame’s defensive strategy is probably going to look a lot like it did last year in California — stop Christian McCaffrey (if he plays) and hope the quarterback doesn’t beat you.

The good news: Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst are nowhere close to being as good as Kevin Hogan was. The bad news: Well, so was Daniel Jones. And Tyler O’Connor, I guess.

KA:  Kevin Hogan: The future of the Cleveland Browns. They’re calling Tom Rees next.

JJ: Pull him out of coaching. Thought I’d love to see Rees and DeShone Kizer on the same sideline!

KA: This will be a huge progress report for the defense. It’s not like we saw anything last week. And it’s also not like Stanford is lighting it up right now.

JJ: Here’s a stat: Washington State entered last weekend with four sacks as a team. They left with seven. If Notre Dame can’t get sacks against Stanford, it never will. (Can’t believe I just typed that.)

KA:  I saw that tweet. That was very informative. (Follow JJ @JJStankevitz)

JJ: #BRANDS

KA:  #CONTENT #SYNERGY

JJ: But Keith, curious — what do you hope to see from this defense? Keep everything in front of them and not get beat, or try to take a few shots at making plays against a maybe-vulnerable offense?

KA: I’d just like some baseline logic. For instance: If you’re going to send the house — play off in coverage. If you’re going to go heavy to stop the run, play zone behind it.

JJ:  Smart, simple solutions. Low key, too: Mike Elston deserves a lot of credit for whatever defensive turnaround we’ve seen to date, too.

KA: I really think that Hudson coming in — and BK putting his hands all over this unit feels so logical now, but man — it sure makes you think that the BVG era was just one gigantic misstep. Can we peg that all to Nick Saban out-scheming Bobby D and the boys that fateful BCS title game?

JJ: I would certainly hope not. If that was the case, you throw all your money into ND1, drive it to Clemson, and back it up to Brent Venables’ house after the 2013 season.

KA: So maybe that’ll lead me to my final point before we get into the game (other than where we should have a beer on Friday night…) Do you dump a pile of cash on a national coordinator?

Do you take on Charlie Strong? Do you win the “Name” battle? Or do you think BK goes somewhere familiar?

JJ: It’d be a disservice to the program if Kelly didn’t reach out to Dave Aranda given the coaching turnover at LSU. Derek Mason, if Vanderbilt lets him go, would be a good call.

KA:  I think that’s the dream trio, right?

JJ: Aranda, Mason, Strong?

KA: Yes. Though Strong’s name is taking a beating. I’m sure there are some under-the-radar names that might come up, too.

JJ:  Or consider this, Tom Herman goes to LSU, keeps Dave Aranda, but makes Todd Orlando available in the process. I know Mike Elko has been brought up by few forward-thinking fans — he’s done a lot with absolutely no talent at Wake Forest.

KA: Like it. I just don’t know if ND is going to go multi-million dollar coordinator.

KA: I lied – one more doom and gloom question.

How ugly do you think this season needs to get before Swarbrick thinks about making a major change? And wouldn’t he need to make sure he had a guy in hand before he did it?

JJ:  I mean, if they go 3-9 and, I don’t think you can rule anything out. But that being said…I find it really, really hard to believe Kelly won’t be the coach here in 2017.

KA: That’s where I’m at, too.

JJ: And to answer your second question — you’re not getting Tom Herman, you’re not getting Urban Meyer, and there’s not that up-and-coming obvious candidate out there.

KA: Exactly. That’s been — and will continue to be — my point.

JJ: So if you fire Kelly, you might get stuck with Plan F, which could pull Notre Dame only further down into the depths of mediocrity.

KA: Not that we’re all happy and excited — let’s get to Saturday. Where you at?
W? L? A Greg Hudson renaissance?

JJ:  *peeks to make sure nobody’s looking*

31-27 Notre Dame.

KA: WOW.

JJ: I think this is sneakily a pretty good matchup for Notre Dame. And I know tying my cart to a 2-4 horse that lost to Duke is dangerous.

KA: I like your fire. But I am going hedge: ND loses a tight one if McCaffrey plays. ND wins by 10 points if he doesn’t. There’s just not enough info out there to make a calculation when college football’s most prolific weapon is a 50-50 proposition.

JJ: Fair, though college football’s most prolific weapon only has 84 yards on 20 carries in his last two games. And Notre Dame’s defense hasn’t been terrible against the run this year.

KA: When 10 guys key on him, David Shaw still isn’t afraid to give it to him.
That’s a man with no pitch count.

JJ: True, and the whole tackling thing hasn’t been great for Notre Dame.

KA: You’re bringing us down, JJ!

JJ:  I just said they’d win! Positivity!

KA: I’ll let us leave it at that —
a battle for another rivalry trophy that nobody knew existed. #LEGENDS

JJ: #LEADERS Wait. Wrong thing.

KA: Haha. Alright — I’ll see you this weekend. I’ll be the guy wandering aimlessly as he finds his way into the new press box.

JJ: It’s pretty high up, but the hot dogs are present as ever. See you there!

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.