Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s d-line is good, but much else is not yet

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — We learned Georgia’s front-seven is all it was cracked up to be. We learned even future first-round NFL Draft picks make colossal mistakes. We learned the new video board in Notre Dame Stadium does not broadcast a post-game show after losses. Those first two are inherently intertwined, and to that last one, the response should be the same as it was when some were upset the Irish did not sing the Alma Mater after home losses: Just win the games.

What else did we learn?

Notre Dame has a defensive line. More than that, it is a strength, not the liability long presumed.
All offseason the doubts about the Irish defensive line persisted. When junior tackle Elijah Taylor suffered a Lisfranc fracture in spring practices, those concerns amplified. Then senior tackle Daniel Cage was ruled out for the season over the summer. The week one absence of junior tackle Micah Dew-Treadway due to a sprained knee only furthered the skepticism.

Beyond senior Jonathan Bonner and junior Jerry Tillery, could Notre Dame even field a defensive interior?

Yes.

Jonathan Bonner has proven himself worthy of a starting defensive tackle position already this season. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

On top of that, senior ends Jay Hayes and Andrew Trumbetti have provided playmaking on the edges few, if any, saw coming. Certainly no one expected Hayes to lead Notre Dame with seven tackles Saturday night. Trumbetti added five, as did Tillery. Bonner had four takedowns, including 1.5 tackles for loss.

Even more impressively, freshmen tackles Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovaioloa-Amosa held their own for the second consecutive week, allowing Bonner and Tillery chances to catch their breath.

Perhaps Irish fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey — the aforementioned future first-round NFL Draft pick — should have been heeded when he praised the defensive line in preseason camp. He does, after all, face those exact players every day in practice.

McGlinchey took little satisfaction in reminding the world of that confidence after Saturday’s loss.

“Our defense played their hearts out today, and they played a [great] game,” the captain said. “All the credit to them. Everybody has had their doubts about them all season long, and they stepped up in a big way today.”

That big way limited the Bulldogs’ vaunted rushing attack to 193 yards. That may seem a large number, and certainly even fewer would have been preferred, but Georgia never found the presumed momentum on the ground, greatly limiting their offensive game plan.

“The defensive line especially played really well in stopping them,” senior linebacker Greer Martini said. Bulldogs senior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel “are obviously very special backs, but I think we handled our own.”

Indeed, they did. More challenges will come this season — namely USC’s Ronald Jones and Stanford’s Bryce Love — but those tests no longer seem beyond overcoming for the Notre Dame front seven.

Brandon Wimbush has started only two games in his career.
Okay, that was known. But Saturday night, it was very obvious. The junior quarterback was not ready for either the stage or the opponent, or both. At no point did he deliver a WOW moment a la his opening-week dart to senior tight end Nic Weishar. His closest thing to a big play came on the opening snap, when junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown dropped a deep pass off a flea flicker.

Including that, Wimbush completed only 20 of 40 passes. A 50 percent completion rate is not acceptable in any circumstance. He fumbled twice, though the second of the two should hardly be attributed to him, considering the nature of a hardly-slowed blindside hit.

In Notre Dame’s 20-19 loss to Georgia, Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush never created the spark expected of the quarterback in head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long’s offense. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Just like against Temple, Wimbush lucked out of multiple interceptions. At some point, one of those risky throws will cost him and the Irish dearly. Even this weekend, the incompletions off those near-interceptions were too much to overcome.

None of this is lost on Notre Dame.

“I love the way he goes out there and competes,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “There are things happening for the first time that he’s getting a chance to grow with.

“I’m glad he’s on my team. We’re living through a couple things here and there, but when it all comes together, these [post-game] press conferences will be a little different.”

Wimbush has the athletic gifts. He has the proper mechanics and form. He does not have the experience or mental reserves to draw on in pressure-filled moments. That was very clear on Notre Dame’s last two possessions, when he completed only one of four passes when quick completions were exceedingly desired.

The experience and personal assurance come with only one thing: time. While the Irish may not have much of it, it is also an inevitability.

Even in stress, this remains Chip Long’s offense.
Notre Dame struggled offensively. Gaining only 265 yards emphasizes as much. The manner in which those yards were (not) gained, though, confirms the first-year offensive coordinator continues to make the schematic decisions. Those offseason and preseason claims were not mere lip service.

The Irish rushed 34 times and dropped back to pass on 43 snaps. Despite the dominance of Georgia’s front-seven, Notre Dame’s offense did not devolve into a chuck-it-and-hope approach. It remained patient, attempting to embrace its own strengths.

Some of that ground focus may point to a receiver dearth.
Junior running back Josh Adams gained more yards on receptions than he did on rushes Saturday. He took 19 carries for 53 yards, compared to 60 yards on six catches. Both of those latter figures were career highs, and both led the Irish against the Bulldogs.

Adams emerging as a receiving threat bodes well for his overall development, but if he is consistently the best option available to Wimbush, that simply means the receivers and tight ends are not open.

When both St. Brown and junior tight end Alizé Mack finish with only two catches apiece, the entire receiving corps is struggling. In a world where the Notre Dame offense produces consistently, Adams will not be its leading receiver.

Brian Polian may have brought the punt return of yore back with him.
Perhaps a larger sample size than one game in a taut primetime atmosphere should be awaited before making this declaration. For now, consider this a musing with an eye toward the future.

Georgia punted eight times Saturday. Irish junior returner Chris Finke returned three of them for a net of negative three yards. He quite reluctantly fair caught four more. The other was downed inside the 10-yard line.

Finke has a certain shiftiness to him. It makes him a unique threat in both the passing game and on punt returns. If Notre Dame cannot provide any version of blocking for him on those returns, though, then those return opportunities are an utter waste of time.

Not everything has changed.
It was an offseason filled with discussions of what has changed. Polian, the new special teams coordinator, joined new defensive coordinator Mike Elko and Long. Kelly implemented a new strength and conditioning program. It was supposed to be an entirely new mindset.

Yet, Notre Dame still loses painfully close games, apparently.
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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