And In That Corner … The Boston College Eagles and Steve Addazio

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It’s a tradition unlike any other. An underwhelming Boston College team troubles the Irish. Starting a quarterback with even less experience than Notre Dame’s, these Eagles may keep up that tradition this weekend. To get a better gauge on those chances, let’s consult with Michael Sullivan of Boston College’s The Heights.

DF: For introductory purposes, you are the editor-in-chief at Boston College’s independent student newspaper, The Heights, correct? I know that can be a time-intensive and seemingly-thankless gig. Kudos. How many years have you been on the football beat now?

MS: Thanks, Douglas. It definitely gets tough with a typical five-class schedule, especially at a place like BC. Prior to becoming editor-in-chief, I was sports editor for two years. This is my third full season covering Eagles football, from spring through fall, and I also take up the men’s hockey and baseball beats.

Eagles fifth-year head coach Steve Addazio. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

I would like to start with a macro look. Steve Addazio is now in his fifth season as Eagles head coach. He opened with two admirable 7-6 seasons before falling to 3-9 in 2015. Last year’s return to 7-6 ended with a bowl victory, the first such win in just how long? Is there any sense Addazio needs to perform this year? At what point is 7-6 not going to be enough for Boston College?

It’s the first bowl win for BC since 2007, a 24-21 win over Michigan State in what was then the Champs Sports Bowl, with Matt Ryan at quarterback. So yeah, it’s been that long. There’s absolutely a sense right now that Addazio has to perform this year, especially with a new athletic director in Martin Jarmond. The youngest AD in the country, Jarmond comes from two high-profile programs — Michigan State and Ohio State, the latter of which where he was the No. 2 to Gene Smith. He will likely have little patience for continued failure for this program.

Whether that means bringing in a new guy at the end of the year remains to be seen — a bowl berth this season, even at 6-6, might be enough to do it. But looking critically at the Eagles’ seasons shows another trend. In 2014, BC gave away a couple of winnable games: Colorado State and Clemson each were a drop in the end zone away from wins, and a missed PAT in the Pinstripe Bowl might’ve been a 10th. In 2015, the Eagles had the No. 1 defense in the nation, but lost back-to-back games by less than three points in which kicker Colton Lichtenberg missed a combined three field goals — 9-7 to Duke and 3-0 to Wake Forest. In 2016, same story against Georgia Tech, not to mention the 4th and 19 play that kept the Yellow Jackets alive in Dublin.

Some might say this is just a play here, a play there, and failure to execute. But, as I’m sure Notre Dame fans understand, a fanbase can only tolerate so many one-possession defeats, and it could mark the difference between a good and bad coach. This is all to say, 7-6 might be good enough this year, given BC’s tough schedule. For how many years after that though? It’s likely to be few, if any.

The micro view should probably start at quarterback. Freshman Anthony Brown had a rough week against Wake Forest, only a week after a rather promising debut at Northern Illinois. He’ll get the starting nod again this week, right, even after being pulled after this third interception against the Deacons?

Oh absolutely, Brown is sure to start this week, and going forward in all likelihood.

Boston College quarterback Anthony Brown showcases his arm strength in the Eagles’ 34-10 loss to Wake Forest last weekend. (Getty Images)

In the short-term, what are Brown’s greatest strengths? Weaknesses?

He’s got the kind of arm Addazio hasn’t had since coming to Boston College. He really has a good amount of strength in that right shoulder and can air it out deep. His weaknesses aren’t abnormal to any redshirt freshman thrust into a starting role. Brown has trouble with his accuracy right now on the deep ball. But what stands out to me is when he misses, he overthrows his receivers, rather than underthrows them. Brown does a good job keeping the ball away from opponents — if you look at the picks in the Wake Forest game, two were tipped. At the same time, he’s not afraid to squeeze it in there and thread the needle when need be. All-in-all, if he can shore up the accuracy, he’s going to be the quarterback the Eagles have missed since at least Chase Rettig, but perhaps since Matt Ryan.

What about the long-term? Even when Notre Dame doesn’t play the Eagles, Irish fans are always aware of how that school out east is doing.

Long-term, Brown appears to be “The Answer” at quarterback, and Boston College projects still to be a six-win team this year. You can expect some easy wins against Connecticut or Central Michigan, and they’ll be competitive with North Carolina State, Syracuse, and Virginia — I’d expect one or two wins from them out of that trio.

Personally, I was surprised to see Wake Forest score 34 points last weekend. A look further points out seven of those came on an interception return, and another touchdown drive needed to cover only 26 yards. Perhaps I should have been more impressed with the Deacons holding the Eagles to 10 points. How did they limit Boston College so effectively?

A big reason was because of the play of the offensive line. The Eagles have lost two starters: left guard Elijah Johnson, who tore his ACL in the spring, and center Jon Baker, who tore his ACL against Northern Illinois. With the up-tempo pace Addazio was expecting to implement, he needs a stable of linemen to rotate. Now, he’s down to only five or six that can start. On Saturday, he started freshman Ben Petrula, a 300-pound tackle, at center, because left guard Sam Schmal was out and backup center Shane Leonard has been out for a month. Petrula struggled to get his feet wet, with a few bad snaps and some hard rushes by the defensive tackles that had Brown scrambling out of the pocket. Petrula will be back there on Saturday, as will Schmal, but the line really needs to hold up strong for BC for chance at a victory.

Eagles defensive end Harold Landry came just short of a sack here, but he recorded one against the Demon Deacons to go along with two more tackles for loss. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

The conversation around Boston College’s defense begins with end Harold Landry. Can you explain to Notre Dame fans just what makes him so dangerous? They are already doubting the Irish offensive line’s competence in all facets. A few Landry sacks won’t do much for morale.

Irish fans might remember Matt Milano from two years ago, the outside linebacker who, along with Justin Simmons, helped force five turnovers, most of which were on fumbles/picks of Deshone Kizer, in Notre Dame’s 19-16 win over Boston College at Fenway Park. Now imagine that in a defensive end’s body. Landry played outside linebacker for years in high school, learning how to drop back effectively in pass coverage. But he’s just relentless when he’s going after the quarterback, as evidenced by his 16.5 sacks last year, most in the nation. His pop out of the crouch on the line of scrimmage is so quick and can’t be rivaled by anyone else in the country.

Aside from Landry, what can be expected from the Eagles defense?

Landry’s successor, Zach Allen, plays at his opposite position on the defensive line. He’s a dangerous, 300-pound monster constantly hungry for quarterbacks. The Eagles’ secondary is also for real, allowing fewer than 180 passing yards per game. Seniors Kamrin Moore and Isaac Yiadom are legitimate shutdown corners, Will Harris has a Landon Collins-esque feel about him in the way he tackles, and Lukas Denis is a rising star in his free safety ability. Going to the air will be a challenge for any opposing quarterback this season.

This is admittedly a cop out, but what else should Notre Dame fans be aware of this weekend? Who or what am I missing?

The Eagles are very deep at receiver/tight end for the first time in the Addazio era. Kobay White, Michael Walker, Jeff Smith, Tommy Sweeney and Charlie Callinan, just to name a few, are among the many weapons offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler can put out there for Brown to attack. They’re still working through some of the drop troubles they had last year, but they’ve done an excellent job, better than I’ve seen at Boston College, at getting open and giving Brown opportunities. For the first time in a long time, BC also appears to have foud some stability at kicker with Lichtenberg, who is 4-for-4 this year.

While we are asking the obvious questions, how do you expect this weekend to play out? The Irish are favored by 13.5. Can Boston College keep it closer than that?

That’s a good line if you ask me. When it comes down to it, it’ll be a matter of how well the defense can contain Brandon Wimbush. The Eagles haven’t had much success against two running quarterbacks in NIU’s Ryan Graham and Wake’s John Wolford, who each ran for more than 90 yards. Wimbush is by far the best runner of that group, and if BC can’t contain him and lock down time of possession, it’ll be a long afternoon. I do, however, think the offense will rebound to the levels it showed against Northern Illinois, and the passing defense will force Notre Dame to be somewhat one-dimensional. I can’t necessarily say I see an Eagles win, but I can definitely see Boston College keeping it to around 7-10 points. I’d go with a cover.

For that matter, do you have a score prediction?

24-17 Notre Dame. I think the Eagles keep it a lot closer than they did to Wake Forest, but I’m not sure if it’s enough to seal the deal. An Eagles win, in a game that’s sure to be emotional, wouldn’t floor me given Notre Dame’s own struggles, but I’ll hold it to a one-possession loss.

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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