Things We Learned: Notre Dame can turn to Book, though may prefer not to

Associated Press
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For at least a day, No. 21 Notre Dame could survive without junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. Testing that fate long-term might be a riskier proposition.

Irish sophomore quarterback Ian Book started in Wimbush’s stead during Notre Dame’s 33-10 victory at North Carolina on Saturday. Book completed only 17-of-31 passes for 146 yards and one score, also throwing two interceptions and rushing for 47 yards on 11 carries.

Those statistics certainly qualify as underwhelming — especially the 4.7 yards per passing attempt, compared to Wimbush’s 5.9 to date — but Book did not need to put up dazzling numbers to qualify as a one-off success. He needed to avoid crippling mistakes, he needed to keep the Irish offense on-task and he needed to make a play here or there. That much, Book did.

“He’s a very confident kid,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He overthrew a couple of balls here and there. For a first start, I was really pleased with what he did today. To win on the road is hard to do. The ideal situation is to start at home in a more comfortable environment but I thought he went in and did some really good things for us.”

Even the two interceptions were tolerable. One came from Notre Dame’s own three-yard line. Without many options available, Book heaved a pass downfield for junior receiver Chris Finke. Slightly overthrown, it gifted possession to the Tar Heels at the 47-yard line. Essentially, it served as a punt without the risk of a punt block in the end zone.

The other pick came when Book overthrew fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe. That mistake cost the Irish a red zone opportunity, but it may have been the result of Book’s inexperience more than anything else. To the untrained eye, it looked as if Book expected Smythe to run the route a yard deeper, but Smythe gauged the coverage slightly differently.

Neither turnover qualified as “crippling.”

Wimbush should be back against USC in two weeks. (More on that, and other injuries, in a bit.) Presuming that is the case, Book served the spot starter role well. More than that, though, he showed the potential to carry the load down the line.

His arm is not as strong as Wimbush’s, few are, but it was more than able to get passes into tight windows. Some of that can be attributed to accuracy, a rare sight around the Irish offense with Wimbush at the helm.

Notre Dame frequently got sophomore quarterback and first-time starter Ian Book out of the pocket Saturday to simplify the reads in front of him as well as to play to Book’s strengths as a mobile passer. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Book lacks Wimbush’s big-play running ability, but he was mobile enough to throw on the move. That skill, in fact, played a part in Notre Dame’s 25 first-half passes. From the outset, Kelly wanted to play to Book’s strengths.

“We wanted to mostly take advantage of some of the play-action opportunities to complement our run game,” Kelly said. “It was going to be a run-centered game for us. Getting some high-percentage throws, on the move, where he didn’t have to sit in the pocket and do progression reads across the field.”

The first touchdown pass of sophomore quarterback Ian Book’s career was also the first touchdown at Notre Dame for fifth-year senior and Arizona State graduate transfer Cam Smith. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Those play calls served to simplify Book’s reads and to tilt the field toward his favor. Without Wimbush’s speed, Book’s rollouts-turned-scrambles were never going to gain 30-plus yards, but he frequently took advantage of open space available. Most notably, he ran for nine yards on a second-and-10 from the North Carolina 20-yard-line at the end of the first quarter. Two plays later, Book found fifth-year receiver Cam Smith for the first score of the day. That scramble kept the drive moving forward, preventing a worrisome third-and-long.

Book worked through his progressions well. He knew where his safety valves were. With more time, those skills would only grow, and he would better understand what Smythe sees in a defense.

Book did not play so well Notre Dame hopes he gets that playing time in the near future, but he did play well enough the Irish won’t need to panic should that situation arise.

Wimbush should be back after the bye week. As should everybody else.
Kelly claimed he debated playing Wimbush up until Saturday. The starter looked good Friday, very much wanting to play, but on game day, Kelly did not see the requisite “bounce” in Wimbush’s step as he recovers from a grade one right foot strain.

“Today he just didn’t have it in him,” Kelly said. “He just didn’t feel great. He didn’t have any bounce. Yesterday he looked good in our walk-through preparation and he had a lot of energy. It went back-and-forth.”

In other words, Wimbush should be good-to-go with a bye week’s rest ahead of him. The same goes for junior running back Dexter Williams. He did not even dress for the contest, following the same timeline as sophomore running back Tony Jones did a week ago coming back from an ankle sprain Kelly has compared to Williams’ now.

Junior running back Josh Adams had another short day, partly due to dehydration. Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown also saw limited action thanks to cramping. Anyone worried about senior linebacker Nyles Morgan need not do so: The captain suffered a stinger in the third quarter and was back to full health by game’s end. None of those should linger past, well, past Sunday, frankly.

Senior right tackle Alex Bars suffered an ankle sprain, but Kelly made it clear it was not a high ankle sprain. Traditionally speaking, that is considered a good thing.

But if Bars is out, Hunter Bivin will not be the answer.
When Bars first went to the sideline, fifth-year offensive lineman Hunter Bivin stepped in at right guard, as would be expected. Then Bivin committed two penalties within three plays to knock Notre Dame out of an ideal first-and-goal from the four-yard line. His day ended.

The Irish shifted sophomore Tommy Kraemer from his timeshare at right tackle, allowing freshman Robert Hainsey to take over those duties full-time.

This personnel development is worth remembering for two reasons: Obviously, if the ankle plagues Bars down the line, this will be the alignment deployed. Beyond that, it speaks to Hainsey’s rapid development. If he could not be counted on at right tackle, Kraemer would need to remain there. Bivin would then be the best option available at right guard, no matter how inconsistent he may be.

In the long-run, an argument can be made Kraemer’s best future is at guard. Hainsey’s emergence makes that more of a possibility, one that just might bring the beginnings of a consideration of a smile to Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s face.

Hey, look, that’s Alizé Mack chipping away.

Junior tight end Alizé Mack moved the chains on four of his six catches during Notre Dame’s 33-10 win at North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The junior tight end was targeted 10 times, catching six of them for 38 yards. Just more than three dozen yards and no scores may sound like another underwhelming stat line. That would be too simple of a reading, and an incorrect one.

Four of Mack’s catches yielded first downs, including a fourth-and-one conversion and a third-and-two conversion. This is the consistent production expected of a tight end presenting the target Mack does.

Entering the weekend, he had caught six passes of fewer than 15 yards. Those receptions hold merit, much merit. At North Carolina, Mack matched that total.

Chunks of 32 or 33 yards may be preferable, but they cannot be counted on. Gains of seven, six and even three yards are the plays that keep drives moving down the field.

All good things must end.

CHAPEL HILL, NC – OCTOBER 07: Nick Polino #58 of the North Carolina Tar Heels dives for a fumble forced by Te’von Coney #4 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the game at Kenan Stadium on October 7, 2017 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Two stats had become the preferred methods of illustrating just how different these Irish are from last year’s version. Notre Dame had scored on all 22 trips to the red zone this season, and the Irish had scored touchdowns after 10 of 11 forced turnovers, the one exception coming less than a minute before halftime.

Both storylines became cluttered this weekend. A trip to the red zone resulted in one of Book’s aforementioned interceptions. That stat line now stands at scores on 24 of 25 trips with 21 touchdowns. It remains hardly something to scoff at.

Of the three Tar Heels turnovers, only one resulted in any Notre Dame points, and that was just a field goal. Nonetheless, the Irish have now outscored their opponents off turnovers by a whopping margin of 73-10.

C.J. Holmes joins the running back fray.

Junior running back Deon McIntosh played a key part in Notre Dame maintaining possession for 12:16 of the fourth quarter. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

If sophomore running back Deon McIntosh continues to turn mop-up duty into a starring role — taking 12 carries for 124 yards and two touchdowns against the Tar Heels — then freshman C.J. Holmes will be stuck as the fifth running back on Notre Dame’s depth chart. However, a week ago that designation would have been nominal only. Now, it is a sincere description.

Holmes took eight carries for 32 yards in his first collegiate action, also participating on at least three of the Irish kicking units.

With Adams, Williams and Jones all tending to battered ankles already, Holmes may be needed yet this year, fifth running back or not.

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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.