Things To Learn: Wake Forest offers a look into Notre Dame’s defensive future

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Two-thirds of the way through an undeniably successful season, not much is left to be learned from a home game against a middling — on the rise, but still middling — ACC opponent. Notre Dame relies on a run-oriented offense to provide points while its defense causes enough mayhem to prevent them. The day an opponent scores more than 20 points against the Irish will be a day to note, a first for the season. If a team holds junior running back Josh Adams and the rest of Notre Dame’s rushing attack in check, it will be the first time in nearly two months.

There is little reason to expect Wake Forest to pull off either of those feats Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC).

If there is any reason to foresee that, it stems from a sense of familiarity. The Demon Deacons know the principles of the Irish defense thoroughly. They are familiar with Notre Dame’s scheme, its intent and the intricacies to its defensive approach. Wake Forest runs the same attacking design.

Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko held the same position with the Deacons from 2014 to 2016 before answering Brian Kelly’s call this past offseason. Amid staff turnover at Minnesota, Jay Sawvel left the Gophers to take Elko’s role in Winston-Salem, keeping much of Elko’s successful operation in place since the personnel was already both used to and ready for it.

“There’s a lot of similarity to the defense that we’ve seen in the past,” Kelly said Tuesday. “It’s still about personnel, and their personnel, in terms of the safeties and corners, is emerging.”

Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson knows where the holes are in Elko’s scheme. That is, if there are any holes. He knows Elko’s tendencies. Likewise, Elko used to coach a defense against Deacons senior quarterback John Wolford in nearly every practice.

“It’s similar to two teams that play each other, know each other that well,” Kelly said. “It is a very similar kind of scenario.”

What could an Elko defense look like with years of learning his system and with players recruited specifically for it?
The answer to this pondering hinges on too many variables and involves too wide a scope to genuinely be answered in one Saturday afternoon, especially considering Wake Forest cannot claim the defensive dominance it did the last few seasons. However, a few nuggets may be gleaned.

The Deacons still focus on the same things Elko has Notre Dame keyed into. More specifically, Wake Forest controls the line of scrimmage by getting behind it as often as possible. The Irish boast one of the best offensive lines in the country, but the Deacons have 22 sacks this season as part of a nation-leading 74 tackles for loss (9.25 per game). If Wake Forest brings down Adams in the backfield, it will be a surprise because that has happened to the Heisman candidate so rarely this season. It could also be considered a positive sign for Notre Dame’s future under Elko.

That penetrating attack is led by senior defensive end Duke Ejiofor. Including 6.5 sacks, he has 14 tackles for loss this year, along with five more quarterback hurries. Ejiofor’s first season of action corresponded with Elko’s first season with the Deacons. The young pass-rusher notched two sacks and 12 tackles in 10 games. In Elko’s final season with Wake Forest, Ejiofor brought down the opposing quarterback 10.5 times and made 50 tackles in 13 games. Some of that progression was assuredly natural growth. Some of it likely tied to Elko, as well.

Perhaps this is reaching for a comparison, but Ejiofor arrived in college holding 216 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame. As a fifth-year senior, he is now listed at 275 pounds and 6-foot-4.

Irish sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes (right, diving) has already emerged as a needed contributor this season, but much more promise could still be in his future. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Elko’s first season at Notre Dame corresponds with the first season of notable action for Irish sophomore defensive ends Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara. None of them were as slight as Ejiofor coming out of high, but all could, even should, benefit from Elko’s coaching as Ejiofor did. (At 220 pounds, Okwara was most similar to Ejiofor, though boasting more length.)

If Ejiofor finds his way to sacking Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, do not bemoan the moment too much. It may be a precursor of good things to come for the Irish.

Speaking of Wimbush, can he complete a true deep ball?
Perhaps can is not the proper verb choice. Wimbush certainly has the arm strength for it; he has yet to find the touch for the task. Presuming this weekend is the blowout many expect, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long have thus far this season chosen to use such a situation for a drive or two of passing reps for the first-year starter. Taking a shot downfield when up 14 or even 21 would not be considered poor taste.

Wimbush did throw a 54-yard touchdown to junior receiver Miles Boykin against Miami (OH), but even that pass was half a stride behind Boykin, allowing the defender to catch up to him. If the line of scrimmage had been three yards further back, Boykin would have been down a yard short of the end zone even though he had more than a stride’s advantage on his defender.

At some point, Wimbush hitting sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson streaking down the field would serve to aid the quarterback’s confidence — it is a very difficult throw, seeing it succeed once may help the mental cause in the future — and it would put the threat on the radar of future opponents. Forcing Miami (FL) or Stanford to prepare for that vertical concern would further open up the field for Notre Dame’s offense.

These are the advantages afforded by 14-point first-half leads or 21-point advantages midway through the third quarter. Admittedly, if Wimbush and Stepherson were to connect on the route with a large lead in the fourth quarter, it could be considered poor sport, style points being overrated these days. (That is not a tongue-in-cheek comment. There is no tangible difference between five degrees below zero and 25 degrees below zero. There is no bettering of a win by running up the margin from 28 to 42 points.)

While discussing speed threats, how is Dexter Williams’ ankle?

It has been awhile since Notre Dame sophomore running back Dexter Williams’ right ankle allowed him to make a cut as decisive as this against Michigan State back on Sept. 23. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Junior running back Dexter Williams brings raw speed to the Irish running game, pure and simple. When removing his big-play capability, the viability of playing Williams decreases greatly. As long as he cannot trust his right ankle to provide that pop, Williams serves little purpose in the Irish running back rotation.

If Williams gets another eight carries this week, as he did in the 35-14 rout of North Carolina State, then that may be the necessary proof his ankle is ready for the season’s final quarter. He will be needed more against the Hurricanes’ defensive front than this weekend, so if he sees limited action, presume it is an attempt to gain further health before the test in Miami.

Lastly, when and where will chaos strike?
Some things are inevitable, Mr. Anderson. Anarchy will strike college football in November. It could happen in South Bend. It could be in Iowa City. Maybe it will wait a week to reappear in Jordan-Hare.

As a rule of thumb, if wanting Notre Dame to make the College Football Playoff, cheer for all Irish opponents and cheer against every higher-ranked Big 12 team. With that in mind, upsets in the following five games may not necessarily count as anarchy, but they would serve to help Notre Dame’s cause, nonetheless.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s best-case and worst-case CFP scenarios

— No. 7 Penn State at No. 24 Michigan State, 12 p.m. ET, FOX.
— No. 4 Clemson at No. 20 North Carolina State, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC.
— No. 5 Oklahoma at No. 11 Oklahoma State, 4 p.m. ET, FS1. (Cheering for the higher-ranked Big 12 team, Oklahoma, would not be an upset by the book, only by the ranking. Oklahoma State is favored by a field goal.)
— No. 13 Virginia Tech at No. 10 Miami, 8 p.m. ET, ABC. (Unlike the game above, cheering for the Irish foe, Miami, would be cheering for an upset by the book, not by the ranking. Despite taking a lower rating on the road, Virginia Tech is a 2.5-point favorite.)
— No. 19 LSU at No. 2 Alabama, 8 p.m. ET, CBS.
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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