Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s defensive backs, stellar cornerbacks and concerning safeties

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When having these discussions, it would make sense to split this broad group into two not only by positions of cornerbacks and safeties, but also by strength and likely weak point, respectively.

Notre Dame has cornerback depth and proven talent — so much so, all the cornerback options cannot line up at the position at once in any situation. The Irish also have no proven contributors at safety, although some help may have spent the last year on the roster, perhaps playing at another position or sidelined by the NCAA’s mandate.

Spring Roster:
— Fifth-year Nick Watkins and rising junior Troy Pride at boundary cornerback.
— Rising juniors Julian Love (pictured above) and Donte Vaughn at field cornerback.
— Rising senior Nick Coleman, rising sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath, rising junior Devin Studstill and rising senior Nicco Fertitta at boundary safety.
— Rising juniors Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott, rising sophomore Isaiah Robertson and rising junior D.J. Morgan at field safety.
— Rising senior Shaun Crawford at nickel back.
— Early-enrolled freshman Houston Griffith somewhere among the cornerbacks, likely backing up Crawford at nickel.

Yes, the orders of mention above should be noted, but the safety situation will be much less murky after just one day of seeing Notre Dame in spring practice.

Summer Arrivals:
— Incoming freshmen cornerbacks D.J. Brown, Joe Wilkins, Noah Boykin and Tariq Bracy.
— Incoming freshmen safeties Derrik Allen and Paul Moala.

Rising junior Jalen Elliott started every game in 2017, but that is not mean he will be a starter in 2018. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
As is, the Irish cornerbacks are set with an excellent two-deep roster, including Crawford seeing more and more time at nickel back with his fitness finally fully-returning after two consecutive injury-halted seasons.

At safety, however, it should be a wide-open spring competition between Gilman, Coleman, Genmark-Heath, Elliott, Studstill and Robertson. Frankly, whoever earns the gigs will get them. No player begins with an advantage due to past performances.

Gilman has earned only praise since transferring from Navy, but this spring will be the first genuine chance to see him on the field in a Notre Dame jersey while Elliott and Studstill have two years of mixed results, to put it generously, and Coleman has one of his own, though his result are a bit more favorable than either Elliott’s or Studstill’s.

Genmark-Heath and Robertson hardly saw much time as freshmen, but both looked to be developing as physical fits.

Biggest (Reader) Question(s):
Donte Vaughn was another “big get” for Notre Dame, but he also seems to have dropped off the grid. I’m not seeing him in any projected two-deeps for 2018. — Ken M.

To be honest, Ken offered today’s Vaughn question in the same sentences as yesterday’s pertaining to rising junior receiver Javon McKinley, but for the sake of this “Spring Outlook” series, splitting them into two paraphrased bits made more sense.

Vaughn’s lack of notable impact to date comes as a direct result of the emergence of Love, combined with Crawford showing every skill wanted of a corner aside from health. When others perform well, it does not necessarily prove another’s struggle.

Douglas, a sincere question. You have mentioned, on multiple occasions, that Julian Love could be moved to safety. I, respectfully, assume that such statements are rooted in solid information. Given that Love has developed into, or at the least is developing into, a genuine shutdown corner, why would the coaching staff move him to safety? Is there that much confidence in the other CBs, or is there that little confidence in the current safeties? Given how rare shutdown corners are, and the fact that they can effectively cut the field in half, isn’t the presence of such a corner more valuable than a potentially above-replacement safety? arbormazoo

There is a lot to unpack here, even once getting past the shock of a sincere and respectful question.

First of all, Irish head coach Brian Kelly has both explicitly and implicitly mentioned the possibility of moving Love to safety, so the idea has at least crossed the coaching staff’s mind.

While Love is not necessarily a shutdown cornerback — the moniker is a tough one to earn, especially at the college level where most cornerbacks do not handle both left-side and right-side, or boundary and field, duties — he is by far Notre Dame’s best cornerback, and that is where he is at his best. He could also conceivably be the best safety on the roster. The question then becomes, is the gap from Love to the next option more glaring at cornerback or at safety?

This comparison may seem odd, considering offensive linemen and cornerbacks have little-to-nothing in common, but stick with it for a moment. Last spring and summer, the Irish line was set from left tackle to center, but the right side had some questions. The only certain thing was Alex Bars, now a fifth-year, would be involved. Coming off a year starting at right tackle, that may have seemed the obvious spot to keep Bars, but instead he moved inside to right guard.

Bars was both Notre Dame’s best right tackle and best right guard, and then-sophomore Tommy Kraemer was likely the next-best option at both positions. The gap between Bars the tackle and Kraemer the tackle was less of a gap than the one between Bars the guard and Kraemer the guard. Thus, the greatest total value along the offensive line included moving Bars away from his best position.

That is the logic in considering moving Love. If Vaughn can provide much of what Love does at cornerback, then the drop-off there could be minimal compared to the effect of not moving Love to safety.

What is the plan to redshirt some of the coming junior defensive backs? We have defensive backs and wideouts coming out of our ears and seemingly do every year. nebraskairish

Who would you redshirt? If Love stays at cornerback, then either Pride or Vaughn is needed in dime packages, with the other providing vestiges of experienced depth. If Love moves to safety, then all the junior cornerbacks are vital pieces of the secondary.

Elliott and Studstill have started parts of two seasons. No coaching staff would then sideline one as a junior. Furthermore, such absences would serve to leave special teams only short-handed.

That leaves Morgan. Whether or not a year spent preserving eligibility becomes an official item or not will likely end up moot. Considering his first two years with the Irish, it is hard to envision him ever being considered for a fifth year.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Love: 68 tackles with one for loss; three interceptions and 20 more pass breakups.
Coleman: 44 tackles with one for loss; three pass breakups.
Elliott: 43 tackles; two pass breakups.
Crawford: 32 tackles with 1.5 sacks; two interceptions, five pass breakups, two fumbles recovered, including one he forced.
Watkins: 29 tackles; one interception and eight pass breakups.
Pride: 22 tackles with one for loss; one interception with two pass breakups.
Studstill: 18 tackles.
Genmark-Heath: 16 tackles.
Fertitta: 10 tackles.
Robertson: Eight tackles.
Vaughn: Six tackles.
Morgan: Two tackles.

2017 Departures:
None. At all. Not even a transfer yet.

That may be a big three-letter word closing the previous sentence, but it feels pertinent in this position group with Notre Dame cruising four scholarships above the NCAA maximum allowed come fall.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Derrik Allen
Notre Dame gets the letter: Houston Griffith
Notre Dame gets the letter: Tariq Bracy
Notre Dame gets the letter: Paul Moala
Notre Dame gets the letter: D.J. Brown
Notre Dame gets the letter: Joe Wilkins
A Signing Day victory, Notre Dame gets the letter: Noah Boykin

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions
Tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent
Defensive line, a returning strength
Receivers, now without both St. Brown & Stepherson

As always, further reader questions are welcomed at insidetheirish@gmail.com.

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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.