Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s preseason dotted by questions at complementary positions

AP Photo
1 Comment

If anyone has not noticed, a thought has been unnecessarily slipped into a few pieces of late. “Senior Brandon Wimbush will claim that honor [of starting against Michigan],” this past Monday’s Leftovers & Links slipped in. A week prior, “If Wimbush struggles against Michigan’s defense … spot relief could be a needed change of pace.”

Wimbush’s 99-to-2 entry made it clear, “Wimbush will take Notre Dame’s first offensive snaps against Michigan.” Junior quarterback Ian Book’s entry had set that tone already, “Book will back up senior Brandon Wimbush this fall.”

All that said, doubled down upon and taken off the board, there could yet be an Irish quarterback competition this preseason, beginning with tomorrow’s practice. Freshman Phil Jurkovec could conceivably impress enough to at least challenge for Book’s backup duties.

Given how well Book played when called upon last season, with the glaring exception of throwing an interception returned for a touchdown at Miami, suggesting he could lose his backup role may come as a shock. First of all, notice that verb choice: could, not should. It is merely a possibility.

Jurkovec arrives more highly-touted than any Notre Dame quarterback since five-star Dayne Crist arrived to succeed another California product who first arrived in South Bend in a limousine. (Read: Jimmy Clausen.) It has been a full decade since a prep passer of Jurkovec’s caliber donned a gold helmet. Common sense and Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian say to stop short of expecting Jurkovec to shine in his freshman season, but it is somewhat logical to think he could instigate some roster churn.

That churn may simply be a challenge. Jurkovec might not pass Book because instead he forces Book to raise his game as Wimbush supposedly boosted his own in the spring and summer. Such pressure would still hold an effect, even if not this season.

No matter who backs up Wimbush in 2018, Notre Dame’s ideal includes the No. 2 quarterback playing in only blowouts. Looking forward, though, if two months on campus are all it takes for Jurkovec to push Book, then that makes it all the more likely Jurkovec bypasses Book by 2019. The broadest view begins to wonder about roster turnover if Book realizes he will never be the Irish starter. The focused look raises expectations for Jurkovec as a sophomore starter next season, or in 2020 if Wimbush returns for his final season of eligibility after performing well this year.

Every snap senior running back Dexter Williams (center) does — and does not — take this preseason will be scrutinized more than ever, only in part because of the unproven depth chart behind him. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

In a similar vein, the pecking order at running back will tell a good deal about the future, but the impact there will also be distinct this season.

Much attention will go toward noting which unit senior Dexter Williams works with and how much. Summertime speculation dictates as much. With or without Williams, questions abound for running backs coach Autry Denson. Can any of his four young backs elevate himself as Notre Dame’s third option? (Those four being sophomore positional-newbies Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis, and freshmen Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister.)

At least one more reliable back, in addition to junior Tony Jones and Williams, is an absolute necessity. Denson undoubtedly prefers a minimum of two. If Williams does end up sidelined for the first few games of the season, that additional trusted ballcarrier will suddenly be the No. 2 option, a duty including 6-10 carries and two dozen snaps each week.

Whoever claims that spot will have a chance to supplant Williams and, even if not doing that, gain an edge for next season’s depth chart when Williams will not be a factor in any regard whatsoever.

Armstrong and Davis provide the most intrigue, moving from receiver and quarterback, respectively. Armstrong’s skillset best replicates Williams’, while Davis could add an entire comforter’s worth of wrinkles to Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long’s schemes. Meanwhile, Smith and Flemister offer the ever-alluring thoughts of the unknown.

One of those four will be absolutely needed this season. Two will probably get 20-plus carries. As of now, guessing which is a baffling task.

Guessing who will start at rover is a simpler question, with senior Asmar Bilal yet the frontrunner. However, some credence must be given to sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah and freshman Shayne Simon. Both were recruited with this exact position in mind, Simon more so than Owusu-Koromoah due to defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea having a full cycle to identify his target.

With that in mind, either one overtaking Bilal would not speak solely to the upperclassmen underperforming, even if it has been a career staple to date. A change in the starting lineup may not occur over the next month, but Simon getting snaps alongside senior middle linebacker Te’von Coney at any point in preseason practices would point toward such a move being on the table by midseason.

Jalen Elliott (No. 21) started all 13 games last season, but his first-string gig may be in jeopardy this preseason. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

A similar dynamic could unfold at safety, where four-star freshmen Houston Griffith and Derrik Allen immediately threaten the roles of juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill. Add in junior Alohi Gilman, now eligible after sitting the requisite year following his transfer from Navy, and the newcomers at safety have already inspired drastic roster shifts. Most notably, senior Nick Coleman, a 14-game starter at the position, took spring snaps at nickelback. Three other former safeties moved up to linebacker, at least in part due to their own skillsets: junior D.J. Morgan and sophomores Jordan Genmark Heath and Isaiah Robertson.

That prompted attrition leaves few options at safety other than implementing some of the infused talent. Preseason practice is the time to decipher if Griffith will start over Elliott or only rotate in as the third safety.

One more position to worry about for those desperate for controversy … kick returner. Senior Chris Finke is likely to retain punt return duties, at least to begin the season, but with C.J. Sanders gone to SMU, someone will need to field the opening kickoff against Michigan. (Or, pending a coin toss, the kickoff to begin the second half.) Freshman receiver Braden Lenzy and his blazing track speed is an obvious candidate. Freshman cornerback Tariq Bracy had pertinent success in the return game in high school. Other options — sophomore receiver Michael Young and freshman receiver Lawrence Keys spring to mind — will certainly get chances.

These are ponderings that will largely extend past head coach Brian Kelly’s time with the media today (Thursday) at noon ET. For sanity’s sake, let’s hope they gain some clarity before 7:30 ET on Sept. 1.

RELATED READING:
No. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 30 Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, linebacker, sophomore
No. 25 Braden Lenzy, receiver, incoming freshman
No. 24 Nick Coleman, defensive back, senior
No. 22 Asmar Bilal, rover, senior
No. 20 C’Bo Flemister, running back, incoming freshman
No. 15 Phil Jurkovec, quarterback, consensus four-star incoming freshman
No. 14 Devin Studstill, safety, junior
No. 13 Lawrence Keys, receiver, incoming freshman
No. 12 Ian Book, quarterback, junior
No. 11 Alohi Gilman, safety, Navy transfer
No. 10 Tariq Bracy, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 8 Jafar Armstrong, running back/receiver, sophomore
No. 7 Brandon Wimbush, quarterback, senior
No. 7 Derrik Allen, consensus four-star safety, incoming freshman
No. 3 Houston Griffith, consensus four-star safety, early-enrolled freshman
No. 3 Avery Davis, quarterback and running back and receiver

[protected-iframe id="4322d87b3e2eb4d11caa19723fa3b36c-15933026-22035394" info="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" class="twitter-follow-button"]

Notre Dame will face South Carolina in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30

9 Comments

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

66 Comments

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

3 Comments

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
Getty Images
9 Comments

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