Quick start, strong defense make Notre Dame too much for Michigan


SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A year ago, a last-minute strip-sack sealed Notre Dame’s first loss of the season. This time, the No. 12 Irish benefited from such dramatics to clinch a 24-17 victory over No. 14 Michigan.

Junior defensive end Khalid Kareem’s first sack came late in the first quarter. From that point on, it was inevitable he would be a part of another one, based on what he learned on that 16-yard loss. He had timed the Wolverines’ snap count. With less than a minute left in the game, Kareem recognized the count once more, timed his release accordingly, and looped around senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery’s intial pressure. Kareem beat his blocker and forced Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson up into the awaiting Tillery, who knocked the ball loose; senior linebacker Te’von Coney recovered to effectively end the game.

“I was getting a rhythm with their snap count,” Kareem said, describing it as two claps from Patterson to alert center Cesar Ruiz to start the count, a drop of the head by Ruiz, a brief pause and then the snap. “… I got a good jump on the ball, beat the tackle, made the play.”

As much as the Irish offense set the tone early with two touchdowns in the first eight minutes, it was defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s unit that controlled Saturday night. In his first game calling the shots, Lea’s defense allowed only 90 rushing yards (sacks adjusted) on an even 3.0 yards per rush. Through three quarters, the Wolverines had managed 178 total yards and converted just 3-of-9 third downs. It took desperate measures for Michigan’s offense to finally find traction in the fourth quarter, with Patterson completing 6-of-8 passes for 80 yards in the final frame.

“We have to have that kind of (defensive) depth,” Kelly said. “We’re not generally going to get that one singular star player, but we can develop depth in our group and have that kind of defensive structure where we roll out a lot of really good football players.”

The Wolverines needed to take to the air because Notre Dame started so strongly. In his first career start, sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong took his second career carry 13 yards to the end zone fewer than 90 seconds after the opening kickoff.

On the next Irish possession, senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush connected with senior receiver Chris Finke for a 43-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead. Another Armstrong touchdown in the second quarter made it 21-3 before Michigan’s Ambry Thomas returned the subsequent kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. The Wolverines would not score again until barely two minutes remained. An Irish three-and-out to follow seemed to offer hope for the maize-and-blue, until Kareem, Tillery and Coney counted otherwise.

“When you feel really good about the physicality of your football team, the offensive line and defensive line,” Kelly said, “your quarterback is a spark, and on the perimeter we won some 50/50 battles, that’s a pretty good football team.

“So I think we’ve got a pretty good football team.”

Neither Notre Dame nor Michigan began the second half with anything resembling efficiency. Wimbush overthrew junior receiver Chase Claypool and instead found Wolverines cornerback Brandon Watson’s breadbasket.  The next Irish drive was the truest of three-and-outs, gaining no yards before a punt. Michigan, meanwhile, twice turned the ball over on downs before at least pondering field position with a punt after its own three-and-out.

Combined, the two bumbling offenses turned the first 19 offensive snaps of the third quarter into all of 59 yards. Then, Wolverines linebacker Devin Bush sacked Wimbush for a 10-yard loss to bring up third-and-18. The offensive ineptitude seemed primed to persist. Instead, the sack seemed to refocus Wimbush.

“I didn’t think we had enough energy coming out of halftime,” he said. “Somebody needed to change that.”

When Notre Dame needed a big play Saturday night against Michigan’s highly-considered defense, it was usually Irish senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush providing the spark. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Wimbush took that third-down snap and immediately took it up the middle on a designed quarterback draw for 22 yards. Two plays later, he avoided two potential sacks, wheeled into some open space and found a wide open Claypool along the sideline for 19 yards. Two rushes from junior Tony Jones later, Wimbush appeared to throw an over-the-shoulder touchdown to senior receiver Miles Boykin, only for a penalty to wipe out the highlight-reel score. That led to a 48-yard field goal from senior Justin Yoon.

“I just felt we were backed up a little bit too often,” Wimbush said. “That was on my mind, but every time you get into a third-and-long situation, you have to be smart. Obviously, you want to make a great play. I think the offensive line, on the quarterback draw, did a great job of opening it up.”

That may seem to be an anti-climatic conclusion, a field goal to raise the lead to 24-10. In many ways, it was. But Wimbush’s response to Bush’s sack led Notre Dame down the field for the only time in the second half. Of the 69 Irish yards after halftime, 41 came on that drive. If not using the sack to draw from his stats, Wimbush accounted for 43 yards, missing out on 26 more due to that ineligible man downfield flag.

“He played with an edge to him,” Kelly said. “A confidence. He got the game ball tonight. He really had an energy to him, which brought the group with him.”

Notre Dame’s roster lists senior receiver Chris Finke at 5-foot-9 ½ and 180 pounds. Michigan’s puts sophomore defensive back Brad Hawkins at 6-foot-2 and 213 pounds. There is no situation in which Finke should be able to jump over Hawkins and take what appears to be a sure interception and turn it into a touchdown. Yet, he did.

It would have been a tough snag by Hawkins, needing to read both Finke’s route and Wimbush’s throw perfectly and make a catch in traffic. It was an even more impressive score from the former walk-on.

Armstrong deserves mention. His debut was inarguably solid. Kareem’s day stands out even more, though. It is only amplified when briefly wondering if the entire defensive line warranted this nominal honor. Consider: Of the line’s 15 tackles, Kareem made eight. Of the line’s 3.5 tackles for loss, Kareem made 1.5 of them, and he combined with Tillery to force that fitting coda of a fumble.

Michigan’s offense spun its wheels for 54 minutes. Patterson was pressured six times total. The Wolverines gained 10 yards on a run just once. Kareem’s development against the run helped set that edge, becoming more of a complete player in the last nine months, knowing that role was awaiting him.

“As long as I go out there and do my job, I feel like I can be the best in the country,” Kareem said in what was actually a modest tone.

Wimbush completed 12-of-22 passes for 170 yards with both a touchdown and an interception. Adjusting for sacks, he ran for 77 yards on 17 carries, an average of 4.53 yards per rush. It was not an inherently-explosive performance, but it included big plays both through the air (that Finke touchdown) and on the ground (the third-and-18 conversion). Seven of his 12 completions went for first downs. He rushed for five more.

Counting Armstrong’s four-yard score, the Irish had 22 first downs. Wimbush accounted for 12 of them.

Brian Kelly: “Our last two games that we’ve played, we’ve beaten really good defenses and really good personnel in close games, and winning close games against really good football teams, that usually lends itself to you’ve probably got a pretty good football program and keep building it and keep recruiting and keep a healthy culture and organization.

“You should be having the kind of atmosphere we had tonight. Wasn’t that cool? That was as good as I can remember.”

First Quarter
13:35 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jafar Armstrong 13-yard rush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Michigan 0. (7 plays, 75 yards, 1:25)
7:09 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Finke 43-yard reception from Brandon Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Michigan 0. (7 plays, 96 yards, 3:07)

Second Quarter
11:32 — Michigan field goal. Quinn Nordin 28 yards. Notre Dame 14, Michigan 3. (11 plays, 31 yards, 4:30)
3:55 — Notre Dame touchdown. Armstrong 4-yard run. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Michigan 3.
3:41 — Michigan touchdown. Ambry Thomas 99-yard kickoff return. Nordin PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Michigan 10.

Third Quarter
3:07 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 48 yards. Notre Dame 24, Michigan 10.

Fourth Quarter
2:18 — Michigan touchdown. Karan Higdon 3-yard run. Quinn PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Michigan 17. (7 plays, 80 yards, 2:49)

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Georgia OL prospect the first commit for new Notre Dame OL coach Joe Rudolph


New Notre Dame offensive line coach Joe Rudolph pulled in his first recruit by continuing to chase a prospect he initially wanted at his last job. Three-star offensive lineman Anthonie Knapp (Roswell High School; Ga.) committed to the Irish on Wednesday afternoon, picking Notre Dame over Rudolph’s former employer, Virginia Tech, as well as Georgia Tech and North Carolina.

In total, more than half the ACC offered Knapp a scholarship. The Irish offer came only this past weekend with Knapp in South Bend catching up with Rudolph, who was the first Power Five coach to offer a scholarship to Knapp back at Virginia Tech.

“The hospitality and the heritage it kept made the school stand out,” Knapp said to Inside ND Sports in a text message.

At 6-foot-5 and less than 270 pounds, Knapp will need to put on weight at the next level, though that can be said of most high school juniors. He played left tackle last season, but unless the weight piles on quickly and consistently, Knapp will most likely play guard at the next level.

His footwork already looks more fundamentally sound than most high schoolers display, all the more impressive because Knapp could simply rely on overpowering his opponents as most offensive line prospects understandably tend to do. Knapp is content to use his length and footwork to let a pass rusher charge upfield, well past the quarterback.

Strength and mass will come with age and entering a collegiate conditioning program, and Knapp needs both of those, but length is uncoachable and footwork fundamentals hold up early careers as often as lack of strength does.

He is the second offensive lineman in the class, joining four-star offensive guard Peter Jones, also a preps tackle that is expected to move inside in college.

Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s biggest offensive progressions this spring will be smallest to spot from afar

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When Marcus Freeman was first hired as Notre Dame’s head coach in December of 2021, it was widely expected he would retain three-fifths of his offensive coaching staff. Instead, promotions elsewhere awaited two of those coaches, leaving only Tommy Rees as a constant.

Then Rees and one-year returnee Harry Hiestand departed this offseason, meaning Freeman’s entire offensive coaching staff turned over — and the offensive line coach twice — within 15 months of that supposedly being a piece of stability he could lean on as a young first-time head coach. Yet, one thing has not changed about Freeman’s relationship with the offensive coaches: He is trying to stay out of their way.

“Most of the [newcomers] are on the offensive side of the ball, so really I just try to stay out of the way and let those guys meet,” Freeman said last week at the start of the Irish spring practices. “Give them time to be together. They’ve been together a lot and met a lot and really, you have to meet to get everybody on the same page. A lot of that is cohesion, that ability to view these guys as teammates.

“… I’ve been in there a bit, and then we have our staff meetings to make sure everybody understands our culture, understands our expectations. It’s not where it’s a finished product, but it’s definitely progressing to where we want to see it.”

A year ago, the cohesion Freeman was most worried about on the offensive side of the ball was between Rees and a pair of inexperienced quarterbacks. Now, it’s the collaboration between an offensive coordinator, a quarterbacks coach and an offensive line coach who had never worked together before a month or two ago. Freeman, of course, knew offensive coordinator Gerad Parker for more than a decade, quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli for seven years and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph since Freeman’s playing days at Ohio State beginning in 2004.

That has been a common theme in Freeman’s hires, tying to former Notre Dame special teams coach Brian Mason, current cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and defensive line coach Al Washington.

“There’s nothing more important than experience with somebody,” Freeman said. “I don’t have to wonder what this person is like when I’m not around. … When I can find a quality coach that I know can be the best at his profession, but also I have personal experience with them — I’m not saying we’re friends, but we’ve worked together. Coach Rudolph was at Ohio State when I was a player, but I knew what type of person he was.”

That is the commonality between those three new offensive hires, though a few pieces of similar backgrounds can be found between Parker and Guidugli. At 42 and 40, respectively, they both grew up in the Ohio River Valley and played college football along the same Kentucky-Ohio Interstate corridor. Parker then went straight into coaching while Guidugli knocked around the Canadian Football League and various iterations of short-lived secondary leagues in the United States until he went into coaching in 2010.

At the least, though, their formative years should have shared enough to lay a foundation now, the foundation upon which Freeman is counting on them to build an offense. That progression may be as important as any other made on the offensive side of the ball this spring.

After just one practice, Freeman saw value in a quarterbacks coach who can somewhat ignore the rest of the offense. Rees’s focus was assuredly on the quarterbacks, but Sam Hartman, Tyler Buchner & Co. are quite literally all Guidugli needs to concern himself with each day.

“When you take some of that responsibility off their plate, and it’s just coach the quarterbacks and see if they made the right decision because there’s so much that falls on [the quarterback’s] plate that isn’t really his fault,” Freeman said. “I know he gets the praise and he gets the criticism, but my biggest thing, did you make the right decision? That’s so important at the quarterback position.”

Parker thinks there may be more to the gig than the right decision. Wake Forest graduate transfer Sam Hartman should have little trouble with any intangibles of acclimating to a new campus and a new roster, even if he did not have to run many huddles with the Demon Deacons, but there will be one tangible shift to his quarterback play that Hartman might need to work on.

“Just in its simplest form, just taking snaps under center,” Parker said this weekend. “As simple as that. Just being able to secure a football under center.”

Parker wants to emphasize that because even as Notre Dame presumably opens up its offense a bit more with a deeper receivers room chasing passes from a stronger-armed quarterback, the Irish offense will still hinge on its veteran offensive line and trio of proven running backs.

Finding that balance can come in August. For now, finding that snap will be Hartman’s focus while Parker, Guidugli, Rudolph and a litany of offensive analysts strive to learn the same shorthand.

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Thomas’ leadership, freshmen arrivals already improve Notre Dame’s receivers room

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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As much criticism as Drew Pyne and Tommy Rees received for Notre Dame’s ground-bound offense last season, much of that approach was due to a reality beyond their control. The former Irish quarterback and offensive coordinator could not run the routes or catch the passes.

Notre Dame had few who could run the routes and among them, it seemed even fewer who could catch Pyne’s passes. Thus, the Irish threw for fewer than 200 yards in six games, not even reaching triple digits in the 35-14 upset of Clemson to start November. They threw 21 or fewer passes four times; raise that to 26 pass attempts and three more games qualify.

Of Notre Dame’s 192 completed passes in the regular season, 35 percent of them landed in the hands of tight end Michael Mayer. Another 22 percent found running backs. Six Irish receivers combined to catch 94 passes for 1,306 yards total last year. Seven receivers across the country caught 94 or more passes on their own in 2022, and three topped that yardage tally.

There simply were not ample options among the receivers for Rees to draw up plays with Pyne targeting them, particularly not after Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins were injured in the preseason, Deion Colzie was hampered in the preseason and Tobias Merriweather’s season would be cut short by a concussion.

The Irish moving running back Chris Tyree to at least a part-time role at receiver this spring will help solve that dearth but not nearly as much as the arrivals of Virginia Tech transfer Kaleb Smith and a trio of early-enrolled freshmen will. With them, Notre Dame has nine receivers on hand this spring, though who exactly leads them is a vague wonder.

Smith has the most collegiate experience with 74 career catches, and his size should place him into the starting lineup, but he is just as new in South Bend as early enrollees Rico Flores, Jaden Greathouse and Braylon James all are. Of the three rising juniors on the roster, each had a moment or two of note last season, but Jayden Thomas’s may have been the most consistent, finishing with 25 catches for 362 yards and three touchdowns.

“That’s the challenge I’ve had for that entire room,” Freeman said of finding a leader in the position group. “Guys that have been here. … I hope Jayden Thomas continues to excel on the field and then in his leadership roles.

“What he’s done in the weight room, I think he’s matured and said, okay, I can play at a higher level when I take care of my body or I’m at a weight I feel really comfortable at.”

Those were mostly generic platitudes, but Thomas’s 2022 stats alone are impressive enough to garner a leading role when dug into a bit. Of his 25 catches, 18 of them gained a first down. Of those 18, eight of them came on third down and another two were on second-and-long. If Notre Dame needed a chunk gain and Mayer was covered, Thomas was the most likely outlet.

That should give him pole position to be the boundary starter heading into 2023, with Colzie and/or Merriweather pressing him forward. Smith’s experience and size should pencil him in as the field starter, leaving the slot the question on the first unit for the next 14 spring practices.

Tyree could emerge there, but he is more likely to be a utility knife type of option, concealing any offensive alignment until the snap. Instead, rising junior Lorenzo Styles may get a chance at the slot. He has the tools if he has the focus.

Styles dropped six passes last season, more than anyone else on the roster and a bothersome number regardless of his final stats, but one that stands out in particular when realizing he caught only 30 passes for 340 yards and a score.

“It became I think mental last year,” Freeman said Wednesday. “Lorenzo Styles is a talented, talented football player, really talented. With him last year, it almost became a mental struggle, even just the basics of catching the ball.”

Last year, those mental struggles were enough to somewhat undo Notre Dame’s offense, because the Irish had no choice but to play Styles through his missteps. Now, whether it be injury or some headspace frustrations that Chuck Knoblauch could relate to, the Irish have some depth at receiver if needed. As the season progresses, that depth will become only stronger with the freshmen rounding into form.

“The young wideouts caught a couple balls, and it’s going to be good to see the progression of all those freshmen,” Freeman said. “They’re all going to be in different places on the road. That’s what I spend a lot of time talking to our team about, we’re all freshmen, you can’t compare your journey to this guy’s journey.”

Wherever those journeys are, they are welcome additions to Notre Dame’s offense. As much as newly-promoted offensive coordinator Gerad Parker will relish the luxury that is veteran quarterback Sam Hartman, simply having options on the perimeter for Hartman to look for should be an Irish improvement.

Sam Hartman’s practice debut features Notre Dame veteran Chris Tyree move to receiver, at least for now

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Marcus Freeman’s second spring as Notre Dame’s head coach has begun. As he pointed out Wednesday, it is quarterback transfer Sam Hartman’s sixth spring practice. Both are still looking around a bit for their proper cues, though Hartman’s hesitance now should be short-lived.

“He’s like a freshman, it’s new,” Freeman said. “I was joking with him, this is his sixth spring ball, but you’re at a new place, a new system, still figuring out where to go, what a drill is called, so you can see him at times just trying to say, ‘Okay, where are we going, what’s the drill, what are we doing, how many plays?’

“But he’s got some natural ability when he throws the ball and when he plays the game of football. You’ll see the leadership traits that he possesses grow because I know he has them. He’s a leader the first time you meet him. You can tell that he really commands respect.”

Freeman mentioned a “quarterback competition” between Hartman and rising junior Tyler Buchner only once, something that will reoccur throughout the next month, though more in name than in reality. Whoever takes the lead at quarterback, and it will be Hartman, will have a new target to get comfortable with in rising senior Chris Tyree.

Tyree spent the first spring practice working at receiver after lining up at running back the vast majority of the last three years. Freeman would not commit to that being a full-time shift for Tyree, but given the Irish depth at running back — led by rising juniors Audric Estimé and Logan Diggs, with rising sophomore Gi’Bran Payne the next in line for the spring while classmate Jadarian Price continues to “progress” from a torn Achilles last summer — Tyree working at receiver for the long-term should make some sense.

“He’s a guy that has multiple skill sets, and we know Chris Tyree is a guy we have to have on the football field,” Freeman said. “The ability to put him at wideout, we know what he can do as a running back, to really be a guy that can do multiple different things.”

Tyree took 100 rushes for 444 yards and three touchdowns and caught 24 passes for 138 yards and two more scores last year. The ball-carrying was a step forward compared to his previous seasons, but he caught 24 passes for 258 yards in 2021. In three games in 2022, Tyree gained more than 20 yards through the air. He was one of the more reliable pass-catchers on Notre Dame’s roster last season, finishing tied for fourth in receptions, one behind Jayden Thomas’s 25 catches and just six behind Lorenzo Styles, the leading returning receiver.

“You’re seeing more of that in college football and in the NFL,” Freeman said. “Guys that can play multiple different skill positions on offense, so do you treat him as a running back, do you treat him as a wideout? That’s what we have to do, and gain confidence in the quarterbacks in him as a wide receiver.”

Tyree’s shift was the most notable on the field on the first day of spring practices, but a handful of absences also stood out.

Junior linebacker Will Schweitzer, junior safety Justin Walters and junior quarterback Ron Powlus III have taken medical retirements, while junior cornerback Philip Riley, junior offensive lineman Caleb Johnson and junior kicker Josh Bryan are all no longer with the program, presumably each pursuing a transfer following this semester.

With those departures, Notre Dame’s roster now has 87 players on scholarship, two more than the NCAA maximum allowed when the season starts.

In hiring Marty Biagi from Mississippi, Freeman strayed from his usual habit of hiring coaches he has previous experience with. He did, however, have some mutual connections to reach out to about Biagi.

“I remember when we were playing Purdue when I was defensive coordinator (at Notre Dame in 2021), I was sitting in a special teams meeting, and they did some unique things on special teams.

“I still know some people back in West Lafayette from my time there, and he does, too. Somehow his name got brought up, so I was interested in interviewing him last year before I hired [former Irish special teams coordinator Brian Mason]. I didn’t know [Biagi] personally, but I had talked to him before, I knew enough about him. It’s important because you need to know when you’re not around, you can trust those guys that you’re working with.”

Defensive backs Cam Hart and Thomas Harper will both be held out of contact for at least the near future as they recover from winter shoulder surgeries, while early-enrolled defensive lineman Devan Houstan Will Likely miss all springtime work due to his own recent shoulder surgery.

Tight ends Eli Raridon and Kevin Bauman will not take part this spring due to ACL injuries in the fall.

Freeman expressed some optimism about Price’s timeline, but even that was measured.

“I don’t know if he will be full go, but he has done a lot of running and I see him progressing to more and more actual football practice.”

Given Price is still less than a calendar year from a ruptured Achilles, it is most likely he is limited well into the summer.