Things We Learned: Turning to Book gets Notre Dame’s offense and defense on same page

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Ian Book’s final stats do not lie. After he completed 73.53 percent of his passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns, with another 47 rushing yards and three scores coming on nine carries, it can be said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly undeniably made the right choice starting the junior quarterback and heretofore backup in Saturday’s 56-27 Irish victory at Wake Forest.

Part of Kelly’s decision tied to the opponent, recognizing a defensive approach designed to keep plays in front of it, in part because the Irish (4-0) run a similar scheme under defensive coordinator Clark Lea, less than two years removed from his own one-year stint with the Deacons (2-2).

“This is a perfect game for Ian Book,” Kelly said. “It’s quarters coverage. You know what you’re going to get. It’s a perfect game for him.”

It played right into Book’s accurate mid-range game. He completed 17-of-31 in his only other career start (Senior Brandon Wimbush was sidelined with a mild foot injury), a 54.84 percent rate, and 14-of-19 in the Citrus Bowl, 73.68 percent. The pros of playing Book rely on his ability and accuracy in the playbook and scheme, something he may not have fully grasped in 2017.

“Another year in the system has sharpened his progression reads and things of that nature,” Kelly said.

That showed. Wake Forest had no chance of stopping Book’s precision attack. When that sharp, a weapon does not need to explode to be effective. Death by a thousand paper cuts yields the same effect as multiple gashes downfield do. But he does not have the same ability to stretch the field vertically. The addition of a third data point provided enough evidence to tangibly see the differences between Book and Wimbush.

Book’s deep ball is lacking. As part of the design, Notre Dame did not need it since the Deacons gave up crossing routes and bubble screens as their version of bend-don’t-break allows. (But okay, break. Wait, no, shatter.)

Book’s longest throws of the day were both about 29 yards through the air, sideline completions to freshman receiver Kevin Austin and junior receiver Chase Claypool. Book placed his toss to Austin perfectly with a nearly indefensible pass. His connection with Claypool, however, showed the difficulty Book may have with a deep ball. If the pass had more distance on it, Claypool would have strolled into the end zone. Instead, it became an unintentional back-shoulder throw with the defensive back catching up to a slowed-down Claypool just as the ball did.

Notre Dame junior quarterback Ian Book’s best asset is his accuracy, not his deep ball or arm strength. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Book’s only other downfield heave of note was again to Austin, traveling 44 yards past the line of scrimmage and drawing a pass interference penalty. While it still could have been caught, it likely would have been if Book had led Austin rather than negating the stride lead he had on his defender with a slightly under-thrown pass.

This is the trade-off. Wimbush has a much stronger arm, which occasionally allows him to fit a ball into an inadvisable window and other times leads to unexpected deep threats. He is also inaccurate, having exceeded a 50 percent completion rate with a minimum of 20 pass attempts only five times in 15 career starts, 10 of which reached that minimum.

Against the Deacons, “a perfect game” means the Irish paper cuts add up. Credit to Conor O’Neill of the Winston-Salem Journal for bringing this sequence to the surface: Notre Dame and Wake Forest have met twice in the last nine games. In those two, the Irish have gained 710 and 566 yards of total offense, an average of 638 yards. In the seven games between, Notre Dame averaged 352.71 yards of total offense.

This explosion does not directly tie to the institutional knowledge provided by Lea and previously Mike Elko. It instead speaks to the luxuries of facing Wake Forest. By O’Neill’s math, the Irish average 5.36 yards per play in those seven intervening games, while ripping the Deacons for 7.98 yards per play.

Book played well. As did Notre Dame.

But to some degree, Wake Forest is just a great matchup for the Irish offense. Usually this space abides by the belief that once is an incidence, twice is a coincidence and three times marks a trend, but the numbers against the Deacons are so disparate, the pattern needed only two games to be apparent. (If curious, the two next meet again in 2020.)

Notre Dame will not make 56 points a habit, no matter who is at quarterback. Book will not routinely throw for three bucks and a quarter while padding the stats of 10 different targets. He may, given a proper sample size, routinely complete 60 or even 70 percent of his passes, a direct symptom of taking what the defense gives rather than testing high-risk/high-reward jump balls.

Notre Dame fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill racked up eight tackles with two for loss including this sack during Saturday’s 56-27 Irish victory at Wake Forest. For the first time this season, Tranquill did not need to play every single defensive snap. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

That passing accuracy led to offensive effectiveness which, in turn, led to the Irish defense getting some genuine breaks.

That was part of why Kelly made the change. Facing one of the country’s fastest-paced offenses, repeatedly and frequently exposing Lea’s defense to Wake Forest’s tempo would have spelled undeniable exhaustion for Notre Dame’s primary defenders.

“We played 97 snaps against Ball State,” Kelly said. “It was going to break. It needed to get fixed now. … We were putting too much stress on the other parts of the operation, in particular the defense.”

The Irish ran 72 plays against the Cardinals and 76 against the Deacons. Similarly, Ball State ran 97 plays while Wake Forest managed 92.

The difference? Seven of Notre Dame’s 15 possessions two weeks ago lasted six plays or fewer without ending with a score, not including kneeling out the clock at the end of the game. This weekend, only five out of 15 possessions struggled such. Two weeks ago, just a pair of Irish drives lasted longer than three minutes. Three did so Saturday.

That may not seem an exorbitant increase, but the rewards are exponential. Furthermore, every touchdown scored equals a few more real-world minutes spent on an extra point attempt and elongated commercial breaks, sandwiched around a kickoff.

Those starters’ rests eventually included the debuts of backup linebackers. For the first time this season, Notre Dame brought senior Te’von Coney and fifth-year Drue Tranquill to the bench. This is not exactly something learned, just something finally seen beyond theory. Junior Jonathan Jones spelled Coney, sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath stepped in for Tranquill, and at one point senior rover Asmar Bilal moved to Tranquill’s spot in a nickel package, showcasing another form of plausible depth. In addition to his increasing duties on special teams, freshman Bo Bauer also took some turns at linebacker.

Bauer finished with six tackles, Bilal and Genmark Heath each notched four and Jones had three including one behind the line of scrimmage. Such chances create a pathway to Tranquill and Coney having some life left in their legs in November, a necessity if Notre Dame is to continue to dream the dreams spurred by an undefeated record through four weeks.

A dream now burgeoned by Book, affecting both the offense and the defense in positive ways.

It seems a requirement to include some piece of mindless wordplay somewhere here, so let it be one more piece of caution. In routing a Power Five opponent on the road, the Irish once again showed enough glimpses of the potential, greater glimpses than seen yet this season, needed to even ponder certain possibilities.

But by absolutely no means does that make it advisable to book any travel plans to northern California just yet. Bide time for at least two more weeks. They will develop this season’s plot more than the last four weeks, or even nine months, have.

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Leftovers & Links: Transfer portal opens fast, but slow for Notre Dame … for now; Mayer & Foskey status TBD

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The transfer portal is open.

The difference between this year and the previous few years is that there is a set window for undergraduate players to enter the database better and more ominously known as the portal. And that window began today, Dec. 5.

There was uncertainty about how this opening day would go. Like the first moments of National Signing Day, with announcement after announcement after announcement? With a trickle throughout the day and the week? Would players be out of the portal (again, it’s just a database) as quickly as they entered it?

Through half a day of it, the answers are all somewhere in between.

For Notre Dame’s concerns, only two players have jumped into the portal thus far today: junior quarterback Drew Pyne, as expected since his announcement on Friday, and freshman cornerback Jayden Bellamy. More will assuredly follow in the coming month, likely this week if not even yet Monday night.

“We’ve had individual meetings with a lot of our players,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said Sunday night. “Really just talked to them about taking it a little bit at a time to kind of figure out their plans for the transfer portal, for playing in the bowl game and other decisions they have to make.”

Some players already have homes — most notably, Phil Jurkovec may finally get his return to Notre Dame Stadium next season, date to be determined, having already committed to Pittsburgh — while others are piling up. The quarterbacks draw the most attention, and understandably so, with North Carolina State’s Devin Leary joining the fray on Monday, perhaps a name for Irish fans to note.

The possibility of Leary, of course, is presumably part of why Pyne is transferring and not playing in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30 against No. 19 South Carolina (3:30 ET; ABC). Along with names like Texas’ Hudson Card and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong (though the Syracuse rumors around Armstrong are noticeable and logical), Freeman has quarterback candidates to chase and intends to do so.

“We had a conversation this week, myself and Drew, as well as many of the other players that we have on our team in terms of our intentions, my intentions into certain positions, look for transfers,” Freeman said. “I’m always looking for ways to enhance our roster. I always want to be up front and honest, and I was with Drew, told him that we would possibly look at taking a transfer quarterback.

“I did not want him to leave, but he made the decision to enter the portal, and I definitely respect his decision.”

With the quarterback carousel moving at lightning speed — Michigan’s Cade McNamara to Iowa and Jurkovec to Pittsburgh already underscoring how quickly that specific position will develop each offseason; Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei is widely expected to land somewhere on the West Coast — Pyne skipping the Gator Bowl makes sense. He needs to secure his next position now, not in January.

“What he has done for our program, the ability for him to step in week 2 and throughout the season, he did a tremendous job,” Freeman said.

In Pyne’s stead, Freeman said sophomore quarterback and initial 2022 starter Tyler Buchner is “full go.” Now, let’s add in this space’s continued disclaimer that coaches are almost always more optimistic publicly about injury timelines than they should be, and all initial expectations for Buchner’s return from a serious shoulder sprain, one that necessitated surgery, ruled out a bowl game. But, Buchner has participated in Notre Dame’s two practices this week.

“We still have three quarterbacks on the roster,” Freeman said. “You have Tyler Buchner, Steve Angeli and Ron Powlus. All have been practicing the past two days that we practiced and could see any of the three play. They’ll all be ready to play.”

Neither junior tight end Michael Mayer nor senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey partook in those practices, something Freeman said was intentional as Notre Dame gears some of its bowl prep toward developing younger players. It also gives the two biggest NFL draft candidates on the Irish roster a chance to consider if they’ll play against the Gamecocks.

“We had a plan to sit out some guys as recovery for these last two practices of development and trying to really focus on the younger guys and developing the younger guys on our team,” Freeman said. “So I told both of those guys just take the week and take a couple of days to really think about what they want to do for their future.”

Freeman outright acknowledging the possibility of Mayer and/or Foskey skipping the bowl game represents both the changing of the times and the program’s understanding of the logic to such a decision.

“We will discuss it sometime this week, probably early this week.”

ON JAYDEN BELLAMY
Bellamy was one of three cornerbacks signed by Nore Dame last recruiting cycle, and while the other two blossomed into starters — Benjamin Morrison snagging five interceptions in the final two Irish home games and Jaden Mickey stepping in for Cam Hart at USC — Bellamy never saw the field.

With Hart returning next season, though missing the bowl game due to a shoulder injury, Notre Dame’s top three cornerbacks for 2023 are established, and there remain three sophomores on the depth chart for Bellamy to compete with and five defensive backs committed in the recruiting class that should sign on the dotted line on Dec. 21, when the early signing period commences.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 23 Jayden Bellamy, early-enrolled freshman cornerback

UPDATE: ON Osita Ekwonu
Senior defensive end Osita Ekwonu joined Bellamy and Pyne in the portal late Monday, finishing his Irish career with six tackles in 16 appearances, two of those tackles coming on Senior Day against Boston College, his only defensive snaps in his Notre Dame career. In his previous 15 games, Ekwonu had appeared on only special teams.

An Achilles injury sidelined Ekwonu in 2021, costing him some traction on the Irish depth chart amid its most talented position group.

His transfer can illustrate some of the folly around transfer portal discourse, something this space somewhat and regrettably encouraged with an embedded tweet on Monday. When pointing out only half — give or take — of portal entrants eventually find homes, it is too easy to ignore that many entrants are former walk-ons looking to elongate their playing careers or graduates who would have needed to transfer following their undergraduate careers all along, including long before terrifying concepts like a “transfer portal” existed. Ekwonu would have transferred 10 years ago, too, but his next stop always would have been uncertain.

Those numbers also neglect to remember there are more players than ever eligible thanks to the universal pandemic eligibility waiver. The vaguest of math suggests it is up to 20 percent more than usual roster size allocates for. As a result, some players are inevitably not going to have homes even if they want to keep playing.

Maybe that will not be Ekwonu; the intention here is not to suggest his career is over. The intention is to remind that Ekwonu would have been transferring somewhere as soon as graduate students were allowed immediate eligibility after a transfer, a rule instituted in 2006.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 34 Osita Ekwonu, senior Vyper end coming off an Achilles injury

ON TIMING
This outgoing roster flux will continue for a week or two, and then there may be a few more departures immediately after the bowl game, though most players will want to get a head start on the transfer process.

Freeman is in communication with all those weighing options, so few possibilities should catch him completely off-guard, but he is not pressuring players to decide today or tomorrow.

“We haven’t set a firm date, deadline, but we told them, … we need to kind of have an idea of what the future plans are for certain guys,” Freeman said. “For our guys that are deciding if they’re going to play or opt out for the NFL draft, they understand the sooner the better. I just didn’t want them to have to rush into a decision.”

Players debating the NFL draft or another season at Notre Dame are more likely to make that decision following the bowl game, completing the second wave of outgoing decisions.

The timing of incoming transfer possibilities will reveal much about what Freeman has or has not been able to accomplish in working with the academic side of the University in the past year. The greatest struggle for Notre Dame admitting many incoming transfers has not been their academic standing, although that itself is a clear hurdle, but the delay in academic decision-makers communicating the academic standing to potential transfers.

Traffic in the portal moves fast; making highly-sought playmakers wait to hear if they will lose one semester of academic progress or two if they transfer to Notre Dame is a sure way to lose those players.

So if a receiver or a quarterback — undergraduates, to be clear — commits to the Irish this week, even if there is no official Notre Dame welcome, that would indicate Freeman has made headway.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Notre Dame will face South Carolina in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30
Drew Pyne to transfer from Notre Dame; Tyler Buchner reportedly a bowl possibility
Notre Dame adds a fourth receiver commit to recruiting class, helping a roster need
CB Cam Hart out for Notre Dame’s bowl game, but will return in 2023
Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s offensive shortcomings again highlighted by an explosive counterpart
Chris Terek’s flip from Wisconsin gives Notre Dame five OL commits in third straight class
Highlights: USC 38, Notre Dame 27 — Arm, legs and foot of Caleb Williams too much for Irish upset bid
USC defense, Caleb Williams’ Heisman-worthy performance never give Notre Dame an opening

OUTSIDE READING
College football’s transfer portal window is open. Buckle up for a frantic 45 days
Several Stanford players set to transfer as search for David Shaw’s replacement continues
Transferring Western Michigan D-lineman Fiske set to visit Notre Dame
Inside Luke Fickell’s move to Wisconsin, why he decided to leave Cincinnati now

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