Big-Picture Mailbag: Wherein Notre Dame fans somehow worry

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Notre Dame is undefeated, and for the most part, that is good enough. Yet, concern about the No. 4 Irish showed itself in this week’s call for mailbag questions through references to other programs, be they Pittsburgh, Alabama or Michigan. Yes, that is the first time in 2018 those three have been mentioned in the same breath. Maybe the first time this decade.

Let’s begin with the most recent Notre Dame victory and work our way toward ending with some philosophical Wolverines wonderings.

Brian Kelly shrugged off the difficulty the Irish had against the game plan Pitt put into place. But the concern is, of course, that it WORKED. The counterargument is that there were quite a few missed passes that would have changed things (dramatically) and quite a few missed blocking assignments that could have broken for us.

But doesn’t this just tell every other team on our remaining schedule what the blueprint is for containing the Irish? And if so, what is the next chess move for Kelly to counter it? — Mark H.

It worked? Notre Dame won, right? And the defense gave up just 242 total yards, one score and 4.0 yards per play, right? Right. Just making sure.

Pittsburgh’s method worked only to that extent; it was not enough. That is the first counter: Continue relying on the Irish defense.

The next thing to remember is teams take on their coaches’ dispositions. The Panthers follow Pat Narduzzi’s lead, and to a lesser extent, defensive coordinator Randy Bates. That results in a defense willing to sell out against the run when told to, even if doing so comes at the expense of the secondary. Not all other teams will have that success or the roster designed for it. The current iterations of Navy and Florida State, for example, very much do not, and USC needs to worry now with senior linebacker Porter Gustin out for the year.

His success sometimes makes it hard to remember: Ian Book is still a first-year starter with only five career starts under his belt. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

Lastly, some of this is overreaction forgetting the Irish can indeed counter this defensive strategy, and that will start with junior quarterback Ian Book. He was “antsy” and “skittish” against Pittsburgh, to use his own words. To offer a broader description, Book was nervous about any version of a pass rush. He had not yet faced a stacked box like that, and the first appearance of one reminded Book he is a first-year starter leading an unbeaten team toward the Playoff. If the moment did not get to him, some version of doubt did, be it in himself, the offensive line or the game plan.

Book spun away from not-yet-threatening pass rushes too often against the Panthers. Fortunately for Notre Dame, that should not be a difficult bad habit to break upon some film review. If Book realizes his happy feet actually got him into more trouble than they evaded, he may settle down when Northwestern — where Bates was defensive coordinator as recently as last year — tries a similar strategy. At that point, exploiting the minimalist secondary should be readily possible.

Losing a night of sleep after Virginia Tech may have affected the team’s performance against Pitt. Why doesn’t the team spend the night after a late away game? Would it be an NCAA violation? Is it just about cost? — Joseph B.

Notre Dame reportedly plans to do just that after the Navy game in San Diego kicks off at 8 ET. The flight back from southern California will also cover about 1,800 miles, compared to only 450 or so from Virginia Tech. That trip really was not very lengthy.

Given those November plans, it is obviously not an NCAA violation, but there is a logistics issue when the kickoff time is not announced in the summer. If the Lane Stadium festivities had ended up dampened by sunlight, then what would have been gained by staying the night? That kickoff time was not known until six days beforehand.

What, if anything, does sending clips of holding calls/penalties to the ACC do? So far, seen no results. — @sogdeaux

Let’s presume you are sitting at a table as you read this. Seems a reasonable possibility. If not, pretend.

Now, can you prove to me there is not a ghost under that table? Can you prove to me you have not seen any effects of Notre Dame sending in clips to the ACC pointing out missed holding calls?

It is very possible the Irish coaching staff would have sent in a dozen clips after the Pitt game if not for pointing out some holds missed at Wake Forest. Likely? No. But you cannot prove otherwise.

Notre Dame junior defensive end Julian Okwara will likely ask for an NFL draft evaluation this spring, but that is not a sure sign he heads to the next level after this season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

That is the point of sending in the clips. No matter what, calls are going to be missed. These are part-time officials trying to keep up in a game that is going faster and faster with bigger and stronger athletes. It is an utterly thankless task. If Notre Dame can point out — this is strictly a hypothetical — junior defensive end Julian Okwara is often grabbed by the shoulder when he executes a swim move, then an official may be more apt to look for that grab when he sees Okwara begin that paddle motion.

Calls will continue to be missed, but the effect is the call that is made that otherwise would not have been, the ghost under the table you will never see nor even know exists.

With the season more than half over and plenty of empirical evidence at your disposal, can you handicap which seniors will be offered fifth years and who will likely accept? Similarly, which, if any, juniors are likely to enter the 2019 draft? — @kenjomanMcd

First, let’s ruminate on the wonders and bewilderments of technology. This rough draft is getting typed at an airport gate awaiting a flight south. Rather than pay for 90 minutes of shoddy wifi or unnecessarily use up hotspot data, the internet is disconnected. That makes itself clear in the lack of spell check in this particular Google Doc. Yet, somehow, the “2018 Depth Chart” Google Spreadsheet can be opened, although it has never been backed up on this computer.

All this is to say, that oddity is the only reason this question gets pondered right now, and it is also why it took genuine sounding out to spell minimalist earlier.

There is little difference between getting offered a fifth year and accepting it. If the former were to occur without the latter, word would never genuinely leak on that. Only eight current seniors have another year of eligibility available: quarterback Brandon Wimbush, receivers Miles Boykin and Chris Finke, tight end Alizé Mack, offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland, defensive lineman Micah Dew-Treadway, linebacker Asmar Bilal and defensive back Shaun Crawford.

The quicker question to ask is who does not come back. Wimbush heads that list. Even if an injury forced him back into playing time and he led the way to the Playoff, a happier final collegiate year will be found elsewhere, and Wimbush leaving for those pastures would open the gate for current freshman Phil Jurkovec to be no less than Book’s backup in 2019.

Dew-Treadway has given little reason to incur a fifth-year, especially with Notre Dame curating the concept of defensive depth previously unseen in these parts.

The other six would all return to starting and contributing roles, though there is some question to Mack getting approval for it, given his academic suspension in 2016.

As for early-departing juniors, no offensive player has shined enough to warrant consideration, and yes, that is a reference to receiver Chase Claypool. Defensively, cornerback Julian Love and defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara could conceivably have decisions to make. Okwara in particular seems ripe for more development before heading to the NFL draft, but those other two may receive positive enough feedback to warrant strong pondering of collecting paychecks.

Do you see any assistant coaches leaving the Irish this year to jump to a head coach opening in college or an assistant coach position in the NFL? — Charles C.

The latter such move is not seen very often, Harry Hiestand aside. Complete staff continuity is also not seen often, as evidenced by the fact that Notre Dame’s coaching staff seemed ready to remain intact as Boykin raced to the end zone against LSU in the Citrus Bowl, and Brian Kelly still eventually had to replace Hiestand and defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

At the very least, defensive line coach Mike Elston is ready for a head coaching gig, has told Kelly that and has been groomed by Kelly and director of athletics Jack Swarbrick for that.

A few years ago, Kelly and Swarbrick led an unsuccessful effort to get then-running backs coach Tony Alford the head coaching job at his alma mater, Colorado State. If Elston spots an opening he would like, expect a similar full-court press  With Bowling Green already looking and Chuck Martin facing the prospect of his fifth season below .500 at Miami (OH), the possibilities for Elston will be there.

How about some talk about what ND can do between now and January to get ready to face Alabama in the semifinal? — Pat C.

Pat went on to list a thought about every Irish position group, which should pretty much offer the answer to his question. You don’t want ‘Bama. Ain’t no one outside of Louisiana want ‘Bama.

Oh, and by the way, just to start drilling this into heads in case it really does come to matter: The semifinals are not in January. They are Dec. 29.

For the new eligibility rules, do bowl games/postseason games count toward the limit of four? — @ChadComey

Yes. And before you ask, each Playoff game counts toward the total separately.

Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson has found his groove of late, powering the Wolverines into the Playoff conversation. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Would you be of the opinion that we need to root for Michigan or naw? — @IRISH_GL

This is not an attempt to avoid the question. It is an effort to show how tricky this calculus can be. Do you think Notre Dame will lose yet this year?

If not, then go ahead and root for Michigan. If the Wolverines were to go 12-1 to win the Big Ten, it should not affect the Irish. For this hypothetical, let’s presume Alabama and Clemson finish 13-0. The concern about Michigan is better stated as worrying not one, but two one-loss teams would get in ahead of 12-0 Notre Dame. If the Tide are 13-0, then there isn’t even a one-loss SEC team to insert into the hypothetical. Someone from the Big 12 would have to finish that round-robin-plus without losing again. Then, the debate would likely be about Texas (or Oklahoma or West Virginia) against Michigan. The Irish should be clear.

If expecting Notre Dame to lose, then a Wolverines loss may be helpful for the Irish cause, especially if it does not come against Ohio State. The way Michigan is playing, it could slip in ahead of 11-1 Notre Dame. You don’t like it, but it’s in play. If the Wolverines perhaps lost to Michigan State this weekend and then beat the Buckeyes, that would be the ideal setup, along with some Big 12 chaos, for the Irish coming out of Los Angeles with a close defeat.

Reading back on that thought process, the summarized logic indicates Notre Dame fans should root for a Michigan defeat. The Wolverines at 12-1 can do nothing but hurt an 11-1 Irish. Michigan at 12-1 does not impact undefeated Notre Dame, and there need not be fretting about the first undefeated Power Five team excluded from the College Football Playoff being the only one that does not need a conference to be considered a Power Five team.

Here’s one that’s stemming from a conversation with the #NDTwitterati … If you had a button that could eliminate Michigan football permanently, but also erases any trace of them from memory and history, do you press it? — @IrishSBender

Ever seen someone cut off their own nose? It’s not a good look. There is some phrase about spiting your face. It is referencing this.

Who first taught Notre Dame football? Michigan. So go ahead, press your red button, erase the Wolverines’ gridiron history. You’ll be losing Irish lore with it.

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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.