Notre Dame’s Opponents: New Mexico and former Irish coach Bob Davie

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The outline of these opposition previews is intended to gradually move toward what applies to Notre Dame. Discussing last season broadly before diving into the specifics of what the Irish should expect from each opponent makes sense chronologically and allows a foundation to be laid to explain changes or roster developments. Let’s throw that out the window today.

For the first time ever, a former Notre Dame head coach will lead an opponent into South Bend. Before discussing New Mexico’s four-headed quarterback competition, before pondering the benefits of bringing in 13 junior college transfers, before wondering how two new coordinators could lead to success, let’s discuss Lobos head coach Bob Davie.

Frankly, it is a surprise Davie is still around to create this occasion. Back-to-back 3-9 seasons never do much for job security, even less so when a new athletic director is in charge of your job status. Add in a 30-day suspension in the spring of 2018, right between those dismal years, and Davie returning for 2019 was not expected by all that many.

Those interested in that suspension already know its details. They are unsavory, at best. Davie may not have attempted to exert influence in cases of sexual assault alleged against his players, but the allegations he did cast enough doubt to at least prompt that suspension.

More than a year in the past, that will not be the reason New Mexico eventually dismisses Davie. Unless he finds some recipe for success this season, poor on-field performance will lead to his firing.

Then again, it was always a surprise just to see Davie land with the Lobos. He spent a decade in the television booth after coaching the Irish, and he was inarguably good at that job. Moving to the Southwest may have made familial sense, but to spend eight years coaching a lower-tier Mountain West program is not what is expected from a former Notre Dame head coach.

Davie did not originally find success in Albuquerque, either, failing to crack four wins in each of his first three seasons there, but the program was coming off three consecutive 1-11 years upon his arrival. 4-9 was, simply put, improvement. When New Mexico went to consecutive bowl games in 2015 (7-6) and 2016 (9-4), Davie had seemingly brought the program through its struggles. The Lobos even won that latter bowl game, 23-20 against UTSA in the New Mexico Bowl.

But aside from those two seasons, it has not been an impressive tenure, and there is little reason to expect it to last much longer. Given the trip to Notre Dame is New Mexico’s second game of the year, it is safe to presume Davie will have his chance to see his old stomping grounds, but anything worse than 5-7, and even that, could spell the end of his head coaching days. For context: Bookmakers peg the Lobos’ season win total over/under at 4.5.

2018 REVIEW
The optimist looks at New Mexico’s second 3-9 season in a row as the result of injuries, but they alone do not explain going 1-7 in the Mountain West, the sole victory against rival New Mexico State. To continue to lean on bookmakers for context — this is not a program with many common reference points — the Lobos went 4-8 against the spread last year, including 1-6 to close the season.

More to the point, all seven of those were losses.

WHAT NEW MEXICO LOST
Most of its defense. The Lobos return just two starters on that side of the ball, only one of which was full-time. Their top-eight tacklers are now elsewhere, and 10 of their top-11. Not all of those needed to leave: Safety Marcus Hayes (51 tackles with two interceptions and five more pass breakups) transferred to Kansas State and outside linebacker Rhashaun Epting (43 tackles, including 5.5 sacks and three more for loss) transferred to Tennessee State.

New Mexico also lost its top rusher in Tyrone Owens (687 yards and six touchdowns on 186 carries) and receiver in Delane Hart-Johnson (507 yards and five touchdowns on 33 receptions).

WHAT NEW MEXICO GAINED
The headlines point to the Lobos bringing in 13 junior college transfers to fill out the roster, the second consecutive year of a notable influx. Either that is a needed salve or a foreboding sign of desperation. The pros of a junior college transfer focus on immediate eligibility and more physical maturity implying better chances at quick contributions. The cons are it is a short-term fix; junior college transfers are not going to stick around and influence a locker room for four seasons.

Perhaps offering more of an impact, New Mexico will also return two defenders who were expected to start throughout 2018 if not for injury. Georgia Tech transfer defensive end Trent Sellers was knocked out in the preseason and linebacker Alex Hart’s season ended in the third game, by which point he already had 19 tackles.

Lobos quarterback Tevaka Tuioti, probable starter though he is in the midst of a continued position competition. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
The Lobos averaged 26.6 points per game last year, No. 85 in the country, and that was with a slightly quicker offense than in years past (which worked to the defense’s detriment to some extent). New offensive coordinator Joe Dailey, formerly in the same position at Liberty, who hung 52 points on New Mexico last year, will theoretically continue that offensive quickening.

He and Davie hope to find a way to utilize the triple-option within a spread offense, the broad scheme necessary to showcase some skill position speed, particularly at receiver, and the triple-option wrinkle required to counteract a talent deficit long-acknowledged by Davie.

It remains a question who will lead that system. Junior quarterback Tevaka Tuioti started last season, relying on a strong arm and quick feet, before a collarbone injury ended his season. This summer, he only joined preseason practices over the weekend after spending time with his ailing grandfather.

Senior Sheriron Jones, a former Tennessee quarterback, took over when Tuioti was injured, but his 12 interceptions against 13 touchdowns hardly inspired confidence. A junior transfer and a sophomore who saw no action last year are also in the preseason position competition, at least nominally.

Whoever emerges as the starting quarterback will be throwing to a decent receiver corps, led by senior Elijah Lilly (21 catches for 375 yards and five touchdowns), though he may suddenly face slot competition from junior Emmanuel Logan-Green, a Central Florida transfer by way of junior college.

That quarterback will also have the luxury of four returning starters along the offensive line, though that was a line that gave up 27 sacks last season.

Lobos defensive tackle Aaron Blackwell, middle. (Photo by Timothy Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Is it good news or bad news when only two starters return from a defense that allowed 36.2 points per game? Is it a sign of misguided expectations or bad breaks when the defense Davie expected to be the best of his Lobos tenure instead finished No. 113 in scoring defense?

Either way, that is the cupboard new defensive coordinator Jordan Peterson has to work with, and it is one he is familiar with having previously served as New Mexico’s defensive backs coach. About those defensive backs … The Lobos lost their top seven players from the secondary.

If there is a strong spot for Peterson to build a foundation upon, it is the defensive line. Lining up Sellers alongside senior tackle Aaron Blackwell, the only returning defender with 12 starts last year, should lead to an improvement on giving up 217 rushing yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Bleak. Charitably, injuries made New Mexico worse last year, but it is still unrealistic to think it would have won more than one of its last six games, five of which came by at least 18 points. Four of those five are on the schedule again this year. Chalk those up as losses along with Davie’s return to Notre Dame.

Despite that loss to Liberty a year ago, predict that as a win, as well as a victory in the opener against Sam Houston State.

These likelihoods make New Mexico 2-5 with the five games to be determined vs. New Mexico State, at San Jose State, vs. Colorado State, vs. Hawai’i and at Nevada. The Lobos would need to win four of those five to reach a bowl game. Going by S&P+ projections, they should win just two of them.

Finishing 4-8 would be an improvement on the last two seasons, but one would think not enough of an uptick to save Davie’s job.

 

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.

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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.

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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