Notre Dame’s Opponents: Virginia and Bryce Perkins, a dangerous dual-threat quarterback

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Preseason projections are a tricky beast. A few come out in June, suggesting Virginia could be the clear choice in the ACC Coastal this season. By the end of July, others have deemed that too convenient, a default narrative seeking to have a seventh different team win that division in a seven-year span. In August, hands are thrown up in confusion, the Cavaliers going from afterthought to contender to perplexing possibility all without playing a single game.

All that came off an 8-5 season. What would the cycle have been if Virginia had gone 10-3 last year? It very nearly did. Only chaos deprived the Cavaliers from a double-digit win season, which would have been their first since 1989, the only such season in program history.

Virginia was 7-3 heading into its final two games, road trips to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. It had split one-score games to that point, losing 20-16 at Indiana in the second week of the season when quarterback Bryce Perkins (pictured at top) went just 12-of-24 for 106 passing yards, and beating Miami 16-13. Against the Hurricanes, Perkins struggled even more so, going 12-of-21 for 92 passing yards and three interceptions.

By mid-to-late November, though, Perkins had fully adapted to his first season in the Cavaliers system. The Tech duo would not slow him down. In those two losses, he completed 35-of-55 passes for 476 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions.

Instead of Perkins’ passing game struggles, it was a fluke field goal that cost Virginia against the Yellow Jackets. In overtime, a Georgia Tech field goal hit the upright and went in; the Cavaliers’ ensuing field goal attempt missed.

It took two late fumbles for the Hokies to win their 15th straight against their in-state rival, one of which Virginia Tech recovered for a touchdown.

If those two last-minute losses go the other way, it is reasonable to think Virginia would have beaten West Virginia in the Camping World Bowl, just as Syracuse handily did. A 10-win season was that close to reality. Instead, the Cavaliers dominated South Carolina 28-0 in the Belk Bowl.

Its leading tackler, ballhawk, pass-rusher, rusher and receiver. No, those were not the same player, but the totality of statistical leaders departing underscores how important one particular returning player will be — Perkins.

Safety Juan Thornhill heard his name in the second round of the NFL draft thanks to his team-leading 98 tackles and six interceptions last year. Third-team all-ACC linebacker Chris Pearce and his 7.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hurries also departed.

Offensively, running back Jordan Ellis (215 rushes for 1,026 yards and 10 touchdowns) and receiver Olamide Zaccheaus (school-record 93 receptions for 1,058 yards and nine scores) both went undrafted but look like distinct possibilities to stick to the rosters of the Cincinnati Bengals and Atlanta Falcons, respectively.

Last offseason, about 14 months ago now, Cavaliers head coach Bronco Mendenhall said he thought his roster contained only 27 ACC-caliber players. He did not intend for those comments to become public, but when they did, they resonated, for all the obvious reasons. Pulling in a better recruiting class than he had in his previous three cycles theoretically helps that cause, but perhaps not immediately. For help right now, Mendenhall hauled in three graduate transfers.

Richmond receiver Dejon Brissett averaged 14.9 yards per catch for the Spiders, only retaining eligibility after an injury knocked him out last year. He could be a starter for Virginia when they head to Pittsburgh on Aug. 31, as could Penn State transfer Alex Gellerstedt at right tackle. Arizona State receiver Terrell Chatman may also provide depth.

Air Force transfer Victor Oluwatimi, a traditional transfer who spent last season on the sidelines, may end up the starting center.

By supplementing his roster with these transfers, Mendenhall has theoretically bought his improved recruiting efforts time to develop.

In his 14 years as a head coach, 53-year-old Bronco Mendenhall has suffered just two losing seasons, his first two years at Virginia. He halted that trend with an 8-5 finish in 2018. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

Mendenhall enters his fourth season leading the Cavaliers after 11 years at BYU. He never suffered a losing season with the Cougars, beginning at 6-6 in 2005 and falling below eight wins only once more in averaging nine wins per season. He has already dealt with two losing years at Virginia, beginning at 2-10 before losing to Navy in the 2017 Military Bowl to finish 6-7. More than a stumble by Mendenhall, that should reflect the debris left by Mike London.

Then came last season’s 8-5. That is not quite linear progress, but it is about the most realistic version of it in this sport.

It is too simple and short-sighted to allow this summary to come down to only two words: Bryce Perkins. But it would not be inherently inaccurate.

In his first year starting at the FBS level, Perkins rushed for 1,124 yards (not counting sacks) with 6.2 yards per carry, scoring nine times. He completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 2,680 yards and 25 touchdowns with only nine interceptions. He was utterly stellar, earning third-team All-ACC honors. More should be coming.

Who will help Perkins is the question, and will their roles allow for a more explosive offense? The Cavaliers were quite efficient last season, especially on the ground, but they lacked the ability to strike quickly. Senior receiver Joe Reed may bring that solution and life to the passing game, having averaged 18.6 yards per reception last year as the third receiver on the team, catching seven of Perkins’ touchdowns.

There are options across the board, just not clear front-runners. At running back, junior P.K. Kier was expected to succeed Ellis, but a concussion limited him in the springtime and sophomore Wayne Taulapapa capitalized on the opportunity. Mendenhall is familiar with a career trajectory like Taulapapa’s, coming back from a two-year mission trip. Those were the usual for players at BYU, and Mendenhall learned to expect those players to need two full years before they were back in the full-swing of football. It may have taken Taulapapa less than half that.

No matter who become Perkins’ running partners, Virginia should increase its scoring from the 28.5 points per game of last season, which was a healthy jump from 2017’s 22.5.

Virginia cornerback Bryce Hall had only two interceptions last year, but he got his hands on 22 other passes, including this one in a 28-0 Belk Bowl victory. Hall’s 22 pass breakups led the country. (Photo by Jaylynn Nash/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Mendenhall’s strength, the Cavaliers had the No. 20 total defense in the country, giving up only 330.5 yards per game. Eight starters return to that unit, including second-team All-American cornerback Bryce Hall, who led the country with 22 pass breakups, adding two interceptions.

The secondary will be Virginia’s strength, but its front seven has many questions. Injuries depleted the 3-4 look last year, making this season’s unit tough to forecast. Even with those injuries, though, the Cavaliers gave up only 20.1 points per game, No. 21 in the country.

If Mendenhall had only 27 players fit for his conference a year ago, how many does he have now? If that roster was good enough to come two bounces — literally two bounces — from a 10-3 season, what heights can this team reach? Framing those questions as such suggests a 10-win season should be the expectation.

Bookmakers disagree. The season win total over/under for Virginia is a mere 7.5, although the over is acknowledged as more likely than the under.

The media may agree with the narrative. The Cavaliers were picked to win the Coastal in the preseason media poll. However, bookmakers give the edge to Miami with Virginia and Virginia Tech just behind the Hurricanes.

Looking at the Cavalier schedule with all those thoughts in mind, break it down as follows …

Three guarantee games: vs. William & Mary, vs. Old Dominion and vs. Liberty.
One top-10 game: at Notre Dame.
Four games against lesser ACC teams: vs. Duke, at Louisville, at North Carolina and vs. Georgia Tech.
Four tough ACC games: at Pittsburgh, vs. Florida State, at Miami and vs. Virginia Tech.

Go 3-0, 0-1 and 3-1 in those first three subsets, and the question then becomes, can Mendenhall find two wins in those four difficult conference games? Depending on the two, that could be enough to win the Coastal. Win more than two, and the linear-esque progression should continue.

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Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Offensive line, returning bookend tackles and a three-year starter at center

Clemson v Notre Dame
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When Brent Pry arrived at Virginia Tech last offseason, the new Hokies head coach understood he had a deep hole to climb out of if he wanted to return Blacksburg to ACC contention. Pry set out to hire coaches who would stick around and help with that climb, including offensive line coach Joe Rudolph.

One season later, Rudolph is now preparing for Notre Dame’s spring practices beginning March 22. That departure is not a reflection of Rudolph dismissing his original intentions, but rather of how alluring the Irish offensive line coaching job was after Harry Hiestand retired following Tommy Rees’s departure for Alabama.

Notre Dame is an appealing coaching gig in a vacuum, the Irish offensive line position duties just as much so. But the 2023 possibilities attracted a few of the better line coaches in the country, given two future first-round draft picks should start at the tackle spots and Zeke Correll will start at center for a third season. Add in a plethora of highly-sought former recruits on the depth chart, and Notre Dame’s offensive line should make nearly any coach look good.

On top of all that, Irish head coach Marcus Freeman sold Rudolph with his favorite catchphrase.

“That’s not always in fashion to say, ‘This is an O-line driven place and the O-line sets the tone,’” Rudolph said earlier this month of his interview conversations with Freeman. “He took a lot of pride in saying it and said it in a few of the meetings we had. That hits deep to me.

“It’s how I grew up when I played. I felt that responsibility as a player. It really hit home for me.”

The opportunity to lean into the offensive line at Notre Dame was simply too much for Rudolph to turn down to stay at Virginia Tech.

The Irish lost two captains, two multi-year starters, two massive human beings in guards Jarrett Patterson and Josh Lugg. Their combined 79 starts is not simply a stat in the rearview mirror.

Here is a 2023 prediction: When Notre Dame struggles to run through Central Michigan on Sept. 16, the fanbase’s consternation will be met with this space repeating Lugg’s accurate philosophizing a year ago about how an offensive line needs some time to coalesce. In each of the last three seasons, that was an Irish need, and in each of the last three seasons, that became an Irish reality.

In 2022, it was because Notre Dame was working in a pair of green tackles. In 2023, it will be because the Irish are finding their footing with a pair of green guards.

2022 STATS
Joe Alt (two years of eligibility remaining entering the 2023 season): 13 starts at left tackle
Jarrett Patterson: 12 starts at left guard
Andrew Kristofic (two years of eligibility remaining): 11 games, started the season opener at left guard in place of Patterson
Zeke Correll (two years): 13 starts at center
Josh Lugg: 13 starts at right guard
Blake Fisher (three years): 13 starts at right tackle

Tosh Baker (two years): 13 games
Rocco Spindler (three years): 12 games
Michael Carmody (two years): 1 game

Those three starters are established. It would take injury to change them.

Alt (pictured at top) will be a preseason All-American at left tackle and likely first-round draft pick 13 months from now.
Correll will start for a third season at center and about halfway through the year the Irish will start pondering if they should talk him into a sixth collegiate year in 2024.
Fisher will start at right tackle and could join Alt in the NFL draft with a strong year. While that may panic Notre Dame fans, a season producing a pair of first-round tackles should be a season with some substantial successes in the fall, as well.

But those two guard spots will lead to much springtime and preseason wonder. Rudolph does not know who will emerge, obviously, but he indicated he will take the same approach that Hiestand did and find his best five players first, their positions second.

“You’d be selling the group short if you weren’t trying to find the best five,” Rudolph said. “You have to do that with some vision of how the whole group fits together.

“There might be someone who is competing their tail off, and they might back up [Alt] or back up [Correll], but if they play in a way this spring where you see they’re one of those five (best), you can easily move them to a position and have them ready in fall camp and all summer to take that over.”

The initial candidates should be rising junior Rocco Spindler, fifth-year Andrew Kristofic and perhaps rising sophomore Billy Schrauth. Kristofic has starting experience, most notably stepping in at left guard for the second half of the 2021 season, with much success. The other two are unknowns since high-profile recruitments.

For the moment, presume the starting guards come from that trio. The player to nominally come up short should still anticipate playing in 2023. Notre Dame’s offensive line health in 2022 was absurd. Aside from Patterson suffering a foot injury in August, no offensive lineman endured notable injury.

That may have been karmic justice for the historical string of injuries at left tackle in 2021, needing four underclassmen to take their knocks just to get through the first half of the season, but it was still the first time since 2017 the Irish enjoyed such fortune up front, needing at least two reserves in each of the four intervening seasons.

It would be irrational to expect such luck again, giving tangible motivation to the three other rising sophomores as well as a pair of rising juniors, none of whom have seen the field yet.

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Hiestand pulled in a total of 10 offensive linemen in the last two classes, though Joey Tanona was already forced into retirement due to a concussion suffered in a car accident last winter. Nonetheless, those nine underclassmen present Rudolph plenty of options moving forward, all notable recruits, part of the luxury of taking this job.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive backs, with a star sophomore and an Oklahoma State transfer

Clemson v Notre Dame
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One common misperception about college football in the modern era is that base defenses still focus on a 3-4 or a 4-3 defensive front. More and more often, defenses spend more time with at least five defensive backs on the field than with seven defensive linemen and linebackers. The nickel defense is the most common look.

That has changed mostly in reaction to college football so heavily leaning on the pass — one of the reasons the NCAA may opt to keep the clock running following incompletions beginning next season, a rule change pending approval this offseason — but also as a luxury of more multi-faceted defenders.

Tariq Bracy may not have looked like a physical player on paper, listed at 185 pounds and 5-foot-10 ⅛ last season, but the veteran carried much of that weight in his legs, making him a powerful tackler as well as quick enough to keep up with most slot receivers.

When Notre Dame lost Bracy to injury at USC to end the season, freshman Jaden Mickey hardly stood a chance in the pivotal position.

Enter Oklahoma State transfer Thomas Harper.

Harper is usually listed as a safety, but even he admits what is most likely his destination in the Irish defense.

“Really just kind of get in where I fit in and playing some free safety, some nickel,” he said last month on his coming role. “Getting in where I fit in, wherever I’m needed, that’s where I’ll be.”

RELATED READING: Oklahoma State safety Thomas Harper transfer gives Notre Dame needed depth on back line

For a veteran with one season of eligibility remaining, any transfer comes with the thought of showing off for the NFL. At 5-foot-11, Harper is self-aware enough to know an NFL career at safety is unlikely. Proving himself as a three-down defender near the tackle box, though, could give Harper a chance at the next level.

“Going somewhere that I felt like would benefit me the most as far as help me maximize my potential and get me to that next level,” he said. Some of that ties beyond playing nickel back at Notre Dame and to the stage he’ll be playing on. “Being able to be on a team where I can show my ability vs. other teams other than just the Big 12, that’s a really big reason why I wanted to come here.”

Brandon Joseph did two things as expected in his one year with the Irish. He made a big play, returning an interception for a touchdown on the first play of the game at Syracuse, though only one such big play. And he jumped to the NFL after only one year.

Notre Dame was better off with Joseph than it would have been without him, but his impact was far from as exclamatory as expected based on some of his days at Northwestern and his work in preseason practices.

Thus, Bracy’s matriculation may have been the bigger concern for the Irish, that is, until Harper transferred in.

Notre Dame will take some time figuring out its safety rotation, something that could seemingly be said each of the last three seasons, but it is not inherently starting from a position worse than it ended last year.

2022 STATS
DJ Brown: 13 games; 48 tackles with 0.5 for loss, plus two pass breakups.
TaRiq Bracy: 11 games; 39 tackles with six for loss including one sack, plus one interception and one pass breakup.
Xavier Watts: 13 games; 39 tackles with two for loss including one sack, plus three pass breakups.
Houston Griffith: 13 games; 33 tackles with one for loss.
Benjamin Morrison: 13 games; 33 tackles with one for loss plus six interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and four pass breakups.
Brandon Joseph: 10 games; 30 tackles with one interception returned for a touchdown and one pass breakup, as well as one forced fumble.
Clarence Lewis: 13 games; 29 tackles with one for loss, plus one interception and four pass breakups, as well as one fumble recovered and one fumble forced.
Cam Hart: 11 games; 24 tackles with three for loss, plus four pass breakups.
Ramon Henderson: 11 games; 23 tackles with two for lossi including 0.5 sacks, plus one fumble recovered.
Jaden Mickey: 11 games; 9 tackles.
Justin Walters: 4 games; two tackles.

There may be a hole at safety, one likely filled by rising senior Xavier Watts and a starter to be named later, and Harper’s arrival at nickel back may generate some buzz as shiny new toys always tend to. But make no mistake, there is one name that defines the Irish secondary in 2023 and one name only: Benjamin Morrison.

The sophomore cornerback should land on some preseason All-American lists, and hype around him may reach heights too high by the time Notre Dame heads to Dublin (166 days). If intercepting six passes as a freshman was not impressive enough on their own, snagging two and returning one 96 yards for a decisive touchdown in the biggest Irish upset of Marcus Freeman’s debut campaign was certainly a moment that will linger in Notre Dame lore.

“He’s an ultimate competitor that doesn’t get shaken,” Freeman said after that 35-14 win against Clemson. “It’s really uncommon for a freshman to be like that.”

Those reservations for six in the end zone may have been the highlight, but Morrison’s first interception against Clemson may have been more impactful. The Tigers were backed up near their own end zone, already trailing 14-0, when Morrison intercepted a crossing route, a throw rushed by defensive end Justin Ademilola.

Morrison less jumped that route and more remembered his coaching and the play call. He was intended to undercut the receiver and place his trust in the safeties behind him to limit a big play. Consider that a moment where DJ Brown’s experience aided the defense in a way that never showed up on the stat sheet. He was the sole deep safety, mirroring the crossing route from 10 yards behind, giving Morrison the coverage to gamble.

Morrison gambling was not the mark of a player starring beyond his years. Him doing so within the play design, however, was the mark of a player thoroughly understanding the defensive scheme.

Opposite him in 2023 will be another such player in fifth-year Cam Hart, though a shoulder injury should limit his contact this spring, creating more opportunities for Jaden Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis to reassert themselves.

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Incoming freshman Brandyn Hillman’s sudden Sunday departure from the program robs Notre Dame of something of a shotgun approach at safety this past recruiting cycle. The Irish pulled in three safeties in Hillman, Ben Minich and Adon Shuler, presumably hoping at least one would pan out. Now that is a 50/50 proposition, with Shuler sidelined by a shoulder injury presently.

In terms of the next Morrison, a thought that no prospect should be burdened with, many spring practice praises will fall upon Christian Gray, a lengthy and athletic early enrollee, while Micah Bell’s speed may make him a special teams contributor when he arrives in Augst.

Dynamic incoming freshman safety Brandyn Hillman exits Notre Dame before enrolling

Stanford v Notre Dame
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The last commitment of Notre Dame’s class of 2023 is the first of the 24 players to depart the Irish program. In a very literal sense, three-star safety Brandyn Hillman hardly joined the program, receiving a release from his National Letter of Intent before even enrolling at Notre Dame.

Hillman announced his departure on Instagram on Sunday evening.

“Due to personal reasons, I have asked for and been granted my release from my NLI with the University of Notre Dame,” he wrote. “I would like to thank Coach [Marcus] Freeman and the Notre Dame staff for their interest.

“I ask you to respect my privacy and my family’s privacy as I explore my options on where to attend school this fall.”

Hillman went from no FBS offers in September of his senior season to a Notre Dame commitment the first week of December. His profile rocketed upward in large part to his spring and early summer showings at recruiting camps. Hillman’s physical abilities were quite clear, further so as he played on both sides of the ball in high school.

Irish defensive coordinator Al Golden expected Hillman to join his depth chart at safety, though a future at Rover was also possible.

“Obviously, he could play safety,” Golden said when Hillman signed his National Letter of Intent in December. “He’s big enough to be a Rover, if you will. What’s not to like about him?

“He’s a team captain. Anytime you can get a quarterback, you’re basically taking a player that his high school coach has already deemed good enough to give him the keys to the car. If that high school coach and their staff careers and success depend a lot on that quarterback, so when you make that guy your leader and make the face of your program, that says a lot about him.

“When you look at the competitive nature of the kid and his makeup and just the type of family background he has, I’m really excited about him.”

Instead, Hillman will head elsewhere. His Instagram story — a social-media feature that disappears in 24 hours — suggested he had already received renewed offers from Michigan, LSU and Wisconsin on Sunday, as well as a handful of other programs.

The Virginia native had also heard from both Virginia and Virginia Tech.

In situations like this, the first instinct is to assume some family worries forced a player to reconsider his location. That is only an assumption, and one less and less accurate as college football rosters churn in the modern era.

Without Hillman, Notre Dame has six safeties on its roster, led by sixth-year DJ Brown and rising senior Xavier Watts (Nos. 2 and 26, above, respectively).

If the quick count of the operating depth chart is accurate, the Irish currently have 92 players expected to be on scholarship this fall. The NCAA allows a maximum of 85, so a decent amount of turnover should be anticipated exiting spring practices, which begin on March 22.

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Notre Dame gets the letter: Brandyn Hillman, athlete who may end up on defense

Reports: Marty Biagi leaves Mississippi to become Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator

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Less than a week after Notre Dame lost its special teams coordinator to the Indianapolis Colts, the Irish have already found their replacement for Brian Mason, reportedly set to hire Marty Biagi from Mississippi where he held the same role.

Irish Illustrated first reported the intended hire of Biagi on Thursday afternoon. The Athletic‘s Matt Fortuna reported the distinct likelihood over the weekend with the process still in its early steps.

As soon as Mason took the Colts job, first reported Saturday morning after widespread Friday reports of his interview, Biagi’s was the name bandied about publicly. He spent the 2016 season at Notre Dame as a special teams analyst, and while there may be an understandable Irish aversion to any connection to that 4-8 faceplant, Notre Dame ranked in the top half of the country in most special teams categories that season.

Averaging 9.1 yards per punt return ranked No. 44, and 23.08 yards per kickoff return came in at No. 27. Four of those punt returns were longer than 20 yards, tied for No. 16 in the country, and five of the kickoff returns were longer than 30 yards, tied for No. 50 in the country. Lastly, the Irish blocked two kicks, far from this past year’s seven, but still No. 44 in the country in 2016.

Biagi then went to coach the special teams at North Texas for three years before spending two seasons in the role at Purdue and the 2022 season at Mississippi. Plenty of stats can be cited as to Biagi’s success in those six seasons — as pointed out by Irish Sports Daily’s Jamie Uyeyama, Biagi has not had a kicker with a field goal percentage worse than 77.8 while they have averaged 84.9 percent in total across six seasons — the most notable moment in his coordinating career illustrates his innovative approach all on its own.

In the 2018 season, North Texas executed the simplest of trick punt returns to score an early touchdown in a 44-17 upset at Arkansas. Biagi exploited general assumptions and a slight Razorbacks’ weakness to spring his punt returner for a touchdown after he very much did not signal for a fair catch.

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In his three seasons at North Texas, the Mean Green scored six special teams touchdowns and blocked nine punts and four kicks.

That broad explosiveness and Biagi’s background as a punter and placekicker at Marshall from 2004 to 2007 makes Biagi a more all-encompassing special teams coordinator than most.

With Biagi’s reported hire the assistant-coaching carousel in South Bend should be concluded for this offseason. Of the three coaches added to the staff, only one had a previous connection to Freeman.

Late last week featured reports that the Irish may yet lose safeties coach Chris O’Leary and/or receivers coach Chansi Stuckey to the NFL, but both reaffirmed their commitment to Notre Dame in 2023 over the weekend per reports.

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