Notre Dame’s Opponents: Stanford, facing a daunting schedule with a reloading offense

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This will be harped on most of the season, so let’s not waver now: Notre Dame has not won at Stanford since 2007. Until the Irish do so, The Farm will continue to be discussed as a house of horrors, ironic considering it is hardly an intimidating environment. Last year the Cardinal drew only 75 percent capacity to a stadium that can barely hold 50,000.

Lest anyone think that 12-year stretch is an anomaly, Notre Dame has gone a mere 3-8 at Stanford since the series became an annual event in 1997.

The Cardinal generally do only alright at home, including going 4-2 last season, the losses coming 41-20 to Utah and 41-38 to Washington State. The loss to the Utes came a week after Stanford lost in South Bend.

In retrospect, that game has lost its allure, but in the moment, it was the biggest game at Notre Dame Stadium since … facing USC in 2005? That was the last time two top-10 teams met in an Irish home game. Notre Dame dusted any prestige off the Stanford challenge last year with a 38-17 rout that was hardly that close. The Irish rushed for 272 yards on 55 carries, part of a 550-yard evening.

Before that, the Cardinal was 4-0. It dropped to 5-4 before rebounding with four wins to end the year.

Those troubles primarily traced to Stanford’s defense. As injuries ravaged the Cardinal running game, its aerial attack kept the offense afloat to the tune of 28.4 points per game. Meanwhile, the defense gave up 22.9 points per game, a high during head coach David Shaw’s eight seasons. The 410 yards allowed per game was also a Shaw-era high, as was the 264 passing yards allowed per game. As much a result of teams trying to outscore Stanford, those passing yards were a byproduct of a lack of a pass rush. The Cardinal managed only 36 sacks, not the lowest figure in Shaw’s time (32 in 2017), but a far cry from the 57 in 2012 or even the 46 in 2014.

Most of the Cardinal losses came on the offensive side of the ball, led by running back Bryce Love. He may not have had the senior year he returned for, hampered by ankle issues before an ACL tear ended his season, but Love (739 yards and six touchdowns on 166 carries) was still a focal point for opposing defensive coordinators.

As Love struggled, Stanford’s receivers excelled, and now they are gone. JJ Arcega-Whiteside (63 receptions for 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns) turned a breakout season into hearing his name in the NFL draft’s second round. The second-leading receiver, Trenton Irwin (60 receptions for 685 yards and two scores), graduated, and tight end Kaden Smith (47 catches for 635 yards and two touchdowns), the third-favorite target, was drafted in the sixth round.

The Cardinal are also down four starting offensive linemen, albeit linemen who could hardly stay healthy last year.

Defensively, both leading tacklers have moved on, most notably linebacker Bobby Okerke (96 tackles with 7.5 for loss including 3.5 sacks), as has cornerback Alijah Holder (59 tackles with 10 pass breakups).

Recruiting to Palo Alto is, in many ways, tougher than it is for Notre Dame. Thus, pulling in the No. 23 class, per, is not unimpressive. The headliners in that class are four-star running back Austin Jones and four-star receiver Elijah Higgins.

Given the turnover throughout the Cardinal offensive skill positions, both freshmen could end up contributing, certainly by the time the Irish arrive to end the regular season.

Junior Foster Sarell will without a doubt be contributing, providing health. He was expected to start along the offensive line last year before a knee injury forced him out of action after three games. Sarell would have been on the interior of the line last season, but now should start at right tackle. As far as obvious talent goes, Sarell should be considered the equivalent of a returning full-time starter.

David Shaw enters his ninth season leading his alma mater with 82 wins to his name, averaging a 10-3 record across nearly a decade. Going 9-5 and 9-4 the last two years is considered a downturn. That is a hefty standard to have established.

Stanford set that standard by not losing to a team that finished with a losing record since 2013 (Utah). For that matter, Notre Dame has helped the Cardinal cause, going 3-5 against Shaw.

Cardinal senior quarterback KJ Costello stands second in Stanford history with 272 passing yards per game in a season, set last year. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

In discussing Stanford, there is much consternation about its offense. Losing a star like Love and three talented passing targets, along with four starting offensive linemen, leaves little to believe in upon return.

The contrary view would argue a senior quarterback returns in KJ Costello, second-team All-Pac 12 last season. He may have benefited from having excellent hands on the other end of his passes, but he still completed 65.1 percent of those throws for 3,540 yards and 29 touchdowns with 11 interceptions.

And Costello will once again have worthwhile targets to rely upon. 6-foot-7, 240-pound junior tight end Colby Parkinson (29 catches for 485 yards and seven touchdowns) will be a matchup nightmare, and it will be difficult to double-team both him and junior receiver Osiris St. Brown.

All the while Sarell and preseason first-team All-American left tackle Walker Little will be protecting Costello and opening holes for fifth-year running back Cameron Scarlett (330 yards and eight touchdowns on 79 carries, a 4.2 yards per rush average). The rest of the offensive line will be filled by those who stepped in for the injured last year, hardly green behind the ears.

This is not all intended to paint a rosy picture, but to show the Cardinal may be better than a draft-depleted offense usually would be. Stanford may not get back to 2017’s levels of 202 rushing yards per game and 5.9 yards per carry, but it should fare much better than last season’s 107.9 and 3.7, averages that ranked No. 123 and No. 112 in the country, respectively.

All the while, Costello will be at the helm, presenting a danger through the air just as he did last year.

Cardinal junior cornerback Paulson Adebo made his presence known last year with 19 pass breakups, not even counting his four interceptions and 64 tackles. That performance put him on most preseason first-team All-American listings this summer. (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)

If the offense can provide that, the Cardinal defense will have to rebound from the crater of 2018. That was a young defense, which should lead to a better one this season.

Preseason first-team All-American junior cornerback Paulson Adebo will lead the way for a solid secondary, after breaking up 23 passes (including four interceptions) in his first action last year, No. 2 in the country (behind Virginia’s Bryce Hall). A shutdown cornerback is a luxury for every defense, and he will be supported by junior Obi Eboh, who performed well last season in a situational role.

Fifth-year outside linebacker Casey Toohill will lessen the loss of those two leading tacklers, himself tallying 29 in only seven games before injuries cut short his 2018, and sophomore defensive end Thomas Booker (No. 34, pictured at top) was touted before he made 3.5 sacks as a freshman.

The concern around Stanford seems overblown. It is not on the verge of the Playoff by any means, and it may not even contend for the Pac 12 this season — preseason media polls put the Cardinal a decisive third in the North behind Oregon and Washington — but Shaw’s program is not on the verge of collapse. It has a star quarterback, arguably the country’s best left tackle and a proven system.

The issue ahead of Stanford is not internal, but rather its schedule. The Cardinal face 11 Power Five teams and Central Florida, better than many Power Five teams. The calendar opens against Northwestern, at USC, at Central Florida and against Oregon before a reprieve of a trip to Oregon State. That opening quartet alone explains the sheet’s season win total over/under of seven.

Presume Stanford splits them, just for this conversation’s sake. Washington and Notre Dame will still need to make trips to Palo Alto. Lose both of those and suddenly the Cardinal cannot top that win total.

An upset of the Huskies or the Irish may prove 2018’s Stanford firepower was more because of Costello’s ability than it was because of his talented receivers benefiting from run-focused defensive schemes.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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