Notre Dame’s Opponents: The rise of Michigan and Stanford

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Two of Notre Dame’s remaining opponents saw a quarterback change this weekend, one by choice and one by injury. The choice played well, albeit inefficiently, while the injury replacement showed why he was the backup quarterback in the first place.

Louisville (3-2): The Cardinals logged their first ACC win since 2017 by beating Boston College, 41-39, thanks to a field goal with 62 seconds left. Sophomore quarterback Malik Cunningham threw for 288 yards and a touchdown on 13-of-18 passing while adding 43 yards and another score on six rushing attempts. As well as the offense played with Cunningham at the reins, gaining 664 total yards, Louisville’s defense played nearly as badly, giving up 563 total yards.

That kind of defensive performance will keep the Cardinals mired in mediocrity the rest of the season, if that. Looking at their remaining seven opponents, Louisville would be favored against only one at this point in the year, at NC State on Nov. 16). This weekend, the Cardinals are 6.5-point underdogs at No. 19 Wake Forest (7:30 ET; ACCN) with a combined point total over/under of 65 as of Tuesday evening. Quick math makes that out to be a 36-29 conclusion, but given that assessment of Louisville’s defense and the Deacons’ scoring average of 35.8 points, both the Wake Forest team total over and the Deacons to win by more than a touchdown could be considered likelihoods.

New Mexico (2-3): The Lobos lost 32-21 at San Jose State, arguably impressive considering they trailed 26-0 in the second quarter. Six turnovers ruined New Mexico’s night more than anything else, as one would expect.

The Lobos now host Colorado State (8 ET on Friday; CBSSN) as 3.5-point underdogs. What stands out there is that the spread opened with the Rams favored by a full touchdown. The 65.5-point over/under suggests a 34-31 result.

Bulldogs junior quarterback Jake Fromm has hardly had to sweat the second half of games this season, with Georgia being tested by only Notre Dame thus far, but he has still racked up 1,076 passing yards with a 77.5 percent completion rate. (Photo by Silas Walker/Getty Images)

Georgia (5-0): The No. 3 Bulldogs had little trouble with Tennessee, scoring the final 33 points of a 43-14 victory. Junior quarterback Jake Fromm put together another efficient performance by throwing for 288 yards and two touchdowns on 24-of-29 passing. Frankly, Georgia will not be tested again until Nov. 2 against No. 7 Florida.

That dismissiveness includes scoffing at the 24.5-point line in the Bulldogs’ favor against South Carolina (12 ET; ESPN). A 52.5-point over/under leads to a 38-14 projection, but Georgia’s average of 42.8 points per game makes this a situation similar to the Wake Forest one above.

Virginia (4-1): The No. 20 Cavaliers moved up three spots in the AP poll while resting with their feet up after their loss to Notre Dame. They now head to Miami as 1.5-point underdogs, something of a surprise considering how the Hurricanes’ weekend went (more on that in a bit). The over/under of 45 may not hint at an entertaining final, but the closing moments of a 23-22 ending should include some drama (8ET, Friday; ESPN).

Bowling Green (1-4): The Falcons will look to rebound from their loss to the Irish against Toledo, but bookmakers simply expect another rout. As 26-point underdogs in a game with an over/under of 64.5, Bowling Green could be on the wrong side of a 45-19 scoreboard.

USC (3-2): The Trojans had an idle week, so let’s offer a refresher of their loss two weeks ago and underscore the issue they had then. USC fell 28-14 at then-No. 17 Washington, even though it was outgained by only two yards. Junior quarterback Matt Fink threw for 163 yards and one touchdown on 19-of-32 passing. Three of those 13 incompletions were actually caught … by Huskies defenders. That is how you counteract rushing for 212 yards on 33 carries, a 6.4 yards per attempt average.

Trojans freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis will be back behind center this weekend, cleared from the effects of a concussion. Nonetheless, No. 10 Notre Dame (7:30 ET; NBC) is favored by 11 points with an over/under of 57.5. A 34-23 midnight Irish triumph would certainly keep this season heading toward the Cotton Bowl.

Michigan (4-1): The No. 16 Wolverines slogged past then-No. 14 Iowa, 10-3. Michigan took a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, and neither team scored in the second half. As mundane as the scoring or lack thereof was, the Wolverines gained all of 267 total yards while giving up just 261. The Hawkeyes took 30 rushing attempts for one single yard while turning over the ball four times. Admittedly, such paint-drying-esque football was a theme this weekend across the country. To pull from an email exchange with a superior …

Him: “Does that count as a win? Or just 3 hours of everyone’s life they’d rather have back?”
Me: “Could pretty much be said of the entire sport this weekend.”

Not that Michigan’s heartbeat will accelerate this weekend heading to Illinois (12 ET; ABC) as 21.5-point favorites. While a 49.5-point over/under indicates the Wolverines should win 35-14, it is not utterly absurd to think they will score more than that, considering they hung 52 on Rutgers and the Illini are not all that much better than the Scarlet Knights.

It remains to be seen if Virginia Tech will stick with sophomore quarterback Hendon Hooker after benching senior Ryan Willis last week, but if the reason for the change was Willis’ carelessness with the ball, then Hooker did nothing to warrant a switch back. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Virginia Tech (3-2): Remember that passing reference to Miami’s weekend? The Hokies won at Hard Rock Stadium, 42-35. Virginia Tech led 28-0 before the Hurricanes stormed (no apologies) back to tie the game at 35, at which point the Hokies scored the winning touchdown with 63 seconds left.

Remember that mention of a quarterback change by choice? Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente benched senior Ryan Willis in favor of sophomore Hendon Hooker, who threw for 184 yards on 10-of-20 passing, tossing three touchdown passes while adding one more on the ground with 16 carries for 76 yards. Not an efficient performance, perhaps, but Hooker did avoid the mistakes that cost Willis his starting job.

“There had been too many mistakes and too many turnovers,” Hokies offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen said. “Ryan has certainly still made plays and is capable of playing good games and taking care of the ball and doing those things. We just felt like Hendon deserved a shot. We just felt we needed a change.”

Willis had thrown five interceptions through four games, also losing a fumble.

Hendon can now boost his stats against FCS-level Rhode Island (4 ET; ACCN).

Duke (3-2): The Blue Devils had the week off and should now ready for a win against Georgia Tech (12:30 ET; ACCN). As 17.5-point favorites against a team focusing on the process and not the results, winning 33-15, as expected with a 48.5-point over/under, should not be too much a hassle for David Cutcliffe & Co.

Navy (3-1): The Midshipmen pulled off an upset of Air Force, 34-25, though the final score was embellished by an 8-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown with no time left. While each team had three turnovers, Navy somehow held a triple-option outfit to 108 rushing yards on 45 attempts, a 2.4 yards per carry average.

That skill will not be applicable at Tulsa (7:30 ET; ESPNU), where the Midshipmen are currently one-point favorites in a contest with a 52-point over/under, forecasting an intriguing 26-25 finish.

Boston College (3-3): In some respects, the Eagles coming so close to winning at Louisville was a surprise, since their starting quarterback attempted only seven passes. Junior Anthony Brown went 6-of-7 for 193 yards and a touchdown before going down with an apparent knee injury, one not caused by contact.

In his stead, sophomore Dennis Grosel threw for 111 yards, three touchdowns and one interception on 9-of-24 passing.

Perhaps because Boston College is off this week, scouring the internet Tuesday evening could not turn up a diagnosis on Brown’s knee.

Stanford (3-3): Just when college football fans get ready to write off the Cardinal for 2019, David Shaw’s group goes ahead and beats No. 15 Washington, 23-13. It is not that Stanford beat Washington that hints maybe its season could be righted; it is how the Cardinal did it. Stanford outgained the Huskies by 186 yards, leaning on a ground game of 43 rushing attempts for 189 yards, a 4.4 yards per carry average. Its defense gave up 88 yards on 22 carries. Stanford had the ball for 39:01. To put it simply, the Cardinal dominated Washington in an old-fashioned way, an effective one at that.

Shaw now has a week off to figure out if that approach will work moving forward. Stanford certainly has several winnable games on its schedule, namely vs. UCLA, at Colorado and vs. Cal, not that hosting Arizona should be a worst-case scenario, either.


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.