Things To Learn: Final recognition for Notre Dame’s senior class that saw both failure and success


They began their careers with one of the worst seasons in Notre Dame history. They will end them with one of the most successful stretches in those more than 130 years, presuming they manage to beat Boston College on Saturday.

One may have begotten the other.

Of course, in the midst of going 4-8 as freshmen, the current Irish seniors did not see three 10-win seasons on the horizon, a reality now only two wins away. Nor did the coaching staff, the few pieces of it that remained after that 2016 debacle.

“Certainly there were some residual benefits,” head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “They didn’t seem to be benefits at the time, but they learned quite a bit from that season in terms of the preparation and the locker room and all the things that are necessary to continue to build on your culture.”

Of Notre Dame’s current roster, 13 played in that lost season, 13 of the 28 seniors that will be recognized at midfield this weekend. Up to three of those 13 might return, but rarely are those possibilities certain, so all will treat this as their last day in Notre Dame Stadium.

Four of those 13 are now captains. Chris Finke, Jalen Elliott, Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara all undoubtedly hoped to play as freshmen, and maybe they even dreamed of a “C” on their chests later on, but enduring the 4-8 misery was never part of that plan, even if it imbued some of the leadership qualities that led to each captainship.

“Some of those guys are leaders today that have been able to make sure that no one takes our process for granted, and that you continue to work on it every day,” Kelly said. “So that experience definitely benefited those guys in their senior year.”

Some of that would have occurred with or without the freshman season struggles. As any player is one to do, Elliott praised his class in comparison to all others, but he also acknowledged how that tumultuous year may have changed things moving forward.

“Coming in as a young guy with a bunch of guys that were thrown into the fire early, and being able to come out of that and have three great seasons after that has been amazing to us,” the senior safety said. “… It made us closer, and it made us want to fight for one another. That’s something that helped make us in our process become who we are today.”

Let’s make one thing clear: The shift from 2016 to the possibility of three 10-win seasons began with the likes of Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey; Drue Tranquill led Notre Dame for two vital years; and the influx of impressive coordinators changed much of the on-field product.

But there is no way the Irish have the chance to finish the best stretch in a generation without the likes of Elliott and Kareem, Finke and Chase Claypool, Asmar Bilal and Troy Pride.

The full list will be rattled off during Saturday’s pregame, beginning with walk-on defensive back Temitope Agoro and ending with Finke — a fitting honor for a career that went from walk-on to two-year starter, one deserved after his two biggest plays this season were both negated by needless penalties.

It will include nine names that could return next season. Among those nine, though, only one both played in 2016 and is assured to return: Defensive end Daelin Hayes made 11 tackles in 12 games.

He, of course, will not dress this weekend thanks to a season-ending shoulder injury, the reason a fifth year will be possible. Instead, Hayes will co-host a secondary viewing experience on NBCSN (also at 2:30 ET, using the NBC visual feed but with Hayes part of an alternative commentary). 

At no point in those ceremonies will much time be spent on that worst of years. It should be remembered, nonetheless, not out of some misguided masochistic malfeasance, but because 2016 shows both how far these seniors came and how far they have brought Notre Dame.

Finke caught the touchdown to beat Michigan to start last season’s unbeaten run and then he toe-tapped the score to give the Irish some momentum in the first half at USC to end that 12-0 stretch. Senior running back Tony Jones pulled in the game-winning touchdown at the Coliseum, off a pass from senior quarterback Ian Book.

Okwara and Kareem wreaked havoc on Virginia and Navy, respectively, spurring Notre Dame to a pair of home victories against ranked opponents, pushing the home-winning streak to 17, stretching back to 2017.

Elliott and senior cornerbacks Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn first provided depth to the defensive backfield in 2016 and have since brought both experience and, again, depth. Even for all of Vaughn’s struggles — frequent and costly — consider Irish fates without him this year against USC and Virginia Tech.

True stars may be few among these names — Okwara’s breakout season never truly materialized; Claypool is finally enjoying his; Book will likely return in search of his — but as a whole, this senior class stabilized Notre Dame with its depth, competence and composure.

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Two of the 28 names went through all this a year ago and did not inherently expect to get to do it again. Right guard Trevor Ruhland, in particular, was not expected to get healthy enough to return to action. When Kelly was asked about Ruhland’s “83,000 surgeries” this week, there was hardly reason to offer a correct number. It is high enough, the exaggeration was hardly outlandish.

“A lot of it is just his love for playing the game,” Kelly said. “He loves to play and he loves playing with his teammates. There is a connection there that has kept him persevering through all the injuries.”

If there is any flaw to the annual Senior Day festivities, it is that teammates cannot express appreciation during the midfield procession. If they could, it is a reasonable bet to think Ruhland would get the most love from his teammates. They know what he has gone through, and they know not many others would have worked through it all just to be a backup again.

“The players have such a tight relationship with him, he did not want to give that up,” Kelly said. “So it’s nice to see him finish off in his last year here with some playing time and have some success.

“That’s really what I think is his legacy, just overcoming a number of injuries and now really getting a chance in his last year to contribute to success.”

RELATED READING: Ill-advised, unexpected and needed, Trevor Ruhland fills in

Irish fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford did not just play at Duke, he played well and made plays, just as he did last week against Navy. To some not insignificant extent, many did not expect Crawford to play in 2019 after dislocating his elbow. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Similarly, fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford was recovering from a torn ACL a year ago. Returning was presumed, but hardly guaranteed. It was, after all, his third season-ending injury. Then this season, he dislocated his elbow. Crawford’s career again looked truncated, only to miss just two games.

“He’s gritty, tough,” Kelly said.”… Great to see him out there competing, physical. He’s a great leader for us, as well.”

While the 2016 class has played a key role in righting the Irish locker room, these two holdovers from the 2015 recruiting class have defined toughness and resilience in ways cliches cannot capture.

As for how these seniors could threaten Boston College, the onus may fall on Kareem and defensive end Jamir Jones. The Eagles’ defense is, in a word, terrible; Book, Claypool & Finke should have little trouble scoring.

But Boston College will try to run through Notre Dame be it by skill or by fatigue.

“It’s a team that quite interestingly enough has really evolved into a very difficult team to defend offensively with both the two running backs in [junior AJ Dillon and sophomore David Bailey],” Kelly said. “Just outstanding backs. One is 240 pounds, 250 pounds, depends on what scale you look at.”

Junior defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish will be counted upon to hold the point of attack in the middle so Kareem, Jones and senior defensive end Ade Ogundeji can clean up runs to the exterior.

On top of that, Bilal should get another chance to show just how far he has come this season. As adept as junior Drew White is at filling running lanes, he is somewhat undersized and that could be an issue against Dillon, who takes an inordinate amount of pride in 3- or 4-yard runs, seemingly always falling forward for an extra yard. Bilal’s broader frame may be needed.

To help him, senior safety Alohi Gilman has always found his way to the ball, even if it is with a running back in the backfield.

The Irish offense has relied on its seniors most of the season, and its defense will very much have to do so, as well, against Boston College.

Hayes’ input on the NBCSN broadcast could be especially informative. Not often is a current player put behind a microphone during a game, and by “not often,” it may have been more accurate to say, “never.”

He will be joined by NBC Sports’ Ahmed Fareed, former Irish running back Darius Walker, Sports Illustrated producer Jessica Smetana and in-stadium reporter Tony Simeone. The “Notre Dame Fan Feed” will rely on the radio play-by-play while offering commentary during breaks. Limited commercials will allow for more Irish-specific content.

Again, to eliminate any confusion: This will air simultaneously as the usual broadcast, but on NBCSN. Both the NBC and the NBCSN broadcasts will begin at 2:30 ET on Saturday.

The 2016 stats of current seniors and fifth-years …
Claypool: 12 games, five catches for 81 yards, one rush for nine yards, 11 tackles.
Bilal: 12 games, 29 tackles with three for loss including one sack.
Elliott: 12 games, 14 tackles.
Hayes: 12 games with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.
Okwara: 11 games, four tackles.
Vaughn: 10 games, 22 tackles, six pass breakups with one interception.
Finke: 10 games, 10 catches for 122 yards, two tackles.
Jones: 10 games, eight tackles.
Ruhland: 9 games.
Pride: 8 games, 12 tackles, one fumble recovery.
Javon McKinley: 7 games.
Kareem: 4 games.
Crawford: 2 games, six tackles, one interception.

The nine seniors with remaining eligibility who will at least be considered for returning as fifth-years: Book, left tackle Liam Eichenberg, right guard Tommy Kraemer, Tony Jones, McKinley, Hayes, Ogundeji, Gilman, Crawford.


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.