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

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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.

RELATED READING: Chase Claypool, from Canada to Notre Dame, from special teams to select company


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.

 

Drew Pyne to transfer from Notre Dame; Tyler Buchner reportedly a bowl possibility

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Notre Dame may start its third quarterback of the season in its bowl game after junior Drew Pyne announced he will transfer from the program on Friday. A graduate, Pyne has three seasons of eligibility remaining.

ESPN’s Pete Thamel first reported Pyne’s intention to transfer, with Pyne soon thereafter taking to Twitter to confirm as much.

“One of my proudest honors is to have been a student-athlete at the University of Notre Dame,” Pyne wrote. “… It’s time for me to take on a new challenge, and I will be entering the transfer portal.”

Pyne took over as the Irish starter after sophomore Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second week of the season. Pyne went 8-2 as a starter, completing 64.6 percent of his passes for 2,021 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.

His final action at Notre Dame may have been Pyne’s best game of his career, throwing for 318 yards and three touchdowns at USC while completing 23 of 26 passes, the second-most accurate game in Irish history.

He appeared in two games in 2021, stepping in for Jack Coan when he struggled against Wisconsin and Cincinnati. Keeping Pyne to minimal appearances in 2021 was intentional, preserving a season of eligibility for him.

That eligibility will now be used elsewhere.

Without Pyne, Notre Dame will have freshman Steve Angeli and possibly Buchner available in the bowl game, a location and opponent to be announced on Sunday. Football Scoop’s John Brice reported Friday afternoon that Buchner will play in the bowl game, though perhaps that optimism should be measured throughout practice this month.

Regardless, the Irish are expected to pursue an incoming transfer quarterback this month. With names like Texas’ Hudson Card and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong already in the transfer portal, Notre Dame will have a few options to chase.

That is why Pyne’s transfer makes sense, even if he spoke earnestly about the bowl game following that 38-27 loss in Los Angeles.

“I think we have a lot to play for,” he said. “We’re going to be in a bowl game, I want to send all the seniors out the right way. We have a lot to play for. We have another game, I’m going to prepare as hard as I can for that and finish the season off on a positive note.”

Reversing course from those words is understandable given they came minutes after a competitive game, and the last week has shown Pyne how quickly the quarterback transfer market will move.

In the game of musical chairs that is quarterbacks moving across the country, Pyne waiting until after the bowl game to transfer could serve only to leave him with fewer destinations as options. Not that Pyne may have been looking at Iowa, but the fact that one Power Five starting gig appears to have already been filled by Michigan transfer Cade McNamara presumably underscored the rapid nature of this process.

Understandably, Pyne needs to make the most of this opportunity, coming off a strong season as Notre Dame’s starter but knowing he is unlikely to start for the Irish in 2023. Depending on the level of transfer joining the Irish and Buchner’s health, it was distinctly possible Pyne would be Notre Dame’s third quarterback next year.

For someone who grew up as a Notre Dame fan, specifically a Brady Quinn fan, assuredly this decision was not an easy one for Pyne.

He had a lengthy and notable offer sheet coming out of high school, but Pyne at his best this season would not draw interest from the likes of Texas A&M, Alabama and LSU as he did three years ago. It may be more pertinent to point out he is a Connecticut native, so schools in the northeast could be most logical for his landing spot.

The Irish should also have quarterback commit Kenny Minchey in the pecking order this spring, expected to sign with Notre Dame on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s QB room creates a friendly trust that has been crucial to Pyne’s success
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 10 Drew Pyne, junior quarterback

Notre Dame adds a fourth receiver commit to recruiting class, helping a roster need

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Notre Dame is addressing its most glaring roster deficiency with a numbers approach. The Irish had only five true scholarship receivers for much of this season, a number they will nearly match in next year’s freshman class alone after adding a fourth receiver commitment on Thursday. Consensus three-star receiver Kaleb Smith (Rick Reedy High School; Frisco, Texas) announced he will join Notre Dame’s class, and he should sign with the Irish on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

Smith was committed to Texas Tech for more than nine months before he backed off that pledge in early November. Marcus Freeman does not welcome official visitors who are committed to other programs, so if Smith wanted to take an official visit to South Bend to watch Notre Dame play Clemson, he needed to open up his recruitment.

The Irish 35-13 win against the then-No. 4 Tigers assuredly helped tip the scales away from his homestate Texas Tech.

Otherwise, Smith has hardly been recruited by anyone. The only other Power Five program to chase him was Baylor when current Notre Dame receivers coach Chansi Stuckey was there.

Listed at only 6-foot and 168 pounds, it is easy to pencil in Smith as a slot receiver, but he is also willing to go up in the air to get the ball. His highlight footage features him repeatedly and astonishingly open.

His size, or lack thereof, will make Smith unique among the quartet of incoming signees. By snagging four receivers in this class, the Irish are proactively fixing an undeniable roster problem. In last year’s Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame had only four receivers available. Through most of this season, in part due to injuries to Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins, the Irish had a total of six receivers available, including former walk-on Matt Salerno.

While Braden Lenzy will not return for the Irish in 2023, current sophomores Jayden Thomas, Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles should all come back, along with current freshman Tobias Merriweather. With these four commitments, a position group of eight may allow Notre Dame to have a genuine two-deep.

If signing four receivers in a class and seven in two years seems like an unsustainable influx, keep in mind two things. First of all, the Irish desperately need to find receiver depth. Lenzy was famously and admittedly exhausted at the end of that Fiesta Bowl faceplant 11 months ago. One more injury this season would have further crippled Notre Dame’s passing game in 2022. Secondly, the one-time transfer allowance will make departures from the program both more common and more alluring to the players. Natural attrition will occur.

RELATED READING: A third four-star receiver commitment, Jaden Greathouse, elevates Notre Dame’s class of 2023 from good to Great
Four-star receiver Rico Flores Jr.’s commitment gives Notre Dame some receiver hope for 2023
Four-star Texas receiver Braylon James gives Notre Dame needed offensive piece in class of 2023

CB Cam Hart out for Notre Dame’s bowl game, but will return in 2023

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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Perhaps earlier than expected, Notre Dame has already received good news this offseason. Senior cornerback Cam Hart will return for a fifth year in South Bend, though he will not put on pads for the Irish in any bowl game, he announced Tuesday evening.

“Due to a shoulder injury that I sustained during the Boston College Game [sic], I could not participate in our final regular season game and will not be able to participate in this year’s bowl game,” Hart wrote on Twitter. “Consequently, I believe my time here isn’t necessarily complete. Choosing to attend the University of Nore Dame has been the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life.

“In light of that, I’ve decided to return for a fifth season and look forward to taking the field with my brothers in 2023!”

Hart’s 2023 return should give the Irish four returning cornerbacks with starting experience, only fifth-year nickel back Tariq Bracy a notable departure from this year’s cornerbacks group.

Note: The use of “should” is not meant to imply anything about other possibilities. The conditional verb is chosen as recognition of the constantly changing rosters in college football in 2022.

Hart took part in Notre Dame’s Senior Day festivities before facing Boston College, which suggested he was at least considering jumping to the NFL. This quick announcement indicates the injury ruled out that thought process, though the injury had plagued him at points earlier in the season.

A shoulder injury first flared up for Hart this year in the spring of 2022, costing him spring practices. A concern had previously cost him some of 2019, as he adapted from playing receiver in high school. He nonetheless played in 11 games in 2022, starting 10 and making 25 tackles with three for loss and breaking up four passes.

His passes defensed fell from nine in 2021, along with two interceptions, in part because opposing quarterbacks were less enticed to test the increasingly-experienced cornerback. His 6-foot-2 ½ length made Hart something just short of a shutdown cornerback.

With current freshman Benjamin Morrison surging to close this season and classmate Jaden Mickey stepping in for Hart at USC, Notre Dame should enjoy a plethora of tested cornerbacks in 2023. (Current junior Clarence Lewis is the aforementioned fourth.)

In many respects, this will allow the Irish defense to begin the 2023 season with the same calm it had in 2022, when Hart, Lewis and Bracy provided experienced pass defense.

“You have three older veteran corners that can really play at any moment, which makes you feel good,” head coach Marcus Freeman said in August. “Those three guys can play those two corner spots and I don’t feel there will be a drop off with any of them.”

There are a few key decisions left on Notre Dame’s defense — most notably, defensive end Justin Ademilola and safety Brandon Joseph could return in 2023 — but most of them may come after any Irish bowl game. Hart’s choice was presumably expedited by his apparent exclusion from the bowl game due to this injury.

HART CAREER STATISTICS
2020: 8 games; 3 tackles, 2 passes defended.
2021: 13 games, 10 starts; 42 tackles with four for loss, 9 passes defended and two interceptions.
2022: 11 games, 10 starts; 25 tackles with three for loss, 4 passes defended.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 5 Cam Hart, senior cornerback, second-year starter

Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s offensive shortcomings again highlighted by an explosive counterpart

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Notre Dame at USC
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There are two ways to look at USC’s 38-27 win against Notre Dame on Saturday, and they both tie back to the Trojans’ being the best Irish measuring stick.

USC beat Notre Dame in a way that underscores how short-handed the Irish always were this season. When Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams began to cement his status as the Heisman frontrunner with a performance that will be long remembered, Notre Dame had no way to consistently counter him.

“We didn’t stop them,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said simply enough.

Without the offensive skill position players needed to match Williams’ explosive play for explosive play, Notre Dame needed its defense to play perfectly, clearly an unfair ask against a Lincoln Riley offense.

“USC is a great team,” Irish quarterback Drew Pyne said. “That was a really good team we played out there. They’re going to go on and do great things for the rest of their season. Caleb Williams is a great player.”

If the Irish had not had junior tight end Michael Mayer — eight catches on nine targets for 98 yards and two touchdowns — they may not have been able to stay in even vague distance of the Trojans. Three heaves to Deion Colzie gained 75 yards and three first downs, but each felt like Pyne was hoping more than anything else.

Notre Dame still made it a game, but the discrepancy in offensive playmakers stood out in Los Angeles on Saturday night.

And while both programs will undergo some turnover — most notably Mayer for the Irish; receiver Jordan Addison and running back Austin Jones will both likely be at the next level next year, among Trojans’ contributors this weekend — Notre Dame will need to close that gap to compete with USC next season.

The variance of a schedule may keep the Irish from too staunchly improving on their 8-4 record this year, but a certainty is that Williams will be ready to dazzle again in South Bend on Oct. 14, 2023.

Notre Dame right now does not have the offensive firepower to keep up with such a dynamic attack. As soon as the Irish gifted the Trojans chances to take a lead, their running game was mitigated and Notre Dame’s best hopes were reduced to Mayer and those heaves to Colzie.

Williams can dance his way through any defense, perhaps shy of Georgia’s. Even if the Irish secondary had been fully healthy, Williams’ rhythmic scrambles still would have broken down the defense. If Utah helms him in this weekend, it may be as much due to a USC letdown as it is to any Utes’ scheme. His stardom is an extreme, but this is college football in 2022, again aside from Georgia.

Many will instinctively point to Pyne’s shortcomings, ignoring how well he played in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. He made two mistakes, yes, but one of them (the cross-body interception) came as Notre Dame was more and more desperate and the other (the fumbled exchange) was in part a result of the Irish abandoning their ground game as they fell further behind.

Pyne finished 23-of-26 for 318 yards and three touchdowns. Every version of breaking down those stats yields praise for Pyne. A reality of a loss and a reality when the opposing quarterback broke through as a national star, no time was spent in postgame press conferences discussing Pyne’s efficient night.

But it was, regardless.

His final incompletion, the interception from Notre Dame’s own red zone, also overshadowed the second-most accurate day in Irish passing history, but it was an understandable mistake. Notre Dame was trailing by two scores with only five minutes remaining. Wasting a play on a throwaway was low on Pyne’s priority list.

If Pyne had established more of a season-long rapport with Colzie, maybe he sees him down the left sideline as highlighted by Kirk Herbstreit on the broadcast. If Braden Lenzy is a bit less worn down by a season-long receiver shortage, maybe he is able to charge into Pyne’s ill-advised pass rather than try to settle in for a low catch. If … maybe, if … maybe.

Only twice this season has USC managed as few as 31 genuine points — discounting the short-field touchdown in the final three minutes courtesy of Pyne’s pick, though not all that necessary given the Trojans fell short of 40 points just twice in their first 11 games. Oregon State and Washington State had the luxuries of facing Williams before he had reached the peak of his powers with this new, transfer-obtained complement of receivers.

The Irish defense did its part against USC. Notre Dame’s offense just could not match the star of the season.

Williams will star again next year. The Irish defense will most likely still be stout. Those truths this season will carry over. Notre Dame then has to wonder only if its offense can develop and/or find more playmakers, a known need this entire season and now the pressing concern entering the offseason, a need emphasized by the Trojans’ offense, the foe that should again define 2023.