And In That Corner … The Pittsburgh Panthers and a backup QB await Notre Dame

Joey Yellen Pittsburgh
ACC Media

Not only is No. 3 Notre Dame (4-0, 3-0 ACC) unsure what Pittsburgh quarterback it will face, the Irish have to wonder which version of the Panthers (3-3, 2-3) will even show up Saturday. Pittsburgh has already oscillated from intriguing ACC dark-horse to growing turmoil around a sixth-year head coach.

What can Notre Dame expect on its first road trip, aside from an increased focus on pandemic protocols? John McGonigal of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette offers some answers. On a very sincere note, this story could have been written without bothering John much, his coverage this week has been that thorough. If a story is linked below, it is because it is worth a quick read for Irish fans before Saturday (3:30 ET; ABC).

DF: This has been an up-then-down season for the Panthers. To underscore that, let’s try a chronological approach. Pittsburgh started out 3-0, garnering talk of an ACC title game run. At the least, the Panthers might pull off a notable upset or two, particularly with Miami, Notre Dame and Clemson all on the schedule. The strength of that rise was the defensive line, correct? It had 17 sacks through three games and it’s up to a nation’s best 29 through six. Is that front simply overrun with raw talent? Last I knew, defensive tackles Keyshon Camp and David Green were injured. Their statuses?

JM: Pitt’s pass-rush keyed the defense those first few weeks, as everyone expected it to before the season. Patrick Jones II skipped a potential Day 2 selection in the 2020 NFL draft to come back. Rashad Weaver, Pitt’s 2018 sacks and tackles for loss leader, returned from an ACL tear. And the depth behind them — Deslin Alexandre, John Morgan, you name it — showed up. The Panthers had seven sacks in each of their first two ACC games against Syracuse and Louisville, and they’ve still gotten after the quarterback the last couple games. But the loss of Camp, who’s “day-to-day” entering this weekend, has been significant. Like Camp, Green didn’t travel to Miami, and neither did defensive end Habakkuk Baldonado, who contributed four sacks last season and hasn’t played since Week 1. Those potential absences would hurt.

That defensive line sets up a delightful strength vs. strength matchup against Notre Dame’s offensive line. I don’t know that I have a question here, so much as pointing out they are each arguably the best in the country. How much are you looking forward to that measuring tape?

As a former high school lineman myself (though an untalented one), I’m excited to see the chess match that happens up front. One thing I’m curious to watch unfold is how many opportunities Pitt has to pin its ears back on third down. The way the Irish run the ball could keep them out of third-and-long, which is when Pitt’s front four, like any good pass-rush, tees off. The Panthers don’t need it to be third-and-long to get home, but Jones’ speed rush is so dangerous in those situations that staying out of them should be a real point of emphasis for Notre Dame on Saturday.

If the Irish offensive line holds up and gives fifth-year quarterback Ian Book time, he’ll be throwing against a secondary led by third-team All-American safety Paris Ford. Book and Notre Dame have struggled to push the ball downfield. How susceptible is this secondary to the vertical game?

I’d say this defense has been susceptible to defensive lapses downfield. Aside from penalties, that’s been the Achilles’ heel of this group during Pitt’s losing streak. The Panthers’ linebackers haven’t covered tight ends well, with Pitt allowing 204 yards and four touchdowns to that position group over the last three weeks. And at times, the corners have been bodied by bigger receivers, especially 5-foot-9 redshirt sophomore Marquis Williams. However, I wasn’t impressed with the separation Notre Dame’s receivers got last weekend against Louisville, which doesn’t bode well for the Irish against Pitt’s press quarters coverage. 

Then Pittsburgh loses three games, including in overtime at Boston College. The defense was not inherently exposed — 30.7 points per game may not be great, but it is more and more the tune of college football, one amplified in 2020 — but its offense did not do any favors. The Panthers averaged 21.2 points per game last year, and this season’s improvement to 24.4 against FBS competition has not been nearly enough. What lies at the core of Pittsburgh’s offensive struggles?

Three main things have held Pitt’s offense back this year (and really last year, too): A non-existent run game, a poor red-zone offense and dropped passes. The Panthers don’t have Tony Dorsett, LeSean McCoy or James Conner carrying the ball — and in some games, it wouldn’t matter if they were. Pitt’s offensive line has done a fine job protecting the quarterback but a lousy job getting any kind of push up front. That’s led to Pitt relying on the passing game, which isn’t perfect, either. Like they did last season, Pittsburgh’s receivers lead the country in drops. Add all that up and you’ve got an offense that can’t run the ball when it needs to, can’t trust its receivers 100 percent of the time and struggles to finish off drives. 

Does Pat Narduzzi have an aversion to scoring? Okay, that’s not fair, but it is a nod to increasing public criticisms of some of his clock and game management. In broad strokes, how would you describe Narduzzi’s decision making and the stress that may or may not be growing around the program? From here, Narduzzi responding to a question with “I don’t make calls on offense” made it clear those troubles are palpable, and it wasn’t exactly an endorsement of offensive coordinator Mark Whipple.

I didn’t necessarily view the “I don’t make calls on offense” comment as a slight given the context. Narduzzi was asked about why running back Todd Sibley didn’t get more carries against Miami, and that was his response, just noting that it’s not his decision on which running backs are in and which aren’t. But of course, it is the job of his running backs coach and offensive coordinator, both of whom he hired.

As for the game management, there have been several instances over the years that have caused Pitt fans to yell at their TVs, the worst being his decision to kick a 19-yard field goal down by seven points in the fourth quarter of last year’s Penn State game. He made a similar decision at Miami last week, kicking on fourth-and-3 from Miami’s 12, down 12 points with 30 seconds left in the third quarter. Narduzzi always says Pitt can’t settle for field goals … but sometimes they’re settling because he’s choosing to.

Now we get to the micro, the imminently pertinent is the quarterback situation. What are the chances senior Kenny Pickett (left ankle) plays?

Not quite 0 percent, but close to it. I don’t see how he plays after not being able to travel last weekend to Miami, with Narduzzi fearing that the swelling might get too bad after a pair of two-hour flights.

Without him, the Panthers will lean on Arizona State transfer sophomore Joey Yellen. Narduzzi espoused happiness “with the way he performed overall,” and going 22-of-46 for 277 yards is nothing to dismiss, particularly with six completions 19 yards or longer by your count. What one-week growth can Pittsburgh somehow realistically expect from Yellen to compete against a Clark Lea defense?

I’m not even sure the Panthers would need much of an improvement from him specifically. It’s more about the pieces around him. Yellen took a bad sack here and there, but Pittsburgh’s receivers had four drops at Miami, and the running game did him no favors. I don’t expect the latter to miraculously spark against this Notre Dame defense, so it’ll be up to Pitt’s blockers to protect Yellen and for him to connect on a few deep balls. Maybe the Panthers can do that early and force Notre Dame’s offense out of its comfort zone. 

Can we realistically expect Yellen & Co. to keep things closer than 10.5 points against the Irish? Is this the weekend  Narduzzi reverses the narrative?

For those interested in the spread this weekend, I do think Pittsburgh covers. I’ve even considered its chances of pulling off the upset. I’m not quite there yet, but Pitt is a talented team that needs this one desperately, and Narduzzi’s Panthers have shown in the past — at Clemson in 2016 and vs. Miami in 2017 — the ability to win games they have no business winning. Perhaps they’ll do it again Saturday.

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.