And In That Corner: Georgia Tech wreck all that stands between Notre Dame and …


While more time might be spent discussing No. 1 Clemson and Nov. 7 — both implicitly by the Irish and explicitly by this space — No. 4 Notre Dame (5-0, 4-0 ACC) still needs to face Georgia Tech first (3:30 ET; ABC). The Rambling Wreck has pulled off two upsets this season, but otherwise has looked like, well, a wreck. To shed some light on what has curtailed the Yellow Jackets’ momentum, let’s chat with Ken Sugiura of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

DF: I find Georgia Tech to be one of the more intriguing programs in the country right now, given the magnificent project ahead of Geoff Collins, but one he is already ahead of schedule on. I am not intending to look past this weekend — though Notre Dame is essentially saying it is doing exactly that — but these two will meet again next year (and in 2024), so framing some of this conversion in long-term parameters isn’t completely off-topic.

The headline with the Yellow Jackets is freshman quarterback Jeff Sims, a one-time Florida State commit. Leading an upset of the Seminoles to open the season gave both him some momentum and Collins evidence his rebuild is working. Irish head coach Brian Kelly spent a good amount of time Monday praising Sims, standard coach-speak, but he is throwing for nearly 200 yards per game with a 55.3 percent completion rate. They may not be stellar numbers, but they are far from troublesome. What does Sims do well?

KS: Among other things, he’s got a pretty strong arm, throws a good deep ball and can throw on the run. He can also hang in the pocket and hit targets. As a dual-threat guy, he can make plays with his feet on draws as well as when the pocket breaks down.  Two numbers that tell you something about him: Sims is second on the team in rushing (45.8 yards per game) and he has thrown 21 passes of 20 yards or more in 150 attempts, a pretty solid rate.

He is fairly poised for a freshman, not showing many of the typical traits you might expect to see in a quarterback starting as a true freshman – taking off at the first sign of trouble, firing fastballs on all of his throws, happy feet in the pocket. Even from his first start, Sims has looked pretty calm.

I don’t ask what Sims does poorly, because I know that is turnovers. 10 interceptions through six games is — how do I put this gently? — rough. I will assume these are simply the mark of a freshman, but they certainly play a role in the Rambling Wreck scoring only 22.8 points per game. How have Collins and Sims discussed that penchant for recklessness?

It is rough, although it’s interesting – I think four of them were bad bounces, though that said, he’s had other passes that could have been intercepted but weren’t. A couple of them have been thrown under pressure and others have just been bad decisions or instances where it certainly seemed like he didn’t see a defender or expect him to be there. For those thrown under pressure, Sims has been reminded he is good on his feet and sometimes just tucking and running isn’t a bad play, nor is throwing the ball out of bounds and punting or playing the next down. As for misreading the defense on occasion, that is something Collins is willing to accept as part of Sims’ growth process.

Those turnovers fit hand-in-hand with a rash of penalties, fundamental mistakes you outlined after the loss at Boston College. I only think I am reading these stats correctly: 52 penalties in six games? Is that correct? For 390 yards? For all the progress Collins has already made in Atlanta, this is a worrisome sign of sloppiness. Am I making too much of it? 52 penalties?

No, it’s definitely a problem and so many have been pre-snap fouls, namely false starts, that have often been drive killers. It’s odd, because the Jackets were actually pretty good with penalties last year in Collins’ first season (57 penalties in 12 games, or 4.8 per game). Collins acknowledged after the Boston College loss that some of the flags represented a lack of discipline.

Obviously, for Georgia Tech to have a chance against Notre Dame, it cannot make mistakes like fumble or jump offsides and give the Irish unearned first downs.

Jahmyr Gibbs Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech freshman running back Jahmyr Simms has benefited from the Yellow Jackets’ improved offensive line play this season, averaging 4.46 yards per carry. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

One of the biggest challenges for Collins is revamping Georgia Tech’s offensive line. The decade of triple-option offense before him relied on smaller, nimbler linemen. He used a few SEC transfers to flip that in this second season. How has that strategy worked out?

That part of it has worked especially well. Right guard Ryan Johnson, a grad transfer from Tennessee, has probably been the best offensive lineman of the group. Jack DeFoor, from Ole Miss, actually transferred in during the Paul Johnson regime, but has been effective, too. Those two and freshman right tackle Jordan Williams (6-6, 330) fit more closely to the prototype that offensive line coach Brent Key is looking for.

In the first four games, they were at the heart of the offense generating 400 yards in each after Georgia Tech hadn’t recorded a single 400-yard game last season. It reflected the improvement caused by the additions of Johnson and Williams but also the progress after a year in the system for the other three and their increased size. More notably, in those first four games, the offense yielded one sack over 125 pass attempts, a ridiculous improvement from last season. (269 pass attempts, 28 sacks) The rate has taken a bit of a plunge in the past two games – nine sacks, 46 pass attempts – but the line is clearly better than it was last year.

On the other side of the line, the Yellow Jackets are giving up 4.62 yards per rush, lowlined by six per carry to the Eagles last week. Notre Dame’s strength is the ground game. Is there any reason I shouldn’t expect the Irish to rush for 250 yards?

In the past two games, the coaching staff took calculated risks that, as the scores would indicate, didn’t work out so well. The first was to try to take away Clemson running back Travis Etienne, who was held to a pedestrian 44 yards on 11 carries (his lowest yardage total against an ACC opponent since the middle of the 2018 season) but it created the space for Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence to have a field day (22-for-27, 391 yards, five touchdowns, one interception – in the first half). Against Boston College, the defense gave attention to tight end Hunter Long and receiver Zay Flowers, which was relatively successful, although Flowers scored on a 22-yard jet sweep. That defensive approach somewhat helped the Eagles go off for 264 rushing yards, which was more than they’d gained on the ground in the previous four games combined.

So, to get to your question, if Collins and his staff make stopping the Notre Dame running game the focal point (although stopping the run is generally the first priority anyway) and take away from the back end in order to support the run defense, maybe the Irish don’t pile up their standard allotment of rushing yards and place more of the game in the hands of Ian Book. But we’ll see. Notre Dame’s run game is, as you say, pretty stout. Tech coaches have a lot of concern about how the Irish use their tight ends not just in the passing game but also in the run game. I could certainly see where Notre Dame coaches could believe they can pound it out on the ground.

I haven’t spent as much time focusing on the macro of transitioning from the triple-option as I intended to. Perhaps it is harder than I thought to frame that big-picture conversation in terms of one weekend. Collins won three games last year and has already notched two this season. I don’t think it was overly-skeptical to doubt that progress would already have occurred. It is not that Collins inherited a bad roster; it is that he took over one not designed for his spread intentions. How has Collins turned this in his favor so quickly?

The progress made thus far can be attributed to a few things. While Johnson’s recruitment brought in some different types than what Collins is looking for, it’s not like he was recruiting chess players. Plenty of players whom Collins inherited are quite capable and could play elsewhere in the conference, including running back Jordan Mason, wide receivers Malachi Carter and Jalen Camp, cornerback Tre Swilling and safety Juanyeh Thomas.

Another factor is that Collins has made a concerted effort to add strength and weight to the roster. A third is that his staff has done a good job of recruiting and developing. A walk-on who played little before last year, defensive tackle Djimon Brooks, has become a starter. Defensive end Jordan Domineck, recruited by Johnson’s staff to play linebacker in a 3-4 defense, has gone from 225 pounds last year to 247 this year and has become a solid player. The freshman running back Gibbs, a star in the making, picked Tech over LSU and Florida, a recruiting battle that the Yellow Jackets haven’t always won. Key, the offensive line coach (previously on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama), has done a remarkable job making over his group.

Looking through my notes, I don’t see anything in particular I am missing, but I assuredly am overlooking quite a bit. What obvious item has evaded me that Notre Dame fans should have in mind this weekend?

I don’t know that I’m expecting the game to come down to a field goal (although longtime Notre Dame fans surely remember a lowly Georgia Tech team stunning the No. 1 Irish in a 3-3 tie in 1980), but the Yellow Jackets have had all kinds of trouble even converting point-after tries, 1-for-5 on field goals and 14-for-17 on point-after tries. All four field-goal misses have been blocked, as have been two of the three PAT tries. Collins was going to go for it on fourth-and-8 from the Boston College 24 (which would have been a 41-yard try) until a false start pushed it back five yards, at which point he sent out the punt team, which attempted an unsuccessful fake. Speaking of the punt team, Jackets punter Pressley Harvin is making a strong bid for All-America consideration. He is a legit field-flipping weapon.

This isn’t terribly relevant, but it occurred to me this game was originally scheduled to be played in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the $1.5 billion sports palace in downtown Atlanta. It would have made for a great event and atmosphere, but Georgia Tech chose to move it back to Bobby Dodd Stadium in case the game had to be moved on the calendar (and presumably also for financial reasons). The next Georgia Tech-Notre Dame game in Atlanta (2024) is still scheduled to be played there (assuming the Irish haven’t joined the ACC by then, ha ha ha) as part of a six-year series the Jackets will play there.

A 20-point spread might seem hefty, but giving up three turnovers per game sets up a team to be blown out. What are you expecting Saturday?

This isn’t exactly a daring take, but I think a lot of it hinges on the turnovers. Tech can be competitive when it doesn’t turn the ball over, and the wheels can fall off when it does. I don’t know that the Jackets are bound to give it away and commit penalties. The common opponent game is always tricky, but Tech didn’t turn the ball over against Louisville, took it away three times, was OK with penalties and won going away (46-27).

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.