And In That Corner … Clemson’s wounded defense looms for Notre Dame

DJ Uiagalelei Clemson
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We’re all suffering through another waiting this week, so let’s do away with the formalities at the top here and instead jump straight into a preview of Saturday’s matchup of No. 4 Notre Dame (6-0, 5-0 ACC) and No. 1 Clemson (7-0, 6-0), in which Matt Connolly of The State newspaper discusses Clemson’s defensive wrinkles, worrisome injuries and, of course, freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei

DF: I usually enter these Q&As with some intentional blindspots, things I know are somewhat important, but the beat writer’s answer will be both more informative and more convenient than me doing my own research. That’s not the case here, at least not intentionally, because you and a few of your colleagues so aptly supplement the already-robust national coverage of the Tigers. And there are no big picture queries here, because Dabo Swinney has created the most stable program in the country. (Alabama is No. 2 if only because of Nick Saban’s age, though I suppose that creates some uncertainty at Clemson, as well.)

For example, you spent time last week detailing Brent Venables’ diabolical abilities in avoiding defensive predilections, keeping opposing quarterbacks and coordinators up all hours of the night. I have two follow-up questions to that story. First, the pertinent: Has Venables dialed back in those regards in any perceivable way this season or even just recent weeks without several defensive starters? I think my current list is close to accurate; The Tigers will be without linebackers James Skalski and Mike Jones, tackle Tyler Davis, end Justin Foster and, for the first half, end Xavier Thomas. That’s less than ideal.

MC: Clemson was still holding out hope that Jones and Davis would be able to play, but Dabo Swinney ruled them out Wednesday night. So yes, Skalski, Jones, Davis and Foster will all be out Saturday, and Thomas will miss the first half. Foster hasn’t played all year, so Clemson is used to playing without him. And Thomas missed the first three games and has been limited since returning, so Clemson is used to playing without him as well.

As far as dialing back his defenses, Venables hasn’t done that at all. If anything, he has gotten even more creative. Clemson opened last week’s game in a 4-2-5 with Jones out. I expect to see Clemson mainly in a 4-3 against Notre Dame to try to slow down the rushing attack, but there will still be plenty of blitzes. It would not be a surprise at all to see several different formations with 3 and 4 down linemen.

Before my second follow-up question, how inaccurate is my list? Which of those are the greatest losses that Notre Dame might be able to exploit?

No Tyler Davis and no James Skalski is a huge loss for Clemson. That means Clemson’s best linebacker and best defensive tackle will be out. Both players are very good at stopping the run and clogging up the middle, necessities against this Irish offense.

My other question about that Venables story from last week: I am sure there was some bit you could not get into the story that you still thought was worthwhile. The cutting room floor is never clean after that much reporting. Whether or not it applies to this weekend, what one thing didn’t hit the print that you still have logged in your head?

I touched on it a little bit in the story but I think just the fact that it’s the combination of Venables and the players Clemson gets that makes its defense so good. Here’s a quote from former Georgia and Miami coach Mark Richt:

“Quite frankly there’s a very big margin between Clemson and everybody else in our league. They’re just physically superior top-to-bottom when you go to the top 22. They can withstand injuries. They can withstand suspensions. They can withstand issues whereas other teams don’t have enough depth.

“Alabama is probably playing against more teams that are more like them than Clemson is in our league. So that doesn’t hurt. They’re pretty good against the best teams, but LSU had their way with them like they did with everybody. So everybody’s beatable.”

On blitzing and bringing people like Isaiah Simmons from all over as Clemson did last year, Richt said sometimes Venables brings six-plus rushers to go up against five offensive linemen:

“You end up with your sixth guy (blitzing) is a guy like Simmons and you’ve got your running back trying to block the guy. Even the best running backs, the only thing you can hope is that they get run over slowly.”

Boston College and Phil Jurkovec cut through Venables’ defense in the first half last week. My notes watching the game were simple: “The real story not O, but Clemson’s D.” What were the Eagles able to do that led to 21 first-half points (28 coming via a 97-yard fumble return)? What did the Tigers do to shut that down after halftime?

Early on BC used tempo, took some shots and connected. As the game went along, I thought Boston College made a mistake by slowing down the tempo, running the ball more and shortening the game. It’s hard to beat Clemson by trying to run out the clock. I think Clemson’s defensive backs also did a better job of finding the ball in the air in the second half and making plays on the ball. Jurkovec also missed some throws.

Opponents are not having much success running against Clemson, 2.74 yards per carry, despite many people thinking this defensive front pales in comparison to recent years. Notre Dame has leaned on the run this season, although not necessarily against the staunchest competition. It is hard to ask, “How good/bad is this Tigers line?” while removing the 2018 generational version from the comparison points, but if that’s possible, is there a weakness up front for the Irish to target?

I don’t know that there’s necessarily one weakness to target. I just think when you have the injuries Clemson does, it’s going to be tough for the Tigers against Notre Dame’s offensive line. Clemson’s defensive line will rely on guys like Justin Mascoll, Bryan Bresee, K.J. Henry, Jordan Williams, Nyles Pinckney and Myles Murphy. They’re all talented players and three are former five-star recruits, but Davis can take over a game, and Skalski is a guy Swinney said he had to take out of practice at times this spring because it wasn’t fair to the offense — he was making every tackle. 

I focus on Clemson’s defense. I think it is what has elevated this program the last five years. Defensive fronts like the Tigers’ standard don’t take games off, lessening the chances of an inexplicable upset. But the highlights go to the offense.

Obviously this week that starts with freshman quarterback DJ Uiagalelei. Aside from experience, what are the biggest differences between him and Trevor Lawrence?

I think experience is far and away the biggest difference. Uiagalelei has a huge arm and can make every throw, and offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said Saturday the game plan for Boston College didn’t change at all once Lawrence was ruled out. Swinney made headlines this spring when he said Uiagalelei makes Lawrence “look kind of normal at times” with his arm strength. That’s a heck of a statement. Of course experience is no small factor. When you have a guy who has played in four College Football Playoff games and a guy who is making his first career road start, that’s a big difference.

The other difference would be size. Uiagalelei is massive at 6-foot-4, 250 pounds. He’s tough to bring down in the pocket and can get tough yards in short-yardage situations.

Heading into last week, Uiagalelei was nursing an injury. It seemed to limit his exposure to hits early against Boston College, but then he broke that 30-yard touchdown run to get within one possession, and it was clear he is still plenty mobile. How severe is that injury? Does it limit Uiagalelei?

It’s actually a throwing shoulder injury Uiagalelei has been dealing with. Clemson definitely does not want him taking too many shots, but as you mentioned they ran him a little bit against BC. I think it’s a situation where they want to protect him some but also understand he makes a big difference in the running game when he can keep on some zone reads. My guess is his carries are limited, and when he does run he’ll do his best to protect his shoulder. 

Have you, personally, recovered from the shock of Lawrence’s positive coronavirus test? I suspect last Thursday was a day in your professional life you will remember for a good while.

Last Thursday was wild, for sure. I was coming back from picking up some pizza, checked my phone and had several messages from friends asking if the news about Trevor was true. I made some phone calls and started working on a story pretty much immediately. I guess that’s just the world we live in during COVID times. You never really know when major news is going to break.

Needed follow-up: What kind of pizza?

It was Pizza Inn, which I’m not sure y’all have there. Sausage/pepperoni and chocolate chip pizza.

Is … that … on one pizza? Or is the chocolate chip a dessert pizza, almost a big cookie? You have my attention.

Two different. Chocolate chip pizza is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

And then there is Travis Etienne. If he gets rolling, Notre Dame does not stand a chance, and he has shown a penchant for taking over in Lawrence’s stead when necessary. If granting that as a fact, then the best chance for the Irish to contain Etienne will be devoting either linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and/or safety Kyle Hamilton to the cause. Let’s say that works, as those two might actually be physically capable of the task. What will Clemson’s next offensive ploy be? If Etienne somehow accounts for only 120 total yards and one score, where do the Tigers turn for four more touchdowns?

Let’s start with Etienne. If I’m Notre Dame, I’m as concerned with him catching the ball out of the backfield as I am with him getting carries. Etienne is averaging 15 yards per catch and is a nightmare to bring down in the open field. Defenses have done a nice job of bottling him up and closing down running lanes this year, but he is second on Clemson’s team in receptions and receiving yards.

As far as other playmakers to watch — it starts with Amari Rodgers. The senior lines up mostly in the slot but is also Clemson’s best deep threat. He has 40 catches for 586 yards and six touchdowns this season. Rodgers is tied for fourth in the ACC in catches, second in yards and is tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions. Cornell Powell, Frank Ladson and Joseph Ngata are other receivers to watch out for, while Braden Galloway is a receiving threat at tight end. Ngata and Ladson have big-play potential, but Ngata has been limited by injuries all year and Ladson has struggled with drops.

I suggest five total touchdowns because if this game remains in the 20s, I think Notre Dame has a chance. Admittedly, these last two questions have now included three massive “if”s, but that is what happens when facing a team with 36 regular-season wins in a row. IFs becoming THENs is what creates an upset. Have I missed any other “if” propositions you think may prove distinctly relevant?

I don’t really have any other “if” propositions but one other thing I think is fascinating is the way the two teams have viewed the game. Notre Dame has been pretty open this season about how it is pointing to the Clemson game as a huge one. The Tigers have said they’re treating it just like any other game. We’ll see how that plays out Saturday.

What do you expect Saturday night (7:30 ET; NBC)? Be as broad or as specific as you see fit.

I think it’s going to be a great game, and I’m really excited to see how it plays out. My guess is Notre Dame makes Clemson one-dimensional and a lot is on the shoulders of Uiagalelei. Offensively for Notre Dame, I expect them to be able to establish the run with so many Clemson injuries. At this point I’m leaning Notre Dame. 

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.