Leftovers & Links: NFL-bound offensive linemen praise Notre Dame’s remaining veteran

Notre Dame offensive line
Notre Dame Athletics
2 Comments

There is a version of this offseason where the narrative around Notre Dame’s offensive line claimed the Irish return “five linemen with starting experience” rather than the version at hand of Notre Dame “needing to replace four starting linemen.” The former would have been technically accurate, and it still can be if altered to four linemen with 32 starts between them.

The moral to these differing storylines is the Irish return more experience along the offensive line than one might expect when they are sending four linemen into the NFL draft (April 29 – May 1), and no one knows the depths of that returning experience than those four linemen readying their professional aspirations. Before they each dashed 40 yards last week, they also offered some reviews of their replacements.

While no one would ever expect a former teammate to offer critical words, the details included in answers to open-ended questions convey some sincerity and legitimacy in the descriptions of Jarrett Patterson, Josh Lugg and Dillan Gibbons, among others.

Former left tackle Liam Eichenberg on his presumed replacement, rising senior Jarrett Patterson, who started 21 games at center in the last two seasons (Patterson is sidelined this spring with a foot injury, so his position switch is only assumed, though Eichenberg certainly did not use conditional verbs): “It will be easy for Jarrett. Football comes natural to him. First camp as a freshman, he was a left tackle behind me, and he was amazing. I think it will be like nothing ever happened. I don’t expect there to be a drop-off at all. It will be like I’m still there, it’ll be like Mike (McGlinchey) was still there, and I think Jarrett will be one of the next greats. He’s a great center, and I think him moving out to tackle will make people realize he’s a better player than most people think.”

Eichenberg on fifth-year Josh Lugg, with eight career starts split between right guard and right tackle: “Josh was our utility man. He stepped in, he can play any position. You can put him at tackle, guard or center, and he would do well. He’s a guy that we’ve had — we have four guys coming out this year. He’s been behind them and me at times. It’s just allowed him to develop even more. This is his opportunity now. He will start on the offensive line this year, there’s no doubt about that. He’s going to do very well, he’s going to be very successful, he’s a guy who understands his technique and fundamentals. I’m very excited for him, a guy who stuck it out, who would do anything and sacrifice anything for an offensive line, that’s the type of guy you’re getting.”

Former right guard Tommy Kraemer on fifth-year Dillan Gibbons and senior John Dirksen, two of the primary candidates to fill out the starting lineup, Gibbons with a start in Kraemer’s place last season: “Those guys are two awesome football players. They’re tough, gritty, physical, they can definitely do it. The Notre Dame offensive line will be getting two mature players in John and Dillan. Guys who care a lot about the program and care about improving in their craft.”

Eichenberg on sophomore Tosh Baker, getting a few first-team reps in practice: He has a great mindset. He works hard. For him, it’s just about getting strong in the offseason. He put in a lot of work this winter, so I’m excited to see how he looks. … It’s just strength for him. He moves well, is good with his hands, understands the playbook. It’s just going to be developing his overall strength. When he gets that, I think he’ll be a great player for Notre Dame.”

Former right tackle Robert Hainsey on the remaining offensive linemen in general: “They got some guys that are going to need to step up and be ready to play some big-time minutes that they weren’t used to playing, but I’m really excited to watch all those guys get their opportunity, because there are a lot of great players in that room, and it’s going to be fun to watch them battle it out for who’s going to play. I think the competition is going to bring the best out of everyone.”

Losing Aaron Banks to the draft, rather than a fifth season which would likely have been spent at left tackle, cost the offseason hype machine that chance to point out Notre Dame would return five starters, technically speaking (the fifth being junior center Zeke Correll, two career starts), but the Irish still do not lack experience. The offensive line’s limited stats to brag about are more a reflection of the four linemen heading to the NFL than of the linemen set for their fifth spring practice tomorrow.

ON BANKS’ DECISION
Banks did consider a fifth year and a chance to move to left tackle from left guard, but a combination of former teammates’ input, most notably Sam Mustipher’s, and the departure of his best friends from the team led to his decision.

“Three of the guys I played with for the last three years were leaving, so I felt like it was my time to depart with them,” Banks said a week ago.

ON WHY WE DO THIS
The original intention here was to mirror those quotes with the defensive versions, with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah praising Drew White, with Nick McCloud highlighting junior Cam Hart, with Ade Ogundeji going on and on about fifth-year Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, junior Isaiah Foskey and sophomore Jordan Botelho.

But let’s put those off for a day or two to instead focus on some in-depth and introspective words from former Irish defensive end Daelin Hayes. College football can be a hypocritical, self-indulgent, exploitive sport. But every once in a while, a player gets a chance to give a few genuine minutes in which he illustrates the redemptive value of the game.

To start his media availability before his pro day workouts, Hayes was asked to reflect on his fifth season. Keep in mind, Hayes would have used up his eligibility if he had played in one more game in 2019 before injuring his shoulder, a troublesome shoulder that interrupted three of his high school seasons. Returning to Notre Dame in 2020 had never been on his radar until then, and at that point, it was understandably felt as a misfortune. His reflection:

“This last year at Notre Dame was really why a 17-year-old kid makes a decision to attend a place like this. Full circle. When I made the decision to come to Notre Dame, it was not only for the football aspect but to be refined as a young man on the field, off the field and spiritually.

“The first goal I had when I stepped on campus was to become a captain, and I was able to achieve that. Another goal I had was to impact the community around me, and I was able to achieve that, as well. Then obviously the football aspect came full circle this year, as well.

“To be able to lead a group of men who, at no point throughout this year were we ever promised an opportunity to compete. We were stripped of the opportunity to really bond as a team, to have the coaching structure, the academic structure that we had grown accustomed to being at Notre Dame and throughout our time here. We were never really given any solid opportunity. We were never given a solid promise to be able to put all that on display. For guys to be able to buy in this year, the sacrifices that they made, the things that we stood for as an organization, to be able to impact the community and speak up for people whose voices have been oppressed, to lead a community on the field and continue to shine as a light, a beacon of hope for our entire community, our students, our faculty, the people in our community and our team, I think that it was really special.

“When I reflect on my time at Notre Dame, this is why I chose to come here. It was just a special year, I’m so thankful for it, I’m grateful for how things shook out this year because it really was a testament to our buy-in, our traits. Coach Kelly preaches to us to be smart, gritty, to have laser focus, to always have attention to detail and to have a great attitude, and our team really embodied that, it really showed.

“I’m just extremely thankful. I’m proud of the guys. I’m proud to be a part of this brotherhood. And I’m proud to have left that stamp at Notre Dame, to have left it better than when I found it as a 17-year-old kid.”

ON THE ROSTER COUNT
With junior running back Kendall Abdur-Rahman’s entry into the transfer portal, the Irish now have 88 scholarship players expected to be on the roster on Labor Day Eve. For this one season, Notre Dame can exceed the usual NCAA maximum of 85, but just by the two scholarships given to players using a year of eligibility only available due to the blanket waiver granted during the coronavirus pandemic. Defensive tackle Kurt Hinish and kicker Jonathan Doerer are the only two players fitting that distinction, meaning the Irish can roster 87 scholarship players when the season starts.

INSIDE THE IRISH:
Notre Dame’s defense ‘freer’ under Freeman
Notre Dame Pro Day a chance for Tommy Tremble to show how ‘dangerous’ he can be
Nick McCloud’s called 40 catches attention at Notre Dame’s Pro Day
More ‘known commodities’ the key to Notre Dame’s offense replacing lost skill pieces
Notre Dame’s receivers rising to occasion; Irish vaccines on the horizon

OUTSIDE READING:
The most explosive college football players for 2021
The Supreme Court might be ready to smack down the NCAA
2021 NFL draft top 100 Big Board
The Ringer’s 2021 NFL draft guide
How college football coaches are advocating for their NFL draft prospects in the time of COVID
University admits 3,446 to class of 2025, sets record-low acceptance rate

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

34 Comments

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

3 Comments

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
Getty Images
9 Comments

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
Getty Images
22 Comments

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.