Friday at 4: 40 Predictions, beginning with Notre Dame’s offensive line, September and Knute Rockne

Kevin Austin
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Preseason hype is inevitable. It is natural. It is one of the joys of college football.

Naturally, preseason predictions often carry that tenor. It is logical, but it also sets up those predictions to misfire aplenty. Then again, the world’s best gamblers strive to be accurate only 52.38 percent of the time. Some misfires should be expected.

But when some thoughts about Notre Dame’s 2021 come across as less than ideal to an Irish fan, consider it both an attempt at an honest appraisal and a pathological need to exceed that 52.38 percent. Even Cy Young won 61.79 percent of his games.

So here, the first half of 40 preseason predictions …

1) Notre Dame’s offensive line currently lacks chemistry. That is a real and tangible issue, one solved only with time. Two of the Irish starters have never donned a gold helmet. One more has never played his current position. The offensive line looks good on paper, undeniably, but it will need time to coalesce.

Thus, let’s predict Notre Dame will rush for more yards in November than it does in September, even if two of the first three Irish opponents have dire worries along their defensive lines.

2) And to carry that one step further, Notre Dame will give up fewer sacks in November than in September, partly because an offensive line’s chemistry comes in part as it gets used to a quarterback, and that will take just as much time as it does for freshman left tackle Blake Fisher to get used to playing next to junior left guard Zeke Correll.

3) Yes, Fisher will start at Florida State. This has been assumed throughout the preseason, and Irish head coach Brian Kelly confirmed it Thursday.

“He’s better than anybody that we have,” Kelly said. “… From a pass-rush standpoint, he’s hard to get around. He’s long, he moves his feet well, he’s strong, you can’t bull-rush him. He can get his hands on you.”

Claiming Fisher will start on Labor Day Eve may be a shoo-in as a prediction, but it needs to be reiterated nonetheless simply because Fisher will be only the second freshman to start on Notre Dame’s offensive line in a season opener in 133 years.

“His development is still there, it needs to continue to grow,” Kelly said. “But it’s hard to compare him to anybody that we’ve had here. Was Ronnie Stanley a better athlete? Maybe, but he certainly didn’t have the size.”

4) Fisher has been getting preseason pressure by sometimes facing fifth-year defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, but not last weekend. The Hawaiian captain lost his father unexpectedly and suddenly this month, a moment of heartbreak that the Irish will have no choice but to rally around.

“He’s beloved,” Kelly said. “The players love him and he loves being around his teammates.”

Tagovailoa-Amosa flew back to Hawaii for only a few days before returning to practice, taking a red-eye flight to be able to join the second half of a practice Monday morning.

“I think he gained a lot of solace to be around us, as well,” Kelly said. “He wanted to come back and be with his teammates. I think that was his way of healing in a way, too.”

When Notre Dame hosts Toledo in its home opener on Sept. 11, some moment will welcome Tagovailoa-Amosa. It will be loud, resounding and poignant. And he will respond with a sack that afternoon.

5) Speaking of the Toledo contest, broadcasting it exclusively on NBC’s streaming app, Peacock, will not be a big deal. It will work, unlike a recent WWE pay-per-view. The video quality will be, well, quality. You will be okay with the entire experience, and you will forget about it by the end of the next game.

Just remember to subscribe ahead of time, to lessen your gameday stress.

6) And many of you will keep your Peacock subscriptions. Norm Peterson is too rife with life advice to spurn, not to mention the fact that Cliff Clavin always should have been the next “Jeopardy” host.

7) During that Peacock broadcast, new “ND on NBC” analyst Drew Brees will do just fine. He will predict a few plays before the snap. He will get a few wrong. As long as there are more of the former than of the latter, then the entertainment value-added of those bold moments will be well worthwhile.

8) PointsBet sets Toledo’s season win total over/under at 8.5. The Rockets will enjoy the over. And to double down on MAC thoughts, Kent State will do better than 5.5 wins. Read into that combination as you will, especially if you like going to early December football games in Detroit.

PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner, and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.

9) The NCAA abridging possible overtimes even further than it did a few years ago will have no effect on the Irish season. It wouldn’t have last year, either, despite the dramatic double-overtime upset of No. 1 Clemson.

Teams are now required to go for two after scoring a touchdown in the second overtime. If Notre Dame had done so and failed last year, it still would have won when two sacks doomed the Tigers’ possession in the second half.

This rule change may rob the world of some benign drama in the future, but it could also create more game-winning two-point conversions. More than anything, it’s a rule change about nearly nothing.

10) The Irish will enjoy a kick or punt return to the opponent’s side of the field within the first three games of the year. The bolder prediction here would be to pin that on the kick return, but Notre Dame fans remain wrongly frustrated with the Irish punt return, so perhaps lumping it in may soothe those frayed nerves.

11) And in those first three games, Kelly will tie Knute Rockne for the Notre Dame record with 105 career wins. The prediction here is not that Kelly will tie Rockne, but that the Irish will start 3-0 and thus he will tie Rockne quickly.

12) Two of those first three games will be blowouts, as in Notre Dame will win by 17 or more points, even if it is a single-digit game entering the fourth quarter. Florida State is too dependent on transfers to be trusted in the season opener. As good as Toledo is, it will be facing an outright talent disadvantage. Then Purdue is atrocious in the trenches, where the Irish excel.

Anytime one team will dominate both sides of the line of scrimmage and enjoys an overall talent advantage, the afternoon or evening should be anticlimactic.

13) Those strengths in the trenches will set Notre Dame’s floor. If that comes across as a vague prediction, let Fisher’s and Tagovailoa-Amosa’s successes serve as validation for it.

14) Senior receiver Kevin Austin has not played extended football since 2017. While the Irish have gone out of their way to ease Austin into a heavier workload this preseason, he will not be as ready for four games in four weeks as would be ideal. That is not his fault so much as it is a reality of football. That may show up in a muscular injury, a la classmate Braden Lenzy and fifth-year Bennett Skowronek last September, or it may show up in minimal usage against Toledo or Purdue.

It will not doom Austin’s year, but it will temper the increasingly high hopes for him.

15) That 11 a.m. local time kickoff against Wisconsin in Chicago will hurt many fans, including any reporters who may have designs on going to two concerts in the preceding three nights. These are the welcomed perils of making up for lost time.

16) Kelly will break Rockne’s record in September.

17) Notre Dame will celebrate Kelly doing so with no mention, at least none larger than the fine print, of the 21 wins vacated by the NCAA. And the NCAA will not say anything 

18) The College Football Playoff cannot be expanded earlier than the 2023 season, but the 12-team version may not arrive until as late as 2026. As teams worry about their rankings this year, the expansion conversation will hit the back-burner this fall. Saturdays bring too much chaos on their own.

19) No Irish cornerback has an interception. Hard as that is to believe, it makes sense when realizing one starter is a converted receiver who dabbled in a reserve role last year and the other is only a sophomore. That sophomore, Clarence Lewis, will have multiple interceptions this season.

20) This fall, Notre Dame will announce a 2022 game in Las Vegas, deeming it the next iteration of the Shamrock Series. This prediction may be an attempt at manifesting a want into a reality as this entire column was written from the back row of a Vegas sportsbook. Now what are Kent State’s odds to win the MAC? And how much does a wager need to be to get a free drink coupon?

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.