Notre Dame’s Opponents: Purdue’s 2020 slide a sign of worrisome trends

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Northwestern at Purdue
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If Notre Dame had faced Purdue just a year ago, the jokes would have written themselves, just as they did when Bowling Green visited South Bend back in 2019. Alas, Bob Diaco’s 2020 Boilermakers defense performed poorly enough to earn him a December dismissal and thus perhaps force the Irish to face a now-improved defense.

Purdue’s 2-4 during the pandemic fit into a longer trend, winning exactly a third of their last 24 games. While those 24 were not spread across two seasons for the obvious *2020* reasons, two years worth of games finishing 8-16 does not bode well for anyone, and the defensive coordinator being shown the door at the end of that stretch is often just a nod toward a larger inevitability a year later.

The Boilermakers chances to cover for that defense last season took a hit when star receiver Rondale Moore initially opted out of the season, and then when he opted back in, he was either injured or making up his mind, depending on which expert you listened to. Without him, Purdue did not even average four touchdowns a game (27.2 points, to be exact).

More than any of these long-term or pandemic-induced frustrations, what should most worry Boilermakers fans is how their 2020 ended. No program can enter an offseason with any version of momentum or optimism after losing to Rutgers and Nebraska, both as home games, in consecutive weeks.

Moore’s hesitation, tied to lower-body muscular worries or simply more broadly-based, was understandable given the uncertain nature of the season in comparison to the certainty of his NFL draft prospects. Indeed, the Arizona Cardinals selected Moore in the second round, formally ending his college career that began with such magnificent promise and never truly came to be much else after that upset of No. 2 Ohio State in 2018 when he turned 14 touches into 194 yards and two touchdowns. (It was Notre Dame’s idle week; some among us were leading a bachelor party through New Orleans, and still, Moore’s dazzling is remembered.)

Purdue is now also without left tackle Grant Hermanns, who started 33 games in college and is now working with the New York Jets, hoping to snag a roster spot.

Defensively, the Boilermakers lost linebacker Derrick Barnes, who made 55 tackles in just six games last season. Not that Purdue was pushing for a bowl berth (even with a few non-conference wins, that would have been a tight call), but to put that into 13-game context, Barnes was on pace for 119 tackles in 2020.

As it pertains to Diaco, he worked under head coach Jeff Brohm for just the one season, and it can be argued he did not do a terrible job. Purdue gave up 29.8 points per game — not good, but when playing opposite a Brohm offense, should be good enough — and 5.38 yards per play. It was arguably serviceable — even if it did not create any defensive pressure, it allowed only 3.62 yards per rush attempt (sacks adjusted).

Brees will debut in the “ND on NBC” booth the week prior in the Irish home opener against Toledo, but he will gain most notice when Notre Dame faces the Boilermakers, not just because it will be Brees’ first game on NBC, rather than on Peacock, but also because he obviously played for Purdue, twice losing in the last minute in South Bend.

“I remember vividly my two experiences at Notre Dame, both in 1998 and 2000,” Brees said this spring when NBC announced his new role shortly after his retirement from the New Orleans Saints became official. “Both games, in my opinion, we should have won and somehow, someway, Touchdown Jesus got us in the end.”

That will make for some fun anecdotes in the broadcast, if a viewer is open-minded enough to acknowledge Brees’ self-deprecation in even discussing those losses. When Purdue is not the Irish opponent, Brees will call the game impartially, as a broadcaster should. On Sept. 18, he might slip once or twice, though probably only in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

“I will be impartial for every game with the exception of the Purdue game, because my bloodlines run deep with the black and gold and the Boilermakers,” Brees said.

“On a serious note, I’m excited to be a part of and really continue the legacy of what Notre Dame football has meant to so many.”

It should be noted, with the surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer now in the NBC booth, this intrastate rivalry is no longer an annual affair and will not return to being one for the foreseeable future.

The Boilermakers return 74 percent of their production, even without Moore (though, playing only a couple games obviously diminished the production he brought with him to the NFL), yet do not have an established quarterback. A pair of experienced passers are in the midst of a competition to start for Purdue, but neither is especially notable.

In Brohm’s offense, however, a quarterback does not need to have elite physical talents. He needs to be willing to take deep shots to let his perimeter playmakers simply outdo opposing defensive backs, and he needs to get the ball into those playmakers’ hands on short routes in space. When clicking, usually with someone like Moore putting together highlights such that an entire bar crawl halts to watch, Brohm’s offense can be dynamic. When a defense has cornerbacks to match those receivers or disciplined linebackers to eat up the open spaces, the offense can be staltering.

The Boilermakers have the receivers this year, led by junior David Bell, possibly the best receiver in the conference outside of Ohio State, 6-foot-3 junior Milton Wright and Marshall transfer Broc Thompson.

Bell caught 53 passes for 625 yards and eight touchdowns in six games last year, while Wright broke out with 24 catches for 305 yards and two scores. Not that this is intended as a matchup-specific preview, but they will test the Irish cornerbacks more than anyone else does in the season’s first quarter.

It is a one-dimensional offense these days, with no worthwhile rushing complement. Purdue averaged 81.5 rushing yards per game last year and 3.26 yards per carry in 2020.

Brohm turned to Marshall to replace Diaco and give his tenure a boost. Brad Lambert coordinated the Thundering Herd to be the No. 1 scoring defense in the country last year and the No. 2 total defense.

Upon arrival in West Lafayette, Lambert revamped the entire defensive coaching staff and more tangibly pulled in two defensive back transfers, one from Kentucky and one from Division II’s Findlay. But they obviously will not help with the Boilermaker’s lack of pressure up front.

For that, they will continue to turn to star defensive end George Karlaftis. Though he lost most of the already-truncated 2020 season to injury and pandemic protocols, Karlaftis had 17 tackles for loss with 7.5 sacks in his freshman year in 2019. He alone will be a useful asset for Lambert that Diaco hardly got to enjoy.

PointsBet sets Purdue’s season win total over/under at a mere 5. To top that, the Boilermakers will need to find traction in the trenches on both sides of the ball. They will have time to find their footing in that respect, opening the year against Oregon State and at Connecticut, but then come the Irish.

Purdue may well reach its idle week at 4-1 (with home games against Illinois and Minnesota following the trip to Notre Dame), but after that, the quality of the Big Ten populates the schedule. For the Boilermakers to become bowl eligible, even after that strong start, they will need to beat two of Nebraska, Michigan State and Northwestern, or secure a 2018-esque upset against a vastly superior opponent.

Brohm started 11-9 at Purdue, but has lost most good will since then with a three-year slide. Firing Diaco may not have been enough to halt that trend.

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A quick run through Notre Dame’s offensive depth chart, led by Sam Hartman and Joe Alt

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The first couple spring practices were enough to fill out a penciled depth chart for Notre Dame’s offense. Franky, there was one question needing some clues more than anything else, and Irish rising junior Michael Carmody has emerged as the early frontrunner at left guard opposite fifth-year Andrew Kristofic at right guard.

Let’s emphasize the phrase early frontrunner there, as new Notre Dame offensive line coach Joe Rudolph likely will mix and match a bit yet both before the Blue-Gold Game on April 22 and before the Irish head to Dublin in 148 days.

The one position with a clear pecking order among its top two, despite Notre Dame continuing to go through the facade of a competition, is quarterback.

“[Rising junior Tyler Buchner is] not going to back down from anybody,” Irish quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli said Friday. “At the end of the day, if those two are competing and going head-to-head, they’re making each other better and ultimately, they’re making the offense better, which is going to make this football team better. …

“They understand what’s at stake. It’s nice to see those guys compete. I think it sets a precedent in the room that, ‘Hey, you have to go out there every day and be consistent and make decisions that are going to help our football team and put them in situations to be successful.’”

Those are nice sentiments, and Buchner’s development obviously should be a Notre Dame priority through 2023, especially as it pertains to keeping him actively engaged with the program.

But Wake Forest graduate transfer Sam Hartman will start for the Irish in Dublin.

— Hartman
— Buchner: Because it may be asked, Buchner has three seasons of eligibility remaining to be used in three years.
— Sophomore Steve Angeli: And Angeli has four seasons remaining in four years.
— Early-enrolled freshman Kenny Minchey

One more reminder, Ron Powlus III took a medical retirement this offseason.

— Junior Audric Estimé
— Junior Logan Diggs: Both Estimé and Diggs have only two seasons of eligibility remaining, but given the short shelf lives of running backs, it could probably be assumed at least one of them will not return to college in 2024. Then again, perhaps NIL could change that long view.
— Sophomore Jadarian Price: Not yet full-go as he recovers from a summer Achilles injury, it looks more and more like Price may have the third-most carries for Notre Dame this fall with fifth-year Chris Tyree looking at a life at receiver.
— Sophomore Gi’Bran Payne
— Freshman Jeremiyah Love

— Virginia Tech graduate transfer Kaleb Smith: The nomenclature of “Big” used here is not official, is not what Notre Dame uses, and is intended only to convey uncertainty at who will line up where among the Irish receivers, particularly with a new offensive coordinator in Gerad Parker. It still feels safe to presume there will be some delineation between skill sets, though.
— Junior Jayden Thomas: He became a third-down extraordinaire in 2022 and has been praised as a leader this spring. Thomas could end up starting over Smith. Again, uncertainty about the split of starters.
— Junior Deion Colzie

— Sophomore Tobias Merriweather could not be receiving much more praise this spring.
— Early-enrolled freshman Jaden Greathouse
— Early-enrolled freshman Braylon James

— Junior Lorenzo Styles
— Fifth-year Chris Tyree: One could understandably wonder if Tyree’s dabbling at receiver was part of Notre Dame’s conversation with him about returning for this final collegiate season.
— Former walk-on Matt Salerno
— Freshman Kaleb Smith

— Junior Mitchell Evans
— Sophomore Holden Staes
— Sophomore Eli Raridon
— Junior Kevin Bauman: Both Bauman and Raridon are sidelined for the spring as they recover from ACLs torn in the fall.
— Freshman Cooper Flanagan 

— Preseason first-team Walter Camp All-American Joe Alt: Yes, a preseason All-American team was released Friday. Yes, that’s idiotic.
— Senior Tosh Baker: He has never cracked the starting lineup aside from the rash of left tackle injuries in 2021 that eventually led to Alt’s star turn, but Baker remains one game away from taking over at a pivotal role. It is not like he has been supplanted by scrubs. If he hangs around South Bend, one has to think the starting gig could be his in 2024, but that may be an “if.”

— Carmody
— Sophomore Billy Schrauth

— Fifth-year Zeke Correll is set for his third season as a starter at the fulcrum, a veteran presence that should make life that much easier for Hartman.
— Junior Pat Coogan
— Early-enrolled freshman Sam Pendleton

— Kristofic
— Junior Rocco Spindler
— Sophomore Ashton Craig

— Junior Blake Fisher
— Sophomore Aamil Wagner
— Sophomore Ty Chan

Positions are in flux even among the second unit along the offensive line, so trying to nail them down beyond that is foolish, particularly with players not even yet on campus.

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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

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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.