Notre Dame’s Opponents: Daunting schedule will doom Georgia Tech to further Wreck status

Georgia Tech v Boston College
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Somewhere in the whirlwind that was the 2020 season, late to kick and interrupted as it was, Notre Dame beat Georgia Tech, 31-13. Quite literally, the game was easily forgotten, with the Irish methodically putting together a 17-7 halftime lead and coasting to the victory with nary a worry.

A three-possession win is one indication of an easy weekend. That the triumph is so easily forgotten in the season’s narrative amplifies the casual nature of the success.

All of that is not necessarily an outright knock on the Yellow Jackets. Transitioning from more than a decade of relying on the triple-option takes time, and losing an offseason of that process to the pandemic may have extended the needed runway.

At the very least, Georgia Tech made little progress last year. It started off well, with a 16-13 upset at Florida State. In retrospect, though, that was more a reflection of the Seminoles’ struggles than the Ramblin’ Wreck’s progress.

Whatever the cause, that Georgia Tech win set a high bar for freshman quarterback Jeff Sims, a one-time Florida State commit, as he threw for 277 yards and a touchdown on 24-of-35 passing with another 64 yards on 13 rushes. Suddenly, Geoff Collins’ Atlanta reclamation project looked to be far ahead of schedule.

Things went off the tracks soon enough for the Wreck, losing to both Central Florida and at Syracuse in the coming weeks before enduring back-to-back-to-back routs to Clemson (73-7), Boston College (48-27) and Notre Dame.

The 3-7 finish arguably marked progress for Collins, who went 3-9 in his first year at Georgia Tech taking over for Paul Johnson’s triple-option dependence, but it was still a humbling 2020. Giving up 36.8 points per game was hardly the worst of Tech’s problems, also committing 26 false starts in just 10 games, per Pro Football Focus, and turning over the ball 25 times.

Renovating a triple-option program was always going to be a tall task for Collins, but the roster issues were separate from the sloppiness that led to those penalties and turnovers. In one respect, that kind of mistake is easily fixed and should not continue into 2021, but that will need to be seen to be believed.

For some losing programs, returning production is not necessarily good production, but when in the midst of a roster rehaul in order to adjust to the 21st century, every lost contributor can reveal a hole in the depth chart.

The most difficult transition coming out of the triple-option is along the offensive line, where smaller and quicker linemen were once the preference but now more traditional wide and strong bodies are necessary. So when the Wreck loses two multi-year starting offensive linemen in one summer, it is even more a concern than it would be for nearly any other program.

When it loses its leading receiver — Jalen Camp, a sixth-round draft pick after catching 29 passes for 439 yards and four scores — there is concern about what other true receivers are ready to step in, particularly after Ahmarean Brown (11 catches for 183 yards and a touchdown) transferred to South Carolina.

Defensively, those concerns are not as severe. The triple-option is an offensive approach, obviously, so the defense can still be traditionally constructed. Nonetheless, linebacker David Curry’s 84 tackles with 7.5 for a loss will be difficult to replace.

Georgia Tech has the luxury of a mobile quarterback — Sims ran for 492 yards and six scores last year — and one of the country’s best running backs in sophomore Jahmyr Gibbs, who averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2020. The ground game will propel the Yellow Jackets, even as the offensive line recalibrates to three transfers brought in to fill those two vacancies.

But if Sims does not find some traction in the passing game, defenses will be able to sell out against the run. Sims threw 13 touchdowns last year and matched those with 13 interceptions. He averaged 7.32 yards per pass attempt, at least a yard less than a competent offense will rely upon.

Worse than all that, though clearly tied to it, Georgia Tech’s offense essentially moved backward each time it dropped back to pass. From an analytical standpoint, every play increases an offense’s chances of scoring more points or decreases them. On average, a Wreck pass attempt created -0.188 points for Tech last season, a degree of struggle that will be difficult to rebound from in just one year, even with the transfer of receiver Kyric McGowan from Northwestern, who would have been the Wreck’s leading receiver with 34 catches.

The Yellow Jackets’ rebuild should not be as difficult defensively, yet they gave up 36.8 points per game last year. Even after removing the Clemson embarrassment, Georgia Tech gave up 32.8 points each week.

Most notably, the Wreck gave up 189.2 rushing yards per game, in no small part because the defensive line has lacked both depth and strength. Georgia Tech brought in four transfers to try to change that, but let that also reflect what it had on hand.

Collins has a long leash to turn around the Wreck, almost entirely because of the project left for him by Johnson. Even at 6-16 through two seasons, that leash is not yet shortening. And his 2021 record will show little more in terms of progress.

PointsBet sets the Georgia Tech season win total over/under at 4.5, but any schedule with four preseason top-10 teams on it will make reaching five wins a difficult task. In order of appearance for the Yellow Jackets — Clemson, North Carolina, Notre Dame and Georgia all await Collins’ crew, not to mention a trip to Miami, as well.

If granting the distinct likelihood that those are all losses, Georgia Tech will need to go 5-2 in its remaining games to crack that over, which would mean wins against at least two of Pittsburgh, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Boston College.

The Wreck may be headed toward another season of being forgotten about.

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

    Clemson v Notre Dame
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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.

    Charles Jagusah
    Joe Otting
    Sullivan Absher
    Chris Terek

    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

    COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Notre Dame at USC
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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.