Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s return to Florida State and the Chop could foreshadow seasons to come

Kyren Williams Florida State
ACC Media

Seven years ago, Notre Dame and Florida State met in Tallahassee in an instant classic. That phrase, “instant classic,” may be overused, and that game’s ending coming via an official’s decision may still rub Irish fans the wrong way, but that October night under the lights deserved every piece of hype offered both beforehand and afterward.

Sunday night should bear some resemblance to the 2015 tilt in its atmosphere and anticipation. No. 9 Notre Dame has not played in front of a full crowd in nearly two years, not since a Camping World Bowl victory against Iowa State, and the Seminoles fans have not joined in unison in college football’s most annoying chant, the Chop, in even longer.

Doak Campbell Stadium should be raucous and overdue.

But that should be the end of the similarities to Jameis Winston’s sophomore season. Florida State will not even name a starting quarterback until its first offensive series.

Despite the Irish faceplant in 2016, these two programs have gone two different directions since C.J. Prosise and Will Fuller locked arms with two Seminoles defensive backs — this is not to relitigate that call, it was seven years ago, and locking arms is a factual description of the encounter. Notre Dame has reached the College Football Playoff twice in the last three years, winning at least 10 games in each of the last four seasons, while Florida State has lost at least six games in each of the last four seasons.

The Seminoles no longer represent a measuring stick for the Irish. These are not the No. 2 defending national champions of seven years ago.

But then again, this is not the Rose Bowl participant Notre Dame of New Year’s Day. Gone are four starting offensive linemen, the winningest quarterback in program history, the top-two receivers, two fifth-round defensive ends, the best linebacker in the country and a highly-respected defensive coordinator.

For the Irish, this season opener is more about learning about their replacements than it is about the opponent. For the fans, Labor Day Eve (7:30 ET; ABC) will be more about the catharsis of a full-blown football game than it will be about the drama of a close finish.

Of course, it all ties together. Ian Book, Robert Hainsey and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah all knew how to handle a rowdy road crowd. Freshman left tackle Blake Fisher has never played in front of a crowd the likes of which Florida State is sure to deliver. Neither has sophomore running back Chris Tyree, given 2020’s limitations. The same goes for starting sophomore cornerback Clarence Lewis.

“We show them what it’s going to be like at Florida State and present to them, ‘Alright, where are you going to be when that horse runs out on the field, mentally?’” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “‘Where are you going to be with the excitement and the Chop and all that?’

“You’ve got to get into your optimal zone.”

Getting into that optimal zone quickly will help the Irish silence the crowd via their unquestionable on-field talent advantage, one unthinkable seven years ago.

Notre Dame will be better in the trenches than nearly every team it plays in 2021, but the Seminoles are an extreme in that deficiency. Their offensive line has become a narrative of failure these last four years, and their defensive line allowed 5.1 yards per rush last season, low-lighted by the Irish rushing for 8.4 yards per carry in a 42-26 Notre Dame victory.

No matter how many transfers a team pulls in — including former Irish offensive guard Dillan Gibbons, now a Florida State starter — it cannot restock the entire proverbial cupboard in one offseason.

For comparison, Notre Dame’s starting offensive line will go, from left to right: five-star, four-star, three-star preseason All-American, Marshall transfer and 2020 second-team All-American, four-star, per

The same talent disparity exists on the other side of the line. The Seminoles list 11 players within their defensive front two-deep, of which four were blue-chip recruits. Of the 11 players considered within the Irish defensive front two-deep, seven were four-star prospects.

Obviously, that is only one metric. Players develop, coaches scheme, and depth matters, but it all starts with talent. For Notre Dame, possibly the offensive lineman with the most talent to tap is also the one furthest from showing it all, Fisher, only the second freshman offensive lineman to start the season opener in program history.

“You’ve got to be able to handle all the things that happen quickly, blitzes, stunts, movements, recognition,” Kelly said of Fisher on Thursday. “So for you to put it all together, especially at the left tackle position, is extraordinary.”

Of all of Sunday’s possible lessons, including just how good it will feel to see the Irish surrounded by a crowd, even one clad in garnet instead of green, and all the 2021 overreactions that will inevitably be drawn during the opener, the most informational moments will come from Fisher. If he can handle the crowd, Georgia transfer defensive end Jermaine Johnson and the general responsibilities of being the next Notre Dame left tackle, then Fisher could change the Irish trajectory for the next three years.

The rest of the offensive line is at least known to some degree. Fisher is trusted, but not known.

The same could be said for senior receiver Kevin Austin. Six catches for 108 yards hardly qualify a player as a known commodity, no matter how many times he has been praised for practice performances, but credit should be given to Austin’s mental fortitude. Persisting through a suspension and a twice-broken foot to once again be seen as the best Irish perimeter weapon suggests the Chop could echo throughout the entire first half and Austin would not be fazed.

“He has an easy story, as [the question] kind of alluded to, that he transfers and moves on somewhere else, but he wanted to do it here,” Kelly said. “… He’s been strong-minded in terms of fighting through some very difficult times to want to play for Notre Dame.”

Finally playing a full game for the Irish will be its own benchmark for Austin, and he very well may exceed his career totals in just one game, but if he does not, that is not inherently a bad thing. Notre Dame may have more receivers than it can genuinely use, so heavy rotations will be noticed.

“I wish there were more receiver spots on offense, honestly,” junior safety Kyle Hamilton said during this week’s ND on NBC podcast. “We have six people who could start right now on any college team.”

If anyone would know, it would be the preseason All-American tasked with defending those receivers six days a week for the last month. Despite his own projected top-10 draft status, Hamilton speaks of Austin almost as if he is a peer in terms of professional prospects.

“He’s kind of an anomaly out there, how big he is, how fast he is, how agile he is and how much body control he has,” Hamilton said. “He has great hands and great ball skills and goes up and gets it. He has that mentality where he goes up and snags the ball. It’s not really something you can teach.”

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Yet, as the most unproven of Notre Dame’s five veteran receivers, Austin will yield time to the others regularly, if not also to freshman Lorenzo Styles. Even then, it is unlikely more than a couple of them see the field at a time.

The best Irish personnel grouping will feature two running backs and one tight end, a drastic shift from the multiple tight end reliances of the last few seasons.

“We’re getting (sophomore tight end) Michael Mayer on the field with (junior running back) Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree,” Kelly said. “We like that because we’re putting three dynamic players on the field, so at times when 21 (personnel, using two running backs) is thought of, it’s kind of an old-fashioned connotation about a pro-style offense.

“In fact, it’s putting another playmaker on the field for us that we can move around into different formations.”

Kelly went on to specifically mention Williams as someone “that can move around quite a bit,” a talking point since February. Again, like Fisher’s success, Notre Dame genuinely leaning into split running backs could be a look into years to come, not to put too much emphasis on one game against a team that has gone 21-26 in the last four seasons.

The Irish have stockpiled talented running backs, arguably going five-deep currently. Even after Williams heads to the NFL, they will have the tools to lean into 21 personnel, particularly if the left tackle can so handle himself that an extra tight end is not needed to help against opposing defensive ends.

This primetime moment will be remembered for the decibels released, even the ones contributing to the Chop. The 2021 tone will be set by how players like Wisconsin quarterback transfer Jack Coan, transfer portal blip safety Houston Griffith and fifth-year defensive tackle-turned-end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa start their last go-rounds, but the moments that will foreshadow the most will come from Fisher, Austin and Williams.

One should be a long-term cornerstone of Notre Dame’s offense; another could prove once again that the Irish produce strong receivers, though they sometimes take a while; and the third may be the needed proof of concept for an offensive shift that will further develop even after his departure.

Notre Dame’s defense might have a new coordinator, but it was its offense that did not rise to the occasion at the end of 2020. The first steps of its evolution will come in the form of 2014’s revenge.

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.