No. 9 Notre Dame escapes Florida State despite McKenzie Milton’s inspiring heroics

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 05 Notre Dame at Florida State
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If anything better represents the best of college football than an entire stadium doing an impossibly annoying chant, it is the true and utter chaos of overtime. And if anything is more symbolic of college football’s comedy than a kicker missing a key field goal, it is his own head coach making a questionable decision that takes a made field goal off the scoreboard.

Florida State pushed No. 9 Notre Dame to overtime Sunday night, coming back from 18 points down in the fourth quarter while the Chop repeatedly echoed through Doak Campbell Stadium, but then the Seminoles fell short, 41-38, after head coach Mike Norvell erased a made field goal with a timeout. When his kicker missed the ensuing (shorter) attempt, it opened the door for Irish fifth-year kicker Jonathan Doerer to play the role of hero, which he did with a game-winning 41-yard boot.

“What’s most important here is going on the road, winning the opener against a team that presented a lot of challenges,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “We found a way to win the game.”

As far as storytelling goes, that sequence alone would have made this game memorable. Florida State seemingly took an overtime lead on a 50-yard Ryan Fitzgerald kick, but Norvell had called timeout just before the snap to challenge the ruling of a fumble on the previous play. As the kick went through the uprights, Norvell explained to the referees he thought quarterback McKenzie Milton’s arm was moving forward when he lost control of the ball on the previous play, making it an incomplete pass rather than a fumble, recovered for a 13-yard loss. Upon review, the referees agreed.

Fitzgerald then missed the 37-yarder wide left, a subtle Seminoles homage in its own right.

Four plays later, needing only a field goal to escape Tallahassee victorious, Doerer delivered.

Yet, he will not go down as the real hero of the game, and Irish quarterback Jack Coan’s 366 yards and four touchdowns on 26-of-35 passing will not be remembered as the evening’s definitive quarterback performance, even if he dropped two gorgeous passes to senior receivers Joe Wilkins and Kevin Austin for eye-catching touchdowns.

Instead, Milton will be the lasting memory.

Coan’s third and fourth touchdown passes were part of a seven-minute stretch where Notre Dame turned a three-point deficit into an 18-point lead entering the fourth quarter. It controlled the game, and the 38-20 lead seemed insurmountable, even if Florida State might tack on a score in the final frame, which it did to pull within 10 after a successful two-point conversion.

Still down by 10 with fewer than nine minutes remaining, the Seminoles were getting anxious when an Irish blitz got to starting quarterback Jordan Travis, knocking off his helmet. Travis was required to sit out at least one play.

In came Milton.

The former Central Florida record-setting passer who nearly lost his leg after a 2018 injury had not taken a snap in the first three quarters. He had not played in more than 1,000 days. And he immediately completed a 22-yard pass along the sideline. He turned probable big sacks into shorter losses. He moved Florida State down the field in eight plays, pulling within three with 5:36 left in the fourth quarter, and he inspired the entire stadium to believe in all sorts of improbable things.

It had all the makings of a script Hollywood would turn down as too contrived. Even Notre Dame recognized the storyline afoot. It warrants repeating: Milton nearly lost his leg in 2018; playing football again was not supposed to be something he could do, let alone do well.

“McKenzie Milton came in, and it’s good to see him back on the field after his injury, I think everybody was happy to see him out there,” Irish junior safety Kyle Hamilton said. “Obviously he’s a really strong passer.”

With Milton in, Notre Dame worried about preventing the big play, double zoning every route, per Kelly. In his record-setting seasons at Central Florida, Milton’s accuracy had been his calling card, and it showed still, nearly three years later.

“He’s so accurate,” Kelly said. “You saw us in man — we just wanted to be in much more of a nickel, three-down, double-zone, and you have to be really good in your gaps, and we let the ball get outside us a couple times.”

After the Irish went three-and-out following Milton’s touchdown drive, they indeed set to preventing him from gashing them again. That first drive had included five consecutive Milton completions for 43 yards, but the second included only two Milton passes in nine plays, one completion for 12 yards. Otherwise, either the Seminoles called a run play or Milton recognized an opening, gaining 34 yards on eight rushes to get into field-goal range, a kick Fitzgerald made to force overtime.

If only his head coach had trusted him to kick unimpeded again in overtime, Sunday’s result could have gone any sort of which way, from Milton’s story receiving an unbelievable ending to a two-point conversion shootout in the third overtime.

Rowdy fans and offensive-oriented overtimes are hallmarks of college football, and faulty kicking and questionable coaching are the keystones to the laughs it can provide, but stories like Milton’s are why it is such an inspiring sport, even when they fall just short.

Milton finished with just 48 yards on 5-of-7 passing with another six rushing yards on three carries, hardly the stat line one would expect from the storyline overwhelmingly worthy of the above headline, but in reality, that headline would follow any backup quarterback who forces overtime after taking over in the fourth quarter down by 10 points.

Milton’s rendition was just that much more unlikely.

After the game, Norvell revealed Travis — 130 passing yards and two touchdowns along with another score on the ground — could not have returned to the game after losing his helmet, anyway, indicating some injury or at least injury concern. So Milton was needed in every way.

Statistically, the player of the game was Coan. In his Irish debut, he led a veritable offensive explosion, at least when realizing Notre Dame managed all of 81 rushing yards on 31 carries, a 2.62 average run (sacks adjusted).

Kelly had said he expected Coan to be aggressive in throwing downfield, perhaps more so than former Irish quarterback Ian Book ever was, and Coan met those expectations, if not exceeding them, particularly with his third touchdown pass.

“Before the game, [offensive coordinator Tommy Rees] talked about being in attack mode and taking the shots when they present themselves,” Coan said. “I think that’s a big part of playing quarterback, is taking the shots when they’re there.”

The shot to Austin did not appear to be there. Austin had made a juggling catch as he fell out of bounds only three plays earlier, an impressive play but one that would have been scrutinized in a replay, so Notre Dame snapped the ball quickly on the next play. It kept that pace for another snap, and then Coan went to Austin again, targeting his outside shoulder at the front corner of the end zone, both a tough pass and a tough catch, especially for a receiver who has not played extended football in four years.

An impressive touchdown, it was the first of three scores that would give the Irish the lead they would need to withstand the night’s greatest and most enjoyable drama.

Since finishing his high school career in 2017, Austin had played sparingly as a freshman, not at all as a sophomore and appeared in only two games as a junior between two breaks of the same foot. (Milton actually played three full games more recently than Austin, but just barely, their respective efforts to get back onto the field overlapping down to the month.) But Austin always starred in practice, something that bordered on myth around the Irish program.

Asked if that was why he always wanted Austin to get both healthy and on track, Kelly’s response was muted.

“Yes, he looked pretty good.”

So did his quarterback.

Hamilton finished the night with two interceptions, the second somehow more impressive than the worthwhile first. His second pick, well, rare is the player that can cover this much ground in the time from a pass is released to when it reaches its target.

As Travis evaded pressure, Hamilton began to drift with the play and noticed that receiver getting open.

“Just ran to him, luckily got there in time,” the junior captain said. “I didn’t know if I was going to get there in time, but I’m glad I did.”

The pick set up the second Irish touchdown in that seven-minute flurry, a six-yard catch from junior running back Kyren Williams. The drive actually needed to cover 15 extra yards than the above clip would indicate, because Hamilton celebrated the interception with a calm yet paradoxically furious removal of his helmet, while on the Florida State sideline.

“Yeah, it flew right off, don’t know how that happened,” Hamilton said in jest. “I can’t be doing that. It’s a mistake on my part. Every single yard counts in a game like that, can’t be giving up 15 of them very easily for them. Coach Kelly let me know, and I know that, gotta be better than that. It won’t happen again.”

In fairness, Hamilton had just covered most of the field, literally, in the time it took the ball to go from quarterback to receiver. A celebration was in order.

From Notre Dame’s third-quarter flurry to Milton’s fourth-quarter dramatics, this roller coaster had no idea where it would end until Doerer’s 41-yarder split the uprights. Only eligible to play this season because of the universal pandemic eligibility waiver, Doerer looked the part of a consistent kicker, one whose November and December 2020 blip was the exception, not the norm.

Hopefully, this will be noted only once more, next week at Notre Dame Stadium, and then never again. After the Irish and the Seminoles spent 2020 playing in front of largely empty stadiums, they were greeted by 68,316 fans on Sunday night.

‘I’m in favor of it.”

That’s the John McKay quip Kelly was trying to emulate. The one-time USC head coach, and four-time national championship winner, was famously asked what he thought of his team’s execution when he was coaching the hapless expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the late 1970s. When prompted like that — “What do you think of your team’s execution?” — the joke lands as quick wit should.

Instead, ABC sideline reporter Katie George’s question did not open the door for that quip. “What do you think of your team’s ability to withstand Florida State’s impressive comeback?”

To which Kelly replied, “I’m in favor of execution, maybe our entire team needs to be executed after tonight. We just didn’t execute very well.”

To football minds, Kelly’s callback was clear. McKay’s one-liner is well-known. To the broader population, Kelly’s intention was unclear and somewhat haunting. Essentially, Kelly thought all football fans knew the inside joke when only coaches and the most well-versed do.

“I was kidding, it was tongue-in-cheek,” he said in his postgame interview when asked for clarification. “It wasn’t funny? It’s an old John McKay quote that he used after the game. I was talking and making a joke about it. It was taken serious?”

We have all known a younger sibling or cousin who smirked and asked, “What is the most important part of comedy?” and just as you began to respond, she yelled, “TIMING!”

That was Kelly’s mistake, his timing. Frankly, if he had held that line until his postgame media availability, the room of beat writers would have chuckled, two would have understood the crack, and that would have been that.

Speaking of timing, don’t forget to subscribe to Peacock before Notre Dame hosts Toledo on Saturday at 2:30 ET.

First Quarter
12:49 — Notre Dame touchdown. Michael Mayer 41-yard pass from Jack Coan. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Florida State 0. (5 plays, 75 yards, 2:11)
5:12 — Florida State touchdown. Jashaun Corbin 89-yard rush. Ryan Fitzgerald PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Florida State 7. (2 plays, 89 yards, 0:19)

Second Quarter
10:05 — Florida State touchdown. Jordan Travis 2-yard rush. Fitzgerald PAT good. Florida State 14, Notre Dame 7. (4 plays, 45 yards, 1:39)
5:02 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 48 yards. Florida State 14, Notre Dame 10. (10 plays, 46 yards, 5:03)
2:21 — Notre Dame touchdown. Joe Wilkins 23-yard pass from Coan. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Florida State 14. (5 plays, 48 yards, 1:24)

Third Quarter
13:36 — Florida State touchdown. Ja’Khi Douglas 6-yard pass from Travis. Fitzgerald PAT no good. Florida State 20, Notre Dame 17. (3 plays, 63 yards, 1:24)
11:52 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Austin 37-yard pass from Coan. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Florida State 20. (4 plays, 75 yards, 1:44)
7:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kyren Williams 6-yard pass from Coan. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 31, Florida State 20. (7 plays, 69 yards, 4:10)
4:37 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Tyree 1-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 38, Florida State 20. (3 plays, 32 yards, 1:02)

Fourth Quarter
13:47 — Florida State touchdown. Andrew Parchment 8-yard pass from Travis. 2-point conversion attempt good. Keyshawn Helton 2-yard pass from Travis. Notre Dame 38, Florida State 28. (15 plays, 75 yards, 5:50)
5:36 — Florida State touchdown. Treshaun Ward 8-yard rush. Fitzgerald PAT good. Notre Dame 38, Florida State 35. (12 plays, 88 yards, 4:43)
0:40 — Florida State field goal. Fitzgerald 43 yards. Notre Dame 38, Florida State 38. (10 plays, 46 yards, 3:35)

Overtime — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 42 yards. Notre Dame 41, Florida State 38. (4 plays, 2 yards.)

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.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Quarterbacks — Sam Hartman and Tyler Buchner and Co.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 12 North Carolina at Wake Forest
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For a position that has undergone a run of tumult since the start of the 2022 season, Notre Dame’s quarterback depth chart somehow still could not be more stable now.

Since Marcus Freeman’s first game as the Irish head coach, his starter was knocked out for the season, the backup that fought and clawed his way to eight wins in 10 games opted to transfer before the bowl game, one of the most prolific passers in NCAA history transferred into Notre Dame, and then the offensive coordinator left.

All of that to end up with Wake Forest graduate transfer Sam Hartman as the presumptive Irish starter, backed up by 2022’s initial starter in Tyler Buchner, and coached by quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli and offensive coordinator Gerad Parker. Not to mention, two more quarterbacks filling out the depth chart.

Hartman opted to join that chaos partly because, as he figured it, he was going to start over anew somewhere regardless. After five years at Wake Forest, the veteran wanted to move. Whether it was in the NFL or at Notre Dame, he would need to win over a new locker room.

“Often I see people that are done with school or run out of eligibility or even have eligibility (but) declare, that (college) opportunity never comes again,” he said earlier this month. “… On the NFL side of it, this is what you have to do when you go into the league, come into a new place where there’s not a lot of familiar faces. The battle is definitely uphill. You have to come in and establish a leadership role while also trying to figure out and follow.”

Hartman’s logic was sound, but there is one key difference between the NFL and Notre Dame: He will be the starter in South Bend this fall.

In that respect, this will be the third straight year the Irish have insisted on the optics of a quarterback competition in the spring and perhaps the preseason. When Jack Coan transferred to Notre Dame in January of 2021, it was obvious he would start against Florida State to open that season, yet freshman Tyler Buchner and sophomore Drew Pyne were still mentioned as competing with Coan for that gig throughout the spring and a week into the preseason.

Despite Buchner rather clearly surpassing Pyne that season, the entire exercise was conducted all over again in the spring of 2022, Buchner named the starter as expected a week into preseason practices last August.

Hartman will start in Dublin on Aug. 26 (159 days), no matter what Guidugli may say now. That much did not change with the coaching changes this winter and spring.

“Tyler Buchner and Steve Angeli and Sam Hartman, Kenny Minchey, all those guys are going to get an opportunity,” Guidugli said. “I come in with a clean slate, not knowing any of those guys, so I’m anxious to see what all of them can do, I’m anxious to see how they lead, I’m anxious to see how they retain information, I’m anxious to see how they perform, how they execute, how the offense responds to them.”

That quarterback competition may have had an ounce of authenticity if Pyne had stuck around South Bend, a somewhat proven starter to go up against Hartman, but even that would have been only a matter of time. As it stands, Pyne’s focus is on keeping his job at Arizona State in front of the most controversial recruit of the class of 2023, Jaden Rashada.

2022 STATS
Drew Pyne: 11 games; 2,021 yards on 8.0 yards per attempt and a 64.6 percent completion rate; 22 touchdowns and 6 interceptions.
Tyler Buchner: 3 games; 652 yards on 7.9 yards per attempt and a 55.4 percent completion rate; 3 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.

Sam Hartman at Wake Forest in 2022: 12 games; 3,701 yards on 8.6 yards per attempt and a 63.1 percent completion rate; 38 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Sam Hartman in his career at Wake Forest: 12,967 yards on 8.1 yards per attempt and a 59.1 percent completion rate; 110 touchdowns and 41 interceptions.

Don’t scoff. A prodigious season could propel Hartman into some lofty air. That is obviously partly due to the benefit of a sixth season, granted by the universal pandemic eligibility waiver. But Hartman also missed up to 18 games in his career to injury, depth chart and the pandemic. If he plays 13 games this season, Hartman will appear in a total of 61 games in his career. That will be more than any of the players yet ahead of him in career passing touchdowns or career passing yards, but that aside, Hartman should move his name up the NCAA record books this season.

Career passing touchdowns
No. 1 — Case Keenum, 155 touchdowns
Tied at No. 4 — Colt Brennan, Rakeem Cato, Baker Mayfield, 131 touchdowns
No. 10 — Luke Falk, 119 touchdowns
No. 15 — Derek Carr, 113 touchdowns
No. 18 — Sam Hartman, 110 career touchdowns

Career passing yards
No. 1 — Case Keenum, 19,217 yards
No. 5 — Ty Detmer, 15,031 yards
No. 10 — Rakeem Cato, 14,079 yards
No. 15 — Philip Rivers, 13,484 yards
No. 19 — Sam Hartman, 12,967 career yards

It feels like a quip to be offered in March so that April progress can be that much more lauded.

“With the coaching change prior to me coming in, [Hartman] thought he should be further along in February than what he was,” Guidugli said. “There wasn’t anything I could do about that.”

Games are not won in February film sessions. Weight room work, perhaps, but not in studying film. Habits are built then, but Hartman should not need earnest discipline. He has already begun moving forward with Guidugli.

“[Guidugli] has taken this thing by the reins for the quarterbacks, and along with that is just the quarterback room, we stuck together,” Hartman said. “I knew Tyler (Buchner) a bit before, had no idea who Steve (Angeli) was, obviously [early-enrolled freshman Kenny Minchey] is showing up just like I was. It’s a really tight-knit group.”

None of that group holds Rees’s departure against him — “Obviously, it was a great opportunity for him,” Hartman said — but they all know they need to learn the same language now. That will be the springtime priority.

“The key there is my communication with [newly-promoted offensive coordinator Gerad Parker],” Guidugli said. “I have to be speaking the same language.”

From Parker to Guidugli to four quarterbacks from three different backgrounds, finding the same language might take a few weeks. Guidugli has already been picking Hartman’s brain off old Wake Forest film, learning what his eventual starter is used to in terms of pre-snap procedures, etc.

“I’ve been learning from the guys as much as they’ve been learning from me,” Guidugli said. 

Ignore the spring platitudes about a quarterback competition. If they carry into the preseason, they will provide a headline some Saturday in August when in-depth writing is not yet applicable. Beyond that, there is no meaningful quarterback competition.

There are, however, spring priorities. Primarily, getting Hartman onto the same page as Guidugli and Parker.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive line, suddenly inexperienced and unproven
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Tight ends, moving on from an all-time great
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, led by a familiar ‘three-headed monster’
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Linebackers, led by a trio of veterans and little change
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive backs, with a star sophomore and an Oklahoma State transfer
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Offensive line, returning bookend tackles and a three-year starter at center
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Receivers, finally a filled depth chart

Minchey did not commit to Notre Dame until late November, de-committing from Pittsburgh not long before he did so. He enrolled early, anyway.

“I feel like it’s big, as far as any quarterback across the country, you want to early enroll, get in as early as you can, learn the playbook, because that’s big compared to any other position,” Minchey said. “Coming in, learn the playbook, mesh with the guys, everything like that. I like just getting in, building that connection.”

A shoulder injury truncated Minchey’s senior season, but he expects to be full-go in spring practices, beginning tomorrow.

“I am working back into it,” he said two weeks ago. “I am reconditioning my arm right now, building back, working back, building up strength.”

He does not need to rush into that, though, given Notre Dame expects him to be fourth on its depth chart this season.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Receivers, finally a filled depth chart

Brigham Young v Notre Dame
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Notre Dame’s next generation of receivers is already on campus. The trio of four-star recruits of Jayden Greathouse, Braylon James and Rico Flores all enrolled early, though Greathouse and Flores arrived with nicks that are expected to no longer be issues when spring practices begin Wednesday, but a touch of caution could still slow them all the same.

Along with them, the Irish welcome Virginia Tech graduate transfer Kaleb Smith. When an incoming freshman by the same name arrives in the summer, Notre Dame will suddenly have 10 receivers on hand.

That may seem an odd way to begin an article previewing a position before spring practices, but it is the biggest difference between where the Irish were and where they are. Notre Dame simply having receivers on hand is a drastic change. Last preseason, it was working with just six receivers, including a former walk-on and an incoming freshman. The sole veteran in the group, Braden Lenzy, would lament that there were not enough receivers on hand for he and an underclassman to both stand by during a rep so Lenzy could coach up the youngster.

Building the depth chart back out to nine or 10 receivers will give position coach Chansi Stuckey time to work with players individually, players like Greathouse, James and Flores. That said, there may be no established veteran like Lenzy to pass along insights. Only the former Hokie would qualify, and he openly acknowledges he is facing his own learning curve.

“I’ve had four or five different receiver coaches at this point,” Smith said earlier this month. “It’s been a rotating door. We’re teaching an old dog new tricks here at Notre Dame is what I can sum it up as.”

Injuries decimated this group in 2022, and in turn, they compromised the Irish offense. Joe Wilkins suffered a foot injury in the preseason that effectively cost him his season. Avery Davis tore his ACL for a second time, ending his career. Then-sophomore Deion Colzie injured his knee, slowing his start to what was expected to be a breakout season.

A November concussion would cut short then-freshman Tobias Merriweather’s progress, eventually leaving Notre Dame with just four receivers it could rely on toward the end of the year. More than anything else — more than former Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’s preferences, more than Notre Dame’s deep backfield — that lack of receivers limited the Irish offense.

The more wide-open the Irish offense ran, the more those few receivers would wear out. Notre Dame could not operate as such.

2022 STATS
Lorenzo Styles: 13 games; 30 catches for 340 yards and one touchdown.
Jayden Thomas: 13 games; 25 catches for 362 yards and three touchdowns.
Braden Lenzy: 13 games; 24 catches for 309 yards and three touchdowns.
Deion Colzie: 12 games; 9 catches for 192 yards and one touchdown.
Matt Salerno: 13 games; 5 catches for 62 yards and one touchdown.
Tobias Merriweather: 7 games; 1 catch for a 41-yard touchdown.

Styles may return more catches than any other Irish receiver, but he also returns more drops than the rest combined, with six just last season. The headlines may focus on Notre Dame’s new receivers — alternately the three freshmen and the veteran transfer with size for new Irish quarterback Sam Hartman to throw to — but Styles rediscovering his focus and/or his confidence would be the biggest step forward for Hartman’s pass catchers.

Smith will battle rising junior Jayden Thomas to be Hartman’s primary big-bodied target. Thomas’s run-blocking abilities could even turn him into a pseudo-slot receiver, allowing them both to conceivably start.

There are options, unlike a year ago. Further development from Merriweather would only add to them, as would any of Greathouse, James or flores quickly progressing.

“We know what the offense has looked like, and the coaches have talked to me since I started being recruited about what it could look like in the future with me a part of it,” Greathouse said to Inside ND Sports earlier in the winter, before Rees left for Alabama. “I definitely think that they want to start airing the ball out.

“That’s what the coaches have been telling me, is that they want to be throwing the ball all over the field. And I think once our recruiting class starts making an impact, we’ll definitely be able to start doing that.”

That would have been the case regardless who the offensive coordinator was in 2023. Gerad Parker will have more receiving options at his disposal than Rees did in 2022, adding layers of possibilities to the Irish offense.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive line, suddenly inexperienced and unproven
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Tight ends, moving on from an all-time great
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, led by a familiar ‘three-headed monster’
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Linebackers, led by a trio of veterans and little change
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive backs, with a star sophomore and an Oklahoma State transfer
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Offensive line, returning bookend tackles and a three-year starter at center

The younger Smith’s arrival will almost certainly be a non-item for 2023, sparing us all any extensive confusion between one Kaleb Smith beginning his career and one Kaleb Smith ending his career in the same season.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Offensive line, returning bookend tackles and a three-year starter at center

Clemson v Notre Dame
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When Brent Pry arrived at Virginia Tech last offseason, the new Hokies head coach understood he had a deep hole to climb out of if he wanted to return Blacksburg to ACC contention. Pry set out to hire coaches who would stick around and help with that climb, including offensive line coach Joe Rudolph.

One season later, Rudolph is now preparing for Notre Dame’s spring practices beginning March 22. That departure is not a reflection of Rudolph dismissing his original intentions, but rather of how alluring the Irish offensive line coaching job was after Harry Hiestand retired following Tommy Rees’s departure for Alabama.

Notre Dame is an appealing coaching gig in a vacuum, the Irish offensive line position duties just as much so. But the 2023 possibilities attracted a few of the better line coaches in the country, given two future first-round draft picks should start at the tackle spots and Zeke Correll will start at center for a third season. Add in a plethora of highly-sought former recruits on the depth chart, and Notre Dame’s offensive line should make nearly any coach look good.

On top of all that, Irish head coach Marcus Freeman sold Rudolph with his favorite catchphrase.

“That’s not always in fashion to say, ‘This is an O-line driven place and the O-line sets the tone,’” Rudolph said earlier this month of his interview conversations with Freeman. “He took a lot of pride in saying it and said it in a few of the meetings we had. That hits deep to me.

“It’s how I grew up when I played. I felt that responsibility as a player. It really hit home for me.”

The opportunity to lean into the offensive line at Notre Dame was simply too much for Rudolph to turn down to stay at Virginia Tech.

The Irish lost two captains, two multi-year starters, two massive human beings in guards Jarrett Patterson and Josh Lugg. Their combined 79 starts is not simply a stat in the rearview mirror.

Here is a 2023 prediction: When Notre Dame struggles to run through Central Michigan on Sept. 16, the fanbase’s consternation will be met with this space repeating Lugg’s accurate philosophizing a year ago about how an offensive line needs some time to coalesce. In each of the last three seasons, that was an Irish need, and in each of the last three seasons, that became an Irish reality.

In 2022, it was because Notre Dame was working in a pair of green tackles. In 2023, it will be because the Irish are finding their footing with a pair of green guards.

2022 STATS
Joe Alt (two years of eligibility remaining entering the 2023 season): 13 starts at left tackle
Jarrett Patterson: 12 starts at left guard
Andrew Kristofic (two years of eligibility remaining): 11 games, started the season opener at left guard in place of Patterson
Zeke Correll (two years): 13 starts at center
Josh Lugg: 13 starts at right guard
Blake Fisher (three years): 13 starts at right tackle

Tosh Baker (two years): 13 games
Rocco Spindler (three years): 12 games
Michael Carmody (two years): 1 game

Those three starters are established. It would take injury to change them.

Alt (pictured at top) will be a preseason All-American at left tackle and likely first-round draft pick 13 months from now.
Correll will start for a third season at center and about halfway through the year the Irish will start pondering if they should talk him into a sixth collegiate year in 2024.
Fisher will start at right tackle and could join Alt in the NFL draft with a strong year. While that may panic Notre Dame fans, a season producing a pair of first-round tackles should be a season with some substantial successes in the fall, as well.

But those two guard spots will lead to much springtime and preseason wonder. Rudolph does not know who will emerge, obviously, but he indicated he will take the same approach that Hiestand did and find his best five players first, their positions second.

“You’d be selling the group short if you weren’t trying to find the best five,” Rudolph said. “You have to do that with some vision of how the whole group fits together.

“There might be someone who is competing their tail off, and they might back up [Alt] or back up [Correll], but if they play in a way this spring where you see they’re one of those five (best), you can easily move them to a position and have them ready in fall camp and all summer to take that over.”

The initial candidates should be rising junior Rocco Spindler, fifth-year Andrew Kristofic and perhaps rising sophomore Billy Schrauth. Kristofic has starting experience, most notably stepping in at left guard for the second half of the 2021 season, with much success. The other two are unknowns since high-profile recruitments.

For the moment, presume the starting guards come from that trio. The player to nominally come up short should still anticipate playing in 2023. Notre Dame’s offensive line health in 2022 was absurd. Aside from Patterson suffering a foot injury in August, no offensive lineman endured notable injury.

That may have been karmic justice for the historical string of injuries at left tackle in 2021, needing four underclassmen to take their knocks just to get through the first half of the season, but it was still the first time since 2017 the Irish enjoyed such fortune up front, needing at least two reserves in each of the four intervening seasons.

It would be irrational to expect such luck again, giving tangible motivation to the three other rising sophomores as well as a pair of rising juniors, none of whom have seen the field yet.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive line, suddenly inexperienced and unproven
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Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Linebackers, led by a trio of veterans and little change
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive backs, with a star sophomore and an Oklahoma State transfer

Hiestand pulled in a total of 10 offensive linemen in the last two classes, though Joey Tanona was already forced into retirement due to a concussion suffered in a car accident last winter. Nonetheless, those nine underclassmen present Rudolph plenty of options moving forward, all notable recruits, part of the luxury of taking this job.