And In That Corner … The Toledo Rockets bring experience and frustration to Notre Dame

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 18 Toledo at Eastern Michigan
Getty Images
24 Comments

It is a mistake to watch only college football’s name brands. The “Power Five” may get the primetime matchups, the Playoff berths and most of the headlines, but the sport’s true beauty lies as much within the other half of the 130 teams in the FBS. Watching Notre Dame on a given Saturday can be enjoyable, but for many others, watching schools in the MAC or the Sun Belt means just as much.

That passion thus creates gameday environments every bit the equal of Notre Dame Stadium this weekend, and then players want to shine in those atmospheres. The so-called mid-majors or Group of Five teams end up with more quality than too many people realize.

This year’s Toledo team is a prime example. The Rockets return nearly their entire roster from a 4-2 season in the pandemic. They have a sixth-year head coach who managed the difficult task of taking over a successful program and keeping it at that high standard, far easier said than done, and now Jason Candle may have Toledo poised for a breakout season, the favorite to win the MAC and quite possibly a dark horse to reach a New Year’s Six bowl.

Notre Dame is obviously and understandably favored against the Rockets, but this is not the assumed blowout some make it out to be, so to dive further into the Rockets, let’s turn to Kyle Rowland of The Toledo Blade.

DF: This game might have my interest more than No. 8 Notre Dame’s game in two weeks against No. 18 Wisconsin, even though that one is a top-20 matchup in Chicago. Getting fans back into Notre Dame Stadium will be a very welcome sight, and I know enough to realize Toledo will not be a pushover.

No offense intended to Norfolk State, but the Rockets’ 49-10 victory last weekend did not tell me too much except to confirm Carter Bradley will take over as Toledo’s quarterback after Eli Peters retired during the offseason due to medical issues. Given he is the only of last year’s starters not to return, let me spend a moment on Peters. Was his retirement anticipated? To be honest, in my offseason reading — probably two or three hours on Toledo alone — I never saw the exact issue. What forced the end of his career?

KR: It definitely wasn’t anticipated, but he had an injury-plagued career. The accumulation of injuries is what permanently sidelined him. 

Bradley started a few games last year and was plenty efficient in the romp of Norfolk State, completing 8 of 12 passes for 183 yards and a touchdown, but again, that game did not tell me too much. I doubt Bradley is going to average 22.9 yards per completion this Saturday. What should I expect of him? Where does he excel?

Carter Bradley is the prototypical coach’s son. (His dad is longtime NFL defensive coordinator and former Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley.) He works hard. He’s smart. He stays within himself. The thing Candle hates most is throwing interceptions, and Bradley did a better job of that than DeQuan Finn throughout camp.

Bradley is also a better pure quarterback and more of a fit for Candle’s offensive style. His football IQ and savvy generally limit his mistakes. At one time during the recruiting process, Bradley was a 4-star, and you can see why in his size and mechanics.   

He is supported by running back Bryant Koback. Rather, I should say, prolific running back Bryant Koback. In what amounts to 2.5 seasons, he ran for 2,625 yards and 30 touchdowns. Last week he led a rushing attack that averaged 5.3 yards per carry. That is not messing around. At 6-foot, 210 pounds, he is well built but not necessarily a massive back. What are the strengths of the one-time Kentucky transfer (albeit, a transfer back in 2018)?

Koback is a bruising runner. He can beat you with strength and speed. It also helps that he runs behind arguably the best offensive line in the MAC. I don’t expect him to be completely shut down by the Irish. Backup Micah Kelly isn’t your typical second-stringer in the MAC. Notre Dame will have to keep its eye on him because he can get loose and create chunk plays. To beat Notre Dame, the run game will have to be involved. 

I know Toledo has a deep and talented receiving corps and returns all five starting offensive linemen, but Bradley and Koback stand out to me. I may be misreading this, though. Do you expect the Rockets to try to outgun Notre Dame or more to outlast the Irish?

Good question. Perhaps a combination of the two. If it’s a shootout, I feel like Notre Dame is probably more equipped since they have better players and a deeper roster. But after watching the Florida State game, I would be surprised if Toledo doesn’t put up some points. Candle is a great offensive mind, and the Rockets have talent. They should be able to scare the Irish for at least a half. 

Earlier I said Peters was the only 2020 starter to not return. Do I have that right? If so, has there been any shuffling? In the year of the transfer, did Toledo add anyone who usurped a returning starter? To be honest, my preseason notes do not mention any, but a brief conversation Monday convinced me I missed at least one player. Maybe I was misled. This is why I seek expert input!

Bradley started multiple games last year, so you can technically say Toledo returns all 22 starters. One issue that arose, however, was a season-ending injury to linebacker Dan Bolden just before the start of preseason practices. That wiped out a returning starter.  

When I do these interviews right, I move from the micro to the macro, and one big-picture question I have admittedly looks backward: How frustrated was Toledo by its two losses in 2020? To finish that strenuous season just six points away from a 6-0 record had to have been an offseason motivation.

Has that motivation created a MAC title-or-bust tint on this season? Toledo is the conference favorite, with all those returning contributors … If not now, when?

The Western Michigan loss was the game that really stuck with the Rockets and derailed the season. They allowed two touchdowns in the final 45 seconds, a disastrous ending and defensive meltdown.

Sure, there’s motivation. Toledo has underachieved since winning the MAC in 2017, period. The program seemed to be ascending and then hit a lull. There are massive expectations this season. Anything short of 9-3 (and probably 10-2) will be viewed as a disappointment. 

That said, of course the Rockets would relish leaving South Bend with a top-10 victory. Honestly, if they pull off an upset Saturday, they could (should?) finish the regular season 12-0. Currently a 16.5-point underdog, what do you anticipate from Toledo in its first road game in front of fans in two years?

I think Toledo keeps it close in the first half by simply showing up. That’s not meant to overrate Notre Dame. I just think if you’re going to go 10-2 and win the MAC, you should be able to play with anyone for a half. If Notre Dame is up 21-3 or 28-7 at halftime, it’s not a positive outcome for the Rockets. They can’t just throw up their hands and say, ‘Well, it’s Notre Dame. What were we supposed to do?’ They’ve had the best recruiting class in the MAC for five straight seasons. They have a veteran roster. There’s no reason why they can’t put a scare into the Irish for one half. 

Notre Dame is obviously going to have to make mistakes. Part of that is Jack Coan looking like the Wisconsin quarterback and not the guy that lit up Florida State. If Notre Dame’s defense struggles again, I see no reason why Toledo can’t put up points with a prolific, diverse offense. Carter Bradley will need to be at his peak, with Notre Dame’s secondary struggling to cover a deep Toledo receiving corps. Defensively, the Rockets will need to stuff the run and make Coan attack them. If Toledo’s veteran secondary can have success, perhaps it causes Coan to be rattled. 

And lastly, because I am intent on mentioning this in every article this week, what were the reactions from Rockets fans when it was announced this game would be available exclusively on Peacock, the NBC streaming app? Have you successfully reminded them to sign up ahead of time? Should I pass along the $2.50/month promo link?

People definitely weren’t thrilled. A) Part of the allure of playing Notre Dame is getting the NBC telecast. B) Fans aren’t thrilled with paying extra to watch a game on an app. That’s college football in 2021, though. This will be the norm in the coming years. (I’d be happy to spread the word!)

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

Clemson v Notre Dame
Getty Images
2 Comments

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.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
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

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
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
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

FUTURE DEPTH
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.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive backs, with a star sophomore and an Oklahoma State transfer

Clemson v Notre Dame
Getty Images
11 Comments

One common misperception about college football in the modern era is that base defenses still focus on a 3-4 or a 4-3 defensive front. More and more often, defenses spend more time with at least five defensive backs on the field than with seven defensive linemen and linebackers. The nickel defense is the most common look.

That has changed mostly in reaction to college football so heavily leaning on the pass — one of the reasons the NCAA may opt to keep the clock running following incompletions beginning next season, a rule change pending approval this offseason — but also as a luxury of more multi-faceted defenders.

Tariq Bracy may not have looked like a physical player on paper, listed at 185 pounds and 5-foot-10 ⅛ last season, but the veteran carried much of that weight in his legs, making him a powerful tackler as well as quick enough to keep up with most slot receivers.

When Notre Dame lost Bracy to injury at USC to end the season, freshman Jaden Mickey hardly stood a chance in the pivotal position.

Enter Oklahoma State transfer Thomas Harper.

Harper is usually listed as a safety, but even he admits what is most likely his destination in the Irish defense.

“Really just kind of get in where I fit in and playing some free safety, some nickel,” he said last month on his coming role. “Getting in where I fit in, wherever I’m needed, that’s where I’ll be.”

RELATED READING: Oklahoma State safety Thomas Harper transfer gives Notre Dame needed depth on back line

For a veteran with one season of eligibility remaining, any transfer comes with the thought of showing off for the NFL. At 5-foot-11, Harper is self-aware enough to know an NFL career at safety is unlikely. Proving himself as a three-down defender near the tackle box, though, could give Harper a chance at the next level.

“Going somewhere that I felt like would benefit me the most as far as help me maximize my potential and get me to that next level,” he said. Some of that ties beyond playing nickel back at Notre Dame and to the stage he’ll be playing on. “Being able to be on a team where I can show my ability vs. other teams other than just the Big 12, that’s a really big reason why I wanted to come here.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Brandon Joseph did two things as expected in his one year with the Irish. He made a big play, returning an interception for a touchdown on the first play of the game at Syracuse, though only one such big play. And he jumped to the NFL after only one year.

Notre Dame was better off with Joseph than it would have been without him, but his impact was far from as exclamatory as expected based on some of his days at Northwestern and his work in preseason practices.

Thus, Bracy’s matriculation may have been the bigger concern for the Irish, that is, until Harper transferred in.

Notre Dame will take some time figuring out its safety rotation, something that could seemingly be said each of the last three seasons, but it is not inherently starting from a position worse than it ended last year.

2022 STATS
DJ Brown: 13 games; 48 tackles with 0.5 for loss, plus two pass breakups.
TaRiq Bracy: 11 games; 39 tackles with six for loss including one sack, plus one interception and one pass breakup.
Xavier Watts: 13 games; 39 tackles with two for loss including one sack, plus three pass breakups.
Houston Griffith: 13 games; 33 tackles with one for loss.
Benjamin Morrison: 13 games; 33 tackles with one for loss plus six interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and four pass breakups.
Brandon Joseph: 10 games; 30 tackles with one interception returned for a touchdown and one pass breakup, as well as one forced fumble.
Clarence Lewis: 13 games; 29 tackles with one for loss, plus one interception and four pass breakups, as well as one fumble recovered and one fumble forced.
Cam Hart: 11 games; 24 tackles with three for loss, plus four pass breakups.
Ramon Henderson: 11 games; 23 tackles with two for lossi including 0.5 sacks, plus one fumble recovered.
Jaden Mickey: 11 games; 9 tackles.
Justin Walters: 4 games; two tackles.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
There may be a hole at safety, one likely filled by rising senior Xavier Watts and a starter to be named later, and Harper’s arrival at nickel back may generate some buzz as shiny new toys always tend to. But make no mistake, there is one name that defines the Irish secondary in 2023 and one name only: Benjamin Morrison.

The sophomore cornerback should land on some preseason All-American lists, and hype around him may reach heights too high by the time Notre Dame heads to Dublin (166 days). If intercepting six passes as a freshman was not impressive enough on their own, snagging two and returning one 96 yards for a decisive touchdown in the biggest Irish upset of Marcus Freeman’s debut campaign was certainly a moment that will linger in Notre Dame lore.

“He’s an ultimate competitor that doesn’t get shaken,” Freeman said after that 35-14 win against Clemson. “It’s really uncommon for a freshman to be like that.”

Those reservations for six in the end zone may have been the highlight, but Morrison’s first interception against Clemson may have been more impactful. The Tigers were backed up near their own end zone, already trailing 14-0, when Morrison intercepted a crossing route, a throw rushed by defensive end Justin Ademilola.

Morrison less jumped that route and more remembered his coaching and the play call. He was intended to undercut the receiver and place his trust in the safeties behind him to limit a big play. Consider that a moment where DJ Brown’s experience aided the defense in a way that never showed up on the stat sheet. He was the sole deep safety, mirroring the crossing route from 10 yards behind, giving Morrison the coverage to gamble.

Morrison gambling was not the mark of a player starring beyond his years. Him doing so within the play design, however, was the mark of a player thoroughly understanding the defensive scheme.

Opposite him in 2023 will be another such player in fifth-year Cam Hart, though a shoulder injury should limit his contact this spring, creating more opportunities for Jaden Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis to reassert themselves.

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

FUTURE DEPTH
Incoming freshman Brandyn Hillman’s sudden Sunday departure from the program robs Notre Dame of something of a shotgun approach at safety this past recruiting cycle. The Irish pulled in three safeties in Hillman, Ben Minich and Adon Shuler, presumably hoping at least one would pan out. Now that is a 50/50 proposition, with Shuler sidelined by a shoulder injury presently.

In terms of the next Morrison, a thought that no prospect should be burdened with, many spring practice praises will fall upon Christian Gray, a lengthy and athletic early enrollee, while Micah Bell’s speed may make him a special teams contributor when he arrives in Augst.

Dynamic incoming freshman safety Brandyn Hillman exits Notre Dame before enrolling

Stanford v Notre Dame
Getty Images
2 Comments

The last commitment of Notre Dame’s class of 2023 is the first of the 24 players to depart the Irish program. In a very literal sense, rivals.com three-star safety Brandyn Hillman hardly joined the program, receiving a release from his National Letter of Intent before even enrolling at Notre Dame.

Hillman announced his departure on Instagram on Sunday evening.

“Due to personal reasons, I have asked for and been granted my release from my NLI with the University of Notre Dame,” he wrote. “I would like to thank Coach [Marcus] Freeman and the Notre Dame staff for their interest.

“I ask you to respect my privacy and my family’s privacy as I explore my options on where to attend school this fall.”

Hillman went from no FBS offers in September of his senior season to a Notre Dame commitment the first week of December. His profile rocketed upward in large part to his spring and early summer showings at recruiting camps. Hillman’s physical abilities were quite clear, further so as he played on both sides of the ball in high school.

Irish defensive coordinator Al Golden expected Hillman to join his depth chart at safety, though a future at Rover was also possible.

“Obviously, he could play safety,” Golden said when Hillman signed his National Letter of Intent in December. “He’s big enough to be a Rover, if you will. What’s not to like about him?

“He’s a team captain. Anytime you can get a quarterback, you’re basically taking a player that his high school coach has already deemed good enough to give him the keys to the car. If that high school coach and their staff careers and success depend a lot on that quarterback, so when you make that guy your leader and make the face of your program, that says a lot about him.

“When you look at the competitive nature of the kid and his makeup and just the type of family background he has, I’m really excited about him.”

Instead, Hillman will head elsewhere. His Instagram story — a social-media feature that disappears in 24 hours — suggested he had already received renewed offers from Michigan, LSU and Wisconsin on Sunday, as well as a handful of other programs.

The Virginia native had also heard from both Virginia and Virginia Tech.

In situations like this, the first instinct is to assume some family worries forced a player to reconsider his location. That is only an assumption, and one less and less accurate as college football rosters churn in the modern era.

Without Hillman, Notre Dame has six safeties on its roster, led by sixth-year DJ Brown and rising senior Xavier Watts (Nos. 2 and 26, above, respectively).

If the quick count of the operating depth chart is accurate, the Irish currently have 92 players expected to be on scholarship this fall. The NCAA allows a maximum of 85, so a decent amount of turnover should be anticipated exiting spring practices, which begin on March 22.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame lands dazzling athlete recruit, Brandyn Hillman, with signing day just two weeks away
Notre Dame gets the letter: Brandyn Hillman, athlete who may end up on defense

Reports: Marty Biagi leaves Mississippi to become Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator

© Nikos Frazier / Journal & Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK
4 Comments

Less than a week after Notre Dame lost its special teams coordinator to the Indianapolis Colts, the Irish have already found their replacement for Brian Mason, reportedly set to hire Marty Biagi from Mississippi where he held the same role.

Irish Illustrated first reported the intended hire of Biagi on Thursday afternoon. The Athletic‘s Matt Fortuna reported the distinct likelihood over the weekend with the process still in its early steps.

As soon as Mason took the Colts job, first reported Saturday morning after widespread Friday reports of his interview, Biagi’s was the name bandied about publicly. He spent the 2016 season at Notre Dame as a special teams analyst, and while there may be an understandable Irish aversion to any connection to that 4-8 faceplant, Notre Dame ranked in the top half of the country in most special teams categories that season.

Averaging 9.1 yards per punt return ranked No. 44, and 23.08 yards per kickoff return came in at No. 27. Four of those punt returns were longer than 20 yards, tied for No. 16 in the country, and five of the kickoff returns were longer than 30 yards, tied for No. 50 in the country. Lastly, the Irish blocked two kicks, far from this past year’s seven, but still No. 44 in the country in 2016.

Biagi then went to coach the special teams at North Texas for three years before spending two seasons in the role at Purdue and the 2022 season at Mississippi. Plenty of stats can be cited as to Biagi’s success in those six seasons — as pointed out by Irish Sports Daily’s Jamie Uyeyama, Biagi has not had a kicker with a field goal percentage worse than 77.8 while they have averaged 84.9 percent in total across six seasons — the most notable moment in his coordinating career illustrates his innovative approach all on its own.

In the 2018 season, North Texas executed the simplest of trick punt returns to score an early touchdown in a 44-17 upset at Arkansas. Biagi exploited general assumptions and a slight Razorbacks’ weakness to spring his punt returner for a touchdown after he very much did not signal for a fair catch.

RELATED READING: How North Texas and its firefighting walk-on stunned Arkansas with the trick play of the year

In his three seasons at North Texas, the Mean Green scored six special teams touchdowns and blocked nine punts and four kicks.

That broad explosiveness and Biagi’s background as a punter and placekicker at Marshall from 2004 to 2007 makes Biagi a more all-encompassing special teams coordinator than most.

With Biagi’s reported hire the assistant-coaching carousel in South Bend should be concluded for this offseason. Of the three coaches added to the staff, only one had a previous connection to Freeman.

Late last week featured reports that the Irish may yet lose safeties coach Chris O’Leary and/or receivers coach Chansi Stuckey to the NFL, but both reaffirmed their commitment to Notre Dame in 2023 over the weekend per reports.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s promotion of Gerad Parker official, ending dramatic week
New offensive line coach Joe Rudolph officially hired at Notre Dame
Notre Dame announces hire of QB coach Gino Guidugli, former Cincinnati offensive coordinator
Reports: Notre Dame special teams coordinator Brian Mason jumping to the Indianapolis Colts