Friday at 4: 40 Thanksgivings as Notre Dame’s ascending season comes to a close


SAN FRANCISCO — This space has no Black Friday discount to offer. Free cannot get cheaper. Inside the Irish can, however, offer its usual listing of 40 things Notre Dame fans should be grateful for this year, with a number of personal pieces of appreciation from your resident rambler.

And, undoubtedly, as the No. 6 Irish (10-1) are one win at Stanford (8 ET; FOX) away from cementing a reasonable Playoff hope, there is plenty for their fans to be thankful for …

1) Those Playoff hopes almost died before they could begin when Notre Dame squandered an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter at Florida State in the season opener. Fifth-year kicker Jonathan Doerer, however, hit a walk-off game-winner in overtime, the first game-winning kick in overtime or the final minute of regulation for the Irish since the 2016 season against Miami, then a Justin Yoon boot.

Doerer was only on the field at all due to the pandemic eligibility waiver, and even with that option, his return in 2021 was never a sure thing.

Before Notre Dame’s idle week, Doerer doubled down on his impact, making a game-winner at Virginia Tech with only 17 seconds left.

RELATED READING: Pair of game-winners steady Doerer in uneven final season

2) Then the Irish Playoff hopes almost died in week two against Toledo. Trailing in the final minutes, quarterback Jack Coan dislocated a finger on his throwing hand. Notre Dame needed its veteran starter, and neither Coan nor trainer Mike Bean flinched at the idea of popping that finger back into place along the sideline between plays.

“It wasn’t sideways,” Coan said the next week to Jac Collinsworth on the ND on NBC Podcast. “It was sort of, the top part was popped up and back. It wasn’t sideways. Definitely didn’t look right.”

Football programs are more than the coaches and players, and never was that more readily apparent on a Saturday than in Bean’s composure.

3) Along with Bean, some credit should go to adrenaline.

“You kind of just feel it go back into place and it felt like normal,” Coan said. “I’m sure if my adrenaline wasn’t going so fast, probably would have been a lot more painful. But it didn’t hurt too bad at the time.”

4) More than 95 percent of the Irish roster received the coronavirus vaccine, protecting the locker room from both an outbreak and from extensive testing throughout the season, some of them receiving the vaccine despite some likely hesitation. Thank you to them for leading by example.

5) Thank you to all others who have also received the vaccine despite their own hesitations.

6) Some question if the need for “style points” and “game control” has rendered sportsmanship a memory of the past, but the scoreboard has never been the true barometer of sportsmanship. Rather, it lies within the, well, the sporting man, if you will. Consider Notre Dame junior safety Kyle Hamilton immediately after the Irish victory against Purdue, when he was asked about Boilermakers star receiver David Bell. Hamilton quickly praised Bell and offered concern for him after an unfortunate and unavoidable ugly hit from Hamilton in the closing moments of that game.

“He’s a really good player, he was a focal point of our game plan this week,” Hamilton added. “I think we did a pretty good job of shutting him down to the best of our abilities.”

7) On the other end of the spectrum may be junior running back Kyren Williams’ ever-running mouth. Irish head coach Brian Kelly insists Williams’ trash talk remains within the bounds of what the coaching staff encourages, but it is not hard to think the most energetic player in recent Notre Dame history might cross that line on occasion. He may not be alone.

“We have some other guys that you’d be surprised that don’t fit that mold and if you watch carefully, you know who they are,” Kelly said this week. “I don’t need to be pointing them all out at this point, but we have some guys that, because they’re mature enough and they handle themselves the right way — we don’t need to be throwing hand warmers into the front row after an extra point and getting 15-yard penalties — but other than that, we’ve done a good job.”

Kelly was exaggerating a personal foul flag drawn by junior left guard Andrew Kristofic against Georgia Tech, but there may even be value in that kind of mentality.

8) Personally, this season really got started at an Indianapolis tiki bar, the Inferno Room, that not only had rum selections that would make a pirate blush but also sweet’n’sour noodles with pork belly.

9) Not only am I thankful for that occasion, but also for the friend who recommended and joined there, only to then quote an article I wrote, quite literally, four years ago. That’s a rare level of retention of these ramblings.

10) It took the Irish about half the season to figure out its offense. Notre Dame fans still lament that, given that slow start played a key part in the loss to Cincinnati, but they overlook the fact that Wisconsin suffered the same delay, which is essentially why the Irish won in Chicago. If the Badgers had already figured out they should never throw the ball, Notre Dame would not have been gifted that rout of a fourth quarter.

Consider, Wisconsin is on a seven-game winning streak and covered the spread in five of those seven games, including four straight beginning the week the NBA season started.

11) Speaking of spreads, the haphazard state-by-state legalization of sports gambling has created many headaches, but it is also the reason promotional signup offers exist in a similar, haphazard, state-by-state manner. Using some logic to attack that capitalistic generosity can yield enough profits to pay for a new (to you) car.

12) Why need a new (to you) car? Let’s just say we should all be thankful for airbags and seatbelts. We never quite realize how effective they are until we need them, like when a seemingly indestructible Ford Ranger is proven destructible on the side of the interstate.

13) And in moments like those, having a best friend who will not hesitate to speed 20 minutes to the scene of such an accident to get you and your belongings off the side of the interstate is a blessing that cannot be overstated.

14) Sometimes the writing helps itself. This is vaguely intended to go chronologically, and only now do I remember that accident — that frustratingly led to a couple days of in-season silence around here, the likes of which not seen since 2018’s idle week after that same best friend’s bachelor party — occurred the day after the Irish lost to Cincinnati.

It’s nice when the writing helps itself.

15) Notre Dame’s defense continued to be publicly criticized, terribly mistakenly so, throughout October. The casual observer missed that the defense had already flipped from its opening two weeks of struggles. The transition to Marcus Freeman from Clark Lea was pulled off quicker than many realized.

Recognizing that as the Irish have not given up a touchdown in the last three weeks is understandable, though.

16) Senior linebacker Bo Bauer may have been the biggest beneficiary of that transition, shining with 18 tackles in the last two weeks.

“Coach Freeman is a great coach,” Bauer said this week. “He always says we’re going to work with who we have and what their strengths are. He’s just tailored the defense to things I do well and I think our defense is inherently aggressive, so I think that plays to my strengths.”

17) Yes, Bauer could return in 2022. No, he has not decided if he will.

“Obviously it’s something I have to consider, but right now, I just love my team and my teammates and I want to be where my feet are, so I just want to focus on being the best teammate I can be, trying to push this team to be its best.”

18) Another beneficiary? Ohio State grad transfer Isaiah Pryor could not get into the linebacker rotation under Lea, but he has become a key piece of Freeman’s scheme, with 37 tackles this year in a safety-linebacker hybrid role, compared to the usual linebacker-end hybrid of Notre Dame’s rover.

19) Yes, Pryor could return next season, thanks to the pandemic eligibility waiver, but at some point, players have to move on to the next step in their lives, and logic suggests that time may have come for Pryor.

20) One of the joys of travel lost during the pandemic? Trying a dozen different beers throughout a football season. Beers like a Mai Tai PA in the corner of your favorite South Bend bar, or an oak and orchard ginger lemongrass sour beer at your favorite brewery in Denver, or a raspberry sour at a riverside brewery in Minneapolis.

21) Shouts to the entire staff at the LaSalle Kitchen & Tavern. Missed y’all these last two years.

22) Shouts to Parker, for joining for one at Epic Brewing in Denver, though that one became more than one, always a risky choice during the season.

23) But no shouts to the drinking relief in Minneapolis who pointed out this and led to a personal identity crisis.

24) Speaking of Parker, a better understanding of his work with EPA (expected points added) at has led to a better understanding of this sport. That might be the best thing gained this season, a few points on the college football IQ.

25) But not all college football IQ points come from advanced metrics. Never underestimate the joys of working through For example, a comprehensive look at the Notre Dame-Stanford series history.

26) Back to the look at the season, that’s the intention here, right?

Losing Hamilton for half of it has not been the calamity immediately assumed, and particularly dreaded by those closest to him on the sideline as he went down awkwardly in the first quarter against USC, lest his injury be misconstrued as somehow their doing.

While it has robbed the Irish of the joys of watching a unanimous first-team All-American, as Hamilton was going to be, it has given them a look at something unexpected and somewhat delightful: Hamilton the coach. When sophomore cornerback Ramon Henderson moved to safety a few weeks ago, he turned to the star for help.

“He’s more so like a coach now,” Henderson said. “He’s telling me what to do, what to take away, what I should be looking at on this play, what I should be looking at on that formation.”

Henderson then revealed some of what made Hamilton so good on the field.

“He’s a good eye guy. He’s very good at recognizing formations, recognizing tendencies really quickly. I wouldn’t say I have the necessary hang of that while playing, but on the sideline, he is like, ‘Yo, if he comes out here this way, he’s going to do this.’

“With him, just watching everything I do, and critique it to the fullest so I can not mess up the next time they come at me with it, that’s a major blessing. It’s the best to have a guy like that in your corner. He’s trying to get me to where he is at this point. I thank him for it a lot.”

27) Hamilton has made more of name, image and likeness opportunities than anyone else on Notre Dame’s roster, expectedly so given he is a certain top-10 draft pick this coming spring, but that is also somewhat a result of his personality. Others would rather not deal with it as much as possible.

No one would describe Williams as modest — see the above thoughts regarding his on-field demeanor — but his prioritization of social media and pizza is something more people should hold.

“I don’t like posting on social media,” Williams said Monday. “When I gotta post a picture of me with some pizza, I’m like, ‘Come on, really, do I have to do this? I’m just trying to enjoy my pizza.’”

28) Do not for a moment think the media overstates Williams’ personality. Fifth-year right tackle Josh Lugg found the tone of an exasperated parent when discussing Williams this week.

“You want to talk about someone who has energy every — single — day, it’s Kyren,” Lugg said, those dashes intended to mimic his emphatic pacing.

“On Saturdays, it’s pretty rewarding to run 16 yards and pick him up and be like, ‘Great run man,’ and some other expletives in there. To be able to be like, let’s get the next play call, and oh, it’s the same play call, let’s do it again.”

29) That has been the story of the second half of the season for the Irish, a dominant running game and an even more dominant defense. Development through the year makes finding storylines easier.

30) Speaking of infectious attitudes, here’s to Anthony Edwards, and we are not talking about the lead actor from “E.R.”

31) And speaking of promising young talents — no, this is not to put her on the same plane as Anthony Edwards but the transition otherwise worked — Caroline Pineda has made life easier in these parts the last two years, and for that, the greatest of thanks. When you read her story on Notre Dame’s equipment truck and its annual drive to California, you should realize not only did Caroline write that story and write it cleanly, but she thought of it on her own, pitched it and then pursued it.

All her editor had to do was slap a headline on it.

32) She also works thoroughly enough to send unused quotes for any future purposes, things like how junior linebacker JD Bertrand views his Oura ring as proof of what was already his lifestyle. The Oura ring tracks a player’s sleep, quality of sleep and other various health items that most of us assuredly neglect.

“It’s always been a thing for me,” Bertrand said last month. “But the Oura ring just allowed us to kind of put a number to it, and so you can see if you need to just put a bigger emphasis on sleep for that week or that day just because you’re behind or something like that.”

33) Bertrand’s habits rubbed off on roommate Isaiah Foskey, helping the junior defensive end become a possible first-round draft pick already.

“Luckily, I also have roommates that are trying to prioritize, so our lights are out almost every night by like 10, 10:30,” Bertrand said.

The two compare Oura stats “like four or five times a week,” per Bertrand.

34) Dry rub chicken wings. That has nothing to do with Notre Dame or Oura rings or sleep, but they are underappreciated and thus, we should be more grateful for them.

35) The Irish recruiting class of 2017 should go down as one of the most crucial in program history. It may not have been ripe with clear NFL talents, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah aside, but it stayed committed through the 2016 faceplant and then led the way to 53 wins, and counting, in five years with two, perhaps three, Playoff appearances.

36) Of that group, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa may be one of the most special and deserving players I have covered in a dozen or so years on this beat. That young man has gone through the worst parts of life and some of the best this fall, and he has never been anything but a kind soul in the process.

37) Friends who understand they will not see you for most of the fall, stay in touch as they are able and do not hold that absence against you. Not everyone understands dropping off the social map for 13 or 14 weeks, but those that do, please know it is appreciated.

38) PointsBet had no reason to reach out about making a weekly Notre Dame prediction, but it was a welcomed opportunity.

39) The Irish home finale represented 25 years of yours truly going to games at Notre Dame Stadium, and it hasn’t lost all its appeal just yet. After the 55-0 Irish win against Georgia Tech, a few extra minutes were intentionally spent on the field, lest six-year-old Douglas find a time machine and express displeasure at taking such a luxury for granted.

40) Lastly, I’m still thankful for all you readers, even when you get angry at me for insisting 11-2 Alabama will have a better Playoff claim than 11-1 Notre Dame.

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

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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.

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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.