Things We Learned: Playoff? Notre Dame’s 2021 doesn’t need it, though the Irish obviously want it

Notre Dame v Stanford
Getty Images

PALO ALTO, Calif. — For the last 33 years, whenever Notre Dame took the field at home, the Irish passed beneath 11 banners noting Notre Dame national championships. It’s one of the less recognized parts of that field entry, bookended by tapping the “Play Like A Champion Today” sign and an eventual welcome from the crowd sparked by a “Here come the Irish” prompt.

It has always been difficult believing a 12th banner would join those 11. With No. 6 Notre Dame (11-1) likely on the outside of the College Football Playoff this year, and an expanded Playoff on the horizon that will make it harder to pull in a championship, it remains difficult to be convinced.

But even if the Irish have fallen short of a third Playoff appearance in four years, the 2021 season was a success in South Bend, nonetheless.

“This football team has grown and developed and matured in all the areas that you want to see your team mature,” head coach Brian Kelly said after Notre Dame finished its season with a 45-14 demonstration of a winning football program at Stanford on Saturday. “… It’s really easy to evaluate this football team and see the growth. I had officials come up to me that had us early in the season and go, ‘I’ve never seen a team get (to) this level later in the season.’ It’s not just us, it’s not just me.”

College football coaching comes down to recruiting, development and Saturday execution. The splits on those vary on the situation, but for Kelly, the development has always been the key to his Irish program. At times, development has been prioritized because recruiting was not at a peak, but mostly it has been because that is how Notre Dame can cut into the gap between it and Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia.

Usually, that development has occurred from one season to the next. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah showed progress in 2019 that hinted at what he could become, but he did not make inherent leaps and bounds until the offseason, then exploding on the scene in 2020. Kyren Williams was essentially benched as a freshman after dropping a pass in the season opener and then remained an afterthought; it was his development during that 2020 offseason that turned him into the fifth player in Notre Dame history to record back-to-back seasons with 1,000 rushing yards, pushed over that threshold by the final Irish offensive play of this regular season.

This year, though, that development occurred in-season.

“You saw how we tackled tonight,” Kelly said. “We were a sieve at times (earlier in the year) as a tackling team.”

Some of that came from moving players, like Ramon Henderson to starting safety from reserve cornerback. Some of that came from Notre Dame gradually, and then suddenly, understanding first-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s scheme. Some of it came from, to quote Kelly, “Practice practice practice practice practice.” It should be noted, he said that emphatically but with a smile on his face, pounding the table with each repetition.

“We don’t just show up on Saturday,” he said. “We do this for a living. A lot of work.

“Marcus every day starts off practice with run support and tackling drills. He’s committed to it, we have to be committed to it.”

Kelly’s defiance echoes both what the Irish have shown on Saturdays the last month — no matter the quality of the opponents, giving up only 3.94 yards per play in an entire month qualifies as impressive and certainly improvement — and what the offense has seen from its counterpart in practice.

“They’ve gotten better throughout every game of the season,” sophomore tight end Michael Mayer said. “… They’re climbing, and they’ve been climbing the entire season.”

Senior defensive end Justin Ademilola pointed to the practice drills for his own improvement, culminating in a strip-sack that he recovered himself on Saturday night.

The defensive improvements are but a piece of this season’s growth from Labor Day Eve to Thanksgiving’s Saturday. The offensive line coalesced as freshman left tackle Joe Alt and junior left guard Andrew Kristofic developed the self-assuredness to call blocking audibles moments before the snap rather than naturally deferring to senior center Jarrett Patterson and fifth-year right tackle Josh Lugg. Freshman receivers Lorenzo Styles and Deion Colzie stepped into bigger roles after fifth-year receiver Avery Davis tore his ACL to start November. Freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner came to understand the whole playbook rather than only specific packages.

The list goes on, a rarity in all of college football but particularly at Notre Dame. Kelly’s teams have been marked by early-season dominance followed by clinging to get to the finish line, a tendency that has yielded three postseason shots at a national championship, so by no means is it a failing one. It is a college football norm amid natural attrition, one that nearly cost No. 3 Alabama on Saturday, nearly to Kelly’s delight.

Stanford Stadium broadcast the closing minutes of regulation and then the three overtimes of the Iron Bowl on the scoreboards in each end zone. That backdrop to the pregame warmups had the Irish coach spending his pregame downtime watching with rooting interest. An Auburn victory would burnish Notre Dame’s Playoff hopes. He knows as much. 

“I was standing in the middle of the field, they had it on the jumbotron,” Kelly said. “I try to stay out of the way of most things, but that was on, and that was pretty epic.”

Kelly genuinely did watch, baffled at Auburn’s secondary late in the game.

That kind of mishap has not plagued Notre Dame since junior linebacker JD Bertrand was too worn out to shed a block to set the edge late against Cincinnati, early-season attrition draining the Irish defense’s second-level to the point it proved costly. The development of sophomore Jordan Botelho helped supplement some of that, as did a bigger role for senior Bo Bauer. More growth.

That growth turned Notre Dame from hoping for a New Year’s Day bid to hoping for a Playoff bid. To draw an extreme example, though, if the Irish do nothing but face Wake Forest in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 30, has this roster not already separated itself from many of the previous 33?

Notre Dame beat every rival on its schedule, so handily taking care of USC that Kelly had no qualms expressing his glee about triumphing in that rivalry afterward. Williams provided an iconic play with his 91-yard cutback, stiff arm and dash against North Carolina. Even the wins against Florida State and Virginia Tech left memories of dramatic victories.

The Irish did all they could in 2021, a true statement because the praised development had not yet occurred by the first weekend in October. Adding a Playoff berth may validate that true statement, but it would not make it any more true.

“We did what we could with the games that we had left,” Mayer said. “Now we sit and wait, and I really believe we are one of the best four teams in the nation.”

Kelly may insist his team does not pay attention to outside noise, including that Iron Bowl broadcast, but Mayer’s blunt statement suggested otherwise.

“Our guys were totally locked in,” Kelly said. “They don’t follow that stuff. They’re locked in. When it gets to Friday, they’ll hear a little bit of the buzz and the noise, but they’re getting ready for a performance.”

Not this weekend. Now, the buzz and noise will be loud.

But Notre Dame already put on quite the performance in 2021.

Drew Pyne to transfer from Notre Dame; Tyler Buchner reportedly a bowl possibility


Notre Dame may start its third quarterback of the season in its bowl game after junior Drew Pyne announced he will transfer from the program on Friday. A graduate, Pyne has three seasons of eligibility remaining.

ESPN’s Pete Thamel first reported Pyne’s intention to transfer, with Pyne soon thereafter taking to Twitter to confirm as much.

“One of my proudest honors is to have been a student-athlete at the University of Notre Dame,” Pyne wrote. “… It’s time for me to take on a new challenge, and I will be entering the transfer portal.”

Pyne took over as the Irish starter after sophomore Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second week of the season. Pyne went 8-2 as a starter, completing 64.6 percent of his passes for 2,021 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.

His final action at Notre Dame may have been Pyne’s best game of his career, throwing for 318 yards and three touchdowns at USC while completing 23 of 26 passes, the second-most accurate game in Irish history.

He appeared in two games in 2021, stepping in for Jack Coan when he struggled against Wisconsin and Cincinnati. Keeping Pyne to minimal appearances in 2021 was intentional, preserving a season of eligibility for him.

That eligibility will now be used elsewhere.

Without Pyne, Notre Dame will have freshman Steve Angeli and possibly Buchner available in the bowl game, a location and opponent to be announced on Sunday. Football Scoop’s John Brice reported Friday afternoon that Buchner will play in the bowl game, though perhaps that optimism should be measured throughout practice this month.

Regardless, the Irish are expected to pursue an incoming transfer quarterback this month. With names like Texas’ Hudson Card and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong already in the transfer portal, Notre Dame will have a few options to chase.

That is why Pyne’s transfer makes sense, even if he spoke earnestly about the bowl game following that 38-27 loss in Los Angeles.

“I think we have a lot to play for,” he said. “We’re going to be in a bowl game, I want to send all the seniors out the right way. We have a lot to play for. We have another game, I’m going to prepare as hard as I can for that and finish the season off on a positive note.”

Reversing course from those words is understandable given they came minutes after a competitive game, and the last week has shown Pyne how quickly the quarterback transfer market will move.

In the game of musical chairs that is quarterbacks moving across the country, Pyne waiting until after the bowl game to transfer could serve only to leave him with fewer destinations as options. Not that Pyne may have been looking at Iowa, but the fact that one Power Five starting gig appears to have already been filled by Michigan transfer Cade McNamara presumably underscored the rapid nature of this process.

Understandably, Pyne needs to make the most of this opportunity, coming off a strong season as Notre Dame’s starter but knowing he is unlikely to start for the Irish in 2023. Depending on the level of transfer joining the Irish and Buchner’s health, it was distinctly possible Pyne would be Notre Dame’s third quarterback next year.

For someone who grew up as a Notre Dame fan, specifically a Brady Quinn fan, assuredly this decision was not an easy one for Pyne.

He had a lengthy and notable offer sheet coming out of high school, but Pyne at his best this season would not draw interest from the likes of Texas A&M, Alabama and LSU as he did three years ago. It may be more pertinent to point out he is a Connecticut native, so schools in the northeast could be most logical for his landing spot.

The Irish should also have quarterback commit Kenny Minchey in the pecking order this spring, expected to sign with Notre Dame on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s QB room creates a friendly trust that has been crucial to Pyne’s success
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 10 Drew Pyne, junior quarterback

Notre Dame adds a fourth receiver commit to recruiting class, helping a roster need


Notre Dame is addressing its most glaring roster deficiency with a numbers approach. The Irish had only five true scholarship receivers for much of this season, a number they will nearly match in next year’s freshman class alone after adding a fourth receiver commitment on Thursday. Consensus three-star receiver Kaleb Smith (Rick Reedy High School; Frisco, Texas) announced he will join Notre Dame’s class, and he should sign with the Irish on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

Smith was committed to Texas Tech for more than nine months before he backed off that pledge in early November. Marcus Freeman does not welcome official visitors who are committed to other programs, so if Smith wanted to take an official visit to South Bend to watch Notre Dame play Clemson, he needed to open up his recruitment.

The Irish 35-13 win against the then-No. 4 Tigers assuredly helped tip the scales away from his homestate Texas Tech.

Otherwise, Smith has hardly been recruited by anyone. The only other Power Five program to chase him was Baylor when current Notre Dame receivers coach Chansi Stuckey was there.

Listed at only 6-foot and 168 pounds, it is easy to pencil in Smith as a slot receiver, but he is also willing to go up in the air to get the ball. His highlight footage features him repeatedly and astonishingly open.

His size, or lack thereof, will make Smith unique among the quartet of incoming signees. By snagging four receivers in this class, the Irish are proactively fixing an undeniable roster problem. In last year’s Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame had only four receivers available. Through most of this season, in part due to injuries to Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins, the Irish had a total of six receivers available, including former walk-on Matt Salerno.

While Braden Lenzy will not return for the Irish in 2023, current sophomores Jayden Thomas, Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles should all come back, along with current freshman Tobias Merriweather. With these four commitments, a position group of eight may allow Notre Dame to have a genuine two-deep.

If signing four receivers in a class and seven in two years seems like an unsustainable influx, keep in mind two things. First of all, the Irish desperately need to find receiver depth. Lenzy was famously and admittedly exhausted at the end of that Fiesta Bowl faceplant 11 months ago. One more injury this season would have further crippled Notre Dame’s passing game in 2022. Secondly, the one-time transfer allowance will make departures from the program both more common and more alluring to the players. Natural attrition will occur.

RELATED READING: A third four-star receiver commitment, Jaden Greathouse, elevates Notre Dame’s class of 2023 from good to Great
Four-star receiver Rico Flores Jr.’s commitment gives Notre Dame some receiver hope for 2023
Four-star Texas receiver Braylon James gives Notre Dame needed offensive piece in class of 2023

CB Cam Hart out for Notre Dame’s bowl game, but will return in 2023

Notre Dame v North Carolina
Getty Images

Perhaps earlier than expected, Notre Dame has already received good news this offseason. Senior cornerback Cam Hart will return for a fifth year in South Bend, though he will not put on pads for the Irish in any bowl game, he announced Tuesday evening.

“Due to a shoulder injury that I sustained during the Boston College Game [sic], I could not participate in our final regular season game and will not be able to participate in this year’s bowl game,” Hart wrote on Twitter. “Consequently, I believe my time here isn’t necessarily complete. Choosing to attend the University of Nore Dame has been the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life.

“In light of that, I’ve decided to return for a fifth season and look forward to taking the field with my brothers in 2023!”

Hart’s 2023 return should give the Irish four returning cornerbacks with starting experience, only fifth-year nickel back Tariq Bracy a notable departure from this year’s cornerbacks group.

Note: The use of “should” is not meant to imply anything about other possibilities. The conditional verb is chosen as recognition of the constantly changing rosters in college football in 2022.

Hart took part in Notre Dame’s Senior Day festivities before facing Boston College, which suggested he was at least considering jumping to the NFL. This quick announcement indicates the injury ruled out that thought process, though the injury had plagued him at points earlier in the season.

A shoulder injury first flared up for Hart this year in the spring of 2022, costing him spring practices. A concern had previously cost him some of 2019, as he adapted from playing receiver in high school. He nonetheless played in 11 games in 2022, starting 10 and making 25 tackles with three for loss and breaking up four passes.

His passes defensed fell from nine in 2021, along with two interceptions, in part because opposing quarterbacks were less enticed to test the increasingly-experienced cornerback. His 6-foot-2 ½ length made Hart something just short of a shutdown cornerback.

With current freshman Benjamin Morrison surging to close this season and classmate Jaden Mickey stepping in for Hart at USC, Notre Dame should enjoy a plethora of tested cornerbacks in 2023. (Current junior Clarence Lewis is the aforementioned fourth.)

In many respects, this will allow the Irish defense to begin the 2023 season with the same calm it had in 2022, when Hart, Lewis and Bracy provided experienced pass defense.

“You have three older veteran corners that can really play at any moment, which makes you feel good,” head coach Marcus Freeman said in August. “Those three guys can play those two corner spots and I don’t feel there will be a drop off with any of them.”

There are a few key decisions left on Notre Dame’s defense — most notably, defensive end Justin Ademilola and safety Brandon Joseph could return in 2023 — but most of them may come after any Irish bowl game. Hart’s choice was presumably expedited by his apparent exclusion from the bowl game due to this injury.

2020: 8 games; 3 tackles, 2 passes defended.
2021: 13 games, 10 starts; 42 tackles with four for loss, 9 passes defended and two interceptions.
2022: 11 games, 10 starts; 25 tackles with three for loss, 4 passes defended.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 5 Cam Hart, senior cornerback, second-year starter

Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s offensive shortcomings again highlighted by an explosive counterpart

Getty Images

There are two ways to look at USC’s 38-27 win against Notre Dame on Saturday, and they both tie back to the Trojans’ being the best Irish measuring stick.

USC beat Notre Dame in a way that underscores how short-handed the Irish always were this season. When Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams began to cement his status as the Heisman frontrunner with a performance that will be long remembered, Notre Dame had no way to consistently counter him.

“We didn’t stop them,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said simply enough.

Without the offensive skill position players needed to match Williams’ explosive play for explosive play, Notre Dame needed its defense to play perfectly, clearly an unfair ask against a Lincoln Riley offense.

“USC is a great team,” Irish quarterback Drew Pyne said. “That was a really good team we played out there. They’re going to go on and do great things for the rest of their season. Caleb Williams is a great player.”

If the Irish had not had junior tight end Michael Mayer — eight catches on nine targets for 98 yards and two touchdowns — they may not have been able to stay in even vague distance of the Trojans. Three heaves to Deion Colzie gained 75 yards and three first downs, but each felt like Pyne was hoping more than anything else.

Notre Dame still made it a game, but the discrepancy in offensive playmakers stood out in Los Angeles on Saturday night.

And while both programs will undergo some turnover — most notably Mayer for the Irish; receiver Jordan Addison and running back Austin Jones will both likely be at the next level next year, among Trojans’ contributors this weekend — Notre Dame will need to close that gap to compete with USC next season.

The variance of a schedule may keep the Irish from too staunchly improving on their 8-4 record this year, but a certainty is that Williams will be ready to dazzle again in South Bend on Oct. 14, 2023.

Notre Dame right now does not have the offensive firepower to keep up with such a dynamic attack. As soon as the Irish gifted the Trojans chances to take a lead, their running game was mitigated and Notre Dame’s best hopes were reduced to Mayer and those heaves to Colzie.

Williams can dance his way through any defense, perhaps shy of Georgia’s. Even if the Irish secondary had been fully healthy, Williams’ rhythmic scrambles still would have broken down the defense. If Utah helms him in this weekend, it may be as much due to a USC letdown as it is to any Utes’ scheme. His stardom is an extreme, but this is college football in 2022, again aside from Georgia.

Many will instinctively point to Pyne’s shortcomings, ignoring how well he played in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. He made two mistakes, yes, but one of them (the cross-body interception) came as Notre Dame was more and more desperate and the other (the fumbled exchange) was in part a result of the Irish abandoning their ground game as they fell further behind.

Pyne finished 23-of-26 for 318 yards and three touchdowns. Every version of breaking down those stats yields praise for Pyne. A reality of a loss and a reality when the opposing quarterback broke through as a national star, no time was spent in postgame press conferences discussing Pyne’s efficient night.

But it was, regardless.

His final incompletion, the interception from Notre Dame’s own red zone, also overshadowed the second-most accurate day in Irish passing history, but it was an understandable mistake. Notre Dame was trailing by two scores with only five minutes remaining. Wasting a play on a throwaway was low on Pyne’s priority list.

If Pyne had established more of a season-long rapport with Colzie, maybe he sees him down the left sideline as highlighted by Kirk Herbstreit on the broadcast. If Braden Lenzy is a bit less worn down by a season-long receiver shortage, maybe he is able to charge into Pyne’s ill-advised pass rather than try to settle in for a low catch. If … maybe, if … maybe.

Only twice this season has USC managed as few as 31 genuine points — discounting the short-field touchdown in the final three minutes courtesy of Pyne’s pick, though not all that necessary given the Trojans fell short of 40 points just twice in their first 11 games. Oregon State and Washington State had the luxuries of facing Williams before he had reached the peak of his powers with this new, transfer-obtained complement of receivers.

The Irish defense did its part against USC. Notre Dame’s offense just could not match the star of the season.

Williams will star again next year. The Irish defense will most likely still be stout. Those truths this season will carry over. Notre Dame then has to wonder only if its offense can develop and/or find more playmakers, a known need this entire season and now the pressing concern entering the offseason, a need emphasized by the Trojans’ offense, the foe that should again define 2023.