Who will Notre Dame turn to next? Some possibilities …

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If this coaching cycle has taught the college football world anything, it is that nothing can be considered too surprising anymore. December’s early signing period accelerated the coaching carousel a few years ago, the development of the transfer portal has increased the urgency to move on from struggling regimes, and both the present and coming influxes in television contract money make no buyout, extension or salary offer unmanageable.

Anything can happen, and has.

So when suggesting candidates to replace Brian Kelly at Notre Dame after he left the Irish for LSU after 12 years in South Bend, neither certainty nor incredulity should be placed on any possibility.

Nonetheless, the proverbial list on director of athletics Jack Swarbrick’s desk likely begins with three names before any others: Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell and Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman.

LUKE FICKELL: The fifth-year head coach at Cincinnati has spent his entire coaching career in Ohio, beginning as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, Ohio State, in 1999 before moving to Akron for two years as defensive line coach. Fickell then returned to the Buckeyes, working his way up the coaching staff, until he took over the Bearcats in 2017.

He has gone 47-14 in his five years, including a 21-1 stretch over the last two seasons, highlighted by beating Notre Dame in early October.

As a result of that win, Fickell and Cincinnati stand on the precipice of the College Football Playoff, seemingly assured a bid if they can beat No. 24 Houston in the AAC championship game (4 ET; ABC).

That may be the biggest hurdle to Fickell, 48, following in Kelly’s footsteps, as much literally as figuratively. One of the hottest names in coaching circles for two years now, Fickell has turned down opportunities with an eye on staying in the Midwest. Notre Dame may not be his alma mater, but the latter is unlikely to need a head coach anytime soon. Furthermore, not that this matters on Saturdays or should greatly influence Swarbrick’s search, Fickell is Catholic, conceivably making Notre Dame a more appealing job to him despite the difficulties of the job that presumably played a part in Kelly’s departure.

If the Bearcats win on Saturday, though, would Fickell leave them on the eve of a Playoff appearance? That was once thought beyond comprehension, but then Kelly left the Irish with the Playoff still a possibility for them.

MATT CAMPBELL: The sixth-year head coach at Iowa State has also spent his entire coaching career in the Midwest, only leaving Ohio to take over in Ames in 2016 after he won two MAC West Division championships in 2014 and 2015 at Toledo.

If one of the more reliable ways to gauge a coach’s effectiveness is how he compares to a program’s historical track record, then Campbell, 42, is one of the country’s best. In the three years before his arrival, the Cyclones won a total of eight games. With a bowl win this season, Campbell would win at least eight games for the fourth time in the last five years, the exception being the 7-6 season in 2019 that ended with a loss to Notre Dame in the Camping World Bowl.

Before Campbell, Iowa State last won eight games in a season in 2000, when it went 9-3, a win total never otherwise matched in Cyclones history until they went 9-3 during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, culminating in a 34-17 Fiesta Bowl victory against No. 24 Oregon. Iowa State finished No. 9 in the polls.

Yet Campbell’s coaching carousel buzz may have been higher before struggling to a 7-5 posting thus far this season. The Cyclones were expected to be Big 12 contenders, instead losing four times in conference play to end up fourth in the final standings.

MARCUS FREEMAN: The first-year Irish defensive coordinator is beloved by his current players, many of them taking to social media Monday night advocating for his hiring as Kelly’s replacement. That is far from the only thing Swarbrick will consider, but it at least demonstrates how quickly Freeman, 35, can relate to and bond with a roster, given he was hired by Kelly less than a year ago. (And it warrants noting: Freeman chose Notre Dame over LSU.)

He joined Kelly’s staff after serving as Fickell’s defensive coordinator for four years. Again, a Midwestern background may bolster Freeman’s profile in Swarbrick’s considerations. The furthest Freeman has strayed as a coach from Ohio State, where he played from 2004 to 2008, has been Purdue, where he coached from 2013 to 2016.

A geographic background like that matters, just as it does regarding both Fickell and Campbell. It suggests recruiting relationships in the general region, an indifference to winter weather and perhaps some familial ties.

Freeman has been a master recruiter for Notre Dame in his one year on staff, a primary piece of how the Irish have put together the No. 4 recruiting class this cycle, per rivals.com. Since he was hired, Notre Dame has landed commitments from eight defensive four-star recruits.

Most, if not all, of those recruits are expected to sign with the Irish on Dec. 15, the beginning of the early signing period. This coaching turnover obviously puts some of their pledges into some limbo, perhaps a thought in Freeman’s favor and certainly one in favor of a quick coaching search.

But Freeman has never been a head coach, and he has been a Power Five defensive coordinator for less than a calendar year, possibly making him too inexperienced for Swarbrick’s tastes.

After those three, the candidates list becomes more of a guessing game. Some names that will populate the chatter in the coming days — if this even takes that long; given the nature of both this cycle and the looming early signing period, an efficient search may be a Swarbrick priority — are simply fodder from agents looking to get clients raises or higher profiles. Others may pass through Swarbrick’s consideration without any genuine outside notice.

A sampling of such names would include current assistants, retired notables, fringe NFL possibilities and a few Power Five head coaches not currently at blue-blood programs. To give some context, but not to inspire any conjecture … 

Tommy Rees: If Freeman is going to be considered, then so should the second-year Irish offensive coordinator. He may be only 29, but Rees was on Kelly’s staff for five years, giving him more Power Five experience than Freeman. He has now twice handled delicate quarterback situations, both the 2018 swap to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush and the 2021 balancing act between Jack Coan, Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner requiring the deftest of touches.

Then again, Rees is only 29.

See also: Mike Elston, Brian Polian.

CHRIS PETERSON: This is nothing but the thought of who could Swarbrick swing at that would qualify as a big get and yet be unexpected. The retired Washington head coach would check just about every box imaginable, including age as he is only 57, but he has also not expressed much of a desire to get back into coaching.

See also: Bob Stoops.

Matt Rhule: Another name that would check all those boxes as well as be a notable hire, the second-year Carolina Panthers head coach may enjoy not having to recruit teenagers too much to return to the college game.

See also: Pete Carroll.

Dave Clawson: The eighth-year Wake Forest head coach just signed an extension, something he shared with his team on Friday and has an ACC championship game to worry about, but at 54 and with a proven track record, Clawson continues to hear his name pop up on the outskirts of these conversations.

Mark Stoops: Similar to Clawson, the ninth-year Kentucky head coach has taken a historically-middling program to more respectable heights, if not to any title contention. Stoops, 54, has won at least eight games in three of the last four years, a stretch the Wildcats faithful are happy to keep rolling. Stoops was widely considered an LSU possibility if the Tigers continued to strike out on bigger targets until they convinced Kelly to take the job.

See also: Pat Fitzgerald, Jeff Hafley.

A few names need not be mentioned: Neither the current Jacksonville Jaguars head coach nor the recently-departed Las Vegas Raiders head coach will be remotely considered by Swarbrick given their off-field actions.

See also: Ed Orgeron.

Notre Dame will face South Carolina in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30

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Notre Dame and South Carolina will meet for the first time in nearly 40 years in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Dec. 30 at 3:30 ET (ABC). The Irish and Gamecocks have not played since 1984, a South Carolina win in South Bend. That was part of Notre Dame’s struggles (going 12-11 in 1984 and 1985) that led to Lou Holtz being hired; Holtz, of course, went on to coach the Gamecocks for six seasons after he left the Irish.

Though the No. 21 Irish (8-4) finished the season strongly, including competing gamely at USC a week ago in a 38-27 loss, a driving storyline over the next month will be wondering if head coach Marcus Freeman can handle this bowl game better than the second half of the Fiesta Bowl faceplant last year in his first game as Notre Dame’s leader.

No. 19 South Carolina (8-4) enjoyed an even more impressive finish to the season, knocking both Tennessee and Clemson out of the College Football Playoff in its final two games of the season. Not that gambling spreads mean anything on the football field, but to give an idea how unexpected those two wins were, realize the Gamecocks were expected to lose them by a combined 37.5 points and instead won them by a combined 26 points.

There may be some rough parallels between South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer and Freeman, though Beamer is a year ahead in his head-coaching career.

Beamer was an unexpected hire in Columbia in 2021, never having been a head coach before and most recently the associate head coach and tight ends coach at Oklahoma for three seasons. The Gamecocks went 7-6 in his first year, his head-coaching inexperience perhaps rearing its head as they lost their first three games against Power-Five competition and four of their first five, the exception coming against worse-off Vanderbilt.

Thus, the surge to end the 2022 season stands out, particularly since it again took until October to notch a win against a Power-Five opponent, losing to both Arkansas and, more understandably, Georgia in September.

South Carolina found its most success this season through the air, led by former Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler. He averaged 230.5 yards per game and 7.9 yards per attempt while completing 66.6 percent of his passes. The Gamecocks managed just 123.3 rushing yards per game and 3.8 yards per attempt.

Their rushing defense is one of the worst in the country, which could play right into the Irish offensive strength. Opponents gained 0.194 expected points per rush attempt against South Carolina, the No. 123 ranking in the country, per cfb-graphs.com.

Notre Dame fell to Ohio State, 21-10, to open Freeman’s genuine tenure, a worthwhile loss though one quickly diminished when the Irish fell to Marshall just a week later. Of course, the Buckeyes’ relied on that season-opening win to successfully burgeon their Playoff résumé today.

The Irish already know they will be without both senior cornerback Cam Hart and junior quarterback Drew Pyne in the bowl game. Hart announced last week he will return for a fifth season at Notre Dame, but a shoulder injury will sideline him this month, while Pyne announced Friday he intends to enter the transfer portal, presumably when it officially opens tomorrow.

Star tight end Michael Mayer will almost certainly opt out of the bowl game, his top-20 draft stock assured, and senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey could logically, as well.

Notre Dame nearly ended up in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 28, per reports. The ACC could place the Irish in any of three bowls, the top tier of ACC-affiliated bowls below the Orange Bowl, with some input from the bowls and from the University. That give-and-take seemingly delayed the announcement for a stretch of Sunday.

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

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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

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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
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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.

HART CAREER STATISTICS
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