Leftovers & Links: Marcus Freeman’s youth matters as little as Notre Dame’s losses in ‘major’ bowls when he was a kid

15 Comments

We’ll get to Oklahoma State eventually. There are 26 days yet until No. 5 Notre Dame (11-1) faces No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-2) in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day, giving plenty of time to discuss what should be a defensive showcase. Between now and then, the Irish will sign one of the country’s best recruiting classes next week, and that will only further the stories and praise heaped on Marcus Freeman.

In the 270 days between now and Notre Dame’s trip to Columbus on Sept. 3 to open its 2022 season at Freeman’s alma mater, at least half of those mornings will include some thought about the first-year head coach. Even after the Irish face the Cowboys, the concept of Freeman leading Notre Dame moving forward will feel more like hype than reality until the 2022 season begins.

At that point, Freeman will be 36 — his birthday is next month — and while that is younger than any Irish head coach since Terry Brennan was hired in 1954 and makes Freeman the third-youngest coach at the FBS level, it is not as absurdly young as it seems on the surface.

Dabo Swinney became the head coach at Clemson when he was 39. Ryan Day was the same age when he took over at Ohio State. Lincoln Riley was only 33 when he rose to the top job at Oklahoma. David Shaw was 38 when he became Stanford’s head coach.

Know what else they all have in common? They will face Freeman in 2022.

For that matter, Mike Gundy was 37 when he was named Oklahoma State’s head coach. Yes, he was in his third season when he lost his cool at a press conference and repeatedly yelled his age.

Freeman is obviously younger than all those except Riley, but how much of a difference can there really be between a 35-year-old first-time head coach and a 37- or 39-year-old first-time head coach?

Notre Dame is not scheduled to face Northwestern or Alabama in 2022, but to add a few more names who first became head coaches at young ages, Pat Fitzgerald was only 31, and Nick Saban was 39.

Clearly, 30-somethings have found success in this role for decades, and even the Irish are not under that much bigger a microscope than the Buckeyes or Sooners are.

In Freeman’s case, he will deflect some of that glare onto his roster, just as he did when announced to them as Notre Dame’s new head coach on Friday morning.

“The reason why was because of you,” Freeman said. “The reason why I’m standing here is because of you. It’s unbelievable how powerful you guys are. That’s why we’re going to do great things.”

‘GREAT THINGS’ ON NEW YEAR’S DAY
The first ‘great thing’ Freeman will focus on is beating Oklahoma State.

“It’s a great opportunity to win 12 games,” he said to ESPN on Sunday. “To kind of right some of the wrongs of the past that we haven’t been so successful in these New Year’s Day bowls.

“It’ll be a motivated team and a motivated coaching staff.”

This space will not indulge that storyline, and not just because it would be more productive — though still largely unproductive — to notice every time Freeman arguably slips in a dig at his predecessor and/or Brian Kelly’s abrupt exit for LSU. That “a motivated team” line is generic enough on its surface that it cannot be tied directly toward Kelly’s handling of last week, but it fits that context, nonetheless.

Freeman’s mention of equality during Monday’s introductory celebration also had that duality, its genericness possibly masking past missteps.

“We will do it with the understanding that no one person, no one coach is more important than another,” Freeman said.

Rather, this space will not indulge the storyline of Irish failures in big bowl games because that storyline gets abridged every few years. When No. 14 Notre Dame faced No. 17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl following the 2017 season, that victory should have put an end to the constant graphic of “0-9 in major bowl games since 1994,” a mark that now supposedly stands at 0-11 after the Irish lost in the Playoff semifinals in 2018 and 2020.

Two of those losses were in the Gator Bowl, both on New Year’s Day. This season, it pits No. 25 Texas A&M against No. 17 Wake Forest, the first year it has featured two ranked teams since 2006. If the Gator Bowl qualifies as a notable bowl game, then so too should the Citrus Bowl.

It was played on New Year’s Day, after all, and included two teams in the top 20.

But since Notre Dame won and the new concept of the “New Year’s Six” does not include the Citrus Bowl, the storyline gets to persist. If the Irish had faced Wake Forest in the Peach Bowl this year, rest assured those figurative goalposts would be moved again in the event of a Notre Dame victory, to something along the lines of “0-11 in bowl games against blue bloods since 1994.”

And none of that even gets into the fact that the current Notre Dame roster has no ties to 2015’s loss to Ohio State in the most recent Irish trip to the Fiesta Bowl.

ON Kyle Hamilton
Freeman offered a non-answer Monday when asked if star junior safety Kyle Hamilton will play in the Fiesta Bowl.

“His health is the No. 1 importance for any decision we make,” Freeman said. “Whatever is best for him and whatever is best for his health, I am going to support. We have not had that conversation, we have not made a decision, he has not made a decision.”

This is not based on any reporting. This is not based on any rumors. This is based on logic: No one should expect to see Hamilton play on New Year’s Day. He has too much to lose as a certain top-10 pick in the coming NFL draft and nearly nothing too gain after a knee injury sidelined him for Notre Dame’s last six games.

Junior running back Kyren Williams, however, indicated to reporters on Monday that he intends to play in the Fiesta Bowl, though that decision could certainly change in the next 26 days.

MARCUS FREEMAN’S HIRING
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos
Phone calls, Rome meetings and ‘the best culture in college football’ led Notre Dame to promote Marcus Freeman
Players’ groundswell of support burgeons Marcus Freeman’s candidacy

BRIAN KELLY’S DEPARTURE
Brian Kelly leaves Notre Dame as he predicted, though the unexpected rush overshadows his successes
12 years later, Jack Swarbrick and Notre Dame look for Brian Kelly’s replacement, an easier job now thanks to Kelly
Kelly echoes old Notre Dame talking points in his arrival at LSU, avoids answering biggest Irish questions

OUTSIDE READING
Notre Dame embraces Marcus Freeman with unanimous excitement after transformative week
Why Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman can become ‘the next great coach in college football’
Blockbuster power moves headline wildest week in college football history
‘The schools clearly aren’t in control’: Inside college football’s wild week
In a week of blockbuster coaching moves, Luke Fickell’s commitment to Cincinnati stands out
Brian Kelly’s move from Notre Dame to LSU shows college football has a real problem on its hands
Brian Kelly breaks a long-held promise to himself in chasing new dream at LSU
LSU football needed stability, and Brian Kelly has shown he can be that steadying hand

Former Notre Dame QB Clark will reboot at Old Dominion
NFL draft 2022 rankings: Todd McShay’s top 32 players in the class
The 2021 PFF College Football All-True Freshman Team

NOTRE DAME 45, STANFORD 14
Cardinal sacrifice the last piece of Notre Dame’s Playoff push as Irish roll, 45-14
Highlights: Notre Dame 45, Stanford 14, including a final score for a dash of style points
Things We Learned: Playoff? Notre Dame’s 2021 doesn’t need it, though the Irish obviously want it

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

7 Comments

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

2 Comments

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
9 Comments

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

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

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Notre Dame at USC
Getty Images
22 Comments

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.