Leftovers & Links: Freeman’s authenticity sheds truth to usual coachspeak; Notre Dame injuries update

Every so often, Marcus Freeman slips coachspeak into his otherwise authentic thoughts, including after Notre Dame’s 28-20 win against BYU in Las Vegas on Saturday. Considering much of his postgame press conference is filled with more transparency than is typically seen from that podium, perhaps that coachspeak should be reflected on from a few steps back.

Freeman can delve into frustration about the Irish kickoff returns at Ohio State immediately following that 21-10 season-opening loss — the type of detail that most might not consider until Monday — only moments after offering such obvious thoughts as “Do not turn the ball over,” and “Try to continue to run the ball vertically.” The unique sincerity of that kickoff return criticism, a valid one given Notre Dame took two kickoffs for 22 total yards at Columbus and has kept itself to just four returns for 60 yards since then, creates a sense of validity in his broader platitudes.

Freeman oscillates from “He’s a freak now” when discussing junior tight end Michael Mayer with NBC sideline reporter Zora Stephenson (above) to changing the usual rhythm of Brian Kelly’s favorite postgame axiom, “Winning is hard,” only 15 minutes later talking with the media.

“College football, the parity is pretty close for a lot of us,” Freeman said Saturday night. “A team like BYU, you’re going to have to find a way. They’re never going to lay down. You’re going to have to find a way to finish.”

He’s right. Immediate eligibility upon a player’s first transfer has furthered parity across college football (see: Marshall, USC, Mississippi), but it has long been a truth. Aside from the top-four teams, losses can be expected in the most unusual moments.

Coachless and draining talent Arizona State beat No. 21 Washington last week as a two-touchdown underdog. Coachless and listless Georgia Tech upset No. 24 Pittsburgh as a three-touchdown underdog two weeks ago. Perennially-middling Middle Tennessee State (that descriptor was thought of before realizing it’d be the worst pun and whatever, let’s publish it) trounced coached and talented No. 25 Miami in late September, winning by two touchdowns as 25.5-point underdogs.

“The parity is pretty close for a lot of us.”

Winning is hard.

Just as often forgotten, players sometimes take time to develop. Fans want the new signees, the youngest players to explode on the scene and express frustration when they remain behind veterans who were once the new signees and youngest players.

Senior defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah is the best case study of this in 2022. Stuck behind future pros and then suffering a meniscus injury, he had played in only 14 games and made just 14 tackles before this season. The No. 23 weakside defensive end in the class of 2019, Osafo-Mensah was a recruiting coup when he chose the Irish over his homestate Texas. Biding his time for three seasons never changed his abilities.

He first flashed this year at Ohio State, standing up Buckeyes running back TreVeyon Henderson on his own in the first half. He then made a play that should not be forgotten anytime soon on the game-clinching fourth-and-one, more to credit for stopping BYU than fifth-year defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, even if the latter got the celebration and subsequent praise.

INJURY UPDATES
Fifth-year cornerback Tariq Bracy’s “grade 1” hamstring pull will leave him questionable this weekend, per Freeman, against Stanford (7:30 ET; NBC). In another moment of more transparency than usual at a press conference, Freeman revealed an error in preparation that may have contributed to Bracy’s injury.

“I just found out he had a virus illness, so he was probably a little bit dehydrated,” Freeman said Monday. “He was playing a lot of plays running around there. … He’s kind of freaky in terms of athletically, hopefully he’ll bounce back.”

Without Bracy, Notre Dame would lean more on the freshman duo of Jaden Mickey and Benjamin Morrison.

Freeman expects senior defensive tackle Howard Cross to play against the Cardinal after a pregame test of a high ankle sprain sidelined him in Allegiant Stadium.

SPEAKING OF ALLEGIANT STADIUM
What a facility. Simple as that.

Freeman continues to try to claim it felt like a home game, but the Cougars fans were every bit as loud as the Irish fans in the building, probably a 60/40 split as far as literal attendance goes, suggesting about 25,000 BYU fans made it to Las Vegas.

Allegiant Stadium’s design allowed it to feel like an intimate environment, and it held the sound better than most stadiums, open or domed.

No. 4 CLEMSON vs. IRISH FANS
NBC will host a watch party at one of four bars when Notre Dame hosts national title contenders Clemson on Nov. 5. But the question is, what bar?

The Linebacker Lounge and O’Rourke’s Public House, each just a block off campus in South Bend, could host the event, if one of them beats out TD’s and Backstreets in Clemson.

Vote for a bar in this Fanbase Face-off here.

Not to skew the results, but a personal endorsement from this space: As famed as the Linebacker Lounge is, and it should be on the to-do list for any fan making their first trip to Notre Dame, most postgame writing that shows up here after a home game is done from O’Rourke’s. For years, that staff has let yours truly stand at a hightop past last call and after bar close, they have swept around him and left two bar stools on the floor until all other cleanup work was done. A laptop bag sat on one. The other is empty, because in order to stay awake at that point in the night, the writing is done standing, but it is theoretically where this scribe sits.

TD’s and Backstreets both sound great. And few things in life are better than a Tuesday burger at the ‘Backer in the summer. But consider this a vote for O’Rourke’s. Then again …

ABOUT TUESDAY’S SILENCE
There was no article published here Tuesday. This is no apology. This is an acknowledgment of an inevitability. To pull directly from the 40 preseason predictions

“16) Notre Dame will beat BYU in Las Vegas, and coming off a top-25 win, this space will miss at least one day of publishing the following week. Who can say why.”

The “why” was not drinks. There were only seven in the last week, with no night involving more than three. The “why” was not gambling. Money was lost at a blackjack table only once. The “why” was a lack of sleep while balancing work duties with the obligation to a college roommate’s bachelor party, delayed by two years for obvious reasons.

That lack of sleep was validated when said roommate confessed to reading every article this space publishes. He should find better things to do with his time, but we all make mistakes in life, and this was not his greatest mistake during his own bachelor party in Las Vegas.

Anyway, appreciate the kind words, old friend. And dinner Thursday night at Carson Kitchen was my personal highlight of the weekend, especially as you realized I did not overhype the pork belly.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Michael Mayer, Notre Dame hold on in Las Vegas amid second-half BYU surge
Highlights: Notre Dame 28, BYU 20 — Big running plays seal third straight Irish win
Offensive development from Notre Dame’s receivers and offensive line accelerates Pyne’s growing confidence

OUTSIDE READING
Vancouver police seek help locating missing Ethan Johnson
Observer on the ground: Las Vegas
‘A sense of community in Las Vegas’: Students return from Shamrock Series game
Happily ever after? Tracking Notre Dame’s football transfers
Who’s your backup QB? You’ll probably need him
Halfway through the season, 19 teams are still in the College Football Playoff hunt
Power 5 coaches weigh in on early firings, football’s direction

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    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

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

    COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Notre Dame at USC
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    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.