Things We Learned: Offensive development from Notre Dame’s receivers and offensive line accelerates Pyne’s growing confidence

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In-season development need not spark retrospective regret. It should incur heightened expectations for the seven games remaining for Notre Dame (3-2) this season, not lamentations about losses in the past.

Taking the latter approach risks wishing Irish junior quarterback Drew Pyne would not have so efficiently led the way to a 28-20 win against BYU in Las Vegas on Saturday. Warping his development into an indictment of decisions made months ago serves only to shortchange Pyne’s progress.

Pyne threw for 262 yards and three touchdowns on 22-of-28 passing not because he should have begun the season as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, but because he has found confidence once thrown into the role three games ago after sophomore Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.

“That comes with confidence,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said Monday. “When you start making the right decisions, you take care of the football. Now you’re seeing him start to make plays.”

Talk to Pyne, now or before he started against Cal in mid-September only to play so poorly in the first quarter as to turn his offensive coordinator into a meme, and it is clear he never lacked confidence. That does not mean he could not find more or find tangible justification for what he already had.

“I look at the first half of the Cal game, and really maybe the first quarter, it wasn’t a lack of confidence. It was a lack of execution, and that really messes with your confidence,” Freeman said in the immediate aftermath of beating the Cougars in front of a raucous, split crowd. “Drew Pyne is always ready to go.

“Now what you’re seeing is the execution starting to be there, so the confidence is starting to rise.”

Pyne could not have played much worse in his first few moments. Between taking over in the closing moments against the Herd and that you-can-laugh-about-it-now first quarter against the Bears, Pyne went 7-of-15 for 47 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He was, bluntly enough, bad.

“Something that all you guys saw during the Cal game, all my teammates coming up to me when I was down, when I wasn’t succeeding,” Pyne said Saturday night. “Every single player on the team, offense, defense, special teams, so many guys came up to me, had my back.”

In the 11 quarters since then, Pyne has thrown for 674 yards and eight touchdowns on 59-of-76 passing with only one interception. That’s a 77.6 percent completion rate and 8.87 yards per attempt. He has been, well, good.

“I don’t really worry about stats,” Pyne continued from Allegiant Stadium. “I just worry about winning. I have no clue, I couldn’t even tell you ballpark how many yards I threw. Whatever.

“I don’t really think about that. It’s just play-by-play. I think accuracy has always been a part of my game that separates me.”

In that opening against Cal, accuracy very much was not something that separated Pyne, at least not in a positive way, until it very much was, as he finished that 24-17 win with a 13-of-14 passing stretch.

This hot streak inarguably outpaces anything Buchner put together in his seven-plus quarters, throwing for 378 yards and two interceptions on 28-of-50 passing. That’s a 56 percent completion rate and a 7.56 yards per attempt, the latter pacing a worthwhile one and somewhat shocking considering the sluggish completion rate.

But the difference for Notre Dame has not been Pyne instead of Buchner. While Pyne has found his footing behind center, the rest of the Irish offense has leapt forward, even literally.

Sophomore receiver Jayden Thomas making a leaping catch for his first career score Saturday had nothing to do with Pyne. In fact, Pyne’s pass may have been deemed turnover-worthy, if being critical. 

Against Marshall, repeated Buchner deep balls went off his receivers’ hands. They were not perfect throws, but if Braden Lenzy or Lorenzo Styles had made the kind of catch Thomas made, the Irish likely would have beaten the Herd.

“What you’re also seeing is some receivers and a tight end make [Pyne] look really good,” Freeman said. “He’ll get credit for that. That catch that Jayden Thomas made was a heck of a catch, and I’ve always said it, quarterbacks will get praise and take blame for maybe certain areas that they don’t have to.

“It’s good to see some guys making him look good and him making plays.”

The same goes for the offensive line. Fifth-year left guard, two-time captain and preseason All-American Jarrett Patterson did not play at Ohio State and may not have fully trusted his sprained foot against Marshall, literally or figuratively. With three more games working amid a veteran line, Patterson & Co. are starting to make Pyne look good.

“Our offensive line is just getting better,” Freeman said. “That’s over the course of five games. You see a group that’s just getting better and better and better. Five guys just gelling, really communicating and executing at a high level.”

RELATED READING: Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s offensive explosion a sign of needed in-season development

In that respect, Pyne has two responsibilities: One, help get the offensive line into the proper protection, and two, do not panic when that protection gives him enough time to craft a haiku before eventually finding junior tight end and certain All-American Michael Mayer at the far end of a crossing route.

“Gotta love when I’m back there and have a lot of time,” Pyne said. “The most important thing is to not panic. I’ve had a lot of time like that before in my life, and I didn’t know what to do.

“I just don’t panic, keep looking, see the defense, see what’s going on, and just find an open guy or have to throw it away.”

Buchner was not afforded that luxury. That played a part in his frequent escapes from the pocket. Those were also the reason Freeman and Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees named Buchner the starter after one week of preseason practice. Pyne’s recent efficiency does not render that logic retroactively moot.

“I don’t question that decision at all,” Freeman said. “That was earned. We made a decision, sometimes the results can put a mask over your eyes and cloud the process of getting to that decision.

“I know we didn’t win that game and three-quarters that Tyler played, but Tyler Buchner earned the right to be a starter through preparation.”

Entering the season, Notre Dame knew it would have a strong defense and trusted its offensive line would pave the way. It had few receivers to buoy the downfield passing game. Their recent emergence has raised the Irish ceiling, to Drew Pyne’s benefit.

Notre Dame may have a quarterback decision to make anew in the spring, but that wonder can wait for the Irish to continue this offensive push for seven more weeks.

“Now Drew Pyne has done a superb job and he’s done an excellent job of leading his team,” Freeman said. “He’s earned the right, obviously, now to be our starting quarterback and done a great job with this opportunity.”

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.