Highlights: Notre Dame 35, No. 4 Clemson 14 — Morrison’s interceptions, Mayer’s record, Marcus Freeman’s resolve


SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Benjamin Morrison remembered Syracuse targeting him a week ago. The Orange completed a 30-yard pass on the Notre Dame freshman cornerback to key its momentary comeback. While most defensive backs survive thanks to goldfish-like short memories, Morrison instead relishes those missteps.

He stashed that mistake away, a route where Syracuse receiver D’Marcus Adams looked to have an in- or an out-option, taking the deep in path. Morrison knew Clemson would test him downfield similarly, and when the No. 4 Tigers (8-1) did so, Morrison sealed Notre Dame’s 35-14 upset on Saturday.

“All week I knew what kind of game this was,” Morrison said after his career day of two picks and seven tackles, the latter note overlooked because the former accomplishment was so decisive. “I knew they were going to test me off the previous games on what I had put on film, so I knew I had to kind of just really lock in and hone in on what I had to accomplish.”

In Clemson’s defense, the first few times it tested Morrison resulted in only incompletions. But with each pass he successfully defensed or after a particular third-and-seven he broke up, Morrison’s confidence edged closer to absolute.

“Once I was able to see things, I knew I was pretty locked in,” he said. “Once they started testing me, and things were going my way, I just felt good, so I kept going.”

That led to his first interception, a crossing route on which he said he is instructed to undercut the receiver, trusting the Irish safeties to keep a big play from breaking loose behind him. By undercutting the target, Morrison should have a better chance of knocking down the pass, or in the case of Tigers backup quarterback Cade Klubnik’s first pass attempt Saturday night, intercepting it.

“I was praying he was throwing it,” Morrison said.

He might not have prayed on the next possession, already beaten once on the drive, when Clemson starter DJ Uiagalelei targeted senior receiver Joseph Ngata.

“That one was kind of cool because I’ve been struggling with that position all year long,” Morrison said. “Back-shoulder fade, back-shoulder fade, just getting my eyes back. So today I was really focused on the details.

“Once I had him in the position I wanted to, I could have just played the man and [broken up the pass], but I trusted in my abilities and flipped my head around, and there the ball was.”

There indeed. Morrison made the leaping interception, managed to plant his feet inbounds, and then was sprung loose by a quick block from senior linebacker Marist Liufau. Morrison had to evade a valiant effort at a diving tackle from Tigers sophomore running back Will Shipley, but once he had done that, there was only one thing left to do.

“Honestly, I just ran.”

Morrison did not realize he was certain to score until he had crossed the goal line, unfortunate for him that Notre Dame Stadium has a video board in only one end zone, not the one he was racing toward. Morrison literally handed the ball to the referee once he had scored, very much acting like he had been there before when he very much had not.

Morrison’s two interceptions had turned a tense 14-0 evening into a 28-0 party, the eventual meeting of 77,000 fans at midfield preceded by Morrison’s reservations for six in the end zone.

Suffice it to say, Morrison earned this honor. Two interceptions and seven tackles would probably have been plenty for it, but to add a touchdown, well, that dramatic moment was the third-longest interception return score in Irish history and will be long remembered in Notre Dame lore.

“He’s an ultimate competitor that doesn’t get shaken,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said. “It’s really uncommon for a freshman to be like that.”

Leading 28-7 and receiving a kickoff with 10:14 left in the game, Notre Dame (6-3) had no reason to do anything but continue to run the ball through Clemson’s vaunted defensive line. The Irish had gained 191 yards on 33 carries (sack adjusted) to that point, a 5.8 yards per rush average. The Tigers clearly could not stop that run, and chewing up the clock would lessen the chances of something flukey happening to let Clemson back into the game.

Notre Dame had thrown only six passes in the second half. Yet thanks to Morrison, its lead had grown from 14-0 to 28-0 and, at this point, 28-7.

Ten subsequent run plays gained 64 yards, and the Irish were on the 17-yard line with time continuing to tick. Then quarterback Drew Pyne got the play call and hesitated out of something short of confusion. Junior tight end Michael Mayer could understand why.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t know that play call was coming,” Mayer said. “I thought we were just going to run the ball. We got that call in, and Drew looked at it and was like, ‘Are we really passing it right now? We just ran the ball for however many yards.’”

Mayer was all for it. He may have realized what offensive coordinator Tommy Rees was up to. Mayer was tied with Ken MacAfee for most receiving touchdowns by a tight end in Notre Dame history, with 15 in his career. Setting that record at home would hold more meaning for Mayer.

“I was like, ‘Yeah dude, let’s go, let’s do it, this is our last chance to do it this game,” Mayer said. “I think Drew knew probably that ball was going to come to me the entire way.”

Sure enough, Mayer set the Irish record, giving him every season and career receiving record for a tight end at a program often referred to as “Tight End U.”

Freeman was riffing, rather philosophically, about the challenges for 18- to 23-year-olds to focus through success, something Notre Dame will now need to do.

“It’s easy to tune out the outside noise when you’re not winning, because it’s all negativity, right?” Freeman said.

But just before that, the literal outside noise added poignancy to his point.

“After a win over a top-five program, can we still be selfless? Can we tune out all the outside noise?” and at that moment, the fans in the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel — some 40 or 50 feet away and separated from the postgame media room by only one set of glass doors — began chanting the “Seven Nation Army” echo.

That slow procession off the turf and into the night greeted Freeman twice. Once as he moved from the locker room to the podium and then again on his return. The latter featured “Freeman Freeman Freeman” chants only quelled by him taking a moment with his family and some recruits’ families. Then Freeman took a moment for himself, with that crowd.

Maybe Notre Dame has turned a corner under Freeman. Maybe more days like the September loss to Marshall and the October humbling to Stanford will come again in 2023. Either way, those few minutes will assuredly linger in Freeman’s memory, a coach comfortable enough to admit self-doubt but confident enough to leave those worries in his office and never let his players know about them in team meetings.

“You have some moments in your office when you’re by yourself that you have to take a deep dive into yourself,” Freeman said. “… When I’m in front of that group, I have to be the most confident individual they’ve ever seen. If their leader gets up there in front of them after a loss or after we don’t play well with their head down, what message does that send?”

Freeman was anything but a trumpet giving an uncertain sound on Saturday, particularly as he raised a victorious fist to that crowd in the bowels of the Stadium.

“I make sure when I walk out of my office, I’m the most confident leader that I can be. They need that. They will go as their leader goes.”

Irish quarterback Drew Pyne threw for 85 yards on 9-of-17 passing. The last time Notre Dame completed so few passes in a win — before last week’s 9-of-19 for 116 yards showing — was in 2017, when the Irish used 191 rushing yards from Josh Adams and 106 more from Brandon Wimbush to beat No. 11 USC, 49-14, despite Wimbush and Ian Book combining to go 9-of-22 for 120 yards.

The last time Notre Dame attempted so few passes in a win was in 2012, when the Irish defense shut down BYU to the tune of 243 total yards in a 17-14 win despite Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix combining to go a mere 8-of-17 for 119 yards while Everett Golson was sidelined by concussion symptoms.

The last time Notre Dame threw for so few yards in a win was 2007, when three field goals, a defensive touchdown and a one-yard Jimmy Clausen rushing touchdown covered up for Clausen going 17-of-27 for 84 yards in a 20-6 win at UCLA, though running back Armando Allen added a 10-yard pass to the total tally.

Georgia OL prospect the first commit for new Notre Dame OL coach Joe Rudolph


New Notre Dame offensive line coach Joe Rudolph pulled in his first recruit by continuing to chase a prospect he initially wanted at his last job. Three-star offensive lineman Anthonie Knapp (Roswell High School; Ga.) committed to the Irish on Wednesday afternoon, picking Notre Dame over Rudolph’s former employer, Virginia Tech, as well as Georgia Tech and North Carolina.

In total, more than half the ACC offered Knapp a scholarship. The Irish offer came only this past weekend with Knapp in South Bend catching up with Rudolph, who was the first Power Five coach to offer a scholarship to Knapp back at Virginia Tech.

“The hospitality and the heritage it kept made the school stand out,” Knapp said to Inside ND Sports in a text message.

At 6-foot-5 and less than 270 pounds, Knapp will need to put on weight at the next level, though that can be said of most high school juniors. He played left tackle last season, but unless the weight piles on quickly and consistently, Knapp will most likely play guard at the next level.

His footwork already looks more fundamentally sound than most high schoolers display, all the more impressive because Knapp could simply rely on overpowering his opponents as most offensive line prospects understandably tend to do. Knapp is content to use his length and footwork to let a pass rusher charge upfield, well past the quarterback.

Strength and mass will come with age and entering a collegiate conditioning program, and Knapp needs both of those, but length is uncoachable and footwork fundamentals hold up early careers as often as lack of strength does.

He is the second offensive lineman in the class, joining four-star offensive guard Peter Jones, also a preps tackle that is expected to move inside in college.

Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s biggest offensive progressions this spring will be smallest to spot from afar

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When Marcus Freeman was first hired as Notre Dame’s head coach in December of 2021, it was widely expected he would retain three-fifths of his offensive coaching staff. Instead, promotions elsewhere awaited two of those coaches, leaving only Tommy Rees as a constant.

Then Rees and one-year returnee Harry Hiestand departed this offseason, meaning Freeman’s entire offensive coaching staff turned over — and the offensive line coach twice — within 15 months of that supposedly being a piece of stability he could lean on as a young first-time head coach. Yet, one thing has not changed about Freeman’s relationship with the offensive coaches: He is trying to stay out of their way.

“Most of the [newcomers] are on the offensive side of the ball, so really I just try to stay out of the way and let those guys meet,” Freeman said last week at the start of the Irish spring practices. “Give them time to be together. They’ve been together a lot and met a lot and really, you have to meet to get everybody on the same page. A lot of that is cohesion, that ability to view these guys as teammates.

“… I’ve been in there a bit, and then we have our staff meetings to make sure everybody understands our culture, understands our expectations. It’s not where it’s a finished product, but it’s definitely progressing to where we want to see it.”

A year ago, the cohesion Freeman was most worried about on the offensive side of the ball was between Rees and a pair of inexperienced quarterbacks. Now, it’s the collaboration between an offensive coordinator, a quarterbacks coach and an offensive line coach who had never worked together before a month or two ago. Freeman, of course, knew offensive coordinator Gerad Parker for more than a decade, quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli for seven years and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph since Freeman’s playing days at Ohio State beginning in 2004.

That has been a common theme in Freeman’s hires, tying to former Notre Dame special teams coach Brian Mason, current cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and defensive line coach Al Washington.

“There’s nothing more important than experience with somebody,” Freeman said. “I don’t have to wonder what this person is like when I’m not around. … When I can find a quality coach that I know can be the best at his profession, but also I have personal experience with them — I’m not saying we’re friends, but we’ve worked together. Coach Rudolph was at Ohio State when I was a player, but I knew what type of person he was.”

That is the commonality between those three new offensive hires, though a few pieces of similar backgrounds can be found between Parker and Guidugli. At 42 and 40, respectively, they both grew up in the Ohio River Valley and played college football along the same Kentucky-Ohio Interstate corridor. Parker then went straight into coaching while Guidugli knocked around the Canadian Football League and various iterations of short-lived secondary leagues in the United States until he went into coaching in 2010.

At the least, though, their formative years should have shared enough to lay a foundation now, the foundation upon which Freeman is counting on them to build an offense. That progression may be as important as any other made on the offensive side of the ball this spring.

After just one practice, Freeman saw value in a quarterbacks coach who can somewhat ignore the rest of the offense. Rees’s focus was assuredly on the quarterbacks, but Sam Hartman, Tyler Buchner & Co. are quite literally all Guidugli needs to concern himself with each day.

“When you take some of that responsibility off their plate, and it’s just coach the quarterbacks and see if they made the right decision because there’s so much that falls on [the quarterback’s] plate that isn’t really his fault,” Freeman said. “I know he gets the praise and he gets the criticism, but my biggest thing, did you make the right decision? That’s so important at the quarterback position.”

Parker thinks there may be more to the gig than the right decision. Wake Forest graduate transfer Sam Hartman should have little trouble with any intangibles of acclimating to a new campus and a new roster, even if he did not have to run many huddles with the Demon Deacons, but there will be one tangible shift to his quarterback play that Hartman might need to work on.

“Just in its simplest form, just taking snaps under center,” Parker said this weekend. “As simple as that. Just being able to secure a football under center.”

Parker wants to emphasize that because even as Notre Dame presumably opens up its offense a bit more with a deeper receivers room chasing passes from a stronger-armed quarterback, the Irish offense will still hinge on its veteran offensive line and trio of proven running backs.

Finding that balance can come in August. For now, finding that snap will be Hartman’s focus while Parker, Guidugli, Rudolph and a litany of offensive analysts strive to learn the same shorthand.

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Thomas’ leadership, freshmen arrivals already improve Notre Dame’s receivers room

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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As much criticism as Drew Pyne and Tommy Rees received for Notre Dame’s ground-bound offense last season, much of that approach was due to a reality beyond their control. The former Irish quarterback and offensive coordinator could not run the routes or catch the passes.

Notre Dame had few who could run the routes and among them, it seemed even fewer who could catch Pyne’s passes. Thus, the Irish threw for fewer than 200 yards in six games, not even reaching triple digits in the 35-14 upset of Clemson to start November. They threw 21 or fewer passes four times; raise that to 26 pass attempts and three more games qualify.

Of Notre Dame’s 192 completed passes in the regular season, 35 percent of them landed in the hands of tight end Michael Mayer. Another 22 percent found running backs. Six Irish receivers combined to catch 94 passes for 1,306 yards total last year. Seven receivers across the country caught 94 or more passes on their own in 2022, and three topped that yardage tally.

There simply were not ample options among the receivers for Rees to draw up plays with Pyne targeting them, particularly not after Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins were injured in the preseason, Deion Colzie was hampered in the preseason and Tobias Merriweather’s season would be cut short by a concussion.

The Irish moving running back Chris Tyree to at least a part-time role at receiver this spring will help solve that dearth but not nearly as much as the arrivals of Virginia Tech transfer Kaleb Smith and a trio of early-enrolled freshmen will. With them, Notre Dame has nine receivers on hand this spring, though who exactly leads them is a vague wonder.

Smith has the most collegiate experience with 74 career catches, and his size should place him into the starting lineup, but he is just as new in South Bend as early enrollees Rico Flores, Jaden Greathouse and Braylon James all are. Of the three rising juniors on the roster, each had a moment or two of note last season, but Jayden Thomas’s may have been the most consistent, finishing with 25 catches for 362 yards and three touchdowns.

“That’s the challenge I’ve had for that entire room,” Freeman said of finding a leader in the position group. “Guys that have been here. … I hope Jayden Thomas continues to excel on the field and then in his leadership roles.

“What he’s done in the weight room, I think he’s matured and said, okay, I can play at a higher level when I take care of my body or I’m at a weight I feel really comfortable at.”

Those were mostly generic platitudes, but Thomas’s 2022 stats alone are impressive enough to garner a leading role when dug into a bit. Of his 25 catches, 18 of them gained a first down. Of those 18, eight of them came on third down and another two were on second-and-long. If Notre Dame needed a chunk gain and Mayer was covered, Thomas was the most likely outlet.

That should give him pole position to be the boundary starter heading into 2023, with Colzie and/or Merriweather pressing him forward. Smith’s experience and size should pencil him in as the field starter, leaving the slot the question on the first unit for the next 14 spring practices.

Tyree could emerge there, but he is more likely to be a utility knife type of option, concealing any offensive alignment until the snap. Instead, rising junior Lorenzo Styles may get a chance at the slot. He has the tools if he has the focus.

Styles dropped six passes last season, more than anyone else on the roster and a bothersome number regardless of his final stats, but one that stands out in particular when realizing he caught only 30 passes for 340 yards and a score.

“It became I think mental last year,” Freeman said Wednesday. “Lorenzo Styles is a talented, talented football player, really talented. With him last year, it almost became a mental struggle, even just the basics of catching the ball.”

Last year, those mental struggles were enough to somewhat undo Notre Dame’s offense, because the Irish had no choice but to play Styles through his missteps. Now, whether it be injury or some headspace frustrations that Chuck Knoblauch could relate to, the Irish have some depth at receiver if needed. As the season progresses, that depth will become only stronger with the freshmen rounding into form.

“The young wideouts caught a couple balls, and it’s going to be good to see the progression of all those freshmen,” Freeman said. “They’re all going to be in different places on the road. That’s what I spend a lot of time talking to our team about, we’re all freshmen, you can’t compare your journey to this guy’s journey.”

Wherever those journeys are, they are welcome additions to Notre Dame’s offense. As much as newly-promoted offensive coordinator Gerad Parker will relish the luxury that is veteran quarterback Sam Hartman, simply having options on the perimeter for Hartman to look for should be an Irish improvement.

Sam Hartman’s practice debut features Notre Dame veteran Chris Tyree move to receiver, at least for now

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Marcus Freeman’s second spring as Notre Dame’s head coach has begun. As he pointed out Wednesday, it is quarterback transfer Sam Hartman’s sixth spring practice. Both are still looking around a bit for their proper cues, though Hartman’s hesitance now should be short-lived.

“He’s like a freshman, it’s new,” Freeman said. “I was joking with him, this is his sixth spring ball, but you’re at a new place, a new system, still figuring out where to go, what a drill is called, so you can see him at times just trying to say, ‘Okay, where are we going, what’s the drill, what are we doing, how many plays?’

“But he’s got some natural ability when he throws the ball and when he plays the game of football. You’ll see the leadership traits that he possesses grow because I know he has them. He’s a leader the first time you meet him. You can tell that he really commands respect.”

Freeman mentioned a “quarterback competition” between Hartman and rising junior Tyler Buchner only once, something that will reoccur throughout the next month, though more in name than in reality. Whoever takes the lead at quarterback, and it will be Hartman, will have a new target to get comfortable with in rising senior Chris Tyree.

Tyree spent the first spring practice working at receiver after lining up at running back the vast majority of the last three years. Freeman would not commit to that being a full-time shift for Tyree, but given the Irish depth at running back — led by rising juniors Audric Estimé and Logan Diggs, with rising sophomore Gi’Bran Payne the next in line for the spring while classmate Jadarian Price continues to “progress” from a torn Achilles last summer — Tyree working at receiver for the long-term should make some sense.

“He’s a guy that has multiple skill sets, and we know Chris Tyree is a guy we have to have on the football field,” Freeman said. “The ability to put him at wideout, we know what he can do as a running back, to really be a guy that can do multiple different things.”

Tyree took 100 rushes for 444 yards and three touchdowns and caught 24 passes for 138 yards and two more scores last year. The ball-carrying was a step forward compared to his previous seasons, but he caught 24 passes for 258 yards in 2021. In three games in 2022, Tyree gained more than 20 yards through the air. He was one of the more reliable pass-catchers on Notre Dame’s roster last season, finishing tied for fourth in receptions, one behind Jayden Thomas’s 25 catches and just six behind Lorenzo Styles, the leading returning receiver.

“You’re seeing more of that in college football and in the NFL,” Freeman said. “Guys that can play multiple different skill positions on offense, so do you treat him as a running back, do you treat him as a wideout? That’s what we have to do, and gain confidence in the quarterbacks in him as a wide receiver.”

Tyree’s shift was the most notable on the field on the first day of spring practices, but a handful of absences also stood out.

Junior linebacker Will Schweitzer, junior safety Justin Walters and junior quarterback Ron Powlus III have taken medical retirements, while junior cornerback Philip Riley, junior offensive lineman Caleb Johnson and junior kicker Josh Bryan are all no longer with the program, presumably each pursuing a transfer following this semester.

With those departures, Notre Dame’s roster now has 87 players on scholarship, two more than the NCAA maximum allowed when the season starts.

In hiring Marty Biagi from Mississippi, Freeman strayed from his usual habit of hiring coaches he has previous experience with. He did, however, have some mutual connections to reach out to about Biagi.

“I remember when we were playing Purdue when I was defensive coordinator (at Notre Dame in 2021), I was sitting in a special teams meeting, and they did some unique things on special teams.

“I still know some people back in West Lafayette from my time there, and he does, too. Somehow his name got brought up, so I was interested in interviewing him last year before I hired [former Irish special teams coordinator Brian Mason]. I didn’t know [Biagi] personally, but I had talked to him before, I knew enough about him. It’s important because you need to know when you’re not around, you can trust those guys that you’re working with.”

Defensive backs Cam Hart and Thomas Harper will both be held out of contact for at least the near future as they recover from winter shoulder surgeries, while early-enrolled defensive lineman Devan Houstan Will Likely miss all springtime work due to his own recent shoulder surgery.

Tight ends Eli Raridon and Kevin Bauman will not take part this spring due to ACL injuries in the fall.

Freeman expressed some optimism about Price’s timeline, but even that was measured.

“I don’t know if he will be full go, but he has done a lot of running and I see him progressing to more and more actual football practice.”

Given Price is still less than a calendar year from a ruptured Achilles, it is most likely he is limited well into the summer.