Things We Learned: Notre Dame dominates Clemson in the way long expected, if also delayed, this season


SOUTH BEND, Ind. — There need be no disclaimer. Notre Dame (6-3) simply beat No. 4 Clemson (8-1) that badly. If the Irish had topped the Tigers 14-0 instead of 35-14, the response would be the same. Notre Dame beat Clemson, a bona fide Playoff contender, that resoundingly.

After the Irish went on the road and beat ACC contenders North Carolina and Syracuse, the victories needed to be couched, emphasizing how bad both defenses are. Once Notre Dame got a lead thanks to those sieves, it could wrangle the life out of the game and minimize the worry of their genuine explosiveness. Against the Tigers, no clarification need lessen Irish joy this week.

Notre Dame walloped a top-five team. Even if wanting to disparage Clemson, the harshest thing one could say is, the Irish dominated a top-10 team.

“Not every day do you get the opportunity to play in this place, jam-packed, with those fans and have an opportunity to beat a top-five team in the country,” Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman said Saturday night after navigating his way through those fans, filing slowly out of the Stadium tunnel, to get to the postgame media room. “It’s really special. I’m so proud of our guys.”

Those opportunities are rare, obviously, given facing top-five teams is a matter of timing more than it is scheduling. Yet, this was the seventh time the Irish have faced a top-five team since 2017, the 11th time they’ve played a top-10 team. Notre Dame was 1-5 and 2-8 entering Saturday.

Some commenters will read that and jump into Brian Kelly criticisms, but their point has always been misguided. Beating top-five teams is supposed to be hard, it is uncommon by nature. Kelly beat No. 1 Clemson near the peak of its powers in 2020, and the Irish out-physicaled No. 7 Stanford in 2018. There were highs.

That 2018 demolition of the Cardinal may be the closest comparison to Saturday’s win. Notre Dame ran for 281 yards (sack adjusted) to win 38-17 and stake its claim as a Playoff contender, but Stanford remained competitive into the fourth quarter, when the Irish outscored them 14-0.

Of course, mentioning Stanford in 2022 elicits bad memories from just weeks ago, but the upset of the Tigers should overshadow that misstep.

“This is still part of a new foundation,” Freeman said. “You can’t just change leaders and think it’s going to be like this. We have to build this foundation the right way.

“We believe that becomes infallible, it becomes infallible, you have such a strong foundation that no matter what happens, you’re going to be solid.”

Clemson did not have that foundation Saturday. It was never as competitive as that 2018 top-10 matchup against the Cardinal was. Not even former Notre Dame recruiting target Will Shipley could carry the Tigers, gaining 63 yards on 12 carries but increasingly left out of the offense as Clemson fell further and further behind the Irish.

One could remove Notre Dame’s special teams and defensive touchdowns, ignore the short field (via freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison’s first interception) that led to Audric Estimé’s touchdown run and dismiss Michael Mayer’s record-setting score as a garbage-time perk, and the Irish still beat the Tigers decisively. If looking at the game through that lens, then it is only fair to point out the Notre Dame possession ending in a Blake Grupe missed field goal was a quality drive, its first of two in a row before halftime.

The Irish controlled 68.75 percent of the game before Morrison ran his second pick back 96 yards for a touchdown, when focusing on drive-by-drive results.

That was where Notre Dame differed from its season-opening loss at No. 2 Ohio State. The Buckeyes outplayed the Irish most of the game, even if they firmly took the lead only in the third quarter’s final minute. Ohio State controlled 53.3 percent of the game before its drive to secure a 14-10 advantage, and it controlled 63.2 percent of the game in total.

“We wanted to run the ball — Ohio State seems so long ago,” Freeman said. “But there were points in [that] game where we weren’t able to do it.”

Considering Notre Dame took 27 carries for 95 yards in Columbus (sacks adjusted), that was certainly the case. It was not against Clemson, a defensive front nearly, if not equally, as vaunted as Ohio State’s.

“At some point tonight, if we weren’t able to run the ball with efficiency, we were going to have to throw it a little bit more,” Freeman said. “We threw it when we needed to, but we were running the ball with the efficiency we needed to continue to extend the drives.”

Junior quarterback Drew Pyne threw 17 passes, the fewest in an Irish win in a full decade, the last such instance being a Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix combination to go 8-of-17 for 119 yards in a 2012 victory against BYU. No disrespect to Notre Dame’s current offensive coordinator or one of his, to this day, best friends, but anytime a stat is comparable to a Rees and Hendrix partnership, it is not a sign of effectiveness.

“You have to play to your strengths,” Freeman said. “That can be within the game. Today, those strengths were playing really good defense and running the ball on offense.”

In those respects, Notre Dame is who we thought it would be. It just arrived a bit late.

Early in preseason practices, Freeman began describing his team as an “O-line- and D-line-driven program.” It made sense, an offensive line returning five starters and an offensive line coach long missed along with a defensive line featuring two likely second- or third-round draft picks and enough depth to make that offensive line look shallow.

But then Marshall pushed the Irish around. And Stanford somehow escaped South Bend with a win.

It took some time for Freeman’s foundation to settle.

“Winning does two things in my mind,” he said. “It gives you that feeling, that it’s hard to [replicate], the feeling of being a winner. But it’s short-lived, especially here, because next week we have to get ready to go. …

“Two, it’s a confidence and belief in what you’re doing. It reaffirms the process, it reaffirms the things you’re doing.”

Notre Dame has now won three in a row and six out of seven. That confidence and belief has arrived, and it has done so because the Irish are who we thought they were.

They shut down Syracuse’s running game and then squeezed the Orange into pulp. (Editor’s Note: Shame on you, Douglas.) They stopped Clemson in its tracks.

Notre Dame so soundly defeated the Tigers that removing the two biggest plays from the game would not change the fact that the Irish outplayed Clemson in every regard conceivable, most notably along the offensive and defensive lines.

The only person who may not be aware of who Notre Dame is at this point is one of the offensive line’s greatest beneficiaries. Sophomore running back Logan Diggs finished with 17 carries for 114 yards on Saturday, part of the Irish totals of 45 carries for 266 yards, yet he still does not realize who Rees is at his core.

“Thank you for continuing to trust me, trust the whole running back room, trust the O-line,” Diggs said he told Rees as the game clock dwindled Saturday. “Putting the game in our hands means a lot, coming from him especially. He likes to throw the ball.”

If Rees could revive his football career as any type of player, it would almost certainly be as an interior offensive lineman. In the aftermath of this upset, he tweeted out a photo prominently featuring a ballcap insisting, “Run the damn ball.” It seems safe to assume Rees already owned the hat, not finding it at a gas station after midnight Sunday morning.

Rees is not someone who likes to throw the ball. He barely instructed Pyne to on Saturday, which led to such dominance — the genre of dominance expected all season, if not to this extreme — that Diggs could make that mistake before the game ended.

Rees had left the coaches’ booth to watch the final few minutes of a blowout of a top-five team from the sideline. The Irish may be who we thought they were, but that was a moment of bravado never anticipated in one of this season’s two (and maybe yet three) games against top-five opponents.

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.