And In That Corner … Down a QB and with blocking rules hampering it, Navy’s triple-option awaits Notre Dame


Notre Dame’s 95th meeting with Navy may not be filled with as much on-field intrigue as last week’s upset of Clemson was, but the Midshipmen present such a unique foe, there is always a new wrinkle to consider in that program.

These days, that wrinkle is how Navy (3-6) will respond to yet another disappointing season, looking like it will be the third in a row in which the Midshipmen will miss a bowl game, not to mention the third in a row in which they will not win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.

What should No. 20 Notre Dame (6-3) fear from Navy? Let’s ask John Schofield of the Sing Second Sports podcast, one of the better-named podcasts in college football.

DF: John, before we delve into this weekend, let’s give my readers a rundown on Sing Second Sports. How long has it been diving deep into Navy football? It is an undercovered team, from a media perspective.

JS: The Sing Second Sports Podcast has been in “deep dive” since the height of the pandemic. Actually, we hatched the idea in January 2020 with a plan to kick off the podcast in March with a focus on the Navy basketball team’s run in the Patriot League schedule and upcoming March Madness. As we all know, that March Madness never happened, but by May, we picked up the pieces, learned Zoom and got the pod off the ground.

And in this answer is the thrust of our mission. We talk football. And football is the center of gravity for USNA sports for many people. But we believe the physical mission of the Academy is our foundation. We cover all the sports — 35 D1 sports in all — and the alumni and the staff and, well, everything. The BYU game in August 2020 in front of no fans was the first football game this pod officially covered, but we had been delivering stories about all the sports at Navy since May 2020.

Through two weeks of this season, I knew what to think of Navy. It was bad, the struggles of the last couple years carrying into 2022. Then the Midshipmen had an earlier idle week than most teams, and they came out swinging afterward, beating East Carolina and Tulsa, playing Air Force and SMU close. Taking this chronologically, what changed during the off week?

It is tough to say what changed and how the team came out more competitive. For us, we have noticed this trendline the last few years. Pandemic or not, this is a slower team out of the gate in the last five years. Everyone knows the demands on a Navy football player are many, but there seemed to be no magic elixir out of the idle week other than rest and more reps. For us, as fans and podcasters, the schizophrenia of the team regardless of idle weeks is a bit head-scratching. Maybe they got Tulsa on a really bad day. Maybe SMU overlooked them. Personally, we don’t think Air Force is very good. But the only constant for Navy has been the defense. The offense showed up for Tulsa. Beyond that, the D has carried them all year.

All told, Navy won three of six games following the idle week, perhaps a humble start but that stretch still featured nearly as many wins as all of last season (4). The last of this year’s wins, at least to date, was nearly lost, though, and it came at quite a cost. Junior quarterback Tai Lavatai, a two-year starter, was knocked out for the season. In his stead came junior Xavier Arline, correct? While Lavatai was no Keenan Reynolds or Malcolm Perry, losing him still seems to have condemned the Midshipmen offense. How much is the dropoff from Lavatai to Arline? What can Arline do that should worry Notre Dame?

Since his plebe year, this pod has been 100 percent “Ride or Die with Tai.” He has a presence and “dog” about him that was obvious early on. He has an ok arm by Navy QB standards, but the comparisons to Keenan and Malcolm stop when it comes to running the triple-option. His command of the offense and his teammates was there, yes.

Speed to the corners, reads on the option, well-timed pitches — those were generally missing. Granted, Tai has not had the benefit of good slot backs and elite full backs like Keenan and Malcolm enjoyed, but he lacked the speed and results Keenan and Malcolm brought.

The NCAA rule crackdown on cut blocking has hurt Navy in this regard in recent seasons. In fact, the art of the cut block has often been discussed in and around Notre Dame games and other high-profile opponents because of the prevalence of injuries and frustration with Navy’s cut block methods.

Either way, Lavatai is gone and Xavier Arline steps into the breach. Xavier is quicker and seemingly favored by the coaches in the running of the triple-option, but he is diminutive and seemingly has no arm and spent the spring scoring goals for lacrosse.

Look for the same thing you saw against Cincinnati: Arline and Massai Maynor will play in a sort of platoon. While this presents a great opportunity for those two young men, it goes without saying that losing Tai definitely HURT more than anything else. Arline can hurt Notre Dame by making smart plays, facilitating time-consuming drives and not turning the ball over. That is the hurt he brings. But he won’t kill the Irish as a playmaker.

You mention the blocking rule changes. How were those received at Navy? What can be done to better adjust moving forward?

The rule change made almost no news. There wasn’t a lot of coverage of it. But yeah, of course it hurts. It is a foundational element of the offensive scheme. The Mids could get away with having offensive tackles who weren’t 350 pounds because they could use speed and the cut to neutralize the larger defensive front. Going forward, I think the offense has to evolve. Away from the option? No. But more of a focus needs to be paid on effective O-line in recruiting and coaching to overcome this.

Editor’s Note: Schofield recommended a recent column from the Capital Gazette — New cut blocking rules have hurt Navy’s ability to execute the triple-option

From afar, my looks at Navy have suggested the greatest Irish worry might be Navy’s rush defense, but given how Notre Dame has been running of late, that seems hard to believe. The Midshipmen give up just 3.18 yards per rush and 88 yards per game. I know it is more than teams enjoying passing so much, given some advanced numbers, but that may be a significant piece of it. How strongly do you think Navy may stand up against the Irish ground game, most notably Bus-sized Audric Estimé?

As previously noted, Navy’s defense is the key and the prime mover of any success we’ll have the rest of the season. They aren’t big. They aren’t fast. But defensive coordinator Brian Newberry has schemed them to success. An occasional blowout has befallen the Mids in recent years, yes, but the defense is generally the best asset. Estimé is big, but the Mids have faced down the likes of Jerome Bettis with similar lack of size, speed and 5-star recruit. The bend-but-don’t-break style of the defense has a tough job Saturday. If the offense can’t string together first downs and give them some respite, the sheer science of it all says the Irish O-line and running backs start running wild. More than the running game, how do the Mids stop tight end Michael Mayer? That will be the question.

I do not mean to be cursory when it comes to the Midshipmen on the field, but this team has been competitive only inconsistently and with Notre Dame seeming to once again find its identity, I struggle to see on-field aspects remaining compelling for too long on Saturday. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but we’ll get to that. Before asking you for a prediction, let me ask the 30,000-foot question: How is Ken Niumatalolo’s job security at this point? He has been an institution, but he has also gone 10-21 across the last three seasons.

Niuamatalolo’s job security is often discussed amongst the alumni (who can be demanding and hard to please) and pundits in these parts, but many of us believe he has done enough for this program — and the young men who are being coached and mentored to be Naval officers as well as athletes — to dictate when he leaves. To many others, that assertion is laughable. He is the highest paid coach at Navy and you mentioned the recent record.

The standard can slide a little bit, particularly given how the pandemic really crushed Navy. There aren’t “Covid years” and grad transfers and other opportunities like that for Navy. So, Niumatalolo gets a pass there. But another losing season this year and another year without the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy are not good resume bullets. And if it’s another year getting blown out by Notre Dame and a loss to Army, whispers for Kenny’s ouster WILL get louder.

For us, it’s tough. This is a business. Niumatalolo knows that. And famous coaches have been shown the door by schools where statues honor them because of the business aspect. What Kenny has done to help shape these men to be difference-makers in the Navy and Marine Corps cannot be calculated. Unfortunately wins and losses can be calculated.

Now let’s jump to your prediction. Notre Dame remains a 15-point favorite. How do you see Saturday afternoon unfolding?

Prediction? Pain….

Sorry, couldn’t resist the “Rocky III” joke, but I think Saturday will be painful for the Mids. It’s possible they benefit from an Irish letdown after the amazing Clemson performance. It’s also possible that Marcus Freeman sees this game as a stepping stone being in contention for a major Bowl. And I’m sure every Irish coach, player and fan sees the opportunity here with Navy, Boston College  and USC left on the schedule. Destroying Navy and BC and hoping USC is a top-3 team and undefeated at the time of the ND game presents an amazing opportunity for this season to end up a lot different than many thought after losing to Ohio State and Marshall to kick off the year. 

The Mids ALWAYS get up for the Irish. And the game is just up the road in Baltimore. And the Mids looked lively and competitive against a really good Cincy team last week. If Navy avoids turnovers and missed field goals (which have REALLY hurt of late) and strings together long drives, they’ll be in it. They HAVE TO keep Notre Dame to under 21 points because the Navy offense isn’t scoring more than that. Still, the Irish defense is good, and the run game is ELITE GOOD right now. I think Navy tries to take the air out of the game and chew clock. ND will be up to the task and not hungover from Clemson. A close first half gets out of hand in the second half on a gorgeous day in Baltimore. ND wins 38-13.   

And how much are you looking forward to a jaunt to Dublin in August?

Can’t wait. I studied abroad in college in Galway. Going back to the home country and watching two great teams will be a great way to start football season.

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


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


Notre Dame is addressing its most glaring roster deficiency with a numbers approach. The Irish had only five true scholarship receivers for much of this season, a number they will nearly match in next year’s freshman class alone after adding a fourth receiver commitment on Thursday. Consensus three-star receiver Kaleb Smith (Rick Reedy High School; Frisco, Texas) announced he will join Notre Dame’s class, and he should sign with the Irish on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

Smith was committed to Texas Tech for more than nine months before he backed off that pledge in early November. Marcus Freeman does not welcome official visitors who are committed to other programs, so if Smith wanted to take an official visit to South Bend to watch Notre Dame play Clemson, he needed to open up his recruitment.

The Irish 35-13 win against the then-No. 4 Tigers assuredly helped tip the scales away from his homestate Texas Tech.

Otherwise, Smith has hardly been recruited by anyone. The only other Power Five program to chase him was Baylor when current Notre Dame receivers coach Chansi Stuckey was there.

Listed at only 6-foot and 168 pounds, it is easy to pencil in Smith as a slot receiver, but he is also willing to go up in the air to get the ball. His highlight footage features him repeatedly and astonishingly open.

His size, or lack thereof, will make Smith unique among the quartet of incoming signees. By snagging four receivers in this class, the Irish are proactively fixing an undeniable roster problem. In last year’s Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame had only four receivers available. Through most of this season, in part due to injuries to Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins, the Irish had a total of six receivers available, including former walk-on Matt Salerno.

While Braden Lenzy will not return for the Irish in 2023, current sophomores Jayden Thomas, Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles should all come back, along with current freshman Tobias Merriweather. With these four commitments, a position group of eight may allow Notre Dame to have a genuine two-deep.

If signing four receivers in a class and seven in two years seems like an unsustainable influx, keep in mind two things. First of all, the Irish desperately need to find receiver depth. Lenzy was famously and admittedly exhausted at the end of that Fiesta Bowl faceplant 11 months ago. One more injury this season would have further crippled Notre Dame’s passing game in 2022. Secondly, the one-time transfer allowance will make departures from the program both more common and more alluring to the players. Natural attrition will occur.

RELATED READING: A third four-star receiver commitment, Jaden Greathouse, elevates Notre Dame’s class of 2023 from good to Great
Four-star receiver Rico Flores Jr.’s commitment gives Notre Dame some receiver hope for 2023
Four-star Texas receiver Braylon James gives Notre Dame needed offensive piece in class of 2023

CB Cam Hart out for Notre Dame’s bowl game, but will return in 2023

Notre Dame v North Carolina
Getty Images

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.

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

Getty Images

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.