Leftovers & Links: Hart & Houston answering Notre Dame’s two biggest defensive questions

Cam Hart
Notre Dame Athletics
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If Notre Dame leaves this spring with an idea of its starting secondary, new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman would have to be pleased. Finding a reliable cornerback to pair with sophomore Clarence Lewis — and if that ends up being senior Tariq Bracy, his reliability will remain doubted until proven on a game day — and a safety to join star junior Kyle Hamilton are the two biggest questions of his first offseason with the Irish.

That is somewhat a testament to the rest of the defense: Junior Isaiah Foskey and senior Justin Ademilola are the clear-cut starters at end with the possibility of fifth-year Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa splitting meaningful snaps with Ademilola rather than working at defensive tackle. Freeman has a myriad of options at Rover, and it is an understandable given none of them will rise to Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah’s level.

But the secondary, those two questions persist.

Enter junior Cam Hart and senior Houston Griffith.

While Griffith’s story will be told often if his promising spring does indeed yield fall results, Hart (pictured at top) may be the rising defensive back who offers the most impact, both because of the positional need and as an indication of the praise heaped upon him. When former Notre Dame defensive back Nick McCloud was asked to name a cornerback who impressed him last year, he did not hesitate to praise Hart, a converted receiver.

“Just a guy for me, that’s on my radar, is Cam Hart,” McCloud said before the Irish Pro Day last month. “With him being underneath my wing for the whole season last year, excited to see what he’s going to be able to do.”

Notre Dame lists Hart at 6-foot-2 ½. For comparison’s sake, that is two inches taller than McCloud, who was universally recognized for his physical play along the boundary last season after transferring from North Carolina State. Hart’s length alone makes him an intriguing possibility in sideline coverage. He may have seen more playing time under McCloud’s wing if not for a shoulder injury that hampered him last year, already repaired this winter.

“He’s really coming into his own,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday. “He’s elite in terms of his length, he’s got a really strong skill set, and to play the corner with that kind of size and athletic ability, he can be a really, really good football player.

“He’s still learning, there are still parts of his game that he’s got to clean up, but as I sit here today and six practices in, he’s making really good progress at that position.”

Hart’s flip from receiver came partly due to a Notre Dame influx at the position, arriving a year after the heralded-as-recruits, now-seniors grouping of Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys and Joe Wilkins. But it also came partly because the Irish had struggled to recruit cornerbacks, the same reason McCloud was pursued as a graduate transfer.

Notre Dame has not had that problem at safety, Griffith a four-star recruit the cycle before Hamilton and Litchfield Ajavon arrived as four-stars. But the development at safety lagged so much that the Irish sacrificed cornerback depth by moving Shaun Crawford to the backline in 2020. The development was such that Griffith’s frustration had him at the doorstep of leaving Notre Dame.

Instead, he returned from the transfer portal for a chance to break through under Freeman.

“I’ve never been afraid of competition,” Griffith said. “Having that conversation with coach Freeman and coach Kelly, just knowing that I got a home and it’s something they really want, me to come here and just come and compete, I couldn’t turn that down.”

Griffith spent his first three years bouncing between cornerback, nickel back and safety, something that may now have the benefit of him being “able to learn all three defensive back positions,” but at the moment may have overloaded his ability to read and react. Kelly said Griffith’s football IQ is showing itself this spring, using the analogy of Griffith now working more like a screwdriver than the hammer he has been in the past.

“It just is coming easier to him,” Kelly said. “Making plays on the ball. We’ve always seen the physical tools that he’s had. I just think he’s a lot more confident. … This football awareness piece is really starting to show itself as to why he can continue to excel and ascend at the position.”

Griffith’s focus is clearly on what is ahead of him, going so far as to grant the premise of a question about why he entered the portal in the first place but insisting his “main focus is just being present where my feet are” and not going into it any further. Griffith’s ~10 minutes of Zoom media availability on Saturday were not quite straight out of the Crash Davis School for Generic Interviews, but the minor league home run king would have appreciated the effort. (Note: This is not a gripe, Griffith answered the questions asked, and avoiding most of the transfer portal conversation while it is still so fresh makes some sense.)

But Freeman isn’t looking for a star interviewee. He’s looking for a pair of defensive backs to complement two established starters. The first half of spring practices may have already granted Freeman that want.

Consider this your weekly reminder that Notre Dame’s spring finale, the Blue-Gold Game, will be broadcast exclusively on Peacock on May 1 at 12:30 ET. The streaming branch of NBC, Peacock should be available on every television with streaming capabilities, a qualifier that may be unnecessary if even my father’s workroom television now connects to Roku. Does anyone still have an antenna-only TV? I would be impressed more than anything.

Given the WWE’s joining Peacock, one can only imagine the possible synergy involving Sheamus and Notre Dame given the WWE Superstar has already appeared at an Irish pep rally and lifted with the team in years past. No insider information here, but the cross-promotion elevating of the platform almost seems too good for NBC to turn down, right?

One player that should not get much work in the spring game is senior Drew White. His springs have long been marked by notable injury, but in this instance, it is more pertinent to point out a two-year starter with a third-year in the role already assured does not need to prove much in this delayed spring. Better that Freeman works some of his understudies.

All the same, last year’s defensive star has some high expectations for White, so high they need to be noted here at some point.

“I expect Drew White to be the best player on the field, even with Kyle Hamilton on the field,” Owusu-Koramoah said two weeks ago. “Drew White is an amazing guy, he’s a true leader, true vocalist in terms of his play on the field. You can always count on him. … That’s always somebody that you want right in the middle of your defense, you want the best player that’s kind of vocal and will lead by example. That’s exactly what Drew White will bring this year. You guys should be looking for a big year out of him.”

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Coan’s transfer an example of college football’s growth, to his and Notre Dame’s benefit
Drew Pyne studied to turn his second first spring practices into a real QB competition
Notre Dame focusing on early enrollees in this late spring
A three-star in recruiting only, DE prospect Darren Agu commits to Notre Dame

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Notre Dame focusing on early enrollees in this late spring

Tyler Buchner
Notre Dame Athletics

Spring practice is always a time for veterans to fine-tune things while underclassmen log needed experience, but Notre Dame may be taking that to an extreme this year. With a program-record 14 early-enrolled freshmen on hand, Irish head coach Brian Kelly has turned over an undue and unearned number of practice snaps to the newcomers, in part because many of them did not play their senior years of high school football, skipping the rescheduled season this spring in favor of getting a collegiate head start.

“They need to come in here, obviously, and get their feet wet,” Kelly said Saturday. “But I want to make sure that they leave the spring going, ‘I got a lot of football and I know where I need to go if I want to be part of a championship football program.’ So it’s important that they get a lot of work and we’re making sure that happens.”

Perhaps most pertinently, that has led to offensive linemen Rocco Spindler and Blake Fisher seeing enough first-team work that multiple B-roll videos released by Notre Dame have included the pair. Needing to replace four starters, the Irish offensive line has enough questions it could certainly turn to one of the youngsters, though both would be a bit extreme, and even one would be an anomaly, starting on the offensive line as a freshman something only Robert Hainsey has done somewhat recently.

“I want them to have so many reps that when they come into (preseason) camp, it’s like they’ve had a full year,” Kelly said. “I know you’re seeing a lot of them. I don’t want to mislead anybody by watching the film and say, ‘Boy, they must be ready to start for Notre Dame.’ We’re just trying to give them as much work as possible. They’re all making progress, but I wouldn’t read too much into it.”

Not to say, too late, but as much as those players getting the work, their impressing with it emboldens reading too much into it, particularly along the offensive line due to those aforementioned holes to fill.

Behind the seemingly viable chance of Spindler or Fisher contributing, the early-enrollee with the most hype is inarguably quarterback Tyler Buchner, who has not played a competitive snap of football since the fall of 2019. (California pushed the 2020 high school football to this spring due to the coronavirus pandemic.) When asked broadly about quarterbacks, Kelly highlighted Buchner, but with needed disclaimers.

“The guy, if you want to say who has made the most progress, it’s probably Tyler Buchner, just because he hasn’t played or hadn’t played a lot when he got here,” Kelly said. “His motion is really fluid. He’s throwing the ball very well. He’s learning a lot.

“He’s got a lot to learn about our offensive structure and just the nuances now. He knows football. He’s very smart, tremendously smart. You tell him something in a meeting and his recall is amazing, but just because you know it, it doesn’t happen naturally. He needs reps, but he’s made a lot of progress.”

While that is a healthy serving of backhanded compliments, it is a telling shift from earlier in Notre Dame’s spring practices, when Kelly simply noted that Buchner had progressed to smiling on the field.

When it comes to Spindler getting work at guard on the first-team, that is in part to keep other guard possibilities getting work at tackle in case senior Jarrett Patterson ends up back at center for a third season. From the outside, that is not the Irish plan; junior Zeke Correll will start at center and Patterson will kick out to tackle. But Kelly is not willing to concede that as a sure thing yet.

“At this time, I don’t think Zeke has given us anything other than what we saw last year, where he started doing a nice job but we’re not closing our minds toward any combinations on that offensive line, and I say that because I want to keep it competitive,” Kelly said. “I don’t want to give Zeke the starting job at center because I want to keep competition.”

Throughout Kelly’s 11 years at Notre Dame, there has always been an emphasis on getting the five best offensive linemen on the field and figuring out their alignment from there. That is why Patterson worked at center in the first place. So when Kelly challenges Correll like that, it may have some teeth to it.

“He’s not the starting center yet. Jarrett Patterson can play that center position and we’re a good football team.”

In that case, the Irish would need to find two tackles, with fifth-year Josh Lugg a prime candidate, otherwise, he may start at guard.

A three-star in recruiting only, DE prospect Darren Agu commits to Notre Dame

Darren Agu

Notre Dame has earned a benefit of the doubt when recruiting three-star defensive ends. After developing the likes of Jamir Jones and Ade Ogundeji into bona fide collegiate contributors and NFL possibilities, the Irish have shown an ability to identify nascent talent and develop it over a four-year stretch.

But when it comes to consensus three-star defensive end Darren Agu (Ruban Gap-Nacoochee School; Ga.) and his Friday afternoon commitment, Notre Dame does not need that benefit of the doubt. If the No. 47 prospect in Georgia, per rivals.com, signs as a three-star recruit in six months, it will be a surprise, and if so, he will be viewed as a three-star in recruiting only.

The Irish offered Agu at the start of the month, and he clearly did not wait to seize that opportunity.

“It’s a huge offer; you can’t pass up on it,” Agu said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They could easily get someone else at my position, so as soon as I got the offer, I wanted to make it official as soon as possible.”

His ranking comes as a result of two factors. One, Agu primarily plays tight end in high school. Secondly, he only moved to the United States about a year ago (born in Ireland, raised in England) and thus has logged just one season of traditional football for college coaches to evaluate.

Despite those hurdles, Notre Dame and plenty of others have quickly realized Agu could be a unique player. His offer list reads not like a usual three-star’s, with eight SEC offers (including Alabama and Auburn) and nine ACC offers (including Florida State and North Carolina), along with Penn State, Colorado and Iowa State to round out the Power Five conferences.

“College coaches say I’m very athletic for my size,” Agu said. “They think I can pass rush or drop into coverage. I could play tight end or defensive end at the next level.”

His ability to maintain a block, offensively speaking, indicates an ease with contact, and those blocks contain some power, as well. At 6-foot-6, though, it is Agu’s length that suggests the most promise at defensive end.

Well, that 6-foot-6 length plus his speed. Reportedly, Agu recently ran a 4.75-second 40-yard dash at a camp. For context, former Notre Dame ends Daelin Hayes and Ogundeji clocked 40 times of 4.69 and 4.71, respectively, at the Irish Pro Day two weeks ago.

Simply put, Notre Dame found a four-star prospect in a three-star’s ranking, making Agu the 12th commitment in the class of 2022 and third defensive end, joining Tyson Ford and Aiden Gobaira.

Notre Dame’s Drew Pyne studied to turn his second first spring practices into a real QB competition

Drew Pyne
Notre Dame Athletics

Drew Pyne was ready for his first spring practice. The Notre Dame quarterback studied the playbook diligently, both for memory and for comprehension. He felt he understood all the necessary reads. He was as ready as he could be.

“Once I went in there, I wasn’t nervous at all,” Pyne said this past Saturday. “I knew everything, and it was so much easier.”

Of course, that was early last March, and it was the only spring practice the then-early-enrolled freshman would get before the coronavirus pandemic forced Notre Dame to send the football team home for more than three months.

“That first spring ball practice, I studied so much before that, I knew all the plays, all the reads and everything else,” he said.

So when spring practice was cut short and Pyne had an abundance of time on his hands (as we all seemingly did 56 weeks ago), what did he do? Study some more.

“Going home for the amount of time that we were home leading up to last season, I saw that and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to study a lot more.’”

Suffice it to say, Pyne feels prepared to be the Irish starter in his sophomore season, despite the arrival of Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan. Whereas the former Big 10 starter has the experience advantage, Pyne has studied offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ playbook inside and out, learned it under Ian Book’s wing, and then studied some more.

Those are less tangible traits than Coan’s 437 career pass attempts (compared to Pyne’s three, for 12 yards on two completions), but Pyne’s work in Notre Dame practices all last year still happened all the same. Taking most of the second-team reps while Brendon Clark worked through a knee issue gave Pyne time behind the offensive linemen who are now competing for starting rights, gave him reps with the receivers now trying to replace Javon McKinley and Bennett Skowronek, gave him chances to hear from Book on possible improvements. Coan may have seen more live-action against Power Five-caliber defenses, but Pyne has spent more time in just about every other aspect of this vague conversation.

“I kind of like growing in everything, and I think I was able to do that last year getting all the second-team reps throughout the whole year and Ian taking me under (his) wing,” Pyne said before praising Book for a solid 30 more seconds for his mentorship, something that should not have been assumed given the four-year age gap between the two. “… I learned from him, learned from coach Rees. I was in watching film with them after every single practice to nine o’clock at night.

“Learning from them and getting the reps in practice. I was able to go in against Alabama — I was calm because I knew that I prepared well.”

The odds and logic insist Coan will end up the starter. He would not have chosen Notre Dame for his final season of college if he did not have some reasonable expectation of that, but Pyne also has some expectations of starting, a confidence one needs to have the audacity to even commit to the Irish as a quarterback.

“I committed here in my sophomore year, and I’ve been committed here (for) what feels like a long time,” Pyne said. “I committed here when (former Notre Dame, now Boston College quarterback Phil Jurkovec) was here, Ian was here, Brendon was here. I always knew at Notre Dame, especially at a place like this, you have to know that you’re going to come in and compete with the best quarterbacks in the country.”

That attitude fits with Pyne’s clear intent of not yielding anything to Coan while maintaining team chemistry. Irish head coach Brian Kelly has publicly admitted he botched the handling of the 2016 quarterback competition, thus dividing the locker room. He kept those lessons in mind while delicately navigating a quarterback switch mid-unbeaten season in 2018 (still arguably the most impressive accomplishment of his 11 years at Notre Dame) and they remain applicable now. As long as Pyne is intent on becoming the Irish starter, Kelly is intent on him getting that chance this spring, Pyne’s first real spring practices.

“I think the way that Tommy (Rees) has got it set up, which is what we wanted, is a battle between Jack Coan and Drew Pyne,” Kelly said. “Those two guys are really getting equal reps with the first and second group, so a good battle there. … We evaluate that from day to day. One day we see some good things from Drew and then Jack does some really good things.”

If one player seems to rise shortly after another does, that may be a result of each other, a result of this quarterback competition — be it genuine or in name only — not dividing the team. (And that was never a given, despite Kelly’s hard-won lessons, as fifth-year receiver Avery Davis admitted some hesitancy to embracing a graduate transfer quarterback.) Book took Pyne under his wing last season, and that ethos has carried forward.

“[Coan] helps me when I’m in and I’m coming off, and I try to help him when he’s in and coming off,” Pyne said. “We do the same with [early-enrolled freshman Tyler Buchner]. We all have each other’s backs.

“We all know, when you’re in, we’re just controlling what we can control, and when we have our reps, we’re trying to maximize our reps, and when the other guy has their reps, we’re trying to help him. That’s a testament to coach Rees.”

Maybe Pyne ruins the best-laid plans of Coan’s transfer — Pyne did start as a freshman in high school and play about 50 games in his prep career. Maybe Coan holds off Pyne in the latter’s first spring practices, going far better than last year’s false start. Either way, this quarterback competition is clearly drama-free, for the betterment of all involved.

Coan’s transfer an example of college football’s growth, to his and Notre Dame’s benefit

Jack Coan
Notre Dame Athletics
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Jack Coan did not know for sure he wanted to transfer to Notre Dame when he decided to leave Wisconsin after four years, but he knew enough to be sure he considered the Irish, even before he heard much from them. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees had a Playoff semifinal to worry about, one led by the all-time winningest starting quarterback in Notre Dame history, so courting Coan was not atop his priority list when the former Badgers starter announced his transfer intentions in December.

But Coan knew Ian Book was heading to the NFL, anyone could see the Irish lacked a clear 2021 starter, and he had considered South Bend nearly a decade ago when he first committed as a lacrosse recruit, so Coan was content to wait for Rees’ season to end.

“I was definitely talking to a few other schools for a little while,” he said Saturday after Notre Dame’s fourth spring practice. “Coach Rees basically didn’t want to reach out to me until after the season was over. He told me he was trying to focus on beating Alabama in the Playoff. After he reached out to me, I took a day or two with my family to discuss it.

“Previously, we were thinking that Notre Dame might come in, so we were doing our research before that, as well.”

Coan needed just three days after the Irish semifinal loss to make official what was clearly a good fit. He wanted a larger platform with a clear path to a starting role for his final season, and Notre Dame wanted an established quarterback who would keep them in New Year’s Day contention for a fifth straight year. This player autonomy may be an increasing aspect of college football, but in Coan’s case, it required no second-guessing.

“It just gives players different opportunities to play where they want to play,” he said. “And have a chance to play. For me, personally, I’m extremely thankful to be able to play for two amazing programs now in Wisconsin and Notre Dame. Not many people get to say that.

“It just opens doors for new opportunities and getting to meet new people and new coaches, learning new systems.”

By finding a quarterback with a season-plus of starting experience in the Big 10, Rees also added some veteran savvy to a quarterbacks room entirely lacking it. Coan has started more than twice as many games (18) as the rest of Notre Dame’s quarterbacks have attempted collegiate passes (7). If that is an odd way of comparing them, it is only because comparing his 437 pass attempts to their seven would be so drastic as to lack any context.

That disparity is why it is easy to assume Coan will start on Labor Day Eve (in 153 days). The logic to his transfer also supports that assumption; while Rees and Irish head coach Brian Kelly assuredly would not make a promise to start him, they just-as-assuredly laid out the facts of the position for Coan before he committed his final college season to them.

“I just felt like it was time for me to move on (from Wisconsin) and go to a place where I thought it would be a good opportunity for me,” he said.

There will obviously be adjustments, new receivers to work with and new schemes to understand, not to mention the nominal competition to win against rising sophomore Drew Pyne, but most of that is similar enough to Coan’s time in Madison so as not to worry him. Receivers come and go as is the cyclical nature of college football; Coan was already competing a year ago with Graham Mertz before Coan’s foot injury cut short the duel; the schemes are not all that different.

“In both offenses, there’s a bunch of similar concepts, a bunch of similar plays with just certain receivers, certain routes that are different here than they were there and things like that,” Coan said. “Then as far as differences, I’d say, here it’s a little less huddling, a little faster pace, and I’d say probably a little more balanced as far as passing and running the ball.”

Anyone who has watched both Wisconsin and Notre Dame the last few years recognizes the exact items Coan references. Both run traditional, drop-back offenses dependent on a physical line clearing the way for a power running game. The Irish just do so a bit more prolifically than the Badgers.

When it comes to an on-field comparison between the two of them, the storyline of Coan facing his old team in September is too obvious to ignore, but he does, for now.

“I’m not really focused on that or anything. I mean, after the first night I said I was coming here, I was getting questions about that. It’s crazy, I wasn’t even in school yet. For now, just trying to focus on getting better.”

There was once a time, not that long ago at all, when Coan would never have been allowed to transfer to a school on the Badgers’ schedule for a few seasons to come, let alone one on their schedule the very next season and it be a season in which Coan is eligible. That time is more and more a relic of the past, fortunately so for players looking for opportunities like the one Coan has found at Notre Dame, one he first dreamed of long ago.

“Growing up, I was actually a Notre Dame fan, and like many of you probably know, I was committed here for lacrosse. Now, I think the main reason for that was because I wanted to come here and watch some football games. So it is pretty cool, it worked out, everything came full circle.”