Breaking news, rankings, predictions and analysis all in one place.

College Football Preview 2023: 12. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Chris Tyree, Notre Dame 

12. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

A "down" 2022 just shows how the floor has risen in South Bend, and the Irish should be back with a vengeance

2022 Review
Two of the most storied programs in college football clashed in a 2022 opener, as Notre Dame traveled to Ohio State to begin their season. Although the Irish were able to keep C.J. Stroud and company mostly in check, their lack of offense resulted in a 21-10 defeat. Those offensive woes carried over a week later, as the Irish were shocked at home by Marshall, a game they were favored to win by three touchdowns. It wasn't the dream start that Marcus Freeman envisioned at Notre Dame, but the Irish won three straight to get back on track. An ugly home loss to Stanford sent them back into the "L" column, but they seemed to find their stride in the following weeks. After pounding UNLV, they won back-to-back games over ranked foes, including a splattering of Clemson in front of the home crowd. The Irish would go on to beat Navy and Boston College, but the win streak had to end at some point, as they would lose the regular season finale to USC. Notre Dame would conclude their 2022 by winning a thriller over South Carolina in the Gator Bowl, sending them into the offseason with a 9-4 record. Considering the start, and the fact starting QB Tyler Buchner was lost after just two games, it was quite the recovery from Freeman and the entire roster. But amazingly, it was their most defeats in a single-season since 2016, which should leave the program thirsty to show what they can do this fall.

2023 Outlook
Offense: Notre Dame seemed to find their rhythm offensively down the stretch behind a power-rushing attack, but the numbers throughout 2022 weren't super inspiring. Even so, it must have caught the attention of Nick Saban, who coached coordinator Tommy Rees as his next OC. In response, Marcus Freeman elevated tight end coach Gerad Parker to the coordinator position and will let him run the show this fall.

Parker will have a new quarterback under center to work with, as both Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne transferred over the offseason. The Irish feel they have upgraded by landing Wake Forest transfer Sam Hartman, who left Winston-Salem as the program's all-time leading passer. It will be an adjustment for Hartman as he moves on from a unique Wake Forest system, but Parker is going to mold the entire offense around him. Hartman has a reputation for being incredibly consistent, providing stability to a position that was anything but last season.

I am a bit concerned about the lack of depth behind Hartman, especially with Buchner being a late entrant to the portal in the spring. There is not a single player on this roster that has thrown a collegiate pass, although redshirt freshman Steve Angeli has at least seen some game action. It's certainly something to be wary of, even if Hartman has displayed consistent durability throughout his collegiate career.

Having Hartman in town should alleviate some of the burden on this ground game, which was the heart-and-soul of the Irish offense in 2022. Audric Estime and Logan Diggs provided an overpowering 1-2 punch that seemed to only get stronger as the season wore on, as both finished with over 800 yards. Estime is back and should be the feature guy, while Diggs transferred to LSU and will team back up with Brian Kelly.

Losing Diggs may sting a bit, but it opens up opportunities for rising redshirt freshman Jadarian Price, who looked on his way to a big 2022 before a season-ending injury in fall camp. Keep your eye on Price as a breakout candidate, while Penn State transfer Devyn Ford should also provide an infusion of playmaking ability. 

There is significant pressure on this receiver corps, which has been the Achilles Heel of the Irish for several years now. Since Chase Claypool departed, Notre Dame has lacked any consistent weapon on the perimeter, which has shown itself to be a major problem in their biggest games. It was particularly notable last fall, although youngster Jayden Thomas flashed enough to be a reason for excitement. He is their top returning receiver and has superstar potential, but the rest of the room is thin. Junior Deion Colzie hasn't put it together yet, sophomore Tobias Merriweather is awfully raw, while one of the stars of the spring, Jaden Greathouse, will likely need time.

Among that receiver room now is Chris Tyree, who is making the transition from running back to slot receiver. I'm fascinated by this move; Tyree is a former high-profile recruit who just hasn't been able to find consistent footing in South Bend. It's been surprising to me that ND hasn't found a way to use his jaw-dropping speed in a more effective way, but maybe this move will bring something out of the junior.

Notre Dame has earned a reputation as one of the best in FBS football at producing NFL-ready tight ends and they sent another one to the pros this offseason in Michael Mayer. Mayer was the engine of this offense often throughout his time here and replacing him will be an arduous task. Junior Mitchell Evans has some experience but isn't the pass-catcher that Mayer. That's why I'm watching Eli Raridon as a breakout candidate, a guy who I featured in my annual, "Ten Players Poised for the Sophomore Leap.

There will be a new face leading the offensive line after the retirement of Harry Hiestand. Enter Joe Rudolph, the longtime Wisconsin OL coach who spent one season at Virginia Tech before making his return to the Midwest. Rudolph consistently oversaw some of the nation's best offensive lines while at Wisconsin and has plenty to work with at Notre Dame. 

Junior left tackle Joe Alt is the headliner of the offensive line, a 2022 All-American who is almost sure to be the next Irish linemen to be drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft. Blake Fisher handles the right tackle spot opposite of Alt and junior Zeke Correll should man the middle at center. The guard spots are somewhat question marks right now, although I'm keeping an eye on redshirt frosh Rocco Spindler as a name that could step into a starting role.

Despite the turnover on the coaching staff and in the quarterback room, you could argue Notre Dame upgraded at both spots this offseason. There will still be an adjustment process as everyone gets settled and losing a steady hand like Mayer doesn't help, but I suspect the Irish will be strong on this side of the ball and potentially improve on their 2022 numbers.

Defense: The Irish are going to remain a defense-first program under Freeman, whose work as coordinator in 2021 was strong enough to earn him the head coaching job. Freeman named former Miami head coach Al Golden the new coordinator and Golden responded with impressive numbers across the board during his debut campaign.

The key for Golden and this defense in 2023 will be finding a way to keep the pressure on opposing quarterbacks, despite the loss of their two best pass rushers, Isaiah Foskey and Jayson Ademilola. Foskey in particular was an absolute menace off the edge and gave this entire Irish defense a ferocious attitude to the way they played.

Notre Dame brought in Ohio State transfer Javontae Jean-Baptiste to help replace some of the production left by Foskey and Ademilola, but this is a downgrade. Jean-Baptise did see 46 games over his Ohio State career, but wasn't much more than a rotational piece. Perhaps a change of scenery and more opportunity could be the springboard to success he needs. The other end spot is likely to be manned by junior Jordan Botelho, who proved to be an effective rusher despite limited snaps in 2022.

The rush defense is bound to remain nasty, thanks to the return of Rylie Mills and Howard Cross on the interior D-Line, and just about every key linebacker. Mills and Cross are a tad undersized for their positions, but play much bigger and are relentless in the pursuit of the football. 

This isn't the most athletic linebacker trio we've seen at Notre Dame, but it's an extremely effective one. Middle linebacker J.D. Bertrand is the tone-setter, a disciplined defender always in the right spots. He led the team with 82 tackles last fall and proved to be a pest in opposing backfields, with 6.5 tackles for loss. Next to him are juniors Jack Kiser and Marist Liufau, who finished just behind Bertrand in tackles. Add in redshirt freshman Jaylen Sneed, a talented outside 'backer who has the talent to be a long-time difference-maker on this roster, it's hard not to feel good about this group entering 2023.

Even as TaRiq Bracy moves on, the Irish could boast one of the best cornerback rotations in the country. Benjamin Morrison was a revelation in 2022, coming out of nowhere to pick off six passes and finish the year as a Freshman All-American. Joining him is Cam Hart, a converted receiver with the size to constantly get in passing lanes, and Clarence Lewis, who has made 21 starts over his ND career. There's also newcomer Antonio Carter from Rhode Island, giving this room even more experience and proven defensive prowess. As long as this group doesn't get derailed by injuries, teams are going to have an incredibly difficult time passing on them throughout the entire fall.

It isn't quite as good of news at safety, where Houston Griffith and Brandon Joseph depart. Although neither are exactly impossible to replace; Griffith was a long-time contributor but not much more than serviceable, and Joseph was a bit of a disappointment since arriving at ND. The combination of D.J. Brown and Xavier Watts should be more than enough to keep the Irish in good position here, and Oklahoma State transfer Thomas Harper provides depth.

It doesn't feel like there's quite as much star power on this defense as in years past, with the notable exception being Morrison. But, there's ample experience, solid depth, and an overall good energy permeating throughout the unit. There's little doubt in my mind it will continue the proud Notre Dame tradition and be among the best in the nation.

Special Teams: Notre Dame's special teams entered 2022 all out of wack after ST coordinator Brian Polian followed Brian Kelly to LSU, but the unit performed admirably. Kicker Blake Grupe was rock-solid, hitting 14-19, but his departure opens the door for a new player to emerge. That's likely to be South Florida transfer Spencer Shrader, a player with a big leg but an inconsistent track record in college. Punter also looks like it fall to a newcomer, as Penn transfer Bryce McFerson looks to be on the inside track to start.

Bottom Line
Considering the circumstances, it shouldn't have been very surprising that Notre Dame took a slight step-back in Year One of the Freeman era. Brian Kelly set an incredibly high bar and the Irish offense had some notable problems that would have impacted any first year head coach. But, this will be a telling year to indicate whether Freeman, who has risen up incredibly fast through the coaching ranks, will be the guy to lead ND to a brighter future. He now has an elite quarterback under center, a capable supporting cast, and a strong defense. Plus, although the schedule is never easy at Notre Dame, getting two of their toughest foes, USC and Ohio State, at home should be considered a small victory. The Irish are good enough to hang around the College Football Playoff race this fall and perhaps even gain entry for the third time, but Freeman and the program have their eyes set on even loftier goals. They want to not just get there, but make the field and win, proving they belong in the same breath as the true national elites around the college football universe. 

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Marcus Freeman enters his third year in South Bend and second as head coach. As recently as 2009, he was playing pro football before getting his start as a grad assistant with Ohio State. His success at Cincinnati under Luke Fickell is what eventually earned him the Notre Dame promotion. The new offensive coordinator is Gerad Parker, who spent 2022 as the team's TE coach. It will be the second offensive coordinator position for Parker, who was previously OC/WR coach at West Virginia from 2020-2021. On the other side of the ball, Al Golden enters his second year as coordinator after a long run in the NFL. He's most remembered for an underwhelming run as Miami head coach when he went 32-25 overall, but he was highly successful at Temple, at least compared to expectations. 

Recruiting Breakdown
Freeman's first full class at Notre Dame was a solid one, ranking 13th nationally. Unsurprisingly, the top ranked player in the group is an offensive linemen, tackle Charles Jaguash from Illinois. Jaguash will likely be buried on the depth chart for at least a year, but he already has the build of a college starter at 6'6", 310 pounds. There's plenty of other offensive talent dotting the class, including tailback Jeremiyah Love and wide out Braylon James. Love is an explosive playmaker who will give this team the type of open-field explosiveness that has been lacking in recent years, while James brings an infusion of size and physical tools to the receiver room. Another name to watch is tight end Cooper Flanagan, who has potential to be the latest in a long line of elite Irish tight ends. Flanagan is one of the best blockers you'll find at the position coming out of high school, but if he can round out his game, he could see snaps in short order.

2023 Schedule Analysis
Notre Dame will begin their 2023 in unfamiliar territory, as they travel all the way to Ireland to meet up with the Navy Midshipmen. While the game will put a strain on them due to the travel required, the fact it will take place on August 26 could be an advantage later on, giving them two bye weeks during the season's second half. The Irish return to the United States with Tennessee State, before going on the road to NC State. After a short reprieve against Central Michigan, Notre Dame enters their most important stretch of the season. They start with Ohio State, although they get the Buckeyes in South Bend this time, then go on the road against Duke and Louisville, before USC comes to town. Getting Ohio State and USC both at home is a win, but watch out for those Duke and Louisville games. Both are viable ACC foes and are perfectly sandwiched in between the two most important games of ND's season. Following a bye, ND gets Pittsburgh at home and Clemson on the road and after another late bye, Wake Forest and at Stanford. While the two byes in late October and mid-November is an advantage, the Irish would have likely preferred at least one earlier in the year. However, it should help them finish strong, particularly vital if they are in the CFB Playoff race.

2023 X-Factor: Jayden Thomas, WR
The lack of big-play threats on the perimeter has become a consistent theme for the Irish in recent years and an issue that has held the program back from reaching their true potential. They've had to make do with a strong running game and generally a capable supporting cast, along with a reliable tight end. If Marcus Freeman and this staff want to take the Irish to the next level, this is the position group that has to take a leap. However, the prognosis for 2023 isn't super encouraging, at least not right now, and there's no Michael Mayer to lean on. That puts an extra bit of pressure on sophomore Jayden Thomas, their top returning receiver who hopes to become the true alpha on the outside. Thomas is supremely talented, with a large frame and soft hands, but is he ready to become the offense's chief playmaker in the passing game? Having a proven quarterback getting him the ball in Sam Hartman helps tremendously, but the pressure is on for Thomas. If he's unable to become the true No. 1 option, it's hard to imagine this offense and in particular this passing game, taking much of a step forward.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 9-3
Offensive MVP: QB Sam Hartman
Defensive MVP: CB Benjamin Morrison
Impact Freshman: WR Braylon James
Impact Transfer: QB Sam Hartman
Breakout Player of the Year: TE Eli Raridon

Five-Year Trend

No comments:

Theme images by LUGO. Powered by Blogger.