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Notre Dame Football

Unproven Notre Dame Freshmen Build ‘Trust’ during Bowl Prep

December 20, 2022

Notre Dame will face No. 19 South Carolina in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30, albeit without significant 2022 contributors in quarterback Drew Pyne, tight end Michael Mayer and defensive end Isaiah Foskey. 

On multiple occasions coach Marcus Freeman has stated that the team cannot simply replace players who enter the transform portal or declared for the 2023 NFL Draft with any one person. Instead, it’ll take several players stepping up at a variety of positions in order for the team to compensate for so much lost production. 

One way to fill the void is to get unproven members of the 2022 recruiting class — which ranked seventh in the nation — more involved. Fortunately, four weeks of bowl prep affords the team ample opportunity to do just that.

“You're not going to spend 15 practices on just one opponent,” Freeman said on Dec. 10. “It's no different than fall camp. You're spending a part of fall camp developing your roster. That's what we're doing now and part of that is giving those guys that have played a tremendous amount of reps this season time for their body to recover. 

“We’re keeping them integrated in what we're doing, but also being smart in terms of how many reps they are getting in practice.”

Blue Chip Linebackers

Linebacker Jaylen Sneed headlined the star-studded freshmen class as its lone five-star prospect. He enrolled early last January but weighed just 197 pounds at the time. Despite his electric athletic traits, he lacked the size and experience to crack the depth chart in spring or during fall camp, even if he anticipated seeing the field as a freshman.

“It was definitely tough, being an early enrollee,” Sneed said. “First coming in and being a highly recruited guy, I did think I was going to play a little bit toward the beginning of the season, but I didn’t. It just made me want to work harder and keep becoming better because I knew that one day, I'd be able to play on the field.”

Over the last 11 months, Sneed has studied the ins and outs of playing linebacker at the collegiate level while adding more than 20 pounds of muscle by working closely with Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis.

“He's just gotten me so much stronger,” Sneed said. “I've gotten way more powerful my punch, able to go off the edge if I want to, able to long-arm defenders when I need to. It just made me a lot more physical guy, because it makes me feel stronger and like I can do it.”

By next August, he hopes to be up to 230 pounds, but during the 2022 season it was still hard to find first- or second-team practice reps for Sneed. And if you're not proving it during practice at Notre Dame, you’re certainly not playing.

In 12 regular season games, he played 22 defensive snaps. However, bowl prep has given him ample time to showcase his abilities, which could pay dividends to the program sooner than later.

“I feel like I'm getting a lot more opportunities,” Sneed said. “I'm a lot more comfortable with the defense. I feel that coach [Al] Golden believes in me, he trusts in me and he always wanted me to be the player that I can be. It just took time.”

The Irish also brought in three other four-star linebackers in 2022: Joshua Burnham, Junior Tuihalamaka and Nolan Ziegler. 

Of the four, Tuihalamaka played the most with 63 snaps across nine games. For such a talented group to play so little, they could have sulked, but instead, the quartet bonded and continued to work, even with Tuihalamaka and Burnham also cross-training at vyper. 

“It's been fun,” Tuihalamake said. “There's times where we could be down, but we'll always pick each other up. We might have an off day and then we'll pick each other up from there. Just knowing that each one of us got our backs, regardless if we're not playing or if we're playing.”

A number of other freshman defensive players have also quietly impressed in reserve roles and on scout team. That includes defensive tackle Donovan Hinish. He was billed as a more athletic version of his brother, Kurt, who’s now playing a significant role for the Houston Texans as an undrafted rookie.

“He’s a younger guy,” Howard Cross III said of Donovan, “but he’s just as powerful as Kurt.”

Schrauth Desires to be Great

It’s near-impossible for a freshman offensive lineman to see the field unless they shock the team and become early starters like Joe Alt and Blake Fisher did in 2021. 

More than likely, they’ll put in their work behind the scenes while they prepare to continue Notre Dame’s tradition of stellar offensive line play down the road.

At 6-5 and 302 pounds, Billy Schrauth was a fan-favorite among five 2022 offensive lineman signees. An offseason injury set him back and he’s yet to play a snap, but he’s still managed to live up to the hype according to his teammates.

“He’s just strong, extremely fast and hands like I’ve never seen,” Cross said. “You ask anybody honestly, I’m pretty sure they’d tell you if you asked who you think on the offensive line is like going to be a good player out of this class, it’s Billy. It’s 100 percent Billy.”

Schrauth is a hardnosed athletic lineman who projects as a multi-year starter at offensive guard in the near future, but the reason he’s excelled early goes beyond his God-given abilities. 

“It’s his care factor,” Alt said. “That kid, you can just see it in him. He wants to be the best he can be and he works so incredibly hard to do it, and you can see that translate on the field. Each and every day he’s getting a little bit better, and I’m so happy for him because he cares so much about the game, cares about the unit, cares about doing his best.”

As the Irish approach the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30, Notre Dame will focus more and more on its game plan for South Carolina. Players like Sneed could see an increased role in the game, but even if they don’t, the extra reps they received in practice this month were invaluable. 

"This is a crucial development time for those young guys,” Freeman said. “That's why we're focusing on them right now. We’re slowly integrating into South Carolina and as you continue to get closer and closer to the game, it'll be all South Carolina and that's the focal point will be to win the game."

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