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Notre Dame Football

What we Know, What we Don't Know about Notre Dame this Spring

April 15, 2023

We’ve entered the home stretch with spring ball for Notre Dame. They capped off this week with a closed scrimmage that Marcus Freeman, Gerad Parker, and Al Golden talked about in separate press conferences today.

Notre Dame also held a second open practice earlier in the week that added some more information to what we learned from the first open practice on April 1st. We know a lot more about the 2023 Fighting Irish than we did a few weeks ago, but there are still plenty of things we don’t know and may not learn until this fall.

With only one week until the Blue-Gold game, here’s a list of things we know and still don’t know so far.

What we know

The defensive line rotation is taking shape

This was a pretty big area of uncertainty heading into the spring and as we get into the final week of practices, there’s a lot more clarity and there should be a lot more confidence in the group.

It starts with graduate transfer Javontae Jean-Baptiste looking like a legitimate candidate to be a starter at end with NaNa Osafo-Mensa. Aiden Gobaira has flashed as a pass rusher and if he continues to ascend, he could insert himself into the conversation.

Vyper looks promising with Jordan Botelho and Junior Tuihalamaka as the top two at the moment and Joshua Burnham has shown flashes as someone who could push to crack the rotation this fall.

Inside was where there was more worry. Howard Cross, Rylie Mills, and Gabriel Rubio were going to play this season. The defense desperately needed at least one defensive tackle to join them as a fixture in 2023 and all signs point to Jason Onye being that guy. He’s taken a massive step in the last year, both physically and technically. It’s a credit to Matt Balis and Al Washington for how much they’ve helped develop him, but even more of a credit to Onye for putting in the work.

Golden mentioned that Donovan Hinish is pushing as well. Even if he’s undersized and might always be, they’ll probably need at least one more body there at some point and he may be that. We’ll see where Tyson Ford is in the fall as well in addition to adding four freshmen to the defensive live competition.

Notre Dame needed to see progress from the young players on the defensive line and we’ve seen it and heard about this spring.

They have found some answers at safety

Xavier Watts and Ramon Henderson both look like they have taken a step to establish themselves and with Notre Dame knowing exactly what they are going to get from DJ Brown, that’s exactly what they needed at the position.

The depth behind them is more of a question, as Al Golden noted in his press conference today.

Early enrollee Benjamin Minich earned some praise at safety before he had a thumb injury that is forcing him to miss the remainder of spring. Notre Dame will have a healthy Adon Shuler and Thomas Harper this summer as well.

Harper is going to be important and the Irish should look to the transfer portal to address depth, but the top three was the bigger concern heading into spring and the Irish coaching staff has to feel pretty good about that top group.

There is more legitimate competition at linebacker

Golden confirmed today that Prince Kollie, Jaylen Sneed, and Nolan Ziegler are all guys who would play at linebacker in addition to JD Bertrand, Marist Liufau, and Jack Kiser. Bertrand and Liufau were standouts at the most recent open practice and both Golden and Freeman were very complimentary of Kiser as well.

Sneed has missed some time this spring with an injury and Marcus Freeman revealed that Kollie is currently in concussion protocol at the moment, but the fact that those two and Ziegler are viable options is what every Notre Dame fan who was frustrated with some of the linebacker play last season wanted to hear. Without seeing much of those Sneed and Kollie, it’s difficult to assess how close they are to making it a 1a or 1b situation with those veterans, but there is a long time between now and the Navy game.

Liufau has been working as an edge defender this spring and that’s one example of how we might see some of the pieces at linebacker shift around this year compared to last season.

The injury for Kollie has to be frustrating because he dealt with a concussion in 2022 as well. Though the reason for his recent absence from practice likely quiets the transfer talk with him, it’s still something to monitor when a player has had multiple concussions.

There is still more to figure out at linebacker before we get to games this fall, but the position feels a lot more open than it did last fall.

What we don’t know

That Sam Hartman is definitely QB1

I don’t think we can overreact to a couple of practices where Tyler Buchner has been better than Hartman. We knew Bucher was likely going to build off of what we saw from him the Gator Bowl and we also knew that it was going to be an adjustment for Hartman working with a new team and in a very different system than the one he played in at Wake Forest.

It’s definitely a positive that Hartman led the offense to a win in the scrimmage today with a rushing touchdown capping off the final drive. No one should question what he can do based on what he’s done during his college career.

It shouldn’t have been completely unexpected for Buchner to make this a real competition. Unless something changes drastically in the last week, Notre Dame will be entering the summer without naming a starting quarterback. That shouldn’t be a big deal and it’s a good thing in the long run for Buchner and the program.

This summer will be huge for both quarterbacks as they continue to compete in 7 on 7 and then in fall camp. Notre Dame fans will feel comforted if Hartman has a strong showing in the Blue-Gold game, but regardless if he does or doesn’t, it’s doubtful that Marcus Freeman will make a public quarterback decision any time soon.

Who the guards will be

This is where the scrimmage today and the spring game will matter with evaluating all of the candidates. Based on what Joe Rudolph said this week, there are plenty who are vying for both spots.

“(Pat Coogan) has done a really good job working at guard. I think him and Billy (Schrauth) have had a good battle over there, but I also know Tosh (Baker) is someone I know can move in and play guard in a heartbeat. I think playing guard kind of freed Pat up a little bit, I could see his footwork really blend. I think it’s a more natural position for him, but can absolutely play center and battle for us.”
“The right side, there’s been a really good battle. Andrew (Kristofic) has been playing really hard and detailing his work up and Rocco (Spindler) has had the best two days he’s had these last two days, so you’re really starting to see him come on. Yet I know, Aamil (Wagner) is a guy who might be one of those five best guys.”

They don’t need to find a starter for both spots by the conclusion of spring. They just need to have a good idea of who the top guys are so they can narrow it down going forward and make decisions on whether or not to shift some people to get the best five out there.

The worst case scenario is 2021. They needed answers and chose the wrong ones with Zeke Correll at guard and Cain Madden as a transfer. Madden was probably the best they could do and upgrade on what they had, but adding him to the roster didn’t solve their problems on the interior.

They found better options in 2022 with moving Jarrett Patterson to guard and Josh Lugg being the choice at right guard, though the start of the season was bumpy with Patterson’s injury and two relatively inexperienced tackles. The guard play was much better.

I think they can find answers on the roster and it’s encouraging that Rudolph has said that players have been getting better this spring and that we’ve been hearing the same thing.

What Notre Dame has at receiver

Virginia Tech transfer graduate transfer Kaleb Smith was expected to compete to start at the boundary or at the very least provide depth for Notre Dame. Things trended in the wrong direction for him from the start of spring and he ultimately made the decision to medically retire from football before the spring ball was even completed. Considering he was running with the twos and threes back on April 1st, it’s not like Chansi Stuckey and the staff haven’t been preparing for him not to be a factor.

What it does is put pressure on finding a permanent solution at the boundary because Smith’s decision seems to have more to do with what is going on with him than someone securing a starting spot over him.

We aren’t quite certain what to make of Lorenzo Styles this spring either as he has been working at receiver, but also took reps at defensive back in one on ones the other day. Marcus Freeman mentioned that they are experimenting with him on defense and that he’ll get more reps there this coming week. Also, the fact that Gerad Parker didn’t mention Styles when talking about the veterans returning might not mean much, but it doesn’t mean nothing.

If that’s step one in an eventual move to defense, it would leave Deion Colzie, Jayden Thomas, Tobias Merriweather, Chris Tyree, Jaden Greathouse, Rico Flores, Matt Salerno, Braylon James, and the younger Kaleb Smith as the only scholarship receivers this fall. Nine isn’t enough, but that might be what they have to roll with in 2023. This means they probably have to look at the portal again over these next few weeks (it opens up this Saturday). As we saw with Smith, there are no guarantees with those players even if they had Power 5 production. Depth should be the goal and if they can get more than that, it would be gravy.

There hasn’t been enough evidence with Colzie to say he has locked down a starting spot. We have heard good things about Merriweather this spring and he has been lining up to the field. Thomas has worked in the slot like he did much of last year, but we’ll see if he makes a move to boundary as the Irish appear to have some options in the slot with Tyree, Greathouse, and Flores all getting in some work there. 

Freeman mentioned that Tyree had an explosive play in the final drive of the scrimmage that eventually led to the winning score. 

The one to watch out for is James, who appeared to be getting more consistent reps with twos in the open practices the media has been allowed to attend. We’ll see if the highest rated receiver prospect in the class can put himself in a position to contribute as a freshman. The opportunity looks like it will be there.

There’s talent, but it’s mostly unproven and so far with one week to go in spring, we don’t have enough answers at receiver.

What to expect from Jaylen Sneed

Unfortunately Sneed was not fully available for both of the open practices so the only time we might get to see him compete live is in the Blue-Gold game. He was right near the top of the list of players Notre Dame fans wanted to see the most and we had heard that prior to being injured, there was some very positive buzz about his play.

Where is his fit on the defense this fall and will he be in a position to start as a Rover and in sub-packages? If he’s the number one Rover, will that open things up for Notre Dame to play with three linebackers more than they did last season? Some of that will be match up specific, but Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was the type of player where the coaching staff didn’t worry about the match up. We’ll see if Sneed can be that type of player for the Irish.

Next Saturday we’ll get another opportunity to view this team and there are bound to be changes on the roster with players either leaving or arriving via the transfer portal. The important thing for the 2023 Fighting Irish is that they come out of this spring closer to the answers they need to have for the fall and we’ll reassess in a week to see if they have done that.

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