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Notre Dame Football

Part I: Which Members of Notre Dame's Current Cast Will Return for 2024 Sequel?

November 8, 2023

A disheveled version of once-upon-a-time A-list actor Vince Vaughn joined the set of ESPN’s College Game Day on the afternoon of Saturday, Sept. 23., donning a Notre Dame letterman jacket.

The star of iconic films like Swingers, Old School, Dodgeball, Wedding Crashers and Into the Wild (a personal favorite, so it makes the cut over Anchorman—sorry, Ron Burgundy stans) was that week’s celebrity guest picker.

Vaughn also wore an identical jacket in the 1993 biopic Rudy, a film in which he played an underachieving tailback, Jamie O'Hara (Who I assume was fictional? At least I can’t find any record of this guy playing football at Notre Dame. Either way, I think the coaching staff is too hard on O’Hara. It was clearly a poor player eval to assume a 6-foot-5 running back could succeed.).

Despite familial connections to Ohio — including a sister born in Columbus — Vaughn was invited on GameDay for two reasons: 

1) Relive the greatest athletic achievement of his life (see clip).

2) Pick the No. 9 Fighting Irish to upset the No. 6 Buckeyes.

“I played for Notre Dame; I threw a pass (in a game),” Vaughn said. “If I had half the heart of Rudy, I would have been All-American instead of picking games up here with you guys. Rule No. 76. play like a champion. The Irish will prevail today.”

Now, this is the point in the article where I want to point out that Rudy is essentially a vanity project based on an “inconsequential half minute” of football played by a man later charged with stock fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission for his role in a pump-and-dump scheme.

But I know my audience, so I won’t go there. 

Besides, Notre Dame is a cultural icon in and of itself, with plenty of references and connections to the glitz and glam of Tinseltown beyond Rudy. 

That includes the 1940 film Knute Rockne, All American, famous alums like Regis Philbin and fans like Latetare Medal recipient and award-winning actor Martin Sheen, who likely violated the old SAG-AFTRA agreement with the outlandish number of times he’s referenced Notre Dame on Screen.

Hell, let’s not forget that George Wendt — Norm from Cheers — flunked out of Notre Dame in the 70s. 

Really, there’s little reason to wonder why the program loves to spoof Hollywood blockbusters. 

Twice, coach Marcus Freeman has parodied popular scenes to announce special edition jerseys ahead of the upcoming season.

Here’s the 2022 parody of The Hangover, starring Freeman, Michael Mayer and Isaiah Foskey and with cameos by Mike Golic and Mike Golic Jr:

So, to lighten the mood for Irish fans already downtrodden from the 31-23 loss to Clemson, let’s plan the team’s next performances. 

I’ll preview what is sure to be a tumultuous offseason full of difficult roster management decisions by picking which famous moments in cinema each current class should parody. 

Sure, it may feel as if it’s too early to ponder the 2024 roster, but doing so is Freeman's unfortunate reality thanks to the volatility of modern college football. 

Notre Dame will undoubtedly encounter painstaking hurdles as it navigates the 85 scholarship limit. So, the coaching staff has already started addressing the program’s future this week.

“We don’t have daily conversations about it because I want them to focus on performing and getting the performance you want on Saturday,” Freeman said last week. “As you go into the second bye week, you’re probably going to have more conversations at the end of the season.” 

“Never let go.”

Those are the last words Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) said in the 1997 box-office smash hit Titanic. Moments later, Rose (Kate Winslet) released his hand and watched the supposed love of her life (who is probably better described as a weekend fling or a one-night stand) sink to the bottom of the North Atlantic.

Of course, he wasn’t asking her to hold onto him for dear life (an actual reasonable request given that he waded in freezing water while she laid on a door!). Jack demanded she never let go of a promise to survive and lead a long and fulfilling life no matter how hopeless she felt.

That’s effectively the message those who exhaust eligibility must share with the rest of the roster following last weekend’s loss to Clemson. 

Sure, optimistic Irish fans can dive deep, searching for a glimmer of hope that their team can somehow earn a major bowl invite, but like the Titanic, all that’s left of a once-promising season is its deteriorating wreckage (i.e., a 7-3 record).

Plus, it’d be incredible cinema to view Michael Vinson release Sam Hartman’s hand and view the signal-caller and his well-groomed hair drift into the abyss.

Anyway, like it or not, Notre Dame is building for a future that cannot include the following seven players:

- QB Sam Hartman

- WR Matt Salerno

- S DJ Brown

- DE Javontae Jean-Baptiste

- DB Thomas Harper

- LS Michael Vinson

- K Spencer Shrader

For those of you who don’t feel like doing the math, of the 84 current scholarship players, 77 meet the qualifications for another college football next fall, which includes 20 seniors/graduate students. 

That number climbs to 79 if 2021 linebacker/edge Kahanu Kia re-enrolls after completing his two-year mission and walk-on freshman safety Luke Talich earns a scholarship. 

The latter scenario seems more and more likely. The special teams standout was one of three players singled out by defensive coordinator Al Golden as someone who emerged during the first bye week.

The good news? There’s the potential for Notre Dame to return one of the most experienced rosters in college football next season. 

Conversely, the Irish will need far more than seven roster spots to make room for offseason additions. 

There are 23 current commits in the 2024 recruiting class. There’s always a chance that number increases as the staff works diligently to flip high-potential prospects behind the scenes.

It’s also highly likely they’ll add a handful of transfers, including a graduate quarterback.

“That’s something we said we’ll truly discuss the second bye week on what is going to be a decision moving forward,” Freeman said two weeks ago. “I feel really good about the future of our program at the quarterback position with the guys coming in and the guys we have here.

“You look at numbers too. Most rosters have four quarterbacks on scholarship, which we lost when Tyler (Buchner) left. We’ve been in discussions about what we want to do. Do you want to take another quarterback, or do you not?”

The Irish can’t target transfer portal talent at the same rate Rose pursues potential husbands (Not that there’s anything wrong with revolting against the oppressive societal expectations of her time, but I can’t help but blame her for Jack’s death).

Still, if they added seven players via the transfer portal for the second year in a row, 30 spots must open up.

“A lot of people go to college for (six or) seven years.”

The current length of college football careers reminds me of a quote from one of my most rewatched childhood movies, Tommy Boy.

Early in the film, immature-beyond-his-years protagonist Tommy Callahan (played by everyone’s favorite affable Catholic and physical comedian Catholic Chris Farley. R.I.P.) returns to his hometown of Sandusky, Ohio, to assume his responsibility as the heir to an auto-parts tycoon after finally graduating from college.

Insecure know-it-all and Callahan Auto Parts employee Richard Hayden (played by Farley’s longtime friend and fellow Saturday Night Live alum David Spade) dutifully picks up a Tommy from the airport, which leads to this classic exchange of one-liners. 

“Did you hear I finally graduated?” Tommy said, greeting Richard. 

“Yeah, and just a shade under a decade, too,” Richard said. “All right.”

“You know, a lot of people go to college for seven years.”

“I know, they're called doctors.”

For decades, Richard’s rebuttal has served as the quintessential dig used by frat bros to belittle anyone who took more than four or five years to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Due to the COVID exemption, which made it so the 2020 season didn’t count toward anyone’s eligibility, I also see it as an endearing proxy for college football’s journeymen. 

Recent Notre Dame football players like Shaun Crawford, Josh Lugg, Avery Davis and Sam Hartman took advantage of the extra year to play a sixth season in South Bend. 

A few join this not-so-exclusive club and embark on a “Tommy Boy Year” (I know, I know, Tommy spent seven years in college, but unless Utah QB Cameron Rising transfers to Notre Dame for his seventh year, I think a criterion of six years suffices.).

Overall, 10 fifth-years possess another year of eligibility:

- DT Howard Cross III

- CB Cam Hart

- LB Jack Kiser

- LB JD Bertrand 

- LB Marist Liufau

- DE NaNa Osafo-Mensah

- OL Zeke Correll

- OL Andrew Kristofic

- RB Devyn Ford

- S Antonio Carter II

Each earned back-to-back redshirt seasons by playing four games or fewer as a freshman in 2019 and receiving the COVID exemption the following year. 

Carter II is the only graduate player with little reason to question if he’ll return. He transferred from Rhode Island to Notre Dame this summer with the expectation he’d have two seasons to develop in South Bend.

By now, the rest are likely aware of whether they’re welcome back. 

“They know that they have decisions to make to be fair to themselves if they plan on moving forward,” Freeman said, “or to come back and to be fair to us in how we replace that roster spot.”

My best guess is that at least four of the above players will suit up for the Irish in 2024: Carter II, Osafo-Mensah, an offensive lineman and a linebacker. 

Osafo-Mensah has put together a quality year with 18 tackles, 3.5 TFLs and two sacks on just 212 snaps. He’s also a strong run defender with a nose for setting the edge. 

The graduate student is considering a sixth season, seeking guidance from his parents and discerning it through prayer. 

“I love this team, and I love my guys here,” Osafo-Mensah said. “And I really love college football. I think it would be a great opportunity for me to continue to be a leader.”

Still, his decision might come down to whether it's practical. 

“If I can really go back and get another master's degree, that would be a really cool thing because,” he said, “being at a great institution like this, I want to take advantage of the education. Why take silly classes and stick to football when I can seek out a great degree again?” 

There are currently 15 scholarship offensive linemen on the roster and four high school seniors set to join the room in the next eight months. 

Correll (the odds-on favorite to play Tommy. I’ll let y’all cast Richard.) has underwhelmed at times this season. Officials flagged him for one penalty in 2022, but he’s already earned five through 10 games this fall, including three false starts at Duke. 

Still, he’s one of the nation’s better pass-blocking centers and has yet to allow a sack this season. I can’t see Notre Dame turning him away with a guaranteed new starter under center next fall. 

It only makes sense to bring back Kristofic if Correll departs and the coaching staff believes he’s the frontrunner to win the first-string center job. It’s unclear how realistic such a scenario is, but Kristofic appears to have supplanted sophomore Ashton Craig as the team’s second-team center. He replaced 

Either way, there’s little reason to bring Kristofic back to compete at guard after a pair of juniors won those jobs in fall camp. 

Lastly, it isn’t feasible for the trio of Bertrand, Kiser and Liufau to return next fall, even though all three are multi-year starters. If they did, Notre Dame would have 11 linebackers on its 2024 roster.

That figure ignores the possible addition of Kia and the potential that incoming safety Kennedy Urlacher, the son of former All-Pro linebacker and NFL Defensive Player of the Year Brian Urlacher, moves to linebacker in the near future.

That’d be an overcrowded room, to say the least.

At the same time, it’d serve the defense well if at least one of the fifth-year linebackers returned. There isn’t a single junior or senior linebacker on the roster. 

Right now, sophomore Jaylen Sneed is by far the most experienced of the underclassmen, with 192 career snaps, but he’s still primarily used as a third-down pass rusher. Freshman Drayk Brown is next with 17 snaps.

Ford has seven offensive touches for 36 yards on the season. While he was a worthy addition to the room, it’ll be difficult to bring him back, given the numbers crunch. 

It’d be foolish for Hart to forego the NFL once again. 

Hart may lack the numbers of other defensive backs, with 15 tackles and three pass deflections on the season, but scouts also see that opposing quarterbacks avoid throwing in his direction. On 23 targets this season, he’s given up just 11 receptions for 123 yards (5.4 yards per target) and a 64.2 NFL passer rating.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr ranks him as the 10th best cornerback prospect, putting him in a strong position to get selected early in the 2024 NFL Draft, earn a roster spot and receive a four-year contract worth north of $5 million. 

For some perspective, NFL general managers picked 12 cornerbacks by the end of the third round in 2023.

Similarly, Kiper rates Cross III No. 10 on his defensive tackle board. The highly productive nose guard is second on the team in tackles with 54 (an incredible feat for a defensive tackle) to go along with 5.5 TFLs, a sack, two pass deflections and a pair of forced fumbles. 

The biggest difference between the two is their measurables. The 6-2 1/2, 204-pound Hart made back-to-back top-40 appearances in Bruce Feldman’s annual college football Freaks List.

“This offseason, the Baltimore native broad-jumped 11-2, vertical-jumped 38 inches and hit 23.01 MPH on the GPS — a big improvement from the 21.7 he was at last year,” Feldman wrote on Hart in August. “In addition, he squatted 505 pounds and did 40 pull-ups.”

At 6-foot-1 and 288 pounds, Cross III lacks the size and weight of the prototypical NFL nose guard, which usually weighs 325 to 350 pounds.

Thus, it’s easy to see Hart’s draft stock rising at the NFL Combine and Cross III’s fall, even if the latter is a better bet to sustain a long career in professional football. Let’s not forget his father played 13 seasons for the New York Giants. 

Still, Cross will have two enticing choices to pick from. Does he stay at Notre Dame for a Tommy Boy Year or declare for the draft and hope to ink his “Herbie Hancock” with an NFL franchise? 

Want to read more? Click here for Part II.

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