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Notre Dame Football

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

November 9, 2023
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Click here to read Part I of this story previewing Notre Dame’s post-2023 roster management decisions using famous movie quotes.

“I’m not Leaving!”

In The Wolf of Wallstreet, Jordan Belfort (another Leonardo DiCaprio role) is in the process of informing employees at his brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont that he’s accepting a plea deal that would bar him from working in the industry and at his own company.

Before he makes an official declaration, he looks over a room of sad faces and experiences a change of heart mid-speech. 

“You know what, I’m not leaving,” he whispers into the microphone before saying it louder and louder. “I’m not leaving. I’m not $#@*^!# leaving!”

I understand if Notre Dame fans have soured on this clip after a certain OC, who is to remain nameless, used it to announce that he’d stay in South Bend, only to depart the following offseason with a lateral move (at least in terms of his title/responsibilities).

Still, this is the mentality Notre Dame needs a handful of its seniors to have. Essentially, it comes down to whether they have enough love and devotion to the university and to Freeman’s vision that they return for one more season, ignoring the transfer portal and delaying a shot at the NFL and other professional opportunities. 

Notre Dame signed 18 players in the 2020 recruiting cycle, 10 of whom are on the current roster:

WR Chris Tyree (1)

S Xavier Watts (2)

S Ramon Henderson (1)

DL Rylie Mills (1)

DB Clarence Lewis (1)

TE Kevin Bauman (2)

DE Jordan Botelho (1)

OL Tosh Baker (1)

OL Michael Carmody (1)

- DT Aidan Keanaaina (2)

*Parenthetical figures denote a player’s remaining eligibility beyond 2023.

Each senior can return for at least one more season since all received a redshirt for their freshmen campaigns in 2020. 

I assume that the staff prefers for at least five of them to reprise DiCaprio’s role as Jordan Belfort: Watts, Mills, Tyree, Botelho and Henderson. 

The first two may be the toughest to sell. 

Kiper ranks Watts as the seventh-best safety ahead of the 2024 draft. Only safety isn’t a premium position in today’s NFL.

In the spring, 15 of 20 drafted safeties went on Day 3, and none were taken in the first round

Watts is still relatively inexperienced at the position and is in the midst of his first season as a full-time starter. Could he catapult himself to the first or second round by returning to Notre Dame for one more season?

In reality, such a perspective might be too greedy, especially since it’ll be nearly impossible to replicate his FBS-leading seven-interception season. Former Irish safety Brandon Joseph also led the NCAA in picks, recording six in nine games at Northwestern in 2020. 

A few analysts believed Joseph was a potential first-round pick, but he played 22 games over the next two seasons, recording four interceptions and going undrafted. 

Mills doesn’t have Watts’ draft buzz, but he’ll test well if he gets invited to the NFL Combine. Plus, he graduated from Notre Dame in three years so he could be less interested in another year as a graduate student. 

Still, he’s at least considering the possibility. 

“I think that's just gonna be at the end of the year,” Mills said prior to the USC game. “I'll definitely (talk with) my family and my coaches, and once I have a better sense of where the season's going, where things are at. The choice will happen.”

It’s also clear Tyree is at the top of Notre Dame’s list of hopeful returnees.

Last Monday, Freeman made a public pitch for senior Chris Tyree to return for a fifth season after the wide receiver recorded 147 all-purpose yards in a 58-7 win over Pitt, which included an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown.

“He’s a guy who can move positions, have setbacks, and get better because of it,” Freeman said. “I think he’s still getting better. He’s a guy I hope he comes back for another year. He’s just starting to scratch the surface of how good he can be as a wide receiver for our program and a punt returner.” 

In reality, Notre Dame needs the 5-foot-9 speedster back. He leads the team with 23 catches for 446 yards (19.4 yards per reception) and three touchdowns in his first season playing the position after moving from running back in the offseason.

Botelho leads the team with 3.0 sacks, so I’d have to assume he’d be welcomed back, but will he want to return? He’s experienced a tumultuous four years in South Bend, so maybe he’d prefer a change of scenery or is ready to take his shot at the NFL. I’m not sure he’d be drafted, but he has the talent and special teams acumen to fight his way onto a roster. 

Henderson is a vital part of Notre Dame’s defense, playing 254 snaps this season, but he’s yet to become a full-time starter behind Watts and veteran DJ Brown. 

With one or both likely gone, Henderson has an excellent opportunity to start in 2024 and lead a safety room mostly composed of underclassmen. 

Based on my outside perspective, it’ll benefit Baker to at least stick around through the spring, evaluate how likely he is to win one of the first-team offensive tackle spots and then decide whether he should pull a Belfort. 

As of now, the only players it’d be surprising to see return are Carmody and Bauman. Both of their careers have been limited due to injury, which could lead to them hanging up their cleats for good.

A year ago, Keanaaina appeared to be in a similar camp. He’s only played 24 snaps this season as the teams fifth defensive tackle, so he may not be likely to stay, but behind the scenes, the 309-pound nose guard has impressed his teammates.

“Aidan just can’t be moved,” Cross III said recently. “I’d probably say he’s like another version of Kurt [Hinish], but probably better because Kurt doesn’t move at all. Even in the league now, he doesn’t move, and Aidan doesn’t move either. He’s actually pretty good on pass rush, too.”

“Show me the money!”

I don’t need to describe this last scene from the 1996 film Jerry Maguire or predict how Notre Dame would spoof it, because Freeman and Fighting Irish Media already parodied it to announce their new green jerseys for this year's Ohio State game.

Fittingly, Audric Estimé plays a “hilariously jacked” version of wide receiver Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.), while Freeman assumes the role of Jerry Maguire, a recently fired sports agent frantically calling each of his clients with the hope of retaining them. 

In just a few months, Estimé probably won’t be screaming for a jersey.  He’ll be in the same position as Tidwell, waiting to see which NFL team will “show him the money.”

ESPN’s trio of Draft Analysts — Mel Kiper Jr., Matt Miller and Jordan Reid — unanimously ranked Estimé as one of the top two running back prospects ahead of the 2024 NFL Draft.

Of course, these are the opinions of media personalities (albeit with well-connected NFL sources), and not every draft analyst agrees. Pro Football Focus views Notre Dame’s hurdling “baby bus” as the 11th-best halfback prospect despite his unique size and elite 91.5 PFF grade.

So, there’s always a chance he pulls a Blake Corum. The Michigan senior returned for his senior season and is now leading the FBS with 16 rushing touchdowns after scoring 18 last fall. It doesn’t appear he’s hurt his draft status, even with the extra wear and tear he’s endured in college. 

Either way, Estimé isn’t the only player on the roster with the chance of leaving early. 

There are 13 remaining players from the 2021 recruiting class:

- RB Audric Estimé

- OL Joe Alt

- OL Blake Fisher

- OL Rocco Spindler

- OL Pat Coogan

- TE Mitchell Evans

- TE Davis Sherwood

- WR Jayden Thomas

- WR Deion Colzie

- DL Jason Onye

- DL Gabriel Rubio

- DB Chance Tucker

- DB Ryan Barnes

- LB Kahanu Kia

Alt is the only other junior likely to turn pro following the season.

Most project him to be a consensus top-10 overall pick with the chance to protect a franchise quarterback’s blindside for the next decade.

That still leaves 10 seniors (I’m not counting Kia here since he’ll technically be a sophomore from an eligibility and academic perspective).

Evans is rated as Kiper’s sixth-best tight end prospect, but a mid-season ACL tear likely made his decision for him. Returning for one more season seems to be in his best interest.

Maybe Fisher would’ve gone pro with a breakout junior season, but he’s given up 15 QB pressures and three sacks and earned four holding penalties this season. So, I assume he’ll be back for his senior season and possibly transition to left tackle. 

Barnes and Tucker are the only two juniors who’ve yet to earn a significant role, and both are behind younger players on the depth chart. 

Perhaps one of them could be interested in exploring playing opportunities with other teams, but only if they’ve completed the necessary number of credits to earn their degrees.

My best guess is that the bulk of the team’s departures come from the current sophomore class, at least based on recent history. Thus far, the only losses from the 2022 class are OL Joey Tanona, who medically retired due to an off-the-field incident, and DB Jayden Bellamy.

This time last year, 24 of the 27 players from the class of 2021 were still on the roster. Over the course of the next eight months, that number dwindled to the remaining 13. 

Maybe a few promising sophomores will be enticed if shown the almighty dollar. That is, what if a rival program uses back channels to offer one of Notre Dame’s blue-chip backups a six-figure NIL deal? Would he take it? Is Notre Dame in the position to match?

Who knows. It’d be irresponsible for me to speculate on which underclassmen will transfer and which will stay. I’ve already missed on four of my weekly game predictions this season, so clearly, I’m not great at forecasting what a bunch of players in their early 20s will do. 

My only prognostication is that Notre Dame’s roster will be within the 85-scholarship limit by the start of the 2024 season, but only after fans endure the blissful highs and nauseating drops while following what is sure to be a rollercoaster of an offseason for the Irish (Of course, that means staying up to date via the beat’s most in-the-know insider, Matt Freeman).

So buckle up. If you need a break, watch one of your favorite movies; I just hope I didn’t ruin any of the movie scenes discussed in this article by making them synonymous with Notre Dame’s upcoming offseason.

 
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