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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame’s portal needs: Which positions might Marcus Freeman bolster with transfers?

November 29, 2023
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Welp, it’s about that time again. 

Notre Dame is about to hit the market for a transfer portal quarterback. 

No, it’s not three-star Anthony Rezac (despite what certain fan accounts might have thought). He pledged to the Irish on Tuesday but as a preferred walk-on. 

Coach Marcus Freeman decided more than a month ago that it’s far too risky to roll the dice with only three scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. 

“It isn't that I don't have a belief in the guys we have here,” Freeman said. “I have a strong belief in Steve (Angeli) and Kenny (Minchey). Then, obviously, we'll have somebody coming in, but it's more so if somebody decides to transfer, we have to make sure that we have at least three scholarship quarterbacks left.”

Purchasing such an insurance policy represents a double-edged sword. The pursuit and acquisition of Sam Hartman led to the exit of Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner.

While Freeman may believe that Angeli and Minchey can one day lead the program, he certainly is ready to bet on that happening in 2024. 

Otherwise, they’d be targeting versions of Ohio State’s Tristan Gebbia, an Oregon State transfer who went to Columbus expecting to be a third or fourth-stringer.

“We want Ohio State to be the star,” Gebbia said in August. “Not us. So, whatever role they have for me, let’s go do it.”

Once again, the staff seems to be appraising the talent and system fit of quarterbacks with NFL futures, whether they’ve entered the portal or not. 

The fall transfer period begins on Monday, Dec. 4, and runs through Jan. 2, 2024. That’s significantly shorter than the six-week window football players had to transfer this time last year. 

Thus, Notre Dame must be ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. 

“You're always evaluating the top quarterbacks in the country,” Freeman said. “If you wait until every quarterback enters the portal to say, 'Okay, let's evaluate them,' it's going to be too late.”

Right now, there’s significant smoke that Notre Dame will land Duke signal-caller Riley Leonard, who entered the portal on Wednesday afternoon. 

The Irish added seven scholarship players via the portal last year. It’s safe to expect them to aim for at least that same number over the next six months. 

So, what other positions must Notre Dame do their due diligence on?

A Wide Receiver (Maybe Two?)

The loss of Chris Tyree hurts, especially after Freeman lobbied for his return last month. He also led the team with 484 receiving yards in his first season at wideout. 

Still, the 5-foot-9 speedster is best suited for the slot, and that’s the one receiver position where Notre Dame has plenty of depth. It’s also the best spot for Jayden Thomas, Jaden Greathouse and Jordan Faison. 

I recently wrote that Hartman desperately needed a go-to receiver — someone who could consistently win one-on-one matchups in the boundary and come down with contested catches. He had that in abundance at Wake Forest, but through 12 games, the Irish have only snagged 25 contested catches — less than half of what the Demon Deacons produced in 2021 and 2022. 

Typically, the Notre Dame offense features a matchup nightmare in the boundary, plus a tight end who’s an over-the-middle threat. The Irish were missing both once Mitchell Evans went down.

The Irish will need a go-to receiver next year, no matter who’s under center.

Of course, the Irish thought they added such a player last winter by signing Virginia Tech’s Kaleb Smith, who snagged nine contested catches in 2022. Only, he couldn’t crack the two-deep during spring ball and medically retired prior to the Blue-Gold Game. 

Along with the lack of returning production, the staff might look to add up to two bigger boundary receivers, depending on who becomes available.

Defensive End

Fifth-year defensive ends Javontae Jean-Baptiste and NaNa Osafo-Mensah played a combined 748 snaps this fall. With Osafo-Mensah in the portal, neither will be back in 2024, which means a lot of experience and production will head out the door. 

Only three other edge defenders played more than 20 snaps this fall: Jordan Botelho (406), Josh Burnham (162) and Junior Tuihalamaka (157).

This fall, all three primarily lined up at Vyper, and Botelho and Tuihalamaka might have a hard time moving to the field, given that they’re 6-2 or shorter. 

On the other hand, Burnham stands at just under 6-4. He’s listed at 248 pounds but shouldn’t have an issue packing on the requisite lean muscle mass to set the edge. 

“Have you stood next to him?” defensive coordinator Al Golden said of Burnham in September. “I mean, he would have to diet for four years (to stay at linebacker). He’s an incredible specimen. He’s long and takes care of his body. 

“He’s 250 — without even trying — as a redshirt freshman. He’s got a lot of years in front of him. There’s no doubt he’s going to settle into that 260-265 range. He’s a big man, can move well and is smart.”

Perhaps Burham will be ready to start after another offseason, but they’ll still need a backup to play 250+ snaps like Osafo-Mensah did this fall. 

The need at defensive end doubles if Botelho transfers or declares for the draft.  He elected to skip senior day honors, and it seems Notre Dame would welcome him back. 

“He's made a great progression,” Golden recently said of Botelho. “He's holding more weight now, and he loves the game. He loves to compete. So yeah, I think there's a lot of things he can do for us.” 

Right now, it's safe to assume the Fighting Irish target at least one defensive end — someone with size and length. 

ISD’s Matt Freeman has the latest scoop on a defensive end target Notre Dame is already evaluating.

Kicker

Kicker Spencer Shrader is one of seven players on the roster to exhaust eligibility come January, so, like it or not, he’s gone. 

Plus, he’s the sixth-best kicking prospect ahead of the 2024 NFL Draft, per ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr.

Shrader’s leg will be difficult to replace. He made four out of six attempts from over 50 yards, which includes setting a new school record with a 54-yard make — a feat he accomplished twice this fall. 

Still, Notre Dame can likely find someone who can hit at least 70% of field goal attempts, and special teams coordinator Marty Biagi recently indicated that they’ll look to the portal for Shrader’s replacement.

“It's very similar, I would say, to the quarterback situation,” special teams coordinator Marty Biagi said. “You're always going to feel a little bit better if you have something to prove.”

That’s because it’s nearly impossible to identify which high school kickers will be ready to perform immediately on the college stage. Evaluators can only glean so much from grainy Hudl highlights and in-person camps. 

“The hardest part for us is trying to go see kickers play in their element in high school,” Biagi said. “It's just really hard to grasp that. Anybody can come and in a one-day camp really perform, but you're trying to say, 'OK, is this who I'm really putting my eggs in a basket for?'”

So, fans should anticipate Notre Dame turning to the portal for a kicker to compete with underclassmen walk-ons Marcello Diomede and Zac Yoakam, who kicked off throughout 2022.

Safety

Sixth-year senior DJ Brown will finish up his collegiate career with the bowl game. He played the second most snaps (567) among safeties this season, behind only Xavier Watts (675).

Senior Ramon Henderson should be back after playing 304 snaps this fall and can take most of Brown’s reps. 

Still, the Irish need a reliable third safety to provide the personnel flexibility Freeman desires. 

In the spring, Antonio Carter II transferred from Rhode Island to Notre Dame from Rhode. He played 72 snaps throughout eight games this fall and has one year of eligibility remaining. 

Still, he’s relatively new to the position after moving from cornerback to safety upon arriving in South Bend. All the other safeties on the roster in 2024 will be underclassmen, so the Irish should look for another veteran presence to add to the room. 

Watts also skipped senior day festivities, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll return.  

“I don’t know what he’s going to do in his future,” Freeman said of Watts following senior day. “I’m sure that’s what this question is pertaining to. I don’t know. He hasn’t made a decision, but he didn’t want to be considered a senior.”

If the Thrope Award finalist goes to the NFL, then Notre Dame’s need for the position will increase exponentially.

Either way, it’s wise to bet that the Irish will look to add at least one game-ready safety to the roster this offseason. 

Will He Stay or Will He Go?

Ultimately, the only positions Notre Dame will almost certainly pass on are tight end, running back, punter and cornerback.

The Irish could also need help at four positions depending on how upcoming decisions shake out: offensive tackle, linebacker, and defensive tackle and nickel.

The program’s need at offensive tackle and interior defensive line depends on the upcoming decisions of Blake Fisher and Howard Cross III (my best guess is that both Joe Alt and Rylie Mills declare for the NFL Draft).

Tosh Baker and Aamil Wagner could be solid offensive tackles next season, but the former has just three starts under his belt and the latter has only played 46 snaps in his career. So, if Fisher dips out, it’ll serve Notre Dame well to add someone with playing experience. 

Jason Onye and Gabriel Rubio are in a similar boat — quality players who’ve yet to prove they can be game wreckers on a consistent basis. Without Cross III, Freeman might want to acquire a proven defender up the middle. 

Notre Dame could look for a veteran presence at linebacker if Jack Kiser, JD Bertrand and Marist Lifau all move on. If at least one comes back — the best bet is Kiser — then the Irish will likely stand pat with the linebackers already on the roster. 

Lastly, does defensive back Clarence Lewis return for a sixth season? He played 214 snaps this fall, with 176 coming in the slot. Perhaps, he and a few of Notre Dame’s young cornerbacks can fill the void left by Thomas Harper exhausting his eligibility. 

Either way, expect players to announce their next moves in the immediate future.

“We got back probably about six in the morning on Sunday, and I gave the coaches and players off, and we'll meet as an entire team today at 2:40 (p.m. ET),” Freeman said on Monday. “So, part of the discussions I had with the coaching staff this morning was we do have to have those conversations with the guys in our room about a bowl game, about their future here, if they plan on coming back. 

“Do they plan on transferring, do they plan on leaving? That's a part of college football, and we have to have those conversations.”

 
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