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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame, Oregon State prep for Sun Bowl with rosters, coaching staffs in flux

December 5, 2023
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Coach Marcus Freeman wanted to keep the loud part quiet during Monday’s press conference organized by the Sun Bowl committee. 

Only, he at least left the door open for the possibility that quarterback Sam Hartman won’t suit up for the 15th-ranked Fighting Irish one last time when they take on No. 22 Oregon State in El Paso, Texas, on Dec. 29.

Freeman repeated a previous answer when asked if the sixth-year signal-caller would play in the bowl game.

“As I said, I’m going to let the guys that are not playing make their announcements,” Freeman said.

It’s hard to miss the change in his tune. 

Last week, Freeman expressed optimism that the man who started under center all season would finish the year. 

“We'll have to have a meeting to make sure it's still there,” Freeman said last Monday. “But again, that's what these conversations are for. Unless I hear otherwise through a conversation, my plan is for Sam Hartman to be our quarterback for the bowl game.”

Now, Hartman may intend to play, and Freeman didn’t want to answer the question during the Sun Bowl presser because it’d open the door for the media to ask about other individuals. 

Of course, a few minutes later, he willingly offered that he expects wide receivers Deion Colzie and KK Smith to be available for the game.  

Decimated Two-Deep

Either way, it’s safe to expect more in-season roster turnover in the coming day, especially for those with NFL aspirations opting out of the third-tier bowl game. 

“I know, and we know who's playing and who's going to opt out,” Freeman said. “We're moving forward with the guys that we have. But I want to make sure we let those guys that are not going to player make their announcements in the next few days, and I want to give them the opportunity to do that.”

Those announcements will only add to the in-season roster losses. Thus far, 12 players have entered the transfer portal (At least at the time of publication. Keep refreshing Matt Freeman’s Live ISD Transfer Portal Tracker to stay up to date and sign up for a premium membership here).

On Tuesday, linebacker Marist Lifau became the first to declare for the 2024 NFL Draft and opt out of the Sun Bowl. 

Thus, Notre Dame will be without at least 10 players from its two-deep in the regular season finale at Stanford, which includes six starters.

Linebackers like Jaylen Sneed and Drayk Bowen should directly benefit from Liufau’s early departure, as will other underclassmen who suddenly garner significant playing in the Sun Bowl.

“It's a great opportunity for some guys that maybe don't have as much experience to really show how talented they are, right?” Freeman said. “How they can help your football team? So, I really look at it as a great opportunity for the core nucleus of our team as we continue to move forward into next year to, one, improve but, two, showcase our ability in the Sun Bowl versus a great opponent.”

Offensive coordinator Gerad Parker has to pull double duty. He’ll coach the tight ends and wide receivers at least until coach Mike Brown is officially hired (which in all likelihood, could take until after the Sun Bowl).

Oregon State’s “Skeleton Crew”

Notre Dame’s late-season staff turnover hardly compares to the chaos ensuing in Corvallis, Ore.

The staff has been in flux since former coach Jonathan Smith accepted the same gig at Michigan State on Nov. 25. The administration responded by quickly promoting defensive coordinator Trent Bray, who won’t coach the team again until after the bowl game. 

"I'm fired up about you guys and the opportunity in the bowl game,” Bray said. “Wish I could be there with you, but I'll be around at practice. You're in great hands, and I look forward to watching you guys go out there."

Oregon State then named wide receivers coach/passing game coordinator Kefense Hynson the interim head coach for the Sun Bowl. In 2024, he’ll resume his previous responsibilities

After Smith Pillaged the staff, there are only four position coaches currently listed on the team’s official website: offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Ryan Gunderson, offensive line coach Kyle DeVan, special teams coordinator Jake Cookus and DB coach Anthony Perkins.

This week, Bray hired Gunderson and DeVan from UCLA and Charlotte. Unlike Notre Dame, it seems the Oregon State administration will promote its new hires before they’re officially on staff.

The university’s press release announcing the hires states that “the appointments are contingent on the completion of all university hiring processes.”

That’s not to say that either pulled a George O’Leary, but it’s also unclear when either can begin helping Oregon State prep for the bowl game or if they will at all. 

Perkins will lead the defense (which I suppose was determined by the process of elimination, as he’s the only remaining member of the defensive staff coaching in the bowl game). 

“He’s got a ton of experience,” Hynson said. “Was obviously our corners coach this season. I’m excited for him getting a chance to call the game and run the defense. In all these situations, there are some positives. There are some opportunities that come up, and this is one of them.”

Former defensive line coach Legi Suiaunoa was previously named interim defensive coordinator, but then he decided to follow Smith to East Lansing. 

“Coach Legi will not be coaching in the bowl game,” Hynson said

During Monday’s presser, Hynson scoffed when a reporter referred to the remaining members of the coaching staff as a “skeleton crew,” but the term seems applicable since graduate assistants and analysts will likely need to assume on-the-field coaching responsibilities for the game. 

“That sounds kind of negative, you know?” Hynson said. “We’ve got a good group of guys who are itching for the opportunity to coach. We got a young group of coaches that I think are really good, and they’re going to get a great opportunity to work with guys first-hand. As a young coach, that’s really all you can ask for. I’m excited for those guys.”

Migrating Beavers

The Beavers will also be without several key players. 

The biggest loss is offensive lineman Taliese Fuaga (literally and figuratively). His decision hasn’t gotten as much press as other departures, but the 6-6, 336-pound right tackle ranks just behind Notre Dame’s Joe Alt on the big board of ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr

Receiver Anthony Gould will also sit out the bowl game. The 5-8 wideout is tied for the team lead with 718 receiving yards this season.

Fuaga’s counterpart in Joshua Gray is questionable for the Sun Bowl. He’s one of the most experienced left tackles in college football, with 44 starts and 2,953 snaps played over the last five seasons.

He missed the “Civil War” against Oregon on Nov. 24 for an undisclosed reason, and it’s still to be determined if he’ll be ready to go by Dec. 29.

“We’re not going to ask him to do anything that might jeopardize his future from a physical standpoint,” Hynson said. “So, we still have some time before the game, but the medical piece will dictate that.” 

Of course, Oregon State’s most covered personnel losses are first and second-string quarterbacks DJ Uiagalelei and Aidan Chiles. Both recently entered the transfer portal.

Ben Gulbranson is the only other quarterback on the roster to attempt a pass this season. He’s 1-1 for six yards.

More and more fans are clamoring for Notre Dame to give sophomore quarterback Steve Angeli a crack, given Hartman’s recent bouts with ineptitude. 

They’ll get their wish if Hartman does opt out, but the Beavers are better off with their third-stringer under center than the Irish are with their backup. 

Sure, Gulbranson spent 2023 buried on the depth chart, but he served as Oregon State’s QB1 throughout the back half of last season. He led the Beavers to seven wins in his eight starts, completing 62.1% of his passes for 1,455 yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions.

“Ben Gulbranson will be up,” Hynson said. “He was the Las Vegas Bowl MVP last year and won a bunch of games for us last year. So we feel like we're in confident hands. I'm excited for him to get the opportunity to go play.”

Of course, Gulbranson's playing experience also gives Notre Dame’s defensive staff meaningful game film to evaluate, which Oregon State won’t have on Angeli. 

“There will be some challenges not knowing exactly if there's not a lot of film of a certain individual playing in the game at that position,” Freeman said. “But again, you game plan mostly with concepts, and that's something we'll continue to do.”

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