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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame Begins Sun Bowl Prep with several New Starters, Contributors on Offense

December 16, 2023

Several of Notre Dame’s significant offensive contributors have entered the transfer portal or opted out of the bowl game since the end of the regular season.

That includes eight players who started at some point this season:

- QB Sam Hartman

- OT Joe Alt

- OT Blake Fisher

- RB Audric Estime

- TE Holden Staes

- WR Chris Tyree

- WR Rico Flores

- WR Tobias Merriweather

Of course, less experienced Fighting Irish players will need to step up to replace so much lost production against Oregon State in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 29. 

The most surprising opt-out might be Sam Hartman’s, who had indicated he’d play in the bowl game three weeks ago but publicly announced that he was opting out earlier this week.

“As I've told all of the guys that have opted out, I can disagree with your decision and still support you,” coach Marcus Freeman said. “That's the same thing I told Sam and every single other one that opted out. I disagree. I think you should play, but I love you, and I support you, and you're gonna do great things.”

The Fighting Irish will replace Hartman with sophomore Steve Angeli, who will make his first career college start in El Paso, Texas. 

In seven appearances, he completed 76% of passes 272 yards, four touchdowns and an interception, which gives the coaching staff confidence in him. 

“As a backup, you're getting important reps in practice, and obviously, in the opportunities he's had in the game, he's done a tremendous job. We have a lot of confidence in Steve Angeli. With Kenny (Minchey), he'll be able to get some meaningful reps, too. There's not a plan to try to play two quarterbacks, right? 

“We're gonna go with Steve and want to make sure we give him the best opportunity to succeed. So, there's a lot of confidence, everybody in our football program that Steve Angeli can lead us to where we need to go.”

The biggest drawback to Angeli making his first career start in this setting is that he’ll be playing alongside many other players who are also stepping into much bigger roles.

Freshman Charles Jagusah will likely start at left tackle while sophomore Aamil Wagner and senior Tosh Baker compete at right tackle. The reps at running back will primarily divided among Jeremiayah Love, JD Price and Gi’Bran Pyne. 

“I think we have to be aware that you are gonna have two tackles out there,” Freeman said. “You're gonna have two new running backs in the backfield, Audric Estime is not playing. So, we're understanding of that. 

“Our thing is, is more than the evaluation, it's putting him in a position to try to have success, and that's our job as coaches is we'll get to the valuation after the game. What we want to do is make sure we're putting Steve in a position to have success as our quarterback as we go into this game.”

It surprised many of the reporters in attendance that Jagusah had emerged as the replacement for Joe Alt, especially after the summer enrollee played guard during fall camp, but the freshman impressed the coaching staff throughout the fall and during the start of bowl prep. 

“He's got natural ability,” Freeman said of Jagusah. “We noticed that in recruiting. We noticed that when he got here. There was just not a need at that moment for him to play for us, right.? We had a pretty good left tackle that started for us all year, but he has shown on the scout team, shown in the bye weeks and the individual drills that he's going to be a future great offense lineman for us. 

“Throughout the first couple of practices, we rotated guys at different positions, but he continued to flourish at that left tackle position and has done a really good job.”

The good news is that much of the lost receiver production can be replaced by experienced players who are finally healthy. That includes Matt Salerno, who returned at the end of the season, and freshman KK Smith, Jayden Thomas and Deion Colzie. 

“From my eyes, man, it's been it's been great to see where JT is now being healthy, Deion being healthy,” Freeman said. “We haven't seen KK all year, and he's doing some really good things for our offense and our wide receivers room. So, I'm very pleased with where they've gotten to in these first five practices and then excited to see where we go.”

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