SOUTH BEND, Ind. – One week from today I’ll be in Dublin. And if I’m taking the travel advice of subscriber Patrick P., I’ll be raising a pint at John Fallon’s The Capstan Bar near St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
We’ve got plenty to celebrate, right?
The college football season is nearly upon us, a four-month roller coaster of collective memories, celebration and angst, the kinds of experiences only this thrillingly ridiculous sport can provide. Thanks for being here for another season of this madness. We’ll savor/endure it together.
This week’s mailbag, the final one before kickoff, touches on what we’re about to witness. How good can Sam Hartman be? If the Irish come up short, what’s the weight holding them back? Who are the “glue guys” in Notre Dame’s locker room who keep the trains running on time?
And what’s up with “The Shamrock”?
The mailbag has answers for all that.
Based on what you’ve seen in practice and heard from the staff, what do you think will be the run/pass breakdown of the offense this season? – Joseph K.
Interesting question. My answer on July 1 is different than my answer on Aug. 18.
Coming out of spring ball, Notre Dame felt like it was trending toward a pass-first (or at least pass-even) offense because of Sam Hartman. But the more camp played out, the more we watched Notre Dame’s strengths and weaknesses show themselves. The running back room is better than expected. The receiver room didn’t make the same impression. At this point it’s time to re-embrace the idea Notre Dame will be run-first.
However, what run-first means for this team should still be something completely different than it was last year when Notre Dame was less “run-first” than it was “can’t-pass” with Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne.
Hartman can definitely pass. Duh.
For how much Notre Dame leaned on the run game last year, it’s still strange to review the disparities in offensive balance (run/pass) from Ohio State (30/18), Cal (41/23), North Carolina (51/34), BYU (45/28), Clemson (47/17) and USC (26/26). There were moments when Notre Dame had a functional pass game in those matchups, but it was only moments. Short of the North Carolina game, Notre Dame was run-first because it lacked the quarterback ability to play it any other way.
Hypothetically, let’s just say Notre Dame recreated those run/pass balances in their Power 5 matchups this season. The Irish may run the table in that scenario. Hartman would be throwing play-action passes at a high level, likely better than how he showed at Wake Forest, where the fake didn’t go to Audric Estime. There’s a reason Pyne was elite as a play-action passer (11 touchdowns, one interception, 73.2 percent completion rate), but it had to do with the presence of Estime, Logan Diggs and Michael Mayer more than the quarterback himself. Hartman has only Estime from that group, but he’s also got more all-field passing ability to stretch a defense than Pyne or Buchner did.
If Notre Dame pushes 40 rushing attempts in its Power 5 games, it’s going to win virtually all of them. Hartman wouldn’t throw more than 25 to 30 times in that game plan. His passing ability would only become more lethal with that kind of imbalance.
Last season, Notre Dame hit 532 rushing attempts and 338 pass attempts. The Irish don’t need to be 50-50 to be most effective, even if they’ll move closer to that percentage.
The Notre Dame media seems to have “bought in” on the 2023 team. On the other hand, Vegas set the odds at just over eight wins. Vegas usually knows best and the beat has been fooled before. If this team doesn’t live up to the hype, what do you think the cause will be? – Nadeem A.
A couple of things happened: Sam Hartman had a meltdown performance against an ACC team Notre Dame should have beaten (NC State, Louisville, Duke or Pittsburgh) and Marcus Freeman didn’t make the step forward as a head coach that the program needed in Year 2. Basically, he couldn’t find a way to smooth a “bumpy road” that included some axle-busting potholes last season. If Notre Dame goes under its win total, it won’t be because of a lack of pass rush or dynamism at receiver. It will be because its supposed strengths weren’t strong enough in the big moments.
Notre Dame’s weaknesses are what they are. They’re enough to make the Irish a long shot for the College Football Playoff, meaning an 11-1 season at worst. That feels like a reach with the pass rush and receiver group in question.
A week from kickoff, Notre Dame feels like a 9-3 team that’s much more likely to go 10-2 than finish 8-4 (and go under its win total). That’s a bet on Hartman and Freeman.
Since you have been covering the program, which teams have had the closest locker rooms? The most disjointed? How did that translate to wins and losses, and how does this team stack up? Who has been the best “glue guy” (Bill Murray in “Space Jam” vibes) you have seen in your time on the beat? — Quinn O.
Without fail, each of the previous 22 Notre Dame teams I’ve covered have boasted about their camaraderie, brotherhood and family atmosphere. And I generally don’t bother to use those quotes because they’re usually training camp white noise.
However, there have been some teams that were disjointed before the season began, enough that it impacted the on-field product that fall. The 2016 disaster is Exhibit A with the divided locker room between DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire, plus a head coach who failed to pick between them. The 2013 team gave off some odd vibes in the preseason, the BCS National Championship Game hangover and Brian Kelly’s NFL flirtation just sort of hanging over the program. Ultimately, those helped drag that team down.
As for teams that felt together on different levels, the 2012 and 2017 teams come to mind. Manti Te’o basically willed Notre Dame to the BCS National Championship. The 2017 team was such a rebuild — culturally and personnel-wise — that how it bounced back from the Georgia loss stood out. That team slumped late, but not for a lack of cohesion.
The best glue guys are the players you’d expect. Drue Tranquill and Alohi Gilman stand out as captains who maybe weren’t the most talented players on the team. Avery Davis might be a little more Bill Murray, somebody who gave everything no matter what was asked. Kapron Lewis-Moore was a huge glue guy on the 2012 team, able to keep Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix in a good way all season.
As for “glue guys” on this year’s team, there might be a bunch. Jack Kiser, Howard Cross, Clarence Lewis, Zeke Correll and Jayden Thomas are all front of mind. There might not be an NFL Draft pick from that group, but all five are players every winning program has in abundance.
What happens post-Sam Hartman for Notre Dame? Steve Angeli, Kenny Minchey, the portal?
Any information or thoughts about the 2024 home game to replace Miami? With the recent attendance issues and games already scheduled against NIU and Miami (OH), they really can’t afford to add a non-Power 5 opponent. – Ed J.
I’ve been told Army at Yankee Stadium as a Shamrock Series is the likely solution, which is more a destination location than a destination opponent. That could mean Notre Dame plays around New York City twice that season, which it also did in Brian Kelly’s first year against Army (Yankee Stadium) and Navy (Alexander Teich Stadium aka MetLife).
As good as this year’s home schedule looks, next year’s is the exact opposite: Northern Illinois, Miami (Ohio), Louisville, Stanford, Florida State and Virginia.
A strong home schedule should make fans think about which one of two big games is worth attending. This year that’s USC or Ohio State. Two years from now, that’s USC or Texas A&M. Three years from now, that’s Michigan State or Miami. Next year doesn’t do that. Last year didn’t do that. Any schedule that relies on Stanford as a big game probably can’t. Notre Dame considers the series a rivalry. It might be worth thinking on it. Because Shayne Skov and Christian McCaffrey aren’t walking through that door…
You have to cross a street facing a mob of violent hooligans who loathe bald men. Choose four current Notre Dame players to lead you across safely. – Lamine H.
As a wise man once said, God created only a few perfect heads, the rest he covered with hair.
My personal protectors on the streets of Dublin next weekend: Jordan Botelho, Joe Alt, Rylie Mills and Audric Estime. I would be walking around town, head up, drinking Guinness with impunity.
It’s third-and-4 and Notre Dame needs to convert against Ohio State. The Buckeyes blanket Jayden Thomas. Which receiver gets the ball (and why is it Jaden Greathouse)? – Cayden M.
Since you’re limiting me to receivers only, eliminating tight ends and running backs, let’s go Jaden Greathouse as a bulked-up slot receiver breaking tackles or at least falling forward at contact. Notre Dame doesn’t have another receiver on the team I’d back to get those tough yards beyond Greathouse and Thomas.
But if you were giving me a choice of every skill position player, I’d actually bet on Holden Staes. No, he’s not Michael Mayer. But Staes has shown a chemistry with Hartman in camp that looks like he’ll move the chains on third downs.
If Notre Dame could cherry pick other universities for a new, 10-team conference based on rivalries, viewership, geography, competitiveness, etc.,— which nine schools would they grab? — Peter K.
You’re asking me to form The Independent Conference? Such a responsibility! I’m taking a little bit from everything you’ve offered as rationale. This isn’t the 10 best teams in college football. It’s just 10 schools where Notre Dame could win and get television ratings (plus the television money that comes with that).
- Notre Dame
- Penn State
- Michigan State
- Florida State
- Boston College
This probably looks like a bizarre list, but I went for depth, rivalries and games Notre Dame can/should win. I don’t need to see Alabama, Georgia or Ohio State every year in conference play. That’s what the College Football Playoff is for. But I would enjoy Purdue, Boston College and Michigan State on an annual basis, just like Notre Dame did for a large chunk of its history. My hunch if most fans would see those games as an upgrade of Georgia Tech, Virginia and NC State as “conference” opponents. USC and Michigan are no-brainers as rivalry games. Texas and Penn State would draw huge numbers. The Miami and Florida State series have their own histories.
And that notion Notre Dame needs to have two marquee home games per year wouldn’t be a problem …
Can Notre Dame still afford independence? Don’t bet against the NBC marriage
What’s going on with “The Shamrock”? We need that content! – Andrew B.
Let’s break some news in the mailbag, shall we?
This fall “The Shamrock” feed will pick back up, but it won’t be a podcast, it will be a live room where I take questions directly from The Athletic subscribers. We did a few of these in the past and they were a fun way to build community. Basically, it’s a mailbag in audio form. The tentative plan is to do live rooms every Friday around noon as a ramp up for the weekend.
As pretty much everyone here knows, Matt Fortuna left The Athletic this summer, which killed off “The Shamrock” as a podcast, at least in name. However, I’m thrilled to announce that starting next week, Fortuna and I will be podcasting again with our new show. Just like “The Shamrock,” we’ll podcast twice weekly during the season, midweek and after the game. Your voices have been heard about wanting our show back, particularly on Sunday mornings as a form of emotional support/counseling.
Thanks for everyone’s patience. We can’t wait to get started.
(Photo of Sam Hartman and Marcus Freeman: Robin Alam / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)