DUBLIN — Sam Hartman patiently stood to the side, waiting. He turned down a copy of the box score from one of Notre Dame’s communications staff. Maybe because he’d committed his four touchdown passes to memory, tied for the most by a Notre Dame quarterback in his debut. Probably because this was no telltale moment for the sixth-year quarterback. He hasn’t been here, exactly, not to Aviva Stadium to throttle Navy 42-3 to kick off the college football season. But he’s been here, the lead story of a program, the star quarterback who makes everything seem possible.
After a couple of minutes, though, Hartman’s wait was up. Marcus Freeman had finished his roughly 10-minute postgame news conference, ready to exit stage right. Notre Dame’s head coach had to pass by his star quarterback on the way out.
“Sorry,” Freeman said. “You’re here.”
Head coach and starting quarterback shook hands, looking more like contemporaries than boss and subordinate. In the ideal of modern college football, this is how it’s supposed to look, a full-grown man playing quarterback instead of a college kid. And Sam Hartman is a full-grown man for reasons beyond the hair, beard and necklace featuring a piece of his own rib.
To watch Hartman on the field and off is to see a quarterback who’s surpassed 13,000 career passing yards and now stands at 114 touchdown passes, jumping Colt McCoy and Derek Carr in the all-time FBS rankings. The game looks slow to Hartman but warp speed to everyone else. And it’s the kind of performance that quickens the pulse of Notre Dame as a program.
“This moment wasn’t too big, and it’s about him going out there and just executing,” Freeman said of Hartman, who completed 19 of 23 passes for 251 yards and four TDs. “And what I really, really thought he did a great job of is putting our offense in a really good position to play.”
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From start to finish (and even afterward), Hartman was a quarterback comfortable in his own skin without fixating on his complexion.
Asked three times about what it felt like to seamlessly slot into Notre Dame on opening night, Hartman thanked his offensive line three times. As much as this was the Hartman show, he also asked the media to give questions to Jaden Greathouse and Marist Liufau, who’d also come in for the postgame news conference. Hartman thanked outgoing athletic director Jack Swarbrick and incoming boss Pete Bevacqua, too. There was even a shoutout for Aer Lingus. And when the media availability ended, Hartman got up, said “Go Irish” to no one in particular and walked out.
That’s the real question as No. 13 Notre Dame heads home from 72 hours in Dublin, where this season can go with a quarterback this accomplished at the controls. It will take a village to get Notre Dame in College Football Playoff contention. But it’s got one, plus a locker room of players ready to follow.
“The way they played, I thought they played with a lot of physicality. I thought they played with a lot of speed and effort,” Freeman said. “And so, I just think they were prepared to really go out there and play at a high level and they did.”
OK SAM HARTMAN! 👀#NotreDame extends their lead to 35-0.
— Notre Dame on NBC (@NDonNBC) August 26, 2023
It would be harder to play much cleaner in an opening week than Notre Dame did, never mind the change at quarterback and offensive coordinator. The Irish had built-in excuses for a clunky reintroduction under Freeman but didn’t need them. Notre Dame committed just one penalty. It never punted. It scored touchdowns on his first five possessions. The Irish defense allowed two double-digit yardage runs in Navy’s first three carries. The defense allowed just one double-digit-yardage run on Navy’s next 43 attempts.
And even that comes with a caveat. Liufau said Navy came out in a formation Notre Dame had not practiced against all camp, not off Navy film, not off Kennesaw State tape from the Midshipmen’s new offensive coordinator. But once Al Golden smoked out the scheme change, the Mids had no counter. And Notre Dame had too many haymakers to throw against a Navy team too willing to take a punch.
“The ability to hear a coach say, ‘OK, write it down, draw it up, let’s adjust on the sideline,’ and then go out there and implement it? I mean, that’s what’s more impressive than anything,” Freeman said. “Man, the adjustments (on defense) were tremendous.”
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Twenty-one players made tackles. Six wide receivers caught passes. Five running backs got carries. Freeman pumped up Notre Dame’s improved depth all August, hoping there would be truth in advertising when the lights came on. There was, in abundance. Notre Dame can now go to battle with more than just its starting lineup, avoiding a tripwire that’s felled Irish teams before.
But depth has never been Notre Dame’s biggest issue in the College Football Playoff era. It’s been the quarterback disadvantage that the program has put itself into, failing to identify, recruit and land difference-makers at the sport’s most important position.
Notre Dame is about to learn how the other half lives in college football, the programs that roll out NFL prospects at quarterback year after year. Sam Hartman may play for Marcus Freeman for just this one season. And that’s fine. Whatever’s next at quarterback will eventually come. Until then, the Irish should enjoy the journey. Because based on the first impression, Notre Dame’s new quarterback might take this program somewhere new.
There’s no need to wait.
(Top photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile via Getty Images)