A look at Notre Dame's five incoming transfers through Marcus Freeman's words

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 28 Duke at Louisville
COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 28 Duke at Louisville

Notre Dame may not be done pulling in transfers this offseason, both a truth of all of college football and one of the Irish as a few players have reportedly visited campus this month, but head coach Marcus Freeman spent part of last month’s National Signing Day discussing at length the five transfers he has landed thus far this offseason.

All five should be starters for Notre Dame in 2024, following in the footsteps of four of last offseason’s most notable transfers. In fact, the Irish pulled in veterans at the same positions last year.

That is not by coincidence. Freeman views the transfer market as a supplemental tool for his roster, not a foundational one.

“We don’t want to continue to major in the transfer portal,” Freeman said the week before Christmas. “We haven’t, we’ve hit specific needs, which we’ll continue to do.”

Specific needs arise when recruiting falls short at any particular position for multiple cycles in a row. Such needs are not rectified in one year, thus making it logical that those positions would be targeted via the transfer database in back-to-back winters.

That is not to say Riley Leonard will pan out as Sam Hartman did or RJ Oben will come near Javontae Jean-Baptiste’s breakout year, but their purposes are, effectively, the same.

A year ago, Freeman worried about the quality of quarterback on the roster and sought Hartman, thereby in part spurring the outgoing transfers of Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne (both of which will return to campus this spring, to play lacrosse and to earn a degree, respectively). That worry marked the peak of a five-year stretch where every quarterback recruit landed by Notre Dame eventually changed positions (Avery Davis) or transferred on an unsatisfying note (Phil Jurkovec, Brendon Clark).

Without Buchner and Pyne around, Freeman now worried about the numbers in the quarterbacks room, only three players expected on the 2024 roster. If one were to suffer an injury or himself enter the portal, the Irish would suddenly be desperate for snap-taking depth.

“I don’t want to go into the portal every year and get a quarterback,” Freeman said. “The decision this year started off with just a numbers situation.

“It’s not my belief in Steve Angeli and Kenny Minchey. Those dudes are good football players. … The reality of the transfer portal, if somebody leaves, now you’re stuck with two quarterbacks on scholarship. I want to continue to try to find a way to keep the quarterback room at four, knowing that if somebody transfers, you’ll have three, like what happened last year.”

At defensive end, holes in the recruiting classes of 2020 and 2021, the current juniors and seniors, left a need for a veteran until the current sophomores (Junior Tuihalamaka, Joshua Burnham, Aidan Gobaira) mature into contributing players. From the two cycles before and after the pandemic, only Jordan Botelho turned into a Saturday player at defensive end.

The same need developed at receiver, as has been long discussed in this space. Last offseason’s addition, Kaleb Smith out of Virginia Tech, needed to step away from football before he could find a role in South Bend, a fate that should not be viewed as anything more than an anomaly and should not diminish the roles Clemson’s Beaux Collins and Florida International’s Kris Mitchell should have with Leonard in 2024.

“We wanted size and speed,” Freeman said. “We played against Beaux Collins on the defensive side of the ball the last two years, and I know the talent he is. He’s an extremely talented football player that has shown on film to make plays at a high level in college football in big games.

“His length, yes, is important, but his productivity is, to me, the thing that stuck out. I knew just from going against him what kind of player he is.”

For what it is worth, Clemson listed Collins at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds. Mitchell is nowhere near that size, at only 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, but his production rises above any size worries. He caught 64 passes for 1,118 yards and six touchdowns last season, averaging 17.5 yards per catch.

“With Kris, his speed, we were looking for speed,” Freeman said. “That’s what, to me, stuck out on film. He has a lot of production. His production is through the roof, but the speed that he truly has and could add to our team is what attracted us to both of those guys.”

In theory, Notre Dame’s roster construction should improve moving forward, the trio of Angeli, Minchey and newly-signed freshman CJ Carr creating a sustainable path forward at quarterback, and six underclassmen in the receivers room finally shoring up the depth.

But at defensive end and nickel back, there may always be reason for the Irish to find established veterans from programs across the country. No team in the country can have enough depth along the defensive line, and nickel backs need to have a combination of intellect and size that is best found in veterans with experience, like TaRiq Bracy in 2022 and Thomas Harper in 2023, the latter a graduate transfer from Oklahoma State that may have set the precedent for Jordan Clark, an incoming graduate transfer from Arizona State.

In that regard, those positions could become like kicker, a role Notre Dame has indicated rather strongly it will fill through the transfer portal moving forward, bringing in South Carolina’s Mitch Jeter this winter.

“I think in the two years that I’ve been head coach, the one thing I’ve changed my philosophy on is take the points,” Freeman said. “It’s important to get points on the board. You can’t be so greedy that you’re turning down opportunities to kick field goals When you have a kicker that you believe is the best out there, it’s a great feeling for an offensive coordinator and a head coach to say, okay, let’s take the points here and kick it.”

The Irish will continue to use the transfer portal for these specific needs, to solve past recruiting mishaps or to add experienced veterans at positions best served by experienced veterans. But otherwise, Freeman remains intent on building the bulk of the roster through traditional recruiting.

“The core foundation for our program will still be to build off high school recruiting,” Freeman said. “I know the transfer portal is a new thing for college football, and we’re going to address specific needs in the transfer portal, but our foundation of this football program will always be addressed through high school recruiting.”

Part of sustained success on the transfer market is the ability to pull in undergraduate transfers, something Notre Dame has struggled with in this new age of immediate transfer eligibility. The cycle simply moves too fast for an old-fashioned admissions department.

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Freeman spent portions of the past year-plus advocating for quicker decisions on possible undergraduate transfers. Two may be too small a sample size to deem his efforts a success, but Freeman was able to secure expedited decisions for Leonard and Collins, two undergraduate transfers in one cycle unprecedented for the Irish.

“It’s a great example of Notre Dame continuing to find ways to get, maybe it’s not a graduate transfer, but get the right guys in there,” Freeman said. “That’s all work — our dialogues continue to be how do we make sure that we have a faster process in admitting or denying the right guy. …

“I see a lot of progress there. That situation will continue to, I’ll continue to push. But I’ll also understand there’s standards that we have that I have to make sure I understand and I’m okay with.”

“He was the best quarterback that we believe was in the portal. To me, you get the best players first, then you can say, okay, how do we tailor what we do around those guys. That is so important.

“We weren’t looking for a pocket passer. We weren’t looking for a dual-threat guy. … He’s a complete quarterback.

“Number one, he’s competitive. I don’t want that to be a word that’s just okay, thrown out there lightly. That is something that I have a lot of respect for, how competitive you are.

“You see it by the way he plays, in short-yardage situations, the ability to put his shoulder down and say, I’m not going to be denied.

“But then in the passing game, he can make every single throw. He’s accurate, but he can also extend plays with his legs and now he has a true ability to make you respect him by pulling the ball in some of those zone-read situations. What it does is put the defense at conflict.”

“I remember being in the car with Joe Alt coming back from [the Lombardi Award ceremony],” Freeman said. “We were going after the kid from Duke that just went into the portal, [Alt] is like, he’s probably the best one I went against.

“I’m like, I’m good, if Joe Alt is saying that, I’m good. That confirms what I saw on film.”

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