The Notre Dame season hasn’t even been over for three whole weeks and fans are already asking, what comes next? Where does the team go from here? How different will the Irish look when we next see them in the Blue and Gold game this Spring compared to how they did in the Gator Bowl win over South Carolina?
This little gap in action provides the perfect introspection point from which to take a look at areas of the team to track progression on. What areas are trending up, trending down, or maintaining? How much improvement can be expected from year one to year two in a new regime?
Let’s explore some of these short-term dynamics in depth.
The Start of High Level QB Stability
Sep 22, 2018; Winston-Salem, NC, USA; Wake Forest Demon Deacons quarterback Sam Hartman (10) passes the ball in the first quarter against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at BB&T Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
One thing Notre Dame has sorely lacked during most of the Kelly era was consistently above-average quarterback play. Hopefully grad-transfer [autotag]Sam Hartman[/autotag] can start to stabilize this dynamic and start a new trend for Irish quarterbacks. Being elite or darn close to it.
Behind Hartman, [autotag]Tyler Buchner[/autotag] and youngsters [autotag]Kenny Minchey[/autotag] and [autotag]C.J. Carr[/autotag] will be next in line to compete. This grouping is a clear talent upgrade and a much-needed and welcomed one. This is the most cumulative talent in Notre Dame’s quarterback room of recent vintage. It will pay dividends.
Replenish Defensive Line
Nov. 27, 2021; Stanford, California, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola (57) celebrates with defensive lineman Justin Ademilola (9) after a sack during the third quarter against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium. Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports
While many signs seem to indicate that the Irish offense is on the rise, this does not mean that the defense can take any steps back. The reality is that with the departures of [autotag]Isaiah Foskey[/autotag] and [autotag]Jayson Ademilola[/autotag], the defensive front is a bit uncomfortably thin at the moment.
Being stout against the run is always the top priority for the Irish defense. This is an identity based on physicality that Notre Dame wants to maintain. Perhaps recent OSU transfer [autotag]Javontae Jean-Baptiste[/autotag] can make an immediate impact? This is a top area to watch entering next year.
Upgraded Linebacker Play
Apr 23, 2022; Notre Dame, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Marist Liufau (8) signals to his teammates in the second quarter of the Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Entering 2022, this group was projected to be one the most reliable on the team. It didn’t feel like it on Saturdays though. It seems that the backers were also just a second late most of the season. To get home on a blitz. To shed a block. To recognize a formation. It was simply underwhelming.
The good news is that this is an area Notre Dame has recruited very well recently and there should be plenty of young players eager to claim playing time next year. The best linebackers always “feel” the game more than think it. I expect a much more cerebral LB corps come next fall.
Maintain Special Teams Vibe
Nov 5, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Jordan Botelho (12) blocks a punt by Clemson Tigers punter Aidan Swanson (39) in the first quarter at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
I complained for years that Notre Dame did not utilize Special Teams enough. It simply wasn’t being emphasized under the last staff the way it now is under the “Handler Of Havoc” [autotag]Brian Mason[/autotag]. It’s glorious to see and the coaching awards he’s acquired are well deserved.
The challenge for this group is to maintain the intensity. Guard this standard of play. This group is top five in nearly every statistical category there is in Special Teams, but maintaining these numbers is a different task completely. This group is a special weapon that must continue to be.
SOUTH BEND, INDIANA – OCTOBER 15: Audric Estime #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish scores a touchdown against the Stanford Cardinal during the second half at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2022 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
I feel that it’s perfectly natural to expect to see a more consistent operation from Notre Dame in year 2 of Freeman. Year 1 was always going to be somewhat of a calibration no matter what. There was simply too much change going on at once for there not to be.
Finding a stable “floor” of play will be key for Notre Dame in 2023. There can be no more “Marshalls” or “Stanfords” moving forward. I truly hope to see a stabilization both of Notre Dame’s play, and my blood pressure levels next year as Freeman and his lads settle in.