SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Audric Estimé is better than he was a year ago. The Notre Dame running back focused on discipline this offseason to develop a bit more speed, never breaking a 50-yard run last season but wanting to find the acceleration to pull away from defenders. And he did so, now with a 50-yard touchdown and an 80-yard touchdown this season, last week’s 70-plus yarder called back because of penalty but still serving as further proof he is faster and in a meaningful way.
But the junior also knows he is being made to look better by Sam Hartman. Estimé’s 521 yards, five touchdowns and his 8.27 yards per carry are all testaments to his work and the Irish offensive line, but Hartman has opened up defenses. Estimé recognizes that perhaps more than anyone else.
“Having Sam Hartman, that’s the best quarterback in the nation on my team and right next to me, is a very big help for me,” Estimé said after No. 9 Notre Dame’s 41-17 win against Central Michigan on Saturday.
A year ago, with inconsistent quarterback play leading the offense, defenses focused on two things against the Irish: Double cover Michael Mayer and otherwise load up the box to bother Estimé and the other running backs. Notre Dame subsequently averaged 31.8 points per game, a five-year low boosted by the chaos of the Gator Bowl. In the regular season, the Irish averaged 30.7 points per game, the lowest since 2013.
Notre Dame is currently averaging 46 points per game.
Irish head coach Marcus Freeman will not give all the credit for the offensive fireworks to Hartman, but that is in part because he does not need to. Hartman’s play demands it on its own, throwing for 265 yards per game with 13 touchdowns and no interceptions. No coach needs to make sure that showing gets its due. The headlines are appearing regardless, deservedly so.
Notre Dame has lacked such a passer throughout its resurgence since the 2016 faceplant, if not since Jimmy Clausen’s final season in 2009, and Clausen lacked the ground game and defense to emphasize his talents. Irish head coach Brian Kelly needed to espouse Ian Book’s strengths from 2018 to 2020 because, while undeniably a winning quarterback with two Playoff apearances, Book’s stats did not generally leap off the page.
Notre Dame (4-0) needed Hartman to raise the program’s ceiling, to add heapings of intrigue to this weekend’s primetime matchup with No. 6 Ohio State (3-0) at 7:30 ET on NBC.
But Hartman needed the Irish, too. He is bettered by Estimé.
Estimé may also know that.
“We’re a dynamic offense,” he said. “We’re an offense that can do it all, we can run the ball and pass the ball.”
In 48 games at Wake Forest, Hartman’s arm was complemented by a rushing attack that averaged six yards per carry in a game a total of three times, including once against an FCS opponent. It was no coincidence that his already impressive career numbers with the Demon Deacons were markedly improved in those three wins, completing 67.5 percent of his passes for 11 touchdowns and no interceptions while averaging 10.3 yards per pass attempt.
In four games at Notre Dame, Hartman has enjoyed such a rushing attack three times, including once against an FCS opponent. It is no coincidence he is completing 71.1 percent of his passes and averaging 11.5 yards per pass attempt.
Coming into the season, it was understandable to fret about the Irish receivers, an unproven bunch without a true gamebreaker like Hartman long enjoyed in Winston-Salem. Would missing that piece — an A.T. Perry, for example — limit Hartman’s effectiveness in South Bend?
The retort should always have been that he never enjoyed this kind of rushing attack, one averaging 6.4 yards per rush (sacks adjusted) with nine touchdowns in four games. The closest thing to Estimé’s physicality that Hartman had ever known transferred to Michigan State to be included more in the offense, Kenneth Walker III launching his NFL career from East Lansing perhaps in the same way Hartman is doing now.
Defenses loaded the box against Notre Dame last season, diminishing Estimé’s impact. They can’t now, for fear Hartman will hit sophomore receiver Tobias Merriweather in stride for a 75-yard touchdown or senior receiver Chris Tyree for a 76-yard touchdown. Finally connecting on those deep shots — not long catch-and-runs, but genuine deep shots — cemented this reality for opposing defensive coordinators just in time for a top-tier defense to need to worry about them.
“The ability to execute on those deep balls and those open passes are huge,” Freeman said Saturday. “They’re huge to have success. … That’s a credit to success in the pass game and the run game.”
A.T. Perry was never walking through the door with Hartman. He did not need to. Estimé was already waiting, faster and with one of the country’s best offensive lines.