Roundtable: Previewing the 2023 Notre Dame football season
Another Notre Dame football season is right around the corner. The usual time to settle into campus life before the season begins is brief this year, thanks to a Week 0 trip to Dublin to take on Navy. With the number of days until kick off in Ireland down to single digits, The Observer’s football beat discusses their thoughts on the team.
Andrew McGuinness, Sports Editor: There are some positions where the Irish have depth but not an established standout player. And there are others with a clear star talent but not much behind them if injuries or underperformance wreak havoc. At running back, however, there is both. Junior Audric Estime established himself as a driving force in Notre Dame’s offense last year, rushing for 5.9 yards per carry and 11 touchdowns. Though the three backs behind him – freshman Jeremiyah Love, sophomore Gi’Bran Payne and graduate student Devyn Ford – have never played a snap for the Irish, all three have talented resumes and reportedly have flashed brilliance during camp.
Madeline Ladd, Associate Sports Editor: The secondary is the area to watch this season for the Irish. Returning safeties senior Ramon Henderson and graduate student DJ Brown have the ability to make more plays and impact the defense. Senior Xavier Watts’ late-season standout performance last year fuels this optimism, as do graduate transfers Thomas Harper (Oklahoma State) and Antonio Carter II (Rhode Island). Cleaning up missed tackles and more aggressive play could be key for the Irish defensively. Sophomore phenom Ben Morrison and senior Cam Hart are a great returning duo at cornerback, and sophomore Jaden Mickey and highly touted freshmen Christian Gray and Micah Bell will provide excellent depth.
J.J. Post, Associate Sports Editor: In just a few years, cornerback has turned from a potential weakness of the Notre Dame roster to a unit the Irish expect to lean on. Morrison had one of the most impressive rookie campaigns of any freshman in college football last year, and there’s little evidence to suggest he’ll slow down in 2023. Hart’s career has been plagued by injuries, but when healthy he’s overqualified for the job of No. 2 cornerback. If Hart stays healthy and Harper proves to be a shrewd portal add, this could be the best Notre Dame cornerback room in over a decade.
José Sanchez Cordova, Assistant Managing Editor: Graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman. I know he hasn’t suited up for Notre Dame yet, but a stellar track record at Wake Forest has me totally sold. He holds multiple ACC records and led the Demon Deacons to the 2021 conference championship game. He’ll bring a level of stability and consistency to the quarterback position that the Irish have lacked since Ian Book left. He was already named a team captain and that leadership on the offensive side is something Notre Dame will need with a young group of receivers and tight ends. I’m hopeful Hartman’s passing prowess and ability on the ground will keep defenses on their toes, giving the strong running back group a chance to shine.
Matthew Crow, Associate Sports Editor: The true strength of the Irish’s offensive attack will be found in the trenches. Notre Dame’s offensive line is headlined by juniors Joe Alt and Blake Fisher, who form one of the top offensive tackle tandems in the nation. They are joined by a third returning starter in graduate student center Zeke Correll. Uncertainty remains at both guard spots after the departures of standouts Jarrett Patterson and Josh Lugg to the NFL. But the competitive offseason battles for those roles indicate that the line should feature a strong starting five and quality depth, with several starting-caliber backups ready to step in if needed. In the absence of a consistent passing game last season, Notre Dame’s offensive line played a key role in helping the Irish establish one of the best rushing attacks in the country.
McGuinness: For all of the hype around Hartman’s arrival, everyone seems to be forgetting a quarterback is only as good as the people he is throwing the ball to. Michael Mayer is gone, and with him so are 36% of Notre Dame’s receiving touchdowns and 30% of its receiving yards. Last year, the Irish failed to produce a 400-yard receiver for the first time since before Brian Kelly took over. There is talent in the group, especially among the underclassmen. But Notre Dame’s passcatchers will need to take a huge step forward from last year for Notre Dame’s offense to reach its potential.
Post: It has to be wide receiver. Notre Dame has a lot of talent at wideout but proven commodities are far and few between. Junior Jayden Thomas has proven a reliable option and a versatile one at that. But behind him, the Irish and Hartman will need to find production out of the likes of senior Chris Tyree (in his first season playing slot), sophomore Tobias Merriweather (one career collegiate catch), junior Deion Colzie (nine catches in 2022), graduate student Matt Salerno (five catches in 2022) and the freshman trio of Rico Flores, Jaden Greathouse and Braylon James. Notre Dame doesn’t need Merriweather to catch 15 touchdowns or Salerno to become a Biletnikoff winner for success this fall. But they will need at least a few success stories that weren’t seen last season.
Sanchez Cordova: I’m a bit concerned about special teams. Often overlooked, last year they made themselves the focal point more than once with all those blocked punts. But special teams coordinator Brian Mason moved on to the NFL and the team lost its starting kicker, punter and main punt returner. It’s a lot of turmoil to overcome in a short time. Graduate transfers Spencer Shrader and Ben Krimm came in to cover the kicking and punting duties. But I think it’ll take a few games before I feel confident new special teams coordinator Marty Biagi picked up where the unit left off last season.
Crow: At the moment, Notre Dame’s biggest weakness might be the tight end position, if only because it has the most question marks of any unit. Mayer was responsible for essentially all of the group’s production last season. Notre Dame’s available tight ends enter 2023 with just six total career receptions after senior Kevin Bauman was lost for the season due to injury. Luckily, there is a lot of talent at the position. Junior Mitchell Evans and sophomores Holden Staes and Eli Raridon are expected to feature on the depth chart.
Tom Zwiller, Sports Writer: The defensive line. The rotation is incredibly deep; defensive line coach Al Washington said he felt the Irish could have a rotation of up to ten players. However, I think those players are all currently rotation-level good, not starting-level. Notre Dame will need a few players on the line to take a step up.
McGuinness: It wasn’t that surprising that Notre Dame had a star freshman cornerback emerge last year. Who it was was a bit of one, though. While Morrison balled out in the second half of 2022, Jaden Mickey had a bit more of a traditional up-and-down rookie season in South Bend. But it was Mickey who was the higher-rated recruit entering the season. Despite the valleys, Mickey did show some positive signs last fall and will have all the opportunity to become a key member of what could be a vaunted Irish secondary.
Ladd: Tobias Merriweather. This season’s young wide receiver crew will need to step up to replace Mayer’s receiving consistency. Hartman will rely heavily on the 6’4, 204 pound Merriweather. He’s one of the most talented wide receivers on the team but has yet to fully show it on the field. He has room to stand out this season and contribute greatly to the Irish offense.
Post: Stop me if you’ve heard a prediction for senior defensive end Rylie Mills to be a breakout player before. Mills was tabbed for this exact honor at this exact time last season, and to a lesser extent the season before that. Will his tools finally translate into tangible production? Last year Mills was solid, notching six tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. This year, he’ll need to be a leader on a retooled Irish defensive line.
Crow: Senior defensive lineman Jordan Botelho was arguably one of the Irish’s biggest breakout players in 2022. And he could have another major leap in store this season. Botelho is an explosive pass-rusher who finished second on the team in sacks as a junior despite taking limited snaps behind All-American Isaiah Foskey. Getting his first opportunity to start during the Gator Bowl against South Carolina, he showed his ability to step into a larger role, recording two sacks in the Irish victory. Botelho will be a crucial part of a largely unproven defensive line and will look to carry his impressive finish to last season into a standout senior campaign.
Zwiller: If a position group needs a player to answer the call, it is the wide receivers. I think Jaden Greathouse has the potential to be that player. I like Greathouse in the slot and think he could be an excellent weapon for Hartman. The 6’1, 204-pound freshman has looked good to me in practice, and I think he can be a great second option while other WRs (like Merriweather) draw more eyes.
Overall Season Prediction
McGuinness: History says it usually takes an Irish coach at least three years before their first signature campaign. So, while there’s a temptation to expect Marcus Freeman to reach for the stars in year two, a steady but not meteoric rise is probably what’s in store. The combination of a big-three opponent gauntlet of Ohio State, USC and Clemson combined with other quality opponents in NC State and Duke (both of which the Irish play on the road) will prevent the Irish from having a shot of playing for a championship. But after going 10-2, the Irish will still make history this season, winning a New Year’s Six Bowl for the first time since 1993.
Ladd: 9-3. The introduction of new talent mixed with the maturity of the old makes for a promising season for the Irish. However, there is always the potential for a clunker as the team finds its groove. I predict competitive and respectable matches against Ohio State and USC, though the Irish will ultimately fall short against these two giants. A USC loss will fuel the fire and we will see a winning streak to end the season 9-3, which includes an on-the-road win against Clemson. However, I hope the Irish prove me wrong. What is the saying… underpromise and overdeliver?
Post: 10-3, with a bowl game win. This should be a fun Notre Dame season. The best quarterback the Irish have had in years. A schedule packed with both marquee home games (Ohio State, USC) and underrated road tests (Duke, Louisville). Ultimately, I see too many potential minefields on Notre Dame’s schedule to not expect the Irish to lose at least one of the games they will be favored in. That being said, I think the combination of a dynamic quarterback, strong ground game and an improved defense will allow Notre Dame to pull at least one big upset. Can the Irish take more than one out of three though? That will be the question that defines where Notre Dame is playing in January.
Sanchez Cordova: I’m quite optimistic. I feel like this is a really talented roster that can to Notre Dame back to a New Year’s Six bowl and maybe more. But there’s are definitely some questions on offense that make me nervous. Ultimately, the three games with Ohio State, USC and Clemson are going to define the year. Right now, I think they go 1-2 and beat rival USC under the lights in South Bend, but drop the other two and finish 10-2. This should be enough to land them an New Year’s Six Bowl where they’ll break the big game curse.
Crow: I think the Irish’s No. 13 preseason ranking in both the Coaches and AP polls almost perfectly splits the difference between the ceiling and floor for the 2023 team. Notre Dame saw the departure of several key contributors on the field and on the coaching staff. On the other hand, the Irish defense should be strong as ever, and the offense looks poised to take a step forward behind Hartman and potential All-American Estime. I’ll tab the Irish to win two of their marquee matchups against Ohio State, USC and Clemson and take care of business elsewhere, finishing 11-1 and directly on the College Football Playoff bubble.
Zwiller: In all likelihood, Notre Dame will have a similar finish to last year. The offense has gotten a massive upgrade at QB. But the wide receivers are genuinely starting to worry me with how little they flash at practice. I love the defensive secondary, but Notre Dame may sometimes struggle to generate a pass rush. At a minimum, the Irish will stumble twice in their big three games; my money is on Ohio State and Clemson. I think ND loses three games, finishes in the teens in the polls, and wins a decent bowl game for a 10-3 finish.
McGuinness: The Irish will have at least one game-winning punt or kick return touchdown this season.
Ladd: Botehlo has 10 sacks, leads the team in tackles and is a finalist for the Bednarik Award for the top defensive player in the country.
Post: Sophomore Bryce McFerson attempts and achieves at least one fake punt this fall.
Sanchez Cordova: Notre Dame’s offensive line will win the Joe Moore Award at the end of the year.
Crow: Notre Dame will make a statement with another three-possession win against Ohio State, USC or Clemson.
Zwiller: Notre Dame will go 1-2 against the big three. I have Notre Dame losing to Ohio State 24-21, defeating USC 38-35 and losing to Clemson 28-21.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.