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Hartman, Notre Dame ready for season’s first marquee moment

| Friday, September 22, 2023

Ari Denning | The Observer
Graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman smiles during Notre Dame’s 45-24 win over North Carolina State at Carter-Finley Stadium on Sep. 9.

Sam Hartman will be the first one to tell you he’s not the star of Notre Dame’s 4-0 start to the 2023 season. In fact, he’d probably insist on it. 

Every time the graduate student quarterback has faced the cameras this fall, he’s found new people to credit when asked about his success. Following his debut against Navy, he offered shoutouts to the University’s athletic administration, sports information department and Aer Lingus. After the team’s win over NC State, his praise went to, among others, the scout team and team dietitian Alexa Appelman.

Despite the best efforts of Hartman to stay humble though, it’s hard for him to deflect the spotlight any longer. On Saturday, the Irish will host No. 6 Ohio State in what’s set to be the biggest game Notre Dame Stadium has hosted (with fans, at least) in over a decade.

The Marcus Freeman era is fully underway in South Bend. The Ohio State game could be its defining moment. Last year’s Clemson game was a euphoric experience for the Irish faithful. But Notre Dame’s early season woes meant that even a dominant win put Freeman’s squad as, at best, a fringe top-15 team.

If the Irish beat the Buckeyes, they will immediately join the season’s premier title contenders. They will look ahead to a season where they are the ones being chased in the Playoff race, not doing the chasing.

The reason Notre Dame will walk into this monumental game at The House that Rockne Built with confidence? Sam Hartman.

The Irish brought in Hartman for moments like this. The sixth-year star overflows with experience. He may have more snaps under the spotlight to his name than any other active collegiate player. Hartman’s college career is so extensive that he is closer in age (24) to Notre Dame’s youngest position coach (31-year-old safeties coach Chris O’Leary) than he is the youngest recruits the Irish will have visiting campus this weekend. 

It’s easy to get starstruck by the primetime lights that will define Saturday’s contest. But Hartman was a picture of veteran maturity speaking to the media on Monday, both embracing the high-stakes nature of the moment and acknowledging the importance of day-in, day-out fundamentals to having success in it.

“It’s a big game. To shy away from that is foolish.” Hartman said. “But like every week it’s going to be about us executing at the highest level.”

Executing at the highest level is something that Hartman has established quite a knack for in college. He arrived in South Bend with 110 career passing touchdowns and 12,967 career passing yards to his name. He ranks first and second on the all-time ACC leaderboard in each respective category.

Hartman also showed a knack last year for saving his best for the biggest moments. He started two games against top-15 opponents in 2022, posting a total of 10 touchdowns against one interception and a combined 657 passing yards. 

The graduate student’s stacked resume has translated to a dazzling start at his final collegiate stop in South Bend. His 15 total touchdowns lead the country. His passer rating of 217.8 ranks third and his 1,061 passing yards rank fifth.

Notre Dame’s offense looks and feels different with Hartman at the controls. The Irish had just one passing touchdown exceeding 50 yards last season, a 75-yard catch-and-run by Logan Diggs in the Gator Bowl. Hartman threw two such deep scores last week against Central Michigan alone.

Hartman’s ability to stretch defenses is a unique weapon, one more recent Notre Dame offenses haven’t been able to deploy. There’s an ease in how well he sees the game. His arm allows him to access every area of the field. That combination makes shutting down the Irish offense a much harder task than in prior years.

“He’s just a smart player,” Navy head coach Brian Newberry said. “He sees the field really, really well, and he was able to identify things that we were doing really well, and he put the ball in the right places when he did. He’s like a coach out on the field.”

This concern from opposing coaches regarding the Notre Dame receiving corps wouldn’t occur with many other quarterbacks under center. The unit lacks a true star, as well as general experience. Just one senior will be in the receiver rotation against the Buckeyes, and no player will enter with more than a dozen catches in 2023.

But Hartman’s cool patience in the pocket has made the collective unit a potent one for the Irish. With the composure of a player who will start his 50th collegiate game against the Buckeyes, Hartman always takes his time to survey all his options. He’s got the touch to find freshman Jaden Greathouse in a pocket of space over the middle, and the strength to hit streaking sophomore Tobias Merriweather down the sideline. If an Irish receiver can get open, Hartman will hit them. If they can’t get open, Hartman still might find them.

“He’s an NFL guy,” Merriweather said after the Central Michigan win. “The difference between college and NFL is a lot of the time the quarterbacks just don’t give the receivers a choice but to catch it. They just throw it on you, and it’s going to be there, and you expect it to be there. And I think that’s what Sam does for us. He just lets us make plays, puts the ball in our hands and lets us do what we do.”

For all his ability throwing the ball though, Hartman’s greatest asset for the Irish on Saturday will likely be his leadership. It’s not easy to arrive on a new campus after five years with the same teammates. It’s even harder when you’ve been anointed with the expectation of being the one to take your new team to the next level.

Yet from the day he arrived for the spring semester in South Bend, the praise for Hartman was as much about his ability to connect with teammates and lead his new team as it was his artful deep ball. He officially received the designation of team captain just five months after his first spring practice, an honor he has proven worthy of at every step.

Hartman’s leadership in the locker room shows on the field as well. There’s a visible assurance in his voice from the offense that helps the unit move with precise efficiency when they find their rhythm.

He has already successfully engineered three two-minute drills before halftime in just his first four games. When watching those drives, it’s impossible to miss the speed with which Hartman can reorganize the offense after every play.

“Every play you play is going to be different than the last,” Hartman said. “It’s just going to be about trusting the guys around me and knowing that the support group around me is really, really talented. And they believe in me, and I believe in them.”

Notre Dame is ready for its national television close-up. They’ve felt that way in previous years, only to be proven wrong in the biggest moments. But things may be different this time because the Irish finally have a quarterback equipped with the physical and mental tools to lead his team into the spotlight.

“This moment won’t be too big for Sam. I mean, [it’s] year six for him,” said Freeman. “I have a lot of confidence that he’ll be well prepared.”

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About J.J. Post

J.J. Post is a senior in Fisher Hall. Hailing from Mountainside, New Jersey, he's currently working his way towards being the nation's foremost expert on college soccer. Whether via the button below or his overly active Twitter (@JayJayPost), feel free to reach out and talk about Notre Dame soccer, football, basketball, volleyball, baseball or softball. Or any other Notre Dame sport you can think of. Odds are he watches it as well.

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