McGuinness: Irish secondary will finally be tested against Wolfpack
Andrew McGuinness | Friday, September 8, 2023
Notre Dame’s first two games this season haven’t come against the toughest competition, to say the least. Navy and Tennessee State went a combined 8-15 in 2022. The Midshipmen have a first-year head coach. The Tigers were the first FCS team to ever play the Irish. Neither has had a winning season in the 2020s. It was hardly a surprise to see the Irish throttle both by a combined 98-6 margin to start 2023.
That doesn’t mean all of the good the Irish showed in those two games is meaningless, of course. Graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman has made nearly every throw possible, even several against great coverage. His receivers, a huge question mark entering the season, have made some impressive plays on the other end of those passes. The Irish defensive line and linebackers held Navy’s tricky triple-option tactics in check. Despite the lack of high-end competition, most of the Irish roster has been at least moderately challenged so far.
And then there’s the secondary. The Irish faced just seven passes in Week 0 against Navy. Four of them fell incomplete. On one, a pair of Navy receivers collided with each other to prevent what should have been a fourth-down conversion. Tennessee State attempted 22 throws last weekend. But with all due respect to quarterbacks Deveon Bryant and Draylen Ellis and their intended targets, the Tigers didn’t exactly instill fear into the Irish defensive backs.
Tennessee State rarely threatened to strike over the top and never got into a rhythm through the air. Only eight of their passes were completed, unless you also count the absolute ducks that sailed into the diving hands of senior safety Ramon Henderson and so directly at senior cornerback Clarence Lewis that you would’ve thought he was the intended target. Caleb Williams, the Tigers’ quarterbacks were not.
NC State, however, is capable of showing the Irish what their secondary truly has to offer. The Wolfpack relied more on their ground game in Week 1, rushing for 209 yards in a 24-14 win over a UConn team that was surprisingly decent last year. However, they have a decorated ACC graduate transfer quarterback of their own in former Virginia Cavalier Brennan Armstrong. Two years ago, Armstrong led the conference with 4,449 passing yards and finished fourth with 31 touchdowns.
He was more solid than spectacular in his Wolfpack debut, throwing for just 155 yards. However, he did complete 65% of his passes and also rushed for 96 yards and two scores. The game also began his reunion with NC State offensive coordinator Robert Anae, who was Armstrong’s offensive coordinator during that standout 2021 campaign. He served in the same role at Syracuse in 2022, with the Irish holding his Orange offense to 24 points in a late October win, before Anae made another intra-conference leap to NC State.
Armstrong isn’t the only infusion of difference-making veteran presence to the Wolfpack offense, either. The team secured graduate transfer Bradley Rozner from Rice, who is coming off a near-900-yard campaign that also included 10 touchdown grabs. NC State is also hoping that former four-star recruit Julian Gray can deliver a much-awaited breakout season.
It’s not that the Irish don’t have quality pieces in their secondary. Sophomore cornerback Benjamin Morrison was arguably the team’s most positive development a year ago. Sophomore cornerback Jaden Mickey had a more up-and-down freshman season but still possesses plenty of talent. Lewis and graduate student cornerback Cam Hart add a stabilizing presence at the position.
The Irish also got pass defense help in the transfer portal, adding a pair of safeties in Rhode Island’s Antonio Carter II and Oklahoma State’s Thomas Harper. Henderson has emerged as a quality option at the position, as has graduate student DJ Brown. The Irish don’t have an established star headlining their last line of defense like Kyle Hamilton and Brandon Joseph have in recent years. But the unit still has promise.
There are plenty of promising teams that crumble in big moments, though. Week 1 saw talented teams like Clemson and LSU struggle to keep up in their first legitimate test of the year. That’s what Saturday represents for the Notre Dame secondary. Passing it doesn’t guarantee they will shut down the star-studded attacks of teams like Ohio State and USC that await them in the coming weeks. But it’s the best step the Irish can take to ensure they’ll be ready when those moments arise.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.