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With playoff hopes dashed, Irish look to build young talent

| Friday, October 13, 2023

Mary Votava | The Observer
Irish freshman wide receiver Rico Flores Jr. prepares to catch a touchdown during Notre Dame’s 17-14 loss to Ohio State at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 23.

There is still a lot for Notre Dame to play for during the rest of the 2023-24 season. It’s important for the mostly inexperienced Irish coaching staff to keep learning what it takes to win consistently. Upperclassmen have NFL aspirations and draft stock at stake. The rivalry against USC will still be fierce when the top-10 Trojans run through the visiting tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night. And of course, a strong finish to the regular season could give Notre Dame a chance to win its first New Year’s Six bowl game since 1993.

But, for all intents and purposes, the biggest goal of this season for the Irish can no longer be fulfilled. Notre Dame’s 33-20 defeat at Louisville and agonizing 17-14 loss to Ohio State combine to take the Irish out of the College Football Playoff race. Even a New Year’s Six Bowl is looking unlikely. Notre Dame would likely have to run the table to have a shot, facing two very tricky matchups against the Trojans this weekend and at Clemson on Nov. 4. The Irish are probably looking at an 8-4 or 9-3 regular season, right in line with where they were record-wise a season ago.

However, there’s plenty at stake for Notre Dame’s future in the present. As the season progresses, expect the Irish to phase in their young talent a bit more than they have already. Marcus Freeman has not been afraid to trust freshmen and underclassmen during his two years in South Bend. Now, more than ever, it’s important to get young players playing time to keep them from leaving in the transfer portal and identify potential needs the Irish may need to fill through the portal themselves. Here are a few who could have noteworthy ends to the season that could carry over to the next season when hope springs anew.

Rico Flores Jr.

Flores’ season has played out a bit like sophomore cornerback Ben Morrison’s a year ago, albeit to a lesser extent. The freshman wideout wasn’t the headliner of Notre Dame’s receiver class, not dissimilar to how Morrison was rated behind Jaden Mickey heading into last fall. However, Flores has quickly established a role for himself after a quiet first few weeks. It started with a 60-yard performance against Central Michigan, including a career-long 42-yard reception. If the Irish defense had locked down the Buckeyes, Flores would’ve been the hero after putting the Irish on top with his first collegiate touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Flores’ numbers aren’t eye-popping, but he’s the only Irish receiver with multiple receptions in the last three games. Part of that is due to injuries in the receiver room around him, especially against Duke. But Flores has shown enough to be a consistent part of the passing game going forward.

Jaylen Sneed

Sneed was a very hyped recruit a year ago, the anticipated player to take the torch from a veteran Irish linebacker group. He played in four games last fall, including a five-tackle performance against Boston College. This season, he made an impressive pass breakup against Ohio State, staying with Buckeye quarterback Kyle McCord as he scrambled right on fourth-and-goal. Sneed lunged back to get a piece of McCord’s end zone shot, a massive play in the moment that, like Flores’ touchdown, could have gone down in Notre Dame lore if the game ended differently.

Other than that, it’s been a pretty quiet season for the sophomore. Sneed has notched six tackles total. Despite starting in the season-opener, he has been pushed into a depth role, partly because of the experienced talent the Irish have at linebacker. At the same time, defensive coordinator Al Golden has played a lot of nickel this year. But the Irish need to find out what they have in Sneed. Graduate student Jack Kiser has had his snaps drastically cut in some of Notre Dame’s recent games. Sneed should be picking more of those up than he currently is.

Drayk Bowen

Speaking of highly-touted linebackers, enter Bowen, a consensus four-star recruit as part of Freeman’s second class with the Irish this fall. Bowen has gotten playing time in every game this season except for Tennessee State. It hasn’t been much, but he’s proved capable of making an impact, forcing a fumble against NC State. Bowen is a freshman, so there’s no rush to force him into a situation if he isn’t ready. However, the Irish might have ample opportunities for linebackers in their bowl game if their trio of graduate students decides to sit out. Regardless, Bowen is someone the Irish should focus on building up into a consistent contributor for 2024.

Steve Angeli

Meghan Lange | The Observer
Irish sophomore quarterback Steve Angeli releases a pass during Notre Dame’s 42-3 defeat of Navy at Aviva Stadium on Aug. 26.

This one is more of a speculative pick that will almost certainly be reserved for a bowl game, if at all. The only way graduate student Sam Hartman isn’t taking a meaningful snap at quarterback for the Irish the rest of the season is injury or if he doesn’t play in the bowl game, too. But if either of those happens, don’t change the channel. As of now, Angeli is QB1 on Notre Dame’s 2024 depth chart. The presence of incoming freshman star C.J. Carr could change that. Maybe current freshman Kenny Minchey jumps him on the depth chart. Dipping into the transfer portal again is also an option.

But Angeli is the favorite for now. On paper, his numbers look great: 10-for-14 for 144 yards and two touchdowns. As expected, that’s mostly come in garbage time. And the eye test hasn’t always been as favorable. Maybe Angeli isn’t the guy for the Irish going forward. But maybe he is. Either way, the Irish should try to find out.

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About Andrew McGuinness

Andrew McGuinness is a senior in Siegfried Hall and Sports Editor of The Observer. He is from Haddonfield, New Jersey, and loves all of his Philly sports teams, even if they don't always love him back. Reach out below or on Twitter (@_AndrewMcG) to talk sports or TV shows, especially if they're Stranger Things, Survivor, Abbott Elementary or/and Severance.

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