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Veteran leaders, young stars shine as Irish edge out Broncos, 4-3

The Notre Dame men’s tennis team continued a strong start to the year, improving to 4-1 with a tight 4-3 victory over Western Michigan. The Broncos have been one of the nation’s strongest mid-major programs for years, winning the MAC Tournament the last four years it’s been played. 

“Western Michigan is a really good team. Hats off to them. They’ve had this same core of players for two or three years now,” Irish head coach Ryan Sachire said. “They have a bunch of fifth year seniors, true seniors. They’ve played a lot of tennis matches, they’ve won a lot. They’re dominant in the MAC. We knew this was going to be a tough match. We knew they were very good and a team that is capable of getting an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament.”

The Irish did not get off to an ideal start, dropping the doubles point in an extremely close battle. Freshman Sebastian Dominko and senior Connor Fu won at the top court, 6-4, but the Irish couldn’t bring home a victory at either of the lower courts. The Broncos won on the third court in a tiebreak to take a 1-0 lead in the match. 

“It was a really strong opponent. The doubles point didn’t go our way,” Sachire commented. “It was really tight, really close, but you get down 1-0, it’s tough to win four singles.”

However, the Irish got the energy boost they needed from their veteran corps. Playing next to each other on Courts 2 and 4 at Eck Tennis Pavilion, Fu and fellow senior Matthew Che delivered straight-set victories to vault the Irish into the lead. Fu put forth a dominant effort, collecting a couple of breaks and riding the momentum to a 6-3, 6-4 victory. 

“Had to come out pretty fast. Losing the doubles point is always tough, but you have to bring the energy for your teammates. I think I did that pretty well in the first set,” Fu noted. “Came out pretty strong in the second set as well. He had a good push back, but ultimately closed it out which was big for us.” 

Che’s win was more adventurous, but he still brought home a big point for the Irish, defeating Peter Kuszynski. After going down a break early, the senior broke back to take a 4-3 lead. With the match tied 5-5, Che ensured it would at least go to a tiebreak with a clean sweep to hold for a 6-5 lead. His blistering cross-court forehand winner sealed the game.

In a tiebreak, Che produced three unforced errors early to go down 3-2. However, down a point and with Kusynzki serving, Che rallied. First, he returned a Kusynzki serve with a power forehand winner. On the ensuing crucial rally, Che sprinted across the back baseline, skidding to his backhand side. Kusynzki sensed an opportunity and crashed the net, only to see Che’s skidding shot loft over his head and drop down for a 4-3 lead. Che took the lead and his serve back, where he immediately won two straight points to garner three opportunities for a set point. After Kusynzki saved a pair on his own serve, Che delivered a thundering ace to seal the first-set victory. 

In the second set, Che won four straight games to go up 5-2. After suffering a break in his first opportunity to clinch the match, Che broke right back — his third break of the second set — to earn the win. 

“What our seniors did in Connor Fu and Matt Che winning in straight sets and beating two quality opponents who had beaten them previously in their careers … that’s what leaders do,” Sachire said. “Really proud of those guys for stepping up and getting it done. 

“Today, I was trying to share energy a lot. I was yelling to the other side a lot,” Fu added. “[Che] was a bit more composed with himself. But people give off energy different ways, and it’s our job to do that for our team.”

The Irish would trail again after seeing defeats on the third and sixth courts. Graduate student Aditya Vashistha was up early, holding and breaking for a 2-0 lead. However, he was broken in his efforts to garner a big-time advantage, and he struggled to regain the momentum. He was broken three times in the first set and ultimately lost, 4-6, 3-6. It was his first singles loss of the season. Freshman Noah Becker fell to 2-2 on the season with a 3-6, 5-7 loss on Court No. 6. 

That left the match to be decided by the first and fifth courts, both with newcomers to the Irish lineup battling it out. On the top court, freshman Sebastian Dominko dominated the first set, earning a break while up 2-1 to garner a convincing lead and win 6-3. However, in the second set, it was Dominko who was broken, going down 4-1. However, the freshman battled back to win three straight games, on two holds and a break. When the match went to tiebreak, Dominko had little issue in setting down his foe, 7-2, to win 6-3, 7-6. A vicious slicing forehand from the lefty ended the tiebreak.

“He’s obviously a great player and competitor,” Sachire said of his Slovenian freshman. “He played against a really good opponent and stepped up big time at the end of that match and set the table for Yu [Zhang] to close it out.” 

Zhang, a sophomore who didn’t crack the singles lineup last year, suffered early breaks in both sets but maintained an unbeaten record on the year to secure the Irish win. He also won a tiebreaker in his first set, winning the first five points of the game to claim the first set. He also punctuated the victory with a powerful ace, winning the tiebreak 7-1. That gave the Irish a 3-0 record in tiebreaks during singles play. 

“What it comes down to is clarity and confidence in what you do in the court. You’ve been playing an entire set. You kind of have a feel for what your opponent is going to do. It comes down to who executes the best. Those are all pressure-packed points,” Sachire noted. “The better player typically is the one who can come through in those big moments. Those guys executed really well in the tiebreakers.” 

Zhang went down early in the second set as well, but a late break gave him a chance to serve for the victory. He made no mistake, losing just one of the ensuing service points to claim the win on the fifth court. He improved to 4-0 on the season. 

“I was proud of how we fought. We need to do a better job of holding our serve. Zhang got broken in the first game of the first and second set. You do that and you’re looking uphill the entire set. It’s tough and I’m super proud of the fight, the battle.” Sachire commented. “We’re clearly not clicking on all cylinders right now, but nobody is. We’ll be playing our best tennis as the season goes on … this is where you learn, where you grow, where you build confidence. Super proud to win our first 4-3 match of the season, and it’s a match that we can look back on the rest of the way. 

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu

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Notre Dame 2023 depth chart projection: Irish need improved wide receiver production

The Notre Dame wide receiver room was a point of weakness in 2022, but there is reason for optimism heading into the 2023 season. The Irish will bring in Sam Hartman, a Wake Forest transfer quarterback who set several ACC records during his tenure with the Demon Deacons. Hartman ranked first in depth of target in 2022 (Irish starting quarterback Drew Pyne ranked 129th), so that immediately elevates the ceiling for what these receivers can accomplish in 2023. The Irish offense is looking to improve on their 31.8 points per game mark. Notre Dame finished 7-0 when exceeding that point total in 2022, but they were just 2-4 when they fell below that mark. 

2022 summary

The Irish wide receiver corps was a shallow group, and they didn’t exactly turn heads throughout much of the season. Sophomore Lorenzo Styles, the projected breakout star of the group, struggled with drops throughout the season and caught 30 passes for 340 yards and a single touchdown. Classmate Jayden Thomas ended the season as the group’s yardage leader with 361 yards on 25 catches. He tied Braden Lenzy, who retired after the Gator Bowl, for the wide receiver lead in touchdown receptions with three. 

Thomas emerged late, posting 12 catches for 189 yards over the final four games, compared to Styles’ seven catches for 53 yards. Additional pieces in the wide receiver room included Lenzy, who departs after totaling 24 catches and 309 yards, both ranking third among wide receivers. Sophomore Deion Colzie also emerged late as a solid third-down option, finishing with nine catches for 192 yards in the final five games of the regular season. Freshman Tobias Merriweather made one catch in the regular season, a 41-yard touchdown reception, but struggled with injury down the stretch. And finally, graduate student Matt Salerno added five catches for 62 yards. 

Thomas and Styles stand out as the guys with the best chance of making the jump to being a true WR1 in the coming season, but Colzie offered a glimpse of his ceiling in the latter portion of the season. Unhampered by injury, and with a full collegiate season under his belt, Merriweather remains a name to watch. 

Key Departures

In this department, it’s really just Lenzy. He vacates a starting role, and the Irish will need to fill it. Lenzy caught 56 passes for 659 yards over the past two years. It isn’t elite-level production, but he was the most proven receiver in the room. No other wide receiver that caught a pass for Notre Dame departs ahead of the 2023 season. Graduate student Joe Wilkins, a role player for several years, entered the transfer portal in November, having not caught a pass in 2022. He announced his transfer to Miami (OH). 

Transfer Portal Additions

Virginia Tech transfer Kaleb Smith is a name to know heading into 2023. His 2022 numbers of 37 catches and 674 yards would both have led the Irish wide receiver room last season. Like the Notre Dame receivers, Smith is receiving an upgrade at the quarterback position and should be in line for a more impactful 2023 season. Smith posted a pair of 100-yard games last season, which no Notre Dame wide receiver accomplished. He’s the natural fit to replace Lenzy atop the depth chart and brings an explosive weapon to the Irish offense. 

Incoming Freshman

The Irish pulled in four wide receivers in their 2023 recruiting class. Braylon James, Jaden Greathouse, Rico Flores and Kaleb Smith (not to be confused with the Virginia Tech transfer) all committed to Notre Dame, and all but Smith enrolled early. That should help mitigate some concerns about learning the complete Notre Dame playbook, which seemed to delay Merriweather’s development. 

Recruiting rankings don’t tell the whole story, but Greathouse feels the most ready to make an immediate impact. He played with Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik for several seasons in high-level Texas high school football. At 6’2, 220 pounds, he has the physicality to get on the field early and make an impact on the 2023 Irish team. James is more of a Merriweather-esque vertical threat, but with a solid spring, he should have a chance to make an impact next season as well. Flores is another early-enrollee and he’s not as highly regarded as Greathouse and James, but the freshman could still find a way to make an impact. He could find a home in the slot for Notre Dame, offering Hartman a consistent target. 

Smith feels like the biggest longshot to impact the roster in 2023. He’s the lowest-ranked recruit and is not enrolled early, which will likely set him a few months behind his classmates. 

Projected Depth Chart 

WR1: Lorenzo Styles, Jayden Thomas, Kaleb Smith

WR2: Deion Colzie, Tobias Merriweather, Jaden Greathouse

This is one possibility for how the two-deep looks heading into the 2023 season opener. Styles and Thomas should retain their starting roles. Despite Styles not making the jump many anticipated, he was still one of the Irish’s most productive receivers and remains a major talent with elite potential. The Irish need to see him make good on that potential sooner rather than later, but he remains atop the depth chart. He sits there alongside the quickly emerging Thomas. Thomas caught five passes for 66 yards as the team’s most consistent receiving threat in the Gator Bowl. His routes looked crisp, and he made several contested catches. He needs to be utilized more frequently next season. Replacing Lenzy is Kaleb Smith. He enters as the most proven receiver, and expectations will be high off the bat. Expect him to be starting in August. 

In the second string, Colzie represents the most experienced name. He emerged late and could be a huge weapon in 2023 if he continues to leap forward. His nine catches for 192 yards in a five-game stretch to end the season extrapolate to 22 catches for 461 yards over a full season. If the Irish can get that out of their fourth wide receiver, that signals good things for the offense. Behind Colzie is a pair of unproven talents. Merriweather is a big-time vertical threat but needs to develop consistency that will hopefully come with a full spring and summer with the team. Greathouse is the freshman with the best chance to impact the team immediately and gives the Irish another rangy, athletic weapon. 

Beyond the two-deep, Flores and James remain intriguing options in the freshman class, and don’t discount Salerno. The sixth-year and former walk-on brings some athleticism and a whole bunch of knowledge to this room. The Irish shouldn’t need to lean on him, but he could be on the field in some key moments in 2023 as well.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.

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2023 Notre Dame depth chart projection: Evans and Co. look to replace Mayer

Tight end will be a position to keep an eye on for Notre Dame in 2023. They lose projected first-round pick and All-American Michael Mayer and will look to replace Mayer’s leadership and team-leading production in the passing game. The Irish record holder in virtually every major statistic for tight ends, Mayer leaves a big hole in an Notre Dame offense that will feature a new-look passing attack in 2023. 

2022 Summary

Prior to Notre Dame’s bowl game, Mayer collected 67 receptions. All other Irish tight ends combined to record four catches. Three came from sophomore Kevin Bauman, who sat out the final ten games of the season due to injury. He did have 75 snaps in two games, however, and seemed primed to be Mayer’s successor prior to his ACL tear. 

Sophomore Mitchell Evans operated as Mayer’s primary backup, not notching a reception until the Gator Bowl. Sophomore Davis Sherwood was third on the roster with 78 snaps at the position. Freshmen Eli Raridon and Holden Staes also got some run, although Raridon went down with an ACL tear midseason.

Key Departures

Undoubtedly, much of the Irish passing attack revolved around their dynamic tight end, as Mayer recorded 809 yards and nine touchdowns. No other Notre Dame receiver notched more than 361 yards or three receiving touchdowns. In fact, the Irish’s top two wide receivers combined for just 55 catches and 701 receiving yards. The Irish lose their biggest passing game weapon, and it’s not close. 

Key Returners

At this point, the Irish have not pursued any tight ends in the transfer portal. They’re sticking with their current pool of tight ends, which is a deep, albeit unproven, group. The returners are headlined by Mitchell Evans. Evans received the most playing time as Mayer’s backup, although he was never a target in the passing game until the Gator Bowl. However, Evans flashed improvement as a blocker, and in the Gator Bowl, he impacted the aerial attack with three receptions for 39 yards. 

Along with Evans, the Irish return freshmen Eli Raridon and Holden Staes, sophomore Davis Sherwood and junior Kevin Bauman. Raridon and Bauman both missed significant time with injury. Bauman actually did catch three passes for 44 yards in the first two games of the season, but an ACL tear ended his campaign prematurely. The same injury ended Raridon’s season before the freshman could see significant playing time. At 6’7″, Raridon could become a passing weapon and slotted ahead of Staes on the depth chart when he was active. Staes played the Gator Bowl as the backup tight end and caught one pass this season for 11 yards. Sherwood is another name to consider, as he played a versatile role in 2022, lining up at fullback and primarily serving as a blocker. He also threw the pass on Notre Dame’s fake punt in the Gator Bowl. 

Freshman Additions

The Irish add Cooper Flanagan as an incoming freshman. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees noted in a press conference on National Signing Day that they understand Flanagan to be the “best tight end in the Bay Area”, so that’s a definite vote of confidence for Flanagan. The four-star recruit is unlikely to be a passing game threat early. He did not play in a pass-heavy high school offense and is not enrolled early, so there will be a delay in learning the playbook. 

However, Flanagan comes to the Irish with well-developed run blocking skills. The Irish love to utilize their tight ends in the run game, and Flanagan’s run-blocking prowess serves as his best chance to crack the depth chart. 

Projected Depth Chart

Notre Dame routinely listed three tight ends on their depth chart this season, so this article will do the same. 

TE1: Mitchell Evans

TE2: Kevin Bauman

TE3: Cooper Flanagan

This set up leaves Evans, the most experienced tight end in the room, as the starter. He proved in the Gator Bowl that he can impact both the run and pass game. He provided a key blitz pickup on a 44-yard touchdown pass, set a few key blocks to spring big runs and caught the game-winning touchdown pass. He’s the obvious candidate to start and make a big jump. 

Bauman remains an intriguing puzzle piece within the Irish offense. Three catches in two games, despite playing with Mayer, seemed to indicate the Irish like what Bauman can do in the passing game. If he stays healthy, he could turn into a big-time weapon for the Irish in 2023. 

Flanagan gets the nod for the third tight end spot. If the Irish want the bigger passing-game threat, it’s likely going to be Raridon, or maybe Staes, depending on their offseason development. However, Flanagan’s physicality and blocking experience might make him the preferred option in run-heavy, three-tight end packages, which is what this projected depth chart predicts. Expect Evans and Bauman, should they stay healthy, to be the most prominent names, but the other four members of the tight end room should receive opportunities to carve out a role for themselves in the 2023 offense.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.

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Notre Dame 2023 depth chart projection: Special teams brings in new names

Notre Dame special teams will undergo some changes ahead of the 2023 season, including starting their third different kicker in three seasons. One of the nation’s most improved units will look to continue to impact the game positively for the Irish under special teams coach Brian Mason. 

2022 Summary

The Irish were a dynamic special teams unit, headlined by their nation-leading seven punt blocks. They notched the first score of Notre Dame’s 35-14 upset of then-No. 4 Clemson. In the kicking game, graduate transfer Blake Grupe made 14 of 19 field goals and was perfect on 49 extra point attempts. He ended his Irish career by making all four field goal attempts over his final three games. Grupe was consistent from short range, connecting on eight of of nine attempts within 40 yards. Walk-on freshman Zac Yoakam served as the Irish’s kickoff specialist. 

In the punting game, Harvard transfer Jon Sot averaged 43.9 yards per kick, ranking inside the nation’s top 30 punters. Graduate student Mike Vinson, nicknamed “Milk,” continued to prove why he is one of the best long snappers in the country, providing remarkable consistency at the position. 

In the return game, the Irish ranked 14th nationally in total punt return yardage and 27th in average yards per punt return. Senior safety Brandon Joseph did most of the work, although graduate student Matt Salerno stepped in during Joseph’s injury at the end of the season. Junior running back Chris Tyree was the primary kick returner, and he had less success. His 16.9 yards per kick return was the third-worst mark in the country. 

Key Departures

Blake Grupe, Jon Sot, Brandon Joseph

The Irish will need to replace their kicker and punter duo, and they’re losing their primary punt returner as well. Grupe was solid in 2022, but he struggled from distance. The Irish didn’t even attempt a field goal from 50+ yards. Sot was solid, consistently flipping the field and helping the Irish win the field position battle in the majority of their games. Joseph returned 18 punts for 179 yards but declared for the NFL draft after his lone season in South Bend. 

Transfer Portal Additions

K: Spencer Shrader, P: Ben Krimm

The Irish already replaced their voids at kicker and punter via the transfer portal. Apparently not content with riding with an in-house backup option, the Irish reached into the portal for South Florida graduate transfer Spencer Shrader. Shrader is 20-26 over his past two seasons with a long of 52 yards. Shrader took a small step back in 2022, going just 2-5 from 40-plus yards after making five of seven attempts from at least 40 yards out in 2021. He’ll look to re-establish that long range accuracy with the Irish. He’s also 12-13 from closer than 40 yards over the past two seasons and a perfect 62-62 on extra points. At the very least, the Irish seem to be getting a similar kicker to Grupe with potentially a little extra juice. 

Krimm transfers from Penn, making it two straight former Ivy League punters for Notre Dame. He averaged 41.6 yards per punt this year, notching punts of at least 50 yards in six of his 10 games in 2022. His season-best effort was 60 yards, and he should slot into the starting punting role for the Irish. 

Freshman Additions

The Irish didn’t add any specialists in their 2023 recruiting class. However, they did add a handful of dynamic athletes that could improve their return game. Safety Micah Bell, running back Jeremiyah Love and wide receiver Braylon James are among the top speedsters in the class. Bell, a track star, has a 20.89 200-meter dash time. Love and James have recorded top speeds of 21.39 mph and 20.45 mph according to the Underclassman Report. Preferred walk-on safety Luke Talich also boasts a 40-yard dash in the 4.5s and could factor in to the discussion. 

Projected Depth Chart

Kicker: Spencer Shrader, Zac Yoakam

Punter: Ben Krimm, Bryce McFerson

KR: Chris Tyree, Lorenzo Styles

PR: Micah Bell, Matt Salerno

LS: Mike Vinson, Rino Monteforte

Holder: Ben Krimm, Bryce McFerson

Kickoff: Zac Yoakam, Bryce McFerson

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.

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Irish swimming and diving sweep Navy, split with Princeton

Sparked by 15 individual wins, the Notre Dame swimming and diving program recorded three wins versus Navy and Princeton this past weekend. The men’s team went 2-0, improving to 4-1, overall. Meanwhile, the women’s team split with a 1-1 record, moving their record to 3-2.

Men’s team sweeps Midshipmen, Tigers

The men’s team started off strong, garnering a victory in their first event, the 200 Freestyle Relay. Sophomore Chris Guiliano blazed through the opening leg in 19.8 seconds, earning a half-second edge on the field. That proved critical, as the Irish ended up winning by just .08 seconds over Princeton and 0.4 seconds over the Midshipmen. Guiliano added an individual win in the 50 freestyle.

In individual events, senior Jack Hoagland produced the first Notre Dame victory, dominating the 400 individual medley by over three seconds. Trailing after the butterfly leg to open the event, Hoagland dominated the backstroke section to open up an advantage that he maintained throughout the event. Hoagland went on to win the 1650 freestyle as well.

Later in the day, the Irish posted a strong 1-2 finish in the 100 backstroke. Freshman Tommy Janton won by over a second (46.5 seconds), and junior Kaden Smesko took second place. To end the first day of competition, the Irish men’s team dominated the diving event, a weakness for the program in past years. Two freshmen, Daniel Knapp and Ben Nguyen, finished first and second, respectively. Knapp won the event by almost 50 points.

On Saturday, the Irish started off with a victory in the 200-medley relay. Senior Cason Wilburn provided the spark in the third leg. He flew through the butterfly in 20.69 seconds to help the Irish surge into the lead. Guiliano anchored the relay to secure the victory. Wilburn and Guiliano both went on to win individual events. Wilburn edged Navy’s Jonah Harm in the 100 butterfly, while Guiliano cruised to a win in the 100 freestyle.

Again, the Irish dominated the backstroke on Saturday. They claimed four of the top five spots in the 200 backstroke, led by Janton’s first-place effort. Freshman Marcus Gentry took second, senior Jack Fitzpatrick finished fourth and Smesko added a fifth-place performance.

Hoagland claimed his third individual victory of the weekend in the 500 freestyle, taking the win by over eight seconds. He later featured in the second leg of the 400 freestyle relay. He and Guiliano swam the first two legs, giving Notre Dame a solid advantage after 200 yards. The Irish ultimately edged Princeton by 0.14 seconds.

Again, Knapp and Nguyen dominated the diving performance, claiming the top two finishes. Knapp won by 37.55 points. That put the wraps on a dominating overall effort from the Irish. They beat Princeton, 234-145, and Navy, 208-119. It was a strong win for Notre Dame who is ranked 23rd in the polls, while Princeton is second in the receiving votes section. The Irish’s only loss this season is to No. 18 Louisville.

Women’s team goes 1-1

The Irish women’s team took home three individual wins plus a relay victory to start their weekend off. Prior to obtaining their first individual win, the Irish swarmed the podium in the 100 backstrokes, claiming the second, third and fourth place finishes. Sophomore Madelyn Christman finished in 54.19 seconds, just .04 seconds off the winning pace.

In the next event, senior Coleen Gillilan edged out classmate Ellie Jew in the 100 breaststroke, as the Irish claimed the top two finishes in the event. Coleen’s younger sister, freshman Renee Gillilan contributed to another top-two sweep for the Irish in the 200 butterfly. Junior Megan Deuel dominated the event, winning by 1.2 seconds. Junior Emma Gleason and sophomore Madeline Menkhaus added top-five finishes in the race.

A few events later, the Irish showcased their prowess in distance swimming, claiming the top three times in the 1650 freestyle. Sophomore Maggie Graves won the event with ease, clearing the next-best time by 21 seconds. Sophomores Mary Cate Pruitt and Sophia Karras rounded out the top three.

In the relays, Jew and Gillilan combined to provide a dominant middle two legs of the 400 medley. Jew gave the Irish the lead over Princeton with a 1:00.01 leg in the breaststroke, well over a second faster than any other participant. Gillilan extended the advantage to over two seconds with a blazing 51.57-second butterfly leg.

To round out the day, the Irish claimed second, third and fourth place in the one-meter diving, led by graduate student Allie Klein.

Jew and Gillilan again sparked the middle legs of a relay to open Saturday’s racing, as the Irish won the 200 individual medley. Gillilan gave Notre Dame a lead over Princeton, and freshman Grace Brenneman anchored the squad to bring home the win.

Pruitt produced Notre Dame’s first individual win of the day in the 500 freestyle. Graves and junior Allison Kopac added third and fourth-place finishes, respectively. That event sparked a run of four individual events to end the day in which Notre Dame placed a swimmer in the top two. Colleen Gillilan added a win in the 100 butterfly, and Renee Gillilan earned a second-place finish in the 200 individual medley.

In diving, freshman Grace Courtney finished second in the three-meter competition, putting the wraps on a strong weekend for the women. Notre Dame thrashed Navy, 279-74, but they fell in a tight battle with Princeton, 188-165. The Tigers earned victories in the final three events to secure the win.

The Irish take this upcoming weekend off, and then they will host the Tim Welsh Classic on Jan. 27 to 28. Both teams will look to improve on their times with the postseason looming in just a month.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.

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Irish dominate jumps, take two wins at Michigan Invitational

The Notre Dame track and field squad competed for the first time in 2023 at the Michigan Invitational. On Friday, the Irish competed against a host of schools, including Michigan, Michigan State, Eastern Michigan, Madonna and Toledo. Notre Dame claimed a pair of first-place finishes in women’s high jump and long jump. Those performances sparked a strong team effort featuring 16 top-five finishes. Sophomores Madison Schmidt (high jump) and Kendall Burgess (long jump) took home victories for Notre Dame.

Senior sprinter Shae Douglas started the Irish off strong by qualifying for the finals in the 60m sprint. She ran a 7.74 in the finals to secure a third-place finish. Douglas later earned another podium finish in the 200m, delivering a personal best of 24.94 seconds to claim third place.

Sophomore hurdler Alaina Brady represented one of two Irish sprinters in the 60m hurdle finals, and she brought home a second-place finish, finishing in 8.61 seconds. Brady later added a third-place finish in the long jump. Freshmen Reese Sanders and Remy Finn added top-five finishes for the Irish in the 600m and 400m, respectively.

That set the stage for the Irish to dominate in the jumps. Burgess won the long jump with a leap of 5.71 meters. Brady and Finn followed with top-six efforts. Schmidt led a quartet of Irish jumpers to sweep the top four in the high jump. Schmidt’s winning jump of 1.71m edged sophomore Jadin O’Brien, senior Arianna Martinez and junior Sarah Flight.

O’Brien struggled early in the day, disqualifying herself from the finals in two sprints. She ended her meet strong with the high jump effort, as well as a third-place finish in the shot put.

On the men’s side, the Irish only competed in the 400m. Three sprinters participated, led by sophomore Joey Dobrydney’s fourth-place effort. He finished with a 49.87, while senior sprinter Luke Phillips took eighth with a personal best of 50.49 seconds.

The Michigan Invitational marked the beginning of the real indoor season for the Irish. They had previously competed in a pair of Invitationals at the beginning of December. However, they’ll compete in six straight weekends leading into the ACC Championships at the end of February. Notre Dame continues that stretch by hosting the Notre Dame Invitational next Saturday. It’s one of three events the Irish will host this season.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.

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Thomas: Five potential 2023 stars emerge from Gator Bowl performance

The 2022 season is in the books for Notre Dame, punctuated by their wild 45-38 win over South Carolina in the Gator Bowl. The Irish will replace four offensive starters (five if you count the quarterback) and up to five defensive starters, depending on a few pending decisions. In particular, the defensive line loses All-American Isaiah Foskey along with the highly productive Jayson Ademilola. In the secondary, cornerback TaRiq Bracy and safety Houston Griffith are out of eligibility. Senior safety Brandon Joseph is headed to the NFL Draft and another senior safety DJ Brown may depart as well.

Over on the offensive side, the Irish will obviously replace All-American tight end Michael Mayer, along with two offensive linemen and graduate student receiver Braden Lenzy, who announced his retirement after the bowl game. The Irish will break in a quarterback with no more than three career starts in a Notre Dame uniform. 

So, what did a thrilling Gator Bowl provide in terms of insight into the 2023 season? Here are a few players who stood out and could become X-Factors next year. 

Safety Ramon Henderson

The junior was a standout in the secondary during the Gator Bowl, and he will be called upon to continue that trend in 2023. Ahead of the game, I wrote about how the Irish safety group was a solid group that frequently failed to make major plays that impacted the game. In particular, Henderson and classmate Xavier Watts needed to step up, as they might be next year’s starters at the position. 

Henderson stepped up in a six-tackle performance with 0.5 tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. He had a few major impact plays that don’t go down in the box score, as well as a few that do. On South Carolina’s second drive, Henderson worked around a block — on a similar play call to the one that netted the Gamecocks their first touchdown — and minimized a screen pass to a three-yard gain. On the ensuing play, Henderson helped pursue a screen and was in the right position to recover a fumble. That was the start of a solid performance from the junior safety, who disrupted the Gamecocks throughout the game. 

On a South Carolina trick play, Henderson blew up a reverse to a wide receiver who looked to pass. The coverage was tight, and Henderson flew into the backfield to eliminate a scramble attempt. Although not credited with the tackle, Henderson’s read forced a three-yard loss on the play. He notched a tackle to save a potential first down on the ensuing second-down screen pass and ultimately helped force a punt.

One of his biggest ‘invisible’ plays of the evening came in the third quarter after the Irish turned the ball over in their own territory. On a first-down screen pass from the Notre Dame 41, Henderson read the play to perfection, drilling the receiver in the backfield. The receiver stayed on his feet, but he stumbled and was then hit at the line of scrimmage by two more Irish players to keep the play to no gain. South Carolina ultimately punted on the drive, and Notre Dame managed to critically stay within one possession. 

Henderson delivered a performance that had been lacking from the Irish safety room — a disruptive performance with a few drive-changing plays that ultimately helped swing the result. It felt like the junior hit a new level with that performance, and it’s one he’s going to need to stay at in 2023 to lead a safety room with little to no depth. 

Vyper Jordan Botelho

Junior edge rusher Jordan Botelho had eyes on him in his audition to be Foskey’s replacement. And, Botelho responded with a two-sack performance, notching multiple quarterback hits and hurries to go with it. He blew up a pair of option plays, reading South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler perfectly, notching a sack and a quarterback hit on two plays. On a crucial end-of-half drive, South Carolina had a chance to extend their lead to two possessions, moving to midfield with time for two or three more plays. Botelho notched a quarterback hit on the final two snaps. The first led to just a three-yard completion that forced South Carolina to call their final timeout. The second led Rattler to underthrow a deep pass down the sideline, which was intercepted by freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison. 

Botelho delivered a quarterback hurry and his second sack in the second half, as the Irish defense allowed just seven points in the comeback victory. He’s almost a lock to be a starter on the defensive line next season after a promising Gator Bowl performance. 

Tight End Mitchell Evans

Entering with two career receptions, and zero in 2022, sophomore tight end Mitchell Evans faced pressure in the Gator Bowl. He was tasked with replacing All-American Michael Mayer, widely regarded as the best tight end in Notre Dame history. Evans responded with a rock-solid performance, punctuated by his game-winning touchdown reception. Overall, Evans had three receptions for 39 yards. Two came on the final drive, and the other was an 18-yard reception in which Evans made a man miss to convert a 3rd and 15. 

On the blocking side, Evans was fantastic, picking up a blitz on the Irish’s game-tying 44-yard scoring pass in the third quarter. He also had a key block in the 39-yard touchdown run that temporarily gave the Irish the lead. Throughout the game, Evans sealed the edge for quarterback Tyler Buchner to break off some big runs. Overall, Evans showed he could be a weapon in the passing game while providing the physicality and blocking prowess that Notre Dame seeks in their starting tight ends. The Irish will miss Mayer, but Evans is a budding star to watch. 

Wide Receiver Jayden Thomas

If Tyler Buchner does indeed start the 2023 season, the connection he showed with sophomore receiver Jayden Thomas is extremely promising. Thomas led the Irish with five catches, good for 67 yards. He was on the receiving end of a 25-yard bomb that set up an Irish touchdown, as well as a key 14-yard reception on 3rd and 12 that led to three more Notre Dame points. Thomas also displayed versatility late in the game, delivering some massive blocks on big Notre Dame runs as they overpowered South Carolina on the ground in the fourth quarter. He lined up like a second tight end at times to seal the edge and he even went in motion and served as a lead blocker on a few runs. Notre Dame will be seeking a true WR1 in 2023, and Thomas made a convincing case that he can be the guy. 

Cornerback Jaden Mickey

Heralded as a potential instant-impact player heading into his freshman season, Jaden Mickey endured some struggles in 2022. While Mickey saw the field, it was somewhat sparingly and in a reserve role. Thrown into the fire to replace senior Cam Hart against USC, Mickey struggled, he allowed a catch on every target, several for first downs and missed a few key tackles. 

On Friday, Mickey displayed the grit and talent that originally had the Irish excited about his future. He could become a key player in a thin Notre Dame secondary in 2023. Mickey provided tight coverage during the Gator Bowl and made a few big plays to get the Notre Dame defense off the field. 

In the first half, Notre Dame forced their first punt after Mickey delivered a booming tackle that held a screen pass to a one-yard gain on third and five. Later, after the Irish turnover that gave the Gamecocks the ball in plus territory, Mickey provided the tight coverage on third down to force an incompletion and punt. And on the final play of the game, Mickey was one of the players in coverage on South Carolina’s Hail Mary, helping break up the pass and delivering the final blow, swatting the ball to the ground after it popped up in the air one more time. The Irish lose TaRiq Bracy at the cornerback position, and Mickey will have a chance to get more snaps in his sophomore season because of that. He put forth a convincing audition during the Gator Bowl.

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Gator Bowl grades: Buchner delivers rollercoaster effort amidst transfer rumors

Tyler Buchner entered the 2022 season with a lot of hype. With the offensive line and run game struggling, Buchner’s inexperience as a passer shone through in a rough, 0-2 start to the season. In the second loss, Buchner suffered an injury that sidelined him until Friday’s bowl game.

The sophomore took the field for his third career start amidst raging rumors that Notre Dame is trying to land Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Sam Hartman. That would put Buchner into another quarterback battle in 2023. With a lot of pressure to showcase the talent that earned him the QB1 spot to start the year, Buchner delivered a wildly up-and-down performance in Notre Dame’s 45-38 win. He accounted for 335 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns, but he also threw three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. Here’s a drive-by-drive look at Buchner’s Gator Bowl effort.

Drive 1: Three plays, two yards, punt

Best play: Incomplete pass on first down

Worst play: Incomplete pass on third down

Buchner didn’t exactly start hot, delivering two off-target throws on his first two attempts. The first was certainly catchable, but it was a bit of a rocket from just yards away towards a crossing Lorenzo Styles. It went in the box score as a Styles drop. It was, but it was also off-target. The third-down throw was far worse. On third and eight, Buchner had sophomore receiver Jayden Thomas open for the first down, but he just led his target too far across the field, ending the drive with a three-and-out.

Grade: D

Drive 2: 10 plays, 50 yards, TD

Best Play: 15-yard touchdown run

Worst Play: Incomplete pass to Holden Staes

In a grind-it-out touchdown drive, Buchner was inconsistent, but he made plays where it counted. On 2nd and 15, he threw a bullet pass to freshman tight end Holden Staes. It went slightly high. Similar to the incompletion to Styles, it was catchable, but it was an off-target effort.

However, Buchner responded with a third-down completion to sophomore tight end Mitchell Evans for 18 yards to keep the drive alive. Four plays later, Buchner appeared to call an audible on third and nine from the 15-yard line, and he danced through the middle and into the end zone on a quarterback draw. It was a reminder of the dual-threat ability that Buchner brings to the table, which becomes more lethal in the red zone, particularly with the Irish’s strong run game.

Grade: B+

Drive 3: Five plays, 19 yards, pick-six

Best Play: Shovel pass to Braden Lenzy, 13 yards

Worst Play: Pick-six

This was a disaster of a drive, as Buchner did very little besides shoveling a second-down pass to graduate student receiver Braden Lenzy. After a pair of runs, Buchner looked to dump it to sophomore running back Logan Diggs, but the pass was deflected at the line. It popped in the air and was returned for a touchdown. There was some miscommunication with Diggs’ motion; he collided with offensive guard Josh Lugg, who also allowed his blocking assignment to get elevated and deflect the pass. Out of three interceptions, this one was the least on Buchner, but it still was a massive mistake in the moment, putting the Irish down 21-7.

Grade: F

Drive 4: 11 plays, 56 yards, field goal

Best play: 14-yard pass on 3rd and 12 to Jayden Thomas

Worst play: 12-yard sack on 3rd and goal

Buchner rebounded well from the pick-six, completing two of three passes for 28 yards on the ensuing drive for the Irish. He added a 21-yard rush that got them into field goal range. His most impressive play was easily on a 3rd and 12 conversion from the South Carolina 44. Buchner rolled right and got drilled as he unleashed a throw to Thomas. The pass hit the sophomore receiver in stride where only he could catch it, allowing Thomas to convert the first down. From a difficulty standpoint, it was arguably Buchner’s most impressive throw all day.

A few plays later, Buchner nearly undid all his work by scrambling around on a third and goal. He dropped back and scrambled right and eventually took a massive 12-yard sack. By not getting rid of the ball, Buchner turned a 24-yard field goal attempt into a 36-yarder. Graduate student kicker Blake Grupe drilled the kick anyways, but Buchner nearly made a disaster of a solid drive by trying to play the hero.

Grade: B-

Drive 5: One play, 75 yards, touchdown

Best Play: 75-yard touchdown pass to Logan Diggs

It is hard to fault Buchner for anything on this drive, but it is also hard to give him a ton of credit. Most of the work on this one-play drive came from Diggs. The running back motioned out of the backfield, and Buchner hit him in the chest and in stride. Diggs, with a little blocking help, did the rest of the work.

Grade: A

Drive 6: Three plays, -8 yards, punt

Best Play: 8-yard screen pass to Audric Estime

Worst Play: 9-yard sack on third down

This was an absolute disaster of a drive, although it wasn’t really on Buchner. It started with a shovel pass that was absolutely blown up for a seven-yard loss. After that, Buchner completed the second-down play call as well as he could have, dishing off a screen pass that gained seven yards and made it a manageable third down.

On third down, Buchner faced basically immediate pressure as All-American left tackle Joe Alt got beaten off the snap. Buchner evaded an immediate sack but got drilled soon after by an unblocked blitzing linebacker. Maybe Buchner could have just gotten rid of the ball after the first sack attempt. It wouldn’t have changed much, except where the Irish punted from.

Grade: C+

Drive 7: Three plays, one yard, punt

Best Play: Incomplete deep pass on third down

Worst Play: Incomplete slant on second down

After a one-yard run to start the second half, Buchner looked to pass twice, both times firing toward freshman receiver Tobias Merriweather. The second-down pass was a low slant, falling in the ‘catchable but off-target’ department. Merriweather ran a slant near the sticks, but he had to fall to reach Buchner’s low throw and couldn’t collect the pass. That led to a third and nine, and Buchner targeted Merriweather once more, this time on a deep post. It was a well-placed ball, just out in front of the freshman. However, Buchner’s target seemed to lose the ball in the lights and never attempted to make a play on the ball. It ended up as a ‘what could have happened’ moment.

Grade: C

Drive 8: Five plays, 68 yards, touchdown

Best play: 25-yard pass to Jayden Thomas

Worst play: 1-yard run on first down

This was a case study in how valuable Tyler Buchner can be for this Notre Dame offense. First down called for a designed run which went for one yard. But after that, it was all smooth sailing. Estime’s 19-yard run set up one of Buchner’s best throws of the evening. He found Jayden Thomas on a deep out route by the left sideline, dropping the ball in a bucket for his classmate. It was a 25-yard gain that put the Irish at the South Carolina 23. Then, Estime ran for 12, and Buchner kept for 11 yards to finish off a blistering five-play, 68-yard touchdown drive.

Grade: A

Drive 9: Three plays, six yards, interception

Best play: 6-yard run

Worst play: Interception

Buchner showed why he could be so dangerous, and then he demonstrated the inexperience and recklessness that has the Irish exploring the transfer portal. After two runs for six yards, the Irish faced third down. Buchner scrambled to avoid pressure. Although he was virtually out of any options to convert the first down, Buchner tried to make some magic happen. He flipped the ball toward Jayden Thomas, but the ball was behind the receiver. It popped up in the air and into South Carolina hands for an interception. Down 31-24 already, Notre Dame faced a potentially devastating momentum swing.

Grade: F

Drive 10: Eight plays, 31 yards, punt

Best Play: 12-yard pass on third down

Worst Play: Incomplete pass on 2nd & 7

Buchner offered a solid response to his second interception, moving the Irish into South Carolina territory before a punt. After the offense gained 13 yards in three plays, Buchner turfed a second-down pass under heavy pressure. It was a harmless incompletion that kept the drive alive. With the third-down opportunity, Buchner delivered a strike on a slant to Lenzy, good for 12 yards and a first down.

Two plays later, however, the Irish faced another third down and the Gamecocks blitzed. Buchner faced instant pressure and did well to not take a sack, but he could only find Thomas for one yard, leading to a punt.

Grade: B+

Drive 11: One play, 44 yards, touchdown

Best Play: 44-yard touchdown pass

Another candidate for one of Buchner’s best throws of the evening, this 44-yard bomb to Lenzy tied the game up for the first time since the first quarter. Sophomore tight end Mitchell Evans picked up a blitz, but Buchner still threw under duress. He managed to hit Lenzy in stride on a deep crossing route for the score.

Grade: A+

Drive 12: Seven plays*, 73 yards, touchdown

Best play: 8-yard run on 2nd down

Worst play: Incomplete pass on third down

This drive was seven plays, with the asterisk denoting a fake punt that extended the drive while Buchner wasn’t on the field. Prior to the punt, Buchner underthrew a deep post route into tight coverage. It was an interesting play call on 3rd and 4, and Buchner threw to his first read. A perfect throw might have been completed, but it was a small margin for error.

After the fake, Buchner threw incomplete on a broken play but ran for eight yards to set up a short third down. From there, Diggs did the work with a 39-yard touchdown run to give Notre Dame a 38-31 lead. Buchner did quite little on this drive, but he also didn’t do a ton wrong. And ultimately, Notre Dame scored, with the help of a little trickery.

Grade: C

Drive 13: Six plays, 53 yards, pick-six

Best play: 17-yard run on first down

Worst play: Pick-six

It was almost a masterclass. A fantastic, game-sealing drive to give the Irish a 45-31 lead and basically clinch a Gator Bowl victory. And then it turned to disaster.

Buchner started the drive with a 17-yard run, putting the South Carolina defense on its heels. A few plays later, Buchner called his own number on a three-yard quarterback sneak to convert a first down. But, after a 26-yard run by Estime, Buchner erased the offensive progress. The play call was for a first-down slant pass over the middle for Evans. Buchner pump-faked a screen to get one linebacker to clear the throwing lane. The throw may have been open for a split second, but Buchner took an extra drop step before releasing. It allowed the weakside linebacker to diagnose the play, and he dropped back to make the interception, returning it for a game-tying touchdown.

Grade: F

Drive 14: 12 plays, 80 yards, touchdown

Best play: 16-yard touchdown pass

Worst play: 1-yard run

Buchner displayed impressive resilience in a strong response after his second pick-six. In 12 plays, Buchner passed three times for 30 yards and ran once for four yards. Beyond that, he was happy to let his running backs do the work, and that they did. However, the drive included a 3rd and 1 conversion as Buchner read a quarterback sneak well and brought it around the right tackle for a four-yard gain.

A few plays later, sitting on the edge of field goal range, Buchner calmly completed a pitch-and-catch third-down conversion to junior running back Chris Tyree, who motioned out of the backfield. That allowed the Irish to drain some more clock, which they gladly did on a pair of runs of one and two yards.

That left a 3rd and seven from the 16-yard line, and many assumed the Irish would run the ball and force South Carolina to take a timeout before attempting a field goal. The Irish lined up in their preferred run concept, duo, but the call was a play-action pass. After faking the handoff, Buchner kept his eyes to the right, towards a streaking Thomas. Suddenly, he pivoted back left and found Evans wide open. The play call worked well, and Buchner executed it to perfection on his final snap of the day.

Grade: A+

Final Grades

Over 14 drives, Buchner displayed the highs and lows that come with raw talent and very little experience. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees gave his sophomore quarterback a chance to both sling it and use his legs. In those 14 drives, Buchner earned 4 ‘A’ grades and 3 ‘F’s. It was truly a wild performance from start to finish.

In 2022, the Irish had a quarterback who generally played safe, but his ceiling limited the Irish in a few critical moments. There’s no doubt, after he accounted for five touchdowns in the Gator Bowl, that Buchner raises that ceiling, but the floor, for now, appears to be much lower. Or it looked as much in Friday’s three-interception effort. That’s a lot of risk to carry into a 2023 season with a lot of returning talent and Playoff aspirations. If Buchner was looking to deliver a performance that proved the Irish don’t need to consider the transfer portal, he failed to do so. But he did deliver the Irish their first bowl win over a ranked opponent since 2017, and he showcased a talent level that, once polished, could be the best the Irish have had at the position in years.

Final Grade: B-

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.

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Gator bowl grades: Irish defensive line flashes sneak peak of 2023

While on the offensive side of the ball, Notre Dame looked to replace All-American junior Michael Mayer at tight end, they had a couple of major holes on the defensive side as well. The Irish were missing four defensive starters during Friday’s Gator Bowl, including two on the defensive line.

Senior vyper and projected first-round pick Isaiah Foskey, the Notre Dame record holder for career sacks, opted out of the bowl game to prepare for the draft. Additionally, graduate student defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, a staple of the defensive line over the past two seasons was ruled out this week with an injury. Ademilola notched five tackles for loss and three sacks in 2022, and he’s been projected as high as the fourth round in mock drafts.

The Irish got their first look at what their defensive line could look like without arguably their two best players of the past two seasons. Notre Dame rolled with eight primary defensive linemen during their clash with South Carolina. A few linebackers took snaps at edge rusher — the Irish have made a habit of crosstraining their linebackers at the vyper position to add versatility to various defensive packages. Here’s a look at standouts from the day, along with an overall drive-by-drive analysis.

Quarter 1

The Irish went down 21-7 in the first quarter, while playing three defensive possessions. The opening drive was a tough start for both the line and the defense as a whole. South Carolina drove 75 yards in 10 seemingly effortless plays for an opening score. The Irish largely rolled with juniors Jordan Botelho and Rylie Mills, senior Howard Cross and graduate student Justin Ademilola on the line. They struggled to generate really any pressure against a high-tempo offense. They allowed an early 13-yard run to spark the drive. Botelho, Foskey’s main replacement at vyper, took advantage of his first major opportunity, sacking South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler on a read-option play.

From there, the line play improved, as the Irish rolled with their second rotation, featuring senior Nana Osafa-Mensah, graduate student Chris Smith, sophomore Gabriel Rubio and freshman Junior Tuihalamaka. The Irish defense generated a turnover, courtesy of a forced fumble from the secondary. But the line played a minimal role in the drive. South Carolina would score on their final drive of the quarter, going 75 yards once more. Again, the Irish defensive line struggled to make much of an impact. The Gamecocks flew down the field to the edge of the red zone. The Irish did force a fourth down, but South Carolina faked a field goal and scored anyway.

After a South Carolina pick-six, the Gamecocks led 21-7. Throughout the quarter, the Irish defensive line generated virtually no pressure, and a very comfortable Rattler hit on most everything.

Grade: 3.0/10

Quarter 2

After a hot start, the Gamecocks slowed down in the second quarter, as the Irish new-look defensive line continued to try and find a groove. On their first play of the second quarter, Ademilola and Cross combined for a big play, surging through the line to force a three-yard loss on a first-down fun. However, South Carolina managed to move the chains again. Out near midfield, Botelho notched his second impact play of the game. He again read a read-option play well and notched a quarterback hit, forcing a rushed screen pass which was stuffed for no gain.

Although they didn’t directly notch much pressure, the Irish managed to collapse the pocket a few times, forcing more throws on the run. They held South Carolina to a field goal, keeping the deficit within two possessions. That seemed to be a momentum switch, as the defensive line began to generate more havoc throughout the game. The Gamecocks punted and threw an interception on their final two possessions of the half.

Rubio showed impressive pursuit in helping shut down a reverse and wide receiver pass attempt that turned into a three-yard loss. Botelho punctuated a strong first half with consecutive quarterback hits on the final two plays. The second led to an underthrow and an interception, ending South Carolina’s hopes of extending their 24-17 advantage.

Overall, the defensive line was much improved in this quarter, stuffing several runs and trick play efforts while finally making Rattler uncomfortable. They minimized big plays and gave a slow-moving offense a chance to start generating yards and points.

Grade: 8.0/10

Quarter 3

The Irish defense had a much stronger showing in the second half. They generated early pressure in forcing a three-and-out on the first South Carolina possession of the half. Osafa-Mensah shed a block to earn a second-down tackle. Botelho helped collapse the pocket on third down, forcing an incompletion.

South Carolina scored just once in the quarter, via a 42-yard scoring pass from Rattler, who faced heavy pressure from Mills on the play. The Irish didn’t allow another first down on any of the three more South Carolina drives in the quarter. The Irish featured some new looks in the third quarter on the line. Freshman linebacker Jaylen Sneed then started lining up at vyper a few times. On occasion, the Irish put Ademilola and Botelho on the same side of the line, trying to generate mismatches by overloading their primary edge rushers. The varied looks kept the Gamecocks flustered and struggling on offense.

Late in the quarter, the Irish managed to flip the field at a crucial time. Ademilola pressured Rattler on first down and forced an underthrow on a deep shot. On third down, Ademilola and Botelho both broke through, with the latter notching his second sack of the evening. That quarter ended with the score tied 31-31.

The Irish started to make things uncomfortable for the Gamecocks in the third. However, the actual production was limited to one sack and some quarterback hurries.

Grade: 6.0/10

Quarter 4

The Irish needed to take the field just twice as a defensive unit in the fourth quarter. On the first, they netted another three-and-out. Tuihalamaka offered strong pursuit on a two-yard loss on first down. Tuihalamaka and Cross added second-down pressure as Rattler was forced to scramble.

A long pick-six by the Carolina defense meant that the Notre Dame offense was on the field for much of the quarter. When the defense re-took the field, the Irish led 45-38. They needed to hold the Gamecocks one more time, and with the help of a strong pass rush, the Irish defense obliged. For this final drive, Notre Dame called on Botelho, Ademilola and Cross for every snap. Sneed (five snaps) and Tuihalamaka (two snaps) alternated rushing off the edge.

The Gamecocks moved the ball quickly to start, getting all the way to the Notre Dame 35. However, the Irish pass rush stepped up. On second down, Mills showed excellent patience, spinning off a block that forced Rattler to take an intentional grounding penalty, putting the Gamecocks into a 3rd and 21. Cross and Admeilola brought pressure on third down, and Rattler fired incomplete under heavy duress. Finally, on fourth down, Ademilola broke through one more time, chasing Rattler toward the sideline and forcing him to heave it while rolling left. The pass fell incomplete, securing the Gator Bowl victory.

On eleven fourth-quarter snaps, the Irish generated heavy pressure on about half of them. They forced a tackle for loss and held Rattler to two completions on six attempts, passing for 20 yards. Additionally, the Irish defense notched a sack and forced Rattler to scramble out of a collapsing pocket twice. Beyond allowing some positive yardage on the scrambles and a personal foul on Sneed, it was absolute dominance from the defensive line when it counted.

Grade: 9.0/10

Overall, the new-look Irish offensive line started slow but improved drastically. An extremely comfortable Rattler looked frazzled and discombobulated throughout the second half. The Irish maybe didn’t get home as much as they would have liked. But Botelho did notch two sacks, and Mills added a key one on the final drive.

The middle of the line was stout against the run, but the pass rush struggled. Sneed committed two personal fouls, while Tuihalamaka was a virtual non-factor in his 24 snaps. Despite an inconsistent effort, the Irish made South Carolina one-dimensional, made a few big plays and stepped up when it mattered.

Final Grade: 7.3/10

Looking ahead to 2023

The Irish featured nine players that took snaps on the defensive line (including Sneed’s snaps at edge rusher). They did it almost entirely with a set of players sure to return next season. Of the nine, the Irish return seven of them. Smith is out of eligibility and will depart. Ademilola is the only question mark, as he could return for a sixth year and has not made an announcement.

Botelho made his case to be the starting vyper in a big way, delivering an impactful performance on Friday. Mills and Cross are likely locks for the starting lineup, although Ademilola’s decision could affect where Mills plays. Osafa-Mensah, Sneed and Tuihalamaka also present options off the edge. Rubio put together a solid game at defensive tackle.

So, with one major decision pending, Notre Dame showcased a majority of their 2023 defensive line at the end of 2022. Overall, they put together a promising effort, showing they are capable of not missing a step despite some key departures.

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Thomas: Gator Bowl, recruiting drama puts spotlight on Irish safeties

Safety has long been a position of strength for Notre Dame football. Six former Irish safeties currently populate NFL rosters, three as starters. For the three seasons prior to 2022, Notre Dame enjoyed the services of Kyle Hamilton. Hamilton racked up eight career interceptions in two-and-a-half seasons (missing the last half of 2021 due to injury). The Baltimore Ravens drafted Hamilton 14th overall.

That led to the era of Brandon Joseph, an era that may last just one season, pending his draft decision. Joseph wasn’t as impactful as Hamilton, but the former All-American stabilized a relatively inexperienced secondary. He notched a forced fumble and a pick-six. Joseph may head to the NFL draft, and it’s feasible the upcoming Gator Bowl represents the final collegiate game for three Notre Dame safeties. With that fact, plus the recent recruiting drama surrounding the decommitment of five-star safety Peyton Bowen, there’s a major spotlight on the position in Jacksonville this week. Will those with decisions to make return for another run with the Irish? Or will the Gator Bowl be their last rodeo with the blue and gold? Those decisions could make or break this secondary in 2023, and it highlights some depth concerns amidst the rest of the group. 

Joseph is the big name. He was long expected to be a one-and-done with Notre Dame. That’s still a strong possibility, but a less dynamic season dropped Joseph down some draft boards. He’s unlikely to go in the first round if he enters the 2023 draft. He faces a similar situation to that of Isaiah Foskey’s 2021 season. Foskey was a second or third-round prospect and bet on himself by returning to Notre Dame. He bumped up his draft stock to the late first, early second round. Joseph could make the same call, or he could bolt for the NFL. That decision looms large, as Joseph would instantly provide some stability to the group in 2023. 

Joseph played alongside a safety group that played solidly although not outstandingly all season long. In some ways, graduate student DJ Brown epitomizes that. He led the safety room with 44 tackles but created little havoc. He notched 0.5 tackles for loss and a single pass breakup. However, he had no sacks and no interceptions. While Brown may not strike you as one of the most impactful players on the defense, he was a steady veteran presence and cut down on tackling issues that plagued him in 2021. He walked on Senior Day, and many believe Brown is moving on after the Gator Bowl. If he doesn’t, he slots back into the rotation. If he does, the Irish lose their leader in snaps at the safety position. 

Houston Griffith is definitely done, as his eligibility expires after the Gator Bowl. The former highly-touted recruit never became a game-changing force, but he notched 33 tackles and a tackle for loss in 2022. He was one of four safeties to play over 300 snaps. Like Brown, Griffith represents a dependable and knowledgeable player, and Notre Dame will have to find a suitable replacement. 

If Brown and Joseph both leave, along with Griffith’s pending departure, that leaves a whole lot of question marks. Xavier Watts would be the most prominent returning player, leading all returning safeties with 304 snaps in 2022. After making the transition to defense last season, the former wide receiver skyrocketed up the depth chart to become arguably the best havoc-creator in the safety room. He produced two tackles for loss, a sack and two pass breakups. His role gradually increased throughout the year, and his performance in the Gator Bowl will be a storyline to watch. He may need to take the reigns and become a big-time playmaker for the Irish defense in 2023.
Beyond Watts, only converted cornerback Ramon Henderson received serious playing time at safety in 2022, notching 268 snaps. Henderson added some depth and experience at the position. But again, the group needs more game-changing ability, and Henderson may play a key role in that. 

After Henderson and Watts, walk-ons Marty Auer (nine snaps in 2022) and Eddie Scheidler (injured in 2022) are next on the depth chart. It feels improbable that either become a factor in 2023, but the Irish have seen walk-ons turn into contributors at positions with minimal depth (hello, walk-on turned scholarship receiver Matt Salerno). 

A key factor could have been Peyton Bowen. But the Irish lost their longtime five-star commitment on National Signing Day. Bowen, who was committed to the Irish since Jan. 1, flipped to the Oregon Ducks, but he promptly reneged on that the next day, committing to the Oklahoma Sooners. Regardless, he’s not part of the equation for Notre Dame in 2023. That leaves two intriguing freshmen as potential factors. Ben Minich and Adon Shuler are both candidates to play early in South Bend. Minich offers some tremendous speed, while Shuler projects as the higher-floor, lower-ceiling type of prospect that could be game-ready early in his career. 

Ultimately, the storylines remain the same. The safety group exceeded expectations in some regards in 2022. They helped stabilize a secondary that was projected to be a major weakness. However, outside of Joseph’s pick-six against Syracuse, rarely did it feel like Notre Dame safeties significantly impacted the game. The Irish are now potentially going to lose the biggest thing they had going which was stability and experience. That leaves this group in a need of improved dynamism and game-changing ability. 

Look for Xavier Watts and Ramon Henderson on Friday. If the Irish aren’t sure they have game-breakers in the pair of juniors, it may be time to think about looking at the transfer portal or preparing their freshmen to take on significant roles in 2023. But Watts and Henderson need to elevate their game from good depth options to consistent havoc-creating starters. Against a lethal South Carolina passing attack, they should have the opportunity to make a statement. They project as major X-Factors when it comes to Notre Dame’s ceiling in 2023 and could demonstrate how high that ceiling is against the Gamecocks in Jacksonville.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.