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Coolican: Win over UNC must serve as turning point for Irish offense

Before kick-off Saturday in Chapel Hill, I noted that if Drew Pyne and the Irish offense were unable to get it going against the North Carolina defense, I wasn’t sure they would be able to do so against anybody. The Tar Heels came into the contest allowing opponents an average of 468 yards per game, so it was the perfect opportunity for the Irish to turn things around offensively.

Drew Pyne & Co. did that, and then some. After two unsuccessful drives, the Irish offense was absolutely dominant for the remainder of the game. The Irish rattled off six consecutive scoring drives and only punted once. It was an offensive masterclass in every facet of the game. The Irish rushed for 287 yards and passed for 289. 

North Carolina does have one of the worst defenses in college football, and that was on full display Saturday afternoon. But that shouldn’t take away from what the Irish were able to do offensively. 

“It’s what you hope Notre Dame football is going to be about,” head coach Marcus Freeman said after the game. “That you’re going to have an O-line that can run the ball…to be able to run the ball at will for four or five yards, that’s something that you have to be able to do.”

Notre Dame certainly showed what they are about on Saturday. The talented trio of running backs, junior Chris Tyree and sophomores Audric Estime and Logan Diggs, each had more than 100 total yards. 

After a shaky first drive, junior quarterback Drew Pyne looked increasingly confident as the game progressed. He played largely mistake-free football and consistently found open receivers downfield. Establishing the run early allowed for the offense to open up a vertical dimension that the Irish hadn’t shown previously. 

The play calling has been much maligned to start the season, and until Saturday, it appeared Notre Dame would be extremely limited offensively with Pyne under center. 

“I try to tell the team all the time. When things go bad, it’s bad play-calling. When things go well, it’s great play-calling. That’s the reality of things,” Freeman said. “I believe in the game Tommy Rees has called from Ohio State to Marshall to Cal to now. We were able to execute better.”

Pyne agreed with this confidence and sang the offensive coordinator’s praises in the post-game press conference.

“I think Coach Rees called an unbelievable game. He puts me in a position to go out there and just succeed and do my job and execute,” Pyne said. “I can’t tell you how many times I ran over to the phone and said, ‘Coach Rees, that was all you.’” 

All of this is well and good, but only if this game serves as a turning point for the Irish offense. Notre Dame must be able to build on this momentum as they approach the midway point of the season, with many of their toughest opponents still to come. 

The game was clearly an inflection point for Notre Dame; either they would drop to 1-3 and begin to cast doubts about whether the team would even be bowl eligible, or they would win their second game in a row heading into a bye week and the upcoming showdown with BYU. 

The Irish went out there and responded to this pressure in a big way. When this season is over, however, the win over UNC won’t be the first game that comes to mind. It will be the battles with BYU, Clemson, USC, and, unfortunately, the upset loss to Marshall. The Irish have to carry this momentum forward into these big showdowns.

Notre Dame is clearly getting better each week, but that will have to continue. What was most impressive about the win Saturday wasn’t the play-calling, the performance of the running backs or the offensive line, or Pyne’s play. It was the consistency. 

North Carolina quickly took a 7-0 lead on their first possession and then forced a three-and-out. Based on the first three weeks of the season, one might have expected the Irish offense to be completely demoralized, but instead, they bounced right back and put themselves in scoring position for every single drive for the rest of the game. 

A missed 44-yard field goal on their second drive of the game preceded six consecutive scoring drives, five of which were touchdowns. The Irish failed to convert on a 4th and 1 from the UNC 25 before another touchdown, and finally a fumble into the endzone. For those keeping track, that is 10 consecutive drives that finished inside the UNC 26 yard line. The Irish were moving the ball at will down the field practically all game. 

Notre Dame will certainly hope this game serves as a turning point for an offense that was at times painful to watch through the first three games of the season. North Carolina didn’t offer much in the way of resistance, but it was undoubtedly the best the Irish have looked all season. However, they’ll still need to prove it against better defensive opponents, and BYU is the perfect place to do so. 

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“An unbelievable player:” Michael Mayer elevates impact on and off the field

Early in the second quarter, with the game tied at seven, Notre Dame dialed up a play that surprised everyone in the stadium: a jet sweep to junior tight end Michael Mayer. 

“He’s a beast,” head coach Marcus Freeman said after the game. “[Mayer] is a heck of a football player, and you’re a fool if you don’t find ways to get the ball in his hands, and we found a unique way.” 

The play gained seven yards but seemed to catch the North Carolina defense off guard. Just two plays later, Notre Dame scored their second touchdown of the game to take a 14-7 lead. 

“You wouldn’t think [Mayer] is getting the ball on a jet sweep,” Freeman said. “It’s going to make a [defensive back] think twice about coming in there and tackling him.”

Mayer was all over the field Saturday afternoon for the Irish. The 6’4, 265-pound tight end is an imposing specimen who presents matchup nightmares for opposing defenses. He’s simply too big for most defensive backs to cover, and he’s too skilled for most linebackers.  

The matchup problems he presents for opposing defensive coordinators have led them to seemingly focus their schemes on slowing him down this year, but that hasn’t stopped him from being able to make big plays when the Irish need it most. 

He finished Saturday’s contest with seven receptions for 88 yards, which included a 10-yard touchdown reception that opened the scoring for Notre Dame and two critical third-down conversions that extended drives for the Irish. 

“I was able to find Mike a couple more times this week, and just execute and do my job and get the ball to him,” junior quarterback Drew Pyne said. “I’m very happy because he’s such a great player and getting the ball in his hands is something that our offense can really benefit from.”

Mayer nearly hauled in another touchdown on what would have been an incredible highlight reel play, but after a lengthy review, he was ruled to have been out of bounds. 

Freeman noted that the offense has to resist the temptation to solely focus on Mayer.

“You can’t just focus all on [Mayer], that’s the challenge,” Freeman said. “It’s easy to say, hey, [Mayer] gets one on one, throw it to him, but you have to make sure that you have enough ways to get him the ball, but also can use him as a decoy, almost in terms of the the progression, in terms of opening other things on the field.”

Mayer was held to a limited role in the loss to Ohio State to open the season, with just five receptions for 32 yards. Sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner often looked his way, but the Buckeye defense was able to limit his output. 

He exploded back onto the scene with an eight-reception, 130-yard effort against Marshall, which included a late touchdown, but it wasn’t enough to save the Irish from the upset. He returned to a more limited role against Cal, with only two receptions for 10 yards. One of those catches, however, was the game-winning touchdown grab in the fourth quarter.

By contrast, on Saturday, it was clear that he would be getting the ball early and often. Pyne’s first completion of the afternoon was a six-yard pass to Mayer on 3rd and 5 which extended a critical early drive for the Irish. Pyne kept turning to him in big moments throughout the contest. 

“He’s a guy who can do so many different things for you,” Freeman said.

It’s not just his on-field presence that makes Mayer unique, however. It is also his presence off the field and in the locker room. Prior to the season, Mayer was selected as a team captain and is one of the leaders of the offense. 

“The thing you love about Michael Mayer is that he comes to work every day,” Freeman said. “He sets the standard for how we prepare.”

In what is an inexperienced tight end room, Mayer has emerged as the unquestioned leader. His leadership will become even more critical with his primary backup, junior Kevin Bauman, ruled out for the season this week with an ACL injury. 

“He’s a captain, he’s a leader, he raises the play of those guys in his room,” Freeman said. “You’ll see those young guys step up because Michael Mayer’s in there making sure that everybody’s going to perform to a standard.”

Mayer’s continued performance will be critical to the success of the Irish this season. He has an immense impact on the team, but Pyne summed it up succinctly: “Mike’s just an unbelievable player.”

Contact Liam at lcoolica@nd.edu

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Coolican: Find joy in this season

The mood in the locker room after Notre Dame’s victory over Cal last weekend was jubilant. It was Marcus Freeman’s first career win as a head coach, and it was the first win of the season for the players and coaches who worked so hard in the offseason for this moment. 

Compare that to the mood of Irish fans as the game came to an end. Rather than joy, it was more a collective sigh of relief that was heard across South Bend as Cal’s last-second Hail Mary attempt finally fell harmlessly to the ground. Everyone in the stands seemed relieved that Notre Dame didn’t lose, rather than feeling happy that they won.

It is a challenge to find hope and joy in what some consider to be a lost season after just three weeks. This season hasn’t gone exactly to plan; dropping from fifth in the nation to unranked in the span of two weeks hurts, and it hurts badly. 

Perhaps this is because of how high the expectations were for Notre Dame prior to the season. Despite losing their starting quarterback, a back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher, and one of the best defensive players in college football, Notre Dame was ranked fifth in the country before even playing a down. Not only that, but the expectations the fans had for Marcus Freeman were astronomical. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a first-year head coach.

Irish fans everywhere, including myself, bought into this undeserved hype. And now, it seems, we are paying the price. Losses hurt the most when expectations are highest. Conversely, there is very little joy in winning the games your team expects to win.

In all honesty, expectations for a first-year head coach shouldn’t have been this high. Yes, this is Notre Dame football. And like it or not, there will always be an extremely high level of scrutiny. It is undoubtedly part of the job description. However, it seemed that the expectations placed on Freeman were higher before this season than they ever were in 12 seasons under Brian Kelly.

This may have been because of the immense success Freeman had in recruiting over the offseason. Or the fact that his players clearly love playing for him. Maybe even the lingering resentment over Kelly’s abrupt departure. Whatever the reason, the fanbase’s expectations of Freeman set them up for disappointment this year.

Still, we all owe it to ourselves to find joy in this season. This isn’t one of those “your team is terrible, here’s how to enjoy watching them anyway,” columns. Notre Dame is still a very good team that could challenge for another New Year’s Six Bowl this year. Despite the slow start, the season is far from over.

It is all too easy to fall into negativity when junior quarterback Drew Pyne throws the ball at the feet of a wide-open target. Or when the secondary allows a receiver to run free. Notre Dame fans aren’t used to seeing these kinds of mistakes. Fans have grown used to the Irish beating teams they are expected to beat, and often falling flat in the rare instances when they are the underdog. This year has changed that narrative completely. North Carolina, an unranked opponent, is currently a 1.5-point favorite ahead of Saturday’s matchup.

If the Irish manage to beat the Tar Heels this weekend on the road, celebrate like it’s the upset victory that it is. Not merely another win against a team they should beat. Winning a game on the road against a quality opponent would be a big step for Freeman and the team. And it should be treated as such.

For all of Notre Dame’s struggles this year, they are still a good team with talented players. Enjoy watching junior running back Chris Tyree break tackles in the open field. And junior tight end Michael Mayer bowling over defenders as he makes another first-down catch. And senior defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey’s third-down sacks.

But most of all, enjoy the wins. Here’s my advice for this weekend’s game against UNC, which is expected to be a close one. As are most of the seasons of the ones in Notre Dame’s season. Don’t sit on pins and needles waiting for disaster to strike. Instead, wait for the team to make a big play, and celebrate.

If fans are too busy waiting for failure, we may miss celebrating the unexpectedly great moments.

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Notre Dame’s keys to victory against Cal

Marcus Freeman is still searching for his first win as a head coach, after starting his career off 0-3. Prior to the season, many predicted that this weekend’s matchup would be a walk in the park for the Irish. But the season has not gone as planned for anyone in South Bend.

Oddsmakers, however, still believe in the Irish, as they are currently listed as 11-point favorites heading into the contest. Notre Dame will certainly have to make some adjustments if they hope to get the victory Saturday afternoon. Here are three keys to victory.

Get Tyree the ball

One of Notre Dame’s most dynamic offensive threats has been largely absent from their game plan thus far. Star junior running back Chris Tyree has gotten just 12 touches for 65 total yards through the team’s first two games. In the defeat against Marshall, he carried the ball just three times.

By comparison, sophomore running Audric Estime has 10 carries, while sophomore Logan Diggs has seven. Estime and Diggs are certainly talented, but they are averaging just 2.8 and 1.5 yards per carry on the year, respectively. While Tyree only has nine carries on the season, he is averaging an impressive five yards per attempt. 

Tyree is also known to be a threat in the passing game. However, he has caught just three passes so far. Getting Tyree touches will be especially important in this game as the offense will still be adjusting to a new quarterback under center. Establishing the running game will be important. But neither Diggs nor Estime have been overly impressive.

Tyree has certainly done enough to have earned the feature back role. If Freeman hopes to get his first win Saturday, he should make sure the ball is in Tyree’s hands early and often.

Limit the Bears’ Passing Attack

Irish fans might be familiar with Golden Bears’ quarterback Jack Plummer, who transferred from Purdue this offseason. Notre Dame handled the Boilermakers 27-13 at home last year. But Plummer played well. Although he didn’t put up spectacular numbers, Plummer completed a solid 25 of 36 passes for 187 yards and a touchdown.

Plummer has looked solid so far in his new uniform. He threw for 278 yards in Cal’s victory over UNLV last week, and 268 yards and three touchdowns the week prior against UC Davis. As a team, the Bears have rushed for just 119.5 yards per game against mediocre competition. So the Irish would do well to limit Plummer and force the Bears to beat them on the ground.

This might be a favorable matchup for Notre Dame, as the Irish secondary has been a bright spot so far this year. Against Ohio State, they held star quarterback C.J. Stroud, who many predicted to be a Heisman contender, to 223 yards through the air. For reference, Stroud averaged nearly 370 yards per game in 2021. Meanwhile, the Irish held the Thundering Herd to under 150 yards passing last week. If they can continue this trend on Saturday, Notre Dame will put themselves in a good position to walk away with the victory. 

Win the turnover battle 

This one’s pretty simple. One of the main reasons why Notre Dame was competitive against Ohio State was because they took care of the football. Against Marshall, sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner tossed two interceptions, including a late pick-six which seemed to kill any energy that was left in Notre Dame Stadium. To make matters worse, junior quarterback Drew Pyne came in and immediately threw an interception of his own.

Notre Dame hasn’t been getting any extra possessions on the defensive side, either. According to Pete Sampson of The Athletic, Notre Dame is one of just eight teams that has yet to force a turnover. A year ago, the Irish finished top-20 in the nation with a turnover margin of plus-9.

It’s not a promising trend, and it’s one the Irish will likely have to reverse if they hope to get their first win of the year. The Golden Bears have turned the ball over three times this year but have also forced three turnovers on defense. Notre Dame must be able to take care of the football on offense and force Plummer into mistakes. 

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Irish women’s soccer looks to build on perfect start, heads into ACC play

After finishing off a perfect non-conference schedule this weekend, the Notre Dame women’s soccer team will look to build on their momentum as they travel to Clemson Thursday night. 

“We have high hopes for this season, we have a really talented team,” head coach Nate Norman said after Sunday’s 3-1 victory over Ohio. “We’re clicking, we can do some major damage.”

The Irish (7-0-0), winners of their first seven games of the year, moved up to sixth in this week’s United Soccer Coaches Poll. The Irish are now one of just four undefeated teams, alongside Harvard, Rutgers and UCLA.

The matchup with the Tigers (4-1-2), ranked No. 24, will be the first ACC contest of the year for both sides. Notre Dame will be seeking revenge after the Tigers knocked them out of the ACC tournament quarterfinals last year in a nail biting 3-2 defeat. 

Notre Dame has been dominant through their first seven games — their first perfect non-conference slate in nearly 15 years. The last time this occurred in 2008, the team went 27-1 and advanced to the national championship game. The Irish have been outstanding on both sides of the pitch this year, notching 175 shots against just 31 from their opponents. 

“I’m really proud of us, we’re doing something that’s very special that we set a goal for ourselves and we were able to accomplish,” said junior center back Eva Gaetino. “We have to stay humble, we have to have humility and we have to understand that these games are going to be hard, but I also think that these wins have given us momentum going into these tougher games.”

Offensively, graduate student Olivia Wingate will continue to be crucial to the team’s success — she has already notched six goals on the year, one away from her career high. Senior midfielder Maddie Mercado has also performed extremely well, scoring five goals thus far. 

The Irish have had nine different players score a goal, and depth could prove important in what will be a grueling ACC schedule. “We have a really deep team,” Norman said. “It’s hard, there’s only so many minutes in games, so we’re trying to allow players, even some of our younger players, to develop and get time.” 

On the defensive side of the pitch, Gaetino has been a standout performer. She was recently named to the Mac Hermann Trophy watch list, which honors the top mens’ and womens’ college soccer players. 

“It’s details, details, details,” Gaetino said as to what sets the Irish defense apart. “Never turning off, always staying focused.”

While the Irish have more than risen to the occasion thus far, the real challenge is only just beginning. The ACC is perennially one of the top conferences in college soccer, and currently boasts six teams in the top-25 — including four within the top seven spots. 

“We set ourselves up really well,” Norman said. “Our conference is a beast of a conference, we’ve just got to really refocus ourselves and go into every game and try to be ourselves and have that attacking mindset and that identity to just go after teams and have that hunger.”

Contact Liam Coolican at lcoolica@nd.edu.

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Coolican: Major League Baseball rule changes a step forward for game

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has often found himself in hot water with fans, from his handling of the Astros’ cheating scandal to using two types of baseballs, but he finally was able to enact change that will improve baseball for years to come. Of course, the new rule changes aren’t without controversy, but data in the minor leagues has proven that these changes will be a positive for baseball overall. 

One of the leagues’ goals has been to reduce the so-called “three true outcomes”: strikeouts, walks and home runs (which have seemingly taken over the league in recent years). The changes have been rumored for months, but they were officially announced on Friday. They range from a pitch clock to banning the shift to larger bases. I’ll outline the changes, and what they will mean for the game. 

Pitch clock

If you’ve been to an MLB game in the past few seasons, you’ll have likely seen a clock somewhere in the outfield counting down before a pitch was thrown. Next year, this will be enforceable, with pitchers having 15 seconds with the bases empty, and 20 seconds with runners on, to deliver the ball. Hitters must be in the box and “alert” at the eight second mark, and the catcher must be ready with 10 seconds to go. 

The timer resets with a pickoff throw, or when the pitcher steps off the rubber, although pitchers can only do this twice per batter. This effectively means they can only step off once with a runner on base, because if the runner knows the pitcher cannot throw over, they would be halfway to second base before the pitcher even starts his motion. 

A violation of this rule by a pitcher leads to an automatic ball, and vice versa for batters. This rule has proven effective in the minor leagues, where it has been implemented this year, with average game times falling by at least 15 minutes at every level. In some cases, game times dropped as much as half an hour, according to Baseball America. For reference, in rookie ball, where there is no pitch clock, game time has remained roughly the same. 

It is important to realize that the pitch clock does not mean less baseball, it simply means less dead time. We’re no longer likely to see a pitcher shake off the signs three, four, five times, or a hitter step out and adjust his batting gloves after every pitch. 

Another important aspect to note is that it will likely lead to slightly reduced velocity, because when a pitcher is throwing upwards of 100 miles per hour, even an extra few seconds of rest between pitches is vital. This leads to more balls in play, and fewer strikeouts, which along with a faster pace of play, is the league’s goal.

Larger bases

Traditionally, bases have been 15 inches; next year, they will be increased to 18 inches. In practical terms, this leads to a 4.5 inch decrease between the bases. This may not seem like a huge difference, but it will almost certainly increase stolen base attempts. Additionally, it is more likely players can beat out a ground ball, encouraging more balls to be put in play.

Again, the minor leagues have tested this rule and it has proven successful, with the rate of steals per inning rising from 0.65 in 2019 to 0.96 this year in Triple A, according to The Score. Another stated aim of the league was to reduce collisions and injuries on the base paths, and the bigger bases will give players more room to maneuver. 

Steals have increasingly fallen out of favor since analytics began taking over baseball, but these changes will perhaps bring them back this year. We may be witnessing the beginning of the small-ball renaissance, which I would argue is much more exciting than the baseball being played now. 

Banning the shift

This is the rule change that has created the most controversy among fans and players alike. Teams must have a minimum of four players on the infield, with at least two on each side of second base. The league aims to “increase the batting average on balls in play, to allow infielders to better showcase their athleticism and to restore more traditional outcomes on batted balls.”

The batting average on balls in play this year is 0.291, which is 10 points lower than in 2006 which was before the analytics and the shift had taken hold of the game. Some have expressed concern that this will merely help players who have struggled to adjust to the shift — think Joey Gallo — rather than improving batting average on balls in play (BABIP) league wide. The data has been mixed in the minor leagues as to whether this will have a great impact on batting averages, but it will certainly be interesting to see. 

Overall, Manfred and the league did a great job on these rule changes, and I believe they will make baseball a more exciting sport for years to come. Many baseball traditionalists will always argue against any sort of change, but baseball has been declining in popularity compared to other sports for a long time now. It was clear that a change was needed, and Manfred was able to do exactly that without compromising any aspect of the game we love.

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Former walk-on Matt Salerno primed for bigger role in Irish offense

The pass was tipped once, twice and then three times before Matt Salerno, on his back, brought the ball in for a 31-yard gain. The improbable catch extended a Notre Dame drive early in the second quarter and led to their only touchdown of the game. 

 “It’s probably the biggest play I’ve made in my career,” Salerno said. “It was great to have that opportunity, I’m glad Tyler (Buchner) trusted in me enough to throw me that ball.”

Salerno didn’t see the field much on Saturday — he was on the field for just eight snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, but he was there when the team needed him to make a critical play. For the former walk-on, it was impactful for him to be able to contribute in such a big matchup. 

“That’s really my first time taking significant reps [against] a big team and a big moment like that on offense,” he said. “For me, [it is] that personal confidence that I know I can compete at that level.”

It was only Salerno’s second career reception — the first, which came in November’s blowout victory over Georgia Tech, went for a loss of four yards. 

Salerno joined the team as a walk-on prior to his freshman season in 2018 and only saw the field once in his first two years. He became the team’s primary punt returner during their run to the College Football Playoff in 2020 but managed just 45 total yards on 10 returns. He reprised that role at times throughout 2021, including in the Fiesta Bowl loss against Oklahoma State.

Prior to the 2022 season, Salerno finally earned a scholarship after four years in the program. This year, he will likely play a pivotal role in a wide receiver group that was already thin before Avery Davis suffered a season-ending injury. 

“We’re so short on guys that everyone has to play a lot of different positions,” Salerno said after a practice last month. “Being a fifth-year guy, I know the offense really well so just being able to fill in any role that needs someone.”

The loss of Davis — a sixth-year player and team captain — hurt the team’s morale, but Salerno said it was important to keep going.  “He wouldn’t want us to be moping around, we still have a mission to do, so we’re going to do it for him,” he said. 

As a whole, the play of the wide receiver group underwhelmed many observers during Saturday’s loss to the Buckeyes. The group totaled just three receptions for 117 yards. Junior tight end Michael Mayer was Buchner’s primary target throughout the game, hauling in five passes for 32 yards Saturday. 

For Salerno himself, it wasn’t all celebratory Saturday night, either. With the Irish trailing 14-10 in the fourth quarter, after they had driven into Ohio State territory, he was called for a controversial offensive pass interference call. 

The penalty pushed the Irish back to their own 44-yard line. The offense never regained its momentum, losing 2 yards over its remaining two drives, while Ohio State scored another touchdown to put the game out of reach. 

“I think we handled it well,” Salerno said of the challenge of playing in Ohio Stadium. “I know a lot of people are talking about the lack of receptions, but there was also just a lack of plays we ran on offense in general.” 

Salerno said the team ran less than 50 plays on offense as part of a strategy to keep the Buckeyes’ explosive offense off the field as much as possible. “It was part of our game plan to limit their offensive possessions,” he said. “Even though the production wasn’t necessarily there, it wasn’t really a slight on the receivers. We’re just going to keep building on that.”

Sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner, starting his first collegiate game, had an up-and-down performance, starting off by completing his first eight passes, but finished 10-18. 

“I thought he did really well,” Salerno said of Buchner’s play. “As a receiver, there’s a lot of things that I need to be on top of in terms of the playbook and that’s just a single little sliver of what Tyler needs to be on top of…just for him to be so poised in that moment and perform, proud of him.” 

Despite the loss to the Buckeyes and the fact that the wide receivers were held to such a low output, Salerno believes that there were many positives to take away from the matchup in Columbus. “We know we can compete against one of the best defenses in the country,” he said. “Like Coach Freeman said, this will be our floor and it’s only going up from here.” 

Salerno will certainly play a pivotal role in the wide receiver group moving forward, especially with graduate student Joe Wilkins and sophomore Deion Colzie working through foot and knee injuries, respectively. 

After toiling for four years while rarely seeing the field on offense, Salerno will take a turn this season stepping into the limelight. 

Liam Coolican

Contact Liam Coolican at lcoolica@nd.edu

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Irish secondary prepares for prolific Buckeye offense

If Notre Dame has any hope of upsetting Ohio State in Columbus this weekend, they will have to start by slowing down the Buckeyes dynamic passing attack. Despite losing star receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave in the first round of the NFL draft, the Buckeyes still boast likely Heisman contenders quarterback C.J. Stroud and wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

All eyes will be on Notre Dame’s secondary, especially junior cornerback Cam Hart, who is likely to be spending most of the contest matched up across from Smith-Njigba. Hart burst onto the scene last year, earning a starting job and recording 42 tackles, nine pass deflections, and two interceptions.

He brings good length and ball skills to the position, as he arrived at Notre Dame as a receiver before switching to defense before his first year, and matches up well size-wise with Smith-Njigba. Limiting the damage will be key, but that’s easier said than done. Smith-Njigba caught 15 passes for 347 yards and 3 touchdowns in last year’s Rose Bowl victory for the Buckeyes.

“I think of it like any other game,” Hart said after a practice last week. “I know a lot of people want to put hype into it, and that for players can be very dangerous, so I just try to stay level-headed, and it’s football at the end of the day, so I just go out and play.” 

Hart missed much of spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery in the offseason and was absent for several days of fall camp. But he appears to be fully healthy heading into the season.

The Irish won’t just depend on his performance though. The other cornerbacks, notably junior Clarence Lewis and graduate student TaRiq Bracy will also have to perform at the highest level Saturday. Lewis, in particular, will be looking to bounce back after a rough outing in the Fiesta Bowl defeat to Oklahoma State last year.

Ohio State’s other receiving threats don’t have much experience but aren’t lacking in talent. Julian Fleming was the top receiver and No. 3 overall player in the class of 2020 per 247 Sports. Marvin Harrison Jr. — the son of pro football hall-of-famer Marvin Harrison Sr. — was also a highly touted prospect. The Buckeyes receivers will certainly give the Irish cornerbacks all they can handle.

Of course, the corners won’t handle the entire burden of attempting to stop the Buckeyes offense — the safeties will play a significant role as well. Somehow, the Irish have found a solid replacement for Kyle Hamilton, bringing in Northwestern transfer Brandon Joseph. Teammates and coaches have raved about Joseph since the moment he stepped on campus. The expectations are high — he was named a preseason All-American, in addition to the responsibility that Notre Dame has put on his shoulders. But he looks to be more than capable of living up to these lofty goals.

“He’s a perfect fit,” safeties coach Chris O’Leary said. “When you look it, like what kind of guys fit, they have to fit our culture, and that’s not just on the field, that’s work ethic, that’s how they operate in the classroom, that’s how they operate off the field, so he checks all those boxes, and then when you cross the lines he’s a smart, instinctual football player, and all those things fit perfectly within our culture and our team.” 

Coming from the Big 10, Joseph has already played Ohio State twice.

“It definitely makes a difference,” he said. “I’ve game-planned for them before, something that everyone here hasn’t done.”

O’Leary praised the group for being so detail-oriented.

“Whether it’s pre-snap, seeing what the offense is giving us, having a plan for motion and change of formation and those types of things, just the confidence in that area, and they’re playing faster,” he said.

The safeties are a veteran group, led by Joseph and graduate students Houston Griffith and D.J. Brown.

“The three older guys, Brandon, Houston and D.J. have done an amazing job, not only with our group, but with the secondary, of making sure that we’re all tied together, we’re all on the same page,” O’Leary said. “They all lead by example with their work ethic, and they’ve all taken it to the next level as far as vocal leadership and taking command.”

While the group certainly does bring a great deal of experience, they have had to adjust to the scheme of new defensive coordinator Al Golden.

“It’s a whole new defense, there’s a whole different look,” Griffith said. “We’ve got different fronts, different coverages. We’re playing multiple covers sometimes.”

Griffith said communication is essential to the success of the entire defense.

In addition to the experience that the secondary brings, some young players have greatly impressed in fall camp as well. Freshmen corners Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey have particularly stood out.

It is clear that the Irish have a lot of talent in the secondary. But as a group, they are still learning to play together, and under a new scheme. Irish fans will hope they can do enough to slow down Ohio State’s prolific offense Saturday night.

Liam Coolican


Contact Liam at loolica@nd.edu.