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Freshmen cornerbacks should help Irish offset losses at DB

When freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison was the toast of South Bend after recording five interceptions during a three-game span in November, The Athletic’s Pete Sampson dropped a bombshell that flew a bit under the radar. “Before the Ohio State opener, a source at Notre Dame indicated Morrison might be the best cornerback Notre Dame had signed in 10 years,” the longtime Irish beat writer wrote. While Notre Dame isn’t exactly known for its defensive back program, that’s still a pretty bold claim — especially since the source told Sampson this before Morrison played a single snap of collegiate football.

A year later, the only thing in question about that statement is just how far back it could hold up. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Notre Dame’s future. But its two young cornerbacks are pretty high up on the list. Fellow freshman Jaden Mickey wasn’t as productive as Morrison, who was downright dominant in the second half of the season. But Mickey, who like Morrison was a four-star recruit, has the talent to give the Irish a scary one-two punch at corner for the next few years.

The Notre Dame secondary has usually been led by its safeties. The Irish have quietly produced some excellent NFL talent at the position recently in Harrison Smith, Julian Love and Kyle Hamilton. Graduate student Brandon Joseph was the latest star to suit up at safety for the Irish, making an immediate impact at safety and returning punts after transferring from Northwestern. Cornerback Tariq Bracy, a solid presence in Notre Dame’s nickel defense, has used up his last year of eligibility. Joseph did have one left, but his departure was not a massive shock. Safety Houston Griffith also won’t be back.

The Irish secondary could have been hit harder, though. Graduate student safety DJ Brown and senior cornerback Cam Hart both elected to return for another year. Both, especially Hart, have been maligned by fans at times. But the two were key cogs of an Irish pass defense that was top-25 in passing yardage against (198 yards per game) and a solid but unspectacular 42nd in defensive passing efficiency.

The Irish were unable to secure another star safety with five-star recruit Peyton Bowen’s late decommitment. But it’s possible that the Irish secondary might still receive strong freshman contributions in 2023. Two of Notre Dame’s top nine commitments are cornerbacks, according to 247 Sports. Though playing time will be tough to find in a deep cornerback room, Christian Gray and Micah Bell will hope to become the next version of Morrison and Mickey. Both have track backgrounds, so the Irish hope their elite speed will translate to the college ranks.

Notre Dame’s recruiting class also includes a pair of four-star safeties in Adon Shuler and Ben Minich. The transfer portal, meanwhile, was a net neutral for the Irish secondary. Jayden Bellamy, a three-star recruit a year ago, left for Syracuse. Meanwhile, Notre Dame added graduate student Thomas Harper from Oklahoma State. Harper, who played between seven and 11 games in each of his four seasons with the Cowboys, had one interception and two passes defended plus 30 tackles a year ago. Sophomore Justin Walters could also see more action after appearing in seven games over the last two seasons.

There is definitely room for improvement for the Irish pass defense. Two of Notre Dame’s lowest points of the season — the double safety blitz against Ohio State and the regular season-ending dud against USC — involved breakdowns by the secondary. But with defensive coordinator Al Golden firmly back in the college landscape after coming to South Bend from the Bengals before last season and a strong pool of young Irish talent, there is definitely a path for the Irish DBs to hold their own in 2023 and beyond.

2023 Projected Depth Chart

Left Safety: DJ Brown, Justin Walters

Right Safety: Ramon Henderson, Thomas Harper

CB1: Benjamin Morrison, Jaden Mickey

CB2: Cam Hart, Clarence Lewis

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‘You can really see that love we have for each other’: Irish ride stellar start on senior day

As Notre Dame struggled through its first month of the season, the biggest criticism of the team was the lack of an identity. First-year head coach Marcus Freeman has talked about this all season, and perhaps nothing stood out more today.

A resurgent run game that emerged in October started to change things. But there’s more to it. And, ironically for a team that struggled so much at the start of the year, that extra push has come early in games. In its first seven games, the Irish did not score a single first-quarter touchdown. They have outscored opponents in the opening 15 minutes 61-13 since, developing the type of consistency they sorely lacked in September when almost everything was up in the air.

That just makes it that much sweeter that everything about senior day just felt right for Notre Dame.

“What these seniors did for this program will be the reason why we do win a national championship in the near future,” Freeman said.

From the opening ceremonies to junior running back Logan Diggs’ 51-yard run on the first play, Notre Dame’s 27th meeting against Boston College, which ended in a 44-0 blowout, could not have started any better.

The Irish fizzled out after the early Diggs run, settling for a 26-yard field goal on their opening drive. But their next big play was not far behind. On BC’s third offensive play, freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison used a stellar read to notch his third interception in as many games. Blessed with a short field, the Irish would once again rely on Diggs. All five of Notre Dame’s plays on their 20-yard scoring drive were handoffs to Diggs. That included the 3rd-and-goal rush from the one yard line that Diggs turned into his third touchdown of the year.

“We were challenged earlier in the week that this was gonna be a game where we were gonna run the ball. Going out there to play as a unit and run the ball like we did — it’s just so much fun, and to be able to send our seniors out with a win like that — nothing better,” said sophomore left tackle Joe Alt.

The Irish would quickly extend their lead after forcing a three-and-out. This time, they did most of their damage through the air. Junior quarterback Drew Pyne kept the drive from stalling with an impressive scramble and 23-yard completion to sophomore wide receiver Deion Colzie on third and eight. After finding Diggs on a crafty wheel route for 28 more, Pyne finished things off by finding graduate student Matt Salerno on a play-action fake.

“He is [the ultimate teammate],” Freeman said about the former walk-on. “To get his first touchdown — he deserves it.”

Boston College pulled off an impressive third and eight pitch-and-catch of their own immediately after. Eagles QB Emmett Morehead found star wideout Zay Flowers with a 38-yard dime for BC’s first big play. However, a deep shot on the very next play had a much different ending — but not a new one. A leaping Morrison secured his second pick of the day in the end zone to halt the Eagles’ momentum.

“It felt like I was a kid out there,” said Morrison. “This is a moment that you don’t get this every single weekend, so when it does happen, you just gotta actually appreciate it and just live it in for a little bit.”

The Irish turned the interception into a 10-play, 57-yard drive, finishing with a 41-yard field goal from graduate student Blake Grupe. For the second straight drive, the Eagles would immediately follow an impressive third down play with a turnover. After keeping their drive alive with an impressive catch by running back Alex Broome, graduate student Jack Kiser stripped Morehead. Senior defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey scooped up the ball for ND’s third takeaway in the game’s first 20 minutes.

“We’ve all been really prepared,” said junior safety Xavier Watts about the defense’s emergence throughout the season. “Just trying to take it to the next level.”

The Irish offense continued to take things to the next level themselves. A false start on a fourth and one prevented Notre Dame from putting the game further out of reach. But another Grupe field goal stretched their advantage to 23. Sure enough, the Irish defense delivered another knockout blow in the very next series. Senior cornerback Cam Hart knocked away a backward pass on a third and one. And senior linebacker Marist Liufau was right there to pounce on it.

Liufau returned the ball to the end zone, but because the play was originally ruled incomplete, only the recovery stood. The Irish offense made sure they would get that touchdown, though. A 26-yard rush by Diggs set up sophomore running back Audric Estime’s seven-yard scamper and tacked on seven more points, giving Notre Dame its largest lead of the season. Sophomore running back Chris Tyree joined the party on Notre Dame’s next drive. He ran for 26 yards on its first play. Three snaps later, he finished it himself with a 12-yard rush right up the gut.

Even when they weren’t forcing turnovers, the Irish defense dominated. And while much of the focus was on how Notre Dame started the first half, the way they ended it was even more significant — a sack by Foskey, the 25th of his career to pass Justin Tuck ‘05 for the most in school history.

One week after upsetting then No. 16 NC State, the Eagles offered little resistance to the Irish in any facet. As the snow turned from swirling to suffocating, with visibility the only thing lower than Boston College’s point total, they had virtually no chance of getting back in the game. Estime added his second touchdown of the game 9:06 into the third quarter. Other than junior tight end Michael Mayer becoming the third player in school history to total 2,000 yards, both sides largely played out the string the rest of the way.

This season is undoubtedly one of the most chaotic in Notre Dame’s recent history. Saturday, on the other hand, provided the type of comforting reassurance rarely afforded to the Irish this year. Notre Dame already proved it can look like the type of high-end program necessary to win the biggest of games. Their 35-14 win over then No. 4 Clemson proved as much. However, they’ll never get the chance of playing under the sport’s brightest lights if they can handle the lower-profile tests on their schedule.

“Great teams are able to play to a standard … not to an opponent. Great teams, championship teams, they set a standard saying this is the way we’re gonna work. There’s no other option,” Freeman said. “It’s something we’ll continue to strive to be.”

“It’s how you respond, to me, that really dictates the future. And that’s the challenge I always have with these guys. It’s never what you foresee on the front end, but it’s how you respond.”

Saturday’s victory was the latest chapter in Notre Dame’s impressive second-half of a response. It doesn’t mean they’ll never play down under Freeman again, but given they end the year with the Trojans and a TBD opponent in what should be a respectable bowl game when the Irish prepare for their next game without loads of national pageantry, they know they can thrive, not just survive.

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Hart overcomes adversity, leads on and off field for Irish program

On Saturday afternoon, senior cornerback Cam Hart and his classmates will run out of the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium. For many, it will be the last time they do so. For Hart, it’s a second straight week of high emotions surrounding game day. Just last weekend, Hart came back home to Baltimore when Notre Dame played Navy.

“It was very emotional. I had 35-plus people there … For some of [my family], it was their first time able to see me live action at this stage,” Hart said. “And here we are coming into Senior Day, and it could be the last time I play in Notre Dame Stadium ever, and it’s emotional. It’s kind of surreal, it all happened so fast.”

It’s been quite the journey for Hart, who came to Notre Dame as a two-way player, but he committed as a wide receiver. At the time, he felt it was his best path to playing time. However, Hart quickly transitioned to defensive back and worked his way up the depth chart. He became a starter as a junior and delivered his breakout performance with a two-interception game against Wisconsin in the Shamrock Series game. This season, despite a bumpy road at times, Hart has led an Irish secondary allowing just 193.8 passing yards per game. He has four pass breakups and has been a huge factor in Notre Dame’s turnaround after their 0-2 start. 

“It was tough. I’ve never been on a team that faced as much adversity. It honestly shows the character of the players on the team. I think it’s brought us closer because we’ve been through those tough months. We came to practice, and were all fighting together, all trusting each other. This is one of the closest teams I’ve been on at Notre Dame. That adversity brought us closer.”

Adversity has been a major talking point for Hart and the Irish over the last few seasons. 

As a freshman, Hart earned a sack in his first collegiate game, but he suffered a season-ending injury after three appearances. As a sophomore, Hart and the Irish battled through the long COVID season, playing in front of little to no fans all season. However, that season also boasts one of Hart’s favorite memories — a win over No. 1 Clemson that led to Notre Dame students, the only fans in attendance, storming the field. 

“We had been playing in stadiums with zero fans, or a few hundred fans. To play at home, a top-five team, we weren’t expecting much fanbase-wise. We were adamant about bringing our own energy,” Hart remembered. “But as the momentum started to shift our way, the fans got more into it, started to get louder. It was all a surprise for us, and with the way it ended, it was one of the most exciting games I’ve been a part of.” 

Then, there was this past offseason. A coaching change briefly rocked the program, but the Irish stabilized things with the promotion of Marcus Freeman. Hart lauded Freeman’s approach to coaching.

“I have much love for Coach Kelly, but if he had to move on, Coach Freeman would be the person I would want to be in that position,” Hart commented. “There’s no hierarchy. [Freeman] puts respect as a fundamental element in the program.”

Of course, with Freeman now leading the program, that meant Hart worked under his third defensive coordinator in as many years. This one is Al Golden who brought 10 years of head coaching experience to the table, along with six years of NFL coaching. His most recent position was as a linebackers coach with the AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals.

“Obviously Coach Golden being an NFL cat, it’s nice to be able to play under him,” Hart said. “We’re learning a lot of the stuff that hopefully we’ll get to learn at the next level.”

So working under a new coaching staff, Hart immediately got hit with more adversity. A slow individual start to the season, coupled with the team’s 0-2 start and a home loss to Marshall piled the pressure on Hart. But, Notre Dame has righted the ship, going 7-1 since that ugly start. That included a beatdown of previously unbeaten Clemson, 35-14. Hart noted the victory was sweet, but the mentality felt different.

“It was very special to have one of those big wins in my senior year. I feel like [Freeman] has another level that he can tap into. It felt different than 2020,” he said. “I appreciated the win, but I felt like there was something more there that he can tap into.” 

The ceiling is higher, and that’s in no small part due to the young talent that Freeman is bringing in. Young players like Jaden Mickey and Benjamin Morrison, both freshmen cornerbacks, give Hart a chance to be a leader for the Irish. 

“Guys like [Notre Dame football alum] Troy Pride, Shaun Crawford, Nick McCloud all took me under their wing and taught me tricks of the trade,” Hart said. “[They] taught me how to be a leader and be a big brother. I took what they taught me and put it into effect this year and last year.”

For Hart, seeing those young guys he’s taken under his own wing have their own big moments is just as gratifying as making big plays himself. When asked about his favorite memory from this season, Hart recalled Morrison’s pick-six against Clemson.

“To see that, on that stage versus Clemson, it was amazing for me to be a part of it. I know where we stand as brothers, as friends. It was special for me, like a big brother moment.”

On Saturday, it’ll be Hart’s moment, at least for now, as he soaks in what could be his final game at Notre Dame Stadium. But once the pregame ceremonies are over, it’ll be back to business for Hart. After a career and senior season filled with adversity, with his days donning the blue and gold potentially coming to a close, Hart is looking to close out the 2022 season with a bang.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.

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Thomas: Seven Irish players who need to step up after the bye week

After a sluggish start, the Notre Dame football team has begun to turn things around. A gritty, if closer than desired, win over Cal pushed the Irish into the win column. A week later, head coach Marcus Freeman and Co. went on the road as underdogs and decimated UNC. Now, after a week off, the boys in the blue and gold, or should we say white and gold, head to Vegas. The game feels like a make-or-break moment in this season.

If the Irish win and move to 3-2, there’s every reason to believe they’ll be back in the Top 25. Additionally, they have a couple of almost guaranteed wins approaching on the schedule. A real chance at being 6-2 and in the top 15 heading into the Clemson matchup emerges. From there, ending in the 8-10 win range feels almost certain, and with a solid bowl game.

With a loss? Well, Notre Dame would fall to 2-3. With Clemson, USC and a thus-far unbeaten Syracuse squad remaining on the schedule, topping seven wins feels even more unlikely. 

So no doubt the Irish are at a critical point in their season. While it’s not at the halfway point just yet, here’s a look at five Irish players (plus two honorable mention) who need to step it up as the Irish try to continue their renaissance. 

Honorable Mention: freshman wide receiver Tobias Merriweather and tight end Eli Raridon

The honorable mentions go to the true freshmen due to a lack of opportunity. Merriweather has barely seen the field, although comments from the coaching staff seem to imply he’s tracking towards an increased snap count. He’s a tall and speedy wide receiver that could give the Irish a much-needed boost in the passing game. 

Raridon was just elevated into a bigger role last week with the season-ending injury to junior Kevin Bauman. The 6’7 tight end emerged in Week 1 as an absolute force in the run-blocking game. It’s not too controversial to say he was an immediate upgrade in that department. However, what remains to be seen is how he can impact the passing game. Raridon is a matchup nightmare, particularly when opposing defenses are also concerned with guarding junior All-American tight end Michael Mayer. Deploying both of those guys on pass routes could be a sight to see. 

5. Senior corner back Cam Hart

Cam Hart took a big step forward against UNC, and he’s been serviceable throughout the year. But starting across a true freshman, Hart needs to lockdown and be less prone to the big plays that have victimized him through four weeks. He hasn’t necessarily been bad, but a step up from Hart could elevate this secondary to a new level. 

4. Sophomore wide receiver Jayden Thomas

Jayden Thomas received a lot of hype this season, and he feels like a major breakout candidate. However, so far, Thomas has played a lot of snaps and made minimal impact. Despite starting and playing the majority of offensive snaps, Thomas is sitting on three receptions for 32 yards in four games. That needs to improve from a player that has the talent to become the WR2 in this offense. 

3. Senior linebacker JD Bertrand

Part of this is on Bertrand, and part of it isn’t. For the second straight game, Bertrand will miss the first half of the game after a second-half targeting penalty in the prior contest. The first one was a pretty clear-cut targeting call, and it was really a mental mistake from the senior captain. The second call was far more questionable, and Notre Dame appealed the decision, albeit unsuccessfully. But beyond the targeting calls, Bertrand hasn’t been the impact player the Irish need at linebacker.

That unit has been the weak spot of the defensive corps, although they took a step forward against the Tar Heels. Bertand himself has 18 tackles, which ties for fourth on the team. However, he really hasn’t created much in the way of disruption, with zero tackles for loss, sacks, pass breakups, forced fumbles or interceptions. The Irish need some more dynamic play from their linebackers, and that starts with their senior captain. 

2. Graduate student wide receiver Braden Lenzy

Three years ago, Lenzy was the former track star that the Irish plugged into gadget plays. Lenzy utilized his speed well, and he figured to be a weapon at wide receiver. Injuries marred his development at times, but now fully healthy, Lenzy has looked almost lost at times on the field. Whether it’s poorly timed drops, a failure to get open or anything else, Lenzy has simply not made an impact. He’s touched the ball eight times in four games for 76 all-purpose yards. Between him and Thomas, they need to solidify the wide receiver corps for the Irish. 

1. Sophomore offensive line Blake Fisher

The offensive line has improved greatly since the start of the year, but right tackle Blake Fisher has continued to struggle. He’s consistently been one of the weak links on the line, and he has missed blocks in key moments that have hurt the Irish. Think back to Week 1, with the Irish up 10-7 at the start of the second half. Sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner had sophomore wide receiver Lorenzo Styles open down the sideline but rushed the throw as Fisher got beat around the edge. The Irish missed on the potential touchdown, and didn’t score again. Fisher has monster size and potential and he needs to translate that into on-field production in the coming weeks.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.

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Irish fail to execute late, fall to Buckeyes in season opener

The fifth-ranked Irish battled hard in the season opener against the second-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, but Notre Dame failed to score in the second half and Ohio State battled back to secure a 21-10 victory on Saturday night in Columbus.

The Irish started off the night in a big way with a 54-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Lorenzo Styles down the sideline. An Ohio State penalty set the Irish up at the Buckeyes’ 16-yard line, but the Irish drive faltered after three straight running plays. The Irish managed to get on the board, though, with graduate student kicker Blake Grupe nailing a 33-yard field goal to give the Irish an early lead.

After stopping the Buckeyes at midfield on their opening drive, the Irish got the ball back at their own five-yard line. They got backed up even more, though, after a two-yard loss from sophomore running back Audric Estime and a false start penalty. Sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner managed to give the Irish some breathing room on second down, but the Irish failed to convert on the third and were forced to punt.

On the ensuing drive, a pass interference penalty for senior cornerback Cam Hart set the Buckeyes up at the Irish 35-yard line. A few plays later, Buckeyes’ quarterback C.J. Stroud found wide receiver Emeka Egbuka on a pass to the flat, who eluded the Irish defense to score the game’s first touchdown, giving the Buckeyes a 7-3 lead with just over five minutes to play in the first quarter.

A few possessions later, the Irish put together their most impressive drive of the game. A circus catch from graduate student wide receiver Matt Salerno on a third and short kickstarted the drive and set the Irish up in Buckeye territory. The terrific catch put the Irish in great shape and earned Buchner’s praise after the game.

“He’s one of our best receivers and he made a huge play,” Buchner said. “And I was thankful that he came down with it.”

The Irish continued to move the ball after Salerno’s catch with Buchner, finding junior tight Kevin Bauman on the ensuing play to set the Irish up at the Buckeyes’ 12-yard line. After two run plays, the Irish converted another big third down on a pass to junior tight end Michael Mayer to set up a first and goal from the one-yard line. After an Ohio State timeout, Estime leaped over the pile to score the first touchdown of the season for Notre Dame and give the Irish a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter.

After a few empty possessions for both teams, Ohio State wasted no time moving the ball down the field on their final drive of the first half. C.J. Stroud got the drive going, completing pass after pass to get the Buckeyes into Irish territory. Running back TreVeyon Henderson had an impressive 16-yard run as well to set the Buckeyes up at the Irish 25-yard line. The Buckeyes’ drive stalled a few plays later, however, and a missed 39-yard field goal allowed the Irish to take a 10-7 lead into the locker room.

Ohio State’s frustration on offense continued to build at the start of the second half after the Buckeyes went three and out on their opening drive. They also failed to score on their second drive of the half, as well.

The Irish offense couldn’t capitalize on their first two possessions, though, allowing the Buckeyes to stay within three. Head coach Marcus Freeman acknowledged that his team’s strategy was to limit the Buckeyes’ possessions and milk the clock as much as possible offensively.

“We wanted to control the clock, limit their offensive possessions, and run the football,” Freeman said. “It was a 10-7 game until seconds left in the third quarter, so we knew we weren’t going to try to outscore them.”

But a turning point came late in the third quarter when the Buckeyes marched down the field for a 70-yard touchdown drive. Stroud started the drive off by showing off his play-making abilities on the opening play, eluding multiple pass rushers and then finding Emeka Egbuka for a 16-yard completion on the run. After a false start penalty, Stroud then found wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. on the following play for another 11 yards.

Set up at the Irish 48-yard line, the Buckeyes continued to move deeper into Irish territory. A personal foul call backed the Buckeyes up into a second and long situation. However, the Buckeyes overcame the penalty. Stroud found wide receiver Xavier Johnson down the middle for a go-ahead 24-yard touchdown pass.

The Irish desperately needed an answer on the ensuing drive, and it looked like they were off to a good start, as Buchner found graduate student wide receiver Braden Lenzy for a 32-yard play to open the drive. On the following play, junior running back Chris Tyree ran for 14 yards to set the Irish up at the Ohio State 41-yard line. But a crucial offensive pass interference call against Salerno backed the Irish up, eventually forcing Notre Dame to punt.

After getting the ball back, the Buckeyes put the Irish away for good, courtesy of a 95-yard touchdown drive powered by the run game. Running back Miyan Williams carried the ball on the final five plays of the drive. His two-yard rushing touchdown with just under five minutes to play in the game all but solidified an Ohio State victory.

“They had four rushing big plays in the fourth quarter,” Freeman said. “That is a heartbreaker for a defense when you are giving up big plays to an offense that is running the ball. We have to be able to finish and execute.”

An Irish three and out on their next possession further cemented that reality. The Irish punted, and Ohio State ran the clock out to secure the season opening victory over Notre Dame. While the Irish fought hard, Freeman was ultimately disappointed in his team’s execution and inability to respond offensively late in the game.

“We didn’t finish the game. We didn’t execute,” Freeman said. “I think we learned that we have a good football team, but we have to learn how to finish. We battled for two and a half quarters, but then they scored 17 seconds before the end of the third quarter and we don’t respond. And then they go and score again in the fourth quarter, and that’s the game.”

The Irish will return to action in the home opener next week against Marshall, and Freeman is excited to get back to work and get the first win of the season next week.

“We have a lot to learn from this game,” Freeman said. “The beauty of this thing is we don’t have to wait 245 days. We have seven days for another opportunity, so we have to get back to work.”

Nate Moller

Contact Nate at nmoller2@nd.edu.

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Notre Dame’s keys to victory against Ohio State

With the Irish currently sitting as 17.5-point underdogs against Ohio State, they are going to need a multitude of things to go their way come Saturday. Limiting the production of Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud will be nearly impossible, but there are other paths to victory for the Irish.

1. Win the turnover battle

This is an obvious one, but it is almost a necessity for Irish to upset the Buckeyes. With a young quarterback in sophomore Tyler Buchner, the Irish will need to avoid turnovers at all costs. Buchner had three crucial interceptions last year, and that is not going to fly in Columbus. Buchner will have his hands full, though, against a much-improved Ohio State defense led by former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles.

At cornerback, the Buckeyes will be led by Denzel Burke. Burke is coming off a terrific freshman season and has the potential to become one of the best corners in the league. The Buckeyes will also have plenty of talent at safety with Ronnie Hickman and Josh Proctor.

Although Proctor got injured last season, he arguably has the potential to become one of the best defensive playmakers in college football. Regardless, he will undoubtedly be a headache for Buchner and the Irish wide receiving corps. The Buckeyes also added Oklahoma State transfer Tanner McCallister to further solidify their secondary.

With all this being said, Buchner will need to be precise and decisive in the passing game. If Buchner tries to force passes out to the flat or into tight spaces, the Buckeyes have plenty of playmakers to make Buchner pay for potential mistakes.

On the other side of the football, the Irish need to generate turnovers at opportune moments. The Irish will need anything they can get to take the life out of the crowd, and a timely interception and fumble can do just that. Stroud is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, so the Irish will have to get lucky and get turnovers from their top defensive playmakers.

2. Limit Ohio State’s production through the air

C.J. Stroud is going to throw for a lot of yards against Notre Dame, and there is no way around that. What the Irish need to do is limit the big play. Jaxon Smith-Njigba is the most important receiver for the Irish to stop. Unfortunately for the Irish, the Buckeyes have plenty of other options in the air. The incredibly athletic Marvin Harrison Jr. is one of these targets. So are Julian Fleming and Emeka Egbuka, two more reliable options for the Buckeyes to turn to as well.

So how can the Irish limit this lethal Buckeye passing game? The Irish cornerbacks will need to step up big time if they are going to have a chance. Junior Clarence Lewis struggled mightily in the Fiesta Bowl — he will have to be much improved if the Irish are going to stand a chance. Senior Cam Hart needs to step up as well. Although Hart had moments of greatness last season, there were times where he was the weak link of the Irish defensive corps. 

At safety, the Irish will need Northwestern senior safety transfer Brandon Joseph to be on top of his game. If Ohio State comes out of the gate firing with deep passes every which way, this game could be over before the first quarter. So it is vital for the Irish secondary to keep everything in front of them to keep the game close for as long as possible.

3. Develop a run game

Developing a run game is of the utmost importance for an Irish offense that should not try to rely too much on Buchner’s passing ability. The Irish have three great running backs, and it looks like all three of them should see plenty of snaps with no starter being named at the position.

Explosive junior Chris Tyree will likely lead the way for the Irish, bringing plenty of big-play potential. Tyree will be joined in the backfield by sophomores Logan Diggs and Audric Estime, who are both ideal for short-run situations but more than capable of breaking a long run as well.

Diggs jumped onto the scene last year with a fantastic game against Virginia Tech, and he finished the year strong with three touchdowns, averaging 4.4 yards per carry in the process. Estime only had a handful of carries, but his six-foot, 228 lb frame should be perfect for goal line and third-and-short situations.

Aside from the running backs, Notre Dame should feature a much-improved offensive line. Sophomore Joe Alt will start at left tackle for the Irish after proving to be one of the best freshmen in the country at his position last year. Preseason AP All-American graduate student Jarrett Patterson will line up next to Alt, which should lock up the left side of the line. Alt and Patterson are joined by senior Zeke Correll, graduate student Josh Lugg and sophomore Blake Fisher, who all possess plenty of talent and experience to pave the way for a successful run game.

The Irish need to generate some long, slow drives that eat up the clock and keep the Ohio State offense off the field. Buchner himself is very effective on the ground, so look for him to contribute to this run game scheme as well. The Buckeyes have a strong defensive line, so this will be a huge matchup to keep an eye on Saturday night.

Nate Moller

Contact Nate at nmoller2@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.