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Thomas: Where Ben Morrison ranks among recent Irish recruiting steals

Within just weeks, three-star cornerback recruit Benjamin Morrison claimed a starting job within the vaunted Notre Dame defense. Morrison came to South Bend as the second-highest cornerback recruit in the class, with many figuring four-star Jaden Mickey to challenge for early playing time. Mickey has played some very important snaps for the Irish, but it is the previously little-known Morrison that has carved out a regular role. Where does Morrison rank amidst recent Irish recruiting steals? The Irish have molded several lower-rated recruits into dominant starters, but did any get off to as fast a start as the Phoenix, Arizona, native? 

Where does Morrison fall

Morrison came to Notre Dame ranked as the 311th-best recruit per 247 and the 35th-best cornerback. He received a .9000 grade on the dot from 247. Morrison wasn’t an early enrollee, so the headlines centered around Mickey and his brash confidence at the spring game. But after a strong camp and preseason, Morrison forced his way into the cornerback rotation. He played 29 snaps in the opener at Ohio State. He usurped the starting role a few short weeks after.

A three-star recruit that was seemingly a depth addition to a strong class, Morrison looks like one of the best recruiting steals for the Irish in recent memory. To compare him to recent and similar recruiting steals, I looked at the litany of Irish three-star recruits that became big-time contributors for the blue and gold. In order to create this list, a combination of how quickly they became a starter and their overall impact on the team over their career was considered. 

Recent Recruiting Steals

7. Logan Diggs

Diggs filled a big hole late in the 2021 recruiting cycle for Notre Dame. The Irish went hard after eventual Clemson commit Will Shipley, and they needed to pivot late. They grabbed Diggs, ranked as the 504th-best player and 35th-best running back. While Diggs never was RB1 as a freshman, Diggs appeared in eight games, filling some critical roles especially when eventual fifth-round draft pick Kyren Williams was drafted. 

6. Jarrett Patterson

Patterson wasn’t exactly a highly underrated recruit, but he did enter Notre Dame ranked as the 25th-best offensive tackle in the country and the 369th-best player. However, Patterson has established himself as a linchpin of the Irish offensive line in recent years. As a sophomore, he started all 13 games of the 2019 season at center. He’s moved around between tackle and center over his career, but outside of missing the end of the 2020 season due to injury, Patterson has been a full-time starter since cracking the lineup. 

5. Clarence Lewis 

In a bit of irony, Lewis, who just largely lost his job to Morrison, comes in at No. 5. Given recent events and Lewis’s struggles, it’s easy to forget he came in as a freshman and took over a starting role on a College Football Playoff-bound team. Lewis played in nine games as a freshman, taking over as a starter in November. He entered as the 727th-ranked prospect and 58th-ranked cornerback. He stays lower on the list given he has since been surpassed on the depth chart. 

4. Benjamin Morrison

For now, Morrison slots in at No. 4. He’s got a lot to prove, but after becoming a starter by Week 3 of his true freshman year, and given the fact that he wasn’t an early enrollee, his rapid ascent merits a rise up this list. 

3. Kyren Williams

One of the best skill position players out of Notre Dame in the past few years, Kyren Williams didn’t come to South Bend with otherworldly amounts of hype. His .8918 recruit grade was modest, and he clocked it at No. 367 on the 247 recruit rankings. Even within the running backs, he was only ranked No. 24 on the list. Of course, Williams became a starter as a sophomore and pushed the Irish to a playoff berth in 2020. His 140-yard, three-touchdown effort against No. 1 Clemson, including a 65-yard touchdown run on his first rush of the game, remains a legendary performance. He finished his career with back-to-back 1000-yard seasons before departing for the NFL. 

2. Joe Alt 

Alt was almost forced into a starting role with underperformance and injury issues along the Irish offensive line. But after entering at left tackle against Cincinnati, Alt took over the starting job against Virginia Tech. He stabilized Notre Dame’s most questionable position and emerged as the clear starting left tackle for at least the next three years. Alt has almost seamlessly transitioned into this season as a starter, performing as the Irish’s best offensive lineman for most of the season. It’s easy to forget he entered with a .8862 prospect grade, rated as the 408th-best recruit in the country. 

1. Kurt Hinish

Kurt Hinish has been exceeding expectations long before he surprisingly made the Houston Texans roster this past preseason. Before that, Hinish entered as the 520th-ranked recruit and 43rd-ranked defensive tackle in the 2017 class. He immediately became a contributor as a freshman, appearing in 12 games in his first year. He had his coming out party in the USC rivalry clash, totaling a then-career-high three tackles against the Trojans. Ultimately, his collegiate career-high would amount to 10 in the 2022 matchup against Navy. Hinish played in 63 games over five years for the Irish, totaling 28 tackles and 2 sacks. The nose guard jumped from little-known three-star recruit to starting lineup staple for half a decade, earning the No. 1 spot on this list.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.

The views in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Key moments from Notre Dame’s first win in the Freeman era

Slow start for both teams

The game started slowly with seven consecutive three-and-out possessions for the Notre Dame and Cal offenses. For the Irish, this meant 10 total yards in their opening four possessions. For the Golden Bears, it was 14 yards through their first three.

On their fourth possession, Cal was finally able to get something going. They put together an 11-play, 58-yard drive punctuated by a 17-yard throw and catch to convert on third down. However, they stalled at the 27-yard line and sent out the field goal unit. Cal kicker Dario Longhetto promptly doinked the 45-yard attempt off the left upright and the game remained tied at zero.

Pyne fumbles, Cal takes advantage

After escaping unscathed following Cal’s missed field goal, Notre Dame took over at their own 27, still without a first down. Pyne connected with Lorenzo Styles Jr. to open the drive and the first quarter came to an end.

But on the first play of the second quarter, Pyne couldn’t get a handle on Zeke Correll’s snap and fumbled it, with Cal linebacker Oluwafemi Oladejo recovering. The turnover gave Cal excellent field position and, four plays later, they scored the game’s opening touchdown and took a 7-0 lead.

Notre Dame replies as Chris Tyree takes over

With 16 total yards, zero first downs and a seven-point deficit to make up, Notre Dame turned to junior running back Chris Tyree, and he answered the bell. Notre Dame put together a 10-play, 60-yard touchdown drive where Tyree accounted for 44 of the team’s 60 yards, plus a 16-yard kickoff return before the drive began.

This included the 21-yard touchdown reception where Tyree got open out of the backfield and scored untouched. The score came after Notre Dame was bailed out by an offside penalty on Blake Grupe’s missed 45-yard field goal attempt.

The Golden Bears offense were able to move the ball well again before stalling on third and goal, where an excellent open-field tackle from DJ Brown kept Cal out of the end zone. Regardless, a 34-yard field goal made it 10-7 before the half.

Estime scores, Plummer matches him

Notre Dame’s defense forced a quick three and out to start the third quarter, and Pyne and the offense got back to work.

This time, it was Audric Estime who handled the ball often and a 14-yard carry quickly got the offense into Cal territory. They stalled at the 28, though, where a Drew Pyne incompletion seemed to force a field goal attempt. However, the flags came flying, and Cal linebacker Blake Antzoulatos was called for targeting and ejected from the game. The call gave the Irish 15 yards and a first down.

From there, Estime carried the ball four straight times until he dove over the goal line to give Notre Dame a 14-10 lead.

Cal replied with a 10-play, 75-yard drive to retake the lead. The Irish seemed to have got the stop on third and goal but with the ball inches short, Cal went for it, and Jack Plummer was able to score on the QB sneak and make it 17-14.

Notre Dame ties it then takes the lead in fourth quarter

On the following drive, the Notre Dame offense got going again. It included a big 19-yard completion from Pyne to Styles for a first down. However, after a few touches for Tyree and an incompletion, the drive stalled. Grupe came out and nailed a 47-yard field goal to tie the game.

The defense then came up huge with Jacob Lacey sacking Plummer for the second time in the game. That play led to another three-and-out for the Golden Bears who punted it back to Notre Dame.

Back on the field, the Notre Dame offense kept their momentum and scored for a third consecutive drive. This time it was set up by a 36-yard completion to Estime, who got inside the 10 on the play. From there, Pyne found Michael Mayer on the slant route to give Notre Dame the 24-17 lead.

 Defense steps up late

With a one-score lead, the onus now fell on the Irish defense to step up late in the game. Fourth quarter execution had been an issue for the Notre Dame defense in the first two games, but you wouldn’t know it watching them on Saturday.

With the ball back in Plummer’s hands, Notre Dame needed a stop to take control in the contest, and that’s exactly what they got. After giving up a conversion on fourth and eight that made Irish fans think “here we go again,” the defense were able to force a turnover on downs. After three consecutive incompletions, Isaiah Foskey got home and sacked Plummer for a loss of eight yards and a turnover on downs. 

After a short Irish possession, a Jon Sot punt pinned the Golden Bears inside the 10 and it was the same story as the previous drive: two Plummer incompletions before he was sacked. This time it was Jayson Ademilola and Foskey who combined to force the punt from Cal. 

After a little clock management from the offense and a Sot touchback, it was all on the defense once again. This time, it seemed it might only take one play. Plummer dropped back to pass and threw the ball straight at Clarence Lewis, who intercepted to seemingly seal the win. However, under further review, the interception was overturned, and Notre Dame captain linebacker JD Bertrand was ejected for targeting. The penalty means that Bertrand will miss the next game against North Carolina. 

It also meant that Cal’s drive was alive. After some progress down the field, it seemed once again that the Irish might’ve sealed it with a turnover. This time, Justin Ademilola got some pressure on Plummer, who fumbled the ball. Ta’riq Bracy recovered and scored on the play, sending Notre Dame Stadium into delirium. 

Once again, the turnover was negated upon further review. This time, the referees ruled that Plummer was down by contact, meaning the play resulted in a six-yard sack for Justin Ademilola instead. With one final play, Plummer threw a hail mary to the goal line, which was juggled between several players until it hit the turf. Finally, the Irish could celebrate. 

FINAL SCORE: Notre Dame 24, California 17

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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.