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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.

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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