KEY QUESTIONS FOR 2024: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

By Stiofán Mac Fhilib

As the college football season draws ever nearer, we will be looking at the key questions to answer for the leading playoff contenders. This time, we focus on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish as they look to make the playoffs for the first time under Marcus Freeman.

How do you replace a pair of OTs drafted in the first two rounds?

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It’s perhaps not the first thing you might expect to hear from a school that prides itself on being ’OL U’, but for many Notre Dame observers, potentially the biggest weakness on new OC Mike Denbrock’s offense is at the Offensive Tackle spot. In April, Joe Alt (#5) and Blake Fisher (#59) both followed in the footsteps of Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey and found new homes in the NFL draft.

Both could have returned for a final year in 2024, but instead the Irish may need to rely on a pair of players who are still underclassmen in terms of eligibility. Redshirt freshman, Charles Jagusah, impressed against Oregon State in the Sun Bowl, and is expected to start at LT. Redshirt sophomore, Aamil Wagner, will battle Fifth Year Senior, Tosh Baker, in Fall Camp for the RT spot. 

All were highly-rated recruits and would be expected to come in and be effective in the run game straight away. The $64,000 question, however, is how well they will hold up in pass protection against Texas A&M’s host of 4- and 5-star DEs in front of over 100,000 noisy fans on a steaming hot evening in Kyle Field at the end of August. 

Should they pass that test and go on to improve further during the season, then Mike Denbrock’s offense will be well set to meet and perhaps even exceed ND fans’ lofty pre-season expectations.

What does a healthy Riley Leonard look like in a gold helmet?

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Notre Dame quarterback recruiting has enjoyed a significant uptick under Marcus Freeman, but even with freshman CJ Carr on campus and more quality coming down the pipeline, the Irish elected to go with Riley Leonard, the senior transfer from Duke, their fifth different starting quarterback in five seasons.

Leonard’s dual-threat style and running ability should fit in nicely with Mike Denbrock’s offense, given how he tailored it for the Heisman Trophy winner in the Bayou last season. And it’s one of life’s little ironies that but for an injury sustained in the final seconds of Duke’s home loss to the Irish at the start of October 2023, Leonard could well have headed to the NFL draft instead of returning for his final year as a student-athlete.

Leonard missed most of Notre Dame’s Spring practice and its Spring Game, due to further minor surgery on his injured ankle. Fall practice should give fans their first proper look at how he can lead the offense, though as always, it will come down to how he produces on the field, starting with an intriguing match-up against the man who was his Head Coach last season.

All Irish fans have to go on are his stats in a Duke uniform and the impression formed during the Blue Devils defeat to ND in 2023. In that game he almost led them to an upset comeback win, but for some Audric Estimé magic in the final minute. But the injury he received hampered him in his two final games in a Duke uniform and his stats there against Florida State and Louisville don’t reflect his ability when healthy.

Irish fans will prefer to consider his 2022 output for a full season of healthy production. He passed for almost 3,000 yards at a 64% completion rate, a 20/6 TD/INT ratio and ran for almost 700 yards and 13 TDs at 5.6 yards per carry.

With a better OL in front of him, better skill position players around him, and one of college football’s top OCs running the offense, expectations are high that he can be the fulcrum of a Notre Dame run to the playoffs.

No pressure, Coach Freeman, but this is your third season…

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With two seasons and a bowl game behind him, Marcus Freeman enters his third full season as Notre Dame Head Coach well aware of its significance for him, his bank manager and the legion of Irish fans. Can he learn from his mistakes to date, build on his experience, and show that he could lead ND to a long-awaited National Championship?

Freeman has yet to be offered an extension to his initial contract and the expectation is that negotiations on that will come in the Winter, ideally on the back of progress that will see his $7m per year deal increase significantly. Treading water may see his seat become warmer in 2025, but on paper, he is well-placed to have his best season yet after his 9-4, 10-3 start in South Bend.

He is familiar with the history of Notre Dame coaches in their third season. Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz all won a national championship in theirs. Brian Kelly led his third team to a BCS National Championship Game. Indeed, had Collin Klein, the new OC at Notre Dame’s opening 2024 opponents, Texas A&M, been able to overcome Baylor as QB at Kansas State in their penultimate regular season game in 2012, then ND would have faced the Wildcats rather than Alabama for the title, and Brian Kelly may well have joined that illustrious list.

It’s far from ‘win or bust’ for Freeman in 2024 but with the resources at his disposal, the school’s large recent investment in two of the best coordinators in the college game, and a favourable schedule, expectations are for a home game in the playoffs and at least one win.

His predecessor was known for winning the games he should, though in fairness that was in the second half of his tenure at ND. The first half was littered with embarrassing home letdowns, not dissimilar to Freeman’s against Marshall and Stanford. Freeman at least does have some wins in big games, but equally some disheartening defeats, most notoriously on the final play against Ohio State with just ten defenders on the field. He should have the opportunity to demonstrate the extent to which he has learned from his experiences to date. How well he does that will determine how happy his bank manager and Notre Dame fans are come January 2025.