Keys To The Season: Notre Dame
By Stiofán Mac Fhilib
Coming off the back of an 8-4 regular season, followed by an entertaining 45-38 Gator Bowl win over SEC opposition South Carolina, 2023 promises to be a fascinating season for Marcus Freeman and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Losing at home to both Marshall and Stanford was decidedly NOT on the 2022 bingo card of pretty much every ND fan, but to Freeman’s credit the rookie Head Coach followed a 3-3 start with a 6-1 run to end the season.
Pre-season practices and Fall Camp are never a good combination when it comes to dampening fans’ expectations, and when your team is unbeaten, and the sun is shining, there is surely no better time to talk yourself into all the reasons why this might just be the year you go 12-0.
With the ‘big three’ of Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State all needing to identify and break in a new starting Quarterback, there will be more than few of the ‘contender’ programmes around the US looking to see if this is their year to make a run to NRG Stadium in Houston next January. In the case of Notre ‘they don’t play nobody, Pawl!’ Dame, however, their 2023 schedule may have other ideas.
Ranked #13 in the pre-season AP Poll, the Irish face three top ten teams, along with four others in the ‘Others Receiving Votes’ category. Overall they will take on eight teams that won at least eight games a season ago. In particular they face a mid-season run of six games in seven weeks against teams that were 11-2, 9-4, 8-5, 11-3, 9-4 and 11-3 in 2022. Ultimately that will decide the Irish’s fate and post-season destination.
Another Year, Another New QB
That’s the great thing about copy and paste. Regular readers of my annual Notre Dame previews may recognise this heading from last year. And, of course, it was also true in 2021. In fact last year it turned out to be doubly true as initial starter, Tyler Buchner, was replaced by Drew Pyne after his injury near the end of the week 2 Marshall defeat. But it’s safe to say that the arrival of Wake Forest grad transfer, Sam Hartman, was a little more heralded than those of Jack Coan, Buchner and Pyne.
With ND generally able to rely on strong Offensive Line play and at least one quality Running Back, it has been obvious where the biggest improvement on offense is required, if a National Championship is truly to be a realistic goal. The ACC’s all-time leading passer will provide a veteran presence at the game’s most important position, and his election as a one of the four team captains is a welcome sign of his leadership ability.
He shouldn’t need to take some of the chances that led to his Interception numbers at Wake Forest, but he will be expected to push the ball downfield more frequently than our other QBs in recent years. On the back of, fans will hope, an effective play-action game.
His actual output is perhaps the biggest and most important question facing the entire ND team in 2023, but the Irish are confident that at the very least he will have a much higher floor than his predecessors in recent years.
The two other biggest question marks around the Notre Dame offense are at the two Guard positions and at Wide Receiver. Redshirt Juniors Pat Coogan and Rocco Spindler, seem to be the leading candidates to start at LG and RG respectively, though Redshirt Freshman Billy Schrauth may see some time at LG. Whichever combo is chosen, they’ll have a veteran Center between them and the best OT duo in CFB on their outside.
The Wide Receiver room has some welcome depth thanks to the stellar recruiting efforts of first year coach Chansi Stuckey, though how well the unit performs this year will likely ultimately depend on his development of the likes of Tobias Merriweather, Jayden Thomas and Deion Colzie, and the extent to which converted RB, Chris Tyree, adapts to his new role in the slot. That said, expect true Freshmen, Rico Flores Jr and Jaden Greathouse, to feature significantly throughout the season. And remember their names: you’ll be hearing them a lot over the next three years.
The Irish Looking Forward To Lockdown
Under first year Defensive Coordinator Al Golden, many Notre Dame fans felt underwhelmed by the 2022 defense. On reflection perhaps this was as much a result of over-inflated expectations as any actual poor play and output. Certainly had anyone advised Irish fans last August that the D would give up 21, 19 and 16 points against Ohio State, Marshall and Stanford respectively, then we’d all have been both absolutely delighted and off to the local bookmakers to heavily back three ND victories.
It wasn’t Golden’s side of the ball that let the team down on those days. Though in the fourth and most recent defeat, in the Coliseum against a Heisman Trophy-worthy performance from the – checks notes – actual Heisman Trophy winner, it was surely a frustrating night on defense.
That said, every player that has joined the ND defense since 2020 has had a new DC every season, so there has to be something said for the continuity that 2023 should bring, together with the amount of returning talent.
In recent seasons the ND Defensive Line has mostly been the biggest single strength on the defensive side of the ball. However, with the departure of the school’s all-time leading sacks record holder Isaiah Foskey to the NFL, it may be more of a committee approach this season. There is relative strength in depth with no stand-out names – as yet.
Senior Rylie Mills is perhaps best placed to make a name for himself, though after first touting him as a potential star this time two years ago, it would be great for both Notre Dame football and me if Jordan Botelho did finally become the player his flashes of brilliance suggest he can.
The real strength of this Defense is at the back end and the Cornerback position in particular. CB Coach, Mike Mickens, has done a fantastic job in recruitment and development, as befits the man who recruited Sauce Gardner to a G5 school and turned an unheard of three star into the NFL’s best Corner.
CBs, Cam Hart and Freshman All-American, Ben Morrison, are expected to lock down their sides of the field, and Xavier Watts and Oklahoma State transfer, Thomas Harper, will give strong support from the Safety and Nickel positions. And mirroring the two Freshmen WRs, look out for true Freshman CB, Christian Gray, another future star.
Linebacker is perhaps the most experienced area of the team with three fifth year Seniors, team captain, JD Bertrand, Jack Kiser, and Marist Liufau all expected to contribute heavily. On the flip side, Redshirt Freshman, Jaylen Sneed and true Freshmen, Jaiden Ausberry and Drayk Bowen, should all get valuable game time ahead of much bigger contributions in 2024.
Special Teams, Schedule and Speculation
Special Teams in 2022 under Brian Mason were hugely successful. Seven punts were blocked by four different players. Mason earned a move to the same role at the Indianapolis Colts, and his replacement, Marty Biagi, came from Ole Miss and has big shoes to fill. He does have almost a decade of ST coaching experience and as a former Kicker himself, is noted for the excellence of his kicking units.
He will have two new players to ND to work with in that regard. Grad transfer K, Spencer Shrader, from USF is consistent and has a strong leg, while true Freshman Punter, Bryce McFerson, won his job in Fall Camp.
The 2023 schedule sets up to let Notre Dame ease into the hardest part in the middle. A trip to Dublin for the opener with Navy is followed by the school’s first ever game against FCS opposition, Eddie George’s Tennessee State team. A tougher noon kickoff at NC State then precedes the visit of Central Michigan to South Bend. And then the night game at home to Ohio State…
Pre-season schedules never turn out the way you envisage them. Will Clemson continue as a three-loss team? Will Duke and Wake Forest take a step back? Has USC’s defense improved? Will Caleb Williams play like Superman against the Irish again? And more pertinently of all, to what extent will Notre Dame improve?
I’ll be disappointed with anything less than 10-2 and with a fair wind behind Sam Hartman, and not that much of an improvement on Defense, playoff contention should be on the menu come Hallowe’en. By then the visits of Ohio State and USC will be in the books and good results in those will see the Irish feature heavily and regularly on ESPN’s prime time Tuesday night shows come November.
Feature Image Credit: Robin Alam / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
A VERY LONG-DISTANCE SUBWAY ALUMNUS OF NOTRE DAME, COUNTY ANTRIM-BASED STIOFÁN HAS BEEN A FAN OF THE FIGHTING IRISH SINCE 2000. FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER @SMACFHILIB.