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34 Thoughts on Notre Dame’s 2023 Football Season

The season’s so close I can practically taste it

Syndication: Notre Dame Insider John Mersits / USA TODAY NETWORK

It’s been 34 years (going on 35) since Notre Dame last claimed a national championship. And even though it’s a waste to leave titles like 1993 and 2012 unclaimed, I’ll play along with 1988 being the last one. So here are 34 thoughts on Notre Dame heading into the 2023 season, one thought for each year without a natty.

(And to The Athletic’s legal team, I’m unaware of whether you trademarked your staff members’ “Final Thoughts” columns, so please don’t sue, especially since these thoughts aren’t exactly “final”).

1. Can one true freshman receiver actually make an impact? For the love of all things holy, just one? It’s not that much to ask. Jaden Greathouse had a great spring game, but that was the spring game. And all the preseason hype for freshman receivers in previous seasons has yet to pay substantial dividends. My point is, no matter how much sunshine you’re trying to blow up my keester, I’ll believe it when I see it with Notre Dame and freshman wideouts.

2. Obviously, two losses is an automatic disqualifier for Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff chances in 2023. The Irish could make the CFP with only one loss, but it’s far from guaranteed. Undefeated or even one-loss conference champions from four of the Power 5 conferences would probably keep an 11-1 Irish team out of the CFP. Notre Dame can do its part to make that scenario less worrisome by beating one or both of Ohio State and USC and holding a head-to-head tiebreaker in the process. But, obviously, the best course of action is to take Coach Yoast’s advice from “Remember the Titans” and “leave no doubt” by going 12-0.

3. Is three scholarship quarterbacks enough for the 2023 season? Speaking purely from a numbers perspective, probably so. The Irish offensive line should be good enough to keep three players upright. The more appropriate question is whether these three quarterbacks are enough for the upcoming slate. Head coach Marcus Freeman seems to think so since he said they would not pursue another transfer before the season. He claims to believe that either of Kenny Minchey or Steve Angeli could one day become the Irish starter, and that may prove true. But if we’re being honest, as far as 2023 is concerned, the Irish hopes ride and die with Sam Hartman.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 22 Notre Dame Blue-Gold Game Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

4. It’s Riley Mills’ fourth year in the program, and his third where he enters the season carrying a narrative of unfulfilled potential impact. It’s not that he’s been bad per se, but he hasn’t been the difference maker the Irish needed opposite Isaiah Foskey. Now Foskey’s gone and Mills has shifted predominantly to the interior. We’ll see if that changes anything.

5. Five scholarship tight ends should be plenty, even when considering the injury histories of Kevin Bauman and Eli Raridon. Ditto for the running back position’s five full-timers, despite Jadarian Price recovering from an achilles tear and Gi’Bran Payne’s track record. But in the unfortunate yet probable scenario that either starter at those spots misses time with injury, a dependable No. 2 needs to emerge. Holden Staes and Payne are my betting favorites, respectively.

6. OK, technically there are six scholarship tight ends and running backs. I would never forget about former walk-on Davis Sherwood (who really plays fullback) or converted receiver Chris Tyree (who will almost undoubtedly get some carries), respectively. Here’s hoping Sherwood logs an unexpected touchdown catch after slipping past Ohio State’s defense on the goal line. Here’s also hoping Tyree has finally found the position where his athleticism is maximized.

7. Notre Dame effectively took seven transfers this offseason, dropped from eight due to ex-Virginia Tech receiver Kaleb Smith medically retiring. The Irish addressed pretty much every position of real need — quarterback, running back, defensive end, nickel, safety, and kicker — plus they brought in an an Ivy League punter to promote more competition. It would have been nice to have a more proven, veteran receiver like Smith, but the word is he was getting beat out in camp anyway. And in any case, the transfer portal is a fickle thing, and beggars can’t be choosers.

8. Go back to thought No. 4 and I could say the same things about Chris Tyree that I did about Rylie Mills. Tyree has eight career rushing touchdowns through three seasons; Audric Estime had 11 in the 2022 season alone. Tyree has also never logged more than four rushing scores in a single year; even ex-Notre Dame (and current Pitt) running back C’Bo Flemister logged five rushing touchdowns to surpass Tyree that same season, and that was Flemister’s second consecutive year of five rushing scores. This isn’t a criticism, just some evidence that experimenting with Tyree’s position was a no-brainer this offseason (if not sooner).

9. Nine was the number of receiving touchdowns for Notre Dame’s statistical leader, Michael Mayer, coincidentally the greatest tight end in the school’s history. Now Mayer is gone. It’s time to break the drought of three years without a wide receiver being the best pass catcher on the Irish roster. There’s strength in numbers, but an alpha needs to emerge. Tobias Merriweather, please?

10. It’s tough to keep making the numbers match each thought, so I’m just gonna go with the flow from here on.

11. Speaking of Merriweather, hasn’t he been suspiciously absent from the practice clips that Notre Dame’s media team has been putting out? And it feels like there really hasn’t been much (if any) discussion of him during fall camp, positive or negative. What should be read into that when there remains an expectation (warranted or not) that Merriweather will be Notre Dame’s big-play threat at receiver this season?

12. But there also seems to be an expectation (warranted or not) that Jayden Thomas will be the most reliable down-to-down receiver for the Irish in 2023. That’s a bit more understandable given his track record over the last two-thirds of last season and his versatility at every receiving spot. Still, this is going to be an interesting offense without a bona fide “weapon” to rely on in the passing game.

Stanford v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

13. Which makes the addition of Sam Hartman all the more interesting. If the Blue-Gold Game is any indication, he wants to spread the wealth in this offense. Or, rather, maybe Hartman feels the need to do so since no one pass catcher is experienced or talented enough (at least not yet) to bear the weight of being a standout receiving option. Whatever the case, it feels like there will be more than a couple of surprisingly significant pass-catching contributors.

14. What should be no surprise is the running game, at least at the top of the depth chart. Logan Diggs defected in the transfer portal, leaving Audric Estime as the unquestioned No. 1 (but word was that Estime had separated himself from Diggs over the winter anyway). With Estime streamlining his body and starring in Notre Dame’s “Jerry Maguire” parody, health permitting, he should best his eleven scores from last season and then some.

15. However, that prediction requires Estime to have put his fumbling woes to bed after the mid-year struggles that got him benched in 2022. Kyren Williams had his own fumbling issues in 2020, but he straightened it up the following season (notwithstanding a near game-losing fumble against Toledo). Estime better do the same with how unproven the players are behind him this season.

16. That prediction about Estime’s production also requires a baseline level of quality offensive line play. Williams was a great college running back even if he wasn’t the most physically gifted, and he could barely gain any ground to begin the 2021 season as a result of a horrid offensive line in front of him. Estime is more physically imposing than Williams, but even the best backs need some consistent push ahead of them.

17. There should be plenty of push on the edges from offensive tackles Joe Alt and Blake Fisher. Even so, quality offensive guards are probably more important to the run game, and the Irish still need to figure out that situation from the candidates of Rocco Spindler, Billy Schrauth, Andrew Kristofic and Pat Coogan. Regardless, that’s a lot of talented pieces, and it doesn’t even include a veteran and highly-touted 5th-year senior at center in Zeke Correll. If you can’t make a top-15 offensive line in the country out of that raw material, then some reevaluation of the position coaching is in order.

18. And on the other side of the trenches, another position coach needs to put the pieces together with younger and more unproven talent. Aside from Rylie Mills and Howard Cross III on the interior, the Irish need some surprise stories from the likes of Gabriel Rubio, Jason Onye, Donovan Hinish and Tyson Ford. It’d also be nice (and, honestly, necessary) for at least one freshman to carve out a niche (looking at you, Brenan Vernon).

19. Everything in the previous thought applies equally to the defensive ends. Jordan Botelho had a great Gator Bowl but has struggled to find his best position, and Javonte Jean-Baptiste has gotten little discussion since he transferred from Ohio State this offseason. Plus, Nana Osafo-Mensah is a solid contributor but probably more of a Jamir Jones than an Ade Ogundeji type of late bloomer. Notre Dame basically needs to “Moneyball” this and recreate Isaiah Foskey in the aggregate.

20. To that end, there are a lot of converted linebackers that need to make an impact at vyper. Botelho, Junior Tuihalamaka and Joshua Burnham have made the position switch, and with the linebacker situation being what it is, the decision to move those guys better be validated.

Notre Dame v Syracuse Photo by Isaiah Vazquez/Getty Images

21. “The linebacker situation” referenced previously is this: three upperclassmen are guaranteed to take the lion’s share of snaps on defense this season, whether fans like it or not (and in most cases they should like it). JD Bertrand, Jack Kiser and Marist Liufau are as savvy a linebacker trio as you’ll find in college football. That’s a good thing.

22. But, admittedly, those guys all have their shortcomings and will probably all be gone next season. Now is the time to find out what you have in Jaylen Sneed, Drayk Bowen, Jaiden Ausberry and Preston Zinter, especially with Nolan Ziegler’s status for 2023 currently up in the air.

23. To be honest, the linebacker depth chart is actually somewhat tenuous with the transplants to the vyper position and Prince Kollie’s departure via the portal. But that’s mitigated somewhat by Notre Dame’s ability to shift to a nickel look. And, boy, is that nickel set a beauty.

24. Benjamin Morrison, Cam Hart and Thomas Harper marking up opposing pass catchers simultaneously? Yes, please. Sure, a pass defense is only as good as its weakest link (in this case, the safeties), but this is as talented and deep a cornerback group as the Irish have had in some time.

25. Speaking of safeties, Xavier Watts is the beginning and end of this position being anything close to a “strength” this season. Rhode Island transfer Antonio Carter II is a nice pickup, but he’s predominantly played cornerback in college, and the transition from FCS to FBS is undoubtedly a learning curve. Watts could be an Avery Davis type of player, one who was moved around on both sides of the ball before finally settling in as a senior, and he needs to be for the Irish secondary to hold its own against the likes of Ohio State and USC.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Notre Dame at USC Photo by Kiyoshi Mio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

26. And on the topic of Ohio State and USC, to all the Notre Dame fans contemplating selling your tickets for a profit to visiting fans, please remember that 2017 Georgia game. If that doesn’t light a fire under you, then just remember that God is a Notre Dame fan and he doesn’t look too kindly on so-called Domers and subway alumni who sell their fandoms for 30 pieces of silver.

27. Oh, you don’t like me comparing ticketholders to Judas Iscariot? Well too bad. Stop selling seats to enemies in red!

28. OK, back to the roster. We haven’t talked about specialists yet, which is par for the course. Special teams is truly the third wheel of most football teams, even one that revolutionized punt blocking just last season. C’est la vie. Spencer Shrader should be a reliable enough kicker, and either of Bryce McFerson or Ben Krimm can get the job done at punter. But we riot if Michael Vinson isn’t a finalist for the Mannelly Award at season’s end.

29. Let’s discuss coaching, starting with the defense. The last couple of years, it seems like there has been a glaringly annoying weakness in the Notre Dame defense. In 2021, it was end-of-half defense letting opponents swing momentum before the intermission. In 2022, it was red zone defense (and an inability to force turnovers early in the season). Is it too much to ask for a Clark Lea-esque defense that is solid all the way around?

30. Ugh, that red zone defense. Notre Dame was 130th in the FBS last season (i.e., next to dead last) in that category. Is some of that a result of random chance? I can believe it, but only to a point. You don’t give up scores on 94% of red zone possessions (and with a 27-5 touchdown-to-field-goal ratio, no less) without some kind of structural flaw in your defensive approach. Al Golden better have done more than try to patch it with duct tape and super glue.

31. On the offensive side, what are we getting with new offensive coordinator Gerad Parker? He’ll be running some version of the Tommy Rees offense so as to not overhaul the playbook, but Parker’s track record as an OC (two seasons at West Virginia) is less than stellar. Still, he’ll have better talent now than he did in Morgantown, and perhaps his personnel could use a simplification of an offense that often seemed to overthink itself.

32. With that said, I am infuriated by the implication that this Notre Dame offense will be good simply as a byproduct of the presences of Sam Hartman, Joe Alt and Blake Fisher. Should the offense be good? Absolutely. Will it be? You can’t tell me that the answer is also “absolutely.” I’m suspending judgment until I see the product on the field with my own eyes.

33. How many wins does Marcus Freeman need this season to appease the sensible members of the fanbase? It’s probably 9 in the regular season. But I will make the argument that this better be a 10-2 team at worst. Freeman needs to do what his predecessor did (beat all the teams he’s supposed to beat) AND do something his predecessor struggled mightily with (toppling a national power (or two (or three))). It’s what he was hired and gets paid a lot of money to do.

34. Seriously, can we stop this number from growing any bigger? Please?