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Notre Dame Football Offseason O’pinions: Sun Bowl Reflections

Now it’s officially Notre Dame’s offseason, so I can bring back this series

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NCAA Football: Sun Bowl-Oregon State at Notre Dame Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

A few reactions to a game that got Marcus Freeman his first 10-win season and that won’t be remembered for much else:

(1) At the top of all minds right now should be cornerback Jaden Mickey’s family. God bless all of them following the passing of Jaden’s mother, Nilka, who battled stage 4 colon cancer since her diagnosis in February of 2020.

Jaden even authored a children’s book — “The Win Isn’t Always On The Scoreboard” — to help raise money for Nilka’s treatment. For those wishing to support the Mickey family, Jaden’s book is available on his website and on Amazon.

(2) There’s no way to cleanly transition from that subject, but so be it.

(3) Notre Dame can only have so many offseasons of good vibes without making the College Football Playoff and actually winning a game in it. Beating up on an opponent in any bowl game is nice — and it’s fun to latch onto the promise of a talented transfer quarterback — but rising above Notre Dame’s station of the last 35 years isn’t accomplished by just winning the Gator Bowl and Sun Bowl in back-to-back seasons.

It certainly matters that Marcus Freeman knows how to push his players’ buttons to have them ready to dominate a largely meaningless bowl game. That’s all well and good, because him growing into the role of Irish head coach is important. (That talking point is also a bit of a crutch, because media and fans alike use it as an excuse for his handful of coaching blunders to date, but I digress).

But don’t lose sight of the fact that Notre Dame basically just beat Pittsburgh for the second time in 2023, all due respect to the shell of the team that was Oregon State this season. Sure, Notre Dame had opt-outs as well, and the depth of Irish talent distinguished itself over the opposition’s. Regardless, let’s not make grand proclamations based off of that performance, enjoyable though it was.

(4) Notre Dame didn’t have a successful season. It wasn’t a good or even pretty good season. At the same time, it wasn’t an abject failure of a year. Ultimately, it’s a weird middle ground. The 2023 Notre Dame football campaign was just OK.

Notre Dame was expected to at least make a New Year’s Six bowl game and it didn’t, so you can’t call this a successful year. A team’s expectations can change in the middle of a season, and in fact they do quite often. But that’s usually as a result of a devastating injury at a key position.

What happened this year wasn’t an injury. It was Sam Hartman demonstrating that he wasn’t as good as the media hyped him up to be. That shift in perception isn’t enough to render a 9-3 regular season plus a win in the Sun Bowl “successful.”

(5) That’s not meant as a slight against Hartman. The media did him a disservice by insinuating (or outright claiming) that he and a pair of NFL offensive tackles would be enough on their own to make up for a bad pass-catching corps. Even I overreacted to the offensive showing against NC State. (Hindsight is 20/20, but Notre Dame benefited from a lightning delay way more than we originally realized).

With that said, it’ll be a lingering what-if as to what Hartman could have done at Notre Dame with better players to throw to. But to be fair, he had better receivers at Wake Forest and was still erratic one or two games per season, so maybe it was inevitable.

NCAA Football: Sun Bowl-Oregon State at Notre Dame Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

(6) But bloated and unfulfilled expectations aside, Hartman was so damn easy to root for. Granted, there’s a bit of a sour taste; Hartman made seven figures off the program and then opted out of the bowl game after implying he would play in it (although that was when Notre Dame’s postseason prospects had a better outlook than the Sun Bowl).

But it shouldn’t be forgotten that Hartman shared his earnings with his teammates by buying them all sandals and headphones. And the way he constantly thanked everyone — from the guys on his O-Line to the Notre Dame Stadium janitors — was incredibly ingratiating. That’s pure class.

And even though USC ultimately fell out of the rankings, you could tell that the momentary top-10 win (and over a rival, no less) meant a lot to Hartman. Overall, he seemed honored to be the starting quarterback at the University of Notre Dame. Plus, we’ll always have that improbable 4th-and-16 against Duke.

(7) On the topic of expectations: Al Golden and Al Washington. What a turnaround from last season, when Notre Dame’s defense crumbled in crunch time against Marshall and Ohio State (well, that kind of happened again) and put up a stinker against USC. And a defensive line missing Isaiah Foskey and Keon Keeley did more than enough for Notre Dame to be in a position to win every game it played this season.

Golden’s seat was never hot, although Washington’s may have been with the knowledge of what happened to wide receivers coach Chansi Stuckey in December. Still, they plugged holes masterfully with the transfer portal (where would the Irish have been without Thomas Harper and Javonte Jean-Baptiste?) and helped put together a superb defense. With the guys coming back next season, the bones of a CFP-level defense are there.

(8) But for as great as the Irish defense was in 2023, and for all the experience returning next season, let’s pump the breaks on what that side of the field will be in 2024, even if Al Golden doesn’t leave for an NFL defensive coordinator job. Jean-Baptiste, cornerback Cam Hart, safety DJ Brown and linebackers JD Bertrand and Marist Liufau are gone.

Duke defensive line transfer RJ Oben replaces Jean-Baptiste, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be as good as his predecessor. Either Mickey or Christian Gray replaces Hart, which is reassuring but still probably a step down (a testament to Hart’s ability more than a slight against Mickey or Gray). Brown’s safety spot will most likely go to an uncertain transfer, because the only players aside from Xavier Watts are redshirt freshmen. And redshirt freshmen also make up an uncomfortably large chunk of the linebacker depth chart opposite Jack Kiser.

To be sure, there’s plenty of talent to work with. But a wealth of experience is walking out the door — probably more than is coming back, although I admittedly don’t have all the snap counts available. That’s enough reason to take a wait-and-see approach to how Golden puts several new pieces together.

(9) Back to Chansi Stuckey for a second. Do you think he was the reason freshman receiver Jordan Faison didn’t get on the field until the Louisville game? I learned this past month that dual-sport athletes who are on scholarship in a non-revenue sport (like lacrosse) but walk-on in a revenue sport (like football) get their scholarship switched to the revenue sport as soon as they play a varsity snap.

Even so, how did a guy that just posted five catches for 115 yards and a touchdown en route to winning Sun Bowl MVP have to wait until the seventh game of the season to see the field, especially considering the status of Notre Dame’s wide receiver room? The toxicity of that position group under Stuckey has only been discussed in vague terms, so who’s to say whether or not he showed certain players preferential treatment? Or maybe it can be blamed on former offensive coordinator Gerad Parker as so many things seem to be.

As for the scholarship situation, by all indications, Notre Dame’s staff was prepared for Faison to eventually count against their 85-man roster limit. But with the way Faison was talked about by media, I can’t help but wonder how much the staff was reticent to put him on the field for fear of appearances (i.e., how does it look that the best receiver Notre Dame can muster is a preferred walk-on whose main sport is lacrosse?).

If that factored into Faison’s playing time at all, then whoever that decisionmaker was deserved to be fired. As they say, pride cometh before the fall. Regardless, Faison should have been on the field sooner.

(10) I’ve already offered my opinion on the situation with quarterback Steve Angeli. He’s done nothing but impress this season as a redshirt freshman, but we all know where this is going with Duke transfer quarterback Riley Leonard. I hope that Angeli gets a fair shot at the starting job in 2024, even if he’s unlikely to win it, but the investment in Leonard leads me to believe that that’s unrealistic.

Either way, for as meaningless as bowl games are now to many fans and players, I hope Angeli takes the Hartman approach and feels honored to say that he started a game at quarterback for the University of Notre Dame. And after going 15-19 for 232 yards and three touchdowns in his lone start, he certainly earned his moment in the sun (pun intended).