The last few years of And In That Corner … previews of Notre Dame’s meeting USC spent extensive time on the job status of former Trojans head coach Clay Helton. Finally, that storyline is far in the past and everything else about No. 6 USC (10-1) is intriguing.
To catch up on all that has changed for the Trojans — maybe the only program in the country that can match the Irish for amounts of drastic changes in the last 52 weeks — let’s chat with Adam Grosbard of the Orange County Register before kickoff on Saturday night at 7:30 ET on ABC.
DF: Brian Kelly’s favorite axiom that Marcus Freeman has leaned into a bit is that “Winning is hard.” It is. And anytime a team has must-win after must-win after must-win, it can wear out the 18- to 23-year-olds. USC may be at that risk, coming off that back-and-forth 48-45 win at UCLA last week and with the Pac-12 title game awaiting in a week. Though only one game into that three-game stretch, do you sense any version of the high-wire act wearing out the Trojans?
AG: Not really, though it would be tough for anyone on the outside to sense that prior to Saturday’s game. USC has had opportunities to overlook games all season. Fresno State before Oregon State, Arizona State before Washington State and Utah, Colorado before UCLA. The Trojans never allowed themselves to get caught looking. It’s hard to look past a rival like No. 15 Notre Dame (8-3), especially when the team understands it’s two wins away from the College Football Playoff. And defensive tackle and captain Tuli Tuipulotu described this season as “the revenge tour” for returning Trojans — they are well aware no player on the roster has ever beaten Notre Dame while at USC.
This whole season has been a high-wire act for USC. It may be 10-1, but four of those wins came by one score, barely escaping at Oregon State and Arizona before that UCLA close call, not to mention giving up 35 points to Cal. Both Arizona and Cal needed late touchdowns to make the scores that close, but even two-possession wins against the bottom half of the Pac 12 should be concerning for a Playoff contender. What has it been about the Trojans that leads to such drama this year?
In a word, defense. The unit has generated headlines by creating turnovers, but it also has been extremely shaky at tackling and basic coverage. The defense had the furthest to go after the Clay Helton era, and it’s nowhere near a final product and likely won’t be for at least another year. But USC scores enough and creates enough turnovers to win in spite of its shortcomings.
Obviously, the story at USC is the offense. If quarterback Caleb Williams stars Saturday, he could find himself as the Heisman frontrunner on Sunday. The offseason headlines were about him and Pittsburgh transfer Jordan Addison, but the Trojans pulled in two transfer running backs, as well, in Travis Dye from Oregon and Austin Jones from Stanford. Dye is now out for the season. How much has that changed USC’s offense?
It really hasn’t at all, surprisingly. Dye was a tremendous weapon for USC, but Austin Jones stepped right into his shoes with 25 touches for 177 yards and two touchdowns against UCLA. Jones was a workhorse back at Stanford for a while before falling out of favor. He is a patient veteran back who doesn’t try to do too much. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t areas that USC misses Dye. The senior back was unstoppable in third-and-short, and Jones does not match Dye’s ability as a pass blocker.
Defensively, the Trojans are playing with fire. They force 2.2 turnovers per game, mostly picking off opposing quarterbacks (18 interceptions in 11 games). Let’s set aside the absurd turnover margin of +20, and focus on the defensive chaos. Only Washington State has avoided giving up the ball against USC this season. UCLA can point to four turnovers as to how it lost. What are the Trojans doing to force all these turnovers? There must be more to it than luck, even if 13 of 17 fumbles, including their own, going their way is a bit fortuitous.
I’m honestly not sure this is explicable, because there certainly is luck involved. But I respect defensive coordinator Alex Grinch‘s simple philosophy that the ball doesn’t know that it’s supposed to go to the offense, and the ball doesn’t know about the law of averages.
To me, those may be the two keys this weekend. Can Notre Dame turn USC’s offense one-dimensional — for all Caleb Williams’ deserved hype, any offense that averages 5.34 yards per rush will struggle to adjust if it can no longer rely on the ground game — and avoid gifting the Trojans’ defense a few more turnovers? If yes and yes, then an upset may be brewing. What would you pinpoint as a third key?
Can USC get some tackles for loss? That’s been an under-the-radar part of the USC defense this year, but USC averages more than six tackles for loss per game and just fewer three sacks per game. That’s how the Trojans’ defense has gotten off the field in its better games, by creating third-and-long situations for opposing offenses. Notre Dame conversely has been very good about preventing negative plays, so that will be an area to watch for me.
Before I get to asking you for a prediction, let’s jump back to November and to August. First of all, last November, when Lincoln Riley took the USC job less than 24 hours after the Oklahoma season ended, how shocked were you?
The night before the Riley hire was announced, a leak came out that Matt Campbell was staying at Iowa State. At that point, I was honestly wondering if USC was about to end up with Jack Del Rio as coach. So to say I was shocked when the Riley news dropped would be an understatement.
And in August, what did you expect from the Trojans this season?
In one sense, this team is exactly what I expected: A superb offense that needs to outscore a bad defense. What I did not expect was how quickly the offense would come together, or how many turnovers USC would force. Because without turnovers, you’re probably looking at a respectable 8-3 team right now, which was more in line with my expectations.
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) November 22, 2022
Now then, a prediction. USC is favored by 5.5, as of late Wednesday night. How do you see Saturday night playing out?
I’m expecting a lot of points, possibly a game that comes down to who has the ball last. In those games, I usually pick the team with the better quarterback so in this case I’m picking USC and Caleb Williams.
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Seven Notre Dame signees will take part in the 2023 All-American Bowl this afternoon. The annual high-school showcase pits East vs. West, and the Irish are decidedly on the Western side this year.
TV: NBC broadcasts the all-star game, also available via streaming on Peacock. Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren will join the broadcast today, of note given NBC will begin airing a Big Ten game each week next season.
TIME: 1 p.m. ET.
PREVIEW: Of the seven Notre Dame signees participating this afternoon, five of them are on the West team: offensive linemen Sullivan Absher and Charles Jagusah, receiver Rico Flores Jr., quarterback Kenny Minchey, linebacker Drayk Bowen and defensive back Micah Bell. Obviously, the greatest Irish intrigue in that group may be how Minchey fares in whatever playing time he gets, one of four quarterbacks on that half of the game. There may also be reason to keep an eye on Bell given his raw speed.
Defensive back Adon Shuler and defensive lineman Brenan Vernon are on the East roster.
Of them all, Bell may have the clearest path to 2023 playing time, solely because of that speed. When the December signing period commenced, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Al Golden already expected campaigning to let Bell contribute on the Irish special teams.
“I’m sure [special teams coordinator Brian Mason] is going to try to get him to return kicks and punts,” Golden said. “A kid that is one of the faster kids in this class overall.”
The Irish will certainly have a new punt returner next season with safety Brandon Joseph declaring for the NFL draft, unless they opt to return to the cautious days of receiver Matt Salerno fair-catching most punts, something that would be uncharacteristic of Mason. Kickoff returns will presumably still be the domain of rising senior running back Chris Tyree, though his counterpart in dropping back deep has not been firmly established in the last two years.
PREDICTION: No, this is not a prediction for the final score of a high-school exhibition game. Rather, it is a prediction that of these seven players, none will play more than four games next season. Perhaps Bell secures that punt return duty, but it is just as likely Mason finds a veteran with a bit more in-game experience to trot out in front of 51,000 fans at Aviva Stadium in Dublin in 232 days.
Aside from him, only Vernon would have a clear path to playing time, the result of Notre Dame losing veteran defensive end Justin Ademilola to the NFL draft on Friday. Even there, it is far more likely the Irish lean on current freshmen Joshua Burnham and Aidan Gobaira simply because they have the benefits of a full year in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.
This will fit in line with Notre Dame in 2022, as well.
“You look at last year’s class — and again, that was another top-10 class — I think I looked at it the other day, maybe four or five guys played this year, didn’t redshirt. Out of a class that we signed 22 to 25 guys,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said last month.
He was not diminishing his current freshmen. Freeman was underscoring the delayed gratification often needed to succeed at Notre Dame.
“You don’t get that instant gratification of playing right away. It’s going to be tough, tough to stay here,” he said. “That’s what we have to understand. When you bring these guys in, it’s going to take a little bit of time to really be able to run out there at Notre Dame Stadium and have a huge impact on our program. It takes time. Very few guys can come in here and play and start right away.”
Of the class of 2022, only five players used up a season of eligibility: cornerbacks Ben Morrison and Jaden Mickey, linebacker Junior Tuihalamaka, and tight ends Holden Staes and Eli Raridon. Only Morrison was a genuine starter, taking the lead in nine of the 13 games he played in as he picked off six passes.
“Highly-recruited guys, highly-rated guys, but they’ve decided to stay and say, ‘Okay, I have to develop and continue to commit to a program and this team and my development,’” Freeman said. “Those are the guys we need.”
#NotreDame officially landed its quarterback in the class of 2023, consensus four-star Kenny Minchey signing on the dotted line this morning — https://t.co/7RpzedQPeP
— Notre Dame on NBC (@NDonNBC) December 21, 2022
BUT MINCHEY: Some attention being paid to Minchey today still makes sense. The former Pittsburgh commit likely will work on only Notre Dame’s scout team next season, but once Sam Hartman uses up his last year of eligibility, all bets should be considered off on the Irish quarterback depth chart in 2024. Of course, Tyler Buchner will have the edge of experience in various ways, but either Minchey or current freshman Steve Angeli could make a spring of 2024 competition intriguing.
SIGNING DAY COVERAGE
Things We Learned: Remove recency bias and Notre Dame’s recruiting has clearly reached new heights
A dozen Notre Dame offensive signees in Marcus Freeman’s and Tommy Rees’ words
A dozen Notre Dame defensive signees in Marcus Freeman’s and Al Golden’s words
Consensus four-star QB Kenny Minchey, former Pittsburgh commit
Consensus four-star running back Jeremiyah Love, No. 4 RB in the country
Five offensive lineman signees continue Irish trend up front
Four receivers fill greatest Irish need
Irish secondary boosted by four signees, speed included, despite Signing Day disappointment
Three linebackers continue Marcus Freeman’s defensive emphasis, led by Drayk Bowen
Four defensive linemen, led by consensus four-star Brenan Vernon
Consensus four-star tight end Cooper Flanagan
Brandyn Hillman, athlete who may end up on defense
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The back line of Notre Dame’s defense needs depth, and the Friday commitment of former Oklahoma State safety Thomas Harper is a needed step toward finding it.
The graduate transfer has one season of eligibility remaining, one granted by the universal pandemic eligibility waiver. Harper began the season as the starting safety for the Cowboys before a lower-body injury cut short his season. He finished with 30 tackles in seven games, including 1.5 for loss.
In his career, Harper has 93 total tackles with five for loss, two interceptions and six passes broken up in 36 career games.
Much of his coverage work has come in the slot, where Notre Dame has more depth but adding Harper could create flexibility. At nickel back, the Irish can turn to rising sophomore Jaden Mickey, otherwise the third or fourth cornerback behind classmate Benjamin Morrison, veteran Cam Hart and perhaps rising senior Clarence Lewis.
At safety, Notre Dame can currently count on only rising seniors Ramon Henderson and Xavier Watts. Brandon Joseph has declared for the NFL draft, and the Irish yet await DJ Brown’s decision about a possible sixth season. Otherwise, the only returning name on the depth chart is rising junior Justin Walters with four career tackles.
— Thomas Harper (@IamThomasHarper) January 6, 2023
In addition to the depth and experience, Harper should also bring a physicality to Notre Dame’s secondary. That is part of why he has played so much slot in his career, quick enough at 5-foot-11 to keep up with faster receivers but strong enough at 180 pounds to be a presence against the run.
TRANSFERRED OUT TO DATE
QB Drew Pyne (Arizona State)
DL Osi Ekwonu
TE Cane Berrong
TRANSFERRED IN TO DATE
QB Sam Hartman (Wake Forest)
WR Kaleb Smith (Virginia Tech)
S Thomas Harper (Oklahoma State)
K Spencer Shrader (South Florida)
HEADING TO THE NFL WITH REMAINING ELIGIBILITY
TE Michael Mayer
OL Jarrett Patterson
DE Isaiah Foskey
DE Justin Ademilola
S Brandon Joseph
RETIRED WITH REMAINING ELIGIBILITY
WR Braden Lenzy
LS Michael Vinson
WR Matt Salerno
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Notre Dame defensive end Justin Ademilola will forgo his final collegiate season and instead head to the NFL. After five seasons with the Irish, including six starts this year, Ademilola announced Friday morning he will jump to the next level.
Admeilola’s twin brother, defensive tackle Jayson, is out of eligibility and already heading to the NFL draft.
Justin had 37 tackles in 2022, sixth on the Notre Dame defense and second among defensive linemen, trailing only consensus All-American Isaiah Foskey. Ademilola added 3.5 tackles for loss including three sacks and four additional quarterback hurries, as well as a fumble recovery.
He had two tackles in the Irish 45-38 Gator Bowl victory against No. 19 South Carolina on Dec. 30.
His departure is a bit of a surprise but may underscore how impressive he was in a contributing role the last couple seasons. Ademilola presumably received encouraging draft feedback, at least encouraging enough to think a roster spot awaits him in the NFL.
Notre Dame will change you if you let it ☘️ pic.twitter.com/CpDW2ky6Dm
— JUSTIN ADEMILOLA🌹 (@JustinAdemilola) January 6, 2023
That presumption is based on the reality that Ademilola would have started for Notre Dame in 2023, likely taking over Foskey’s role as the primary pass rusher. This past season, Ademilola served both as Foskey’s backup and his opposite-side complement.
Instead, Ademilola finishes his Irish career with 109 tackles and nine sacks in 50 games.
As the lesser-heralded of the twins, his recruitment was sometimes perceived as an add-on, but the Notre Dame coaching staff clearly saw something more than that in Ademilola, given it rationed his appearances as a freshman to include one in the College Football Playoff while still persevering a year of eligibility. While the Irish were blown out, Ademilola was one of the few players who looked like he belonged on the field against Clemson in 2018.
Since then, Ademilola has been outshined only by future NFL players, first Khalid Kareem and Ade Ogundeji, and then Foskey.
Without him, Notre Dame’s defensive line depth chart suddenly looks a touch thin, though an incoming transfer could certainly change such. That may be somewhat swayed by recency bias, simply given that for the last few years, the Irish defensive line has been the deepest unit on the roster.
Rising senior Jordan Botelho may have finally had his breakthrough moment in the Gator Bowl, and he could replace Ademilola (and Foskey) as the next Vyper end, but behind him, there is no clear backup. Looking at the ever-evolving spreadsheet that serves as this space’s unofficial depth chart, the only names behind Botelho are rising sophomores Joshua Burnham and Aidan Gobaira, who saw a combined one game of action in 2022.
On the other side of the line, rising senior Rylie Mills already worked with Ademilola as the “Big” end, and NaNa Osafo-Mensah also proved ready for a leading role. Rising senior Alexander Ehrensberger is the next name on that half of the depth chart, a German project who has started to show his development.
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For the second time in three years, Notre Dame will turn to a transfer quarterback to lead the offense in 2023. Sam Hartman announced on Thursday he will join the Irish after concluding his Wake Forest career last month.
Hartman spent the last five seasons leading the Demon Deacons, setting an ACC record with 110 touchdown passes in his career, the final three of those coming in Wake Forest’s 27-17 victory against Missouri in the Gasparilla Bowl on Dec. 23. Hartman threw for 280 yards on 23-of-36 passing, leading the game-sealing drive in the final minutes. His transfer intentions first received public credibility the morning of that game.
That game-winning drive alone may have illustrated why Notre Dame wants Hartman to take over a position that would otherwise likely once again land in the hands of current sophomore Tyler Buchner, unproven after a shoulder sprain cost him 10 games this season no matter how entertaining his Gator Bowl performance was.
The Demon Deacons’ final drive with Hartman at the helm featured three chunk plays, all courtesy of the quarterback. He threw three passes, completing all three for 31 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown. He added a 15-yard run to get into the red zone, and he drew a roughing the passer penalty that gained 15 more yards earlier in the drive. All told, Hartman produced 61 of the 75 yards on the eight-play drive.
Explosive scores were a norm behind Hartman. Wake Forest averaged 35.4 points per game this season with Hartman playing, missing the season opener due to a blood clot concern discovered in the preseason. The condition, known as Paget-Schroetter syndrome or effort thrombosis, was suspected to have occurred as a result of a previous infection that caused inflammation. Hartman underwent surgery, was initially sidelined indefinitely, and in the end he missed just the one game.
Sam Hartman to #NotreDame.
And it looks like he’ll continue to wear No. 10 in honor of his late brother. https://t.co/Ohajvazx2n
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) January 5, 2023
He has one season of eligibility remaining, one granted by the 2020 universal pandemic eligibility waiver. After 48 games with the Deacons, it was increasingly clear this season Hartman would not play that final season in Winston-Salem.
RELATED READING: Sam Hartman enters transfer portal
My Take: On sendoffs and memories
In the season’s latter half, he would quip everyone must be sick of him, suggesting an NFL foray would be his next stop. At the least, the 6-foot-1 slinger could be a late-round draft pick that landed on an NFL roster for a few years. To give that thought some context, the 16th pick of last year’s sixth round (a slot selected simply because it falls near the middle of that vague possible draft range), Jamaree Sayler signed a 4-year, $3.8-million contract with a $175,928 signing bonus, per Spotrac.com. Only that signing bonus was guaranteed. His base salary in 2022 is $705,000.
Presume Hartman does not suffer any career-altering injury in 2023 and that same type of money should be awaiting him in a year, nearly all still unguaranteed. In the interim, the advent of name, image and likeness rights presents him a collegiate pathway to “life-changing money,” as Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson acknowledged earlier in December.
“When the bowl game is over, if there is some incredible offer for him to go to another school and get life-changing money, how can we fault him for that,” Clawson said last month.
For Notre Dame’s part, Irish head coach Marcus Freeman has repeatedly said he would pursue an incoming transfer only if the player was set to contribute immediately. Development projects come via high-school recruiting.
“We’ve always said if we’re going to get somebody out of the portal, they have to be somebody that we know can come in and make an immediate impact and really help this football team win games right away,” Freeman said when December’s signing period commenced. “… If we’re going to go into the portal for certain positions, we have to make sure that one, they’ll fit here, but two, they can have an immediate impact. That hasn’t changed based off who we signed.
“You don’t sign high school kids to say, okay, this kid has to have an immediate impact. We hope some of them so, but you don’t know. When we go into the portal, we’re saying these guys have to have an immediate impact for this football team.”
Freeman’s open and planned pursuit of a quarterback transfer played a direct role in junior Drew Pyne transferring to Arizona State before Notre Dame’s bowl appearance.
Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan had an “immediate impact” in 2021, starting 13 games for Notre Dame and leading the Irish to a Fiesta Bowl appearance. He did so at Buchner’s expense, losing the nominal quarterback competition as a freshman, as well as at Pyne’s, appearing in only two games when Coan was particularly struggling.
Freeman’s description of the expectations around an incoming transfer to South Bend combined with Hartman’s vast experience advantages should make it clear Buchner will again be viewed as the runner-up in a nominal quarterback competition.
Sam Hartman AGAIN🎯
He throws a dime to Blake Whiteheart for his 4th TD pass of the day⭐️
— On3 (@On3sports) September 24, 2022
While Hartman has thrown 1,597 pass attempts in the last five seasons, Buchner started just one high school season. The pandemic and a knee injury robbed him of two more, just as Coan and the shoulder injury did the last two. None of that is Buchner’s fault, but it renders him greener than even an Irish quarterback wants to be, particularly compared to a two-time All-ACC quarterback.
Wake Forest will visit Notre Dame next season on Oct. 28.
He’s thrown too many picks in his career. This ball shouldn’t be thrown, obviously, but there’s some context that has to be added (this is 4th and 11) and 50% of his INTs came on deep balls in mostly 50/50 situations. The offense and the reliance on him has a lot to do with it pic.twitter.com/3tSc6SfL3U
— Jamie Uyeyama (@jamieuyeyama) January 5, 2023
HARTMAN CAREER STATS
2018: 9 games; 1,984 passing yards, 55.3 percent completion rate, 6.8 yards per pass attempt, 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
2019: 4 games; 830 passing yards, 56.7 percent completion rate, 8.6 yards per pass attempt, 4 touchdowns and two interceptions.
2020: 9 games; 2,224 passing yards, 58.2 percent completion rate, 8.1 yards per pass attempt, 13 touchdowns and five interceptions.
2021: 14 games; 4,228 passing yards, 58.9 percent completion rate, 8.3 yards per pass attempt, 39 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
2022: 12 games; 3,701 passing yards, 63.1 percent completion rate; 8.6 yards per pass attempt, 38 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
On the field, Wake Forest QB Sam Hartman is never alone as he carries the memory of his brother, Demitri, with him into every game.
Off the field, Hartman has made it his mission to remind others that they too are not alone. pic.twitter.com/iteS6Knr5i
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) October 23, 2021
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