Notre Dame football: 10 burning questions as the Fighting Irish head into the offseason
Notre Dame closed the book on a 9-4 season with an impressive win in the Gator Bowl against South Carolina last week.
Marcus Freeman’s 1st season had its fair share of ups and downs, but the Fighting Irish won 9 of their final 11 after an 0-2 start and Freeman became the 1st Notre Dame head coach to defeat 4 ranked opponents during his 1st season since Ara Parseghian in 1964.
Now all eyes turn toward 2023, and a Year 2 when Notre Dame’s fans hope Freeman elevates the program back to the top 10 and ultimately, the national spotlight it grew accustomed to under Freeman’s predecessor, Brian Kelly.
Here are 10 burning questions for Notre Dame as it heads into the offseason.
1. Will Notre Dame build off the offensive formula that made the team so formidable late?
Notre Dame flexed a winning formula in the Gator Bowl, pounding a solid South Carolina defense with 264 yards rushing at a 5.7 yards per carry clip. That formula for winning works, and the Fighting Irish knew that by bowl season. Notre Dame ran for more than 200 yards in 4 of its final 6 games, including 263 yards in their signature victory over then-No. 5 Clemson.
Notre Dame will return both Audric Estime and Logan Diggs in 2023, barring any surprises. That would give the Fighting Irish 2 powerful weapons in the run game and, as Diggs showed in the Gator Bowl, in the passing game.
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) December 30, 2022
Notre Dame’s improvement up front was a promise Freeman kept this season, as the Fighting Irish offensive line was terrific over the final 2 months. What was clear late in 2022 was that a strong running game can be the predicate to success for coordinator Tommy Rees and the Notre Dame offense in the years to come.
2. Will the Notre Dame offensive line continue to impose its will?
Related to question No. 1 is the important question of whether the offensive line at Notre Dame will continue to be the Fighting Irish’s best position on the field. Great offensive lines in South Bend, Ind., were the driving force of success under Kelly, and the trend now continues under a new staff and multiple new quarterbacks.
Notre Dame’s newly minted All-American tackle, Joe Alt, has another more season in the blue and gold. He just finished 2022 with a 91.8 grade, per Pro Football Focus, the best in the country among offensive tackles and 2nd-best in the country among all offensive linemen, behind only fellow 1st-team All-American O’Cyrus Torrence of Florida. Blake Fisher, who had a promising campaign as well, also will return. Josh Lugg and Jarrett Patterson leave, however, and with them, more than 50 starts.
Charles Jagusah, the top recruit in Notre Dame’s huge offensive line recruiting haul., has the body at 6-foot-6 and 308 pounds, to contribute immediately, but with Alt and Fisher back, the spine is there for a terrific line in 2023.
3. Tyler Buchner’s future after a strong Gator Bowl is…
Notre Dame landed Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman in the portal, as Hartman had a graduate student year he could exercise next season after an outstanding 4-year career with the Demon Deacons. Hartman will start.
Where does that leave Tyler Buchner?
The sophomore wasn’t perfect in the Gator Bowl. He turned the ball over 3 times and threw 2 interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. But Buchner rallied from a 4th-quarter pick that was returned 100 yards for a Gamecocks score by orchestrating a 6-minute, 80-yard scoring drive to claim the win. He also accounted for 335 yards passing and rushing, and showed that thanks to his legs and a solid downfield arm, he can stress defenses better than Drew Pyne, who started 10 games this season before entering the transfer portal during December.
Whether Buchner is willing to wait around South Bend for Hartman to extinguish his eligibility is the burning question.
4. How much does Sam Hartman change Notre Dame’s 2023 ceiling?
In short? Immensely.
While Buchner flashed potential in the Gator Bowl, Hartman is a record-setting quarterback with a career full of production. He would arrive in South Bend having spent 4 seasons torching the ACC defenses that are a big part of Notre Dame’s 2023 schedule. Hartman, who has thrown more touchdown passes than any quarterback in ACC history, joining a program that hasn’t lost to an ACC opponent in 28 regular-season games, isn’t just intriguing. It is a ceiling-raising type of talent acquisition.
Buchner under center would make Notre Dame a top-25 team again during 2023. Hartman? He would be the best quarterback to roam the idyllic South Bend campus since Brady Quinn. With the balance he would bring to the offense, the Fighting Irish could and should contend for a New Year’s Six bowl and perhaps more.
5. Will the red-zone defense improve?
Al Golden did a nice job stepping into Freeman’s shoes as the Fighting Irish’s defensive coordinator in 2022. Golden’s Notre Dame defense finished 21st in the country, and the secondary, thanks to Freshman All-American Benjamin Morrison, was spectacular, finishing 23rd in the country in pass defense and 14th in pass efficiency defense.
Benjamin Morrison is a STUD🔒☘️
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 30, 2022
The Fighting Irish’s weakness defensively was in the red zone. The Fighting Irish finished 2nd-to-last in Division I (130th!!) in red-zone defense, allowing opponents to convert red-zone trips into scores on a staggering 94% of opportunities. That needs to improve during 2023, especially if Notre Dame wants to win the close games that make the difference between a good and a great season.
6. Will Notre Dame’s special teams remain strong?
Notre Dame finished the season ranked 26th in SP+ special teams efficiency, the best rating for Notre Dame in the past 4 seasons and a nearly 40-spot leap from the 65th-place finish in 2021. Jon Sot’s Notre Dame career lasted just 1 season but included All-American honors and the 2nd-best punt average in Notre Dame history at 43.9 yards per kick. Sot also pinned opponents inside their own 20 on 21 of this 49 punts. Replacing him won’t be easy and Notre Dame might hit the portal to do so.
South Florida’s Spencer Shrader already is headed to South Bend to take over field-goal duties. He’s serviceable, having made 28 of 41 kicks over 4 seasons in Tampa. But he missed a potential tying field-goal attempt against Florida this season and might be a drop-off from what Notre Dame had this season in Blake Grupe.
Couple the kicker and punter questions with the loss of return man Chris Tyree, and the Fighting Irish have questions on special teams.
7. Can Notre Dame’s linebackers lead the defense in 2023?
With Isaiah Foskey off to the NFL and Notre Dame replacing as many as 3 starters on the defensive line, the onus will be on the linebacking corps, led by JD Bertrand and Marist Liufau, to lead the group in 2023. Bertrand finished the season with 82 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 pass deflections, and the best PFF grade among all Fighting Irish linebackers. He’s not a flashy player, but he’s a captain-type of leader and as long as he returns, as expected, Golden will have his leader.
8. What impact will the freshman wide receiver class have?
Notre Dame signed 4 wide receivers for the 1st time since 2018, filling a desperate roster need as it searches for explosive perimeter playmakers to complement the strong run game. Transfer-portal additions also are probable, but the Fighting Irish certainly will expect at least 1 or 2 of the freshman receivers to help immediately. Jaden Greathouse, a physical player with a college-ready frame out of Texas prep power Westlake in Austin, is who stands out as most likely to play abundant snaps during 2023. But Folsom, Calif., speedster Rico Flores, who chose Notre Dame over Alabama, should get looks down the field as well.
9. Will the portal bring Notre Dame a safety?
The Fighting Irish missed out on 5-star safety and longtime commit Peyton Bowen, who flipped to Oregon and then Oklahoma during the early-signing period. Ramon Henderson is talented, but the Fighting Irish need safety depth. They are set at corner, but without much on the way to campus at the back end of the defense, a portal addition who can play and serve as a stopgap while Notre Dame recruits the position again in 2024 is essential.
10. Where does Marcus Freeman set expectations for 2023?
Freeman will spend at least a portion of the offseason touring and speaking to Fighting Irish alumni across the country. Those chats will be interesting. Obviously, Notre Dame’s strong close to 2022 erased the bitterness of a rough start that included 2 bad losses at home. But in the end, Notre Dame doesn’t want to settle for winning Gator Bowls. This is a program that has won more games during the past 5 seasons than anyone in the country except Georgia, Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. Getting back to that level and a national stage during 2023 is a reasonable goal. Will it be Freeman’s expectation? With Sam Hartman on board, should it be?