Sam Hartman makes Notre Dame a College Football Playoff contender. Now comes the hard part
Sam Hartman, the most proven player in the transfer portal at quarterback, transferred to Notre Dame on Thursday. Hartman’s announcement, which came via Twitter, made official what had widely been expected since Hartman entered the transfer portal as a graduate transfer on Dec. 27.
— Sam Hartman (@sam_hartman10) January 5, 2023
Hartman threw for 12,967 yards and won 38 games as a 4-year starter for the Demon Deacons, where he ended Clemson’s 7-year reign of terror atop the ACC’s Atlantic division by leading Wake Forest to the division championship in 2021. Hartman is also the ACC’s all-time leader in touchdown passes, with 110. You’d be forgiven if you didn’t know Hartman held all of these records, given the fact he largely toiled in obscurity at Wake Forest, the smallest institution in the Power 5.
That obscurity is a big reason, from an individual standpoint that the wildly under-appreciated Hartman relished the chance to play in the national spotlight in South Bend. That opportunity proved more enticing to Hartman than holding a clipboard in the NFL, which was a best-case scenario for Hartman had he elected to skip his 5th and final year of collegiate eligibility and enter the draft.
In exchange for the visibility Hartman will finally get thanks to Notre Dame’s brand, Notre Dame grabs a record-setting winner at the most important position in sports.
Hartman makes Notre Dame, already likely to begin the 2023 season highly ranked, an instant College Football Playoff contender.
He’ll also make the Fighting Irish fun to watch.
Bolstered by a Fighting Irish receiving corps that returns emerging star Jayden Thomas and adds a quartet of highly-touted recruits, Hartman will provide a dynamic passing element to Tommy Rees’ offense, which finished a modest 49th in the country in SP+ offensive efficiency in 2022 despite boasting the nation’s 35th-best rushing offense and eclipsing 200 yards in 5 of the team’s final 7 games.
Hartman’s ability to make plays with his arm will open up defenses for the powerful 1-2 run game punch of Audric Estime and Logan Diggs, who will run behind a talented offensive line led by All-American tackle Joe Alt. Hartman will also bring experience and offensive nous to a young but improving receiving corps led by emerging star Jayden Thomas. The Fighting Irish signed a quartet of highly-touted receivers in the 2023 recruiting class who will all benefit from a year of work with Hartman as well. In other words, it’s hard to see an offense that churned out 500-plus yards in a thrilling Gator Bowl win over South Carolina even without Hartman’s services going anywhere but up in 2023.
Of course, what happens on paper still needs to happen in practice.
And that’s the hard part, the nitty gritty underbelly of landing a player of Hartman’s talent and quality.
Notre Dame is now a bona fide College Football Playoff contender with Hartman under center.
Can second-year coach Marcus Freeman deliver?
That’s the tougher question, especially at Notre Dame, a place where Brian Kelly woke up the echoes enough to play for 1 national championship and receive 2 College Football Playoff invites, but where winning the biggest games remained extremely difficult. We know Hartman can win ACC games, but then again, we already know Notre Dame can do that. The Fighting Irish have won 28 consecutive regular-season games against ACC competition. Is Hartman the missing link between Kelly’s “good enough to get there” Notre Dame teams and a Notre Dame squad “good enough to win”?
Hartman could be, and that’s the fun part. He’s better than Jake Coan, who guided the Fighting Irish to a New Year’s 6 bowl in 2021, Kelly’s final season. Hartman’s production easily eclipses Ian Book, who led the Fighting Irish to the College Football Playoff semifinals in 2018 and 2020. And there’s no comparison between Hartman and Everett Golson, who rode Manti Te’o and an otherworldly defense to the national championship game in 2012.
Put plainly, there hasn’t been a quarterback of Hartman’s caliber on campus in South Bend since Brady Quinn, and he was good enough to win a Maxwell Award, advance to a Fiesta and Sugar Bowl and make Charlie Weis a ton of money in the process. None of that means Hartman will end up matching the achievements of Book, a legitimate golden domer legend, or even manage what Golson did, in being good enough to ride a strong defense to the season’s final game. But Hartman absolutely can do that, and that’s enough to make his transfer to Notre Dame one of the offseason’s biggest stories even before the offseason actually begins.
As much fun as southern writers and analysts have with Notre Dame, the reality is the sport is better when the Fighting Irish are elite. Over the past 5 seasons, when only Georgia, Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State have won more games than Notre Dame, the sport has flourished more than ever, even as the old clichés about Notre Dame’s inability to win the big game fail to die.
One season of Hartman could change all that. Of course, the difficult part is what if it doesn’t? What if Hartman comes, plays well, and Notre Dame is still 2010s and early 2020s Notre Dame — really good but not great? What will that say about Notre Dame’s future and ceiling under Freeman? Would really good be enough?
Save these questions for the long spring and summer days when football feels as far away as Notre Dame’s last national championship.
Today is about Sam Hartman getting a well-deserved national spotlight and with it, waking the echoes of Notre Dame’s championship dreams.