SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame’s offseason shifted into a more interesting gear last week as quarterback Riley Leonard met with reporters for the first time since his transfer from Duke. New strength coach Loren Landow did the same after arriving from Denver.
It all felt like a new version of Notre Dame football, even if Marcus Freeman wants to keep building into his third season what was started in the first two. With a new College Football Playoff incoming, an enhanced coaching staff and the historical significance of a head coach’s third season looming, there’s a lot on Notre Dame’s plate entering 2024.
You’ve got questions about all that. You always do.
Let’s get into it with the latest Notre Dame mailbag.
(Note: Submitted questions have been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Life for Riley Leonard is different at Notre Dame, but there’s no doubt he’s fitting in
Have you heard anything about the athletic department’s plans for filling the stadium for a potential home Playoff game? I’m a little worried they will have a hard time getting a full, mostly Notre Dame crowd on short notice. Curious if this is something they’re already working on and what you think about it. — Chris K.
This has been a talking point around the athletic department for months but it’s not clear if Notre Dame has set its plan of attack. And that’s fine. No major college football program has hosted a College Football Playoff game before, so the idea of there being “best practices” 11 months in advance is perfectly reasonable. The fact this game will fall on the weekend Notre Dame lets out of the semester and be played three or four days before Christmas would be a challenge if the Irish had a local fan base. Instead, the average Notre Dame season ticket holder lives about 500 miles from campus. On top of that, a fan base that’s used to having at least three months to plan for kickoff times would have three weeks to figure out if there’s a kickoff at all.
Some might protest — it’s the first College Football Playoff, why wouldn’t you go?! — but that misses the headaches involved. If Notre Dame hosts Tulane on Dec. 21, would you rather spend money (and time) to attend that matchup or wait to see Notre Dame in the quarterfinals against Texas in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1? Do you pay to see Notre Dame hosting Liberty or wait to see Notre Dame versus Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day? South Bend in December or Pasadena/Miami in January?
Now, if Notre Dame hosts another Power 5 program, that’s a different story. I would expect Notre Dame to sell out against any major conference team. But if that team is from the Midwest, the fan breakdown might be a more neutral site. Notre Dame learned a ton from the Ohio State experience this year, solidly keeping the red out of the stadium in a way it didn’t against Georgia or Nebraska before. But it had a full offseason to enact those protocols and had full control over its ticketing. That may not be the case in a CFP world. And that doesn’t even get to the ticketing costs of the game itself. Do you adjust the cost of the ticket based on the opponent? Does an opening-round CFP ticket against Boise State cost less than an opening-round CFP ticket against Penn State?
Inside Notre Dame’s strategy to keep Ohio State red out of the stadium
There are a ton of factors in play here and it’s a story I’m pursuing for the offseason. Notre Dame is already working on it. But it’s not clear the athletic department has come to its conclusions on how to move forward, yet. For example, Notre Dame has had internal discussions about what to do if it runs into a weather event like Buffalo did in the NFL playoffs. Do you go with open seating like the Bills did? Can you clear out the stadium in time for assigned seats?
On that topic, there was a question about Notre Dame voluntarily moving its first-round game to a neutral site.
You don’t help create a system to generate a home-field advantage, then decline it.
Kyle Hamilton and Drue Tranquill were two of the best players on the field in the AFC Championship. Kyren Williams has a real shot at postseason awards. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is a big part of the defense in Cleveland.
When was the last time Notre Dame produced so many difference-makers at the NFL level who weren’t offensive linemen or tight ends? How does the recruiting staff leverage this on the trail? — Terence M.
This question sent me down a wormhole — that was surprisingly shallow — of Notre Dame players in the Super Bowl, not just being on the roster but being a critical part of the game. Ryan Harris started at left tackle when the Denver Broncos won Super Bowl 50 back in 2015. Since then, it’s been mostly practice squad players and reserves. For example, Ian Book was the third-string quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles last season. A year earlier, Ben Skowronek was a rotational receiver with the Los Angeles Rams. This year it’s either Tranquill or Aaron Banks holding the Super Bowl trophy.
Jerome Bettis winning the Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers (2005) and Justin Tuck (2008, 2012) doubling up with the New York Giants feels like a long time ago. Because it was for a high school recruit.
Apologies for the preamble, but it gets to your question of the last time Notre Dame had a collection of impactful players on playoff teams like it did this year, excluding offensive linemen or tight ends. Because I couldn’t think of one, at least short of Notre Dame’s peak recruiting under Lou Holtz turning into pros like Bettis, Todd Lyght, Bryant Young, Jeff Burris, Rick Watters, etc. For a program that’s won as much as Notre Dame has, there haven’t been many stretches where the Irish had skill players impacting the league.
As for the recruiting impact, just keep selling. It wasn’t too long ago that Notre Dame was pitching prospects on being the next Will Fuller or Jaylon Smith. Now it’s the next Kyle Hamilton or Kyren Williams. The next step would be getting Hamilton and Williams back around the program. A Pro Bowl safety who left Georgia to come to South Bend, was on track to graduate, then left after three years to be a first-round pick … that’s a tidy sales pitch. Recruit Hamilton to make it.
Two mailbags ago you said, “As it was put to me by university source last month, Swarbrick is ‘on a mission’ to provide Freeman with all the ammunition he needs to make the College Football Playoff next season.”
Can you provide more details on what he is doing or what this means? — Bobby M.
Mostly this is a matter of staffing for the football program, which you’ve seen in the hiring of Mike Denbrock from LSU and the retention (so far) of Al Golden. While Golden is expected to stay, the NFL coaching carousel never really stops … just ask Boston College (and maybe UCLA). However, Notre Dame investing in coordinator hires on four-year contracts is believed to be unprecedented and backs Freeman in a way few schools back their head coaches. On top of that, recruiting director Chad Bowden turned down overtures from Michigan last week to remain at Notre Dame. It’s believed that will come with a pay increase, with an investment on Notre Dame’s part to back Freeman.
I’ve written this before but it bears repeating, Notre Dame investing in the best staff possible doesn’t challenge the fabric of what makes Notre Dame unique. This isn’t lowering admission standards, introducing new majors or separating the football team further from the student body. Those elements don’t need to change. They’re assets, not liabilities.
To quote Father Ted Hesburgh: “There is no academic virtue in playing mediocre football and no academic vice in winning a game that by all odds one should lose.”
As an addendum, there’s no institutional vice in backing your football program with the best coaching staff possible, either.
I married into Notre Dame last August. Since my relationship with the Irish began, I’ve been to three games in South Bend: Cincinnati 2021, Stanford 2022, and Ohio State 2023. Rank my luck and propose a game for this season. — Gary C.
Let me get this straight, you’ve attended three games in Notre Dame Stadium. Not only have all three been brutal defeats, but you’ve yet to see the Irish score a single point in the first half? Sir, you have no luck to rank.
As for this season, the university welcomes you to Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 21 to see the Irish face the Miami (Ohio) RedHawks. Let’s start small before building to games against USC or Clemson.
Many respected journalists suggested Marcus Freeman could be a candidate to replace Saban at Alabama. Most of the other rumored candidates received contract extensions. Is Notre Dame overcorrecting from the Weis disaster at the risk of losing a rising star? Is an extension in the works? If not, why not? — Stav B.
Marcus Freeman is 19-8 as a head coach. A sports information department would point out that he’s tied for the most wins in his first two seasons for any Notre Dame football coach. For the sake of balance, I’d point out he’s tied with Charlie Weis.
The “prove it” year for a Notre Dame head coach has always been Year Three. Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz won national championships. Brian Kelly played for one. Charlie Weis, Tyrone Willingham, Gerry Faust and Bob Davie went a combined 21-26 in their third seasons.
I don’t think Notre Dame is over-correcting anything with Freeman. I’d argue the investment in him with coordinator contracts says more about its commitment to the head coach than a contract extension would.
If Notre Dame makes the CFP this year, Freeman will have earned an extension. Until that happens, there’s no rush.
As for Alabama, it’s hard to see a school where there’s no room for growth on the job hiring a coach still growing as a coach. The upside with Freeman is still high. The ground to cover before reaching that upside is still very real.
What does Riley Leonard do that will scare legitimate quality defenses? – Lance P.
Oh yeah, a football question.
Speaking with Leonard last week, what stood out first was his size. He plays with a slippery power in the run game and simply spending 15 minutes with him in an interview setting, especially compared to the other quarterbacks on the roster, he looks like a man playing quarterback. That run threat, especially in the red zone, will be immense for Notre Dame.
Sam Hartman was rarely a willing runner, although he was effective when Gerad Parker called quarterback draws as a change-up. He had three 25-yard runs on the season, not including the 17-yard Hail Mary scramble at the end of the Duke game. But when it came to quarterback run being the backbone of the offense, Hartman didn’t have it. Leonard will. He picks up both fourth-down conversions against Ohio State.
Against Notre Dame’s nine Power 5 opponents last season, Hartman totaled 38 carries (14 were actually sacks). In Leonard’s three games against Power 5 opponents last season before getting hurt, he had 39 carries for 283 yards, taking three sacks. Leonard was basically a 100-yard rusher added to the offense when Duke faced better opponents. He doesn’t need to run that much at Notre Dame, but he’s got to run better than Hartman did last season.
Leonard was credited by PFF with 25 missed tackles forced last season. Hartman was credited with four, two of which came against Tennessee State.
For what it’s worth, Jayden Daniels was credited with 47 missed tackles forced last season at LSU under Mike Denbrock.
(Top photo: Ivan Pierre Aguirre / USA Today)