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Irish Head to the Desert to Take on Cowboys

By Michael Cannon | 3:40 PM

Marking the first ever matchup between these two programs, the 2021-22 Fiesta Bowl will feature the Oklahoma State Cowboys and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.  Notre Dame enters this New Year’s Day game with an […]

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Predicting 2022 Notre Dame Returnees

By Michael Bicknell | 12:35 AM

In what has already been an insanely unpredictable couple of weeks since Notre Dame wrapped up their regular season finale at Stanford, the Irish saw their head coach of the past 12 years depart for the head coaching gig at LSU and hired an exciting up-and-coming superstar in Marcus Freeman to take the reins in South Bend. Freeman is an incredibly inspiring coach who has the opportunity to elevate Notre Dame to the ever-elusive championship level that it has been seeking for the previous 30+ years. While much can be said about the manner of Brian Kelly’s departure (I’ll save my rant for another day), he admittedly left ND in quite a good position as a program. Notre Dame is now responsible for five straight 10+ win seasons and has a chance to register the program’s first major bowl win since the 1993 Cotton Bowl under Lou Holtz when it travels to Glendale, AZ to take on the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the Fiesta Bowl on January 1. A big win in the Fiesta Bowl would be a great springboard to the 2022 season, the first under Coach Marcus Freeman. In case the Fighting Irish Media videos were not enough to get this point across, Coach Freeman is the ultimate motivator and has the complete respect of his players. They pushed hard for him to take over after Coach Kelly left, and they want to do everything possible to allow him to succeed. With 2022 on the mind, I’ll take a look at possible returnees for the 2022 Irish roster and give my best shot at predicting who will come back to be key pieces in the first full season of the Freeman Era.

Given the unique nature of last year’s COVID season, the NCAA granted a blanket waiver to all athletes that allows them to retain a year of eligibility regardless of whether they participated in the 2020 season.  Because of this, almost every player on Notre Dame’s roster is technically eligible to play next season. Here are my crystal ball predictions for all questionable returnees for Notre Dame’s roster:

Out of Eligibility (4) – Jack Coan, Jonathan Doerer, Kurt Hinish, Cain Madden – These “super seniors” used this season to exhaust their COVID waiver eligibility, and all performed admirably in their roles after a rough start to the season.

Jayson Ademilola – Ademilola shined at DT this season while tying for the team lead in TFLs with 8.5. Jayson might have been leaning towards moving on from ND before the coaching change, but the Freeman Factor might motivate him to come back to help lead the team in Coach Freeman’s first full season Prediction: Returns to ND

Justin Ademilola – The other half of the Ademilola dynamic duo had a breakout year in 2021 and finished 2nd on the team with 5.5 sacks. He should be back next season and will continue to wreak havoc in opposing backfields. Prediction: Returns to ND

Kevin Austin – The hype around Kevin Austin in recent years was finally realized in 2021, with Austin stepping into the #1 receiver role and working to stay healthy throughout the entire season. Austin led all Irish receivers with 6 TD’s and 783 yards, but seemed to struggle against top-flight defenses. Austin can certainly boost his draft status with a return to ND, but his injury history makes this one tricky. Prediction: Coin Flip

Bo Bauer – Bauer has been the “hype man extraordinaire” during his four seasons in South Bend, getting in on almost every special teams play over the years and most recently splitting time with Drew White at MLB. Bauer finished the 2021 regular season 4th on the team with 45 tackles. If White chooses to move on, Bauer could finally have a shot to hold down the Mike position full time. Prediction: Coin Flip

TaRiq Bracy – Bracy bounced back from a rough 2020 to secure a regular spot in the DB rotation, bouncing from nickel back to the occasional field CB spot. Bracy will likely find himself in a similar role if he chooses to return, or he could explore possible starting CB options elsewhere. Prediction: Coin Flip

DJ Brown – Brown filled in admirably for Kyle Hamilton during a very important stretch run against pass-inclined USC and North Carolina before losing his starting role to Ramon Henderson down the stretch. Look for Brown to explore his grad transfer options in the offseason. Prediction: Will Not Return

Avery Davis – The 5th year senior and team captain has done just about everything the coaches have asked him to during his Notre Dame career – moving from QB to RB to DB to WR – so why stop now? He tore his ACL in early November and still finished 3rd on the team in receiving TD’s with four. Davis’s ACL injury will prevent him from participating in NFL pro days this offseason, which could tip the scales towards Davis returning for a 6th year. Davis would certainly be welcomed back with open arms and would provide a reliable presence in the slot. Prediction: Returns to ND

John Dirksen The interior offensive lineman has been a solid depth piece over the years but will likely not crack the starting unit given another year of development for the younger linemen. Dirksen could be a grad transfer candidate for a smaller school if he is looking to finish out his playing career somewhere else. Prediction: Will Not Return

C’Bo Flemister Flemister might as well have been in the Witness Protection Program this year, as he was nowhere to be found. An early season suspension left him behind the 8-ball, and he never really caught up. His 3 carries on the year were a vast disappointment from his flashes of potential in 2020. He’ll be a big time grad transfer candidate, perhaps somewhere closer to home in Georgia. Prediction: Will Not Return

Isaiah Foskey The true junior/redshirt sophomore came into the season with high expectations and somehow exceeded them. His 10 sacks and 8.5 TFL’s led the team and helped the Irish defense rack up 40 sacks during the regular season, only one shy of the program record set in 1996. Foskey could enter the NFL draft this year and secure good money, or he could bet on himself and go for Hamilton-level money. Once again, I think Freeman tips the scale towards the latter. Prediction: Returns to ND

Houston Griffith – Griffith already tested the waters in the transfer portal last year before ultimately deciding to return to ND. Griffith has had an up-and-down ND career but ultimately lost playing time late in the year. Prediction: Will Not Return

Kyle Hamilton – The true junior is a future top 5 NFL draft pick and will not leave tens of millions of dollars on the table. Prediction: Will Not Return

Braden Lenzy – Lenzy overcame a slow start to the year and put his injury history in the rear-view mirror in 2021. The former track star flashed his speed in spurts while hauling in 3 TD’s. However, Lenzy’s inconsistencies in route-running were often on display, and he might lean towards taking a grad transfer closer to home to finish out his playing career. Prediction: Will Not Return

Josh Lugg – The 5th year senior was a major presence on the revamped offensive line during the second half of the season and finished second on the OL in snaps played this season. A potential logjam could present itself next season if Lugg returns along with sophomore tackles Joe Alt and Blake Fisher, but Lugg has played inside before and his versatility could prove extremely valuable next season. Prediction: Returns to ND

Paul Moala – Injuries derailed Moala’s once-promising future. He’s a Mishawaka native, so perhaps sticking around won’t be as big of a commitment for Moala. He could provide solid LB depth next season. Prediction: Returns to ND

Jarrett Patterson – Patterson seemed like a lock to head to the NFL draft heading into the season, but things did not exactly go according to plan for the Irish offensive line in 2021. Another year with a veteran offensive line could significantly boost Patterson’s stock. Prediction: Returns to ND

Isaiah Pryor – The 5th year graduate student split time with Jack Kiser at Rover this season while also playing a key role on special teams. The LB room gets significantly more crowded next season as the Irish are expected to sign LB commits Jaylen Sneed, Joshua Burnham, and Niuafe Tuihalamaka next week. Prediction: Will Not Return

Shayne Simon – See Moala, only without the local ties keeping him around in 2022. Prediction: Will Not Return

George Takacs Takacs locked down the backup TE role behind Michael Mayer this season and starred as a featured blocker in various packages. He can return and will likely retain his job as the second TE without much of a challenge. Prediction: Returns to ND

Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa The 5th year senior and captain has been very productive in moving from the interior DL to DE in the offseason. MTA has the heart of a lion and finished 3rd on the team with 6.5 TFL’s. Prediction: Coin Flip

Drew White – The 5th year senior and captain finished second on the team in tackles with 49. White emerged in 2019 as an unlikely 3-year starter and has hinted that he may be ready to move on from football. Prediction: Will Not Return

Joe Wilkins – The depth piece at WR suffered an early MCL injury that kept him out for the season. Wilkins could return and serve in a similar role next year if he chooses to do so. Prediction: Coin Flip

Kyren Williams – The true junior/redshirt sophomore finished up the year with a second straight 1,000-yard season and 17 TD’s from scrimmage. However, his blocking ability, grit, and toughness are the main attributes that stand out to Irish fans. Williams will likely reluctantly leave ND to head to the NFL and earn his much-deserved pay day. Running backs unfortunately have a short shelf life, but Kyren will go down as one of the best Notre Dame RB’s of the modern era. Prediction: Will Not Return

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Kelly Leaves for LSU – What’s Next for the Irish?

By Michael Cannon | 10:40 PM

Saturday’s 45-14 victory over Stanford marked Notre Dame’s 11th win of the season; another rather dominant performance on both sides of the ball.  Quarterback Jack Coan passed for over 300 yards for the first time since September and Kevin Austin finally looked like a true number one receiver.  The 11th win put the Irish in square contention for the College Football Playoffs or at least a good New Year’s Six bowl game.  Unfortunately, the positive momentum that the Irish had heading into bowl season came to a screeching halt late Monday night when Brian Kelly announced his resignation from Notre Dame to take his new position of Head Coach at Louisiana State University.  

Am I mad at Kelly for leaving and getting paid?  No.  Do I like the way that he went about it?  Absolutely not.  To abandon an 11-1 team that is on the verge of making the playoffs is a wild move, but today’s college football landscape has proven to be nothing short of crazy.  Reports started to emerge around 8:00pm on Monday night and it was a matter of hours later when these were confirmed.  Kelly’s new contract will pay him upwards of 95 million dollars over the next 10 years while in Baton Rouge.  Good for him to chase the money but how do you not let any of your coaches, players, or administration know about this?  The announcement seemed to blindside just about everyone involved, one coach saying that he received the news just a few minutes after leaving a recruit’s house.  Kelly later sent a mass-text to the team calling for a 7:00am meeting on Tuesday morning to be able to tell them in person.  That meeting went just about as good as I expected it to, as videos later surface of Kelly driving away from campus just 12 minutes after the meeting started.  

Players took to social media in reaction to this news late Monday and into Tuesday, the majority wishing Kelly well and thanking them for his time at Notre Dame.  Yes, Kelly took a “broken program” and made them into a continual 10+ win team, but where does this leave the Irish now?  Players, including the likes of Kyle Hamilton, Justin Ademilola, Clarence Lewis, and numerous others have been vocalizing the support for current Defensive Coordinator Marcus Freeman to be named the next head coach for the Irish and I too back this sentiment.  Freeman has proven his value with his coaching style on the field as well as his tenacity on the recruiting trail – something that Kelly definitely could have improved on.  The top-tier programs have coaching staffs whose number one priority is recruiting, and Freeman undoubtedly fits that bill.  

Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, in his Tuesday morning press conference, noted that they are not in a rush to sign or announce who the next head coach will be.  I appreciate his willingness to do a thorough coaching search, but time is of the essence here.  Today’s college football landscape is not a place where you can afford to take your time.  This is purely speculation at this point, but I feel that if Notre Dame doesn’t make an offer to Freeman soon, he is going to be out the door as well, and that is the last thing that the Irish can afford right now.  Rumors have been floated around Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, and even the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Urban Meyer.  In my opinion, I hope the Irish stay far away from Campbell after a disappointing 7-5 season with Iowa State, not to mention the Irish’s waxing of the Cyclones in a 33-9 Camping World Bowl victory just two seasons ago.  Urban Meyer expressed years ago that Notre Dame was his “dream job”, but with his recent off the field allegations, Meyer’s hire would come with a lot of additional baggage.  Meyer has since come out and stated that he does not have any interest in going back to the college coaching realm, but then again Kelly did not say anything about LSU and Lincoln Riley was spewing smoke screens before leaving town for Southern California.  In other words, coach’s statements don’t seem to mean a lot anymore.  What ever happened to loyalty?

The last 48-72 hours in college football has revealed a nation-wide problem with the sport – greed.  Money talks.  With that being said, Notre Dame is a university that is not necessarily financially strapped.  I’m going way out on a limb here but why not “throw the bag” at the likes of Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, or Ryan Day?  Sure, it’s not likely that they leave their programs but at this point, what is there to lose?  From the sounds of it, Kelly named his price and LSU agreed to it.  Why not do the same for one of these legendary coaches if Swarbrick isn’t going to hand the reigns over to Marcus Freeman?  I know it sounds absurd, but we have seen a lot of crazy coaching movement recently.  An Irish fan can dream…right?

In a more realistic light, I do hope that Freeman is named the next head coach for the Notre Dame football program.  I don’t care that he doesn’t have head coaching experience; his ability to relate to the players, his insane talent on the recruiting front, and the buy in that the former, current, and future Notre Dame players have shown should speak volumes.  If a move is not made soon, this program could spiral down to mediocracy in the blink of an eye.  I, along with many other Irish fans, are sitting on the edge of our seats waiting for the next domino to fall – and let’s hope and pray that it falls in the right direction.  Until then, we continue to wait.  Oh, and don’t forget, there’s still a major bowl game on the horizon.  Just trying to stay positive at this point. Go Irish.    

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Irish Head to The Farm with Playoff Hopes in Mind

By Michael Cannon | 4:47 PM

Saturday’s dominating 55-0 win over the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets marked the tenth win for the Fighting Irish. This is Brian Kelly’s fifth season in a row with 10 plus wins, and as of now, the Irish are one of two Division 1 programs to have at least 10 wins every year since 2017, the other being Alabama. The game was never in doubt with the Irish dominating both sides of the ball from the opening kick. Sure, the first drive only ended in a field goal, but after that the Irish put up another three touchdowns in the first quarter alone. It was a well-rounded performance, dominant enough to allow for a good deal of Notre Dame players to get action on the field. 

Starting quarterback Jack Coan finished the game completing 15 of his 20 pass attempts for 285 yards and two touchdowns – all in the first half. Coan did lead the first drive for the Irish in the third quarter but then was relieved of his duties for Freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner. Buchner was only able to complete three of his six passing attempts but tallied up another 67 yards on the ground. The three-headed monster at running back, consisting of Kyren Williams, Logan Diggs, and Audric Estime, was a sight to see. Williams was responsible for 11 carries totaling 56 yards and two touchdowns, but Diggs and Estime showed a lot of promise for the future of the Notre Dame ground game. Showing a lot of emotion post-game, it seems relatively safe to assume that that was the last game that we as Irish fans will get to see Williams in Notre Dame Stadium as an early exit to the NFL draft is likely for this stud running back. The Irish passing attack was extremely spread out as well with 11 players getting at least one reception. Williams led the way in targets with four, while Kevin Austin Jr. and Michael Mayer each added on 89 and 86 yards respectively. It was a pleasant sight to see Mayer get involved with the passing game again, as he has flown relatively under the radar in Notre Dame’s previous few outings.

Bo Bauer, once again, led the way in tackles for the Irish defense, finishing the game with five, but Isaiah Foskey was undoubtedly the hero on this side of the ball. Foskey forced two turnovers, leading to a Jack Kiser interception and a Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa scoop and score. The Irish finished the game leading in all major statistical categories – total yards, passing yards, rushing yards, and yards per play.

This Saturday will mark Notre Dame’s final game of the regular season as the Irish travel to Palo Alto to take on the 3-8 Stanford Cardinal. With a very unintimidating record, it seems as though Stanford always raises to the occasion and gives the Irish fits, especially when playing in Stanford Stadium. The Cardinal are coming off a 41-11 loss to California, but do have an impressive, come from behind, overtime win over the then 3rd ranked Oregon Ducks. Surprisingly though, that was the last game that the Cardinal have won, coming back on October 2nd. Since then, Stanford has given up an average of 35 points per game while only scoring an average of just over 14. 

The Cardinal are led by Sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee, who had his first game back after a leg injury, this past weekend against Cal. McKee has put up middle of the pack stats throughout this 2021 campaign, throwing 14 touchdowns but adding in seven interceptions along the way in the nine games that he has appeared in. Stanford’s leading rushers, Nathanial Peat and Austin Jones, have combined to put up 744 yards on the ground; that’s 184 yards less than Kyren Williams has alone. The Cardinal passing game has been more productive and efficient with tight end Benjamin Yurosek and wide receiver Elijah Higgins leading the way. Yurosek has hauled in 566 yards through the air with two touchdowns while Higgins has added 491 air yards and four touchdowns himself.

On the other side of the ball, the Stanford defense has put up a team total of 14 sacks and five interceptions on the year, two of which coming from cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly. Although the Cardinal was able to put up an impressive performance against Oregon, the remainder of their season has been less than stellar. With the way the Irish have been playing in recent games, a similar approach as to that taken against Georgia Tech, should yield a comparable outcome. If the Irish can break a few big plays on the ground, I don’t expect this game to be close.  Notre Dame has outscored their opponents 117-9 in their last three contests, and I expect the offensive production to continue. The defense has been firing on all cylinders and I would be shocked if there was a letdown during the last game of the regular season. Notre Dame is entering this final matchup as a 19 (or so) point favorite, a similar spread as to what was given for Georgia Tech. Although Stanford always finds a way to put up a fight against the Irish, Notre Dame’s continual improvements and overall higher level of talent should, yet again, prevail. I’m predicting Notre Dame to improve to 11-1 with a final score of 42-13.

A Look at Notre Dame’s Opponents:

Florida State: 5-6 overall, beat Boston College 26-23

Toledo: 6-5 overall, beat Ohio 35-23

Purdue: 7-4 overall, beat Northwestern 32-14

Wisconsin: 8-3 overall, beat Nebraska 35-28

Cincinnati: 11-0 overall, beat SMU 48-14

Virginia Tech: 5-6 overall, lost to Miami (FL) 38-26

USC: 4-6 overall, lost to UCLA 62-33

North Carolina: 6-5 overall, beat Wofford 34-14

Navy: 2-8 overall, lost to East Carolina 38-35

Virginia: 6-5 overall, lost to Pittsburgh 48-38

Georgia Tech: 3-8 overall, lost to Notre Dame 55-0

Stanford: 3-8 overall, lost to California 41-11

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