Chat Transcript: Talking Notre Dame's freshmen, O-line and pass rush

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Irish players warm up before football practice Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Eric Hansen: Welcome to Notre Dame Football Live Chat -- a special Friday edition.

Next week's chat will be Thursday at noon EDT because of a coverage conflict, but then we'll be back to Wednesdays for the season. As for today ... please include your name and hometown with your question. Let's get rolling.

Brian from South Bend: Hey Eric, If you had to bet on which offensive freshman player will score a touchdown first this year and which defensive freshman player will record a takeaway (interception or forced fumble), who are you betting on?

Eric Hansen: Hi Brian. On offense, my pick would be Lorenzo Styles Jr. He's got speed. He's very good in the red zone and he may be returning punts. So he has a lot of opportunity. On defense, I'd go with safety Justin Walters. He's not in the two-deeps, but he's always around the ball, and I could see him getting a pick in garbage time.

Denny from Liberty Hill, Texas: Hi Eric! Last year could have been more special if hyped receivers Braden Lenzy and Kevin Austin had been healthy and starters as expected. I think it was remarkable the year we had, because the coaching brought out the best in the team despite these limitations. Now it seems all receivers returning are healthy and provide much more talent and versatility to that phase of the offense. I also remember Jack Coan playing at Wisconsin and thinking he was really sharp. Still better than Graham Mertz in my opinion. Tommy Rees has a full deck this year. Do you think we are setting up to have an explosive offense this year? Assuming the defense is pretty dang good, is 40 points a game realistic?

Eric Hansen: I think there are a lot of elements of this offense that make the potential for this team to be high scoring realistic. Keep in mind the modern school record is 37.6 ppg in 1968. and the Irish were at 33.4 last season. I think this offense will get more dynamic as the season goes along. That's because I think Jack Coan and the offensive line will be pretty good in November. How much those two facets improve week to week from now until November is a difficult variable to pinpoint. I do think there will be some early growing pains that the offense will eventually get beyond.

Let me be clear, this offense has the pieces to be really good. It needs the cohesion and consistency to make that happen.

Chuck from LaPorte: Hi Eric. Thanks so much for your time and great insight on all things Notre Dame. I wondering what happened to Rocco Spindler. In the spring there was much talk about the possibility of two freshman starters. Today I read several articles about the offensive line, and his name wasn’t even mentioned. Where do you think he is on the depth chart and why has he fallen from grace?

Eric Hansen: Hi Chuck. Thank you. ... No fall from grace at all. The kid is a stud. But Notre Dame went out and lured an All-America guard from Marshall, Cain Madden, as a grad transfer in June. He'll turn 25 just before he plays in a postseason game for the Irish. Rocco Spindler turned 19 two months ago. He'll be a starter next year and will be a key reserve at the two guards spots this season in case of an injury. Keep in mind that in the 50th season of freshman eligibility in 2021, Notre Dame has had one freshman offensive lineman start a season opener (Sam Young, 2006). Tackle Blake Fisher will be No. 2 in a couple of weeks.

Jeremy from Goshen, Ind.: Should we be concerned about the reports in practice about how dominant the D-line is? Is the offensive line not playing well or is the defensive line THAT good?

Eric Hansen: Jeremy, that's always kind of the perceptual tug of war when you're watching practice. If Kevin Austin dominates as a receiver, does that mean the secondary stinks? Same with the O-line/D-line. Here's my take: The Irish defensive line is elite. It's deep. It's relentless. It's the No. 1 position group on this team. And the linebackers have REALLY improved. The front seven is going to make the O-line better — in time. The offensive line is not short on talent. It's short on chemistry and continuity, two essential elements for that position group. Putting Patterson back at center has accelerated their growth curve. Don't expect it to be a finished product in September. But I think it's reasonable to expect improvement, significant improvement, through the first month or so of the season.

They'll be tested by some of the nation's best pass rushers early and often, including Florida State's Jermaine Johnson in week 1 and Purdue's George Karlaftis in week 3.

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Ryan from Mars, Pa: Good afternoon, Eric. How has Kurt Hinish, Michael Carmody, Josh Lugg and Andrew Kristofic looked so far in open practice?

Eric Hansen: Kurt Hinish better than solid. Carmody, surging ... he's the first tackle option of the bench on either side. Kristofic is adapting to center well and has started to find a groove there. Lugg strained his neck in Thursday's practice, so we didn't see a lot of him, but right tackle is home for him and I expect a good year out of him.

Denny from Beaverton, Ore.: Hello Eric. This is a great time of year, and thanks for your hard work. How is Jordan Botelho doing in practice? The few times I saw him in action he looked like he could be a real force. I know there was some controversy about him which I missed. Could you direct me to an article where you may have commented on that? I hope it is not a situation like that defensive end from a few years ago who had a great freshman year with sacks and then transferred somewhere in Florida the next spring (Aaron Lynch to South Florida).

Eric Hansen: Hi Denny and thank you. Let me start with the link to the Jordan Botelho stuff from earlier that Tyler covered in a notebook, here. You'll have to scroll down. It's not the lead item. Wide receiver Kevin Austin is my offensive football crush. Jordan Botelho has become mine on defense. He can cover, can rush the passer. He can blow up the run. He can line up in different spots in the formation. IF HE CAN play with as much discipline as he plays with wickedness, look out.

Marie from Atlanta: Hi Eric. What do you think will surprise people most about the offense and defense this year?  Also, how do the defensive ends Look? If they are not progressing quite as fast as hoped, is there a way Marcus Freeman's game plans can scheme up some sacks for them? As follow-up to last week, count me in for a beverage with you and Tom from Kennesaw the next time you are in Atlanta.  Here's hoping it is for the 2022 Peach Bowl Playoff game! Thanks for all your great work.

Eric Hansen: Hi Marie. I think people will be surprised by two things re the offense — how good the wide receivers are (if they can stay healthy) and how creative offensive coordinator Tommy Rees will get with play design and personnel groups. On defense, I think the surprise will come from how a completely different scheme fits a team that played so well in the old one AND how good some of the 2s are on defense and how much they'll contribute. And yes, Tom and I are both confirming. You both will have to suggest the place. As far as sacks, the nature of the scheme — pre-snap movement, pressure coming from different spots, blitzing — and having a deep pool of players who can execute it, will lead to sacks ... from Isaiah Foskey and many others.

Steve from Findlay Ohio: Eric, which three games do you think will be the most challenging?  Wisconsin, North Carolina and Cincy? Or do you see the USC game as the potential toughest?

Eric Hansen: I said North Carolina would be the toughest on our most recent podcast, because that's the team I had ranked the highest among ND opponents on my AP ballot (9). But I had Cincinnati 10th, USC 11th and Wisconsin 13th, so the margin of difficulty is pretty thin among those four.

Chris from Jeffersonville, Ind.: Eric, thanks again for keeping us updated. I’m wondering by the time the Toledo game rolls around, it will be 646 days since there were “outside” fans allowed in the stadium. What will be different and possibly the “new” norm on campus and in the stands? After last year do you see this as a help or hindrance?

Eric Hansen: Chris, I think that's still being formulated, because how the virus affects things — especially congregate settings, like a college football game —is fluid. And sometimes it is dramatically so. Trends and conditions are so different than in mid June, and yet they could shift the other way in the next few weeks. I hope to talk to AD Jack Swarbrick about that soon. But having fans in the stands, how ever it looks and plays, has to be a big plus, especially for those games against Cincy, USC and North Carolina. We do know, for instance, that they still won't do the Player Walk, for now.

Tom '69 from Kennesaw, Ga.: Hi Eric, hope you are back in the swing of covering the season!! Last year seems we really missed Chase Claypool and Cole Kmet in the red zone. Who do you think will be our red zone "go to" players this year?  Also, last year we played a lot of 12 offense with one RB and two tight ends, seems like maybe 40%.  What do you think the percentage of 12 formation will be this year — 25-30% maybe? Thanks and have a great weekend. That beverage you referred to last week may happen at the end of the year as many media are predicting ND to be in the Peach Bowl!!! Go Irish!!!

Eric Hansen: Hi Tom, we are able to do all our interviews in person (so far) and that has been awesome. So has been getting to watch practice. In the two Thursday practices the media have been allowed to view in their entirety, we got to see a lot of red zone work. Two players who might surprise you that were particularly effective were tight end Kevin Bauman and wide receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr. Michael Mayer will be a factor this year in the red zone — and everywhere else. Kevin Austin is strong there, too. Those are the people that stood out to me in those drills and scrimmage periods.

The percentage of 12 personnel is hard to peg, because I haven't studied all the strengths and weaknesses of all the opponents yet (but will soon), and that will factor in. My sense is that you're correct in that there will be a general reduction, but not a drastic one.

Ken from Pensacola, Fla.: Eric —  You be the BEST. Not that I'm superstitious, but I am very afraid of the ghost of Bobby Bowden. Call me crazy, but FSU players and fans now have that extra motivating factor called Bobby Bowden. What say you? Do you think we can leave Tallahassee with a victory?

Eric Hansen: Well, thank you. I hope your sentiment doesn't change if I get this answer wrong. I don't think Florida State lacks motivation or talent, even before there was a ghost. What the Seminoles have lacked in recent years is meaningful player development and a functional culture. There are offseason rumblings that those two areas have started to improve. I am confident Notre Dame will win its opener, in part because the Irish front seven will take over the game.

Alex from Jackson, Mo.: Hello, Eric. Always a pleasure to talk to you. My question is who is your pick to click this season? One on offense, and one on defense? And one more question, if I may? What is your thoughts on kicker Jonathan Doerer regaining his form this year?  I think with a new O-line and new QB, Doerer regaining his confidence could be the difference in at least one game, if not two. Sincerely appreciate your time.

Eric Hansen: Hi Alex. Good to chat with you as well. Well, I already revealed my football crushes to be Kevin Austin Jr. and Jordan Botelho, so I'll pick less-obvious players to click. On defense, I'm ready to push my chips to the middle of the table on linebacker Marist Liufau and defensive lineman Rylie Mills. On offense, I like Blake Fisher. ... Doerer made all five field goals he tried in Tuesday's practice (from various distances). Mechanically, he looks sound. But doing it in front of a full stadium is different, so we'll know better soon. The good news is there are now two Plan Bs if there does need to be a change, but I am anticipating Jonathan Doerer having a good season.

Ryan from Cass City, Mich.: Eric, how have special teams looked, especially the return game?

Eric Hansen: Ryan, we have only seen kind of skeleton drills on punt returns and nothing on kickoff returns. Those are happening when we're not at practice. However, the media gets to sit down with special teams coordinator Brian Polian on Tuesday evening, so I can give you something more comprehensive then (not that this answer was comprehensive at all). One thing that really has jumped out at me on special teams is punter Jay Bramblett's hang time.

Jerry Bradley from Dallas: Eric, is Notre Dame weak at both guard positions this year? What is our depth at this position?

Eric Hansen: I don't think that's the case at all. A work in progress? Yes. Lack of talent and depth? No sir. I think Cain Madden is better than Tommy Kraemer, who played right guard last season. Zeke Correll and Rocco Spindler are ascending players at left guard. John Dirksen backs up Madden. Quinn Carroll, a former top 100 recruit, is third team. Once this O-Line gets cohesion as a unit, each of them is going to look better individually.

Joey G from Philadelphia, Pa: Hi Eric. I hope all is well with you! It’s been great hearing all of the positive things coming from camp. Isaiah Foskey has been getting all the hype about possible double-digit sacks this year. I have a hunch it’s gonna be someone else! Who in your opinion, other than Foskey, could possibly lead the team in sacks this year?

Eric Hansen: After watching first-year coordinator Marcus Freeman's scheme in action and seeing how much depth rolls through the front seven, I don't think any single player is going to get to double digits in sacks. I think you're going to see quite a few players with three or four. Foskey is coming off a pec injury, so I'm not sure I'm seeing him at his max. But based on the eye test, I think Jordan Botelho is going to lead the team in sacks.

Bill from St Joe, Mich.: You are the best!!! I believe the having Clark Lea immediately preceding Marcus Freeman is a very good thing, as it gives those players learning from Clark a very good structure from which to move forward in what has been described as Marcus’s more free-wheeling, attacking style. Having said that, I’m predicting a few more big plays on the defense to go along with more sacks and tackles for loss. Do you agree?

Eric Hansen: Thank you, Bill. The is more risk and reward with this scheme. Cincinnati last season did it with minimal risk, however. The Bearcats were No. 4 nationally in fewest yards allowed per play (4.47). The Irish, by comparison, were 55th (5.56). However, in 2019, ND was eighth. So my answer is in theory I agree. In practice, I think I agree less.

Kate '03 from Chicago: Hi Eric! I'm an ND grad and from South Bend originally. I know my dad always loved your articles, but I didn't come across these great chats until last season. Thank you for such thoughtful and fair commentary always — it is rare. That said, if you haven't answered this already ... I feel like I've heard some doubters who anticipate Coan struggling with the deep ball (not due to receivers, but arm ability). Can you shed some light on what you feel the truth of the situation is? You rock!

Eric Hansen: You rock, too! Tyler James and I were talking about this on our last podcast. I'm not sure there's a big difference in arm strength between, say, Jack Coan and Ian Book, but Jack seems much more comfortable looking for those routes and letting it fly in the practices we've seen. Tyler Buchner has the strongest arm among the QBs on the roster, but Coan, to me, has a strong enough arm and enough confidence in it to get the job done with the receivers he has.

Dawg from Ottawa, Canada: What's your guess on ND's record this year?

Eric Hansen: OK Dawg, in the spring, it looked like an 8-4 or 9-3 team, but it was a team that didn't have any unfixable problems. At the beginning of camp, I was thinking 10-2. The way the receivers and corners have come on — two big spring question marks — I now wouldn't rule out 11-1. I'll make a final prediction before the first game, but I'm fluctuating between 10-2 and 11-1.

Frank Serra from Whereabouts Unknown: How is Jacob Lacey doing in camp? I don’t hear his name mentioned at all!

Eric Hansen: He's coming back from a shoulder injury and is in a very strong rotation with Kurt Hinish and a much-improved Howard Cross at nose guard. I expect a strong season from him. This is what I'm talking about when I go on and on about the D-line's quality depth and the Irish coaches' willingness to use it.

Ced Walker from Saginaw, Mich.: Do you see Notre Dame in a New Year's Six bowl if they don't make the playoff? Early projection is Fiesta or Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl vs. LSU. Go Irish.

Eric Hansen: Notre Dame being 128th out of 130 in terms of returning experience among FBS teams gives them a wider range of outcomes than usual. But I expect the floor for this team to be New Year's Six.

Shaw from St. Augustine, Fla.: I'm reading a lot of negatives about the offensive line and especially Cain Madden (slow feet/getting beat). Do you witness the same? Do we have to hope other defenses are not as strong as ours so they do not pressure our QBs?

Eric Hansen: As I mentioned earlier, the optics of the offensive line have a lot to do with the advanced state of Notre Dame's defensive line. I think Madden is a very good addition. As he and Jarrett Patterson continue to work together, and he and Josh Lugg do the same, I think you'll start to see why Madden was an All-American at Marshall. Those writing off the offensive line at this juncture? That's like tasting a cake that's been in the oven for 10 minutes and complaining it's not fluffy enough.

Bill from the Block: Give us thre potential All-American candidates not named Hamilton, Mayer or Kyren? Please and thanks.

Eric Hansen: Patterson, Madden, Botelho.

Tom from Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eric, thank you for everything you do. With that being said, which freshmen do you see being substantial contributors or pick one from each side that they won’t be able to keep off the field. Also did the addition of Cain Madden significantly help ease the loss of four starters on O-line? And can that group be a strength again this year?

Eric Hansen: Tom, thank you. Substantial contributors? Blake Fisher, Lorenzo Styles, Deion Colzie on offense;. Not sure on defense ... maybe Justin Walters. Just because they may not be substantial contributors this year doesn't mean they won't be next year. There are a lot of players I like in the freshman class, including QB Tyler Buchner.

Jim from Oakwood, Ohio: Hi Eric. Most conferences have a protocol for a game that has one team with too many COVID infected players.  Since ND (with its 90+ vaccination rate) has one foot in the door with the ACC this year (rather than full membership), will ND follow the ACC protocol for games with ACC opponents, the Big 10 protocol for the Wisconsin game, the AAC protocol for its game with Cincinnati .... There seems to be  more conference talk about a "forfeit" rather than rescheduling if an opponent cannot field a team - has ND settled on a protocol and the nuances?  Be well and take good care of yourself.  Jim

Eric Hansen: Jim, I'll have to check with Jack Swarbrick, but I would think ND will follow the ACC protocols. As far as potential forfeits, I think that's becoming universal across college football and not unique to any one conference.

Dave from Houston: Good chat as always. Do you think cornerback is the weakest group overall, and can the safeties and front seven offset this weakness?

Eric Hansen: Thanks, Dave. I do think the cornerback group is the weakest on defense. Having said that, they're MUCH better than they were in the spring and also better than I thought they'd be at this point. Depth still needs to build, though. So the safeties and front seven won't have to offset their weaknesses. Instead, they can enhance the cornerbacks' strengths.

Lawrence from San Diego: Michael Carmody being the next man in is a surprise to me. In my head, I feel like that lowers the ceiling from having Baker/Spindler as specialized reserves at tackle/guard. Am I just too much of a slave to recruiting profiles or is this a step back? Seems like that sixth lineman is always needed.

Eric Hansen: You are too much of a slave to recruiting rankings. And I can imagine how that can be confusing. Think of recruiting rankings as more art than science. And they mean much less when there's not a good player development model in a program. See Florida State and USC. But Michael Carmody was a Rivals Top 250 player. Former Notre Dame tackles and first-round draft choices Zack Martin and Mike McGlinchey were not top 250 players coming out of high school. Additionally, ESPN's Todd McShay recently named RB Kyren Williams as the No. 32 overall prospect in the 2022 NFL Draft and center Jarrett Patterson No. 34. Both were three-star prospects. So it's OK to embrace and enjoy Michael Carmody's climb up the depth chart.

Zane from Georgetown, Texas: Thirty years I've followed SBT coverage, and you're the best. A heartfelt thanks for your work, Eric. Also a shout-out to my Wilco, Texas brother, Denny, from LH. My question: You've heard "coachspeak" at this time every year. They're always positive about everything, with room to improve, etc. Is there anything you're hearing this year that a) varies from years past, or b) gives you some clues about the this year's team? Thanks again!

Eric Hansen: Zane, thank you. I wrote about that in my latest piece for the Tribune/NDInsider.com. So for more depth, I'd check that out. In short, this year's team addresses last year's team's shortcomings. But this year's team has a ways to go in some areas to match the 2020 squad's strengths.

Jeff from Phoenix: Good morning, Eric. Really looking forward to the FSU season opener, and am in danger of peaking too early! My question is about special teams, specifically kickoffs and punt returns. Are we going to see the same risk-averse fair catches this year or can they use the offensive talent referred to by Brian Kelly and Tommy Rees to flip the field? Do you see 1-2 players with that explosiveness? Finally, is there a Chase Claypool-esque player on kick/punt return defense that could neutralize our opponents or create a turnover? Cheers!

Eric Hansen: Jeff. No such thing of peaking early. We all deserve to be fired up about a more normal college football season. ... As far as punt returns, we talked to Brian Polian about that a bit in the spring and get another run at him Tuesday night. I do think there are some PR candidates with explosive moves — Kevin Austin, Kyren Williams, Lorenzo Styles, to name a few. But I think ball security will remain king in terms of scheming up for punt returns. We have not seen actual coverage units yet, but I've got some ideas. I'll see how they match up with Polian's thoughts early next week.

MTSWEENS from Wherabouts Unknown: Marcus Freeman's "free-wheeling, attacking style!" The last coordinators whose scheme was described like that was Tenuta and VanGorder! How is Freeman's scheme different than those two?

Eric Hansen: It works.

Patrick from Fort Wayne, Ind.: Eric, do you see the offense throwing more downfield this year? Can all three QBs make those 15+-yard throws accurately to move the sticks in a significant way?

Eric Hansen: Yes and yes. ... if the offensive line gives them time.

Mike from Nanuet, N.Y.: Eric, there has been much talk recently about a Big Ten/ACC/PAC12 scheduling alliance. Do you see ND being a part of this (short of being a full-fledged member in the ACC)? I think ND playing 5-6 ACC games plus two Big Ten and two PAC-12 (including USC every year) would add value to all thre conferences while still enabling ND to stay independent.

Eric Hansen: The alliance goes way beyond scheduling, and even the scheduling part is big on concept and short on details. And no, I don't think Notre Dame will be negatively affected by it even if it's not technically in the alliance for football.

Eric Hansen: OK, that's going to do it for today. Thanks for all the great questions. We'll be back to do it all again with a special Thursday edition (noon EDT).

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI