Notebook: USC could have its own version of QB intrigue in store for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Southern California quarterback Jaxson Dart throws a pass during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Washington State, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Pullman, Wash. Southern California won 45-14. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

SOUTH BEND — Apparently 13th-ranked Notre Dame won’t have a monopoly on quarterback drama Saturday night when USC visits Notre Dame Stadium in the 92nd meeting between the intersectional rivals.

The Trojans (3-3) are pondering playing multiple quarterbacks, as the Irish (5-1) have done in all five of their games following their 41-38 season-opening overtime victory Sept. 5 at Florida State.

Kickoff is 7:30 p.m. EDT, and NBC/Peacock as the telecast/stream. ND — 7-3 under head coach Brian Kelly vs. USC — is aiming for its fourth straight win in the series.

Trojan freshman QB Jaxson Dart returned to practice this week for the first time since suffering a meniscus tear in USC’s 45-14 road rout of Washington State on Sept. 18.

In that game the 6-3, 215-pound Kayville, Utah, product made his college debut and replaced struggling starter, junior Kedon Slovis, who was injured on USC's opening offensive series.

Dart threw for 391 yards and four touchdowns but underwent surgery for the injury the next week. He also ran for 32 yards on six carries against the Cougars.

Slovis, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound junior, ranks 69th nationally in passing efficiency (133.8 rating points), 11 spots below Irish starter Jack Coan (141.0).

Statistically, Slovis has declined dramatically each season since posting the seventh-best efficiency rating as a freshman in 2019 (167.6). Last season, Slovis was 34th (144.1).

Dart, however, as of Thursday morning, had yet to be medically cleared to play Saturday night, and USC interim coach Donte Williams wasn't eager to clear up the ambiguity.

"We will do the best thing possible to put ourselves in the best possible position to win the football game," Williams said Thursday via Zoom. "So, if that is Jaxson, all of a sudden starting the football game last second, if that is Jaxson coming in the second or third series of the game, then so be it. We'll do what is necessary to win the football game, as long as his health is first."

"(Jaxson Dart is a) very talented quarterback as well,” Kelly said in his Thursday Zoom of the prospect of possibly facing a USC QB tag team. “We watched this film. Live arm. (Kedon) Slovis, obviously, we believe he is going to be the starter.

“If they get into any kind of a situation where they don't feel like the offense is moving, he certainly can go in there. You know (Dart) is just probably a little bit more dynamic on the edge, can get out and run and move around, but they're both outstanding quarterbacks.

“I don't know that there'd be that much of a difference in terms of our preparation other than he's a guy that certainly can pull the ball down and be much more effective in scrambling situations." 

Coan, a grad senior, is scheduled to make his seventh straight start for the Irish, and Kelly said freshman Tyler Buchner is expected to contribute in a complementary role, having recovered from an ankle injury sustained in a 32-29 win over Virginia Tech on Oct. 9.

Both Notre Dame and USC had an open date last Saturday.

Where things got sticky in the QB department this week for Notre Dame was in its scout team prep for the Trojans.

Junior Brendon Clark, a fourth-stringer, opted out of the rest of the season with the Irish and announced on Tuesday his decision to enter the transfer portal. 

“We wanted to continue to have a really competitive situation,” Kelly said. “So, we did a little bit more this week against our defense. We call it ‘pick it’ period, where we pick some plays that we have in our offense that are similar to USC and we run them as our offense.

“So, we picked up a little bit of that in terms of 1s versus 1s going against each other, and we would mimic some of USC's plays. And then we rotated Buchner and (Drew) Pyne — they went down for a couple of periods when we weren't in team time and gave those guys a look down there, because that's what we needed to do.

“We managed it within. Those guys were great and we helped our defense as well." 

Injury updates

Tight end: Sophomore Michael Mayer, ND’s leading receiver, will start Saturday night, per Kelly, after missing the Virginia Tech game on Oct. 9 with an adductor (groin) strain.

“He‘s had a good week,” Kelly said. “We expect him to contribute, and we'll need him to contribute for us. We're excited about him being back for us.”

Excited because he brings quality and very needed quantity. ND will have just two of its original roster of five tight ends in the first half against the Trojans, prompting Kelly to work backup offensive tackle Michael Carmody at the position this week.

Freshman Cane Berrong is out for the season with an ACL tear. Sophomore Kevin Bauman is still likely a couple of weeks away in his recovery from a broken fibula suffered in the Sept. 5 season opener. 

Evans was ejected for targeting in the second half of the Virginia Tech game and thus won’t be eligible to participate until the second half Saturday night as part of the penalty.

Running back: Kelly said sophomore Chris Tyrie will be a game-time decision as the No. 2 Irish running back option works his way back from a turf toe injury.

“Chris could go right now, but I don't know that he's at the level that we want to put him in the game yet, “ Kelly said. “A lot of this with the running back, it's when you're pushing on somebody. It's when you're trying to break a tackle.

“He looks really good running straight and he can make his cuts. It's when you're in the hole. It's when you're blocking. It's those things.” 

Freshman Logan Diggs and senior C’Bo Flemister, the latter out of the doghouse after being left off the travel roster for the Virginia Tech game, are options 2A and 2B Saturday behind starter Kyren Williams.

"Right now, I would tell you that we have confidence in both Diggs and C'Bo if Chris isn’t able to go at a high level,” Kelly said.

Defensive line: Kelly said backup interior defensive lineman Jacob Lacey is not yet 100 percent in his recovery from an ankle injury suffered Oct. 9 at Virginia Tech.

“Jacob Lacey has been limited this week, but we expect that he'll be able to give us something on Saturday,” Kelly said. 

Notre Dame’ freshman offensive lineman Rocco Spindler (50) celebrates after the Notre Dame 's 27-13 win over Purdue, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Up and coming

Last week’s bye week gave the Irish coaching staff a few days to do some developmental work with younger players.

Among those who have been ascending and stood out last week were freshman vyper end Kahanu Kia, freshman defensive tackle Gabe Rubio, freshman cornerback Philip Riley, freshman offensive guard Rocco Spindler and converted sophomore wide receiver Xavier Watts, who’s working at multiple defensive positions, including rover.    

“We've got him at nickel. We've got him at safety,” Kelly said. “We're really trying to add a lot of work to him because we want to get him on the field. This is like preseason camp for him and he's getting a lot of work right now."

Up and coming, Part II

Thirteen members of Notre Dame’s 21-man, 2022 recruiting class were included in 247Sports latest updated player rankings.

The biggest riser was tight end Eli Raridon, who jumped from No. 292 to No. 64 overall regardless of position. The 6-6, 220-pounder from West Des Moines, Iowa, is now ranked as the nation’s No. 2 tight end prospect nationally in his class.

The Irish now have five top 100 players: Raridon, No. 57 linebacker Jaylen Sneed, No. 75 wide receiver C.J. Williams, No. 76 linebacker Josh Burnham and No. 77 wide receiver Tobias Merriweather.

Also making the top 247 were No. 124 offensive tackle Ty Chan, No. 160 linebacker Niuafe Tulihalamaka, No. 166 running back Jadarian Price, No. 175 defensive end Aiden Gobaira, No. 180 offensive guard Joey Tanona, No. 190 cornerback Jaden Mickey, No. 192 defensive end Tyson Ford and No. 212 rover Nolan Ziegler.

Six of the uncommitted 2022 prospects making recruiting visits to ND this weekend were included in the updated rankings, led by safety Xavier Nwankpa (No. 10).

Also ranked are defensive lineman Anthony Lucas (14th), QB Walker Howard (74th), defensive lineman Hero Kanu (102nd), offensive tackle Aamil Wagner (115th) and offensive guard Billy Schrauth (189th).

Squibs

♦ Brian Kelly on Thursday was one of 16 coaches named to the Dodd Trophy midseason watch list for national coach of the year. Kelly won the award in 2018.

♦ According to TickPick, Saturday night’s ND-USC game is trending to be the cheapest game "on record: in the series played in South Bend, with an average purchase price of $191.

TickPick's records don't go back that far, however. The company was founded in 2011. Still, in 2019 the average ticket price for ND-USC was $254, and in 2015 it was $405. 

As of Thursday afternoon this Saturday night’s game had a “get-in” price of $73.

HOW TO WATCH NOTRE DAME VS.USC 

Who: No. 13 Notre Dame (5-1) vs. USC (3-3) 

Kickoff: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT 

Where: Notre Dame Stadium 

TV: NBC/Peacock 

Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5) 

Line: Notre Dame by 7 

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI