Hartman in hand, how Notre Dame football navigates transfer portal while minimizing risk

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — As Notre Dame football sifts through an overflowing transfer portal in search of help at multiple positions, the whole process can feel like speed-dating.

“The recruiting game, if you want to call it (that), has changed in terms of (how) at times you have to offer guys to be able to recruit them,” coach Marcus Freeman said recently while in Jacksonville, Fla., for the Gator Bowl. “That’s the reality of it. Some of the guys in there won’t talk to you unless you’ve offered them (a scholarship).”

In addition to prize quarterback Sam Hartman (Wake Forest), wide receiver Kaleb Smith (Virginia Tech), kicker Spencer Shrader (South Florida) and punter Ben Krimm (Pennsylvania) — all of whom are believed to have visited campus before committing to Notre Dame as transfers — the Irish also extended offers early on to wide receivers Dante Cephas (Kent State) and Keagan Johnson (Iowa) as well as defensive lineman Braden Fiske (Western Michigan).

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Fiske visited Notre Dame at the start of the new 45-day window (Dec. 5-Jan. 18) for undergraduates entering the transfer portal, then waited several weeks before choosing Florida State over the Irish and USC.

Johnson, coming off an injury-marred season, landed at Kansas State.

Iowa wide receiver Keagan Johnson speaks with reporters during Hawkeyes NCAA football media day, Friday, Aug. 12, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa.

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Cephas, who announced a Notre Dame offer on Dec. 5, had yet to decide as he weighed a slew of publicly shared offers from the likes of hometown Pittsburgh, Penn State, West Virginia, Kansas, Oklahoma, Miami, Virginia Tech, Maryland, Georgia and Colorado.  

More recently, Utah State transfer Byron Vaughns, a highly regarded edge rusher who previously transferred from Texas, shared via social media a Notre Dame offer.

Arkansas transfer safety Jalen Catalon is also reportedly on Notre Dame’s radar, even as he visits Purdue and potentially Texas.

Establishing a connection

Whether it’s Hartman, who spent nine days in the transfer portal before going public on Thursday with his widely expected choice of Notre Dame, or more complementary roster pieces being considered through the portal, Freeman and Co., strive to remove as much of the guesswork as possible.

Asked about the value of direct conversation with potential transfer targets, Freeman said it’s an essential part of the process.

“That’s so important,” Freeman said. “In order to take any guy into our program, I’m going to have to be face to face. I’m going to have to make sure — Zoom, whatever — that we have a connection.”

Academic fit and a viable path to graduation or post-graduate progress requires full vetting from the admissions office. When it comes to determining the character and personality traits of the player being considered, Freeman, his assistant coaches and the program’s recruiting team in general go to work as well.

“There’s so much that goes into a football player beyond what you just see on film,” Freeman said. “There’s a lot of guys you can turn on film and say he’s a good football player. Or you could say he’s not so good. But when you can meet somebody face to face and really can get a chance to know them and ask them difficult questions, see how they respond, you get to figure out who this person is as a man.”

The road to that assessment differs greatly depending on the experience level of the player. Counterintuitively, perhaps, finished products seem to carry greater risk.

“It’s different in the transfer portal because everything happens so fast,” Freeman said. “When you’re recruiting high school kids, you build relationships over time and you really get to know the kid, the coach, the families.

“In the transfer portal, you have to be able to look kids in the face, have those conversations, but also make phone calls and try to see: Hey, do you know somebody at the previous school? Do you know somebody that can give you a little bit of character makeup of this person.”

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That’s where an information network built out over the sprawling ecosystem of high school coaches, independent trainers and other advisers comes into focus.

“You’ve got to be careful (with) the people you bring into your locker room,” Freeman said. “You have to be cautious on the type of personalities you bring into your locker room. I’ve seen it go both ways: one really good and one really bad.

“We’re fortunate. We’ve got a great group of captains; we’ve got a great group of leadership. You really don’t have an option when you come into our locker room. You’re going to convert to the way these guys lead or you’re going to say, ‘This isn’t the place for me.’ “

'Extraordinary attention'

Since the transfer portal started in the fall of 2018, Notre Dame has shopped selectively and, for the most part, efficiently in augmenting its roster.

The 2020 cycle brought wide receiver Ben Skowronek (Northwestern), cornerback Nick McCloud (N.C. State) and safety Isaiah Pryor (Ohio State).

Notre Dame’s Jack Coan (17) throws during the 2022 Playstation Fiesta Bowl Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

In 2021, Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan became the first transfer to start at quarterback for Notre Dame. All-America right guard Cain Madden (Marshall) started 13 games.

In 2022, Freeman’s first full season after replacing Brian Kelly, former All-America safety Brandon Joseph (Northwestern) grabbed the headlines, but a nagging high ankle sprain limited him to six quarters of game action after Nov. 1.

Notre Dame head football coach Marcus Freeman holds a helmet while posing for a portrait with University president John I. Jenkins and Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick during a news conference Monday, Dec. 6, 2021 at the Irish Athletic Center in South Bend, Ind. Notre Dame formally introduced Freeman as its new football coach, a meteoric rise for the defensive coordinator. (Michael Caterina/South Bend Tribune via AP)

A pair of Harvard grad transfers, punter Jon Sot and defensive lineman Chris Smith, paid more consistent dividends, while former Arkansas State kicker Blake Grupe made a successful transition as well.

“We now, like everybody else, have to pay extraordinary attention to the portal and who’s in it and what help they might provide to us in areas of need, and that’s not easy,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said during a recent appearance on the Mike Golic Jr. podcast.

“You’ve doubled your workload all of a sudden, especially with the number of young men who choose to go into the portal,” Swarbrick added. “You want to stay focused on your needs. Don’t just go shopping in the portal to see who’s in the portal, and make sure you’re bringing in people who fit. That’s the biggest part of this.

"In the discussions I’ve had with coach (Freeman) about specific prospective transfers, it’s been much more about fit: ‘How will this individual be in the locker room?’ “

Notre Dame kicker Blake Grupe (99) kicks a field goal as Notre Dame kicker Jon Sot (39) holds during the Notre Dame vs. Boston College NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Sam Hartman's health scare

Medical fitness, especially for those coming off surgery, is the final significant piece in the vetting process. Even if a prospective transfer checks all the boxes academically and in terms character, if he can’t stay healthy enough to contribute on Saturdays in the fall, the investment will fail.

Coan, for instance, was three months removed from season-ending surgery on his right foot when he announced his transfer to Notre Dame four days into 2021. Despite being sacked 34 times, Coan still managed to go 11-2 as the starter while passing for 3,150 yards and 25 touchdowns.

Injured Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman (10) watches teammates warm up for an NCAA college football game against VMI in Winston-Salem, N.C., Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Hartman, the ACC’s career leader with 110 touchdown passes, missed the season opener against VMI after undergoing Aug. 9 surgery to address Paget-Schroetter syndrome, a blood-clotting condition also known as “effort thrombosis.”

The blood clot formed in Hartman’s subclavian vein, located in the upper chest near the heart.

Hartman, 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, was medically cleared ahead of the Sept. 10 win over Vanderbilt started the final 12 games of the season for the Demon Deacons. He was sacked 37 times, tying a career-high from his breakout season in 2021.

In 48 career games at Wake Forest, Hartman has been sacked 122 times and hit another 25 times as he threw. A gifted runner, he also has 856 career rushing yards and 17 scores.

Dr. Julie Freischlag, Hartman’s vascular surgeon and dean of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, issued a statement in early September upon Hartman’s return to practice. According to Dr. Freischlag, the condition likely resulted from “a previous infection that eventually caused inflammation.”

The two-part procedure included removal of the blood clot, followed by rib-removal surgery to eliminate pressure on the vein. Hartman told reporters on Dec. 2 he keeps the rib in his refrigerator and hopes to make it into a necklace.

In her statement, Dr. Freischlag said a Sept. 2 follow-up ultrasound showed no issues for Hartman.

“Everything looked great,” she said. “The clot was gone, the blood flow was good and he felt great. Blood thinner therapies were discontinued once they became medically unnecessary, and he is medically cleared to return to full competition.”

Whether it’s Hartman or Smith, who overcame two shoulder surgeries to star for the Hokies, the medical aspect cannot be overstated.

“I’ll always lean on our doctors to give us a thumbs-up or thumbs-down,” Freeman said, speaking generally. “Maybe they didn’t medically evaluate them but they can make phone calls, they can look at the medical history and be able to say, ‘We feel good about this’ or ‘No, this isn’t going to be something that’s good for our program.’ “

As the NCAA transfer system morphs into something resembling NFL-style free agency, up to and including high-stakes decisions on medical reviews, Notre Dame isn’t about to ignore troubling data points.

“I’ll always (lean) on our doctors,” Freeman said. “I need the doctors’ blessing. Does that mean they physically put their hands on them (as prospective transfers)? Not all the time. But I need them to look at me and say, ‘We feel good about this.’ That’s part of it.”

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.