Analysis: Notre Dame football sticks to its portal plan and adds the transfers it needs

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Thankfully, no crystal trophy was awarded to the champion of college football’s inaugural winter transfer portal window (WTPW).  

Stop that dancing, Brian Kelly.

LSU may have dominated the highly subjective “rankings” as it grabbed 11 quick fixes during the six-week frenzy that ran from Dec. 5 to Jan. 18, but there will be no victory parade just yet for Kelly’s Tigers.

The same caveat applies to the rest of the so-called top-five programs that loaded up on transfer talent, according to the 247Sports Composite player ratings: Florida State (nine commitments), Auburn (13), Colorado (23) and USC (11).

Honorable mention goes to Arizona State, where newly hired coach Kenny Dillingham snatched up a whopping 26 transfers, including former Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne. The Sun Devils ranked 12th on the recruiting site’s breakdown.

Notre Dame? The Irish, oddly enough, didn’t even make the WTPW Top 25.

Apparently, adding the ACC’s career leader in touchdown passes to your quarterback room doesn’t move the ratings meter at this time of year.

Dec 23, 2022; Tampa, Florida, USA; Wake Forest Demon Deacons quarterback Sam Hartman (10) celebrates after beating the Missouri Tigers in the 2022 Gasparilla Bowl at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Even with the smiling, bearded visage of Wake Forest transfer Sam Hartman appearing on social media posts from the Notre Dame locker room, the Irish needed a late rankings adjustment to jump from 56th all the way to No. 26.

ESPN, at least, gave the Irish an overall grade of A-minus for their portal work.

Which means … well, nothing, really.

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

More, more, more

For one thing, the 45-day window for expedited eligibility only applied to underclassmen. Graduate transfers can enter the portal all year and still be eligible for the upcoming season.

Those same underclassmen, it should be noted, only had to start the portal process by the Jan. 18 deadline. They can continue to play musical portal as long as they like, although chairs/scholarships have a way of disappearing.  

Plus, under the NCAA’s latest half-hearted attempt at fixing a broken system, there will be another 15-day transfer portal window starting May 1. That gives all those players disappointed with their snap counts in various spring games a chance to test the marketplace and reignite the relocation frenzy all over again.

“Everybody wants more and more and more,” Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman said on Dec. 10. “I’ve been the coordinator that said, ‘Hey, I just want more – more!’ and not think about the big picture. It’s a challenge because (as coaches) we’re greedy. You’re always saying, ‘Give me more. Give me more.’ But we have to understand there is a (limited) number of scholarships that we have.”

In terms of sheer volume, perhaps, Notre Dame’s six-player transfer haul paled in comparison to those programs with open-door admissions policies. In terms of disciplined, transparent shopping, Freeman’s second offseason dip in those shark-infested waters went efficiently, if not always swimmingly.

Notre Dame wanted an upgrade at quarterback, even before Pyne’s emotional departure and Tyler Buchner’s gritty, MVP-worthy performance at the Gator Bowl. In Hartman, Gator Bowl MVP the prior year, the Irish seemingly found the ideal blend of experience, production and personality.

How mature is Hartman? He turns 24 in late July, making him older than several active NFL quarterbacks, including playoff qualifiers Trevor Lawrence (Jaguars) and Trey Lance (49ers) as well as Sam Howell (Commanders) and Zach Wilson (Jets).  

To put it another way: When Tommy Rees, Hartman’s new offensive coordinator, returned to his alma mater as quarterbacks coach in January 2017, Rees was still four months shy of turning 25.

Buchner? He won’t turn 21 until November.

Targeted additions

The same logical approach guided the remaining transfer additions.

Notre Dame needed help at defensive end, even before learning Justin Ademilola would join record-setting pass rusher Isaiah Foskey in this year’s NFL Draft. In Ohio State grad transfer Javontae Jean-Baptiste, the Irish found a productive backup hungry to prove what he can do with more playing time.

Notre Dame needed help at safety and in slot coverage, especially after learning Brandon Joseph, last year’s transfer headliner from Northwestern, would follow through with his stated plan to head for the pro level after a one-year stopover.

In Oklahoma State grad transfer Thomas Harper, the Irish added a veteran of 43 college games over the past four seasons. Harper, who missed six of his final seven games with the Cowboys due to nagging injuries, is a versatile playmaker with career totals of 93 tackles, two interceptions, six pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

Harper’s interceptions came against Baylor (2022) and Texas Christian (2020).

With Braden Lenzy off to the working world, Notre Dame needed experience at wide receiver, even after Matt Salerno’s surprise decision to return for a sixth season. In Virginia Tech grad transfer Kaleb Smith, the Irish added a big-bodied target with a 41-inch vertical jump, 9 3/4-inch hands and a ridiculous catch radius, thanks to a 33-inch arm length.

Notre Dame needed help at placekicker with Blake Grupe, the Arkansas State grad transfer, out of eligibility. In South Florida grad transfer Spencer Shrader, the Irish added a game-tested weapon with a career-long field goal of 52 yards and a touchback rate (80.7%) that ranked fourth nationally among kickoff specialists last season.

Shrader also has a 22-yard touchdown run on a fake field goal against Connecticut (2019) as well as a 7-yard reception, giving special teams coordinator Brian Mason another game-changing chess piece.

Finally, Notre Dame needed depth at punter and holder after Harvard grad transfer Jon Sot completed his one-year tour in South Bend. In Penn grad transfer Ben Krimm, the Irish added an experienced insurance policy for redshirt freshman Bryce McFerson, slowed by a groin injury last fall.

Like a responsible shopper on a busy Saturday afternoon at Costco, Freeman stuck to his list and resisted the temptation to overstuff his cart with marked-down items he didn’t really need.

Most importantly, he got his quarterback.

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