The old guy now one of the new guys in some ways for Notre Dame
When the grind of college and football got to be too great, quarterback Sam Hartman could just go.
Hop in the car and point it south toward Charlotte and his parents’ home. He could be there in 60 minutes — the time it takes minus all the commercials and replays and everything else to actually play a college football game. If traffic south on Interstate 85 was light and his right foot heavy, Hartman might make it from Wake Forest University in 50 minutes.
Once home, he’d have everything a college kid craves. A home-cooked meal. Easy access to a washer and a dryer and his old bed. A chance to be around family members and friends. An opportunity to unplug for a few hours from everything that comes with being the starting quarterback, where everyone’s eyes are on you every single Saturday.
Home was good. Home was nice. Home was what Hartman often needed over his five years at Wake Forest, where he then would get back in the car, get back to campus and get back to the grind.
He could/would be on his own, but with the knowledge that the security blanket of home never was far away. Now, it’s really far away. Instead of that hour’s drive then, now it would take him 15. While Hartman has relocated to South Bend for one final year of college, his family calls home Charleston, South Carolina. That’s one flight (South Bend to Charlotte) and then a three-hour drive. Don’t want to make that trek? Change planes in the commuter circus that is Charlotte/Douglas International Airport (if you know, you know) and get there directly, but it’s still a trying day of travel.
Those quick trips home while Hartman was setting all kinds of quarterback records at Wake Forest have been replaced by phone calls. By FaceTime. By alone time. Certainty has been replaced by uncertainty.
“It flipped for me,” Hartman said last week in his first opportunity to speak as a Notre Dame quarterback. “When I was young, I didn’t want to go home. When I got older, I was like, ‘Mom, you coming up?’”
It’s been too long since Hartman has been home, since he’s seen his parents, since he’s seen loved ones, but that’s the deal. He could’ve stayed at Wake Forest for a rare sixth season. Could’ve continued the same campus routine of classes and conditioning and offseason stuff. Could’ve stayed around guys that he knew as well as family members. Knew their families. Knew their stories. Knew what made them go.
After five years of that in Winston-Salem, Hartman needed a change. That didn’t mean jumping into the National Football League draft pool and figuring out how to be a mid- to late-round pick. If change was necessary, why not start over and do the college dance once more?
The old guy again feels like the young guy. A sixth-year guy who in some ways, is a freshman. Far from home, far from his comfort zone, trying to figure it out. The 23-year-old, 6-foot-1, 210-pound Hartman loves it. All of it.
“Like anything in life, change is always hard,” he said. “It hasn’t always been easy. It’s nothing like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ It was like, ‘OK, this is how I’m going to do this. I’ve enjoyed it.’”
Which leads to the one gotta-ask question.
The new guy:Who is OC Gerad Parker?
Still not done doing this college dance
Hartman’s first media availability opportunity fell about five weeks behind schedule. He was supposed to sit with local reporters in early February. A date and time had been scheduled for Hartman and the three additional graduate transfers (cornerback Thomas Harper, defensive lineman Javontae Jean-Baptiste, wide receiver Kaleb Smith) to get with the media. To tell their stories. To offer a window into their football worlds and how they ended up at Notre Dame.
Hartman’s football world as he had come to know it in such a short time on campus then detonated. Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees lit out for Alabama, which effectively ended that first scheduled media session. Subsequent talk dates were pushed back again and again after offensive line coach/curmudgeon Harry Hiestand up and left (retired) and the vetting/hiring process of new offensive coordinator Gerad Parker and quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli played out through February.
Finally, in early March with head coach Marcus Freeman’s staff somewhat solidified, Hartman sat with the media. The first question had, had, had to be this one – what is Hartman doing here?
Not here as in seated at a small table on the second floor of the Irish Athletic Center as the early-March sun slowly faded to his right Wednesday afternoon, but here on a college campus as a non-degree seeking graduate student who hours earlier had just wrapped a Theology exam.
Why still do this college stuff? Do everything Hartman did his previous five years — 38 wins over 48 games, 12,967 passing yards, 110 touchdowns, a lengthy list of accolades and accomplishments — and another year of it isn’t anywhere close to an option. Been there, done all that, time for something else.
Not for Hartman. When he looked hard at Notre Dame, he looked around the Guglielmino Center and at all the individual and team awards racked up over decades. He looked at the gold helmets. He looked at the Golden Dome. He looked at Touchdown Jesus. To be a part of all that is something many would jump at the chance if given the chance.
There also was something else.
“You see an opportunity to play football again,” Hartman said. “This is a great opportunity for myself to take a challenge and a leap of faith in a program and to play a sport we call football. I love football.”
His leap of faith in a place and a program he knows little of from the inside surely was tested when Rees chose Alabama over his alma mater, but Hartman doesn’t see it that way. He knew so little of Rees in the small time he’d spent with him. It's not like the two were tied together by a shared quarterback experience and one football mind. Watching Rees leave was difficult, but having Rees stay still would’ve been difficult.
Everything Hartman knew about football was going to change with or without Rees. Same holds true now for Parker, set to step into his first season as the Irish offensive coordinator. As for those days of doubt after Rees left?
“Feels like forever ago,” Hartman said. “It seems like light years ago. Coach Rees (leaving), it’s a business decision. It was understood. As the old saying goes, it is what it is.”
Being on the same football page as Parker and Guidugli is important, but being on the same one as the guys that Hartman has to get the football to on Saturday afternoons might be even more important. That’s why on the first night those four graduate transfers were on campus, Hartman and Smith, the former Virginia Tech wide receiver, found themselves on the field in the IAC.
Smith said it was because they wanted to run around a little bit to break in their new football cleats. Really, it was about establishing a routine, a bond, a trust between quarterback and receiver.
Had it all worked out differently, Hartman and Smith were ready to be roommates as true freshmen at Wake Forest. Smith wound up at Virginia Tech and was an Atlantic Coast Conference colleague/rival of Hartman’s. Five years later, they’re together.
That first night at the IAC running routes and throwing/catching footballs was surreal.
“I got a little bit of goosebumps,” Smith said. “It was like, ‘Man, this is what I could’ve had (at Wake).’ It came around full circle. We’re right where we’re supposed to be.”
Special teams guy:Marty Biagi set to replace Brian Mason
It's not about getting ready for the NFL; it's about winning
What does Smith know about Hartman the quarterback that the rest of the team, the rest of the Irish fan base, will discover?
“The biggest thing is his leadership abilities,” Smith said. “To be at the helm of the offense and the team and being put in that spotlight. It’s been definitely refreshing rekindling that relationship.”
For Hartman, it’s also about building relationships with the Irish receivers. With the quarterbacks. With Guidugli. With Parker. Last weekend, Hartman spent a few hours at Parker’s house. There, they went fishing. Sure, they talked bait and ball, but it was more about deepening a relationship that has to be bedrock solid in the coming weeks and months.
“We always say trust is built over time and all that,” Hartman said. “That’s what’s happening. It’s building that trust, building that confidence that he’s going to call the right play and I’m going to execute it to the ability that I need to. For him, it’s all new. For me, it’s all new.”
Yet at the end of another workout with director of football performance coach Matt Balis, at the end of another throw session with the receivers, at the end of another day when he still doesn’t quite know his way around campus or around town, Hartman has to be the guy. The old guy. The veteran guy. The guy who’s thrown for all those yards and tossed all those touchdowns. He didn’t come to Notre Dame to sit. He came here to start. He came here to play. He came here to win.
For him, it’s not about what’s next. It's about what’s now.
“Once I set foot in here, it’s not, this is going to help me, it’s this is going to help the Irish win on Saturdays,” Hartman said. “That’s really the whole goal right now. It’s a great group of guys, great culture, great everything.
“It’s been very reassuring being here for, it feels like a long time, but not a long time.”
Here also feels like something else for Hartman.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.