Five compelling storylines on offense as Notre Dame opens spring practice

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — After an unexpectedly busy winter, Notre Dame is set to open its second spring practice of the Marcus Freeman Era on Wednesday.

That means adjusting to life without Tommy Rees (now at Alabama) coordinating the offense and Harry Hiestand (back in retirement) coaching up the offensive line. Gerad Parker takes over as the OC while continuing to coach tight ends; Gino Guidugli was hired to coach the quarterbacks and Joe Rudolph will handle the offensive line.

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Here are five storylines to watch for the Notre Dame offense this spring:

Sam Hartman settles in

The Wake Forest graduate transfer has been huddling with Parker and Guidugli for the past several weeks in hopes of flattening his learning curve. While only five of 15 spring sessions will be open to the media, including the Blue-Gold Game on April 22, all eyes will be on Hartman every time he drops back to throw.

Already the active FBS leader in career passing yards (12,967) and touchdowns (110) — Oklahoma’s Dillon Gabriel is a distant second at 11,205 passing yards — Hartman must build connection with a new corps of wide receivers and tight ends.

Known for his willingness to push the envelope and make daring throws downfield, don’t be surprised if Hartman gravitates early on toward Virginia Tech grad transfer Kaleb Smith, a familiar face since their days as Wake Forest recruits.  Big-framed receivers like Jayden Thomas and Deion Colzie began to emerge last season, and a trio of early enrollees (Braylon James, Jaden Greathouse and Rico Flores Jr.) join Tobias Merriweather in the scramble to catch Hartman’s eye.

“It's just the trust and timing all across the board: from your offensive coordinator trusting your guys to go down and make plays and you trusting a receiver to go up and make a play,” Hartman said. “A lot of it really is based on what the defense gives you and how they feel like your guys match up.

“You look at the (Wake Forest) tape from last year, a lot of teams played back and didn't let us throw the ball deep. Then we played certain teams that wanted to pressure and then we took shots.”

Notre Dame Fighting Irish tight end Mitchell Evans (88) goes into the end zone with a pass for the game winning touchdown with just over a minute and a half to play in the game. The University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish took on the University of South Carolina Gamecocks in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl game in Jacksonville, Florida's TIAA Bank Field Friday, December 30, 2022. The first half ended with South Carolina holding a 24 to 17 lead but Notre Dame came back and with a late fourth quarter touchdown, won the game 45 to 38. [Bob Self/Florida Times-Union]

Following Michael Mayer

Hartman won’t have projected NFL first-rounder Michael Mayer as a security blanket, but there’s plenty of emerging talent at Tight End U. Rising junior Mitchell Evans, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass from Tyler Buchner in the Gator Bowl, leads the way along with Kevin Bauman, coming off his second straight injury-shortened season.

Eli Raridon, a ferocious blocker through five games as a freshman, is working back from his second torn right ACL in a 10-month span. Classmate Holden Staes is a catch-first target with obvious upside, and former walk-on Davis Sherwood is a key contributor as a short-yardage blocker when the Irish use their “13” personnel package (one back, one receiver, three tight ends).

Notre Dame offensive lineman Josh Lugg (75) and offensive lineman Andrew Kristofic (73) celebrate after their win against Syracuse after an NCAA college football game in Syracuse, N.Y., Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

Changing of the guards

Two-time captain Jarrett Patterson and sixth-year senior Josh Lugg have moved on after making a combined 79 career starts at multiple spots along the offensive line. According to Pro Football Focus, Patterson ranked 59th among FBS guards last season, while Lugg was tied for 44th.

While fifth-year senior Zeke Correll returns as the starting center, Rudolph must determine who takes over at both guard spots. Andrew Kristofic made eight straight starts at left guard from midseason 2021 through last year’s opener at Ohio State, so he has the upper hand when it comes to experience.

Versatile Michael Carmody, who made two starts at tackle in 2021 and also has worked at center, could bounce inside to compete with rising young talents Billy Schrauth and Rocco Spindler.

“You want to see the athleticism, you want to see the explosiveness, you want to see how they play the game and not just if they know what to do,” Rudolph said. “That’s part of it, but you have to be good at not making it too complicated. It will be fun. Having good competition there will really help not only that first group, but the depth behind it.”

Sharing the wealth

During the recent promotional visit to Dublin, Ireland over Notre Dame’s spring break, all three members of the highly productive Irish backfield made the trip. That was no accident as Audric Estime, Logan Diggs and Chris Tyree remain as supportive of each other as they are dangerous to opponents.

Last season, that trio averaged 5.75 yards from scrimmage on 464 combined touches — 175 for Diggs, 165 for Estime and 124 for Tyree. That included 23 touchdowns (18 rushing, five receiving) and 2,669 scrimmage yards (2,185 rushing, 484 receiving).

Look for Parker and running backs coach Deland McCullough to build on the schemes that created those balanced opportunities last season. More designed screens would be a welcome development, especially with Hartman bringing his experience to the mix.

(l-r) Notre Dame quarterback Tyler Buchner (12) and left tackle Joe Alt (76) celebrate 45-38 win against South Carolina at TIAA Stadium during the Taxslayer Gator Bowl on Friday, Dec.30, 2022.

Utilizing Tyler Buchner

The last time Notre Dame had a graduate transfer at quarterback, Buchner regularly came off the bench to spell Jack Coan and averaged 7.3 yards per carry. That was 2021, Buchner’s freshman year, when he appeared in 10 games and rushed for three touchdowns.

Could a similar role develop for Buchner as a rising redshirt sophomore with Hartman in the building? That seems possible, especially with Hartman’s injury history and the need to keep Buchner from losing hope and entering the transfer portal during the next two-week window in May.

“I don’t think Tyler Buchner is going to take a back seat to anybody,” Guidugli said upon his arrival. “Tyler Buchner is going to compete for the starting quarterback position and he’s going to get an opportunity to compete for it, just like the rest of those guys in the room. I’m coming in with a clean slate.”

In theory, Buchner will compete with Hartman for the QB1 designation, but let’s be real: If Hartman is healthy, his track record, including a 27-18 career mark as the starter at Wake Forest, demands he spend this year as the leader of the offense.

That doesn’t mean Buchner can’t still be a weekly problem for opposing defenses this fall.

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