Looking Ahead

Author: J.J. Post

It would be impossible to tell the story of Notre Dame’s 92nd annual Blue-Gold game without telling the story of Sam Hartman.

The graduate transfer entered the blustery Saturday with near-impossible expectations to meet. These expectations were rooted in his successful four-year career at Wake Forest University, in which he amassed 45 starts and 110 touchdown passes. When Notre Dame made the move to add him in the portal, Hartman was framed as a quick ticket back to the playoffs, the final piece on a team that was just a quarterback away last year.

Reasonable hopes for Hartman would have likely included simple effectiveness. Signs of chemistry with his new receivers would have been a plus. If he led his team to victory that would be great. Most impressive would have been just looking like he fit in with a team he had 14 practices to gel with.

Clearly, Hartman was up for the challenge. Every time the graduate transfer touched the ball in his four drives and 20-odd minutes of action, Hartman was dynamic. He completed 13 of his 16 passes for 189 yards. His two passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown accounted for all of the Gold team’s touchdowns, while team Blue scored none.

It remains to be seen how much Hartman will be able to elevate the Irish, come fall. The Blue-Gold game is, after all, a low-impact scrimmage that head coach Marcus Freeman repeatedly referred to as simply “practice 15.” But, you can only play the game in front of you… and Hartman played as well as could have been asked.

Helping Hartman’s excellent display was a breakout performance by freshman receiver Jaden Greathouse. Notre Dame entered the Blue-Gold game in dire need of a new face to emerge as a potential option for the fall. The Irish had bet big on their newcomers over the offseason.

Graduate transfer Kaleb Smith, assumed to be a steady source of production, unexpectedly retired. Lorenzo Styles, at one point thought to be the future of the Notre Dame receiving core, was tabbed for a transition to defensive back. In a turn of events, Styles transferred to Ohio State. All told, the Irish entered the spring game with all of two receivers who had more than ten catches in 2022 on the roster, and none who had more than 25.

Greathouse, an early-enrollee freshman, looked to be an immediate answer to a thin receiver room. Totaling 11 catches and 118 yards, Greathouse put on display reliable hands and smooth route-running. Despite being just months removed from taking high school classes, the Texas native showed a veteran polish to his game. Whether it was Hartman or freshman third-string Steve Angeli throwing him the ball, Greathouse seemed to find a way to get open. While the “practice 15” caveat for Hartman’s performances also applies to Greathouse’s, it would be far from a shock to see the freshman among Notre Dame’s youngest contributors come autumn.

On the defensive side of the ball, several players flashed in a game that seemingly became more of a slugfest with each drive. Freshman Nolan Ziegler stood out for the Blue team in a losing effort, covering all sorts of ground with 10 total tackles. Fellow rookie Jaylen Sneed had a similar effect for the Gold team, totaling seven tackles.

The emphasis on young linebackers was clear for both defenses, as graduate student starters Jack Kiser and JD Bertrand both were non-participants. Jaiden Ausberry was another standout for the Gold squad. Three of the Blue team’s top five leaders in tackles were freshman linebackers, early-enrollee or true.

While it was a point of intrigue heading into the offseason, the defensive line offered some answers to Irish fans during the Blue-Gold game. The consensus of the Irish front seven was that it would be unable to replace the production of departing all-time Notre Dame sacks leader Isaiah Foskey.

A two-deep unit containing eight or so reliable contributors, however, could be a viable option for the Irish unit looking for equal production. To pull off such a two-deep, Notre Dame would need players all over the depth chart to show they made strides over the offseason. Saturday provided such indicators.

For the Blue team, Gabe Rubio was a constant disruptor in the middle of the defensive line. He’ll be a candidate to take a step forward from a 2022 rotational role in the fall. Jason Onye was also a force on the interior, accumulating three tackles and a sack. Onye has been consistently tabbed as a potential breakout player throughout spring practices. Junior Tuihalamaka also registered a sack, a sign of growth for the linebacker-turned-defensive lineman over his first year in South Bend.

Jordan Botelho, widely expected to be Notre Dame’s most effective pass rusher next season and the heir apparent to Foskey at vyper, notched a sack for the Gold team. Howard Cross III had a strong outing at defensive tackle: yet another player the Irish will look to for important snaps on the front seven. Tyson Ford wore a green jersey and played for both teams, but flashed regardless of which jerseys he was sporting.

An unfortunate side story to an otherwise positive spring game was the prevalence of the transfer portal in the days following, as several Irish players decided to seek larger roles elsewhere. Styles decided he’d likely have better luck as a defensive back at another school. Prince Kollie didn’t play in the spring game, but entered the Portal in the days following, potentially inspired by the various strong showings from several freshmen at the linebacker position.

Tyler Buchner entered the following Tuesday, an unspoken acknowledgment of what Marcus Freeman had refused to say out loud following the game: that Hartman had effectively ended any open quarterback competition that had been fostered between the graduate transfer and the incumbent starter.

Aside from the ensuing departures, the Blue-Gold game left Notre Dame feeling unquestionably better than the Saturday prior. It’s difficult to draw a more stark contrast to the energy around the program in the immediate aftermath of 2023’s Blue-Gold game compared to last season’s edition.

Fans left the 2022 Blue-Gold game uncertain who the Irish starting quarterback would be, and perhaps uncertain if Notre Dame even had two quality options to choose between. Buchner was unable to play. Pyne was struggling. The Irish walked off the field with a question mark at arguably the most important position on the field.

But, if 2022 left a question mark at quarterback, 2023 left an exclamation point. Fans and media exited Notre Dame Stadium buzzing about a competition that had been won decisively. For the first time in a while, there was a feeling that the Irish will enter the season with a game-changer under center.