With big-time transfer QB and packed defense, Irish eyes are

Pete Thamel, ESPNApr 19, 2024, 09:00 AM ET SOUTH BEND, Ind.– There are days when Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman confesses he gazes over at Notre Dame Arena and imagines a frigid December night, a packed crowd and the rarest happening in Notre Dame’s abundant football history– a first.In the 117

seasons of Notre Dame football, there have been 11 national titles, 7 Heisman Prize winners and 70 first-round NFL draft picks. It has motivated a smash hit movie, generational lore and fostered a nationwide brand as strong as any in sports.That doesn’t

leave a lot of room for firsts. However heading into the 12-team College Football Playoff era, which begins this fall, Notre Dame is possibly the best-positioned program to host a playoff game. And Freeman states he catches himself when he begins to think about it.

“I attempt not to daydream, since me fantasizing about that doesn’t truly help us arrive,” Freeman informed ESPN just recently in his workplace. “And the times that I do wander to that point, it’s a reminder that, OK, let’s get back to the concrete things that we can do today to help us get to that point.”

Entering Freeman’s third season with another prominent transfer at quarterback, there’s optimism for Irish fans to buy a heavy coat and wool hat for some December football in South Bend.The broadened playoff collides with what tasks as Notre Dame’s finest total lineup in Freeman’s 3 years there. There’s a growing NIL program to help fill the roster’s holes and hot recruiting that has the Irish with the No. 4 class for 2025 in ESPN’s rankings.Editor’s Picks 2 Related The arrival of transfer quarterback Riley

Leonard from Duke combines with a star-studded defense, highlighted by forecasted first-round pick Benjamin Morrison at cornerback, and a salty and experienced protective line.That lineup hitting a broadened playoff gives Notre Dame perhaps the very best chance of any school to host a CFP game in 2024. With the 12-team playoff having actually arrived with byes for the four highest-ranked conference champs, Notre Dame can not get a first-round bye because it is an independent.After winning nine games in Freeman’s debut season in 2022 and 10 games and finishing No. 14 in the Associated Press poll in 2015, a CFP appearance would

become part of the logical development.”That’s got to be a practical expectation,”Freeman stated. “That we need to be one of those 12 groups is a goal. I think we are going to have a great opportunity.

I think with the skill we have, with the coaching personnel we have, I believe we ought to do the things necessary to make the playoff. Therefore now you got to go do it. “Those hopes will hinge on Leonard, who has a lone season in South Bend to lead the Irish and burnish his NFL draft stock. He accounted for 33 touchdowns– 20 passing and 13 rushing– in 2022 at Duke before a flurry of frustrating injuries restricted him from ending up the final three of the seven games he played last year.Leonard understands how crucial it is to adjust rapidly, so he got here on school in January already knowing the names of his nearly 100 teammates.Leonard said he set up head shots and bios of his brand-new colleagues on the Quizlet App– think digital flash cards–

and amazed many of his new teammates by resolving them by name on his very first day on campus this winter. From walk-ons to All-Americans, Leonard jump-started the process of emerging as a leader. “I didn’t have one miss out on,”he said.Leonard is quick to confess there’s a lot more to becoming a leader in a short amount of time. And the history of current quarterback transfers has actually revealed a big get on the 2nd year after a transfer, which happened for players like Joe Burrow, Bo Nix and Jayden Daniels.But learning names is a window in Leonard’s desire to construct a relationship with everybody, as he’s done everything from taking protective lineman Jason Onye playing golf to outlining some fishing endeavors on regional ponds.As things warm up this spring, Leonard stated he’s anticipating attempting some local fishing holes for walleye, salmon and muskie– much

various than the redfish he’s utilized to catching in his native Alabama.”I constantly put hotdogs in there and the fish will swim in for whatever reason,”he stated of his catch-and-release traps.Leonard has done extremely little work in spring ball since of an ankle concern and isn’t expected to play in Saturday’s spring game.(Although he’s likely to participate in some of warmups as he’s back near 100 %.)Leonard states not being able to earn his teammates’regard through competing in practice has generated creativity for making connections.” You got to discover different ways to make people’s regard, and it’s something I have actually never needed to do before, specifically coming into a new program, “he said.” It produces obstacles and I’m still figuring it out, but I think that I have actually done a good job of making guys’respect in various methods off the field.” To land Leonard, Notre Dame’s recruiting personnel made his regard by digging deep into the school’s archives to investigate his great-grandfather on his mother’s side, James E. Curran, who played there in the 1930s. The staff took every mention and picture of him and assembled a handout for the household. Leonard, who matured a Notre Dame fan in Alabama, jokes that his mommy offered him a look when she saw the book that indicated he had no option

however to commit.While Freeman has yet to see much of Leonard in practice, he rapidly pointed out that he game-planned against him last year, which revealed him plenty. Leonard hobbled through 2023 with a series of ankle and toe injuries, including an ideal ankle injury versus Notre Dame on Sept. 30. He later injured his left toe versus Louisville.”I told them they broke me, “Leonard joked to Notre Dame authorities. “Now they’re spending for the surgery.”He made that joke before a follow-up procedure on his best ankle in late March, which Freeman said was done since a tension fracture was beginning to develop.Freeman has actually seen a lot of Leonard’s spirit, even with his injury constraints. He used some kind of competitive 3 times– “competitive “, “competitor “and” competitiveness”– in an answer about what Leonard can bring this year.”When you talk with him, you might not think that,”Freeman said, before worrying how he’s seen flashes in the weight room and around the facility.There are issues for Notre Dame on offense. There are two offensive tackles who predict as top-10 (Joe Alt )and top-100( Blake Fisher) NFL draft choices. Then there’s the seemingly yearly search for some high-end wide receiver play, and a new tailback needing to emerge after the departure of Audric Estime.There is likewise a throwback modification at offensive organizer, with Mike Denbrock going back to his old gig from LSU after calling plays for Jayden Daniels ‘Heisman Trophy season. He had actually been an assistant at Notre Dame from 2010-16, including a stint as playcaller, and also from 2002-04.

“Since of Mike Denbrock’s ability to mold his system around the players he has, I’m really positive in where we’ll be when it matters the most, in August, “Freeman stated. “I love the mindset of making sure it’s not about the plays, it’s about the players.” While Freeman’s on his third offensive planner in as many years, there’s been connection on defense. Al Golden has actually been a staff pillar, as have protective backs coach and pass game planner Mike Mickens and defensive line coach and run game planner Al Washington.There is a veteran defense that Freeman says is the very best on paper– and he worries only on paper– because he arrived in South Bend.

With stars like Morrison(10 PBUs in 2023) and Xavier Watts(7 INTs in 2023 ), the Nagurski Award winner, the Irish are placed to promote the standard of a pass defense that ranked No. 3 nationally last year.With efficient defensive linemen Howard Cross III (66 tackles last year)and Rylie Mills(16.5 career TFLs), there’s a chance to build on an unit that ranked No. 5 total in total defense in 2015.” Where we’re beginning at this year compared to the last two years is exceptionally greater,”Freeman said, pointing to continuity on the personnel and in personnel.Morrison mentioned that the promotion of Mickens to oversee the entire secondary has offered the corners and safeties a much better understanding of the scheme since they are all in better sync being in the very same meetings. He also stated it’s not uncommon for him to go see Mickens outside of typical conferences and there are currently six or 7 players there talking with him. “We’re going to go as far

as we wish to go,” Morrison said.And in Freeman’s 3rd year at Notre Dame, going that far could well suggest a home playoff game nearby. Morrison said that opportunity for history looms.”Being here now for 2 years, going on 3, you value the university itself and the history, “he said. “You understand how special a location that it truly is. So I feel it’ll be cool to be able to be part of something like that, you might tell your kids I belonged to the first at something.”

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