’23 Notre Dame Game Rankings #12: Irish Break New Ground with Tennessee State Matchup

Fighting Irish begin home portion of the 2023 schedule against first-ever HBCU foe

History will be made when the Notre Dame Fighting Irish take the field for the team’s home opener on September 2. That’s when, for the first time ever in the storied history of the Irish football program, an opponent from an HBCU (Historically Black College and Universities) program appears on the 2023 Notre Dame football schedule.

The Tigers are led by former Heisman winner Eddie George, who’s compiled a 9-13 record in two seasons as the program’s head coach, including a 4-7 campaign last year. One positive sign in that losing 2022 record is the fact that the Tigers managed to bounce back from an 0-4 start to the year.

Tennessee State Offense: Plenty of Oxygen Needed

Putting more points on the board is a priority for Tennessee State, with last year’s primary starter at quarterback, Draylen Ellis, back again. Last season, he threw for 1,807 yards and eight touchdowns, a number that was countered by his six interceptions. Newcomers to challenge him in this area include Youngstown State transfer Demeatric Crenshaw and local product Ryder Hagan.

An even higher priority for the Tigers is injecting life into a running game that was dead last among the school’s conference foes and averaged only 121 yards per game. Jalen Rouse, who led the team with 613 yards last year, is expected to lead this unit again.

When Ellis or another signal-caller takes to the air, one prominent figure hopes to emerge. Last year, Karate Benson caught just 25 passes for 329 yards and one touchdown after transferring from Ball State. He’ll be joined by senior Dayron Johnson, who sat out last year due to injury. Also, junior college transfer Canen Adrian is ticketed for a slot position if he can bounce back from back issues.

One of the chief reasons why the Tiger running game struggled was the woes up front. Those struggles help explain why just one starter is back this year, center Chazan Page. The most promising newcomers will be on the right side, with tackle Jamari Freeman paired with either Nico Green and Romello Watson, who transferred to Tennessee State during the offseason.

Tennessee State Defense: Mixing Old and New

On the Tiger defensive line, the most important player may be Mississippi Valley State transfer Jalen Bell. He ended up with 10.5 stops behind the line for the Delta Devils last year and hopes to team with tackle Terrell Allen, who had 12 tackles for loss, seven quarterback hurries, and 4.5 sacks in 2022.

K’Vaughan Pope was a member of the Ohio State Buckeyes for four years before transferring to Tennessee State. Last season, he made 62 stops for the Tigers, broke up four passes, and forced a fumble. A key addition to this unit is Arkansas-Pine Bluff transfer Monroe Beard, who collected 4.5 sacks and recovered three fumbles.

In the secondary. Bryce Phillips hopes to have another strong season after a solid debut last year. He finished 2022 with 35 tackles and also broke up 10 pass attempts. On the other side, Boogie Trotter showed a knack for being around the ball, notching three pass breakups, one fumble recovery, and a stop behind the line. Among the safeties, the most experienced is Josh Green, who brought down 56 ball carriers last year and also picked off three passes.

Tennesse State Special Teams: New Concerns

James Lowery is expected to handle kickoffs again, while true freshman Ahmed Mohamed could find himself taking over for Kaleb Mosley. Mohamed also has some punting experience, though Kobie Stillwell may handle those duties after five attempts last season. On the return units, Marcellious Lockett is the top returning option on kickoffs, while Trotter has experience with punts.

The Last Time Notre Dame Played Tennessee State

Another first-time meeting for the Irish, with this getting added to the schedule only last year. Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman was reluctant to have a team bye so early in the season, which led to the historic invitation to the Tigers. Like many games of this sort, the end result is likely a Notre Dame rout. However, Tennessee State will reportedly walk away with a nice $1 million payday for its afternoon of misery.

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