Monday night wasn’t a whole lot of fun for Notre Dame football fans as we watched Michigan, the Irish’s arch-nemesis, convincingly win their program’s first outright championship in 75 years while currently being investigated by the NCAA for multiple alleged violations. Meanwhile, it’s been 35 years and counting since the Irish last won a title. Nope, not fun at all. While nothing will change the outcome of the year’s championship for Notre Dame fans, things look much better for the program now than they did as recently as two months ago after an impressive run by Marcus Freeman and his staff.
Let’s run through all that’s gone well for the Irish since the season ended that could have Irish eyes smiling more in 2024 than they did in 2023.
Weathered early wave of portal exits at receiver
The first week of December wasn’t kind to the Irish. Marcus Freeman reversed course on retaining all assistants and fired Chansi Stuckey just days after announcing all assistants would be back if he had his way. Freeman then saw four Notre Dame wide receivers – Tobias Merriweather, Chris Tyree, Braylon James, and Rico Flores – all enter the portal.
Notre Dame’s thin wide receiver rook was suddenly decimated. However, Freeman and staff went to work fast by adding Florida International transfer Kris Mitchell and Clemson transfer Beaux Collins in early December. The duo gives Notre Dame a potential starting boundary and field receiver with skillsets the group lacked in 2023.
Freeman did not stop with just Mitchel and Collins, though. On Tuesday, Notre Dame picked up another receiver transfer when Jayden Harrison, an All-American returnman, committed to Notre Dame.
Considering the state of the position at the start of December, Freeman and the staff did a great job rebuilding for the short term while simultaneously signing a trio of talented receivers in Cam Williams, Logan Saldate, and Micah Gilbert for the long term.
Bolstered staff with Mike Brown at WR Coach
Mitchell and Collins weren’t the only additions at wide receiver for the Irish last month. Marcus Freeman acted quickly to replace Stuckey with Wisconsin WR coach Mike Brown. Freeman coached with Brown at Cincinnati under Luke Fickell, who Brown followed to Wisconsin. Brown developed multiple NFL receivers while at Cincinnati, including Alex Pierce, who tormented Notre Dame in 2021 with a career-high 144 yards in the Bearcasts upset of the Irish.
Brown is familiar with quarterback coach Gino Guidugli from their time together in Cincinnati and is seen as one of the up-and-coming receiver coaches in the country.
Added a potentially elite quarterback
Much like a year ago with Sam Hartman, Notre Dame was linked to Duke quarterback Riley Leonard even before he entered the portal this year. Once he entered the portal, it felt like a matter of when not if for him to land with the Irish. Still, it took a little longer than most of us would have liked, but by the end of the month, the Irish had their quarterback for 2024.
Unlike Hartman, Leonard is less of a finished project but has potentially much more upside. That said, because he needs more development, there is still the chance that Leonard also has a lower floor than what Hartman brought to South Bend a year ago. A year ago, pundits pegged Leonard as a potential first-round draft pick in 2024. Injuries, however, derailed his season.
If Leonard stays healthy and takes the leap forward many predicted he would take this year, Notre Dame could have a star quarterback on its hands. Given what Freeman and co had to work within the quarterback room for 2024, adding Leonard was a huge get for the staff.
Lucked out with the departure of Gerad Parker and the addition of Mike Denbrock
The most surprising bit of news out of December was the sudden departure of offensive coordinator Gerad Parker for the head coaching gig at Troy. Parker was much maligned this year as his offenses annihilated weak defenses and went into their shell against tougher competition. Parker was expected to return in 2024, however, much to the chagrin of the Notre Dame fanbase.
Parker’s departure for Troy opened the door for Freeman to lure another old friend from Cincinnati, Mike Denbrock, back to Notre Dame. Denbrock just engineered the nation’s top-rated offense that produced the Heisman trophy winner down in Baton Rouge for Brian Kelly.
Notre Dame’s offense put up some deceptive numbers in 2023 thanks to feasting on weak defenses. Any defense with a pulse this year suffocated the Irish offense. The upgrade that Notre Dame had at OC might be the biggest development in raising expectations for 2024 and beyond. This can’t be overstated enough.
Got several key defenders back for 2024
In the age of the portal and early departures, Notre Dame secured the return of several key defenders for 2024. LB Jack Kiser, DL Howard Cross, DL Rylie Mills, DE Jordan Botelho, and S Xavier Watts all announced their returns for next year last month. Watts, the Nagurski Award winner, was a particularly huge win for Freeman and the staff, but all of them were big for the sake of the 2024 defense.
With the group Notre Dame has returning, there is at least one established, high-level starter at each level returning. And that doesn’t take into account the return of established players who didn’t have the option of leaving for the NFL, like Benjamin Morrison.
Mills and Cross give Notre Dame one of the most experienced defensive interiors in all of college football for 2024. Kiser will likely move over to WILL to open the door for Jaylen Sneed at ROVER. Watts looks to build on his award-winning 2023 and pairs with Morrison for what should be another elite Irish secondary.
Added a few key defenders from the portal
While the Irish got good news from their returning players, they supplemented those returns by adding key pieces through the portal. RJ Oben from Duke should step right into the Javontae Jean-Baptiste role. If Oben is as successful as JJB was for the Irish, Freeman and Al Golden will be thrilled.
Notre Dame replaced nickel Thoms Harper, a transfer from Oklahoma State a year ago, with Arizona State transfer Jordan Clark. The son of former NFL defensive back Ryan Clark should step right into that Harper role and provide little if any, dropoff.
Earlier this week Notre Dame added another transfer with starting potential when Northwestern defensive back Rod Heard II committed to the Irish. Heard played a lot of corner and nickel for the Wildcats, but figures to be in the mix at safety where he could start next to Xavier Watts.
Notre Dame didn’t need to land any top-tier starters via the portal, but they did a great job of filling gaps – precisely what you should do – via the portal again this year.
Demolished Oregon State in the Sun Bowl
With all of the off-the-field drama in December and January these days, it’s easy to forget about the bowl games. And, because of all the roster defections in December across the country, many people do forget about them. Even NY6 bowls are not immune to opt-outs, making the teams in non-playoff games almost unrecognizable from the ones we saw during the regular season.
Notre Dame wasn’t immune to this either. Because of opt-outs and transfers, the Irish were down more than 20 players for the Sun Bowl who were on the roster for the season finale at Stanford. Oregon State had it worse – much worse – and the Irish made them pay. Notre Dame dominated Oregon State in every facet of the game for a 40-8 beating, giving the Irish ten wins on the season.
While it would be easy to argue that just ten wins was a disappointment this year, given how everything broke schedule-wise, winning ten games every year is still important for the culture of the program.
Notre Dame also got a good look at many young players they’ll be counting on in 2024. Running backs Jadarisn Price and Jeremiyah Love, offensive linemen Charles Jagusah and Ashton Craig, corners Jaden Mickey and Christan Gray, safety Adon Shuler, and tight ends Cooper Flanagan and Eli Raridon are all young players who didn’t play a ton during the regular season that got solid work in the Sun Bowl.
Notre Dame fans obviously would love to be celebrating a national championship victory right now instead of off-season wins, but everything that’s happened over the last six weeks for Notre Dame has them in better position to end their own championship drought than perhaps they’ve been in some time.