Notre Dame’s long addition of Duke transfer quarterback Riley Leonard finally became official on Tuesday. From the onset of the portal opening, Notre Dame zeroed in on Leonard and ultimately got their guy. Will it work out better for the Irish than it did with Sam Hartman in 2023, or will there be similar challenges to the ones the offenses faced this season? Here are my thoughts on the addition.
Notre Dame Needed a Transfer QB
Some fans weren’t happy when Marcus Freeman said a few weeks back that Notre Dame would add a fourth quarterback to the roster for 2024, but it was the right move. I have said on the pod several times that Notre Dame needs to trust their evaluations and develop a quarterback at some point, but one final dip into the portal seemed almost necessary this year.
I like Steve Angeli’s upside a lot, and we’ll see what he has to offer in the bowl game a little (although no one should be quick to judge, given all the roster attrition). At the same time, going into the 2024 season with Angeli, Kenny Minchey, and CJ Carr could have been a recipe for disaster, given the lack of experience.
Another aspect that shouldn’t be overlooked is that Angeli was Tommy Rees’s top target in the 2022 cycle before Freeman took over as head coach, and Gerad Parker and Gino Guidugli were in charge of the passing game.
Higher Upside than Sam Hartman
When Notre Dame landed Sam Hartman last year, they got more of a “finished product,” even if Hartman still had to learn to take snaps from under center and to ditch the slow mesh. His addition was much more of a plug-and-play type addition. Leonard isn’t that. He has just scratched the surface of his ability at Duke, whereas Hartman was close to maxing out his on the college level.
From a pure athlete and tools standpoint, Leonard brings more to the table. That said, there is no comparison in production and experience – Hartman had far more of both coming to Notre Dame a year ago than Leonard did this year.
Gino Guidugli will have a much different coaching job to do with Leonard than he did with Hartman. With Hartman, it was more about helping Hartman adapt to a more “pro-style” offense than the unique system that Wake Forest runs. Guidugli will have to do more traditional development with Leonard to tap into his raw potential.
Possibly a Better Fit for Freeman’s Ideal Offensive Identity
Integrating Hartman into the Irish offense proved to be more of a challenge than most anticipated it would be for Notre Dame. Most felt he would be that plug-and-play transfer, but there were some clear growing pains along the way.
Designed quarterback runs were almost nonexistent for Notre Dame in 2023. The vast majority of Harmtan’s limited runs were on scrambles. That will not be the case with Leonard, who is a very gifted runner who is capable of changing a game with his legs in addition to his arm.
Marcus Freeman has not made it a secret that he wants Notre Dame to have an offensive identity centered around the offensive line and a strong rushing attack. Hartman came from a high-flying offense that was pass-heavy.
Riley Leonard is built more like Ian Book with his ability to be dangerous as a runner, which should make the Notre Dame rushing attack even more dangerous in 2024 than it was this year. Opposing defenses did not have to respect the quarterback keeping the ball on the limited RPOs the Irish ran. Again, with Leonard, that will not be the case.
If everything works as planned, though, Notre Dame has just added a quarterback with all the tools necessary to hear his name called on the first night of the 2025 NFL Draft. If that happens, the Irish will have likely made a run to the playoffs behind an offense closer to what we saw in 2018-2020 with Ian Book versus what we saw this past fall.
Not Without Risk
All that said, adding Leonard is not without risk. Injuries limited him to just seven games in 2023, and he is far from a finished product. In 2022, he threw 20 touchdowns and 2,967 yards on 391 attempts. For comparison’s sake, Jack Coan threw 17 touchdowns and 2,727 yards on 339 attempts in 2020 for Wisconsin before transferring to Notre Dame.
This season, Leonard threw just three touchdowns on the season, including none after the injury he suffered at the end of the Notre Dame game. He wasn’t asked to do too much in the passing game over Duke’s 4-0 start before their loss to the Irish, but that again speaks to the development that is still needed.
Many expected Leonard to make “the leap” this year after his breakout 2022 season, but the injuries derailed that. While that leap may happen in 2024, there is always the risk that it won’t happen.
That said, the potential reward far outweighs the risk, which is why Leonard was so coveted on the transfer market. Given what expectations were for Hartman a year ago, though, and where things netted out, it wouldn’t be wise just to assume that Notre Dame is getting the quarterback many pundits thought could play his way into first-round consideration as early as this coming fall just a few months back.
Receiver Additions will Help
Aside from the staff’s challenges assimilating a quarterback with Hartman’s pedigree into the offense the Irish want to run, the other major hurdle was the receiver position. Notre Dame came into the season with questions at the position and ended the year with even more questions following the departure of receivers coach Chansi Stuckey and four wide receivers to the transfer portal. So far this month, however, Notre Dame added Kris Mitchell and Beaux Collins to their receiver room while still being in the market for additional help at the position.
Those additions will help Leonard in comparison to the situation that Hartman had to deal with this fall. Just like the risk with adding a raw talent like Leonard, there is risk in adding so many transfer receivers. Still, the skillsets the Irish have targeted complement the remaining talent at the position very well instead of duplicating it.
Quarterback Room Moving Forward
Watching what happens with the quarterback position at Notre Dame in the short term will be fascinating. The general consensus is that Notre Dame feels great about its long-term future at the position with the incoming talent and that they won’t have to look to the portal for a starter again in the near future. In the age of the transfer portal, though, it shouldn’t be assumed that Notre Dame keeps all four quarterbacks on the roster that will be there once Leonard officially enrolls.
Angeli will get his opportunity to show what he can do in the bowl game, but after that, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Notre Dame lost a quarterback in the post-spring portal window. How the competition shakes out behind Leonard – who will still have to earn the starting spot, but no one thinks he won’t – could facilitate any other potential departures.
Hopefully, this is the last time Notre Dame has to look to the portal for their likely starter for a while. It’s not necessarily bad to have a transfer quarterback in this day and age – three of the four Heisman finalists were transfer quarterbacks – but it would also be nice to see one of Notre Dame’s quarterback evaluations work out and produce a star given the program’s inability to develop star quarterbacks over the years.