Notre Dame-Tennessee State final thoughts: Skill player depth and an Irish heat check ahead

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Nine thoughts on Notre Dame’s hot start to the season, which is due for a temperature check this weekend.

1. I know Notre Dame is good. I don’t know how good. It’s not clear whether Marcus Freeman knows, either, and it may not be until about 3:30 p.m. on Saturday afternoon in Raleigh after facing NC State. The Irish looked nearly perfect against Navy, but there was plenty to pick apart from their performance in a 56-3 win against Tennessee State. Freeman talked about missed assignments, plural, on the first drive and the Navy “hangover.” There was a snap on which Notre Dame’s defense was missing an interior lineman and played with 10 men. There was a special teams turnover and another miscue on a big return. That kind of stuff turns the matchup with NC State into a migraine. It’s also the kid of stuff that’s within Notre Dame’s control to eliminate.

The Irish can be a 10-win team if they do.

2. We’re two games into the season, and it’s already hard to figure out how much praise is too much praise for Sam Hartman. He has led 12 offensive possessions this season. Eleven of those ended in touchdowns. Sure, Navy and Tennessee State are perhaps the two worst defenses he’ll face all season, but Hartman gives Notre Dame a chance against anybody. The Irish will need more than Hartman to beat everybody, but this quarterback puts everything on the table for Notre Dame.

3. Quietly, Javontae Jean-Baptiste is beginning to look like the defensive end Notre Dame needs.

On Tennessee State’s second play, he crashed inside with with force and speed, a combo Notre Dame doesn’t have in its other strong-side ends, at least not in one package, blowing up the play for a two-yard gain.

The knock on Jean-Baptiste coming out of Ohio State was more motor than talent, and during spring practice, he never offered a counter to that argument. Now it feels like he is. Notre Dame doesn’t need Jean-Baptiste to be Isaiah Foskey or Stephon Tuitt. But if he can apply this drive to his gifted frame, Notre Dame will have a surefire starter who can make a difference at defensive end.


How Marcus Freeman worked the sideline against Tennessee State

4. I’m not sure Notre Dame has a classic No. 1 receiver. Before the season, I thought Jayden Thomas would lead the team in receptions, yardage and touchdowns. I still think he’ll get the catches and yardage marks. But the offense is too diverse to feel strongly about touchdowns. Hartman has too many options and too much wherewithal to not take advantage of them.

There’s a couple of ways to look at this. Yes, Notre Dame might lack a No. 1. But Notre Dame also has about five No. 2 receivers in Thomas, Chris Tyree, Jaden Greathouse, Rico Flores and the mix of tight ends. Maybe Tobias Merriweather will join that group. Deion Colzie could. The point is Notre Dame’s third and fourth options are the quality of a typical No. 2 receiver. And the quarterback knows it, meaning there will be mismatches.

Or put another way: Does Thomas scare the No. 1 corner at most top programs? Probably not. But would Greathouse or Tyree scare that team’s third corner? Almost certainly. This is what depth can do. Your most impactful mismatch doesn’t need to be your best player.

5. Howard Cross doesn’t get enough appreciation, does he?

Ramon Henderson’s interception was a direct result of pressure from Cross, who beat two blockers to get in the face of Tennessee State’s quarterback. Cross doesn’t blow you away with speed or size. I’m not sure Notre Dame would recruit him again considering its current emphasis on length and height. But he’s a heck of a college football player.

6. Is Notre Dame’s offensive line elite? The image of offensive line coach Joe Rudolph barking into his headset on Saturday suggests it’s not, at least not yet.

It’s easy to dismiss Pat Coogan’s false start on fourth-and-short as a second-half mistake in a blowout. But the position didn’t look sharp from the start, with right tackle Blake Fisher seemingly out of sync. New guards Coogan and Spindler were more than adequate, but neither dominated the interior in the run game. And even All-American left tackle Joe Alt felt off, missing a couple of blocks against an opponent he should dominate.

Notre Dame’s offensive outburst felt like more a credit to quarterback play and elite running backs than the offensive line setting the table. The hunch here is the line will improve week-over-week and play well at NC State. But the position is a work in progress. That’s OK for now.

7. Notre Dame probably can’t keep five backs happy all season, but that’s not the point.

As former Notre Dame running backs coach Tony Alford once said, “This isn’t happy camp.”

It will be interesting to see how Deland McCullough divides reps moving forward, because the reliance on Audric Estime might be less than expected. Jeremiyah Love is a home run hitter. Jadarian Price continues to return from his Achilles tear, which makes what he’s doing even more remarkable. Estime is Estime. But the surprise of the group is Gi’Bran Payne, who leads the team with four third- or fourth-down conversions. He’s not built like a short-yardage back, but he operates effectively as one. With Devyn Ford in concussion protocol, Notre Dame is fine rolling with four backs.

We’d all like to see Love get more than 7.5 snaps per game, though, right?

8. Man, college football. Welcome back. Nice weekend for former Notre Dame defensive coordinators. Well, maybe not all of them.

9. I beg you, let’s get through this weekend before re-analyzing Notre Dame’s schedule. Going to Clemson will still be incredibly difficult. Duke will still be a trap game after Ohio State. One of the best parts of college football is not knowing what the heck is going to happen week after week. And we definitely still don’t with this schedule. Please refrain from using “College Football Playoff implications” in all stories for another two weeks. Thank you.

(Photo of Gi’Bran Payne: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

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