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And In That Corner ... A deep dive into former Wake Forest, new Notre Dame QB Sam Hartman

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 12 North Carolina at Wake Forest

WINSTON-SALEM, NC - NOVEMBER 12: Sam Hartman (10) of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons passes the ball during a football game between the Wake Forest Demon Deacons and the North Carolina Tar Heels on Nov 12, 2022 at Truist Field in Winston-Salem, NC. (Photo by David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Sam Hartman will not just be another transfer quarterback at Notre Dame. Though he was the first of them, Jack Coan was effectively just another transfer quarterback for the Irish. He arrived in South Bend after missing a season at Wisconsin to injury, nominally being beaten out by a young quarterback who himself would never quite pan out.

Coan needed to transfer, and he arrived to a Notre Dame roster lacking an established starter. Those circumstances, more than anything about Coan himself, made the former Badger a typical transfer.

Hartman is a multi-time All-ACC quarterback with both school and conference records abound. Any need to transfer came from within, not from Wake Forest. And he joins an Irish quarterback room with a three-game starter in Tyler Buchner, a number deflated by, yet bookending, a shoulder injury.

Nonetheless, Hartman will be Notre Dame’s starter in Dublin at the end of August. To get a better idea of who the Irish have gotten at the sport’s most important position, let’s dial up the Wake Forest beat writer who has been dialed into every moment of Hartman’s career, Conor O’Neill of Deacons Illustrated.

DF: Appreciate this, Conor. I know it’s the time of year when helping out a Notre Dame space is low on your priority list, especially given your basketball responsibilities in the state of North Carolina. That isn’t as much of a concern around here. The next few months may be entirely focused on Hartman and the ceiling he raises. Then again, that has kind of been the Wake Forest ethos the last few seasons. Let’s start broad with that: How much of the Deacons’ 19-8 record the last two seasons traces to the former three-star recruit from North Carolina?

CO: Well, I am answering these as Notre Dame wraps up a basketball game against Georgia Tech. I pride myself on objectivity … but as I think Mike Brey is one of the truly great guys in college basketball, I find myself hoping he gets things turned around.

But, alas (hey, a win!).

To jump in, Wake Forest isn’t the program that it is without Sam Hartman. He was a three-year captain, which is worth noting because Dave Clawson isn’t the type of coach to make his quarterback a captain by default. Hartman is leaving with his name etched atop Wake’s record book in yards, touchdowns and a plethora of other passing and general offense categories.

In those 19 wins, though, I find myself thinking about how many were high-scoring games in which Wake’s offense had little room for error. By the eye test, I’ve got six wins (two this season, four in 2021) that are losses if not for Hartman’s conduction of Wake’s offense.

RELATED READING: QB Sam Hartman transfers to Notre Dame, giving Irish their most experienced passer in more than a decade

Some of that is intangible, of course. Hartman exudes confidence on the field. On occasion, that might even be costly. What impression did you get from Hartman’s teammates of him in the huddle, in practice, in the locker room?

If you find a Wake Forest player who’s going to speak ill of Hartman, on or off the record, I’d be surprised. It’s been explained to me that he was universally respected in Wake’s locker room by the end of this season. It’s been that way for at least two seasons.

In discussing Hartman, Clawson has spoken with affinity and almost admiration of how Hartman reassessed the type of leader he was after the 2020 season. That was such a mess of a season, with a calamity of a Duke’s Mayo Bowl (four second-half interceptions), that Hartman reevaluated himself as a leader after that season.

He came back in 2021 with a better voice and better understanding of how to reach his teammates on a personal level. Hartman talked to us about maturing and learning that, as a leader, he could take a certain tone with certain players but would have to change that tone for others.

The brashness and cockiness was there as a freshman — smack-talking Boston College defensive end Zach Allen, a third-round pick a few months later, in his third game has always stood out — but that mostly dissipated in his first two seasons.

On the field, Hartman is not as accurate as I roughly assumed, and it is not as if I did not watch most Wake Forest games in the Notre Dame press box before kickoff the last two seasons. (That is not a joke. It became well-known in that box that I would be glad if the Deacons’ game was on in front of my seat, and we both know they had plenty of noon kicks.)

At only 60.22 percent across the last three seasons, Hartman is borderline average in this regard, if not worse. Of qualifying passers, that percentage would have ranked No. 75 in the country, out of 100, in 2022.

How much of that can be chalked up to Wake Forest’s offense / general game state, needing to keep up at all costs with opponents thanks to a not-always-stingy defense?

Some of it is attributable to the offense and general game state.

As noted, Wake Forest hasn’t blown out too many teams. So it’s not like Hartman has logged a bunch of snaps where he’s throwing check-downs to convert third-and-shorts and keep possession when the Deacons are up three scores in the second half.

Some of it’s attributable to some erratic tendencies, though.

Hartman is a rhythm passer. When he’s on the money, you get stretches like the third quarter against Clemson this past season, when it felt like any play that didn’t involve the ball coming out of his right hand was a reprieve for Clemson’s defense. But there’s a yin to the yang, and when Hartman isn’t in rhythm, he’ll miss some throws.

Same question, but about Hartman’s 26 interceptions the last two seasons. He threw one pick for every 36 pass attempts, so it was not actually that bothersome a frequency, but still more than Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees will be happy with. Feel free to use this answer to delve into the three games of biggest note; I believe they are Wisconsin, Pittsburgh and Louisville.

That’s the thing: Some of Wake’s biggest games have seen Hartman have some of his biggest failures.

Clawson was adamant that the Louisville catastrophe was unlike the others. I’m not here to say he’s full of it; four of those six third-quarter turnovers, blame can be firmly placed on somebody not named Hartman. Each of those six turnovers ultimately wind up on Hartman’s ledger, though.

As a freshman, it seemed like Hartman always had 2-3 plays each game when he tried to do too much and it exacerbated mistakes. Rushes with nowhere to go became 3-yard losses, sacks became sack-fumbles, etc.

It’s seemed like all of those mistakes get bundled into one or two games a season for the past three years.

Those assuredly are not the reasons Hartman transferred. Wake Forest would have gladly welcomed him back, right? In your mind, what is the reasoning for this move?

I mean … I guess Wake Forest would’ve welcomed him back. It honestly feels like the decision was never in their hands because a few days after the 2021 season ended, Hartman started posting on social media about “one more year.” That led to confirming with him in the spring that even though he had two more seasons of eligibility, this was going to be his last season.

We just all thought it’d be in pursuit of the NFL.

I think things changed in the last month or 45 days of the season. If Hartman is an NFL prospect, he’s a Day 3 or priority free agent at best. The NIL figure has been bandied about in Wake’s corners and I’m at the point where I’ll only believe a dollar figure if it comes from someone with the surname Hartman or someone who’s cutting a check. I do think it’s somewhere along the lines of what he’d make if he were on a practice squad or such.

And hey, if your NFL future is uncertain and you’ve got a chance to make guaranteed money at age 24, do it.

Wake Forest — Clawson in particular — hates the perception that its offense is a hindrance to NFL dreams. Whether or not the spread-option/slow-mesh/RPO does or doesn’t prepare Wake’s players for the NFL almost feels irrelevant; it’s the perception that winds up mattering, planting doubt in players’ and families’ minds.

So I think part of the motivation here is to find more of a pro-style system, which — correct me if I’m wrong — he’ll have with Rees.

DF: And I ask this with an eye toward late October next year when the Deacons visit South Bend: How do those in Winston-Salem feel about this move?

It’s a bit mixed, honestly.

There’s a pretty wide understanding that he’s doing what’s best for his future, and only the truly unhinged seem to take issue with that.

He’s leaving Wake Forest with a degree and gave the program five years. It’s not like he’s a developmental marvel who’s bolting at the first opportunity to trade up; if that was the case, he’d have left after last season.

There’s also a degree of being ready to move on. Clawson has basically had three starting quarterbacks at Wake Forest — four if you include Kendall Hinton’s few games before his position change — and each of them was thrown into the fire. That’s not going to be the case with Mitch Griffis, who has been the heir apparent since last spring. As a fourth-year player this season, he’ll have more seasons in the program than John Wolford, Jamie Newman and Hartman had under their collective belts combined when they took over as starters.

Wake Forest got a taste of Griffis in the opener this year while Hartman recovered from the blood clot. There’s an eagerness to see more, while also being appreciative of Hartman’s five seasons.

It helps that since last spring, Deacons fans have known this would be it. It also helped that Clawson planted a few seeds in the buildup to the Gasparilla Bowl about this option being out there for Hartman; because Clawson wasn’t blindsided, I think the fanbase was prepared.

The biggest problem Wake Forest fans have is that Hartman is going to a team on Wake’s schedule next season.

I mean … I get it. Oct. 28 is going to be awkward on a few levels. It’d be worse if the game was in Winston-Salem. But it’s not like Hartman is seeking a revenge game (at least, as far as I know). Notre Dame feels like the best fit of any team that was in the market to add a quarterback this cycle.

DF: I miss anything in a quick but vaguely-comprehensive Hartman education?

Well, we’ve covered Hartman’s *college* career. He lived an entire life before he even got to Wake Forest — his last season of high school football was documented by the Netflix show “QB1.”

I’ll leave you with this, a story I always wanted to work into a feature I never got the chance to write:

Hartman’s last game of his freshman season was a loss to Syracuse (the year it won 10 games, 2018), and it dropped Wake Forest to 4-5. Things looked bleak with news that Hartman, who played well against the Orange, broke a bone in his foot and would miss the rest of the season. It seemed grimmer with a short week and a trip to N.C. State for a Thursday night game on tap.

Wake Forest turned over the reins to Jamie Newman, who stepped in and led a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter that night in Raleigh. I’ll try to thread a needle here … Newman did a lot of things that night that Hartman couldn’t do as a 175-pound freshman. It culminated in the game-winning touchdown pass with 30-some seconds left.

It’s about 2-2½ hours of a drive from Raleigh to Winston-Salem, so I’d estimate Wake’s busses rolled onto campus around 2:30-3 a.m.

Sam Hartman was waiting when they returned to congratulate his teammates.

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