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Leftovers & Links: On Notre Dame’s poor drafts, undrafted free agents and QB transfers

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Marcus Freeman gets mic'd up during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Game to talk about what he's seeing from Sam Hartman and what he has learned through a year on the job.

Welcome to the offseason. No, really. In an era with a seemingly non-stop transfer market, college football now enters as much of an offseason as it ever enjoys. Notre Dame may pull in a transfer or two in the coming weeks — safety jumps to mind after Irish head coach Marcus Freeman identified it specifically before spring practices when 2023 signee Brandyn Hillman was released from his National Letter of Intent and Notre Dame currently expects to have just five safeties on its roster in August — but otherwise, three months of quiet await.

Relative quiet, because there is no true offseason in college football. Eventually, the Pac-12 will sign a television deal, and that will spark a litany of think pieces about how it affects conferences’ alignment moving forward, not to mention Irish independence and talks about a contract extension with NBC. Bookmakers will begin populating season win totals any week now and, soon after that, genuine early lines for next fall’s biggest games. Notre Dame typically pulls in its next rash of recruits in late June and early July.

And then the preseason will have arrived. What offseason?

The last few moments of the 2022-23 football season obviously featured the NFL draft and the transfer portal. The news is known, but some items should be remembered with them.

Notre Dame’s roster the last couple seasons clearly lacked the needed talent to compete for a national championship. Suggesting that after the Irish lost to Ohio State to open the 2022 season was met with incredulity and criticism, but the NFL draft provided some empirical data. In the last two years, Notre Dame has had a total of five players drafted.

No manipulation of that fact can cut into the broader issue. Yes, safety Kyle Hamilton was a first-round pick, but he was the only first-round pick on the roster these last few years. Perhaps left tackle Joe Alt is a first-round pick in 2024, as every mock draft already released suggests, but he was clearly not at that level in 2022. Tight end Michael Mayer and defensive end Isaiah Foskey may have been underrated as second-rounders, but that verb tense is doing a good amount of work and, again, they were the extent.

A pair of late-rounders — running back Kyren Williams in last year’s fifth round and offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson in this year’s sixth — are not enough to buoy a roster.

As Irish Sports Daily’s Jamie Uyeyama pointed out Thursday, Georgia had 25 players drafted in the last two years. Eight of those were first-rounders. Coincidentally, the Bulldogs won the last two national titles. Wait, that’s not a coincidence.

Obviously, Georgia is an outlier, but realize Alabama produced five first-round picks in the last two years, as did Ohio State. Michigan and Iowa had three each. You read that right, Iowa. Eight other schools added two first-round picks across the last two years, including Utah, Pittsburgh and Boston College.

Notre Dame’s roster as a whole the last two years was more talented than Iowa’s, Pittsburgh’s and Boston College’s, but it lacked their top-end talent. Yet those are not the teams the Irish are chasing; those are Alabama, Ohio State and Michigan. (Everyone is chasing Georgia until further notice.)

The onus for that discrepancy can fall at the feet of Brian Kelly, Clark Lea, Tommy Rees and/or the Notre Dame administration. Given the players in question were all rostered before Marcus Freeman arrived on campus, very little of it can be put on him.

Looking ahead a year, the Irish should produce more than five draft picks in just the 2024 draft. Alt will lead the way, barring injury, and it would not be shocking to see junior right tackle Blake Fisher join him in the first or second round. Given the shelf life on running backs, junior Audric Estimé likely will go pro if the 2023 season features him as much as expected. Senior receiver Chris Tyree’s speed alone could get him drafted. Quarterback Sam Hartman may have heard his name called last weekend. That’s five on offense without even reaching to fifth-year center Zeke Correll (consider this scribe skeptical) or a surprising receiver leap.

Defensively, fifth-year cornerback Cam Hart has looked like an NFL cornerback when he has enjoyed health. Seven players in the front seven may be competing for chances to impress the NFL. Again, though, every single name mentioned was rostered before Freeman’s arrival and his development with the linebackers could do only so much in NFL eyes.

Furthermore, only the pair of tackles look like possible first-rounders. Until Notre Dame can produce three of those each season, it will continue to lack the needed top-end talent to compete for a national championship.

In these regards, the draft serves as a retrospective evaluation of the talent on the roster just as recruiting rankings serve as a preview. When it comes to the individual players, though, it can be better to go undrafted.

Take safety Brandon Joseph, for example. If he had been selected halfway through the seventh round, he would have signed a four-year contract with about $100,000 guaranteed and he would have had no choice on where he went. Instead, he signed with the Detroit Lions, contract terms not yet known, where some cornerback and/or nickel back opportunities may exist.

Joseph’s cost for that choice is solely in the guaranteed dollars. Last year, Detroit signed Miami (Ohio) defensive back Cedric Boswell as an undrafted free agent, giving him $30,000 guaranteed and a three-year contract. If Boswell had caught on with the Lions, his average salary would have been within $100,000 of a mid-seventh-round pick while also reaching free agency (and a bigger paycheck) a year earlier.

For many players — like Joseph with the Lions, kicker Blake Grupe to the New Orleans Saints, defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola to the Jacksonville Jaguars, defensive lineman Chris Smith to the Lions, defensive end Justin Ademilola to the Green Bay Packers, offensive lineman Josh Lugg to the Chicago Bears, linebacker and special teams ace Bo Bauer to the Seattle Seahawks — there was reason to prefer going undrafted.

There may have also been similar reasoning for Mayer to prefer falling out of the first round.

One thing the draft was lacking was an abundance of quarterbacks. Hartman was one of many that would have likely been drafted but instead opted for another year of college, a trend occurring in part because of an added year of eligibility via the pandemic and in part because of NIL earnings. An article from The Athletic before the draft laid out two examples of Power Five quarterbacks: One transferred to a new program expecting to earn $1 million; another turned down such earnings for a preference of the best football situation awaiting him, still expecting to earn around $200,000.

Looking through transfers from the winter, only seven names logically fit those possibilities, Hartman being one of them. That is not to say the Wake Forest transfer is one of those transfers described, but to say he may be, and to say that is the logic to the veterans spurning the draft.

RELATED READING: How transfer, NIL rules thinned out NFL draft QB class: ‘It’s an anemic quarterback class’

The others: Spencer Sanders from Oklahoma State to Mississippi, Walker Howard from LSU to Mississippi, Devin Leary from North Carolina State to Kentucky, Hudson Card from Texas to Purdue, Brennan Armstrong from Virginia to North Carolina State and Graham Mertz from Wisconsin to Florida.

Of course, the other most notable quarterback transfer to Notre Dame fans was Tyler Buchner heading to Alabama. A simple stat to help explain that move that may have surprised some Irish fans: Alabama’s four scholarship quarterbacks combined for four interceptions and just two touchdowns in the Tide spring game. The two most notable, Ty Simpson and Jalen Milroe, completed 31 of 63 passes for 400 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions, a pedestrian 6.3 yards per attempt.

RELATED READING: What Tyler Buchner transfer means for Alabama QB battle

INSIDE THE IRISH
Sam Hartman’s poise and dominance, Notre Dame’s defensive line shine in Blue-Gold GameLB Prince Kollie enters transfer portal, costing the Irish current depth and a future playmakerRB Logan Diggs enters transfer portal, costing Irish strong and proven rushing duoNotre Dame adds speedy receiver commit from Chansi Stuckey’s hometown in GeorgiaBryant Young’s son, four-star defensive end Bryce Young commits to Notre DameThree-star safety Kennedy Urlacher commits to Notre Dame, third notable last name to join Irish classFour-star receiver Micah Gilbert commits to Notre Dame, fifth four-star receiver to commit to Chansi Stuckey in two years

OUTSIDE READING
Main Building’s Golden Dome to be regilded
Student committee unveils ‘The Shirt’ 2023 to crowd on campus
Way-Too-Early 2024 NFL Mock Draft: Colts grab Joe AltFormer Notre Dame athlete Lorenzo Styles Jr. commits to Ohio StateHow NBC Sports is growing its NIL business“Love is Blind” streaming fiasco shows Netflix may not be ready for live sportsNCAA to allow unlimited official visits: ‘Stupid.’ ‘Unbelievable.’ ‘Dumb.’

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