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Things To Learn: The legacy of Notre Dame’s senior class will not be decided vs Boston College, but in years to come

Notre Dame has not lost in November since 2017. It has not lost in the regular season to an ACC opponent since 2016. The September loss to Marshall and the October defeat to Stanford prohibit outright overlooking this weekend’s meeting with Boston College (3-7), but as the Eagles work their way through a flu wave and piecemeal together their remaining offensive linemen in front of their backup quarterback, the biggest lessons from this weekend’s Senior Day may not be known for years to come.

No. 18 Notre Dame (7-3) will recognize 25 seniors before kickoff Saturday (2:30 ET; NBC), and while a couple of them may end up back in South Bend next season, the biggest names are heading to the NFL or their post-football lives. They are also the names that spoke loudest when the Irish needed a new head coach some 50 weeks ago.

Yes, Marcus Freeman has led Notre Dame for only 50 weeks at this point. Yes, it has felt like much longer than that, the natural confusing flow of time in college football.

After Brian Kelly threw the entire Irish football program into disarray fewer than 48 hours after the 2021 regular season ended, Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick turned to these Irish seniors for input on the next head coach. They spoke up, and they then walked into Freeman’s introductory press conference right behind his family.

Jarrett Patterson spurned a possible third- or fourth-round NFL draft selection to not only return to South Bend but also to change positions to help the team and only potentially help his draft stock.

“I’m forever in debt to Jarrett Patterson,” Freeman said Thursday. “He’s a great captain and a great leader for our program.”

Patterson is in direct competition with fifth-year linebacker Bo Bauer and sixth-year receiver Avery Davis, all captains — Patterson and Davis two-time captains, in fact — to be the last senior recognized before kickoff on Saturday. The other thing all three have in common is season-long injuries. An August ACL tear ended Davis’ career and an October knee injury halted Bauer’s march to the Notre Dame record for career games. Patterson has managed to play through his injury, most notably a foot sprain in August sidelining him for the first game this year and still hampering him now. Earlier this season, he joked his shoes might be the most expensive around Notre Dame, with the extensive support build into them for his foot.

“I would say [Patterson] is the ultimate ironman,” Freeman said. “Just a guy that has battled injuries, multiple injuries, even before I got here. He has continued to sacrifice his body. He has continued to work and plays the game at such a high level.

“To this day, he’s not 100 percent. He’s been injured all season. He just goes out there and practices and plays. He could easily be a guy that says I’m not going to play and wait until the NFL and save my body.”

Davis, Bauer and Patterson are the most obvious embodiments of Freeman’s debut campaign. They advocated for his hiring to continue the culture in the Irish locker room, and then their injuries gradually dampened on-field expectations. Without Davis, Notre Dame’s receiver two-deep was forced to include every name on the scholarship roster. Bauer may not have stopped the Irish from their dud against Stanford, but losing the most experienced player on the roster that week did not help the cause.

And Patterson’s public display of frustration after the week two loss to Marshall both summed up Notre Dame’s season to that date and emphasized how hard he worked to play through injury in the first place.

“The frustration he showed after Marshall is what is expected by any competitor that loses a game you don’t feel like you should lose,” Freeman said. “He’s a great leader. He was emotional after a tough loss, but he’s also a guy that can raise the play of others and raise the mentality of others.”

Thus, Davis, Bauer and Patterson will be the names best remembered from this season should Freeman find long-term success in his first head coaching job.

Again, they were part of the leadership group that so loudly and publicly clamored for Freeman’s hiring. And they have now given the most, in a very literal physical way, this season.

There have been others, of course. Josh Lugg returned for a sixth season because he felt it was his duty to mentor Notre Dame’s younger offensive linemen. Braden Lenzy has responded to this week’s praise for his outrageous catch last week by smiling as he points out how much he has enjoyed this entire season, his blocking role, recognizing the perks of attending such a prestigious university. Jayson Ademilola has made it a habit to not only cover his body in “FTB” — standing for “For the brotherhood” — on game day but also to seek out Freeman in a game’s biggest moments and insist, he’s got this.

When BYU was threatening to complete its second-half surge in Las Vegas, it was Ademilola and senior defensive end Nana Osafo-Mensah who stopped a fourth-and-one rush for no gain.

“He’s the guy that when things are tough, he always comes and grabs me, ‘Coach, I got you,’” Freeman said after that 28-20 win. “He did it last year, he does it this year, and at the biggest moments, he shows up.

“You can’t say enough about a guy like that, that you know in the biggest moments you can depend on. He’s going to make sure he makes a play.”

Saturday’s likely win aside, these are the names that Freeman’s tenure will be built on. None of the names mentioned should return in 2023 — Lenzy and Patterson could, but it would be a surprise; Osafo-Mensah was mentioned only to describe the play, he should be back — but their impact will be felt more than most senior classes.

This was the class that stood up after the winningest coach in Notre Dame history left town after a hastily scheduled 7 a.m. meeting. They asked for a voice in choosing his replacement, and they responded to a three-loss streak to start Freeman’s tenure with seven wins in eight weeks, including an emphatic upset of then-No. 4 Clemson.

Bauer provided the voiceover for the social-media hype video this week, and it fittingly centers in on senior after senior after senior.

“We chose Notre Dame,” Bauer said. “We chose to do the work. We chose to grow. We chose hard. Over and over and over. Because it’s the greatest feeling in the world.

“We chose to love. We chose to trust. We chose this place. We chose this family. We chose Notre Dame.”

And they chose Freeman. However his tenure pans out, it will come back to that choice made by these seniors in the most chaotic week of their football lives.

For a profile of every single senior on the roster, flip through today’s Observer.

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