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Things We Learned: Sam Hartman’s poise and dominance, Notre Dame’s defensive line shine in Blue-Gold Game

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Sam Hartman put his best foot forward in Notre Dame's quarterback competition by dominating the spring game, leading the Gold to a 24-0 victory over the Blue.

As has been the case already a few times this spring and will continue to be through the 2023 season, Marcus Freeman was asked to compare his second year to his first year as Notre Dame’s head coach after Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. He mostly spoke in broad strokes and avoided taking it as a question specific to himself, and right there he revealed a distinct change in the last 16 months.

“I think we’re at a better place,” he said. “I am, personally, as a head coach.”

Otherwise, he answered with coach-speak, something he largely avoided in the first months of his tenure leading the Irish. Coach-speak — let’s plainly define it for once: Generic phrases and/or broad answers that would sound appropriate coming out of the mouths of 115 coaches across the country — is learned with time and often error, unique answers too harshly criticized in the era of constant news cycles and that experience driving coaches away from wanting to give unique answers.

Freeman tried to turn his coach-speak toward Notre Dame’s nominally-ongoing quarterback competition after Sam Hartman led the Gold team to a 24-0 win against Tyler Buchner and the Blue team in the spring finale.

“We still have a quarterback battle,” Freeman said. “You can’t determine a winner or a loser based off one practice, practice 15. You can’t base a decision off of what we view is a certain outcome. There’s a lot that goes into it.”

Sure, uh huh, okay.

There are plenty of ways to try and twist Hartman’s success and/or Buchner’s struggles, but no amount of spin can obscure the facts: The sixth-year veteran Hartman completed 13-of-16 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns, with another on the ground, while the inexperienced Buchner went 8-of-18 for 44 yards. That does not even include a Buchner interception for which Freeman said his on-field (and apparently mistaken) coaching was to blame, nor Hartman’s 1-0 lead in jokes quipped on the Peacock broadcast.

The sheer lopsided nature of those results may explain why Freeman eventually strayed from coach-speak. Notre Dame may drag out this quarterback competition a week into preseason practices for a third year in a row, but Hartman’s clinic in poise and efficiency ended the quarterback competition in all practical terms. Of all those stats, perhaps one should stand out more than any others. Hartman averaged 11.8 yards per pass attempt; Buchner averaged 2.4 yards per pass attempt.

That is a bit unfair to Buchner; his day was not that bad. But Hartman’s number reflected both the accuracy expected from such a veteran and the deep touch that helped him elevate Wake Forest’s offense the last few seasons. That combination is why Freeman so wanted Hartman, something Freeman admitted Saturday in his foray away from coach-speak.

“I don’t want to downplay the performance Sam Hartman put on,” Freeman said. “... He played really well, and it’s really good to see. As the head coach of this football team, I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s what you want to see.’ You want to see production from the offense.

“But yeah, that’s what I expected. When we went out to look for a transfer portal quarterback, you don’t look for the second, third, fourth. You look for the best player in the country that would fit in your locker room. Sam Hartman showed today why he was extremely successful at Wake Forest and I think will be extremely, extremely successful here.”

Those last few sentences are why any quarterback competition was always a formality. Through no fault of his own, Buchner simply has not thrown enough passes the last five years to compete with Hartman. Being a sophomore in high school, injury, a pandemic, a backup role and injury again robbed him of any full season leading a team. In that same interim, Hartman was appearing in 48 collegiate games and attempting 1,597 passes. There were reasons Freeman had such lofty expectations for him, expectations met just in time before the summer.

Hartman was not alone in that regard. He lifted all of Notre Dame’s offense, most notably early-enrolled freshman receiver Jaden Greathouse with 11 catches on 13 targets for 118 yards. Rising junior receiver Jayden Thomas, the likely top receiver for the Irish in 2023, had four catches on six targets for 71 yards, including a score.

“The progression that I’m most pleased with is the offense, the progression from (practice) one to 15,” Freeman said. “With the defense, the ability to come out at practice and play at a high level and be consistent throughout spring, that’s kind of how it’s been.

“One group’s been doing this. One group’s just been practicing at a high level for 15 practices.”

The offense catching up with the defense stands out given the offense needed to replace the most prolific tight end in Irish history, the only receiver with true experience and two multi-year starters along the offensive line. Oh, and a quarterback.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s defense returned five starters in its back-seven. For the first time in three years, it got to work under the same defensive coordinator for consecutive springs. The only question defensively has been if the Irish would have not only quality defensive line starters but also enough depth to preserve them throughout the season.

End Junior Tuihalamaka chasing down Steve Angeli for a sack Saturday started to ease those worries. Junior tackle Jason Onye and sophomore tackle Tyson Ford both making it clear they can contribute this year may have erased those concerns.

Notre Dame’s defensive line may lack the star power of an Isaiah Foskey or the Ademilola twins in 2023, but Saturday revealed enough reason to believe in the Irish defensive front.

Combine that with the tangible proof of concept from Hartman and the Blue-Gold Game should have done nothing but encourage Notre Dame fans entering the summer.

18 weeks until Dublin.

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