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Football Q&A with Patrick Sullivan of One Foot Down

Patrick Sullivan from SB Nation’s Notre Dame site “One Foot Down” joins us to talk about the upcoming Tigers-Irish game in Death Valley.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Patrick Sullivan from SB Nation’s Notre Dame site “One Foot Down” joins us to talk about the upcoming Tigers-Irish game in Death Valley.

1) Clemson fans are really familiar with Sam Hartman as the star QB with Wake Forest. Last year him and AT Perry gave Clemson fits in a double OT shootout in Winston-Salem. Who’s Sam’s big weapon that Clemson fans should be aware of?

If we’re talking about his big weapon in the passing game, unfortunately it’s TE Mitchell Evans — I’ll talk more about him and his season-ending injury in question #2.

Without Evans, Hartman’s weapons in the passing game are largely an underwhelming by-committee arsenal, but if I had to pick one guy to tell Clemson fans to watch out for, it’s senior slot receiver Chris Tyree. Tyree came to ND as a borderline 5-star all-purpose back and played running back and returned kickoffs for his first 3 seasons, showing ridiculous straight-line speed but not always displaying the ability to break tackles or consistently deliver lots of production. With that said, he’s always been a home run hitter just waiting to explode:

Tyree was moved to receiver this season, adapted way quicker and more successfully to the change than most expected, and has been a reliable playmaker this year, typically turning in 1-2 huge plays per game at a wideout position that’s been mostly disappointing for the Irish for a few years now. Last week against Pitt, he made this catch and also made some moves in the return game again with this punt return TD:

He’s got the game-breaking speed to really cause problems for Clemson if they aren’t careful, and with Evans out is the Irish’s leading healthy receiver.

Other pass game weapons to note would be Jayden Thomas (originally the 2023 WR1 who’s battled a hamstring injury all year but is a big, physical, dependable pass catcher), Jaden Greathouse and Rico Flores (true freshmen WR who’ve been very solid when given opportunities), and TE Holden Staes, who looked like he was going to be the best receiver on the team early in the year when he put up 4 catches for 115 yards and 2 TDs against NC State, but has been quiet since as Evans took over as the main tight end. Also keep an eye out for Jordan Faison, a walk-on freshman who came to ND on scholarship for lacrosse and who will definitely leave as a starting and/or heavy-rotation slot guy over the next 3 years, as he has made a few nice plays each week since he debuted in the Louisville game.

Oh also, if we ARE including the backfield as weapons, then obviously I need to mention Doak Walker Award candidate Audric Estime (901 yards, 6.2 YPC, 12 TD + 13 catches for 109 yards), as well as his two backups who have way more speed and shiftiness than him and are excellent receivers out of the backfield (Jadarian Price and Jeremiyah Love). Here’s a little taste of what Price can do with his speed and vision:

2) How big of a loss is tight end Mitchell Evans being out for this game (and the season)?

It’s pretty huge, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Evans was pretty clearly ND’s best receiver and Sam Hartman’s favorite target through the first 9 games, considering he was a big body who moves well for his size, has good body control, excellent hands, and displayed a great ability to make tough catches in traffic. With 29 catches for 422 yards and a touchdown, he has 10 more catches than the next-closest guy (Tyree with 19) and also still leads the team in yards, not to mention unlike Tyree and several other wideouts, Evans’ biggest value was being a massive target to throw to on key third downs to keep the chains moving. He’s also a really good blocker, so this could impact the running game on Saturday too.

In a season where ND’s receivers either: a) haven’t developed as expected, b) have been hurt, c) are young/unproven, or d) converted from another position (or some combo of those 4 things), Evans was the reliable mainstay who could help keep drives alive when no one else was getting open or catching the ball. Plus, he always showed up in the biggest moments — during ND’s tough 4-game stretch against ranked teams (Ohio State, @Duke, @Louisville, USC). he had 19 receptions for 293 yards and a score. He was simply the go-to guy for the Irish passing game, so it’s a tough loss (not to mention a heartbreaking injury for a kid starting to get on NFL radars).

So, this will make Clemson’s defense’s job a bit easier this week and make things much tougher on Hartman. Hopefully the other tight ends on the roster — all very talented, just much less proven — can step up and make some plays in his stead.

3) Last time when Notre Dame came to Death Valley for the 2015 Hurricane Game, there was a lot of Notre Dame fans in town. Did Irish fans seem to enjoy that trip (loss and weather aside) and does it seem that many Irish fans are planning a return trip?

I can speak from experience and say that, yes, we absolutely enjoyed that trip and the visit to Clemson despite the heart wrenching ending to the game and the fact that that weather left me more soaked and chilled to the bone than I’ve ever been after a football game that wasn’t a snowy November game in South Bend.

I went with a few close friends, including two who have family from South Carolina who are Clemson fans, and so we got to go pal around with that family and their friends at their tailgate before the game. From my experience, Clemson fans were/are super nice and fun and we had a blast before the game. And then the stadium atmosphere was pretty electric, probably heightened by the weather — because I do think rain at a football game helps fans just kind of let go and get wild once they’ve accepted they’re gonna be wet and a bit cold. Also, although I grew to not really love Dabo and root against Clemson more often than not, it was pretty cool to have been at the game when the Tigers program really took that next step and declared to the college football world they were for real, leading to several CFP appearances and multiple titles. I can appreciate that.

For this year, I think you’ll see plenty of ND fans there again. Most would have scheduled this trip well before the season when they imagined this would be a potential top-10 vs. top-10 matchup, and even with Clemson’s 4-4 start and the Irish being out of the playoff race, I think it’s still such a fun destination for a college football fan and a matchup between two big-time programs that most anyone would be interested in attending. Plus, Notre Dame fans generally travel well no matter the opponent or location, let alone a trip to warmer weather to see the Irish play one of the best programs of the past decade. I imagine ND fans will turn out in droves to enjoy a hopefully drier day of tailgating and fun football with Tigers fans.

4) For Clemson fans, Notre Dame in town means the return of an old friend: former Clemson wide receiver and current Notre Dame wide receiver’s coach Chansi Stuckey. Are Notre Dame fans happy with Chansi so far as a coach?

The short answer is: mostly yes, but he still needs to prove some things as a coach and developer of talent.

The long answer is that he was handed an absolutely ABYSMAL WR depth chart when he arrived — his predecessor Del Alexander did an awful job recruiting and it was a pretty dire situation heading into the 2022 season. Stuckey quickly came in and recruited his ass off, signing an awesome first WR class to bring in an infusion of talent and add depth for 2023 (Greathouse, Flores, and Braylon James were all 4-star guys from recruiting hotbeds, and then 3-star KK Smith is a speedster from Texas who could be a hidden gem depending on how he comes along the next couple years). He’s following that up with another really good class in 2024, highlighted by 5-star Cam Williams.

The main reason I said he still needs to prove some things, though, is that the WR position has been pretty terrible from a performance perspective in his first two years on the job. Bad depth didn’t help — nor did having Drew Pyne at QB and maybe the best ND TE ever in Michael Mayer in 2022 — and there’s no doubt Stuckey deserves some patience from Irish fans considering what he’s been working with. But it’s been frustrating to see that most of the wideouts last year and this year haven’t made huge strides. Tyree has taken to the position quickly, so Stuckey certainly played a role there and deserves credit for that. And he HAS gotten Greathouse and Flores ready to contribute immediately, which is encouraging. But otherwise, it’s been underwhelming and annoying to see Hartman have to rely so much on tight ends and running backs — the dude is one of the most accomplished passers in NCAA history, ND should be able to SLING IT this year, but can’t.

Stuckey seems like a great guy and a smart coach and his players love him, so I do think he’ll ultimately be considered a fantastic hire and will continue to progress well in his coaching career. But it’s simply too early to say for sure, considering the mess he inherited. The future still looks bright, though, and if he keeps bringing in great talent, I think that will go a long way toward his success as well.

2005 NCAA Football: Florida State Seminoles at Clemson Tigers Christopher Gooley-USA TODAY Sports

5) How do you see this game playing out?

I think a lot of ND fans will see Clemson’s 4-4 record and unimpressive offense and assume the Irish will roll, especially considering how good Al Golden’s defense has been this season. But I don’t think I totally agree with that.

Clemson’s defense is still scary good, and the Irish offense is not too much better than Clemson’s — they’ve struggled to move the ball and put up points against every decent defense they’ve played (14 points vs. Ohio State, 21 vs. Duke, 20 vs. Louisville), and they really rely on the success of their physical running game and on Sam Hartman having time in the pocket to pick defenses apart. Clemson is absolutely built to not allow much of either of those things to happen, so I think Gerad Parker’s offense will struggle, especially early on. Whether Hartman turns the ball over or not may be the deciding factor in this game, too, as a couple picks could be devastating knowing how few opportunities ND may have to score points — they can’t waste possessions or give the Clemson offense easy chances to score themselves.

I still think Notre Dame will win this game, mostly because I think their defense will do a good job corralling the Clemson running game (especially if Will Shipley isn’t able to play) and because I think their pass rush and secondary are good enough to force Cade Klubnik into making some mistakes throwing the ball, so they can hopefully get a turnover or two — don’t be surprised to hear the names Xavier Watts, Benjamin Morrison, or Cam Hart a few times this weekend, Tigers fans.

Those turnovers will be key, I think, to providing the Irish offense some short fields and allowing Estime and co. to punch in some points and take control of the game, probably sometime in the 3rd or early 4th quarter. From there, the Tigers won’t have enough firepower on offense to come back, and the Irish win a close one on the road.

I’ll say ND 20, Clemson 13 in a game that Irish fans probably won’t enjoy until it’s over, if at all, due to the ugliness and lack of offensive success.