Notre Dame, Riley Leonard set sights on CFP

USA Today Sports

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- There are days when Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman admits he gazes over at Notre Dame Stadium and envisions a frigid December night, a packed crowd and the rarest happening in Notre Dame's rich football history -- a first.

In the 117 seasons of Notre Dame football, there have been 11 national titles, seven Heisman Trophy winners and 70 first-round NFL draft picks. It has inspired a blockbuster film, generational lore and fostered a national brand as strong as any in sports.

That doesn't leave a lot of room for firsts. But heading into the 12-team College Football Playoff era, which starts this fall, Notre Dame is perhaps the best-positioned program to host a playoff game. And Freeman says he catches himself when he begins to think about it.

"I try not to daydream, because me daydreaming about that doesn't really help us get there," Freeman told ESPN recently in his office. "And the times that I do drift to that point, it's a reminder that, OK, let's get back to the tangible things that we can do right now to help us get to that point."

Entering Freeman's third season with another high-profile transfer at quarterback, there's optimism for Irish fans to invest in a heavy coat and wool hat for some December football in South Bend.

The expanded playoff collides with what projects as Notre Dame's best overall roster in Freeman's three years there. There's a flourishing NIL program to help fill the roster's holes and hot recruiting that has the Irish with the No. 4 class for 2025 in ESPN's rankings.

The arrival of transfer quarterback Riley Leonard from Duke combines with a star-studded defense, highlighted by projected first-round pick Benjamin Morrison at cornerback, and a salty and experienced defensive line.

That roster colliding with an expanded playoff gives Notre Dame perhaps the best chance of any school to host a CFP game in 2024. With the 12-team playoff having arrived with byes for the four highest-ranked conference champions, Notre Dame cannot get a first-round bye because it is an independent.

After winning nine games in Freeman's debut season in 2022 and 10 games and finishing No. 14 in the Associated Press poll last year, a CFP appearance would be part of the logical progression.

"That's got to be a realistic expectation," Freeman said. "That we have to be one of those 12 teams is a goal. I think we are going to have a great opportunity. I think with the talent we have, with the coaching staff we have, I believe we should do the things necessary to make the playoff. And so now you got to go do it."

Those hopes will hinge on Leonard, who has a lone season in South Bend to lead the Irish and burnish his NFL draft stock. He accounted for 33 touchdowns -- 20 passing and 13 rushing -- in 2022 at Duke before a flurry of frustrating injuries limited him from finishing the final three of the seven games he played last year.

Leonard knows how important it is to adjust quickly, so he arrived on campus in January already knowing the names of his nearly 100 teammates.

Leonard said he installed head shots and bios of his new teammates on the Quizlet App -- think digital flash cards -- and surprised many of his new teammates by addressing them by name on his first day on campus this winter. From walk-ons to All-Americans, Leonard jump-started the process of emerging as a leader. "I didn't have one miss," he said.

Leonard is quick to admit there's so much more to becoming a leader in a short period of time. And the history of recent quarterback transfers has shown a big jump on the second year after a transfer, which happened for players like Joe Burrow, Bo Nix and Jayden Daniels.

But learning names is a window in Leonard's desire to build a relationship with everyone, as he's done everything from taking defensive lineman Jason Onye golfing to plotting some fishing ventures on local ponds.

As things warm up this spring, Leonard said he's looking forward to trying some local fishing holes for walleye, salmon and muskie -- much different than the redfish he's used to catching in his native Alabama. "I always put hot dogs in there and the fish will swim in for whatever reason," he said of his catch-and-release traps.

Leonard has done very little work in spring ball because of an ankle issue and isn't expected to play in Saturday's spring game. (Although he's likely to take part in some of warmups as he's back near 100%.) Leonard says not being able to earn his teammates' respect through competing in practice has spawned creativity for making connections.

"You got to find different ways to earn people's respect, and it's something I've never had to do before, especially coming into a new program," he said. "It creates challenges and I'm still figuring it out, but I think that I've done a good job of earning guys' respect in different ways off the field."

To land Leonard, Notre Dame's recruiting staff earned his respect by digging deep into the school's archives to research his great-grandfather on his mother's side, James E. Curran, who played there in the 1930s. The staff took every mention and picture of him and put together a pamphlet for the family. Leonard, who grew up a Notre Dame fan in Alabama, jokes that his mom gave him a look when she saw the book that indicated he had no choice but to commit.

While Freeman has yet to see much of Leonard in practice, he quickly pointed out that he game-planned against him last year, which showed him plenty. Leonard hobbled through 2023 with a series of ankle and toe injuries, including a right ankle injury against Notre Dame on Sept. 30. He later injured his left toe against Louisville. "I told them they broke me," Leonard joked to Notre Dame officials. "Now they're paying for the surgery."

He made that joke before a follow-up procedure on his right ankle in late March, which Freeman said was done because a stress fracture was starting to develop.

Freeman has seen plenty of Leonard's spirit, even with his injury limitations. He used some form of competitive three times -- "competitive", "competitor" and "competitiveness" -- in an answer about what Leonard can bring this year. "When you talk to him, you might not think that," Freeman said, before stressing how he's seen flashes in the weight room and around the facility.

There are issues for Notre Dame on offense. There are two offensive tackles who project as top-10 (Joe Alt) and top-100 (Blake Fisher) NFL draft picks. Then there's the seemingly annual search for some high-end wide receiver play, and a new tailback needing to emerge after the departure of Audric Estime.

There is also a throwback adjustment at offensive coordinator, with Mike Denbrock returning to his old gig from LSU after calling plays for Jayden Daniels' Heisman Trophy season. He'd been an assistant at Notre Dame from 2010-16, including a stint as playcaller, and also from 2002-04.

"Because of Mike Denbrock's ability to mold his system around the players he has, I'm very confident in where we'll be when it matters the most, in August," Freeman said. "I love the mindset of making sure it's not about the plays, it's about the players."

While Freeman's on his third offensive coordinator in as many years, there's been continuity on defense. Al Golden has been a staff mainstay, as have defensive backs coach and pass game coordinator Mike Mickens and defensive line coach and run game coordinator Al Washington.

There is a veteran defense that Freeman says is the best on paper -- and he stresses only on paper -- since he arrived in South Bend. With stars like Morrison (10 PBUs in 2023) and Xavier Watts (7 INTs in 2023), the Nagurski Award winner, the Irish are positioned to uphold the standard of a pass defense that ranked No. 3 nationally last year.

With productive defensive linemen Howard Cross III (66 tackles last year) and Rylie Mills (16.5 career TFLs), there's a chance to build on a unit that ranked No. 5 overall in total defense last year.

"Where we're starting at this year compared to the last two years is extremely higher," Freeman said, pointing to continuity on the staff and in personnel.

Morrison pointed out that the promotion of Mickens to oversee the whole secondary has given the corners and safeties a better understanding of the scheme because they are all in better sync sitting in the same meetings. He also said it's not uncommon for him to go see Mickens outside of normal meetings and there are already six or seven players there chatting with him. "We're going to go as far as we want to go," Morrison said.

And in Freeman's third year at Notre Dame, going that far could well mean a home playoff game nearby. Morrison said that chance for history looms.

"Being here now for two years, going on three, you appreciate the university itself and the history," he said. "You understand how special a place that it really is. So I feel it'll be cool to be able to be part of something like that, you could tell your kids I was part of the first at something."