SOUTH BEND – The first play of Notre Dame's Blue-Gold Game with Sam Hartman behind center did not go well: defensive end Nana Osafo-Mensah knifed into the backfield and blew up a jet sweep to wide receiver Jayden Thomas for a loss.
After that, however, the game belonged to Hartman.
The Wake Forest transfer quarterback was the dominant force in the annual Irish intrasquad scrimmage Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, leading the Gold team, coached by defensive line coach Al Washington, to touchdowns on three of the four possessions and finishing 13 for 16 for 189 yards, two passing touchdowns and a rushing score as Gold beat Blue 24-0.
"It was incredible," Hartman said of playing in front of an announced crowd of more than 32,000 which braved driving rain and temperatures in the low 40s to see the Irish for the first time in 2023. "It was my first time with the real gold helmets on. It's a credit to all the work we've put in in the spring. You start off on a new team, a new place and you come out here with this many people, this many fans, it was really fun. You play for those moments, you play for those opportunities.
"You get out there, throw the ball around, hand the ball off, O-line protected, guys caught the ball, ran hard, it's really fun."
Hartman turned in a significantly better performance, at least statistically, than fellow quarterback Tyler Buchner, who led the Blue team, coached by running backs coach Deland McCullough. Buchner, a junior-to-be who was Gator Bowl MVP last season after Notre Dame's 45-38 win over South Carolina, went just 8 for 18 for 44 yards and an interception, though coach Marcus Freeman insisted the pick – a pass intended for wide receiver Deion Colzie which cornerback Jaden Mickey undercut and grabbed to stall a promising drive – was the coach's fault.
"I told him I got to take responsibility for the pick because on third down, I went in there and I was trying to help, I was like, 'It's cover two! It's cover two!' and it ended up not being cover two," Freeman said, laughing. "So I said I'll take responsibility for the pick. He's like, 'Yeah, you owe me one!'"
Mickey with the takeaway 👀@jadenmickey_ #GoIrish☘️ pic.twitter.com/XQSVdIu7Ko— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) April 22, 2023
Buchner, who was "sacked" four times – he and Hartman wore red jerseys and were not hit, but the play was whistled dead when a defender got within tackling distance – was also hindered by an offensive line which was significantly leakier than the one Hartman had in front of him and a Gold defensive front led by Howard Cross III, JD Bertrand, Joshua Burnham and promising youngsters Tyson Ford and Jaylen Sneed.
Despite the disparity in the quarterbacks' statistics Saturday, Freeman said a competition he has insisted has been close throughout spring practice remains so.
"I think we still have a quarterback battle," Freeman said. "You can't determine a winner or a loser based off one practice, practice 15. And again, you can't base a decision off of what we view is a certain outcome. There's a lot that goes into it.
"Everybody's going to praise Sam for how we played today, they're going to criticize Tyler. They both probably played pretty well. We have to look at the film. I know the stats might not say it. But listen, both of them are tremendously talented. And we'll go back and evaluate all 15 practices and continue to look at it as we move forward."
But there was no doubt Hartman was impressive Saturday. The ACC's all-time leader in touchdown passes got the ball out of his hands quickly, threw on time over the middle and seemed to have a much better command of the offense than he had in some of the open practice sessions the Irish had permitted the media to observe earlier in the spring practice schedule.
Arguably the sixth-year senior's best play came on the second Gold drive, a 48-yard completion to Thomas. Thomas had badly beaten cornerback Clarence Lewis and Hartman hung in against some pressure up the middle and stepped into a throw which hit Thomas perfectly in stride.
"It was cool to see him win inside on that deep post," Hartman said. "We've been waiting for that one to happen and it finally did and we hit it. It's great to do it out here and it takes some times missing them in practice five and then (practice) 15 it works, that's a great feeling."
Hartman had earlier found Thomas, a redshirt-sophomore-to-be who caught 25 passes for 361 yards and three touchdowns last season, for a 9-yard touchdown, the first score of the game.
TOUCHDOWN GOLD@sam_hartman10 to Jayden Thomas 💪#GoIrish☘️ pic.twitter.com/kdBe4jlfEO— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) April 22, 2023
The latter pass was more indicative of what Hartman did well Saturday. His receivers repeatedly found holes in the Notre Dame defense and he hit them on target and on time for intermediate gains, marching the Irish down the field three times in that fashion.
The quarterback finished the drive which had gotten started with Thomas's big catch with a run of his own, a 1-yard carry on a quarterback pin-and-pull play.
TOUCHDOWN GOLD@sam_hartman10 takes it himself 😤#GoIrish☘️ pic.twitter.com/2A5io1CpCV— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) April 22, 2023
The former Demon Deacon later completed his day with one of his best throws, a 14-yard strike on a fade to the back corner of the end zone for receiver Matt Salerno, who had beaten cornerback Ryan Barnes off the line of scrimmage. Hartman put the ball right on the money for a 21-0 lead before giving way to third-stringer Steve Angeli.
The touchdown and some love from Irish Nation @sam_hartman10 ➡️ @Matthews0520 #GoIrish☘️ pic.twitter.com/VeQXuE4AaK— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) April 22, 2023
While Freeman emphasized the quarterback competition had not been decided, he acknowledged how well Hartman had played.
"I don't want to downplay the performance Sam Hartman put on," the second-year Irish coach said. "Man, he played well today. He played really well, and it's really good to see. And as the head coach of this football team, I'm like, 'Yeah, that's what you want to see.' You want to see some 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."
Thomas was clearly Hartman's favorite target and hauled in four catches for 71 yards, but even he was outdone by the performance of true freshman early enrollee Jaden Greathouse, one of a trio of four-star receivers in Notre Dame's 2023 recruiting class who went through spring ball.
Greathouse displayed a distinct ability to find holes in the defense, settling down against Notre Dame's zones and making himself available for not only Hartman, but Angeli, as well. He was targeted 13 times and caught 11 of the passes for 118 yards, the longest being a 19-yard gain on which he got a step on Barnes and sprawled out to haul in a wobbling pass from Angeli, who had fired after rolling to his right.
Angeli to Greathouse for a 19 yard gain 😎#GoIrish☘️ pic.twitter.com/ZeFh4PxNQC— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) April 22, 2023
"The balls just kept coming to me and I just kept trying to stay disciplined and trying to do what I'm supposed to do and they just kept coming my way," Greathouse said. "I'll never complain about that. It's all thanks to the quarterbacks giving me the ball in the first place and they did a great job, too."
Greathouse showed the ability to be the kind of consistent possession receiver Notre Dame did not have last season. Coupled with Thomas's deep-ball ability – on display intermittently last year – Notre Dame's wide receiver corps appears to be in better shape than it was in 2022. Freeman envisions all three freshman wideouts – Greathouse, Rico Flores and Braylon James – contributing this fall.
"All three of those freshmen are going to help us," Freeman said. "All three of those freshmen will play for us this year. I'm really confident that those three guys will help this football team.
"And it's good to see Jaden step up today. Like I said, when the lights are on, you want to see who will step up and make plays. And all three of them have been really, really good additions to our program throughout the spring. That wasn't just a one-time performance. All three of those guys have shown to be productive throughout spring."
Notre Dame was without its full complement of running backs as Logan Diggs and Jadarian Price were out with injuries – both are expected to be ready for fall camp – and highly-touted four-star recruit Jeremiyah Love won't arrive until the summer, but Audric Estime looked strong as ever running with Buchner and Hartman's passing ability opened some holes for redshirt-freshman-to-be Gi'Bran Payne, who broke a 30-yard run through the right side – making veteran safety DJ Brown miss in space – to set up Notre Dame's first touchdown.
Overall, Notre Dame's offense looked somewhat more pass-heavy under new coordinator Gerad Parker than the unit former OC Tommy Rees directed last season, though that was to be expected with a more proven quarterback at the helm in Hartman, a fuller complement of receivers and a less-than-full-strength running backs contingent.
On defense, the Irish displayed depth on the defensive line with Ford and Jason Onye flashing among players who have not contributed significantly in the past. Sneed, who redshirted as a freshman last year, was fast sideline to sideline and showed the physicality which made him a borderline five-star recruit and Notre Dame's most highly-touted prospect in the 2022 class.
As the Irish close spring practice the question of who will start at quarterback remains and Notre Dame's offense is yet to get fully operational, but there appears to be reasons for significant optimism on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
"I think we're at a better place (than last year at this time)," Freeman said. "I am, personally, as a head coach. And what I've most realized more than anything is that we have to consistently get better. How you feel about going into the fall? Good. We better get better. We better get better and make sure that we're ready to play to our full potential week one."
Irish receive pair of commitments
On the weekend of the Blue-Gold Game, the Irish added a commitment apiece to their 2024 and 2025 recruiting classes. In 2024, the addition was Cole Mullins, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound edge rusher out of Hoschton, Georgia, who ranks No. 647 nationally, per 247 Sports, and is Notre Dame's 10th commitment in a class which ranks No. 7 nationally.
In 2025, the Irish picked up four-star defensive tackle Davion Dixon, a 6-foot-3, 290-pound Miami native whom 247 Sports ranks No. 302 in the country. He is Notre Dame's first commitment in the '25 class.
Among alumni in attendance for the Irish were safety Kyle Hamilton (a first-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens last year who acted as the sideline reporter for the game), wide receiver Chase Claypool, offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, tight ends Cole Kmet and Brock Wright, nose tackle Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and defensive end Julian Okwara. Also on hand was former All-American defensive tackle Bryant Young, who was recently inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after a 14-year career with the San Francisco 49ers.