SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Audric Estimé is better than he was a year ago. The Notre Dame running back has focused on discipline this off-season to develop a little more speed, never breaking a 50-yard dash last season but wanting to find acceleration to get away from defenders. And he did, now with one 50-yard touchdown and one 80-yard touchdown this season, last week’s 70-plus yard thrower was recalled because of a penalty, but still serving as further proof that it is faster and significantly so.
But the junior also knows that Sam Hartman is improving his appearance. Estimé’s 521 yards, five touchdowns and 8.27 yards per carry are a testament to the work of him and the Irish offensive line, but Hartman opened up defenses. Estimé recognizes this perhaps more than anyone else.
“Having Sam Hartman, the best quarterback in the country on my team and by my side, is a huge help to me,” Estimé said after No. 9 Notre Dame’s 41-17 win against Central Michigan on Saturday.
A year ago, with inconsistent play from the quarterback leading the charge, defenses focused on two things against the Irish: double-covering Michael Mayer and otherwise loading the zone to harass Estimé and the other running backs. Notre Dame subsequently averaged 31.8 points per game, a five-year low, driven by the chaos of the Gator Bowl. In the regular season, the Irish averaged 30.7 points per game, the lowest since 2013.
Notre Dame is currently averaging 46 points per game.
Irish coach Marcus Freeman won’t give all the credit for the offensive fireworks to Hartman, but that’s in part because he doesn’t need to. Hartman’s game demands it in itself, throwing for 265 yards per game with 13 touchdowns and no interceptions. No coach needs to ensure that the performance is deserved. The headlines are popping anyway, deservedly so.
Notre Dame has lacked such a passer during its resurgence since the 2016 faceplant, if not since Jimmy Clausen’s final season in 2009, and Clausen has lacked the ground game and defense to highlight his talents. Irish coach Brian Kelly needed to defend Ian Book’s strengths from 2018 to 2020 because, while undeniably a winning quarterback with two playoff appearances, Book’s stats generally didn’t jump off the page.
Notre Dame (4-0) needed Hartman to raise the program’s ceiling, to add plenty of intrigue to this weekend’s primetime showdown with No. 6 Ohio State (3-0) at 7:30 a.m. ET on NBC.
But Hartman also needed the Irish. He is surpassed by Estimé.
Estimé may also know this.
“We’re a dynamic offense,” he said. “We are an offense that can do everything, we can run and pass the ball.”
In 48 games at Wake Forest, Hartman’s arm was complemented by a rushing attack that averaged six yards per carry in a game a total of three times, including once against an FCS opponent. It was no coincidence that his already impressive career numbers with the Demon Deacons improved significantly in those three wins, completing 67.5 percent of his passes for 11 touchdowns and no interceptions while averaging 10.3 yards per pass attempt.
In four games at Notre Dame, Hartman enjoyed such a rushing offense three times, including once against an FCS opponent. It’s no coincidence that he completes 71.1% of his passes and averages 11.5 yards per pass attempt.
At the start of the season, it was understandable to be concerned about the Irish receivers, an unproven group without a true game-breaker like Hartman long enjoyed in Winston-Salem. Would the lack of that piece – an AT Perry, for example – limit Hartman’s effectiveness in South Bend?
The answer should always have been that he never liked that type of rushing attack, averaging 6.4 yards per carry (sacks adjusted) with nine touchdowns in four games. The closest thing to Estimé’s physicality that Hartman has ever known was transferring to Michigan State to be more included in the offense, Kenneth Walker III launching his NFL career from East Lansing, perhaps in the same way Hartman is doing now.
Defenses loaded the box against Notre Dame last season, lessening Estimé’s impact. They can’t now, for fear that Hartman will hit sophomore receiver Tobias Merriweather for a 75-yard touchdown or senior receiver Chris Tyree for a 76-yard touchdown. Finally, hitting these deep shots — not long catch-and-runs, but genuine deep shots — cemented that reality for opposing defensive coordinators just in time for a top-tier defense to need to worry about them.
“The ability to execute deep balls and open passes is huge,” Freeman said Saturday. “They are huge to be successful. … That’s a credit to the success in the passing game and the running game.”
AT Perry never walked in the door with Hartman. He didn’t need to. Estimé was already waiting, faster and with one of the best offensive lines in the country.