As a follow-up to our recent analysis of the 2022 Notre Dame defensive personnel and depth chart, we’ve prepared a similar evaluation of the offense. Seven of the players who started in the Fiesta Bowl on this side of the ball will return in 2022. Four open spots must be filled, but this does not preclude further competition and the possibility of changes to any presumed incumbencies. Position coaches have yet to be named to replace departed staff members at wide receiver and offensive line. These areas alone cover eight of the eleven slots. The new hires will undoubtedly give each player under their purview a fresh look.
Let’s begin with the Offensive line
Returning Starters: While injuries created chaos early in the 2021 campaign, this area now looks very solid for the foreseeable future. Joe Alt (left) and Blake Fisher (right) started against Oklahoma State and played well. Fisher missed all but a few minutes of the regular season with a knee injury but shifted from the left side to the right upon his return. He played extremely well and did not need to come off the field despite the long layoff. The only question is whether this pair will line up as they did in that game or switch sides again next season.
Returning Depth: Josh Lugg returns as a sixth-year player. He started most of the team’s 2021 games at right tackle but is better suited to play guard. He is versatile enough to play tackle on the right side in a pinch, but does not have the quickness for the left side. Junior Michael Carmody is another player who saw action at tackle last season but may also be moved inside. His classmate, Tosh Baker, has the size to play tackle and should be ready to contribute after another offseason of development. If so, he is better suited to the right side. Sophomore Caleb Johnson is a talented prospect who may need another year of strength and conditioning before he is ready for significant action.
Incoming Freshmen: Three quality recruits enter the program in Aamil Wagner, Joey Tanona and Ty Chan. Tanona is already on campus and the others will arrive this summer.
John’s Comment: The Irish are in good shape here. Either Alt or Fisher can play on the critical left side if the other misses time. There are multiple candidates to backfill on the right side. The challenge for the new line coach will be to develop depth with little drop in performance among the returning players and find a future left tackle from the trio of freshmen when Alt and Fisher move on.
Center and Guards
Returning Starters: Center Jarrett Patterson delighted Notre Dame fans when he elected to return for a fifth year. His job is the most secure of any Irish lineman. Andrew Kristofec is the incumbent at left guard. He needs to add weight and get stronger if he plans to hold onto that spot.
Returning Depth: At guard, Lugg should be considered a possibility on the right side. Highly regarded sophomore Rocco Spindler may be poised to claim a starting role on either side. Carmody will also be in that mix. The status of fifth year candidate John Dirksen will be known later this spring. He saw limited action at guard last year. Sophomore Pat Coogan is being groomed to take over at center after Patterson leaves. He and Zeke Correll will battle for the primary backup role this spring and fall.
Incoming Freshmen: Billy Schrauth is a highly recruited guard out of Wisconsin who appears destined to become a multi-year starter. Ashton Craig will enter the pipeline at center but can also play guard. He will need a couple of years of work before being ready.
John’s Comment: I can see a starting lineup in 2023 of Alt, Spindler, Coogan, Schrauth and Fisher, from left to right. The question in 2022 is at guard since the tackles are solid and Patterson is the grizzled anchor at center. The new position coach will have to determine which guard duo is best but I hope Spindler is one of the two. All of the candidates at guard named above except for Lugg have at least two years of eligibility remaining.
Returning Starters: Michael Mayer returns for his third and likely final season before moving on to the NFL. He led the team in receptions last season and could easily do so again in 2022.
Returning Depth: Fifth year man George Takacs is back to battle junior Kevin Bauman for a supporting role. This pair will be pressed by sophomores Mitchell Evans and Cane Berrong. Both flashed potential during their freshman campaigns and indicated they can contribute at this level.
Incoming Freshmen: The pipeline continues to be rich as another pair of talented recruits arrive. Holden Staes and Eli Raridon are impressive players who may have to sit for a year until Mayer’s departure leads to a wide open competition. Raridon suffered an ACL injury last month while playing basketball for his Iowa high school. He will probably miss fall camp and be brought along more slowly as he recovers.
John’s Comment: Let’s enjoy Mayer while we have him. There is plenty of talent behind him to help now and take over in 2023, but Mayer’s shoes will still be tough to fill.
Returning Starters: None. Kyren Williams, who gained 1,000 yards in 2021 behind an often shaky offensive line, has declared for the NFL. We wish him the absolute best. Hopefully he will land on a team like the 49ers instead of the Jets.
Returning Depth: Junior Chris Tyree and sophomores Logan Diggs and Audric Estime. Tyree brings speed and pass catching ability to the offense. He has contributed a few explosive runs but his 4.0 average yards per carry in 2021 was lower than Williams’ 4.9 and Diggs’ 4.4. Diggs had an impressive debut as a freshman and will be better with another year of added strength. Estime showed flashes of power and adequate speed in his brief appearances. With proper coaching he should (at minimum) develop into an effective short yardage and red zone force.
Incoming Freshmen: Jadarian Price is an explosive runner who had a strong senior season at a high level of competition in Texas high school football. He enrolled early, so we should get a look at him this spring since there are only three other scholarship tailbacks on the roster.
John’s Comment: Not a bad trio of returning players but there is no superstar among them. Tyree needs to get stronger so he can break tackles instead of going down on first contact. Diggs excels at finding holes but must be taught to stop dancing and power forward for whatever he can get when the openings fail to materialize. Estime is a physical runner who must improve his vision, develop patience and polish his skills. Price is an exciting if not underrated prospect who may be the best pure runner in the group. At least this year’s backs should have a better line to run behind in 2022.
Returning Starters: None. Jack Coan was a one-and-done graduate transfer. He patched over various recruiting misses and the sudden departure of Phil Jurkovec, who would have been a senior at Notre Dame in 2021. Jurkovec transferred to Boston College in 2020 and has been their starter for the past two seasons. He recently announced he will return to the Eagles in 2022 for his final season of eligibility. That’s water under the bridge now. Coan was criticized at times but the team would not have approached eleven wins without him.
Returning Depth: Sophomore Tyler Buchner appears to be the heir-apparent for the position barring another dip into the transfer pool by Coach Marcus Freeman and Offensive Coordinator Tom Rees. As a freshman, Buchner appeared in several games last season and demonstrated dynamic running ability despite a limited playbook. His passing skills and decision-making require further development. He has the physical tools and work ethic to be successful with good coaching. Junior Drew Pyne is a small but feisty backup who would rise to the starting job if Buchner is injured or falters in the role. Pyne is an adequate passer with some scrambling ability. He does not have the size or pure athleticism of Buchner but he makes good decisions in the pocket and displays strong leadership qualities. Sophomore Ron Powlus, Jr. will provide insurance if needed.
Incoming Freshmen: Steve Angeli is the lone quarterback recruit in this cycle. He comes from a run-heavy high school offense but has a strong arm and a track record of success against high level competition. He has enrolled early and will begin his development.
John’s Comment: Some observers have reservations about Buchner as a passer but I believe he will be fine. While we may see some painful interceptions this fall, I expect Buchner to improve as the season progresses. The only way he’s going to develop is to play. I question whether he will stick around if another transfer is brought in to supplant him in 2022. The coaches may put that option on hold until May to see how Buchner performs in spring practice and if he remains healthy. It’s a quandary for the staff because any attractive incoming transfer candidate will expect to start rather than be a backup.
Returning Starters: Braden Lenzy will return for a fifth year. After a slow start in 2021, Lenzy improved to be a strong contributor in the second half of the season.. He has yet to reach his full potential, however, given his elite speed. Slot receiver Avery Davis will also be back for his fifth season. He was a reliable target last season until he suffered a torn ACL in November. Sophomore Lorenzo Styles took Davis’ place and established himself as a potent weapon going forward. Davis is unlikely to be ready for action in September, so Styles will start in the slot or opposite Lenzy on the outside. Hopefully Davis will return to action soon enough to have an impact on the season.
Returning Depth: Joe Wilkins will also return for his final season. Like Davis, Wilkins’ season ended prematurely with a knee injury. It was “only” an MCL, so he should be fully recovered no later than fall camp. Sophomores Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas are the only other veterans on the roster. Colzie played sparingly last year but flashed talent and promise. Thomas is still an unknown commodity.
Incoming Freshmen: Tobias Merriweather is the lone incoming receiver due to late defections by two other recruits. The good news is Merriweather has outstanding size, speed and overall talent. It would be hard to keep him off the field this season anyway, but with only six other receivers on the roster he will get an opportunity to contribute.
John’s Comment: The team was heartened to hear that so many veteran players elected to return to the program in 2022, but their leading wide receiver Kevin Austin was not among them. The prospect of going to battle with seven bodies including one recovering from ACL surgery is certain to make the staff concerned enough to scour the transfer portal. Wilkins is the favorite to start along with Lenzy and Styles, but Colzie and Merriweather should earn considerable playing time. Davis is a leader and solid contributor who will be welcomed with open arms when he is able to return.
The offensive line was the greatest concern expressed by Notre Dame fans prior to last season. Today, it is poised to return to an area of strength consistent with historical norms. Tight end has also been a bright spot for the Irish for as long as I can remember. They have a great one now and the pipeline is strong.
Regarding wide receiver, the recruiting losses in December hurt, especially because there is playing time available for talented freshmen. Neither Lenzy nor Wilkins appears ready to become a number one receiver, so that responsibility will fall to Styles. He will have to carry a disproportionate share of the load until Davis returns to help. Unless Lenzy, Wilkins and Colzie make a significant leap forward, teams are going to double cover Mayer until the cows come home. The new receivers coach will have plenty of pressure to coax more production out of this group. He’ll also need to bring along the uber-talented Merriweather faster than Notre Dame typically develops freshman wideouts.
The other side of the coin regarding the passing game rests with the quarterback. Who will help Rees prepare Buchner for the starting role? It’s a lot to ask of a coordinator to be a full time quarterbacks coach. Will Freeman hire someone for that job? Questions regarding Buchner need to be answered in the spring. If he’s capable, his skills can be fine tuned over the summer and in fall camp. If not, the staff will need time to look elsewhere for a plug-in solution.
This review tells me that Notre Dame has question marks at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and guard. In some cases, the available solutions are better than others and could work out nicely. It’s unlikely all the right pieces will fall neatly into place. If I look objectively at these issues and consider the situation at cornerback on defense, I do not see a playoff caliber team in 2022. Barring significant help from the transfer portal and a large dose of Irish luck, the ceiling for this team appears to be a 10-2 record while the floor could be as many as four losses. The quarterback position is obviously the largest determining factor in the final results. A great one can overcome a few weaknesses at other positions, but a struggling one will become a drag on the rest of the team.
Agree? Disagree? Tell John what you think in the comments section below