Now that Notre Dame’s spring football practice is completed, we can review the state of the roster and depth chart with a bit more clarity. A few questions have been answered regarding the offense while other significant decisions have yet to be made. Let’s update our January position by position assessment as we head into the summer.
The ranks became thinner in the past few days as Kyren Williams joined the NFL champions and freshman Logan Diggs underwent labrum repair surgery that may sideline him for the entire 2022 season. Diggs was slated to earn significant playing time this year. His loss is a painful blow to the program and to him personally. Starter Chris Tyree is not a guy who will carry the ball 25 times per game, so others will have to pick up the slack.
The good news is that two emerging players have excited the Irish fan base. Current freshman Audric Estime was the most productive runner in the Blue & Gold game and by all reports has been impressive throughout the spring. He is a punishing runner approaching 230 pounds. Early enrollee Jadarian Price also wowed the coaching staff and would have earned playing time this fall even if Diggs had not gone down. Price may already be the most fluid and natural back on the roster.
The group received a boost recently when Gi’Bran Payne elected to sign with Notre Dame after previously committing to Indiana. The incoming freshman will join fellow classmate Price on campus this summer.
Notre Dame will take a running back by committee approach this fall. Tyree will line up as a receiver almost as often as he does at tailback, especially until veteran slot receiver Avery Davis is ready to return after knee surgery. Estime is a power back who will punish tacklers and wear down defenses. He still runs a bit too much east and west for my tastes but good coaching will address that. Price will be strong enough to handle a part time workload if not more. Payne will have to earn his way although any injuries to the others could accelerate his progression.
All the backs are capable of producing big plays in the passing game and will give Offensive Coordinator Tom Rees more options. Each has a different running style and speed level with Tyree being the swiftest. The ranks will be thin this fall so the staff needs to develop a rotation that will keep everyone fresh.
There is just cause for optimism in 2022 and for the foreseeable future. The tackle positions were problematic most of last season but are now manned by two sophomore studs. Joe Alt and Blake Fisher played as true freshmen in 2021 and have clearly established themselves as starters. Veteran center and captain Jared Patterson was absent this spring after undergoing shoulder surgery but he hopes to be ready to play by September. He will be needed to stabilize the interior of the line.
Competition at guard is ongoing but not because the Irish lack quality candidates. Incumbent Andrew Kristofec started the spring on the left side while Josh Lugg moved inside from tackle to play on the right side. Both have been pushed by Rocco Spindler, who may be on the cusp of earning a spot. The powerful Spindler has a higher ceiling than the other two but needs to polish his technique and footwork.
Zeke Correll filled in for Patterson at center this spring and was impressive according to all reports. He will be needed if Patterson is not ready to start the season. When Patterson returns, he might move to guard while Correll takes over at center. A starting lineup of Fisher and Alt at tackle, Spindler and Patterson at guard, Correll at center with versatile veterans Lugg and Kristofec in reserve would be most impressive.
Other highly regarded young reserves include tackles Caleb Johnson and Tosh Baker, inside players Michael Carmody and Pat Coogan, and a group of talented incoming freshmen led by guard Billy Schrauth.
Coach Harry Heistand has a wealth of talent with which to work. The only concern is how fast these young players will develop their individual and collective skills with a visit to Ohio State looming in four short months. Cohesion is the primary objective and that becomes more likely when Patterson returns to anchor the group and make the line calls for them.
Michael Mayer returns for what will almost certainly be his last season at Notre Dame. The team’s primary passing target over the past two years is destined for the NFL as a high draft choice. Keeping him healthy for 12-plus games this fall is of primary importance to the Irish. Mayer is striving to polish every aspect of his game and will be a force to be reckoned with this fall.
The other tight end spots are also critical due to the number of times Rees will call for two or even three of them to be on the field together. Junior Kevin Bauman is finally healthy after two injury-plagued seasons. Sophomore Mitchell Evans flashed his talents last year as a freshman and performed well this spring. His classmate Cane Berrong is back from injury after missing most of 2021. These three have excellent potential and lack only game experience. Baumann is the surest bet of the three to see the field consistently if he remains healthy.
Two incoming freshmen, Eli Raridon and Holden Staes, are high quality recruits who appear capable of carrying forward Notre Dame’s tradition of stellar tight ends. The only question is whether we will see them play this season.
I look forward to watching Mayer perform and hope he has better luck than Kyle Hamilton did in 2021 as his college career ended prematurely. Like Hamilton, Mayer plays hard and will give maximum effort on each snap. He has made no secret of his national championship aspirations for this team, so you won’t see him cut toward the sideline when he can run over a defensive back instead.
Irish fans hoped the spring program would settle the competition between Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne. Officially, that decision has not been made. No starter will be named until August but I suspect Buchner has already won the job. Perhaps too much has been made of Pyne’s inconsistent performance in the Blue & Gold game but Buchner had been the more impressive of the two before an ankle injury prevented Irish fans from getting an extended look at him.
Even if we assume the offensive line will be improved and the running game more productive, the Irish cannot contend without a downfield passing game. Only Buchner can provide that. Short throws to Mayer and an abundance of screen passes will not stretch opposing defenses. Buchner’s skill as a runner and his ability to throw on the move are plusses that Pyne doesn’t possess. He also has a better arm than Pyne and is far more accurate on the deeper routes. Buchner’s ability to win games depends on his success in completing a respectable percentage of the intermediate and deep throws. While Buchner works on his accuracy and understanding of defenses, Rees and Marcus Freeman must coach him to make good decisions as to where and when to cut it loose.
The elephant in the room is the lack of options should Buchner suffer an injury. Freshman Steve Angeli enrolled early this spring to get a jump on his football and academic education. In last week’s scrimmage he demonstrated poise and maturity beyond his years. That probably won’t translate into meaningful playing time in 2022, though. Pyne remains a popular leader and consummate teammate who can rally the troops in a pinch. Athletically, however, he’s not the long term answer.
Buchner will be better in 2023 after a full season under his belt. I believe Freeman understands this and will not seek out a graduate transfer to push him to the bench this season. Although he is sure to make mistakes, Buchner is a confident leader who will take the Irish as far as he can this year. The results may be surprisingly good to many of us if he can avoid injuries that cause him to miss time.
Not only is the roster thin at this position, but there are few if any sure things. Two of three veterans will probably not be ready when the season starts. Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins are rehabilitating knee injuries suffered in 2021 and only Braden Lenzy is fully healthy. Lenzy has worked hard this spring to become the team’s primary target. He had a couple of nice receptions in the Blue & Gold game but remains a work in progress both as a route runner and with overall consistency.
The rest of the production must come from very young players. Lorenzo Styles is the best of this group. His considerable talents were on display late last season, especially after Davis went down. Styles did not make an impact during the Blue & Gold game, but that may have been by design. Freeman and Rees do not want to give Ohio State a preview of what will happen in September.
Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas are two players who will be counted upon to contribute as sophomores this fall. Both are talented but lack consistency and polish. Incoming freshman Tobias Merriweather is a highly rated recruit and possible future star but he won’t arrive in South Bend until the summer.
The Irish are in trouble until Davis and Wilkins return to the rotation. Until then, there is no obvious solution on third and long when Mayer is double covered. Lenzy has outstanding speed but has not used it to get open with regularity during his four years in the program. The rest of the group is a collection of question marks. Can Styles advance from a promising freshman to a sophomore mainstay? Can Colzie or Thomas earn the trust of the coaches and quarterback? Is Merriweather physically ready to contribute at this level?
The situation begs for at least one transfer candidate. Two would be better if they are proven commodities. This is not the best way to run a program, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
A scary scenario for Notre Dame fans is that Buchner will play well while a couple of young receivers emerge, but the team will still lose key games for lack of a reliable place kicker. It might happen. The Irish had more kickers on the field this spring than a soccer team, but none of them could put the ball through the uprights.
Sophomore Josh Bryan and Graduate Transfer Blake Grupe combined to hit one of four field goals in the Blue & Gold game. The 14 practices that preceded this open scrimmage did not yield much better results. Since Freeman already dipped into the transfer market for Grupe, he may be reluctant to do it again. The only path available today is for Special Teams Coach Brian Mason to work with this pair or others if necessary until a reasonable level of competence is achieved.
There is a danger this won’t happen at all, but realistically the kicking game will remain one of the weakest areas on the team no matter what happens during the summer. Right now the best solution for the team is to score more touchdowns.
P.S. The punting game is almost as bad, at least for the moment. Help will arrive this summer when Graduate Transfer Jon Sot arrives from Harvard. As of now he remains an unknown commodity although punting skills are transferable regardless of the level of competition.
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