Pregame Six Pack: One last time for 2011

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You’ve got to love college football. It’s the only sport where you can logically explain taking a month-long break in your schedule before playing a bowl game, an essentially meaningless exhibition game when it comes to postseason implications.

But that’s our sport and we all love it. And for Notre Dame and Florida State, two teams that failed to live up to lofty preseason expectations, tomorrow evening’s date in the Champs Sports Bowl gives two of college football’s most tradition-laden programs a chance to end this season on a high note. Is it the BCS game both fanbases hoped for before the season? No. But with five combined losses between the two programs before mid-October, the fact that the two teams are meeting in one of the most intriguing games of an otherwise mediocre slate of postseason games, it sure makes for some compelling football.

Before Brian Kelly‘s squad renews an old rivalry with the Seminoles on Thursday evening at 5:30 p.m. ET, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before we put a bow on an interesting 2011 season.

***

You can never avoid the winds of change in the college football world.

Rumors swirled the past few days of more big news coming in college football. Whether that was rumors that Michigan was going to drop Notre Dame in football or another team hightailing it from a conference in search of more money, you’ve got to give credit to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott for actually thinking outside the box to both help their respective conferences while also not dropping another bomb on an already unstable landscape.

Starting as soon as next year, the two conferences will start a “collaboration,” a newly founded alliance that’ll have a lot of the benefits sought during the rumored “seismic shifts” without the bloodshed seen in the Big 12 and the SEC.

“Rather than go down the road of just trying to add members, we thought this was a way to keep who we were and an increased value for everybody,” Delany said.

“It’s a flexible approach to achieving some of the benefits of expansion without dealing with some of the other structural issues,” Scott added.

Of course, the one school that was probably most effected out of the conference members was Notre Dame. And as Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports reports, Irish AD Jack Swarbrick was all over this from day one.

Here’s more from Forde:

The Fighting Irish have a huge part of their schedule invested in those leagues. The fiercely independent Irish have five ongoing annual series with teams from those leagues: Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue of the Big Ten, and USC and Stanford of the Pac-12. If the leagues are going to add an annual game between members, would that potentially squeeze Notre Dame out of the mix?

Not likely, said Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who has a close relationship with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany.

“I don’t anticipate it having much of an impact,” Swarbrick told Yahoo! Sports. “I was aware it was coming; they sort of kept us informed. I think it’s a great thing for the two conferences.”

A more likely scenario than dropping Notre Dame is a reduction in conference games from nine to eight. Thus, the Big Ten vs. Pac-12 game would be a substitute for that league game on the schedule, which means Notre Dame’s spot would not have to be sacrificed in favor of a “guaranteed” home game against a lesser opponent.

Swarbrick has done a pretty impressive job maneuvering the Irish through some tricky times the past few years. It’s good to see Notre Dame will be able to hold onto these traditional opponents, and even better to see that the days of buying wins and scheduling cupcakes is possibly on its way out.

***

Expect special teams to play a big role in determining a winner.

It might be too late for the Irish to work their way out of the depths of mediocrity when it comes to their punt return game. But if there’s ever a game where the Irish need to show up in special teams, this is the one.

The Irish face the best set of specialists they’ll see all year, with punter Shawn Powell No. 1 in the country averaging 47-yards a kick and Dustin Hopkins an All-American place kicker. In a game where yardage will be at a premium, manufacturing field position and getting something — heck anything — out of the punt return game would be a huge help to an Irish offense that’ll be facing its stiffest task of the year. Just as important, it’ll be up to Mike Elston’s troops to slow down a dangerous set of Seminole return men, headlined by junior Gred Reid, who has averaged 11.4 yards a return.

“Florida State can put points on the board in the special teams,” Kelly said. “I think they’re the first team we will play this year that have that kind of dynamic ability in their special teams. It’s been a constant point of emphasis for us relative to how we have prepared in our bowl season, but clearly if you have two fairly even-matched teams sometimes special teams makes a big difference. We knew that going in and we are going to have to play well in that area.”

Adding another interesting twist to the special teams battle, the Seminoles All-American kicker was almost Irish, as Hopkins nearly selected the Irish before deciding to head to Tallahassee. It wasn’t as dramatic as Lorenzo Booker’s last second defection to the Seminoles, but a mysterious string of events pushed him to Florida Stat.

The junior All-American, who was a finalist for this year’s Lou Groza Award, admits now that a series of chance occurrences during his recruiting visits played at least some role in shaping his decision.

First, he and his family were walking in a Houston airport when they found an old Buffalo nickel, which featured the face of an American Indian on one side. Hopkins’ mother immediately joked that it might be a sign for the Seminoles, but the family just laughed it off.

Then during a recruiting trip to Northwestern’s football offices, the Hopkins clan spotted a trophy named for then-Florida State coach Bobby Bowden.

“My sister saw it and said, ‘Dustin, look … another sign,'” he recalled. “We laughed that one off, too.”

Then during his recruiting visit to South Bend, Ind., Hopkins went to eat with Notre Dame’s coaches at a Chili’s restaurant. And there on a wall was a mural featuring an American Indian riding a horse — an image not unlike Florida State’s own Osceola and Renegade.”It was just really ironic,” Hopkins said.

The message, of course: Don’t take a recruit to Chili’s on his official visit.

***

After losing his captaincy before the season, Michael Floyd finally gets to lead his team.

Among the permanent repercussions that came from Michael Floyd‘s DUI arrest last spring was getting stripped of his captaincy before the season started. The honor bestowed on the rising senior wide receiver at the award’s ceremony last winter was taken away as Floyd was put on probation by the school, and Harrison Smith was the sole captain of the Irish this season, with a game day captain named each week to join him.

But Floyd took his final classes as a student earlier in December, graduating at the semester break from Notre Dame. Scoring four As (and a C-) in his final semester, Floyd did all that was asked of him in the classroom, not to mention countless hours of community service and other off-the-field work. He also helped prove that the faith the university administration placed in him, not to mention Kelly staking his reputation on his star player, was deserved.

“He’s exhibited all the things necessary that we’ve asked him to do,” Kelly at a press conference Wednesday. “He’s gotten his degree from Notre Dame, he’s lived his life the right way, he’s been extraordinary in his preparation in practice. He exhibits all of those traits that we feel are important to be a game-day captain.”

Last year, Michael took the bowl game to torch a talented Miami secondary for a big game. This year, he’ll have a national spotlight on him against a talented Seminoles secondary, but one that presents some physical mismatches for the top Irish receiver in school history.

Regardless of who’s throwing to him, look for the Irish to take some shots down the field throwing to No. 3 — the last time we’ll be able to watch Mr. Michael Floyd don the Irish uniform.

***

Kelly hints that a staff promotion is coming from within.

The smoke that’s surrounded running backs coach Tim Hinton has struggled to clear, especially with Urban Meyer still looking to round out his offensive coaching staff in Columbus, and Hinton having such deep roots in the state of Ohio.

That said, both Hinton and Kelly have proclaimed Hinton is staying put, and Kelly once again made it seem that there won’t be any more defections, and it’s possible that any addition will come from coaches that already work for the Irish.

“We’re very excited that we’re going to be able to keep our staff in place,” Kelly said. “Obviously Charley Molnar is at UMass and we’re excited for him. But we’re going to be able to announce those things. I can tell you this, they’re guys who have already been on Notre Dame’s campus. That’s the exciting part that we’re going to have continuity within our staff and maintain that this year.”

Whether that means Ed Warinner will climb the ladder to offensive coordinator or secondary coach Chuck Martin will switch sides of the ball remains to be seen. We also don’t know just how coy Kelly was being — does “already been on Notre Dame’s campus” mean this year? If it does — the Irish have four solid candidates among their GA troops:

Scott Booker, Offensive Intern. Booker was a four-year starter at defensive back for Kent State, and coached the secondary for his alma mater from 2005-08 and at Western Kentucky in 2009. Booker took a step back, dropping down to the intern rank to come to Notre Dame, but could slide into the defensive staff if Martin moves to OC.

Bill Brechin, Offensive Intern. Brechin came to South Bend with Martin, playing for the former Grand Valley State coach as an All-Conference DB before working as a graduate assistant for the Lakers before switching sides of the ball in South Bend.

Jon Carpenter, Defensive Graduate Assistant. Carpenter played under Kelly at Cincinnati as a linebacker and is the younger brother of former Buckeye All-American and current NFL player Bobby Carpenter. He’d likely only fill a void on the defensive side of the ball.

Michael Painter, Defensive Graduate Assistant. Painter has worked with Kelly all the way back to Central Michigan, working his way from there to Cincinnati, where he spent three years as a staff associate. Painter spent some time working special teams for the Chippewas, an area he could chip in for the Irish.

***

How good is the Irish running game? We’ll find out against the Seminoles.

The numbers don’t look good for the Irish. After losing senior Jonas Gray with a knee injury against Boston College, the Irish will take on the nation’s toughest run defense in the country, with the Seminoles giving up only 2.32 yards per carry.

This is hardly the Irish’s first dance with a dominant running defense. Florida State will be the sixth team the Irish have faced in the Top 35 in the country in yards-per-carry, with the Irish putting up mixed results:

No. 1 — Florida State:
No. 7 — Michigan State: 32 carries, 114 yards, 2 TDs
No. 8 — South Florida: 29 carries, 117 yards, 1 TD
No. 11 — Stanford: 31 carries, 57 yards, 1 TD
No. 20 — Pittsburgh: 32 carries, 182 yards 1 TD
No. 35 — USC: 14 carries, 41 yards, 1 TD

That’s a modest average of 3.7 yards a carry against those five defenses, with sack yardage not taken into account. The Irish had their biggest ground games against Purdue, Air Force, and Maryland, one mediocre (Purdue) and two statistically horrible teams against the run.

With Theo Riddick in the backfield and Andrew Hendrix adding to the rush attack, the Irish will need to squeeze every bit of efficiency they can on the ground, even if the going is tough.

***

It’s a fond farewell to a senior class that left Notre Dame in a better place than they found it.

It’s a bittersweet time of year. Notre Dame will say good bye to another class of seniors, with Thursday’s bowl the last time we’ll see this group take the field. Here’s a quick run down of the class likely taking the field for the last time:

Harrison Smith — Senior leader grew more in five years than anyone.
David Ruffer — An often told story that’d make even Rudy blush.
Mike Ragone — Star-crossed tight end matured into a model citizen.
Andrew Nuss — Fifth year player supplied critical depth on the offensive line.
Nick Lezynski — Walk-on hopes to continue football career as a coach.
Gary Gray — Bounced back from early adversity. Potential to play on Sundays.
Taylor Dever — Never sniffed the field until Kelly arrived, then became two-year starter.
Patrick Coughlin — Former Irish track member followed his dream to football.
Hafis Williams — Reserve nose guard might spend fifth-year playing elsewhere.
Deion Walker — While he never lived up to the hype, he’s always been a team guy.
Jamoris Slaughter — Free of injury, Slaughter will be back for a fifth-year.
Ryan Sheehan — Walk-on walked away from track scholarship to join football team.
Ryan Sharpley — Former baseball player (and brother of Evan) joined team as WR.
Chris Salvi — Special teams dynamo honored as game captain.
Trevor Robinson — One of Irish’s quirkiest personalities, should find way to NFL.
David Posluszny — Played large on special teams, even if he struggled in brother’s shadow.
Andrew Plaska — Walk-on who’ll end up in medical school next year.
Sean Oxley — Turned down Ivy Leagues to walk-on at Notre Dame.
Brandon Newman — Senior DT will be remembered for personality… and Trick Shot Monday.
Matthew Mulvey — Walk-on QB and leader of Red Army.
Anthony McDonald — Linebacker battled health issues for most of career.
Dan McCarthy — Safety struggled to stay healthy after coming to ND with neck injury.
Dennis Mahoney — Law school likely for walk-on, who saw the field against Air Force.
Kapron Lewis-Moore — Knee injury ended season, but career will continue in 2012.
Ryan Kavanagh — Walk-on snapper added holder to his repertoire.
Ethan Johnson — Heart of defensive line battled injuries during final season.
Mike Grieco — Walk-on and Holy Cross transfer kicked extra point against Air Force.
Jonas Gray — Story of the season only sidetracked with ACL tear.
John Goodman — With one year of eligibility left, Goodman could stay or play elsewhere in 2012.
Mike Golic Jr. — Came up big after spending career as back-up. Might return in 2012.
Jonathan Frantz — After two years as a student, Frantz walked-on to the football team.
Michael Floyd — The greatest pure WR in Notre Dame history.
Darius Fleming — Chicago product battled through coaching changes to be best pass rusher.
Steve Filer — Knee injury ended a career that never found its mark.
Dayne Crist — A model student-athlete for Notre Dame. Has Kansas detour to get career on track.
Lane Clelland — After an attempted position switch, Injuries hurt Clelland’s career.
Braxston Cave — Foot surgery ended 2011 season, will be back in 2012.
Robert Blanton — A four year contributor, Blanton is athletic enough for an NFL shot.

One last chance to wear the blue and gold should be enough motivation for this group to leave Notre Dame victorious. Congratulations to each and every one of this group for a great accomplishment.

A quick run through Notre Dame’s offensive depth chart, led by Sam Hartman and Joe Alt

Clemson v Notre Dame
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The first couple spring practices were enough to fill out a penciled depth chart for Notre Dame’s offense. Franky, there was one question needing some clues more than anything else, and Irish rising junior Michael Carmody has emerged as the early frontrunner at left guard opposite fifth-year Andrew Kristofic at right guard.

Let’s emphasize the phrase early frontrunner there, as new Notre Dame offensive line coach Joe Rudolph likely will mix and match a bit yet both before the Blue-Gold Game on April 22 and before the Irish head to Dublin in 148 days.

The one position with a clear pecking order among its top two, despite Notre Dame continuing to go through the facade of a competition, is quarterback.

“[Rising junior Tyler Buchner is] not going to back down from anybody,” Irish quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli said Friday. “At the end of the day, if those two are competing and going head-to-head, they’re making each other better and ultimately, they’re making the offense better, which is going to make this football team better. …

“They understand what’s at stake. It’s nice to see those guys compete. I think it sets a precedent in the room that, ‘Hey, you have to go out there every day and be consistent and make decisions that are going to help our football team and put them in situations to be successful.’”

Those are nice sentiments, and Buchner’s development obviously should be a Notre Dame priority through 2023, especially as it pertains to keeping him actively engaged with the program.

But Wake Forest graduate transfer Sam Hartman will start for the Irish in Dublin.

QUARTERBACK
— Hartman
— Buchner: Because it may be asked, Buchner has three seasons of eligibility remaining to be used in three years.
— Sophomore Steve Angeli: And Angeli has four seasons remaining in four years.
— Early-enrolled freshman Kenny Minchey

One more reminder, Ron Powlus III took a medical retirement this offseason.

RUNNING BACK
— Junior Audric Estimé
— Junior Logan Diggs: Both Estimé and Diggs have only two seasons of eligibility remaining, but given the short shelf lives of running backs, it could probably be assumed at least one of them will not return to college in 2024. Then again, perhaps NIL could change that long view.
— Sophomore Jadarian Price: Not yet full-go as he recovers from a summer Achilles injury, it looks more and more like Price may have the third-most carries for Notre Dame this fall with fifth-year Chris Tyree looking at a life at receiver.
— Sophomore Gi’Bran Payne
— Freshman Jeremiyah Love

BIG RECEIVER
— Virginia Tech graduate transfer Kaleb Smith: The nomenclature of “Big” used here is not official, is not what Notre Dame uses, and is intended only to convey uncertainty at who will line up where among the Irish receivers, particularly with a new offensive coordinator in Gerad Parker. It still feels safe to presume there will be some delineation between skill sets, though.
— Junior Jayden Thomas: He became a third-down extraordinaire in 2022 and has been praised as a leader this spring. Thomas could end up starting over Smith. Again, uncertainty about the split of starters.
— Junior Deion Colzie

FAST/LONGER RECEIVER
— Sophomore Tobias Merriweather could not be receiving much more praise this spring.
— Early-enrolled freshman Jaden Greathouse
— Early-enrolled freshman Braylon James

SLOT RECEIVER
— Junior Lorenzo Styles
— Fifth-year Chris Tyree: One could understandably wonder if Tyree’s dabbling at receiver was part of Notre Dame’s conversation with him about returning for this final collegiate season.
— Former walk-on Matt Salerno
— Freshman Kaleb Smith

TIGHT END
— Junior Mitchell Evans
— Sophomore Holden Staes
— Sophomore Eli Raridon
— Junior Kevin Bauman: Both Bauman and Raridon are sidelined for the spring as they recover from ACLs torn in the fall.
— Freshman Cooper Flanagan 

LEFT TACKLE
— Preseason first-team Walter Camp All-American Joe Alt: Yes, a preseason All-American team was released Friday. Yes, that’s idiotic.
— Senior Tosh Baker: He has never cracked the starting lineup aside from the rash of left tackle injuries in 2021 that eventually led to Alt’s star turn, but Baker remains one game away from taking over at a pivotal role. It is not like he has been supplanted by scrubs. If he hangs around South Bend, one has to think the starting gig could be his in 2024, but that may be an “if.”

LEFT GUARD
— Carmody
— Sophomore Billy Schrauth

CENTER
— Fifth-year Zeke Correll is set for his third season as a starter at the fulcrum, a veteran presence that should make life that much easier for Hartman.
— Junior Pat Coogan
— Early-enrolled freshman Sam Pendleton

RIGHT GUARD
— Kristofic
— Junior Rocco Spindler
— Sophomore Ashton Craig

RIGHT TACKLE
— Junior Blake Fisher
— Sophomore Aamil Wagner
— Sophomore Ty Chan

INCOMING OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
Positions are in flux even among the second unit along the offensive line, so trying to nail them down beyond that is foolish, particularly with players not even yet on campus.

Charles Jagusah
Joe Otting
Sullivan Absher
Chris Terek

Georgia OL prospect the first commit for new Notre Dame OL coach Joe Rudolph

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New Notre Dame offensive line coach Joe Rudolph pulled in his first recruit by continuing to chase a prospect he initially wanted at his last job. Three-star offensive lineman Anthonie Knapp (Roswell High School; Ga.) committed to the Irish on Wednesday afternoon, picking Notre Dame over Rudolph’s former employer, Virginia Tech, as well as Georgia Tech and North Carolina.

In total, more than half the ACC offered Knapp a scholarship. The Irish offer came only this past weekend with Knapp in South Bend catching up with Rudolph, who was the first Power Five coach to offer a scholarship to Knapp back at Virginia Tech.

“The hospitality and the heritage it kept made the school stand out,” Knapp said to Inside ND Sports in a text message.

At 6-foot-5 and less than 270 pounds, Knapp will need to put on weight at the next level, though that can be said of most high school juniors. He played left tackle last season, but unless the weight piles on quickly and consistently, Knapp will most likely play guard at the next level.

His footwork already looks more fundamentally sound than most high schoolers display, all the more impressive because Knapp could simply rely on overpowering his opponents as most offensive line prospects understandably tend to do. Knapp is content to use his length and footwork to let a pass rusher charge upfield, well past the quarterback.

Strength and mass will come with age and entering a collegiate conditioning program, and Knapp needs both of those, but length is uncoachable and footwork fundamentals hold up early careers as often as lack of strength does.

He is the second offensive lineman in the class, joining four-star offensive guard Peter Jones, also a preps tackle that is expected to move inside in college.

Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s biggest offensive progressions this spring will be smallest to spot from afar

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Notre Dame at USC
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When Marcus Freeman was first hired as Notre Dame’s head coach in December of 2021, it was widely expected he would retain three-fifths of his offensive coaching staff. Instead, promotions elsewhere awaited two of those coaches, leaving only Tommy Rees as a constant.

Then Rees and one-year returnee Harry Hiestand departed this offseason, meaning Freeman’s entire offensive coaching staff turned over — and the offensive line coach twice — within 15 months of that supposedly being a piece of stability he could lean on as a young first-time head coach. Yet, one thing has not changed about Freeman’s relationship with the offensive coaches: He is trying to stay out of their way.

“Most of the [newcomers] are on the offensive side of the ball, so really I just try to stay out of the way and let those guys meet,” Freeman said last week at the start of the Irish spring practices. “Give them time to be together. They’ve been together a lot and met a lot and really, you have to meet to get everybody on the same page. A lot of that is cohesion, that ability to view these guys as teammates.

“… I’ve been in there a bit, and then we have our staff meetings to make sure everybody understands our culture, understands our expectations. It’s not where it’s a finished product, but it’s definitely progressing to where we want to see it.”

A year ago, the cohesion Freeman was most worried about on the offensive side of the ball was between Rees and a pair of inexperienced quarterbacks. Now, it’s the collaboration between an offensive coordinator, a quarterbacks coach and an offensive line coach who had never worked together before a month or two ago. Freeman, of course, knew offensive coordinator Gerad Parker for more than a decade, quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli for seven years and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph since Freeman’s playing days at Ohio State beginning in 2004.

That has been a common theme in Freeman’s hires, tying to former Notre Dame special teams coach Brian Mason, current cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and defensive line coach Al Washington.

“There’s nothing more important than experience with somebody,” Freeman said. “I don’t have to wonder what this person is like when I’m not around. … When I can find a quality coach that I know can be the best at his profession, but also I have personal experience with them — I’m not saying we’re friends, but we’ve worked together. Coach Rudolph was at Ohio State when I was a player, but I knew what type of person he was.”

That is the commonality between those three new offensive hires, though a few pieces of similar backgrounds can be found between Parker and Guidugli. At 42 and 40, respectively, they both grew up in the Ohio River Valley and played college football along the same Kentucky-Ohio Interstate corridor. Parker then went straight into coaching while Guidugli knocked around the Canadian Football League and various iterations of short-lived secondary leagues in the United States until he went into coaching in 2010.

At the least, though, their formative years should have shared enough to lay a foundation now, the foundation upon which Freeman is counting on them to build an offense. That progression may be as important as any other made on the offensive side of the ball this spring.

After just one practice, Freeman saw value in a quarterbacks coach who can somewhat ignore the rest of the offense. Rees’s focus was assuredly on the quarterbacks, but Sam Hartman, Tyler Buchner & Co. are quite literally all Guidugli needs to concern himself with each day.

“When you take some of that responsibility off their plate, and it’s just coach the quarterbacks and see if they made the right decision because there’s so much that falls on [the quarterback’s] plate that isn’t really his fault,” Freeman said. “I know he gets the praise and he gets the criticism, but my biggest thing, did you make the right decision? That’s so important at the quarterback position.”

Parker thinks there may be more to the gig than the right decision. Wake Forest graduate transfer Sam Hartman should have little trouble with any intangibles of acclimating to a new campus and a new roster, even if he did not have to run many huddles with the Demon Deacons, but there will be one tangible shift to his quarterback play that Hartman might need to work on.

“Just in its simplest form, just taking snaps under center,” Parker said this weekend. “As simple as that. Just being able to secure a football under center.”

Parker wants to emphasize that because even as Notre Dame presumably opens up its offense a bit more with a deeper receivers room chasing passes from a stronger-armed quarterback, the Irish offense will still hinge on its veteran offensive line and trio of proven running backs.

Finding that balance can come in August. For now, finding that snap will be Hartman’s focus while Parker, Guidugli, Rudolph and a litany of offensive analysts strive to learn the same shorthand.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Sam Hartman’s practice debut features Notre Dame veteran Chris Tyree move to receiver, at least for now
Thomas’ leadership, freshmen arrivals already improve Notre Dame’s receivers room
Dynamic incoming freshman safety Brandyn Hillman exits Notre Dame before enrolling

OUTSIDE READING
Here’s the actually interesting thing about that Notre Dame NYT op-ed
Notre Dame AD says NCAA could break apart without stronger NIL guidelines
Ryan Bischel, Trevor Janicke will return next season for Notre Dame hockey
2023 NFL draft Big Board: PFF’s Top 150 prospects
Bears tight end Cole Kmet fulfills promise, returns to Notre Dame for degree
Increase in countable coaches rule reportedly unlikely to pass
Timing rules changes proposed in football
Men outnumber women at Notre Dame for the past 20 years, University denies gender quota
1 in 4 prospective students ruled out colleges due to their states’ political climates

Thomas’ leadership, freshmen arrivals already improve Notre Dame’s receivers room

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As much criticism as Drew Pyne and Tommy Rees received for Notre Dame’s ground-bound offense last season, much of that approach was due to a reality beyond their control. The former Irish quarterback and offensive coordinator could not run the routes or catch the passes.

Notre Dame had few who could run the routes and among them, it seemed even fewer who could catch Pyne’s passes. Thus, the Irish threw for fewer than 200 yards in six games, not even reaching triple digits in the 35-14 upset of Clemson to start November. They threw 21 or fewer passes four times; raise that to 26 pass attempts and three more games qualify.

Of Notre Dame’s 192 completed passes in the regular season, 35 percent of them landed in the hands of tight end Michael Mayer. Another 22 percent found running backs. Six Irish receivers combined to catch 94 passes for 1,306 yards total last year. Seven receivers across the country caught 94 or more passes on their own in 2022, and three topped that yardage tally.

There simply were not ample options among the receivers for Rees to draw up plays with Pyne targeting them, particularly not after Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins were injured in the preseason, Deion Colzie was hampered in the preseason and Tobias Merriweather’s season would be cut short by a concussion.

The Irish moving running back Chris Tyree to at least a part-time role at receiver this spring will help solve that dearth but not nearly as much as the arrivals of Virginia Tech transfer Kaleb Smith and a trio of early-enrolled freshmen will. With them, Notre Dame has nine receivers on hand this spring, though who exactly leads them is a vague wonder.

Smith has the most collegiate experience with 74 career catches, and his size should place him into the starting lineup, but he is just as new in South Bend as early enrollees Rico Flores, Jaden Greathouse and Braylon James all are. Of the three rising juniors on the roster, each had a moment or two of note last season, but Jayden Thomas’s may have been the most consistent, finishing with 25 catches for 362 yards and three touchdowns.

“That’s the challenge I’ve had for that entire room,” Freeman said of finding a leader in the position group. “Guys that have been here. … I hope Jayden Thomas continues to excel on the field and then in his leadership roles.

“What he’s done in the weight room, I think he’s matured and said, okay, I can play at a higher level when I take care of my body or I’m at a weight I feel really comfortable at.”

Those were mostly generic platitudes, but Thomas’s 2022 stats alone are impressive enough to garner a leading role when dug into a bit. Of his 25 catches, 18 of them gained a first down. Of those 18, eight of them came on third down and another two were on second-and-long. If Notre Dame needed a chunk gain and Mayer was covered, Thomas was the most likely outlet.

That should give him pole position to be the boundary starter heading into 2023, with Colzie and/or Merriweather pressing him forward. Smith’s experience and size should pencil him in as the field starter, leaving the slot the question on the first unit for the next 14 spring practices.

Tyree could emerge there, but he is more likely to be a utility knife type of option, concealing any offensive alignment until the snap. Instead, rising junior Lorenzo Styles may get a chance at the slot. He has the tools if he has the focus.

Styles dropped six passes last season, more than anyone else on the roster and a bothersome number regardless of his final stats, but one that stands out in particular when realizing he caught only 30 passes for 340 yards and a score.

“It became I think mental last year,” Freeman said Wednesday. “Lorenzo Styles is a talented, talented football player, really talented. With him last year, it almost became a mental struggle, even just the basics of catching the ball.”

Last year, those mental struggles were enough to somewhat undo Notre Dame’s offense, because the Irish had no choice but to play Styles through his missteps. Now, whether it be injury or some headspace frustrations that Chuck Knoblauch could relate to, the Irish have some depth at receiver if needed. As the season progresses, that depth will become only stronger with the freshmen rounding into form.

“The young wideouts caught a couple balls, and it’s going to be good to see the progression of all those freshmen,” Freeman said. “They’re all going to be in different places on the road. That’s what I spend a lot of time talking to our team about, we’re all freshmen, you can’t compare your journey to this guy’s journey.”

Wherever those journeys are, they are welcome additions to Notre Dame’s offense. As much as newly-promoted offensive coordinator Gerad Parker will relish the luxury that is veteran quarterback Sam Hartman, simply having options on the perimeter for Hartman to look for should be an Irish improvement.