And In That Corner … A Thor-ough look at Notre Dame’s offensive draft hopefuls

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Let’s pick up where we left off yesterday. After Thor Nystrom, Rotoworld’s lead college football writer and NFL draft analyst, walked us through the draft chances of four former Notre Dame defenders, let’s discuss a handful of offensive draft hopefuls.

DF: We should admit some of this is article is actually us recollecting past conversations, shouldn’t we, Thor? When Miles Boykin stole the show at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, I believe your exact message to me was, “I fell off my couch when watching the combine. I had no idea he could move like that.”

Neither did Irish fans until the 2018 Citrus Bowl, when Boykin soared for a one-handed grab and then kept his feet as two LSU defenders lost theirs. That set the bar for his 2019, a bar he largely met but still, somehow, his 59 catches for 872 yards never included another “WOW” moment.

He has a lot of good to very good qualities, but I argue none that are elite or that will set him apart. I believe I once told you Boykin’s peak may be that of a bargain bin Anquan Boldin.

How far off do you feel I am? What does an NFL team see when it looks at Miles Boykin?

TN: Boykin is a really tough nut to crack. And that’s from the outsider’s perspective. I think most Notre Dame fans who watched this kid week after week for multiple years don’t know where this goes. I wish I had more certainty, but he’s one of the most difficult evaluations in this class.

If they redrafted this class a decade from now, Boykin would not go on Day 2. In the redraft, he would be either a first-rounder — and perhaps a top-10 pick — or a late-rounder.

Boykin tested as one of the great athletes in the history of the NFL combine, regardless of position, and he’s 6-foot-4, 220 pounds. We’re talking Megatron-neighborhood measurables.

Boykin was clearly not a stiff in college, but I was stunned he tested like that. If you told me a receiver in this class was going to test as one of the top-three WR athletes of all time that week and had given me 10 guesses, I wouldn’t have tossed out Boykin.

Thor’s complete WR rankings

You just wonder if he is a guy who is ever going to play up to his gifts. He’s raw, of course, but some guys stay raw.

There is another school of thought I tend more toward: Boykin never really got an opportunity to show his stuff because he was cast into receiver misery those years serving as a receiver to no-arm “dual-threat” quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

I’m very intrigued by the profile, but I hedged my grade because I don’t have a great feel one way or the other for the way Boykin’s development is going to go. I rank him as the No. 66 player in the class.

DF: Only one player really provided “WOW” moments for Notre Dame’s offense last season: Dexter Williams. Readers of this space know I have been long critical of what Williams cannot or does not do — pass block, pass catch, stay within the known rules. While his 40-yard dash time is only 4.57 seconds, he has undeniable burst and thus is a dangerous runner.

In the modern NFL, though, is that enough? Do those missing tools I focus on lower his draft stock?

TN: Yes, we’re on the same page with Dexter.

I actually like him a lot as a pure runner. He’s a see-hole, hit-hole rocked-up smooth operator with 81st-percentile athleticism. Williams moves really well east-to-west, and he can create yardage on his own.

But he has some red flags in his evaluation that hurt his value. He’s a net zero in the passing game, and that’s a killer in the modern NFL. For every Jordan Howard, you have 20 guys who starred in college but couldn’t catch and quickly faded into irrelevance.

He also has character red flags probably already discussed ad nauseam among Notre Dame fans, and Williams struggled for years to free himself from a crowded running back room and Brian Kelly’s doghouse into a consistent role.

Thor’s complete RB rankings

I ranked him RB8 earlier in the evaluation process and kept moving him down because of the red flags. Character issues from a running back who can’t play on passing downs and doesn’t have long speed are a tough sell in the NFL.

I could see ranking Dex as high as RB7 or as low as RBOffMyBoard. I ended up ranking him RB13 in the class. I grade him as a mid-fifth-rounder.

DF: Again to betray some of our past back-and-forths, I know Alizé Mack holds a special place in your heart. He did for a long time for Irish fans, too. The difference between you and them is you did not watch Mack fail to fulfill your affections for four years. As physically gifted as he is, Mack refuses to catch the ball consistently. There is no denying Brandon Wimbush struggled with accuracy, but Mack did him no favors, dropping at least a handful of catchable passes in 2017.

Mack even dropped passes from Tom(my) Rees at Notre Dame’s Pro Day last month. If there is one thing Rees always did, it was throw a catchable ball.

As you have studied Mack the last few months, have you come to grips with these realities or do you continue to focus on the possible and the potential?

TN: Note to the reader: Douglas has held more than one Alizé Mack intervention with me. It’s true.

As Douglas knows, it was always hard for me to quit Alizé. I twice predicted breakout campaigns for Mack in my work with college fantasy football rankings. He disappointed both times, disappointed throughout his career at Notre Dame, and yet I still can’t entirely dismiss him as an NFL prospect.

That’s because Mack is arguably the most natural pure receiver in this class when he’s on. Not the most athletic or the best after the catch, but the most skilled, the most natural.

Frustratingly, for a natural receiver with soft hands, Mack drops too many balls. Is that from a lack of concentration? Yeah, probably. Could some of it have to do with the concussions he dealt with in college? I think that’s plausible.

He really needs to clean that up pronto. Because he has no interest in blocking, and, as was confirmed at the NFL combine, he lacks quickness and agility. Mack is a good athlete overall, but he’s entirely a north-south mover.

He’s dangerous down the seam and in the red zone, but he’s not cutting on a dime to snatch a ball outside his frame coming in hot in the intermediate sector. He’s not that fluid.

If Mack doesn’t stop dropping the ball and ditch the inconsistency, he’s going to get escorted out of the NFL quickly. And Douglas, I think you had him pegged pretty good.

Thor’s complete TE rankings

I want to believe he’s going to just show up one day as the guy with A+ hands that he sometimes was in college and just be that guy forever. Because that guy could, at the very least, do damage down the seam, damage as a big slot and damage in the red zone in the NFL. His risk profile dropped him to TE9 in my final rankings.

DF: The top of this Q&A would be very different if Alex Bars had not torn his ACL in week five last season. Maybe his draft stock would have settled into the second round or so, but it really seemed like he was playing at an All-American level.

Bars is reportedly far ahead of his expected rehab schedule, implying playing this fall is not impossible. Frankly, that makes sense: He will have had 11 full months since the injury and ACL recoveries have sped up ever since Adrian Peterson bordered on a medical miracle in 2012.

Is there any chance Bars gets drafted?

TN: Yes, I think there’s a good chance he gets drafted.

It’s really too bad Bars got hurt. Douglas and I were talking a few months back about this — Notre Dame had just lost a Mount Rushmore tackle and a Mount Rushmore guard, and with them gone it was now Bars’ time to take over and assert himself as one of the top guards in the nation.

Instead, we got less than 350 snaps out of him before his season ended. I think we saw enough in the 2,000-plus snaps Bars had between 2016-2018 to conclude he’s a guy worth developing, even if we never got that leap we thought we were going to see, and even if he’s rehabbing.

But as you mention, he won’t miss much time, and even if he does, who cares. You’re not taking Bars on Day 3 with the idea he’s going to contribute Year 1 even if he was healthy. The guard class dries up at a certain point. When that happens, Bars is one of the first guys I want to roll the dice on. I rank him as the No. 198 player in the class, mid-sixth-round territory.

DF: That leaves Sam Mustipher. I am rather confident he ends up an undrafted free agent, which many argue is preferable to going in the seventh round, or even perhaps the sixth. He will get to choose his destination. As someone who embraces contact, can hold a block and thoroughly understands the game, could he catch on for more than a season?

TN: I agree with you — I don’t think he gets drafted.

Mustipher was a solid college center, but he wasn’t a standout. Pro Football Focus graded him above-average the past three seasons, but never with a grade above 74.0.

That’s pretty troubling for a guy who tested as one of the least athletic centers in the class. I don’t like his chances of hanging on an active roster.

DF: Thanks, Thor. I realize it has been a busy few months for you. Feel free to take May off before you start prepping for fall previews.

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


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

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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.

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

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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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.

Sam Hartman’s practice debut features Notre Dame veteran Chris Tyree move to receiver, at least for now

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Marcus Freeman’s second spring as Notre Dame’s head coach has begun. As he pointed out Wednesday, it is quarterback transfer Sam Hartman’s sixth spring practice. Both are still looking around a bit for their proper cues, though Hartman’s hesitance now should be short-lived.

“He’s like a freshman, it’s new,” Freeman said. “I was joking with him, this is his sixth spring ball, but you’re at a new place, a new system, still figuring out where to go, what a drill is called, so you can see him at times just trying to say, ‘Okay, where are we going, what’s the drill, what are we doing, how many plays?’

“But he’s got some natural ability when he throws the ball and when he plays the game of football. You’ll see the leadership traits that he possesses grow because I know he has them. He’s a leader the first time you meet him. You can tell that he really commands respect.”

Freeman mentioned a “quarterback competition” between Hartman and rising junior Tyler Buchner only once, something that will reoccur throughout the next month, though more in name than in reality. Whoever takes the lead at quarterback, and it will be Hartman, will have a new target to get comfortable with in rising senior Chris Tyree.

Tyree spent the first spring practice working at receiver after lining up at running back the vast majority of the last three years. Freeman would not commit to that being a full-time shift for Tyree, but given the Irish depth at running back — led by rising juniors Audric Estimé and Logan Diggs, with rising sophomore Gi’Bran Payne the next in line for the spring while classmate Jadarian Price continues to “progress” from a torn Achilles last summer — Tyree working at receiver for the long-term should make some sense.

“He’s a guy that has multiple skill sets, and we know Chris Tyree is a guy we have to have on the football field,” Freeman said. “The ability to put him at wideout, we know what he can do as a running back, to really be a guy that can do multiple different things.”

Tyree took 100 rushes for 444 yards and three touchdowns and caught 24 passes for 138 yards and two more scores last year. The ball-carrying was a step forward compared to his previous seasons, but he caught 24 passes for 258 yards in 2021. In three games in 2022, Tyree gained more than 20 yards through the air. He was one of the more reliable pass-catchers on Notre Dame’s roster last season, finishing tied for fourth in receptions, one behind Jayden Thomas’s 25 catches and just six behind Lorenzo Styles, the leading returning receiver.

“You’re seeing more of that in college football and in the NFL,” Freeman said. “Guys that can play multiple different skill positions on offense, so do you treat him as a running back, do you treat him as a wideout? That’s what we have to do, and gain confidence in the quarterbacks in him as a wide receiver.”

Tyree’s shift was the most notable on the field on the first day of spring practices, but a handful of absences also stood out.

Junior linebacker Will Schweitzer, junior safety Justin Walters and junior quarterback Ron Powlus III have taken medical retirements, while junior cornerback Philip Riley, junior offensive lineman Caleb Johnson and junior kicker Josh Bryan are all no longer with the program, presumably each pursuing a transfer following this semester.

With those departures, Notre Dame’s roster now has 87 players on scholarship, two more than the NCAA maximum allowed when the season starts.

In hiring Marty Biagi from Mississippi, Freeman strayed from his usual habit of hiring coaches he has previous experience with. He did, however, have some mutual connections to reach out to about Biagi.

“I remember when we were playing Purdue when I was defensive coordinator (at Notre Dame in 2021), I was sitting in a special teams meeting, and they did some unique things on special teams.

“I still know some people back in West Lafayette from my time there, and he does, too. Somehow his name got brought up, so I was interested in interviewing him last year before I hired [former Irish special teams coordinator Brian Mason]. I didn’t know [Biagi] personally, but I had talked to him before, I knew enough about him. It’s important because you need to know when you’re not around, you can trust those guys that you’re working with.”

Defensive backs Cam Hart and Thomas Harper will both be held out of contact for at least the near future as they recover from winter shoulder surgeries, while early-enrolled defensive lineman Devan Houstan Will Likely miss all springtime work due to his own recent shoulder surgery.

Tight ends Eli Raridon and Kevin Bauman will not take part this spring due to ACL injuries in the fall.

Freeman expressed some optimism about Price’s timeline, but even that was measured.

“I don’t know if he will be full go, but he has done a lot of running and I see him progressing to more and more actual football practice.”

Given Price is still less than a calendar year from a ruptured Achilles, it is most likely he is limited well into the summer.