Tight end emphasis costs Notre Dame tempo, a sacrifice worth the personnel focus

Michael Mayer Pittsburgh
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Brian Kelly did not intend for Notre Dame to be among the nation’s leaders in time of possession this season. The Irish head coach simply wanted to utilize the best personnel among available skill players.

As a result, tight ends Michael Mayer and Tommy Tremble, and running back Kyren Williams have combined for 33 catches, as many as all of Notre Dame’s receivers combined; and No. 4 Notre Dame (5-0, 4-0 ACC) ranks behind only Oklahoma in time of possession among teams to have played more than one game, a difference of 24 seconds per game separating the Irish from the Sooners.

The catches were by design, the ball control merely a symptom.

“This is strictly about personnel and making sure that you are playing the kind of football that is geared toward the strengths of your offense,” Kelly said Monday. “We said from day one that this should be centered around the offensive line and the tight ends, which is the strength.”

Pointing out a strength can also illustrate a weakness, and Notre Dame has long-known its receivers would need time to grow this season. That time has been repeatedly interrupted by injuries (hamstring issues for both graduate transfer Ben Skowronek and Braden Lenzy; a broken foot for Kevin Austin, a concussion for Lawrence Keys) and coronavirus protocols (at the least affecting Keys, but also the entire roster in that more than a week of practice was canceled). In no way does that help develop timing with fifth-year quarterback Ian Book, thus underscoring the strength of the tight ends.

“Ian feels really confident that he knows where [Mayer and Tremble] are going to be,” Kelly said. “That has been singularly one of the areas that we built that rapport and we built that confidence level. You can start to see that playing itself out.”

Leaning on tight ends — also including senior Brock Wright and junior George Takacs — slows the Irish offense not because they are slower than the receivers, but because Notre Dame utilizes more personnel groups. A side effect of an up-tempo offense is reduced substitutions. Any swapping of players mandates the defense have a chance to do so, as well, and slowing the tempo. Moving from two tight ends to three receivers and back again two plays later halts any hurry-up intentions.

In past years, the Irish had about two dozen tempo plays, a number now reduced “considerably.”

“We’re really going to be focusing a lot more on multiple formations and when you get into multiple formations in motion, it’s hard to play fast, quite frankly,” Kelly said. “In playing fast, you have to be in a much more static alignment, lining up and playing fast. …

“Consequently, you’re not going to be in as many of those hurry-up situations or tempo situations.”

Of course, a dominant running game plays into the statistical jump, as well. In 2019, Notre Dame averaged just less than 29 minutes per game with the ball. It also averaged 179 rushing yards per game. The current average of 34 minutes per game pairs with 231.8 rushing yards per game, and success running the ball does not stop the clock, as the Irish have enjoyed in each of their last two games, draining the final eight minutes off the clock in each with plodding, rushing drives.

“A balanced offense is that you are equally good at running it as you are throwing it, and then you support it by player over play,” Kelly said. “This year it’s about the players that are dictating the offense, not the particular play. That’s why we look the way we look.”

Ben Skowronek Pittsburgh
Graduate transfer receiver Ben Skowronek’s two deep touchdowns set the tone for Notre Dame’s 45-3 win at Pittsburgh, as well as shifted the narrative around the Irish passing game moving forward. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

Kelly would just as soon return to an up-tempo approach if the available personnel called for it.

“If I had four wide receivers — if I had Will Fuller, and I had Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin and TJ Jones,” Kelly mused, before realizing he was forgetting Michael Floyd, “we might be in four wide receivers and throwing.”

Given Austin’s absence for the rest of the season, the closest thing to Claypool, Boykin and Floyd on Notre Dame’s roster is Northwestern graduate transfer Ben Skowronek, fresh off a two-touchdown performance in the 45-3 victory at Pittsburgh.

Skowronek spent much of the summer working with Book, trying to develop chemistry with expediency despite a pandemic, before a hamstring injury interrupted his preseason as it did again in the first half of the season opener.

“We felt like that was where we were going to get that connection,” Kelly said. “… At the end of the day, it’s our job to build this continuity through repetition in practice and you can’t do it unless those guys are out on the field. They’re out on the field. Ben is practicing at full-go. We expect and we hope that we continue to build that relationship with those two guys.”

Skowronek’s four catches for 135 yards and two touchdowns falls short of Mayer’s stat line — 12 receptions for 153 yards and two scores — and Tremble’s reliability, but what he showed against the Panthers is what Notre Dame sought this offseason, knowing it was returning so few pass-catching contributors that Tremble was the most-proven.

“We were looking for veteran presence, somebody that played at a high level and competed at a high level,” Kelly said. “If somebody fit the profile we were looking for, we were in the market for that. … Ian needed somebody that played a lot of football, and Ben fit that profile.”

Junior receiver Braden Lenzy will presumably not be joining Skowronek in any respect this weekend, though if it were up to him, perhaps he would. The hamstring injury he re-aggravated late against Pittsburgh will sideline Lenzy this week.

“It’s a lingering hamstring that we need to get him right,” Kelly said. “He is a speed player. He’s a guy that’s best when he’s able to go at 100 percent. He’s been a warrior. He’s been tough and gritty.”

Until Lenzy returns to 100 percent, though, Kelly is reluctant to return him to the field.

The same was said of Keys coming off a concussion a week ago. He played a bit early in Heinz Field before seeing more time late in the blowout, an unexpected step forward.

“We didn’t want to get him into too much action,” Kelly said. “It ended up being that he got quite a few reps because we pulled a lot of those guys out, and good for Lawrence. He felt a whole lot better, and he was excited that he got a chance to play and now we’ll get him back into the routine.”

Junior cornerback Tariq Bracy has been cleared to return from an illness, non-coronavirus-related.

Adding Keys back into the mix the same day as Lenzy was reinjured keeps the Irish receiver depth chart from the brink of catastrophe, but Notre Dame still lost two of its top receivers in the span of two days.

Heading to Georgia Tech (3:30 ET; ABC), the Irish have Skowronek, Keys, fifth-year Javon McKinley, senior Avery Davis and junior Joe Wilkins available of receivers who have catches this season. If just one were to get hurt this weekend, there would suddenly be no depth whatsoever, aside from the aforementioned tight ends.

Freshmen Xavier Watts and Jordan Johnson are the clear candidates to move into the rotation, with Watts likely to get the first chance given he made the travel roster to Pittsburgh, while Johnson reportedly did not.

Drew Pyne to transfer from Notre Dame; Tyler Buchner reportedly a bowl possibility


Notre Dame may start its third quarterback of the season in its bowl game after junior Drew Pyne announced he will transfer from the program on Friday. A graduate, Pyne has three seasons of eligibility remaining.

ESPN’s Pete Thamel first reported Pyne’s intention to transfer, with Pyne soon thereafter taking to Twitter to confirm as much.

“One of my proudest honors is to have been a student-athlete at the University of Notre Dame,” Pyne wrote. “… It’s time for me to take on a new challenge, and I will be entering the transfer portal.”

Pyne took over as the Irish starter after sophomore Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second week of the season. Pyne went 8-2 as a starter, completing 64.6 percent of his passes for 2,021 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.

His final action at Notre Dame may have been Pyne’s best game of his career, throwing for 318 yards and three touchdowns at USC while completing 23 of 26 passes, the second-most accurate game in Irish history.

He appeared in two games in 2021, stepping in for Jack Coan when he struggled against Wisconsin and Cincinnati. Keeping Pyne to minimal appearances in 2021 was intentional, preserving a season of eligibility for him.

That eligibility will now be used elsewhere.

Without Pyne, Notre Dame will have freshman Steve Angeli and possibly Buchner available in the bowl game, a location and opponent to be announced on Sunday. Football Scoop’s John Brice reported Friday afternoon that Buchner will play in the bowl game, though perhaps that optimism should be measured throughout practice this month.

Regardless, the Irish are expected to pursue an incoming transfer quarterback this month. With names like Texas’ Hudson Card and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong already in the transfer portal, Notre Dame will have a few options to chase.

That is why Pyne’s transfer makes sense, even if he spoke earnestly about the bowl game following that 38-27 loss in Los Angeles.

“I think we have a lot to play for,” he said. “We’re going to be in a bowl game, I want to send all the seniors out the right way. We have a lot to play for. We have another game, I’m going to prepare as hard as I can for that and finish the season off on a positive note.”

Reversing course from those words is understandable given they came minutes after a competitive game, and the last week has shown Pyne how quickly the quarterback transfer market will move.

In the game of musical chairs that is quarterbacks moving across the country, Pyne waiting until after the bowl game to transfer could serve only to leave him with fewer destinations as options. Not that Pyne may have been looking at Iowa, but the fact that one Power Five starting gig appears to have already been filled by Michigan transfer Cade McNamara presumably underscored the rapid nature of this process.

Understandably, Pyne needs to make the most of this opportunity, coming off a strong season as Notre Dame’s starter but knowing he is unlikely to start for the Irish in 2023. Depending on the level of transfer joining the Irish and Buchner’s health, it was distinctly possible Pyne would be Notre Dame’s third quarterback next year.

For someone who grew up as a Notre Dame fan, specifically a Brady Quinn fan, assuredly this decision was not an easy one for Pyne.

He had a lengthy and notable offer sheet coming out of high school, but Pyne at his best this season would not draw interest from the likes of Texas A&M, Alabama and LSU as he did three years ago. It may be more pertinent to point out he is a Connecticut native, so schools in the northeast could be most logical for his landing spot.

The Irish should also have quarterback commit Kenny Minchey in the pecking order this spring, expected to sign with Notre Dame on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s QB room creates a friendly trust that has been crucial to Pyne’s success
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 10 Drew Pyne, junior quarterback

Notre Dame adds a fourth receiver commit to recruiting class, helping a roster need


Notre Dame is addressing its most glaring roster deficiency with a numbers approach. The Irish had only five true scholarship receivers for much of this season, a number they will nearly match in next year’s freshman class alone after adding a fourth receiver commitment on Thursday. Consensus three-star receiver Kaleb Smith (Rick Reedy High School; Frisco, Texas) announced he will join Notre Dame’s class, and he should sign with the Irish on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

Smith was committed to Texas Tech for more than nine months before he backed off that pledge in early November. Marcus Freeman does not welcome official visitors who are committed to other programs, so if Smith wanted to take an official visit to South Bend to watch Notre Dame play Clemson, he needed to open up his recruitment.

The Irish 35-13 win against the then-No. 4 Tigers assuredly helped tip the scales away from his homestate Texas Tech.

Otherwise, Smith has hardly been recruited by anyone. The only other Power Five program to chase him was Baylor when current Notre Dame receivers coach Chansi Stuckey was there.

Listed at only 6-foot and 168 pounds, it is easy to pencil in Smith as a slot receiver, but he is also willing to go up in the air to get the ball. His highlight footage features him repeatedly and astonishingly open.

His size, or lack thereof, will make Smith unique among the quartet of incoming signees. By snagging four receivers in this class, the Irish are proactively fixing an undeniable roster problem. In last year’s Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame had only four receivers available. Through most of this season, in part due to injuries to Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins, the Irish had a total of six receivers available, including former walk-on Matt Salerno.

While Braden Lenzy will not return for the Irish in 2023, current sophomores Jayden Thomas, Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles should all come back, along with current freshman Tobias Merriweather. With these four commitments, a position group of eight may allow Notre Dame to have a genuine two-deep.

If signing four receivers in a class and seven in two years seems like an unsustainable influx, keep in mind two things. First of all, the Irish desperately need to find receiver depth. Lenzy was famously and admittedly exhausted at the end of that Fiesta Bowl faceplant 11 months ago. One more injury this season would have further crippled Notre Dame’s passing game in 2022. Secondly, the one-time transfer allowance will make departures from the program both more common and more alluring to the players. Natural attrition will occur.

RELATED READING: A third four-star receiver commitment, Jaden Greathouse, elevates Notre Dame’s class of 2023 from good to Great
Four-star receiver Rico Flores Jr.’s commitment gives Notre Dame some receiver hope for 2023
Four-star Texas receiver Braylon James gives Notre Dame needed offensive piece in class of 2023

CB Cam Hart out for Notre Dame’s bowl game, but will return in 2023

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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Perhaps earlier than expected, Notre Dame has already received good news this offseason. Senior cornerback Cam Hart will return for a fifth year in South Bend, though he will not put on pads for the Irish in any bowl game, he announced Tuesday evening.

“Due to a shoulder injury that I sustained during the Boston College Game [sic], I could not participate in our final regular season game and will not be able to participate in this year’s bowl game,” Hart wrote on Twitter. “Consequently, I believe my time here isn’t necessarily complete. Choosing to attend the University of Nore Dame has been the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life.

“In light of that, I’ve decided to return for a fifth season and look forward to taking the field with my brothers in 2023!”

Hart’s 2023 return should give the Irish four returning cornerbacks with starting experience, only fifth-year nickel back Tariq Bracy a notable departure from this year’s cornerbacks group.

Note: The use of “should” is not meant to imply anything about other possibilities. The conditional verb is chosen as recognition of the constantly changing rosters in college football in 2022.

Hart took part in Notre Dame’s Senior Day festivities before facing Boston College, which suggested he was at least considering jumping to the NFL. This quick announcement indicates the injury ruled out that thought process, though the injury had plagued him at points earlier in the season.

A shoulder injury first flared up for Hart this year in the spring of 2022, costing him spring practices. A concern had previously cost him some of 2019, as he adapted from playing receiver in high school. He nonetheless played in 11 games in 2022, starting 10 and making 25 tackles with three for loss and breaking up four passes.

His passes defensed fell from nine in 2021, along with two interceptions, in part because opposing quarterbacks were less enticed to test the increasingly-experienced cornerback. His 6-foot-2 ½ length made Hart something just short of a shutdown cornerback.

With current freshman Benjamin Morrison surging to close this season and classmate Jaden Mickey stepping in for Hart at USC, Notre Dame should enjoy a plethora of tested cornerbacks in 2023. (Current junior Clarence Lewis is the aforementioned fourth.)

In many respects, this will allow the Irish defense to begin the 2023 season with the same calm it had in 2022, when Hart, Lewis and Bracy provided experienced pass defense.

“You have three older veteran corners that can really play at any moment, which makes you feel good,” head coach Marcus Freeman said in August. “Those three guys can play those two corner spots and I don’t feel there will be a drop off with any of them.”

There are a few key decisions left on Notre Dame’s defense — most notably, defensive end Justin Ademilola and safety Brandon Joseph could return in 2023 — but most of them may come after any Irish bowl game. Hart’s choice was presumably expedited by his apparent exclusion from the bowl game due to this injury.

2020: 8 games; 3 tackles, 2 passes defended.
2021: 13 games, 10 starts; 42 tackles with four for loss, 9 passes defended and two interceptions.
2022: 11 games, 10 starts; 25 tackles with three for loss, 4 passes defended.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 5 Cam Hart, senior cornerback, second-year starter

Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s offensive shortcomings again highlighted by an explosive counterpart

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There are two ways to look at USC’s 38-27 win against Notre Dame on Saturday, and they both tie back to the Trojans’ being the best Irish measuring stick.

USC beat Notre Dame in a way that underscores how short-handed the Irish always were this season. When Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams began to cement his status as the Heisman frontrunner with a performance that will be long remembered, Notre Dame had no way to consistently counter him.

“We didn’t stop them,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said simply enough.

Without the offensive skill position players needed to match Williams’ explosive play for explosive play, Notre Dame needed its defense to play perfectly, clearly an unfair ask against a Lincoln Riley offense.

“USC is a great team,” Irish quarterback Drew Pyne said. “That was a really good team we played out there. They’re going to go on and do great things for the rest of their season. Caleb Williams is a great player.”

If the Irish had not had junior tight end Michael Mayer — eight catches on nine targets for 98 yards and two touchdowns — they may not have been able to stay in even vague distance of the Trojans. Three heaves to Deion Colzie gained 75 yards and three first downs, but each felt like Pyne was hoping more than anything else.

Notre Dame still made it a game, but the discrepancy in offensive playmakers stood out in Los Angeles on Saturday night.

And while both programs will undergo some turnover — most notably Mayer for the Irish; receiver Jordan Addison and running back Austin Jones will both likely be at the next level next year, among Trojans’ contributors this weekend — Notre Dame will need to close that gap to compete with USC next season.

The variance of a schedule may keep the Irish from too staunchly improving on their 8-4 record this year, but a certainty is that Williams will be ready to dazzle again in South Bend on Oct. 14, 2023.

Notre Dame right now does not have the offensive firepower to keep up with such a dynamic attack. As soon as the Irish gifted the Trojans chances to take a lead, their running game was mitigated and Notre Dame’s best hopes were reduced to Mayer and those heaves to Colzie.

Williams can dance his way through any defense, perhaps shy of Georgia’s. Even if the Irish secondary had been fully healthy, Williams’ rhythmic scrambles still would have broken down the defense. If Utah helms him in this weekend, it may be as much due to a USC letdown as it is to any Utes’ scheme. His stardom is an extreme, but this is college football in 2022, again aside from Georgia.

Many will instinctively point to Pyne’s shortcomings, ignoring how well he played in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. He made two mistakes, yes, but one of them (the cross-body interception) came as Notre Dame was more and more desperate and the other (the fumbled exchange) was in part a result of the Irish abandoning their ground game as they fell further behind.

Pyne finished 23-of-26 for 318 yards and three touchdowns. Every version of breaking down those stats yields praise for Pyne. A reality of a loss and a reality when the opposing quarterback broke through as a national star, no time was spent in postgame press conferences discussing Pyne’s efficient night.

But it was, regardless.

His final incompletion, the interception from Notre Dame’s own red zone, also overshadowed the second-most accurate day in Irish passing history, but it was an understandable mistake. Notre Dame was trailing by two scores with only five minutes remaining. Wasting a play on a throwaway was low on Pyne’s priority list.

If Pyne had established more of a season-long rapport with Colzie, maybe he sees him down the left sideline as highlighted by Kirk Herbstreit on the broadcast. If Braden Lenzy is a bit less worn down by a season-long receiver shortage, maybe he is able to charge into Pyne’s ill-advised pass rather than try to settle in for a low catch. If … maybe, if … maybe.

Only twice this season has USC managed as few as 31 genuine points — discounting the short-field touchdown in the final three minutes courtesy of Pyne’s pick, though not all that necessary given the Trojans fell short of 40 points just twice in their first 11 games. Oregon State and Washington State had the luxuries of facing Williams before he had reached the peak of his powers with this new, transfer-obtained complement of receivers.

The Irish defense did its part against USC. Notre Dame’s offense just could not match the star of the season.

Williams will star again next year. The Irish defense will most likely still be stout. Those truths this season will carry over. Notre Dame then has to wonder only if its offense can develop and/or find more playmakers, a known need this entire season and now the pressing concern entering the offseason, a need emphasized by the Trojans’ offense, the foe that should again define 2023.