While Notre Dame returns only one receiver with more than seven catches from 2020, Irish head coach Brian Kelly sees an offense with more “known commodities” than he enjoyed in last season’s push to a Playoff berth. And he just might be right.
“We know what a guy like [fifth-year receiver Avery Davis] can do, we know what a guy like [sophomore tight end Michael Mayer] can do,” Kelly said a week ago. “I would argue that we have probably more known commodities coming back this year than maybe we did going into last season, and that kind of sorted itself out.”
When comparing the two offseasons, Notre Dame is definitively in better statistical shape along the perimeter in 2021 thanks to Davis and Mayer. A year ago, the Irish were led by Tommy Tremble’s 16 catches returning from 2019 along with receiver Lawrence Keys’ 13 and Javon McKinely’s 11. Compare that now to Mayer’s 42 (for 450 yards and two touchdowns) and Davis’ 24 (for 322 yards and two touchdowns), and Notre Dame has a decent idea who will lead the way in its passing game in 2021, even if Kelly would maintain the starting quarterback remains unclear as Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan competes with rising sophomore Drew Pyne for the honor.
Davis may have been the No. 3 Irish receiver last season, but he made the two most clutch catches of the year to force overtime against No. 1 Clemson. Only two months earlier, he was adapting to a new role in the slot after a disjointed preseason (not to mention, no 2020 spring).
“Coming out of fall camp, I was still a little bit uneasy, … I got a lot more comfortable and it allowed me to excel in the position and I’m looking forward to continuing to grow,” Davis said.
That comfort and confidence should create a chance for Davis to grow in his duties much like McKinley did in going from 11 receptions to 42.
“I’m going to play a significant role in this offense,” Davis said. “My role will expand; it still could be the utility version, but I feel like there’s a lot more plays to be made, and I’m really looking forward to it.
“I will have a big impact on this offense this season.”
Mayer will certainly and deservedly be the aerial attack’s primary target, and Davis’ role as the leading receiver may in time be supplanted by senior Kevin Austin, senior Braden Lenzy or sophomore Jordan Johnson, all enigmatic in that they elicit much hype but have not yet validated it on the field. Davis is the known commodity, but the roster is filled with options, also including a few early-enrolled or incoming freshmen.
“There’s some really good players,” Kelly said. “Some of them aren’t in the spring, but there’s plenty of good players that are in the program that will get a chance to step up and help this football team.”
(That “some of them aren’t in the spring” designation applies to Austin as well as incoming freshmen, as his 202o twice-broken foot will keep him sidelined these couple months.)
While Kelly and Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees search through those options and decide on a starting quarterback, they already know they have the luxury of relying on a pair of running backs who should also aid the passing game. Rising junior Kyren Williams and sophomore Chris Tyree both broke out in 2020 — Williams obviously more than Tyree — to such a degree it is now only natural to wonder if they can routinely take the field together.
“It’s simple, we both make plays,” Tyree said. “It’s really important that we build off each other. We’re both really versatile when it comes to playing in the backfield and playing at receiver, also. We both in high school played receiver, so it makes a lot of sense to be very versatile.
“At the end of the day, we both make plays, and that’s how we can build off each other.”
Logically, what used to be an offensive base package featuring two tight ends would not need to philosophically change too much to instead include two running backs, but that only works if both backs are capable in rushing (check), blocking (Williams’ specialty) and receiving (as Tyree is pictured doing at top).
“There is a way being that we’re really versatile, can both play in the slot and in the backfield,” Tyree said. “There’s a lot of opportunities there for us to be on the field at the same time.”
— Tommy Rees (@T_Rees11) April 1, 2021
The unifying aspect to the “known commodity” of Davis and the “versatility” of the running backs, particularly Tyree, is the value of a year in the system. Despite Davis being the offense’s elder statesman — being he has been in Rees’ offense for more than a few months and originally arrived in South Bend as a quarterback in 2017, it can be argued Davis is Notre Dame’s most-experienced quarterback … — the quarterback-turned-running back-turned defensive back-turned receiver was as much a neophyte to his duties in 2020 as the then-freshman Tyree was.
Davis needed to learn yet another position, battling his own frustration at the constant moving as he did so. Now, he not only knows that position, but also knows he will remain in it.
“Knowing that I’ll just be playing in the slot, this is what I can focus on, I was able to put a lot of energy into it, work ethic and film study,” he said. “It allowed me to excel at the position, and I’m looking forward to growing at that, building off that.”
Tyree needed to believe in himself at the collegiate level, something that grew as the season progressed and is now no longer lacking to any degree.
“I think we all understand that good things happen when the ball is in my hands,” he said. “So just being able to expand that and then get more opportunities to get me the ball is the goal for right now.”
Replacing McKinley, Bennett Skowronek and Tommy Tremble will not be easy, but the Irish did so successfully a year ago after losing Chase Claypool, Cole Kmet and Chris Finke. Kelly expects to do so again.