Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 7 Isaiah Foskey, star junior defensive end, Vyper

Isaiah foskey
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Listed measurements: 6-foot-4 ⅞, 257 pounds.
2021-22 year, eligibility: A junior, Foskey has four seasons of eligibility remaining thanks to the universal pandemic eligibility waiver and prudent usage as a freshman, though the latter was somewhat unnecessary because Foskey has looked like a clear NFL prospect since he first arrived at Notre Dame, rendering any chance of him using a fifth year always unlikely.
Depth Chart:  Foskey will start for the Irish as the Vyper end, formerly known as the “Drop” end, a role that emphasizes both rushing the quarterback and occasionally dropping into coverage. Sophomore Jordan Botelho will presumably back up Foskey, but behind him, Notre Dame may lack reassuring depth.
Recruiting: The All-American and the No. 15 weakside defensive end in the class of 2019 was the last Notre Dame player to declare his commitment on the February version of National Signing Day, but the reality was he had signed with the Irish in December. The consensus four-star prospect simply wanted to enjoy a ceremony with the rest of his high school teammates, when he publicly chose Notre Dame rather than Washington or Cal.

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
Foskey is launching his own clothing line featuring a logo focused on the last syllable of his name and a tagline utilizing his initials.

CAREER TO DATE
Foskey could have played throughout his freshman season, but the Irish insisted on preserving that year of eligibility while still playing him in their toughest games once he had proven himself in a pair of early-season blowouts. Thus, Foskey spent much of the midseason on the sidelines, remaining fresh to make an impact in the biggest of moments.

With Notre Dame trailing 17-7 at Stanford late in the second quarter, despite being favored by two touchdowns, Foskey broke through the line of scrimmage to block a punt that sparked the Irish to a halftime lead and an eventual win, Notre Dame’s first at The Farm since 2007.

2019: 4 games; 5 tackles, one blocked punt.

Then last season, Foskey remained behind an eventual NFL draft pick in Daelin Hayes — just as he was behind Julian Okwara and Hayes in 2019  — so despite his undeniable production, Foskey’s role remained complementary in nature.

2020: 12 games; 20 tackles with five for loss including 4.5 sacks and one pass defended.

QUOTES
Clearly, Foskey has always excelled at getting into an offense’s backfield, but new Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman will also need the star junior to provide competent coverage in the defensive backfield.

Freeman’s ideal defense confuses offenses with varied looks up front, and to do such, someone has to be able to threaten multiple functions. That is the Vyper, that is Foskey.

But he has not spent much time in his life keeping up with a running back on a route, and learning to do such was the challenge for Foskey this offseason.

“With Marcus Freeman coming here, he made the Vypers into more of linebacker-defensive end type of position, so I’ve been working on a lot more drops and a lot more covering,” Foskey said in April. “… I’m just working on coverages, which is something new I have to do now, but I’m starting to like it a lot more.”

Foskey has learned first-hand how miserable the life of a cornerback can be.

“I always see corners doing it with chasing their head, staying with the man, it always looks easy when they do it, but when you actually go out there, it’s a little bit more challenging,” he said. “There’s just a little bit more stuff I have to work on, like getting hands on the guy when he’s about to break on a route, staying close to his hip, being more aggressive at the point of attack.”

But to be clear, Freeman has no doubt Foskey is capable of all that and much more.

“When I first got here, everyone said [Foskey] was the potential first-round pick of the future,” Freeman said. “He’s done a great job. He’s working at it.

“Foskey hasn’t played a whole bunch of football. That’s a point of emphasis that we continue to make. We need to continue to get his football intelligence up and get him reps and reps.”

2021 OUTLOOK
The added responsibilities of Foskey also speak to his possible impact. Notre Dame turned the Rover position into a schematic wrinkle the last few years, a player that could be either an extra defender at the line of scrimmage or far down the field in coverage depending on what the situation called for.

Freeman’s version of the Vyper will not be that multi-dimensional, but it will allow the Irish to adjust to offenses with nearly any personnel, and that will hinge on the player atop the depth chart at that end.

“We’re able to get in and out of different fronts more than we did a year ago, more than we did the last four years,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said. “The other cool thing is Isaiah Foskey, we can move him all over the field now. We can put him at our Vyper position, we can play him at the boundary end position, we can play him to the field, play him inside at three-technique.”

Becoming the proverbial straw that stirs the drink known as Notre Dame’s defensive front, Foskey may double his defensive snap count of 282 in 2020. He will certainly notch more than those 20 tackles, and could push toward double digits in sacks.

Yet, both he and Irish special teams coordinator Brian Polian expect Foskey to remain a headache for opposing punters.

DOWN THE ROAD
Foskey’s frame is already NFL ready. An all-around impressive 2021 could push him into the second round of next spring’s draft.

There would be ample reason to pursue that, but he could also see a legitimate chance of raising that draft profile into the first round with a second full season in a starring role.

Notre Dame would welcome Foskey back in 2022, particularly given the growing depth concerns at Vyper.

NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
Let’s try this again
No. 99 Rylie Mills, sophomore defensive tackle
No. 98 Alexander Ehrensberger, sophomore defensive end
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, early-enrolled freshman defensive tackle the size of a Volkswagen
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, fifth-year defensive tackle-turned-end
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, sophomore defensive tackle
No. 91 Joshua Bryan, incoming freshman kicker
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, early-enrolled freshman tight end, a former high school quarterback
No. 87 Michael Mayer, star sophomore tight end and lead offensive weapon
No. 85 George Takacs, senior tight end, ‘152 years old’
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, sophomore tight end
No. 83 Jayden Thomas, freshman receiver, four-star prospect out of Georgia
No. 82 Xavier Watts, sophomore receiver
No. 81 Jay Brunelle, speedy sophomore receiver
No. 80 Cane Berrong, early-enrolled freshman tight end
No. 79 Tosh Baker, sophomore offensive tackle
No. 78 Pat Coogan, incoming freshman center
No. 77 Quinn Carroll, junior offensive lineman
No. 76 Joe Alt, incoming and towering freshman offensive lineman
No. 75 Josh Lugg, fifth-year right tackle, finally a starter
No. 73 Andrew Kristofic, junior offensive tackle, possible backup center
No. 72 Caleb Johnson, early-enrolled offensive tackle, former Auburn commit
No. 70 Hunter Spears, junior offensive guard, former defensive tackle
No. 68 Michael Carmody, sophomore offensive tackle
No. 62 Marshall guard Cain Madden transfers to Notre Dame, likely 2021 starter
No. 57 Jayson Ademilola, senior defensive tackle
No. 56 John Dirksen, senior reserve offensive lineman
No. 56 Howard Cross, junior defensive tackle
No. 55 Jarrett Patterson, the best Irish offensive lineman
No. 55 Kahanu Kia, freshman linebacker, Hawaiian, LDS member
No. 54 Jacob Lacey, junior defensive tackle
No. 54 Blake Fisher, early-enrolled freshman left tackle, starter?
No. 52 Zeke Correll, junior, starting center
No. 52 Bo Bauer, senior linebacker, #BeADog
No. 50 Rocco Spindler, early-enrolled freshman offensive guard
No. 48 Will Schweitzer, early-enrolled freshman defensive end
No. 47 Jason Onye, incoming and raw freshman defensive end
No. 44 Devin Aupiu, early-enrolled freshman defensive end
No. 44 Alex Peitsch and No. 65 Michael Vinson, Irish long snappers, both needed
No. 41 Kurt Hinish, fifth-year defensive tackle, eventual record-holder in games played
No. 40 Drew White, fifth-year linebacker, three-year starter
No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, fifth-year kicker, using the pandemic exception
No. 35 Marist Liufau, junior Hawaiian linebacker
No. 34 Osita Ekwonu, junior defensive end
No. 33 Shayne Simon, senior linebacker
No. 32 Prince Kollie, freshman linebacker, Butkus Award winner
No. 29 Matt Salerno, senior punt returner, walk-on
No. 29 Khari Gee, freshman safety, former LSU commit
No. 28 TaRiq Bracy, senior cornerback, possible nickel back
No. 27 JD Bertrand, junior linebacker
No. 26 Clarence Lewis, sophomore cornerback, second-year starter
No. 25 Philip Riley, early-enrolled freshman cornerback
No. 25 Chris Tyree, speedy sophomore running back
No. 24 Jack Kiser, junior linebacker, onetime pandemic hero
No. 24 Audric Estime, freshman running back, former Michigan State commit, four-star
No. 23 Litchfield Ajavon, junior safety
No. 23 Kyren Williams, junior running back
No. 22 Logan Diggs, incoming freshman running back
No. 21 Lorenzo Styles, early-enrolled freshman receiver
No. 21 Caleb Offord, sophomore cornerback
No. 20 C’Bo Flemister, senior running back, coming off an offseason with a smirch
No. 20 Justin Walters, early-enrolled freshman safety and likely early special teams contributor
No. 20 JoJo Johnson, freshman cornerback, former Cincinnati commit
No. 19 Jay Bramblett, junior punter
No. 19 Justin Ademilola, senior defensive end
No. 18 Joe Wilkins Jr., senior receiver, team favorite
No. 18 Nana Osafo-Mensah, junior defensive end, coming back from a knee injury
No. 18 Chance Tucker, freshman cornerback
No. 17 Jack Coan, graduate quarterback, Wisconsin transfer
No. 17 Jordan Botelho, sophomore defensive end, full-speed at all times
No. 16 Deion Colzie, incoming freshman receiver with both speed and leaping height
No. 16 KJ Wallace, junior safety, possible starting nickel back
No. 15 Ryan Barnes, early-enrolled freshman cornerback
No. 14 Kyle Hamilton, junior safety, preseason All-American, top 2022 draft prospect
No. 13 Paul Moala, senior linebacker coming off an Achilles injury
No. 13 Lawrence Keys, senior receiver
No. 12 Tyler Buchner, early-enrolled freshman quarterback, former four-star recruit
No. 12 DJ Brown, senior safety mired in a starting competition
No. 11 Ron Powlus III, early-enrolled freshman quarterback
No. 11 Ramon Henderson, sophomore cornerback with sprinter’s speed
No. 10 Drew Pyne, sophomore quarterback, likely No. 2
No. 10 Isaiah Pryor, graduate linebacker, 2020 Ohio State transfer
No. 7 Brendon Clark, junior quarterback with a knee worry

Scroll Down For:

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

    COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Notre Dame at USC
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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.

    ON SPECIAL TEAMS COORDINATOR Marty Biagi
    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.”

    INJURY UPDATES
    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.

    Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Quarterbacks — Sam Hartman and Tyler Buchner and Co.

    COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 12 North Carolina at Wake Forest
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    For a position that has undergone a run of tumult since the start of the 2022 season, Notre Dame’s quarterback depth chart somehow still could not be more stable now.

    Since Marcus Freeman’s first game as the Irish head coach, his starter was knocked out for the season, the backup that fought and clawed his way to eight wins in 10 games opted to transfer before the bowl game, one of the most prolific passers in NCAA history transferred into Notre Dame, and then the offensive coordinator left.

    All of that to end up with Wake Forest graduate transfer Sam Hartman as the presumptive Irish starter, backed up by 2022’s initial starter in Tyler Buchner, and coached by quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli and offensive coordinator Gerad Parker. Not to mention, two more quarterbacks filling out the depth chart.

    Hartman opted to join that chaos partly because, as he figured it, he was going to start over anew somewhere regardless. After five years at Wake Forest, the veteran wanted to move. Whether it was in the NFL or at Notre Dame, he would need to win over a new locker room.

    “Often I see people that are done with school or run out of eligibility or even have eligibility (but) declare, that (college) opportunity never comes again,” he said earlier this month. “… On the NFL side of it, this is what you have to do when you go into the league, come into a new place where there’s not a lot of familiar faces. The battle is definitely uphill. You have to come in and establish a leadership role while also trying to figure out and follow.”

    Hartman’s logic was sound, but there is one key difference between the NFL and Notre Dame: He will be the starter in South Bend this fall.

    WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
    In that respect, this will be the third straight year the Irish have insisted on the optics of a quarterback competition in the spring and perhaps the preseason. When Jack Coan transferred to Notre Dame in January of 2021, it was obvious he would start against Florida State to open that season, yet freshman Tyler Buchner and sophomore Drew Pyne were still mentioned as competing with Coan for that gig throughout the spring and a week into the preseason.

    Despite Buchner rather clearly surpassing Pyne that season, the entire exercise was conducted all over again in the spring of 2022, Buchner named the starter as expected a week into preseason practices last August.

    Hartman will start in Dublin on Aug. 26 (159 days), no matter what Guidugli may say now. That much did not change with the coaching changes this winter and spring.

    “Tyler Buchner and Steve Angeli and Sam Hartman, Kenny Minchey, all those guys are going to get an opportunity,” Guidugli said. “I come in with a clean slate, not knowing any of those guys, so I’m anxious to see what all of them can do, I’m anxious to see how they lead, I’m anxious to see how they retain information, I’m anxious to see how they perform, how they execute, how the offense responds to them.”

    That quarterback competition may have had an ounce of authenticity if Pyne had stuck around South Bend, a somewhat proven starter to go up against Hartman, but even that would have been only a matter of time. As it stands, Pyne’s focus is on keeping his job at Arizona State in front of the most controversial recruit of the class of 2023, Jaden Rashada.

    2022 STATS
    Drew Pyne: 11 games; 2,021 yards on 8.0 yards per attempt and a 64.6 percent completion rate; 22 touchdowns and 6 interceptions.
    Tyler Buchner: 3 games; 652 yards on 7.9 yards per attempt and a 55.4 percent completion rate; 3 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.

    Sam Hartman at Wake Forest in 2022: 12 games; 3,701 yards on 8.6 yards per attempt and a 63.1 percent completion rate; 38 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
    Sam Hartman in his career at Wake Forest: 12,967 yards on 8.1 yards per attempt and a 59.1 percent completion rate; 110 touchdowns and 41 interceptions.

    HARTMAN’S CAREER STATS COMPARED TO NCAA RECORDS
    Don’t scoff. A prodigious season could propel Hartman into some lofty air. That is obviously partly due to the benefit of a sixth season, granted by the universal pandemic eligibility waiver. But Hartman also missed up to 18 games in his career to injury, depth chart and the pandemic. If he plays 13 games this season, Hartman will appear in a total of 61 games in his career. That will be more than any of the players yet ahead of him in career passing touchdowns or career passing yards, but that aside, Hartman should move his name up the NCAA record books this season.

    Career passing touchdowns
    No. 1 — Case Keenum, 155 touchdowns
    Tied at No. 4 — Colt Brennan, Rakeem Cato, Baker Mayfield, 131 touchdowns
    No. 10 — Luke Falk, 119 touchdowns
    No. 15 — Derek Carr, 113 touchdowns
    No. 18 — Sam Hartman, 110 career touchdowns

    Career passing yards
    No. 1 — Case Keenum, 19,217 yards
    No. 5 — Ty Detmer, 15,031 yards
    No. 10 — Rakeem Cato, 14,079 yards
    No. 15 — Philip Rivers, 13,484 yards
    No. 19 — Sam Hartman, 12,967 career yards

    WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
    It feels like a quip to be offered in March so that April progress can be that much more lauded.

    “With the coaching change prior to me coming in, [Hartman] thought he should be further along in February than what he was,” Guidugli said. “There wasn’t anything I could do about that.”

    Games are not won in February film sessions. Weight room work, perhaps, but not in studying film. Habits are built then, but Hartman should not need earnest discipline. He has already begun moving forward with Guidugli.

    “[Guidugli] has taken this thing by the reins for the quarterbacks, and along with that is just the quarterback room, we stuck together,” Hartman said. “I knew Tyler (Buchner) a bit before, had no idea who Steve (Angeli) was, obviously [early-enrolled freshman Kenny Minchey] is showing up just like I was. It’s a really tight-knit group.”

    None of that group holds Rees’s departure against him — “Obviously, it was a great opportunity for him,” Hartman said — but they all know they need to learn the same language now. That will be the springtime priority.

    “The key there is my communication with [newly-promoted offensive coordinator Gerad Parker],” Guidugli said. “I have to be speaking the same language.”

    From Parker to Guidugli to four quarterbacks from three different backgrounds, finding the same language might take a few weeks. Guidugli has already been picking Hartman’s brain off old Wake Forest film, learning what his eventual starter is used to in terms of pre-snap procedures, etc.

    “I’ve been learning from the guys as much as they’ve been learning from me,” Guidugli said. 

    Ignore the spring platitudes about a quarterback competition. If they carry into the preseason, they will provide a headline some Saturday in August when in-depth writing is not yet applicable. Beyond that, there is no meaningful quarterback competition.

    There are, however, spring priorities. Primarily, getting Hartman onto the same page as Guidugli and Parker.

    RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive line, suddenly inexperienced and unproven
    Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Tight ends, moving on from an all-time great
    Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, led by a familiar ‘three-headed monster’
    Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Linebackers, led by a trio of veterans and little change
    Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive backs, with a star sophomore and an Oklahoma State transfer
    Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Offensive line, returning bookend tackles and a three-year starter at center
    Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Receivers, finally a filled depth chart

    FUTURE DEPTH
    Minchey did not commit to Notre Dame until late November, de-committing from Pittsburgh not long before he did so. He enrolled early, anyway.

    “I feel like it’s big, as far as any quarterback across the country, you want to early enroll, get in as early as you can, learn the playbook, because that’s big compared to any other position,” Minchey said. “Coming in, learn the playbook, mesh with the guys, everything like that. I like just getting in, building that connection.”

    A shoulder injury truncated Minchey’s senior season, but he expects to be full-go in spring practices, beginning tomorrow.

    “I am working back into it,” he said two weeks ago. “I am reconditioning my arm right now, building back, working back, building up strength.”

    He does not need to rush into that, though, given Notre Dame expects him to be fourth on its depth chart this season.

    Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Receivers, finally a filled depth chart

    Brigham Young v Notre Dame
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    Notre Dame’s next generation of receivers is already on campus. The trio of four-star recruits of Jayden Greathouse, Braylon James and Rico Flores all enrolled early, though Greathouse and Flores arrived with nicks that are expected to no longer be issues when spring practices begin Wednesday, but a touch of caution could still slow them all the same.

    Along with them, the Irish welcome Virginia Tech graduate transfer Kaleb Smith. When an incoming freshman by the same name arrives in the summer, Notre Dame will suddenly have 10 receivers on hand.

    That may seem an odd way to begin an article previewing a position before spring practices, but it is the biggest difference between where the Irish were and where they are. Notre Dame simply having receivers on hand is a drastic change. Last preseason, it was working with just six receivers, including a former walk-on and an incoming freshman. The sole veteran in the group, Braden Lenzy, would lament that there were not enough receivers on hand for he and an underclassman to both stand by during a rep so Lenzy could coach up the youngster.

    Building the depth chart back out to nine or 10 receivers will give position coach Chansi Stuckey time to work with players individually, players like Greathouse, James and Flores. That said, there may be no established veteran like Lenzy to pass along insights. Only the former Hokie would qualify, and he openly acknowledges he is facing his own learning curve.

    “I’ve had four or five different receiver coaches at this point,” Smith said earlier this month. “It’s been a rotating door. We’re teaching an old dog new tricks here at Notre Dame is what I can sum it up as.”

    WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
    Injuries decimated this group in 2022, and in turn, they compromised the Irish offense. Joe Wilkins suffered a foot injury in the preseason that effectively cost him his season. Avery Davis tore his ACL for a second time, ending his career. Then-sophomore Deion Colzie injured his knee, slowing his start to what was expected to be a breakout season.

    A November concussion would cut short then-freshman Tobias Merriweather’s progress, eventually leaving Notre Dame with just four receivers it could rely on toward the end of the year. More than anything else — more than former Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’s preferences, more than Notre Dame’s deep backfield — that lack of receivers limited the Irish offense.

    The more wide-open the Irish offense ran, the more those few receivers would wear out. Notre Dame could not operate as such.

    2022 STATS
    Lorenzo Styles: 13 games; 30 catches for 340 yards and one touchdown.
    Jayden Thomas: 13 games; 25 catches for 362 yards and three touchdowns.
    Braden Lenzy: 13 games; 24 catches for 309 yards and three touchdowns.
    Deion Colzie: 12 games; 9 catches for 192 yards and one touchdown.
    Matt Salerno: 13 games; 5 catches for 62 yards and one touchdown.
    Tobias Merriweather: 7 games; 1 catch for a 41-yard touchdown.

    WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
    Styles may return more catches than any other Irish receiver, but he also returns more drops than the rest combined, with six just last season. The headlines may focus on Notre Dame’s new receivers — alternately the three freshmen and the veteran transfer with size for new Irish quarterback Sam Hartman to throw to — but Styles rediscovering his focus and/or his confidence would be the biggest step forward for Hartman’s pass catchers.

    Smith will battle rising junior Jayden Thomas to be Hartman’s primary big-bodied target. Thomas’s run-blocking abilities could even turn him into a pseudo-slot receiver, allowing them both to conceivably start.

    There are options, unlike a year ago. Further development from Merriweather would only add to them, as would any of Greathouse, James or flores quickly progressing.

    “We know what the offense has looked like, and the coaches have talked to me since I started being recruited about what it could look like in the future with me a part of it,” Greathouse said to Inside ND Sports earlier in the winter, before Rees left for Alabama. “I definitely think that they want to start airing the ball out.

    “That’s what the coaches have been telling me, is that they want to be throwing the ball all over the field. And I think once our recruiting class starts making an impact, we’ll definitely be able to start doing that.”

    That would have been the case regardless who the offensive coordinator was in 2023. Gerad Parker will have more receiving options at his disposal than Rees did in 2022, adding layers of possibilities to the Irish offense.

    RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive line, suddenly inexperienced and unproven
    Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Tight ends, moving on from an all-time great
    Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, led by a familiar ‘three-headed monster’
    Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Linebackers, led by a trio of veterans and little change
    Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive backs, with a star sophomore and an Oklahoma State transfer
    Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Offensive line, returning bookend tackles and a three-year starter at center

    FUTURE DEPTH
    The younger Smith’s arrival will almost certainly be a non-item for 2023, sparing us all any extensive confusion between one Kaleb Smith beginning his career and one Kaleb Smith ending his career in the same season.

    Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Offensive line, returning bookend tackles and a three-year starter at center

    Clemson v Notre Dame
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    When Brent Pry arrived at Virginia Tech last offseason, the new Hokies head coach understood he had a deep hole to climb out of if he wanted to return Blacksburg to ACC contention. Pry set out to hire coaches who would stick around and help with that climb, including offensive line coach Joe Rudolph.

    One season later, Rudolph is now preparing for Notre Dame’s spring practices beginning March 22. That departure is not a reflection of Rudolph dismissing his original intentions, but rather of how alluring the Irish offensive line coaching job was after Harry Hiestand retired following Tommy Rees’s departure for Alabama.

    Notre Dame is an appealing coaching gig in a vacuum, the Irish offensive line position duties just as much so. But the 2023 possibilities attracted a few of the better line coaches in the country, given two future first-round draft picks should start at the tackle spots and Zeke Correll will start at center for a third season. Add in a plethora of highly-sought former recruits on the depth chart, and Notre Dame’s offensive line should make nearly any coach look good.

    On top of all that, Irish head coach Marcus Freeman sold Rudolph with his favorite catchphrase.

    “That’s not always in fashion to say, ‘This is an O-line driven place and the O-line sets the tone,’” Rudolph said earlier this month of his interview conversations with Freeman. “He took a lot of pride in saying it and said it in a few of the meetings we had. That hits deep to me.

    “It’s how I grew up when I played. I felt that responsibility as a player. It really hit home for me.”

    The opportunity to lean into the offensive line at Notre Dame was simply too much for Rudolph to turn down to stay at Virginia Tech.

    WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
    The Irish lost two captains, two multi-year starters, two massive human beings in guards Jarrett Patterson and Josh Lugg. Their combined 79 starts is not simply a stat in the rearview mirror.

    Here is a 2023 prediction: When Notre Dame struggles to run through Central Michigan on Sept. 16, the fanbase’s consternation will be met with this space repeating Lugg’s accurate philosophizing a year ago about how an offensive line needs some time to coalesce. In each of the last three seasons, that was an Irish need, and in each of the last three seasons, that became an Irish reality.

    In 2022, it was because Notre Dame was working in a pair of green tackles. In 2023, it will be because the Irish are finding their footing with a pair of green guards.

    2022 STATS
    Joe Alt (two years of eligibility remaining entering the 2023 season): 13 starts at left tackle
    Jarrett Patterson: 12 starts at left guard
    Andrew Kristofic (two years of eligibility remaining): 11 games, started the season opener at left guard in place of Patterson
    Zeke Correll (two years): 13 starts at center
    Josh Lugg: 13 starts at right guard
    Blake Fisher (three years): 13 starts at right tackle

    Tosh Baker (two years): 13 games
    Rocco Spindler (three years): 12 games
    Michael Carmody (two years): 1 game

    WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
    Those three starters are established. It would take injury to change them.

    Alt (pictured at top) will be a preseason All-American at left tackle and likely first-round draft pick 13 months from now.
    Correll will start for a third season at center and about halfway through the year the Irish will start pondering if they should talk him into a sixth collegiate year in 2024.
    Fisher will start at right tackle and could join Alt in the NFL draft with a strong year. While that may panic Notre Dame fans, a season producing a pair of first-round tackles should be a season with some substantial successes in the fall, as well.

    But those two guard spots will lead to much springtime and preseason wonder. Rudolph does not know who will emerge, obviously, but he indicated he will take the same approach that Hiestand did and find his best five players first, their positions second.

    “You’d be selling the group short if you weren’t trying to find the best five,” Rudolph said. “You have to do that with some vision of how the whole group fits together.

    “There might be someone who is competing their tail off, and they might back up [Alt] or back up [Correll], but if they play in a way this spring where you see they’re one of those five (best), you can easily move them to a position and have them ready in fall camp and all summer to take that over.”

    The initial candidates should be rising junior Rocco Spindler, fifth-year Andrew Kristofic and perhaps rising sophomore Billy Schrauth. Kristofic has starting experience, most notably stepping in at left guard for the second half of the 2021 season, with much success. The other two are unknowns since high-profile recruitments.

    For the moment, presume the starting guards come from that trio. The player to nominally come up short should still anticipate playing in 2023. Notre Dame’s offensive line health in 2022 was absurd. Aside from Patterson suffering a foot injury in August, no offensive lineman endured notable injury.

    That may have been karmic justice for the historical string of injuries at left tackle in 2021, needing four underclassmen to take their knocks just to get through the first half of the season, but it was still the first time since 2017 the Irish enjoyed such fortune up front, needing at least two reserves in each of the four intervening seasons.

    It would be irrational to expect such luck again, giving tangible motivation to the three other rising sophomores as well as a pair of rising juniors, none of whom have seen the field yet.

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    Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Linebackers, led by a trio of veterans and little change
    Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive backs, with a star sophomore and an Oklahoma State transfer

    FUTURE DEPTH
    Hiestand pulled in a total of 10 offensive linemen in the last two classes, though Joey Tanona was already forced into retirement due to a concussion suffered in a car accident last winter. Nonetheless, those nine underclassmen present Rudolph plenty of options moving forward, all notable recruits, part of the luxury of taking this job.