Who will Notre Dame turn to next? Some possibilities …

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If this coaching cycle has taught the college football world anything, it is that nothing can be considered too surprising anymore. December’s early signing period accelerated the coaching carousel a few years ago, the development of the transfer portal has increased the urgency to move on from struggling regimes, and both the present and coming influxes in television contract money make no buyout, extension or salary offer unmanageable.

Anything can happen, and has.

So when suggesting candidates to replace Brian Kelly at Notre Dame after he left the Irish for LSU after 12 years in South Bend, neither certainty nor incredulity should be placed on any possibility.

Nonetheless, the proverbial list on director of athletics Jack Swarbrick’s desk likely begins with three names before any others: Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell and Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman.

LUKE FICKELL: The fifth-year head coach at Cincinnati has spent his entire coaching career in Ohio, beginning as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, Ohio State, in 1999 before moving to Akron for two years as defensive line coach. Fickell then returned to the Buckeyes, working his way up the coaching staff, until he took over the Bearcats in 2017.

He has gone 47-14 in his five years, including a 21-1 stretch over the last two seasons, highlighted by beating Notre Dame in early October.

As a result of that win, Fickell and Cincinnati stand on the precipice of the College Football Playoff, seemingly assured a bid if they can beat No. 24 Houston in the AAC championship game (4 ET; ABC).

That may be the biggest hurdle to Fickell, 48, following in Kelly’s footsteps, as much literally as figuratively. One of the hottest names in coaching circles for two years now, Fickell has turned down opportunities with an eye on staying in the Midwest. Notre Dame may not be his alma mater, but the latter is unlikely to need a head coach anytime soon. Furthermore, not that this matters on Saturdays or should greatly influence Swarbrick’s search, Fickell is Catholic, conceivably making Notre Dame a more appealing job to him despite the difficulties of the job that presumably played a part in Kelly’s departure.

If the Bearcats win on Saturday, though, would Fickell leave them on the eve of a Playoff appearance? That was once thought beyond comprehension, but then Kelly left the Irish with the Playoff still a possibility for them.

MATT CAMPBELL: The sixth-year head coach at Iowa State has also spent his entire coaching career in the Midwest, only leaving Ohio to take over in Ames in 2016 after he won two MAC West Division championships in 2014 and 2015 at Toledo.

If one of the more reliable ways to gauge a coach’s effectiveness is how he compares to a program’s historical track record, then Campbell, 42, is one of the country’s best. In the three years before his arrival, the Cyclones won a total of eight games. With a bowl win this season, Campbell would win at least eight games for the fourth time in the last five years, the exception being the 7-6 season in 2019 that ended with a loss to Notre Dame in the Camping World Bowl.

Before Campbell, Iowa State last won eight games in a season in 2000, when it went 9-3, a win total never otherwise matched in Cyclones history until they went 9-3 during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, culminating in a 34-17 Fiesta Bowl victory against No. 24 Oregon. Iowa State finished No. 9 in the polls.

Yet Campbell’s coaching carousel buzz may have been higher before struggling to a 7-5 posting thus far this season. The Cyclones were expected to be Big 12 contenders, instead losing four times in conference play to end up fourth in the final standings.

MARCUS FREEMAN: The first-year Irish defensive coordinator is beloved by his current players, many of them taking to social media Monday night advocating for his hiring as Kelly’s replacement. That is far from the only thing Swarbrick will consider, but it at least demonstrates how quickly Freeman, 35, can relate to and bond with a roster, given he was hired by Kelly less than a year ago. (And it warrants noting: Freeman chose Notre Dame over LSU.)

He joined Kelly’s staff after serving as Fickell’s defensive coordinator for four years. Again, a Midwestern background may bolster Freeman’s profile in Swarbrick’s considerations. The furthest Freeman has strayed as a coach from Ohio State, where he played from 2004 to 2008, has been Purdue, where he coached from 2013 to 2016.

A geographic background like that matters, just as it does regarding both Fickell and Campbell. It suggests recruiting relationships in the general region, an indifference to winter weather and perhaps some familial ties.

Freeman has been a master recruiter for Notre Dame in his one year on staff, a primary piece of how the Irish have put together the No. 4 recruiting class this cycle, per rivals.com. Since he was hired, Notre Dame has landed commitments from eight defensive four-star recruits.

Most, if not all, of those recruits are expected to sign with the Irish on Dec. 15, the beginning of the early signing period. This coaching turnover obviously puts some of their pledges into some limbo, perhaps a thought in Freeman’s favor and certainly one in favor of a quick coaching search.

But Freeman has never been a head coach, and he has been a Power Five defensive coordinator for less than a calendar year, possibly making him too inexperienced for Swarbrick’s tastes.

After those three, the candidates list becomes more of a guessing game. Some names that will populate the chatter in the coming days — if this even takes that long; given the nature of both this cycle and the looming early signing period, an efficient search may be a Swarbrick priority — are simply fodder from agents looking to get clients raises or higher profiles. Others may pass through Swarbrick’s consideration without any genuine outside notice.

A sampling of such names would include current assistants, retired notables, fringe NFL possibilities and a few Power Five head coaches not currently at blue-blood programs. To give some context, but not to inspire any conjecture … 

Tommy Rees: If Freeman is going to be considered, then so should the second-year Irish offensive coordinator. He may be only 29, but Rees was on Kelly’s staff for five years, giving him more Power Five experience than Freeman. He has now twice handled delicate quarterback situations, both the 2018 swap to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush and the 2021 balancing act between Jack Coan, Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner requiring the deftest of touches.

Then again, Rees is only 29.

See also: Mike Elston, Brian Polian.

CHRIS PETERSON: This is nothing but the thought of who could Swarbrick swing at that would qualify as a big get and yet be unexpected. The retired Washington head coach would check just about every box imaginable, including age as he is only 57, but he has also not expressed much of a desire to get back into coaching.

See also: Bob Stoops.

Matt Rhule: Another name that would check all those boxes as well as be a notable hire, the second-year Carolina Panthers head coach may enjoy not having to recruit teenagers too much to return to the college game.

See also: Pete Carroll.

Dave Clawson: The eighth-year Wake Forest head coach just signed an extension, something he shared with his team on Friday and has an ACC championship game to worry about, but at 54 and with a proven track record, Clawson continues to hear his name pop up on the outskirts of these conversations.

Mark Stoops: Similar to Clawson, the ninth-year Kentucky head coach has taken a historically-middling program to more respectable heights, if not to any title contention. Stoops, 54, has won at least eight games in three of the last four years, a stretch the Wildcats faithful are happy to keep rolling. Stoops was widely considered an LSU possibility if the Tigers continued to strike out on bigger targets until they convinced Kelly to take the job.

See also: Pat Fitzgerald, Jeff Hafley.

A few names need not be mentioned: Neither the current Jacksonville Jaguars head coach nor the recently-departed Las Vegas Raiders head coach will be remotely considered by Swarbrick given their off-field actions.

See also: Ed Orgeron.

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

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.