Notre Dame needed more receivers in the second half of its 37-35 Fiesta Bowl loss to No. 9 Oklahoma State. As Irish quarterback Jack Coan dropped back to pass a school-record 69 times, he was looking at only four receivers.
Even when adding in sophomore running back Chris Tyree and sophomore tight end Michael Mayer, Coan targeted only six players multiple times. And those players were tired by the end of the shootout.
In 2022, Notre Dame’s quarterback will have a few more options as players like Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins return to health, but he will not have Kevin Austin anymore. The senior declared for the NFL draft on Sunday after catching six passes on 13 targets for 105 yards and a touchdown on Saturday. Austin finished the season with 48 catches for 888 yards and seven touchdowns, all career highs.
After preserving a year of eligibility in 2018, Austin was silently suspended for the 2019 season. A twice-broken foot then robbed him of nearly all of 2020. He ends his Irish career with only the one year of productivity, although it was a year of productivity that should at least get him on some draft boards.
In that respect, Austin’s decision makes sense. Just how much his draft stock would improve after similar production in 2022? Presuming little, then heading to the NFL now after a tumultuous four seasons is logical.
“To my coaches: Thank you for making me the best version of myself both on and off the field,” Austin wrote on Instagram. “The player and man you have molded me into over the past four years has established a strong blueprint for future success.”
Classmate Braden Lenzy, however, will return for a fifth season in 2022, he announced Sunday. He caught seven passes on 15 targets, the latter a game-high, for 60 yards against the Cowboys, finishing 2021 with 32 catches for 350 yards and three touchdowns while adding five rushes for 69 yards.
Lenzy has long shown glimpses of a top-end receiver with game-altering speed, but a series of concussions and balky hamstrings have limited him throughout his career. With Austin gone, though, Lenzy could become Notre Dame’s leading receiver in 2022, a chance to boost his professional aspirations.
I’ll Be Back ☘️ pic.twitter.com/bkHTuSpqeY
— Braden Lenzy (@blspeedy21) January 2, 2022
That is, if freshman Lorenzo Styles does not continue his current trend line and become the top Irish pass-catcher not named Mayer. Styles caught eight passes for 136 yards and a touchdown on Saturday. After him, though, Notre Dame had nowhere else to turn other than those two seniors. Freshman Deion Colzie was targeted just once. The Irish had no other receivers in the mix thanks to the Wilkins and Davis injuries as well as senior Lawrence Keys’ midseason decision to transfer.
These depth concerns will continue into 2022, when Wilkins and Davis are expected to return but Notre Dame otherwise has added only one receiver, consensus four-star recruit Tobias Merriweather, thanks in part to two late-cycle de-commitments.
If the Irish sign another receiver prospect or seek help in the transfer portal, they will reportedly do so with a new position coach. Multiple reports Monday indicated new head coach Marcus Freeman will not retain receivers coach Del Alexander as part of his staff. Irish Illustrated first reported that news.
Alexander has been at Notre Dame since Brian Kelly overhauled his staff following the 2016 debacle, joining the staff from Arizona State, where he had previously worked with Chip Long, whom Kelly brought in then as offensive coordinator.
When Long was dispatched following the 2019 season, Alexander held onto his job, but continued recruiting misses made Freeman’s decision a simple one. The fact that the Irish had only four available receivers this week — five if including freshman Jayden Thomas, who did not play this season — is an indictment of the handling of personnel at the position more than anything else.
Next year Notre Dame will hope to maintain more depth, beginning with Lenzy and relying on Styles, but also with some added personnel yet to be found this spring.
Tight end George Takacs announced Sunday he will return in 2022 for a fifth season. With freshman Cane Berrong and incoming freshman Eli Raridon both recovering from knee injuries, Takacs should provide some needed depth alongside Mayer, even if he caught only three passes for 36 yards this season.
Safety Houston Griffith announced Monday he will also return in 2022, a decision not to be taken for granted given Griffith entered the transfer portal just a year ago before Freeman talked him into giving his new defense a chance. Griffith started 12 games and made 38 tackles this season, still sometimes a tackling liability but also increasingly a reliable back-end coverage option.
2022. I’m back. ☘️ pic.twitter.com/OA5jnrfo6i
— Houston Griffith (@___HG3) January 3, 2022
BRAMBLETT, MOALA, CARROLL TRANSFERRING
Irish junior punter Jay Bramblett has entered the transfer portal, something expected since before the regular season even ended. Notre Dame knew this was coming, hence adding punter Bryce McFerson to the recruiting class a year before a punter was expected to be signed.
Perhaps a bit more unexpected, senior linebacker Paul Moala announced an intention to transfer. Moala cited “unforeseen circumstances,” likely an acknowledgement that he has now suffered two torn Achilles tendons, an injury path that is essentially unprecedented. Without Moala around, linebackers like juniors JD Bertrand and Jack Kiser emerged. Combining them with the best class of linebacker recruits in the country, and suddenly Moala may have seen a struggle toward playing time in his future.
Due to Unforeseen circumstances. The journey continues…. From the bottom of my heart thank you ND🍀 #foreverirish pic.twitter.com/aj3HUuXr62
— Paul Moala (@PaulMoala) January 2, 2022
Junior offensive lineman Quinn Carroll also entered the transfer portal on Monday. The former four-star recruit played in 12 games this season but entirely on special teams. He tore his ACL in his freshman season.