Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 29 Matt Salerno, fifth-year receiver, punt returner, former walk-on

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Oklahoma State v Notre Dame
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Listed measurements: 6-foot ⅝, 199 pounds.
2022-23 year, eligibility: A fifth-year veteran, Salerno technically has eligibility available beyond this season, but using that season would be quite unexpected.
Depth Chart: If sixth-year receiver Avery Davis returns fully healthy before the season from a November ACL tear, as should be the case, Salerno may be Notre Dame’s backup slot receiver. Wherever he lines up, the former walk-on will not be far down the depth chart, given the Irish have a total of eight scholarship receivers, including both Salerno and incoming freshman Tobias Merriweather.
Recruiting: A former walk-on, Salerno was put on scholarship by new Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman shortly after the Fiesta Bowl.

CAREER TO DATE
Salerno first saw action in the Irish blowout of New Mexico in 2019 before working as Notre Dame’s primary punt returner in 2020, though that rarely included actually returning a punt. He reprised that role in spot moments in 2021.

As a receiver, Salerno’s one career catch actually lost four yards.

2019: 1 game.
2020: 11 games, 45 punt return yards on 10 returns.
2021: 11 games, 13 punt return yards on 5 returns, 33 kick return yards on 2 kicks, -4 receiving yards.

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
Salerno finding his way onto scholarship is presumably more compensation than he ever anticipated.

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Salerno is a known commodity, and a trusted one. The Irish can do worse than lean on him to field punts cleanly. If nothing else, he will not hand an opponent a golden scoring opportunity as (Lawrence) Keys did against the Seminoles.

“But those other possibilities remain more tantalizing, and if one can find some trust from the coaching staff — be it (Chris) Tyree, Keys, (Lorenzo) Styles or even senior receiver Braden Lenzy — then Salerno may become a backup security blanket.

“When Notre Dame handed the job to Salerno, it was that dichotomy that led to the walk-on taking over but also having had to wait a few weeks to do so.

“‘He was effortless back there,’ Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in September, two weeks into the season. ‘He had been back there all camp. We also had Kyren (Williams) back there, and with Kyren’s load and everything he was doing, it just made sense to go with [Salerno] because, like I said, he’s been effortless catching the football.

“‘No, he doesn’t have maybe the kind of explosiveness that Kyren has, but you feel really comfortable with him back there. That’s why we went with him.’”

2022 OUTLOOK
A punt returner who will not jeopardize the upcoming possession is not something to take for granted. As dynamic as Kyren Williams was, even he sometimes put the ball at risk. Salerno did not.

Northwestern safety transfer Brandon Joseph may take over at punt returner, if not sophomore receiver Lorenzo Styles, but that is both uncertain and somewhat risky. With Salerno, Notre Dame will know there is no risk, even new Irish special teams coordinator Brian Mason certainly sees that.

If that is the extent of Salerno’s scholarship contributions, so be it. Notre Dame will be better off.

He Will Likely add some catches to the ledger, as well. The Irish are too thin at receiver for anyone to scoff at playing a former walk-on. Lenzy’s legs were rubber by the end of the Fiesta Bowl, when Notre Dame trotted out only four scholarship receivers.

Imagine doing that for an entire season. That is the danger the Irish are toeing. Lenzy, Styles and sophomores Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas are the only sure things available. Davis should be healthy, and eventually fifth-year Joe Wilkins may join him (Lisfranc injury). Merriweather arrives with much hype, but few freshmen should be viewed as absolutes out of the gate.

Salerno may not be a superstar. Actually, scratch that. The hesitant verb tense is imprecise. Salerno is not a superstar. But he is a clean route-runner who has an understanding of what risks to take and that most risks are ones not to take. He can spare Lenzy, Styles, Colzie and Thomas some fatigue. Whatever the catches and receptions tallies, simply keeping those receivers fresh will be a worthwhile perk for Notre Dame.

DOWN THE ROAD
Salerno may need double-digit catches, triple-digit yards and at least one touchdown for the Irish to even vaguely ponder bringing him back in 2023. Only one receiver is currently in Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2023, consensus four-star Braylon James (Del Valle High School; Texas), rated the No. 31 receiver in the class by rivals.com, but the Irish should add a big name alongside James by the end of the weekend.

Notre Dame will still be light on depth. Presume the recruiting class grows to three receivers and the Irish find one more in the transfer portal during the winter, and that would be a depth chart of eight names.

A ninth and 10th set of hands would be valuable, but they would no longer be absolutely vital.

NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
From Blake Grupe to Braden Lenzy, the offseason countdown begins anew
No. 99 Blake Grupe, kicker, Arkansas State transfer
No. 99 Rylie Mills, junior defensive lineman, a tackle now playing more at end

No. 98 Tyson Ford, early-enrolled freshman, a defensive tackle recruited as a four-star end
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, sophomore defensive tackle, still ‘as wide as a Volkswagen’
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, a junior defensive tackle who tore his ACL in March
No. 91 Josh Bryan, sophomore kicker
No. 91 Aiden Gobaira, early-enrolled freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 90 Alexander Ehrensberger, junior defensive end, a German project nearing completion
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, sophomore tight end
No. 87 Michael Mayer, junior tight end, likely All-American
No. 85 Holden Staes, incoming freshman tight end
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, junior tight end
No. 83 Jayden Thomas, sophomore receiver, former four-star recruit
No. 80 Cane Berrong, sophomore tight end coming off an ACL injury
No. 79 Tosh Baker, one of four young Irish offensive tackles
No. 78 Pat Coogan, sophomore center, recovering from a meniscus injury
No. 77 Ty Chan, incoming offensive tackle, former four-star recruit
No. 76 Joe Alt, sophomore starting left tackle
No. 75 Josh Lugg, sixth-year offensive lineman, likely starting right guard
No. 74 Billy Schrauth, early-enrolled freshman offensive guard coming off foot surgery
No. 73 Andrew Kristofic, senior offensive tackle-turned-guard
No. 72 Caleb Johnson, sophomore offensive tackle, former Auburn pledge
No. 68 Michael Carmody, junior offensive line utility man
No. 65 Michael Vinson, long snapper, ‘Milk’
No. 65 Chris Smith, defensive tackle, Harvard transfer
No. 59 Aamil Wagner, consensus four-star incoming freshman offensive tackle
No. 58 Ashton Craig, incoming freshman center
No. 57 Jayson Ademilola, fifth-year defensive tackle, coming off shoulder surgery
No. 56 Joey Tanona, early-enrolled offensive guard coming off a concussion
No. 56 Howard Cross, senior defensive tackle with heavy hands, and that’s a good thing
No. 55 Jarrett Patterson, fifth-year offensive lineman, three-year starting center, captain
No. 54 Jacob Lacey, senior defensive tackle, now lighter and a starter
No. 54 Blake Fisher, sophomore starting right tackle, ‘ginormous’
No. 52 Zeke Correll, senior center or perhaps left guard
No. 52 Bo Bauer, fifth-year linebacker, Ironman
No. 50 Rocco Spindler, sophomore offensive guard
No. 48 Will Schweitzer, sophomore end-turned-linebacker
No. 47 Jason Oyne, sophomore defensive end-turned-tackle
No. 44 Junior Tuihalamaka, early-enrolled freshman linebacker, consensus four-star recruit
No. 44 Alex Peitsch, junior long snapper
No. 42 Nolan Ziegler, early-enrolled freshman linebacker, Irish legacy
No. 41 Donovan Hinish, incoming freshman defensive tackle, Kurt’s brother
No. 40 Joshua Burnham, early-enrolled freshman linebacker-turned-end
No. 34 Osita Ekwonu, senior Vyper end coming off an Achilles injury
No. 31 NaNa Osafo-Mensah, senior defensive end
No. 20 Jadarian Price, early-enrolled freshman running back with a ruptured Achilles
No. 9 Eli Raridon, incoming freshman tight end with a torn ACL