Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 0 Braden Lenzy, fifth-year receiver, one of few healthy WRs

Cincinnati v Notre Dame
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Listed measurements: 5-foot-11 ⅜, 182 pounds.
2022-23 year, eligibility: A fifth-year veteran, Lenzy has two seasons of eligibility remaining. In other words, he could conceivably return to Notre Dame for the 2023 season, as unlikely as that seems.
Depth Chart: For the number of criticisms that can be levied at Lenzy — more on them below — he has managed to stay available more often than not throughout his career, and right now that is vital for the Irish. Lenzy will start at Ohio State in 29 days. In years past, he fit best as the field (wide) receiver, but with sophomore Lorenzo Styles also in the mix, Lenzy may move around the formation.
Recruiting: Lenzy’s recruitment remains a lesson for fans on what not to do. A consensus four-star prospect, Lenzy de-committed from Notre Dame to instead head to his homestate Oregon with an understanding he could also run track for the historic Ducks program. Irish fans were not fans of that choice, and some made that known to Lenzy via social media.

When Oregon head coach Willie Taggart left to take the job at Florida State, Lenzy flipped back to Notre Dame. Ducks fans were not pleased with that choice, and some made that clear to Lenzy online.

His commitment came complete with a letter to those fans, all those who had criticized his choices as he plotted out his life, and if anything, it did not speak harshly enough to those loudmouths.

As available as Lenzy has been, he has also missed a number of games to concussions, nagging hamstring issues and then pandemic protocols. Missing nine games in his first two active seasons was not a great sign, but by current Notre Dame worries, that would be near full health.

When he did play, Lenzy shined in 2019, taking a total of 24 touches for 454 yards and four touchdowns. Hamstring troubles kept him from building on that momentum in 2020, but he was largely consistent in 2021. Lenzy caught at least one pass in every game except against Navy and had at least 21 receiving yards in nine games.

In the Fiesta Bowl, Lenzy was one of four receivers the Irish could trot out as quarterback Jack Coan dropped back to pass 70 times. Lenzy openly admitted to being gassed in the fourth quarter of that effort, as he caught seven passes for 60 yards.

2019: 9 games, 2 starts; 11 catches for 254 yards and two touchdowns with 13 rushes for 200 yards and two more scores.
2020: 7 games, 1 start; 7 catches for 63 yards and one touchdown with 3 rushes for 8 yards.
2021: 13 games, 11 starts; 32 catches for 350 yards and three touchdowns with 5 rushes for 69 yards.

Lenzy and sophomore receiver Lorenzo Styles recently signed a NIL deal with Under Armour and Dick’s Sporting Goods to push a cozy line of athletic apparel.

Lenzy’s health has been a mixed bag. He has never suffered a season-compromising injury like fifth-year receiver Joe Wilkins (Lisfranc) is worrying about right now or that cost sixth-year Avery Davis (ACL) the final month of 2021. But Lenzy has also never been the most durable. There was nothing Lenzy could do to avoid those early-career concussions, aside from not playing football at all, but plaguing hamstrings can be vaguely addressed in the offseason, as can an overall slight frame.

Lenzy has put on muscle, even if his current listed weight is up just one pound from this time a year ago.

Some of that improved strength was visible in Lenzy’s favorite route, a post corner that he could deploy more often in 2021. The route requires a cut back from momentum at about 135 degrees.

“It’s definitely tough,” Lenzy said to Jac Collinsworth on the ND on NBC Podcast in September. “I couldn’t really do it for a long time, or if I did it was inconsistent. It has become one of my better routes.

“I actually got one in the Wisconsin game. Avery caught one, too. I just think it’s so fun. … For me, it’s probably my most efficient, highest completion percentage catch.”

“It sounds simplistic, but it remains true: Lenzy’s success will come down to health. He has shown he can excel at the collegiate level. There are not enough quality cornerbacks on Notre Dame’s schedule to truly hamper him this season. Only his hamstrings can do that.

“The Irish do not need Lenzy to be a 50-catch receiver, or even a 40-catch receiver. His 2019 effectiveness would do plenty to worry opposing defenses on every snap.

“If Lenzy ends 2021 with literally two catches in every game, but one of them is always for at least 20 yards, it will mean Notre Dame’s offense found a gear it has lacked for a few years. That may sound meager, but it would be 25 catches for at least 300 yards and more likely closer to 450.

“Add in a few long touchdowns and Lenzy’s impact will gain more notoriety.

“Measuring expectations for Lenzy may not feel necessary given his talent is proven, but doing so may also measure his workload, which should then lead to more efficient usage. Lenzy’s snaps and targets should not be about quantity, but about quality. …

“From there, Lenzy can return in 2022 and add some more muscle to his frame to become a more consistent receiving option. He will never be a classic possession receiver, but that is also not his skill set, nor a common player in the NFL anymore.

“If Lenzy can prove healthy for an extended stretch, then the NFL will want to take a chance on him. Two years totaling 60-plus catches and 1,200 yards will get the NFL’s attention.”

If last summer’s projection was accurate and Lenzy will put up 60 catches and 1,200 yards across the 2021 and 2022 seasons, then he owes 28 catches and 850 yards this year. Averaging 30.4 yards per catch would be otherworldly, but the 850 receiving yards would also be rather noteworthy. In the last five seasons, only three Irish receivers have topped that mark: Miles Boykin (872 in 2018), Chase Claypool (1,037 in 2019) and Kevin Austin (888 in 2021).

Lenzy reaching that many yards would be even more shocking considering he will be no higher than the No. 2 receiving option for Notre Dame this season, thanks to preseason All-American and rather-certain first-round draft pick tight end Michael Mayer.

The 28 catches, however, may be more underselling Lenzy’s potential this year.

Lenzy has taken 1,011 snaps in his career, and on 71 of them, the ball ended up in his hands. The math there is rather simple: On about 7 percent of the plays, Lenzy gets the ball.

The Irish have something resembling no receiver depth. While that may lead offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to slow down the game — Lenzy could run 70 routes in the bowl game after a month off; he could not do it on a weekly basis — Notre Dame should not fall too far off last year’s 903 offensive snaps. Lenzy should play three-quarters of them, as one of two stalwarts in the receiving corps along with Styles.

By that math, Lenzy will see about 600 plays. 7 percent of 600 is 42.

If Lenzy ends 2022 with 42 touches, he could surpass 600 yards from scrimmage. If that includes a handful of touchdowns, it will be a solid contribution.

And all of that does not boost any of Lenzy’s trends for supposed gained strength or simple maturity. Add those in and Lenzy could get that much closer to 1,000 yards from scrimmage. The Irish would be overjoyed with such.

RELATED READING: Latest evolution of WR Braden Lenzy isn’t too late for Notre Dame

Lenzy’s speed may make him a mid-round draft pick. His recruitment was long ago by now, but anyone who could sprint for Oregon has the type of speed that entices some NFL front offices to make rash decisions.

If he gets through the 2022 season without missing a game, his durability worries will be far enough in the rearview mirror as to not make those franchises hesitate.

The NFL is on the verge of a run on young receivers, value available in their services while the top-10 receivers in the league make money not too far from what quarterbacks are usually paid. That will further strengthen Lenzy’s chances of getting drafted.

With 2022 health, do not expect Lenzy back in 2023.

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. 29 Matt Salerno, fifth-year receiver, punt returner, former walk-on
No. 28 TaRiq Bracy, fifth-year starting nickel back
No. 27 JD Bertrand, senior linebacker recovering from a plaguing wrist injury
No. 25 Philip Riley, sophomore cornerback
No. 25 Chris Tyree, junior running back, possible Irish bellcow
No. 24 Jack Kiser, senior linebacker, second-year starter
No. 23 Jayden Bellamy, early-enrolled freshman cornerback
No. 22 Justin Walters, sophomore safety
No. 22 Logan Diggs, sophomore running back with a shoulder injury
No. 21 Jaden Mickey, early-enrolled freshman cornerback
No. 20 Jadarian Price, early-enrolled freshman running back with a ruptured Achilles
No. 20 Benjamin Morrison, freshman cornerback
No. 18 Chance Tucker, sophomore cornerback
No. 18 Steve Angeli, freshman QB, Blue-Gold Game star
No. 17 Jaylen Sneed, early-enrolled linebacker, Rover of the future
No. 16 Brandon Joseph, Northwestern transfer, preseason All-American, starting safety
No. 16 Deion Colzie, sophomore receiver
No. 15 Tobias Merriweather, freshman receiver, forever a memorable recruitment
No. 15 Ryan Barnes, sophomore cornerback
No. 14 Bryce McFerson, freshman punter facing a Harvard challenge
No. 13 Gi’Bran Payne, freshman running back, late recruit
No. 12 Tyler Buchner, sophomore starting QB
No. 12 Jordan Botelho, a defensive end-turned-linebacker
No. 11 Ron Powlus III, sophomore QB providing steadiness to a chaotic room
No. 11 Ramon Henderson, junior cornerback-turned-safety
No. 10 Drew Pyne, junior quarterback
No. 10 Prince Kollie, sophomore linebacker, high school Butkus Award winner
No. 9 Eli Raridon, incoming freshman tight end with a torn ACL
No. 9 Justin Ademilola, fifth-year defensive end, a backup in name only
No. 8 Marist Liufau, senior linebacker returning from a dislocated ankle
No. 7 Audric Estime, sophomore running back, No. 2 on the shortened depth chart
No. 7 Isaiah Foskey, defensive end on a record chase
No. 6 Clarence Lewis, three-year starting cornerback
No. 5 Joe Wilkins, receiver with a September-costing foot injury
No. 5 Cam Hart, senior cornerback, second-year starter
No. 4 Xavier Watts, junior receiver-turned-safety
No. 4 Lorenzo Styles, sophomore receiver poised for a breakout
No. 3 Avery Davis, sixth-year receiver returning from an ACL injury
No. 3 Houston Griffith, fifth-year safety
No. 2 DJ Brown, fifth-year safety

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    A quick run through Notre Dame’s offensive depth chart, led by Sam Hartman and Joe Alt

    Clemson v Notre Dame
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    The first couple spring practices were enough to fill out a penciled depth chart for Notre Dame’s offense. Franky, there was one question needing some clues more than anything else, and Irish rising junior Michael Carmody has emerged as the early frontrunner at left guard opposite fifth-year Andrew Kristofic at right guard.

    Let’s emphasize the phrase early frontrunner there, as new Notre Dame offensive line coach Joe Rudolph likely will mix and match a bit yet both before the Blue-Gold Game on April 22 and before the Irish head to Dublin in 148 days.

    The one position with a clear pecking order among its top two, despite Notre Dame continuing to go through the facade of a competition, is quarterback.

    “[Rising junior Tyler Buchner is] not going to back down from anybody,” Irish quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli said Friday. “At the end of the day, if those two are competing and going head-to-head, they’re making each other better and ultimately, they’re making the offense better, which is going to make this football team better. …

    “They understand what’s at stake. It’s nice to see those guys compete. I think it sets a precedent in the room that, ‘Hey, you have to go out there every day and be consistent and make decisions that are going to help our football team and put them in situations to be successful.’”

    Those are nice sentiments, and Buchner’s development obviously should be a Notre Dame priority through 2023, especially as it pertains to keeping him actively engaged with the program.

    But Wake Forest graduate transfer Sam Hartman will start for the Irish in Dublin.

    — Hartman
    — Buchner: Because it may be asked, Buchner has three seasons of eligibility remaining to be used in three years.
    — Sophomore Steve Angeli: And Angeli has four seasons remaining in four years.
    — Early-enrolled freshman Kenny Minchey

    One more reminder, Ron Powlus III took a medical retirement this offseason.

    — Junior Audric Estimé
    — Junior Logan Diggs: Both Estimé and Diggs have only two seasons of eligibility remaining, but given the short shelf lives of running backs, it could probably be assumed at least one of them will not return to college in 2024. Then again, perhaps NIL could change that long view.
    — Sophomore Jadarian Price: Not yet full-go as he recovers from a summer Achilles injury, it looks more and more like Price may have the third-most carries for Notre Dame this fall with fifth-year Chris Tyree looking at a life at receiver.
    — Sophomore Gi’Bran Payne
    — Freshman Jeremiyah Love

    — Virginia Tech graduate transfer Kaleb Smith: The nomenclature of “Big” used here is not official, is not what Notre Dame uses, and is intended only to convey uncertainty at who will line up where among the Irish receivers, particularly with a new offensive coordinator in Gerad Parker. It still feels safe to presume there will be some delineation between skill sets, though.
    — Junior Jayden Thomas: He became a third-down extraordinaire in 2022 and has been praised as a leader this spring. Thomas could end up starting over Smith. Again, uncertainty about the split of starters.
    — Junior Deion Colzie

    — Sophomore Tobias Merriweather could not be receiving much more praise this spring.
    — Early-enrolled freshman Jaden Greathouse
    — Early-enrolled freshman Braylon James

    — Junior Lorenzo Styles
    — Fifth-year Chris Tyree: One could understandably wonder if Tyree’s dabbling at receiver was part of Notre Dame’s conversation with him about returning for this final collegiate season.
    — Former walk-on Matt Salerno
    — Freshman Kaleb Smith

    — Junior Mitchell Evans
    — Sophomore Holden Staes
    — Sophomore Eli Raridon
    — Junior Kevin Bauman: Both Bauman and Raridon are sidelined for the spring as they recover from ACLs torn in the fall.
    — Freshman Cooper Flanagan 

    — Preseason first-team Walter Camp All-American Joe Alt: Yes, a preseason All-American team was released Friday. Yes, that’s idiotic.
    — Senior Tosh Baker: He has never cracked the starting lineup aside from the rash of left tackle injuries in 2021 that eventually led to Alt’s star turn, but Baker remains one game away from taking over at a pivotal role. It is not like he has been supplanted by scrubs. If he hangs around South Bend, one has to think the starting gig could be his in 2024, but that may be an “if.”

    — Carmody
    — Sophomore Billy Schrauth

    — Fifth-year Zeke Correll is set for his third season as a starter at the fulcrum, a veteran presence that should make life that much easier for Hartman.
    — Junior Pat Coogan
    — Early-enrolled freshman Sam Pendleton

    — Kristofic
    — Junior Rocco Spindler
    — Sophomore Ashton Craig

    — Junior Blake Fisher
    — Sophomore Aamil Wagner
    — Sophomore Ty Chan

    Positions are in flux even among the second unit along the offensive line, so trying to nail them down beyond that is foolish, particularly with players not even yet on campus.

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    Georgia OL prospect the first commit for new Notre Dame OL coach Joe Rudolph


    New Notre Dame offensive line coach Joe Rudolph pulled in his first recruit by continuing to chase a prospect he initially wanted at his last job. Three-star offensive lineman Anthonie Knapp (Roswell High School; Ga.) committed to the Irish on Wednesday afternoon, picking Notre Dame over Rudolph’s former employer, Virginia Tech, as well as Georgia Tech and North Carolina.

    In total, more than half the ACC offered Knapp a scholarship. The Irish offer came only this past weekend with Knapp in South Bend catching up with Rudolph, who was the first Power Five coach to offer a scholarship to Knapp back at Virginia Tech.

    “The hospitality and the heritage it kept made the school stand out,” Knapp said to Inside ND Sports in a text message.

    At 6-foot-5 and less than 270 pounds, Knapp will need to put on weight at the next level, though that can be said of most high school juniors. He played left tackle last season, but unless the weight piles on quickly and consistently, Knapp will most likely play guard at the next level.

    His footwork already looks more fundamentally sound than most high schoolers display, all the more impressive because Knapp could simply rely on overpowering his opponents as most offensive line prospects understandably tend to do. Knapp is content to use his length and footwork to let a pass rusher charge upfield, well past the quarterback.

    Strength and mass will come with age and entering a collegiate conditioning program, and Knapp needs both of those, but length is uncoachable and footwork fundamentals hold up early careers as often as lack of strength does.

    He is the second offensive lineman in the class, joining four-star offensive guard Peter Jones, also a preps tackle that is expected to move inside in college.

    Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s biggest offensive progressions this spring will be smallest to spot from afar

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    When Marcus Freeman was first hired as Notre Dame’s head coach in December of 2021, it was widely expected he would retain three-fifths of his offensive coaching staff. Instead, promotions elsewhere awaited two of those coaches, leaving only Tommy Rees as a constant.

    Then Rees and one-year returnee Harry Hiestand departed this offseason, meaning Freeman’s entire offensive coaching staff turned over — and the offensive line coach twice — within 15 months of that supposedly being a piece of stability he could lean on as a young first-time head coach. Yet, one thing has not changed about Freeman’s relationship with the offensive coaches: He is trying to stay out of their way.

    “Most of the [newcomers] are on the offensive side of the ball, so really I just try to stay out of the way and let those guys meet,” Freeman said last week at the start of the Irish spring practices. “Give them time to be together. They’ve been together a lot and met a lot and really, you have to meet to get everybody on the same page. A lot of that is cohesion, that ability to view these guys as teammates.

    “… I’ve been in there a bit, and then we have our staff meetings to make sure everybody understands our culture, understands our expectations. It’s not where it’s a finished product, but it’s definitely progressing to where we want to see it.”

    A year ago, the cohesion Freeman was most worried about on the offensive side of the ball was between Rees and a pair of inexperienced quarterbacks. Now, it’s the collaboration between an offensive coordinator, a quarterbacks coach and an offensive line coach who had never worked together before a month or two ago. Freeman, of course, knew offensive coordinator Gerad Parker for more than a decade, quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli for seven years and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph since Freeman’s playing days at Ohio State beginning in 2004.

    That has been a common theme in Freeman’s hires, tying to former Notre Dame special teams coach Brian Mason, current cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and defensive line coach Al Washington.

    “There’s nothing more important than experience with somebody,” Freeman said. “I don’t have to wonder what this person is like when I’m not around. … When I can find a quality coach that I know can be the best at his profession, but also I have personal experience with them — I’m not saying we’re friends, but we’ve worked together. Coach Rudolph was at Ohio State when I was a player, but I knew what type of person he was.”

    That is the commonality between those three new offensive hires, though a few pieces of similar backgrounds can be found between Parker and Guidugli. At 42 and 40, respectively, they both grew up in the Ohio River Valley and played college football along the same Kentucky-Ohio Interstate corridor. Parker then went straight into coaching while Guidugli knocked around the Canadian Football League and various iterations of short-lived secondary leagues in the United States until he went into coaching in 2010.

    At the least, though, their formative years should have shared enough to lay a foundation now, the foundation upon which Freeman is counting on them to build an offense. That progression may be as important as any other made on the offensive side of the ball this spring.

    After just one practice, Freeman saw value in a quarterbacks coach who can somewhat ignore the rest of the offense. Rees’s focus was assuredly on the quarterbacks, but Sam Hartman, Tyler Buchner & Co. are quite literally all Guidugli needs to concern himself with each day.

    “When you take some of that responsibility off their plate, and it’s just coach the quarterbacks and see if they made the right decision because there’s so much that falls on [the quarterback’s] plate that isn’t really his fault,” Freeman said. “I know he gets the praise and he gets the criticism, but my biggest thing, did you make the right decision? That’s so important at the quarterback position.”

    Parker thinks there may be more to the gig than the right decision. Wake Forest graduate transfer Sam Hartman should have little trouble with any intangibles of acclimating to a new campus and a new roster, even if he did not have to run many huddles with the Demon Deacons, but there will be one tangible shift to his quarterback play that Hartman might need to work on.

    “Just in its simplest form, just taking snaps under center,” Parker said this weekend. “As simple as that. Just being able to secure a football under center.”

    Parker wants to emphasize that because even as Notre Dame presumably opens up its offense a bit more with a deeper receivers room chasing passes from a stronger-armed quarterback, the Irish offense will still hinge on its veteran offensive line and trio of proven running backs.

    Finding that balance can come in August. For now, finding that snap will be Hartman’s focus while Parker, Guidugli, Rudolph and a litany of offensive analysts strive to learn the same shorthand.

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    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.