A genuine part of why Notre Dame lost the 2021 Fiesta Bowl was that receiver Braden Lenzy’s legs were zapped late by running a program-record 70 routes. The Irish were down to four receivers that day, thus costing Lenzy any plays off.
Entering the 2022 season, Notre Dame’s receivers corps was once more depleted, injuries keeping Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins off the field and slowing Deion Colzie in preseason practices. Again, only four receivers were targeted, part of why the Irish offense struggled to find any groove in September.
Receiver depth was supposed to be a welcome change in 2023. Nine receivers were on hand to start spring practices, and the part-time — or perhaps full-time — move of running back Chris Tyree to receiver added a 10th. With freshman Kaleb Smith arriving in the summer, Notre Dame looked to be in a position to even endure the expected couple of injuries and still have a genuine two-deep at receiver.
Alas, the Irish may be down two receivers in the past week, though one by choice.
Virginia Tech graduate transfer Kaleb Smith announced his medical retirement on Saturday, abruptly cutting short his chance to be the big-bodied target on the sideline at Notre Dame.
“After countless hours of prayer and thought I believe my time playing this game has passed,” Smith wrote on Twitter. “What is more important to me now is my future after football and to achieve that I must focus on my mental and physical health which has taken a great toll throughout the years. As much as it hurts to say this, I have peace in this decision as I know it is what’s best for myself and my family.”
The departure of Smith could be seen as a result of the emergence of rising junior Jayden Thomas and some promise from a trio of early-enrolled freshmen. But the ongoing and perhaps still tentative move of rising junior Lorenzo Styles to cornerback cannot be construed as a sign of other receivers progressing.
Rather, it appears to be the result of Irish head coach Marcus Freeman thinking a position change could do Styles some good.
“Coming from my background, I told him, I see a lot of traits that he possesses that really could resonate on the defensive side of the ball,” Freeman said Saturday. “But I wanted it to be his decision. I want him to feel good about what position he’s playing. So I said, ‘Hey, if you want to experiment, play a little bit of [defensive back] in one-on-ones, play man (coverage).’”
That came after the media saw Styles work with the defensive backs for a single five-minute period on Saturday. It was an experiment, a foray.
By Tuesday, it seemed be much more than that. Styles entered post-practice interviews in a defensive jersey, joining the defensive backs for their day of spring interviews. He said it was his first practice with the defensive backs, but a day there equals a day away from the receivers. It was more than a trial run, at the least an attempt to find proof of concept.
“It felt really good,” Styles said. “Still working every single day, try to get better, perfect my craft, whatever position it may be.”
Working in man coverage in one-on-ones came naturally to Styles despite not playing defensive back since his senior year of high school in 2020. That said, his technique has diminished a bit in three years, something he is well aware of.
“There’s definitely some technical stuff, but athletically, I still feel pretty good at that position,” he said. “Just really refining some technical things and work on that every single day for some consistency.”
This was clearly not a one-day cameo. Styles said he expects to play both cornerback and receiver in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game (2 ET, available exclusively on Peacock). How he fares then, not only in making plays but simply where he fits in each pecking order, could inform a summer’s worth of work.
A frustrating 2022 with more dropped passes than the rest of Notre Dame’s receivers combined did not outright cost Styles his chance at a starting receiver gig in 2023. Thomas looks more and more geared toward a starting role, but the other two front-line receiver spots remain open for competition, with Styles and rising sophomore Tobias Merriweather presumably leading among those working for the nods.
At cornerback, Styles has little chance at starting in 2023, not in front of fifth-year Cam Hart and preseason All-American Benjamin Morrison. Maybe he can emerge as an option at nickel back, competing with rising sophomore Jaden Mickey, senior Clarence Lewis and Oklahoma State graduate transfer Thomas Harper. A year from now, as he enters his senior season and would have just one year of eligibility remaining, Styles may be in position to start at cornerback, but in 2023, it is hard to imagine.
He said the right things Tuesday, but he may be more needed at receiver, lest those depth issues once again preemptively doom the Irish offense.
“I’m a football player,” Styles said. “So if they want me to go catch passes, I’ll go catch some passes and make some plays. If they want me to go lock some people down, I can go do that, too.”