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1) There were already low expectations about what we might get out of the spring game even before it was announced that the marquee attraction — Tyler Buchner’s first “start” as Notre Dame quarterback — had been felled by some stairs. Combine that with limited access to practice and our powers of divination are rather muted heading into the true desert of the offseason, but we shall do our best as we consider the possibilities of Head Coach Marcus Freeman’s first year at the helm.
(If you didn’t watch the Blue-Gold Game and are wondering if you missed much, the answer is no, but here are the limited highlights as a visual aid before we continue. For the sake of transparency, this is more of an overall team assessment in late April than a traditional game review.)
2) I thought we could walk through most of the spring observations by using the framework of three things Notre Dame could do to overachieve with their roster as it currently stands to make a legitimate run at the national title game. Just looking at raw talent, the Irish still appear to be ahead of 90 percent of the sport while lagging the very top, but there’s a path to sneaking their way a bit higher in the pecking order. In decreasing order of likelihood:
The defensive line is elite
This one is absolutely plausible. Notre Dame ranked 12th in sacks last season and brings back their three most productive players in Isaiah Foskey and the Ademilolas. Foskey was flirting with the single-season sack record and after a dominating Fiesta Bowl has serious All-American potential. Jayson Ademilola has a similar upside inside, and were you aware that Justin Ademilola had the second most sacks last season? MTA was solid at defensive end last year but missed some plays in the backfield, something his likely replacement Rylie Mills can hopefully clean up. Mills was one of the standouts from Saturday, both looking the part and producing (a sack, a pass break-up and three tackles for loss). He already got a game ball last year after terrorizing Virginia as a defensive end so I believe it’s reasonable for us to begin increasing our excitement level.
Mills is able to make the move outside because it seems like there is enough heft inside to stand strong alongside Ademilola. Jacob Lacey has only been productive when healthy, Howard Cross was one of the stars of spring (anytime someone draws Sheldon Day comparisons, my ears perk up) and even further down the line perhaps Gabriel Rubio can kick in a bit as a sophomore. The Irish also went into the transfer portal for Harvard’s Chris Smith, who seems perfect to serve as a rotational player inside, and that’s before we even get to intriguing names behind Mills like Nana Osafa-Mensah and Alexander Ehrensberger or the idea of moving Mills back inside on third and longs.
Likely aiding the pursuit of havoc are two extremely promising options at the next level: Marist Liafau, who seems fully recovered from his freak injury last August, and Jordan Botelho, whose move to linebacker was somewhat flummoxing but seems to be coming along pretty well (an interception on Saturday) and offers another force of chaos. None of this is rocket science: A great pass rush makes the life of a secondary — which I have convinced myself will be Fine-to-Good from September 4 on — so much easier. A lot of this is on Foskey as the purest rush end on the roster, but you can see it all coming together.
Tyler Buchner is ahead of schedule
Due to injury, a global viral pandemic and Jack Coan settling in as a productive starter over the second half of last season, Buchner hasn’t played a ton of football, so it’s a tough ask to say, “Hey, I know you’re still getting your sea legs as a week-in, week-out starter at the top of college football, but could you lead the Irish to their first championship in over three decades?” The nice thing is we know the skillset and upside are absolutely there, as we saw in his appearances last fall. Tommy Rees was able to put together consecutive Top 20 F+ offenses with two quarterbacks who lacked Buchner’s raw abilities and had roster flaws around them (lack of burner wide receivers for Ian Book in 2020, the wobbly offensive line for Coan in 2021), so if Buchner can stay healthy, it’s tantalizing to imagine what he could become. If all goes as planned, his two colossal classmates will have the tackle spots locked down while Jarrett Patterson will be a veteran presence soothing things at center, helping the operation run efficiently.
Buchner doesn’t have to be great every game, as there are a bunch of teams on the schedule the Irish should be able to handle with defense, talent superiority and a solid Buchner performance that results in a 10ish point win which we all grouse about during and after but doesn’t matter to the playoff committee. He does, however, have to be great in the biggest contests. Think about 2012 Everett Golson: He was not consistent and at times was bailed out by the current offensive coordinator, but he played some of his best football under the lights in East Lansing, Norman and Los Angeles when his team needed him, in addition to throwing on the cape against Pitt at the end. It’s a lot to ask for Buchner to go toe-to-toe against what will likely be the best offense in the nation in his first start, on the road, but can he build up to where he’s capable of dancing away from Clemson’s elite front before keeping pace with two likely future first-round picks in Phil Jurkovec and Caleb Williams once the weather cools? That will likely decide Notre Dame’s postseason fate.
Additional quarterback note: Last year in the aftermath of the Cincinnati game, we were all wondering why the coaching staff didn’t turn things over to Drew Pyne considering how he had done well against Wisconsin and Cincinnati. At that point, 7 of his 26 pass attempts had been contested, which would portend picks, an issue that was mentioned anecdotally as an issue at practice. We do not want to overreact to one scrimmage with a vanilla, screen-heavy gameplan, but Pyne was again loose with the ball. I think he’s still a great option for relief efforts or even a spot start or three, but you can understand the staff’s hesitation to hand him the keys if he doesn’t cut down on the turnovers. However, it seems unwise to totally write off a guy who moved the ball against two of the nation’s top defenses due to a bad day during a glorified practice.
Additional additional quarterback note: I’m making a small wager on Steve Angeli having a positive impact in his time with Notre Dame simply because his commitment was written off so quickly by so many. For a guy who should still be in high school, he didn’t look totally out of place on Saturday, and what a fun little notch he’s already made with the walk-off touchdown.
A perfect situation at receiver
This is the toughest one to envision because it requires both ideal health and substantial leaps in production, but let’s talk through it. One of the things we’ve always said here is “If a blue-chip freshman has eight catches for 136 yards in the Fiesta Bowl, it's not unreasonable to expect them to be a lynchpin for the offense in their sophomore year,” so Lorenzo Styles being A Dude is the bare minimum for this part of the prophecy to be fulfilled. Few people have received better reviews this spring than Braden Lenzy, who looked the part on Saturday but will need to avoid the bugaboos of recent years (injury and Coan deep ball inconsistency) (that second one shouldn’t be much of an issue this time around).
From there…hmm. It is tough to ask any of Jayden Thomas, Deion Colzie, Tobias Merriweather (due to inexperience) or Joe Wilkins (due to injury) to come through with 14 good games at receiver individually, but could they collectively scrape together a full campaign? Thomas was one of Saturday’s most pleasant revelations, while we saw snippets from Colzie last fall. A transfer would truly be a lifesaver here, as would Avery Davis returning close to 100 percent.
Recruiting misses have just led to such a thin position here there aren’t a lot of options to dream on, but they do have some advantages that can help. He’s not technically listed as a wide receiver, but all the yardage and attention drawn by Michael Mayer counts the same, and he’s going to be drawing two or three defenders on every snap. Could he end up split out wide like Tyler Eifert was in many situations? Certainly. Jadarian Price and Audric Estime running in real games like they did during Blue-Gold also makes it much easier to slide Chris Tyree around, as we saw the damage he could do as a receiver in the bowl.
The other potential help is as much as a good pass rush can make life easier on a secondary, a quarterback with mobility can do the same for his receivers as defensive backs have to cover for longer and longer periods of time. Even on plays that are not protracted, some members of the defense are going to be taking little peeks into the backfield and that could cost them a step or two. The threat of the run and the threat of Mayer are going to give this wide receiver room plenty of chances at one-on-one battles, they just have to win enough of them. Transfer(s), please, just to have more lottery tickets.
(A reminder on transfers: May 1 is the cutoff for players to have their names in the portal if they want to participate this fall, so keep that in mind if there is news about Notre Dame players leaving or targets to come in.)
3) For the entire lifespan of this newsletter, Notre Dame has been blessed with minimal drama at specialist, with Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome giving way to Jonathan Doerer and Jay Bramblett. This year there are question marks at both spots as new coordinator Brian Mason tries to sort through the options he’s assembled. Considering one of my main concerns about Freeman’s first year is him being a little too conservative, there is a tiny needle to thread where the special teams are shaky enough it inspires aggressive decision-making on fourth down but steady enough they come through most of the times they are really needed. Staying along that ideal path seems quite difficult so either things will be better than expected or everyone who loves complaining about special teams is about to have their best season in a long, long while.
4) The hype level for early enrollee freshman Jaden Mickey is such that if he’s not sophomore year Julian Love from the jump he’s going to fall short of it, which is a fun and exciting bar to set. Good to hear Tariq Bracy is looking steady, as if we assume continued development from Cam Hart and any kind of bounce back from Clarence Lewis that’s a solid baseline to work from at corner. I feel similarly about safety, where Brandon Joseph has lived up to the hype so far as one of the biggest transfer portal acquisitions of the offseason. I don’t think there is raw material for the secondary to be spectacular, but I think it will look better than it did in the desert last time we saw it.
As far as the offensive line, I don’t think it’s worth reading too much into Saturday either way. A group that’s all about cohesion was split up and missing their veteran leader in Patterson - whether or not they can push around all the talent Ryan Day has amassed is all that matters.
* Talked about safety and much more with Jamie Uyeyama of Irish Sports Daily – he shares my mild confidence which makes me feel smarter. That episode also contains a short primer on Blake Wesley and what the NBA is looking for in the draft with my friend Mike Laskey.
* Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports talked about the Marcus Freeman hire and some big picture college football stuff.
* There should be a couple of additional episodes on your feed over the next week-plus talking Blue-Gold and the NFL Draft if scheduling permits.
5) Notes on scheduling: If you’re worried about having a game against Tennessee State hurting Notre Dame’s chances of making the playoffs in a year they’re set to play the presumptive Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 favorites*, you should rest easy. (Maybe will go longer on scheduling and selection committee and all that this summer but we’re running long so this is the abridged version.) (I’ve already been scouting their marching band - we’re in trouble.) I’m much more upset about giving Stanford a primetime slot this October – why?!** Are those tickets going to be normal top-tier pricing? If so and they actually sell, that’s a real testament to the Freeman excitement bump. The Golden Bears would have made just as much sense, nice September evening when it’s still probably warm, although guesstimating Indiana weather is a fool’s errand.
* Ohio State and Clemson are almost certainly going to be favorites, and I feel pretty good about the Trojans having that honor by then, although if things break bad in Lincoln Riley’s first year maybe they end up slotted behind Oregon.
** Fun weekend of games on October 15 when the Cardinal and Irish play: Alabama at Tennessee, USC at Utah, Penn State at Michigan, Wisconsin at Sparty, Clemson at Florida State, Miami at Virginia Tech, Arkansas at BYU, LSU at Florida, Iowa State at Texas.
6) We have plenty of time before Labor Day weekend to figure this out, but I’m still having some difficulty assessing how we should approach the 2022 season when for so long every game and every autumn was a giant referendum on The Brian Kelly Era. On one hand, part of the reason for hiring Freeman was to attempt to continue the success of the previous five years of high-level winning. On the other, it’s his first season as head coach, we can expect both mistakes and improvement, and a lot of the appeal is his ability to take the roster to the next level via recruiting, something that takes time.* But going back to the aforementioned first hand, there are so few Notre Dame football Saturdays every fall that wasting any of them for any sort of learning curve is going to feel like a disappointment.
* We just need college football fans to be patient if there’s a slow start, shouldn’t be much of an issue.
It’ll be interesting to see where expectations are by the time August rolls around. Competing for a New Year’s Six bowl seems like it’ll be a nice general guideline, but I was mulling something a bit more specific and ended up scratching the following out as a draft:
Lose at most one of the first eight games (at Ohio State, Marshall, California, at North Carolina, vs. BYU in Vegas, Stanford, UNLV, at Syracuse)
Lose at most one of the four November games (Clemson, vs. Navy in Baltimore, Boston College, at Southern Cal) (The main issue I’ve run into is that every single potential November loss would be cataclysmic in its own unique way so please don’t lose any of these even if the odds say that’s likely)
I am curious how you all are feeling about goals for this season, and how much you know you’re already lying to yourself about them, so please reach out and let me know where you stand. We have so much to learn still, and my suspicion with the lack of practice access during spring and the Buckeyes looming is we’re not going to get a whole lot of new information in August, either, so expect a lot of extra-weird speculation and tangents to fill the void between now and kickoff at the Horseshoe. Ideally, we also get a lot of great recruiting news and minimal injury/discipline/misfortune updates mixed in as well.
Thank you for reading, I apologize this didn’t have too much on the actual Blue-Gold Game but you don’t want to read too much into it even when it’s interesting and this edition certainly was not. Let the college football parts of your brain rest for the next couple months because the opener will be here before you know it. Until the next time, take care of yourselves and each other.
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