SOUTH BEND Following a pedestrian Blue-Gold Game to cap spring football practice, Notre Dame’s wide receiver group caught the eye.
But not in a good way.
Almost no separation had been made from the Irish defensive backs. There were no impact plays. There was no spark.
The main conclusion of Notre Dame football’s first practice cluster under freshman head coach Marcus Freeman is that the Irish are missing the attacking playmakers on the fringes to compete for the program’s first national championship since 1988.
And Freeman knows it.
“There have to be guys who make the quarterback look good, right? And that’s the challenge,” Freeman said. “It’s always about making a perfect throw, but we need to have some guys who can make it look good.”
That means the Irish coaching staff will have to look for more of those guys in the transfer portal. Since its inception in 2018, players who switch programs while still eligible do not have to sit out a year as they did before. They can immediately play at their new school.
In 2020, Notre Dame turned to the portal to land Northwestern wide receiver Ben Skowronek, who caught 29 passes for 439 yards and five touchdowns to help the Irish qualify for the College Football Playoff.
Last year, Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan was brought in to replace three-year starter Ian Book and lead Notre Dame to a fifth straight season with 10 wins.
The portal has already been good for Notre Dame this off-season. The Irish added Northwestern All-American safety Brandon Joseph to replace Kyle Hamilton, who was the Baltimore Ravens’ 14th overall NFL Draft pick.
They signed Arkansas state kicker Blake Grupe to replace Jonathan Doerer who made 49 of 65 field goals and 162 of 164 PAT attempts in his five years at Notre Dame.
They also added punter Jon Sotand defensive lineman Chris Smith, both of Harvard.
All four players are expected to contribute to the team this season.
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So, who could land the Irish at the receiver that would not only bolster the depth map but also present a threat in the field? Keep in mind that the player is both a program and an academic fit.
One recipient who just made it to the transfer portal is Matt Landers from Toledo. The former Georgia Bulldog is six feet tall and poses a major threat. He averaged 25.7 yards per catch in 12 games last season, catching 20 passes for 514 yards and five touchdowns.
Landers could seemingly slip in and contribute to Notre Dame’s offense. He caught 85 and 90 yards touchdowns while shining for the Rockets in the second half of last season.
Battle against quarterback restless
Notre Dame is also still deciding who will be the starting quarterback when the 2022 season opens September 3 in Ohio. Neither of the top two candidates Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne has ever started a college football game and they have made 68 career attempts together.
Spring training failed to resolve the matter and Buchner missed the Blue-Gold Game due to a minor non-football ankle injury. Pyne certainly didn’t shine in Buchner’s absence, playing QB for both teams in the first half.
It’s hard,” former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire said recently on the Tribune’s Pod of Gold podcast, “when guys can open up,
This spring also missed the opportunity to develop chemistry with wide receivers Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins Jr., who were both out with injuries, Davis with an ACL and Wilkins with a broken foot.
Wilkins played in just nine of the 37 possible games in his career, most of them due to injury.
Both Davis and Wilkins are expected to return for the fall.
Gone, however, is Kevin Austin Jr., last season’s leading receiver, who recently signed a free agent contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars after not being selected in last month’s NFL Draft. Austin had 888 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 2021. He left with eligibility on the table.
The second-greatest wide receiver was Davis, with 386 yards and four touchdowns in eight games. A high school quarterback who has also played both running back and cornerback at Notre Dame, is by far the most accomplished receiver on the roster. Davis has played in 40 games over the past four seasons and bagged eight TDs.
He also proved to be a clutch, scoring the tying touchdown to force overtime against No. 1 Clemson in 2020 set up by his 53-yard reception with less than two minutes left in regulation. The Irish went on to upset the Tigers, 47-40 in double OT.
But without a doubt, Notre Dame’s greatest recurring offensive weapon is the tight end of Michael Mayer, who will be chosen by most pundits as the NFL first-round draft pick a year from now. Mayer caught 71 passes as a sophomore for 840 yards and seven touchdowns.
If the receivers don’t play at a high level, it can affect Mayer’s production. If cornerbacks can consistently cover the receivers one-on-one, it leaves open an opportunity to double down on the opposing team’s best player, which in this case would be Mayer.
What are other options with wide receiver?
If the Irish go down that road, Notre Dame, in addition to the transfer portal, will still have to rely on internal options.
Notre Dame can count on young players like Deion Colzie, a six-foot receiver who has a similar build minus about 15 pounds to former Irish standout Chase Claypool, now with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Sophomore Jayden Thomas was the only receiver to stand out in the Blue-Gold Game with four catches for 39 yards.
You have to look at it too, because our defense is pretty damn good too, Zaire said. Marcus Freeman has put a lot of effort into building out the center of the defence. It looks very cool and we have some guys flying around in the back.
Aside from likely getting Davis and Wilkins back, Notre Dame will also have new freshman Tobias Merriweather, a four-star prospect from Camas, Wash.
Merriweather is similar to Colzie at 6 feet 4, but could grow a little more. Based on his movie, Merriweather is able to control his body in jump ball situations, usually with the soccer ball. He is not afraid to lie down to grab and uses his head to sell a double move.
How Merriweather works and fits into fall practice this summer could be a viable fringe option for offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and WR coach Chansi Stuckey.
Freeman is not concerned that Merriweather was not an early freshman this past semester that would have allowed him to participate in Spring Ball.
“The misconception is that if you come early, you have a better chance of playing,” Freeman said. “If you’re a man who can play early, come in June or January, then we’ll find out.”
Chat transcript:Transcript of football chat Notre Dame: Talking Dante Moore, Tommy Rees and transfer portal
Blue-Gold game:This one was about as spring as spring games for the Irish
What we do know is that Notre Dame’s inexperience at both quarterback and wide receiver is the biggest question mark in Freeman’s first year as head coach.
Even with what is expected to be some of the best defenses in the country, the Irish offense can produce enough to keep up with the high-scoring teams like Ohio State, Clemson and USC.
Spring’s small sample size suggests this will be challenging at best. But whether Notre Dame adds depth through the transfer portal or not, Zaire believes a lot will change ahead of Notre Dame’s season opening to Columbus.
I think,’ Zaire said, ‘that you will see a different team in the first game than in the spring.’
It needs a spark at the wide receiver if it does.
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