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Notre Dame Football

NFL Draft Prospects Sound Off on Notre Dame's Breakout Stars of 2023

March 7, 2023
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The NFL invited 319 of college football's most talented players to last week’s combine. Four Notre Dame players attended: tight end Michael Mayer, defensive end Isaiah Foskey, offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson and safety Brandon Joseph. 

They may be on to the next stage of their football journeys, but they remain connected to their former Fighting Irish teammates and coaches and are excited about the future of Marcus Freeman’s program.

Last fall, Mayer developed into the nation’s most complete tight end under assistant coach Gerad Parker, who coach Marcus Freeman recently promoted to offensive coordinator. Mayer believes Parker will succeed due to unwavering attention to detail and that Notre Dame returns plenty of young offensive talent in 2023. 

“I’m excited to see what they can do there,” Mayer said. “They have some weapons there, that’s for sure. It’s going to be fun watching him this next season." 

Rising junior wide receivers Lorenzo Styles, Jayden Thomas and Deion Colzie each flashed in 2022. Styles is the most experience of the bunch with 22 career games played, Thomas led all Fighting Irish wideouts with 25 catches for 361 yards and three touchdowns last fall and Dolzie averaged 21.3 yards per catch over the final five games of the season. 

Still, Joseph believes the player with the most potential to break out as a legitimate No. 1 option at wide receiver is a freshman that finished 2022 with one reception, which happened to be a 41-yard touchdown.

“Tobias Merriweather, he's going to be a super good receiver for Notre Dame,” Joseph said when asked which player had the potential to be wide receiver No. 1.

In the second half of the season, former offensive coordinator Tommy Rees attempted to get Merriweather more involved in the passing game. Still, quarterback Drew Pyne struggled to hit the 6-foot-4 freshman wideout down the middle on throws of more than 10 yards downfield.

Merriweather received eight targets in 2022, with seven thrown between the numbers.  Six were at least 10 yards down the field, where Pyne completed just 51% of passes on 47 attempts. None of the seven incompletions toward Merriweather resulted in a drop.

New Irish quarterback Sam Hartman completed 56.4% of his passes to this section of the field on 110 attempts (9.2 per game), which should bode well for Merriweather with a year of experience under his belt. 

Sophomore offensive tackles Joe Alt and Blake Fisher are receiving most of the fanfare amongst Notre Dame returners along the offensive line, but Patterson believes elder Zeke Correll is ready to take a big jump in 2023. 

“He has a whole year at center under his belt,” Patterson said. “I expect him to lead those guys as a fifth-year senior. I know he’s going to take it super seriously, knowing that it’s his fifth year at Notre Dame. I expect him to be locked in. I can just sense it.” 

Both offensive guard spots are open with Patterson and Josh Lugg off to the NFL. The three leading contenders are Andrew Kristofic, Rocco Spindler and Billy Schrauth. Kristofic enters spring practice with the most experience after starting eight games at left guard over the last two seasons. 

Still, Spindler and Schrauth were named All-Americans in high school and rated as top-150 overall prospects by 247Sports Composite rankings in their respective class.

New offensive line coach Joe Rudolph could face a tough decision come fall camp.

“It's definitely going to be a competitive battle,” Patterson said. “Knowing the guys they have there, it's going to be a really competitive battle this spring and summer heading into the fall camp.”

There’s also significant untapped potential on the defensive side of the ball that Al Golden needs to materialize for Notre Dame in 2023. 

For three seasons, Vyper Jordan Botelho has flashed the potential to become a game wrecker. He is the logical replacement for Foskey, who led the team with 11 sacks in each of the last two seasons. 

“He’s been ready for a big role pretty much since he stepped on campus,” Foskey said. “Jordan Botelho is my guy. He’s very versatile in pass rush, he can stop the run, and he’s a menace to every single offensive lineman. He’s really aggressive at the point of attack and he can just dominate any tackle that he goes against.”

Botelho enrolled early as a freshman in 2020 but lost significant development opportunities once the COVID-19 pandemic forced Notre Dame to cancel its final 14 spring practice. 

Still, he made an immediate impression on his older teammates and earned a role on special teams, where he blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown against South Florida that fall.  

“He just brought that swagger, brought that aggressiveness when he came to spring ball,” Foskey said. “I pretty much saw it from the beginning. He just showcased his pass rush arsenal.” 

In 2021, he made his first career start and recorded sacks against North Carolina and Navy. 

Last fall, Botelho finished second on the team with 4.5 sacks in 77 pass rush attempts over eight games. ISD’s Jamie Uyeyama recently wrote how Botelho finished 2022 with a “24% pass rush win rate and a 38% win rate on true pass sets.”

“It’s his speed, burst, his aggressiveness,” Foskey said. “That’s one thing that he hangs his hat on, you can never stop [someone that] aggressive. He’s relentless to the ball. He always wants to get the ball. He just loves the game of football.”

With Joseph and TaRiq Bracy off to the NFL, the Irish also need a few players to step up in the secondary. 

Safety Xavier “X” Watts emerged toward the tail end of 2022, registering 22 tackles, three pass deflections, a TFL and a sack over the season's final four games. That includes tying for the team lead in tackles with nine against No. 5 USC on the road.

Watts still hasn’t spent an entire year in college solely focused on developing as a defensive back. He switched from receiver to defense during the 2021 season. Most assumed he’d compete for playing time heading into the summer, but a depleted depth chart forced him to cross-train at wideout during fall camp and into the early season.

“He just had to get over that learning curve,” Joseph said. “Once he started to get more comfortable back there, he relaxed and he was able to understand the defense and start making more plays. Xavier’s going to be really good too.” 

At 6-0 and 193 pounds, Watts possesses the strength and nose for the football to thrive roaming the backend of the Irish defense.

“X is a very physical player out there that’s going to make his presence [known], while also as a receiver he has the ball skills too — all around a good safety.” 

The Irish return two starting corners in Benjamin Morrison and Cam Hart. 

Morrison was named a consensus freshman All-American and finished the season tied for third in the FBS with six interceptions. Opposing quarterbacks also produced a 29.2 NFL passer against Morrison.

With that said, Joseph believes there’s still plenty of room for the rising sophomore to grow.

“He’s going to be a dog,” Joseph said. 

If that’s the case, Morrison could be the best cornerback to play at Notre Dame in decades and the first to get selected in the first round of the NFL Draft since the Buffalo Bills took Jeff Burris with the No. 27 overall pick in 1994.

“Y’all are going to be talking about how he has the potential to come out after [his junior] year…” Joseph said. “He’s a lockdown corner. He immediately made his presence felt when he got there. Then he has the ability to go turn his head around and go grab that ball, too.”

 
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