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Notre Dame Football

New Beginnings: Two Positions Where Notre Dame Needs Playmakers to Emerge this Spring

March 22, 2023

The first day of spring ball is a time of new beginnings and infinite possibilities.

Does Notre Dame have the roster to compete in the College Football Playoffs? How will the defense replace Isaiah Foskey, the program’s all-time sack leader? With the addition of Wake Forest transfer quarterback Sam Hartman, will the Irish finally eclipse 40 points per game?

The truth is, the coaching staff can’t glean much after the first day of spring. Even Hartman, who’s heading into his sixth collegiate season, looked lost at times at spring practice No. 1 on Wednesday

“Today being day one, he’s like a freshman. It’s new,” coach Marcus Freeman said. “I think this is his sixth spring ball, but you are at a new place with a new system and still figuring out where to go and what a drill is called.”

The key to a successful practice is for players to compete without suffering ailments.

“We had a lot of team reps and didn’t have anyone get pulled and no injuries,” Freeman said. 

A college football team has yet to develop a championship roster in the spring. Still, Notre Dame wants game-changers to emerge across the board over the following 14 practices, particularly at two key positions.

Wide Receiver

Notre Dame wide receivers enter the spring with a respectable amount of returning production from last fall. 

Collectively, this group snagged  131 receptions for 1,808 yards and 12 touchdowns. Of course, adding Virginia Tech transfer Kaleb Smith bolsters the group’s production significantly, accounting for more than a third of the total yards.

Still, the group is missing a clear No. 1 receiver — a player capable of taking over a game independently and drawing the focus of opposing defensive coordinator game plans. 

The Irish had that with Michael Mayer last fall, but for this offense to ascend to new heights, the program needs multiple players to level up at the position.

Notre Dame Returning Receiver Production from 2022

Player Rec Yards YPC Touchdowns
Kaleb Smith 37 674 18.2 3
Jayden Thomas 25 361 14.4 3
Lorenzo Styles 30 340 11.3 1
Deion Colzie 9 192 21.3 1
Chris Tyree 24 138 5.8 2
Matt Salerno 5 62 12.4 1
Tobias Merriweather 1 41 41.0 1

The most talented veteran player in the room is likely rising junior Lorenzo Styles. He finished third on the team in receiving yards but still proved to be a disappointment after capping off his freshman campaign with eight catches for 136 yards and a score in the 2021 Fiesta Bowl. 

In 2022, he disappeared from multiple games and appeared timid at times. According to Pro Football Focus, he dropped 16.6% of on-target passes last fall, which led the team.

“It became mental last year. Lorenzo Styles is a talented, talented football player,” Freeman said. “I mean really talented. I think with him last year, it almost became a mental struggle in terms of even just the basics of catching the ball.”

Notre Dame needs to see Styles find his confidence this spring and carry it into next fall. If he does, he’ll add reliable dynamic speed to an offense that desperately needs it. 

Freeman began laying the groundwork for such a transformation months ago.

“I've spent time with not just Lorenzo but multiple guys,” Freeman said. “As hard as it is to do, we have to stay focused on the things that really matter. Praise doesn't matter. Everybody loves praise, but criticism doesn't matter. You have to say, ‘okay, how can I get better?’

“We talked about it one day in a meeting. You can't be a praise seeker. What is a praise seeker? Guys just seeking praise from his parents or the media or his coaches. You have to be a truth seeker. That's how to stay right in the middle.”

Notre Dame still lists Chris Tyree as a running back, but he’ll also be able to add speed to the passing game this fall. He switched to No. 2 and worked with the wide receivers for the portion of practice the media saw on Wednesday. 

Freeman said he’s yet to determine if the move is permanent. Either way, the 5-foot-9 speedster will be used in the passing game more often this spring after catching 24 passes for 138 yards and a touchdown in 2022.

“He can do multiple things,” Freeman said. “You see that in college and in the NFL. You see guys who can play multiple spots on offense. Is he a wideout? Is he a running back? We have to do that to gain confidence in him with the quarterbacks. He has shown a skill set to be a receiver at this level and we can use him at multiple different positions.”

In addition to speed, the wide receiver room needs new leadership after Avery Davis and Braden Lenzy moved on from the program this past winter. 

Smith was a captain at Virginia Tech, so his voice will certainly carry weight inside the room, but junior wideout Jayden Thomas led a stretch line on Wednesday and appeared to be in a solid position to take on more leadership responsibilities this fall. 

“That is a challenge I’ve had for that entire room,” Freeman said. “Jayden, Lorenzo, Deion Colzie, guys that have been here. Kaleb Smith is a new guy, but he’s new to Notre Dame and to the room. 

“I hope Jayden Thomas continues to excel on the field and in his leadership roles. What he has done in the weight room, I think he has matured and said, “I can play at a higher level when I take care of my body and I’m at a weight I feel really comfortable at. He has really put effort into his nutrition and what he has done in the weight room.”

Defensive Line

Four of the defensive line’s top six tacklers from last fall declared for the NFL Draft. The Irish must replace 20 of the team’s 38 sacks last fall. 

Of course, the most significant losses are defensive end Isaiah Foskey, Notre Dame’s all-time sack leader, and brother Justin and Jayson Ademilola, who each recorded three sacks.

“You don’t replace Isaiah Foskey or the Ademilola twins, but you have to replace their production,” Freeman said. “It’s not by one person, but throughout the top two or two and a half units, you have to replace that production. I’m excited for the development of that room.”

Notre Dame Returning Defensive Line Production from 2022

Player Tackles TFLs Sacks Snaps
Howard Cross 33 3.0 2.5 477
Rylie Mills 24 6.0 3.5 415
Javontae Jean-Baptiste 19 4.5 4.0 251
Gabriel Rubio 17 4.0 0.0 184
Nana Osafo-Mensah 14 1.0 0.0 279
Jordan Botelho 11 6.0 4.5 127
Junior Tuihalamaka 6 0.0 0.0 87
Aidan Keanaaina 3 0.0 0.0 8
Alexander Ehrensberger 2 0.0 0.0 25
Jason Onye 2 0.0 0.0 8
Joshua Burnham 1 0.5 0.0 1

Overall, Notre Dame defensive linemen fall into one of three categories:

1} High snap count players who must increase productivity.

2) Low-volume players who were highly efficient last fall, but it’s unclear if they can maintain their current success rate in a more prominent role.

3) Inexperienced players with little to no meaningful career snaps. 

Veterans Rylie Mills, Howard Cross III and Nana Osafo-Mensah fall into the first category. The trio played a combined 1,171 snaps last season for 10.0 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks. 

Of course, there’s more to defensive line play than tackles in the backfield. However, consistently being assignment correct goes a long way, so each veteran saw as much action as they did in 2022. 

Still, the Irish need more play-makers upfront and it would go a long way if this trio combined for 18.0 tackles for loss and 13.0 sacks while playing similar snaps this fall. 

More production could also help cement them as the leaders the defensive line needs from its most experienced players, even though they already command respect in the locker room.

“We’ve got some vocal leaders,” Freeman said. “Nana Osafo-Mensah is a vocal leader. He raises the energy and performance of those around him. Rylie Mills is more vocal. Howard Cross III doesn’t speak a lot but he’s more vocal.”

Jordan Botelho, Gabriel Rubio and Ohio State transfer Javontae Jean-Baptiste fit into the second category. By comparison, these three players collectively recorded more tackles for loss (14.5) and sacks (8.5) while playing 52% fewer snaps.

All three should see a significant jump in playing time this fall, but will they become less efficient players? The spring is a good time for them to assume a substantial role in the defense and consistently raise their compete level. 

Right now, Botelho projects as the starting Vyper and Rubio will be in the two deep at defensive tackle. Jean-Baptiste might have a slighter frame compared to Foskey, but his skillset lends itself better to the Big End position.

“We have him as the field end,” Freeman said. “We ask our viper to do some different things, almost like an outside backer at times. He’s best suited after one practice and watching his film from Ohio State to be our field end, but we have 14 more practices to evaluate if he can be a Vyper or a different position.”

The third category is for players who played fewer than 100 snaps in 2022. That includes rising sophomores and former blue-chippers like Junior Tuihalamaka, Joshua Burnham, Aiden Gobaira and Tyson Ford, and development prospects like Alexander Ehrensberger, Aidan Keanaaina and Jason Onye.

Even if the six players from the first two categories step up, there will still be plenty of opportunities for less experienced players to materialize into playmakers this spring. 

“You will use probably eight guys for sure — maybe 10,” Freeman said, “so it’ll be exciting to see the emergence of those guys.”

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