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Notre Dame Football

Gerad Parker Places Steadfast Belief in Notre Dame Receivers

July 27, 2023

Two days into Notre Dame’s fall camp and all eyes are on Gerad Parker, the man Marcus Freeman promoted to offensive coordinator in the spring. 

Last fall, the Fighting Irish averaged 31.8 points in 2022, a four-year low. For the program to contend for the playoff once again, the offense under Parker must become more explosive, efficient and reliable.

Quarterback Drew Pyne completed 64.6 of his passes, a misleading statistic given the volatility of his game-by-game performances. He finished half his 10 starts in 2022 with a completion percentage above 70 percent. In the other five, he connected on fewer than 53 percent of his passes.

Such fickle play must drive an offensive coordinator mad as he develops a game plan.

Enter sixth-year quarterback Sam Hartman. At Wake Forest in 2022, he never deviated more than 6.7 percentage points from his 63.1 percent season average. His consistency enabled him to throw for 3,701 yards and 38 touchdowns. 

Joe Alt and Blake Fisher will project Hartman, the best tackle duo in college football. He’ll also get to hand the ball off to Audric Estime, who ran for 920 yards and 11 touchdowns as a sophomore last fall. 

The biggest question remaining is, who will his primary targets be? 

In 2022, Notre Dame quarterbacks combined for 2,692 passing yards (87th of 131 FBS programs). Then the program lost 62 percent of that receiving production in the offseason. 

As a result, a diversely skilled group of inexperienced must find the answer to the biggest question plaguing the offense. 

For that to happen, Parker plans to allow the receivers every opportunity to grow and prove themselves during fall camp and beyond.

“It's putting them in a position to do so and then letting them feel good about it,” Parker said. “If they fail, fail up and do it again. We're not going to be an operation that says, 'get him out' because he didn't make one play. 

“We have to let these guys play. We have to let them make mistakes. I'm going to make mistakes. I do every day. I promise you this, we're not going to get outworked and our guys are not going to feel like we went distant from believing in them. We will have a strong belief in our players.”

On Wednesday, the wide receivers failed early due to lockdown coverage from Ben Morrison, Jaden Mickey, Clarence Lewis and Cam Hart. This cornerback quartet jumped routes, knocked down or tipped several balls and even picked off a handful of passes. 

Jayden Thomas dominated the Blue-Gold Game a few months ago with four first-half receptions for 71 yards and a touchdown, but he barely got open against Morrison — a 2023 All-American candidate.

It didn’t help that Notre Dame dedicated Wednesday's practice to red zone work, condensing the field for the receivers. Still, Parker can’t concern himself with how the talent level of the cornerbacks or how short the field is. 

Grading players on a curve benefits no one.

“You evaluate it on win or loss,” Parker said. “There's only one way to evaluate it, and the quicker we win more than we lose, of course, then you're starting to get to a point where we can have some big-time short-term and long-term success. 

“You can see some of those strides coming together. Our guys have already made strides. You can see where they've come from in practice one, but now we got to do it to practice six, and then we'll have to do it after.”

Parker's most significant benefit should be the variety of receiver skill sets at his disposal. 

Sophomore Tobias Merriweather is a tall and long vertical threat with the agility to also win in space. Jayden Thomas is a bulldozer at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, a player who aids the offense in a multitude of ways as a big slot receiver with the potential to line up to the field and in the boundary. Matt Salerno is a veteran committed to doing the dirty work. 

The wide receiver room also boasts a trio of early-enrollee freshmen already pushing for playing time. Jaden Greathouse also impressed during the Blue-Gold Game and dropped nine pounds in the offseason. Rico Flores provides depth in the boundary. Braylon James is raw technically but possesses the athletic traits to be a future NFL Combine star. 

The x-factor remains Chris Tyree. His 4.3-second speed in the 40-yard dash was underutilized as the team’s third-string running back.

Tyree switched to wide receiver in March. He looked out of place at first, dropping several passes during seven-on-seven and team drills, but progressively improved throughout the spring.

He reportedly put in extra work over the summer, catching thousands to solidify his hands and improve as a route runner. 

“CT has done a good job of investing in catching the football,” Parker said. “He's getting lost in the details of what it means to win, but also why. There's not just one way to win a route, man leverage and different things can change always. 

“He's learning when do I use this method and when do I use this [technique] to get the same result, which is to win and be on time.”

Now, it’s up to Parker and the rest of the coaching staff to give Tyree and the rest of the talented Irish wideout group room to grow during fall camp. 

If these wideouts can become difference-makers, Notre Dame could become a nightmare to match up against, raising the offense’s ceiling to new heights. 

“Has [CT] invested in time and things it's going to take for him to be a good player? Yeah. The whole group has. For that to happen, we've got to obviously put them in positions in the fall to do that.”

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