SOUTH BEND – After a walker’s Blue-Gold game to end spring soccer practice, Notre Dame’s wide receiver group has emerged.
But not in a good way.
There was almost no separation from the Irish defenses. There was no effect plays. There was no spark.
A key finding from Notre Dame’s first spring training set under first-year coach Marcus Freeman is that the Irish lack offensive playmakers on the edges to compete for the program’s first national championship since 1988.
And Freeman knows that.
“There have to be players who make a quarterback look good, right? And that’s the challenge,” Freeman said. “It’s always about a perfect shot, but we have to have some guys who can make it look good.”
Which means that the Irish coaching staff needs to find more of these people in the transfer portal. Since its inception in 2018, players who change programs while remaining eligibility do not have to sit for a year as they once did. They can immediately play in their new school.
In 2020, Notre Dame turned to the gate for Northwestern’s Ben Skoronic, who had 29 passes for 439 yards and five touchdowns in helping the Irish qualify for the college football game.
Last year, it was Wisconsin quarterback Jack Kwan who was brought in to replace Ian Book’s three-year run and led Notre Dame to a fifth consecutive season of 10 wins.
The gate has already been good for Notre Dame in this off season. Irishman Brandon Joseph added for the All-American Safety of Northwestern to replace Kyle Hamilton who was the 14th NFL overall pick by the Baltimore Ravens.
They signed kicker Blake Group of Arkansas to replace Jonathan Doerer who made 49 of 65 field goal attempts and 162 of 164 pat attempts in his five years at Notre Dame.
They also added gambler John Sott and defensive lineman Chris Smith, both of Harvard University.
All four players are expected to contribute to the squad this season.
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So, who could the Irish land at a receiver who would not only support the depth scheme but provide a threat in the field? Bearing in mind that the player is suitable for the program and the academic.
The recipient who just arrived at the transfer gate is Matt Landers of Toledo. The former Georgia Bulldog is 6 feet 5 feet tall and poses a significant threat. He averaged 25.7 yards per catch in 12 games last season, and had 20 passes for 514 yards and five touchdowns.
The landing gear could apparently slip and contribute to the Notre Dame crime. He got touchdowns from 85 and 90 yards while shining for the Rockets in the second half of last season.
Unstable quarterback battle
Notre Dame is also still deciding who the quarterback will be starting when the 2022 season opens on September 3 in Ohio. Neither of the top two candidates – Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne – have ever started a college football game and have 68 passing attempts combined between them.
Spring training did not resolve the matter and Buchner missed the Blue Gold match with a minor non-football related ankle injury. Pyne certainly didn’t shine in Buchner’s absence, as QB played for both teams in the first half.
“It’s tough, when players can open up,” the owner of Zaire, a former quarterback at Notre Dame, said recently on Tribune’s Pod of Gold podcast.
Also missed this spring was the opportunity to develop chemistry with wide receivers Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins Jr. who both sat injured, Davis with his ACL and Wilkins with a broken foot.
Wilkins has played only nine out of a possible 37 matches in his career, most of which he has missed due to injury.
Davis and Wilkins are expected to return in the fall.
Despite this, Kevin Austin Jr. has gone. , the leading receiver of last season, who recently signed a free agent contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars after he was not selected in the NFL Draft last month. Austin had 888 yards and seven touchdowns in 2021. He left with his eligibility on the table.
The second leading wide receiver was Davis, with 386 yards and four touchdowns in eight games. The high school quarterback who also played quarterback and linebacker at Notre Dame, is by far the most experienced receiver on the list. Davis has played in 40 games in the past four seasons, and has earned eight TDs.
He’s also proven a clutch, scoring the equalizer to force overtime against top seed Clemson in 2020 which was created by the 53-yard reception less than two minutes before he entered the regulations. The Irish went on to upset the Tigers, 47-40 in double overtime.
But without a doubt, Notre Dame’s biggest offensive weapon is Michael Mayer, chosen by most pundits as a first-round draftee of the NFL a year from now. Meyer had 71 passes as a sophomore for 840 yards and seven touchdowns.
If the receivers are not operated at a high level, this may affect the production of the Mayer. If the corner posts can cover receivers one-on-one consistently, it leaves the possibility of double coverage for the opposing team’s best player, which would be Mayer in this case.
What are the other options in the wide receiver?
Besides the carriage gate, if the Irish go this route, Notre Dame will still need to rely on inland options.
Notre Dame may count on junior players like Deion Colzie, a 6-foot-4 receiver who has a similar build – minus about 15 pounds – to former Irish player Chase Claepool, now with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Sophomore Jayden Thomas was the only receiver to stand out in a Blue-Gold game with four catches for 39 yards.
“You also have to look at it because our defense is also very good,” Zaire said. “Marcus Freeman put a lot of effort into building the midfield. He looks really brave, and we have some guys flying in the back.”
Aside from the prospect of Davis and Wilkins returning, Notre Dame will also have an upcoming freshman Tobias Meriwether, a four-star candidate from Camas, Wash.
Merriweather is similar to Colzie at 6 feet 4, but can grow a bit more. Based on his movie, Merriweather is able to control his body in jump ball situations, usually coming down with a soccer ball. He’s not afraid of stretching to do the catch and uses his head to sell a double move.
How Merriweather performs this summer and fits into fall practice could provide a viable distinct option for offensive coordinator Tommy Reese and WR coach Chansi Stuckey.
Freeman isn’t concerned that Merriweather wasn’t a rookie last semester who would have been allowed to take part in the Spring Ball.
“The misconception is that if you go in early it will give you a better chance of playing,” Freeman said. “If you’re a guy who’s going to be able to play early, you’ll come in June or you’ll come in January, we’ll know.”
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What we do know is that Notre Dame’s lack of experience at both the quarterback and a broad future are the biggest question marks in Freeman’s first year as head coach.
Even with what is expected to be one of the best defenses in the country, the Irish attack can produce enough to keep up with high-scoring teams like Ohio State, Clemson and USC.
The spring’s small sample size indicates that this will be challenging at best. But whether or not Notre Dame adds depth through the transfer gate, Zaire believes a lot will change ahead of Notre Dame’s season-opening trip to Columbus.
“I really think, you will see a different team in the first game than in the spring,” Zaire said.
It will need a spark on a wide receiver if that is the case.