Notre Dame Football: Future Focus
March 18, 2022
Following the sudden departure of Brian Kelly to LSU, the Notre Dame football program decided to hire their defensive coordinator, Marcus Freeman, to fill the role of head coach, and both players and fans couldn’t be happier. There was actually a video released of the team finding out Freeman was named the head coach, and they all celebrated as if they had just won the Super Bowl.
He would lead the ecstatic Notre Dame team into the Fiesta Bowl versus a very tough Oklahoma State team. The Irish were in control for most of the game but allowed the Cowboys to claw their way back into the lead where they relinquished it, losing 37-35. Despite his first game ending in a loss, everyone associated with the team was excited about the future.
Once Kelly left, so did almost all of the coaching staff minus offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens, and safeties coach Chris O’Leary. Freeman had to hire an entirely new staff, and most seem to enjoy his selections. He brought in Al Washington from Ohio State to coach the defensive line, Chansi Stuckey from Baylor to coach the wide receivers, Gerad Parker from West Virginia to coach the tight ends, Deland McCullough from Indiana to coach the running backs, Brian Mason from Cincinnati to coach the special teams, Al Golden as the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, and Harry Hiestand to coach the offensive line.
Hiestand and Golden were the most notable additions to the staff. Hiestand used to coach the offensive line for Notre Dame before leaving to coach at the NFL level. In his time at Notre Dame, he produced Quenton Nelson, Mike McGlinchey, and Ronnie Stanley, all of whom were elite offensive linemen taken in the first round of the NFL draft. With the level of talent Notre Dame currently has at offensive line, Hiestand could mold this group into something truly special.
Al Golden was hired from the Cincinnati Bengals where he was the linebackers coach. He led a group that didn’t have the most talent in the world to being a solid core that helped the Bengals reach the Super Bowl. Golden will get the opportunity to work with some of the best linebackers that college football has to offer, and both sides could benefit immensely.
With all of the new staff hires, it was imperative that Freeman remained focused on his recruits and made sure that they were still happy.
Freeman, ever since joining the staff in early 2021 from Cincinnati as the linebackers coach and defensive coordinator, has been red hot on the recruiting trail. 10 of Notre Dame’s 21 commits in the 2022 class are on the defensive side of the ball. 5-star linebacker Jaylen Sneed is the crown jewel of Freeman’s first defensive haul, having a very good chance to start as a true freshman. Fellow linebackers from this class, Joshua Burnham, Niuafe Tuihalamaka, and Nolan Ziegler, are also very elite players who will work for rotation time early.
All four offer Notre Dame the rare combination of elite strength, size, athleticism, and speed that Notre Dame has lacked at the linebacker spot for years, possibly since the departure of Jaylon Smith to the NFL back in 2016.
Notre Dame’s other 6 defensive commits of the 2022 class are cornerbacks Jaden Mickey, Jayden Bellamy, and Benjamin Morrison, and defensive linemen Tyson Ford, Aiden Gobaira, and Donovan Hinish. Ford and Gobaira have a pretty solid chance to at least rotate into games as freshmen, touting elite size and skill from the defensive end spot.
Notre Dame’s yield on the offensive side of the ball for 2022 is no slouch either.
The Irish were able to land 4-star quarterback Steve Angeli, 4-star receiver Tobias Merriweather, 4-star running back Jadarian Price, 4-star tight ends Holden Staes and Eli Raridon, and a plethora of elite offensive linemen in 4-stars Ty Chan, Billy Schrauth, Joey Tanona, and Aamil Wagner, and 3-star Ashton Craig. All of these players will be cornerstones of future Notre Dame teams, with Tobias Merrieather being the one player who might get serious time as a freshman.
On special teams, the blue and gold signed the top-ranked punter in the nation in Bryce McFerson. Not too shabby.
Every single player in this class will join what is already a LOADED Fighting Irish football team as well. Following that Oklahoma State loss, many Notre Dame players felt like they had something to prove, and by returning, they have made this team a true contender going into next season.
Offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson chose to come back for another year, making him potentially the best center in college football. The offensive line will be dominant in general next year, as they usually are, following what was considered to be a down year for the unit. Outside of Patterson, the Irish will have two young All-American level talents at the tackles, in sophomores Blake Fisher and Joe Alt. The guard spots will likely be manned by veterans Andrew Kritstofic and Josh Lugg, who have a lot of experience.
Defensive linemen Isaiah Foskey and the tandem of Justin and Jayson Ademilola elected to return to the Irish when all of them could have been drafted at some point this year. Foskey finished the 2021-22 season with 52 tackles, 11 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, and a pass deflection while being the second-best player on the defensive side of the ball, only behind Kyle Hamilton.
Hamilton was the best safety in college football last season and is now slated to be a top-3 draft pick this year. Replacing Hamilton, an All-American, was going to be a monstrous task. But if you’re going to replace an All-American, why not replace one with another?
Brandon Joseph was one of the premier defensive players in the Big 10 conference for Northwestern over the span of two seasons, posting 131 tackles, a sack, a fumble recovery, and 9 interceptions, with one of those interceptions being a one-handed snag against Ohio State in the endzone off of a Justin Fields pass. Justin Fields is now the quarterback for the Chicago Bears, so it is safe to say Joseph knows how to play against elite talent. Once he entered his name into the transfer portal, many teams around the country were fighting for his services, but not as hard as the Irish. After securing the commitment of Joseph, Notre Dame immediately filled a major gap in their defense.
Other key returning players for Notre Dame include linebackers Bo Bauer, JD Bertrand, Marist Liufau, and Jack Kiser, cornerbacks Cam Hart and Clarence Lewis, and wide receivers Avery Davis and Braden Lenzy, who will be very important next season as the receiving corps is small from a numbers standpoint, especially after leading receiver from last year Kevin Austin Jr. elected to enter the NFL draft. Despite the lack of numbers, there is not a lack of talent, as sophomores Lorenzo Styles Jr, Deion Colzie, and Jayden Thomas are all going to be good to great receivers for this team. Freshman Tobias Merriweather will also add a lot of length, speed, and athleticism to the group.
Even though the numbers look bleak at the pure receiver spot, the tight end room is looking like the best in the country.
Michael Mayer has been a prime-time player ever since he started his Notre Dame career. His freshman year was a promising one, finishing with 42 catches for 450 yards and 2 touchdowns. He would follow this up with an outright dominant sophomore campaign, finishing with 71 catches for 840 yards and 7 touchdowns. If he has another season like his last, he will be the best tight end in college football, a top-tier draft pick, and quite possibly the best tight end to ever play for Tight End U.
Behind Mayer awaits a stable of young talent itching to show off their abilities. Kevin Bauman, Cane Berrong, Mitchell Evans, and freshmen Eli Raridon and Holden Staes will all be fighting for playing time this season.
With all of these returning players, it still needs to be known that the loss of star running back Kyren Williams to the NFL draft will be felt. Williams started for 2 seasons at Notre Dame and finished his career with 2,053 yards and 27 touchdowns. His rare combination of speed and power will certainly be missed, but sophomore Logan Diggs has a chance to be even better, sporting the same abilities as Williams with possibly a higher ceiling. Diggs may very well be the starter this year, but he will be challenged by junior Chris Tyree.
Tyree is a very speedy back who, if he makes a man miss, will take it 80+ yards to the endzone. He simply has speed for days, and if he gets just a couple of good blocks, he’s gone. It is likely both will split major time this year, but an eye should definitely be kept on sophomore Audric Estime and incoming freshman Jadarian Price. The latter will likely be stars for the Irish in the future.
The most important position to keep an eye on for the Irish is the man throwing the ball. Once Ian Book, the winningest quarterback in Notre Dame history, graduated, graduate transfer Jack Coan from Wisconsin took over as the starter. In his lone season for the Irish, Coan threw for 3,150 yards, 25 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. There are three candidates for the starting job, and two of them have a really strong case.
Tyler Buchner came into his freshman season this year with a ton of hype, being a top 100 recruit in the country and hailed as the next great quarterback at Notre Dame after Ian Book. In the limited playing time he got, Buchner threw for 298 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. His arm is solid and will develop over time, but what makes him so special is his tendency to run with the football. He ran 46 times for 336 yards and 3 touchdowns, showing off what is called dual-threat ability.
Drew Pyne, the other major candidate for the job, is a junior who hasn’t gotten to play much. But, in the time that he got, he did show flashes of starting potential, throwing for 224 yards and 2 touchdowns and no interceptions in the two games he got to play in. The only other potential starter is incoming freshman Steve Angeli, but he will most likely sit out for a couple of seasons before playing.
Back to the recruiting side of things, the 2023 class is off to the best start Notre Dame has had in a very long time.
The Irish currently have the top ranked recruiting class in the country, with 7 of the 9 commits being on defense. The group is headlined by 5-star defensive end Keon Keeley, who boasts an elite 6’5 frame with speed off the edge. Keeley is not the only 6’5 behemoth defensive lineman in the class, as 4-star Brenan Vernon is also committed to the program. Notre Dame has also secured a safety duo of the future, landing 4-stars Adon Shuler and Peyton Bowen. Shuler is a very hard-nosed safety and Bowen has 5-star caliber talent. The linebacker spot is also off to a fast start as 5-star Drayk Bowen and 4-star Preston Zinter have each given their pledge to the Irish. There is still some work to be done at cornerback for 2023, but 4-star and top 100 recruit Justyn Rhett is a very good start. The only two offensive commits in the class are 4-stars Cooper Flanagan, a tight end, and Sedrick Irvin Jr, a running back.
Despite the lack of offensive commits, Freeman, along with Tommy Rees and his new offensive staff, are hard at work. The Irish are top candidates for elite receivers Carnell Tate, Braylon James, and Rico Flores among others. They are also in the running for 5-star quarterback Dante Moore, who is considered by some to be a program-changing talent.
If Moore were to commit to Notre Dame, it would set up possibly the most intriguing QB battle the program has ever seen. Buchner, if he starts next year, would have a year of experience under his belt, which paired with his natural talent would be very dangerous. But if Moore is truly as good as he is hyped up to be, there are not many people in college football that could keep him off the field.
No matter the outcome of the 2023 recruiting class, Notre Dame must focus on September 3rd, when they open their season at Freeman’s alma mater, Ohio State. The Buckeyes are another team slated to be in the national championship conversation next year, so this game should be the indicator of just how good the Irish can be. Win or lose, South Bend should have some really good teams to cheer for in years to come