Irish appear solid at running back, look to fill other offensive positions
Nate Moller | Friday, April 30, 2021
With the Blue and Gold game taking place this weekend, it is time to take our first official look at the Irish offense for the 2021 season. There were a lot of key departures, particularly at the quarterback, wide receiver and offensive line positions. But the Irish return key playmakers at running back and tight end. If the Irish are going to make another run to the College Football Playoff in 2021, it will be essential to replace these key position players. This weekend provides a look into who that’s going to be.
The post-Ian Book era begins, making the quarterback position one of the biggest question marks for the Irish. While the Irish have some talent to choose from, there are a lot of ways they could go in 2021. Amongst the possibilities, for starters, are graduate student transfer Jack Coan, sophomore Drew Pyne and incoming first-year Tyler Buchner.
Jack Coan is arguably the most likely option at starter for the Irish in 2021. At Wisconsin, Coan was a proven winner. In 2019, Coan started all 14 games for the Badgers and led the way to a Big Ten West title. This eventually led to a Rose Bowl berth for Wisconsin. Coan completed a school record of 236 passes for 2,727 yards and 18 touchdowns on the year for the Badgers. In his Rose Bowl victory against the Ducks, Coan was 23 for 25 for 158 yards and a touchdown. Coan lost his job to redshirt freshman Graham Mertz last season. The 6-foot-3, 220 lbs. Coan does not fit the mold of the dual-threat quarterback Notre Dame has typically had under Brian Kelly. He is a proven pocket passer, though that should be able to make big plays regardless.
One concern about Coan is his eligibility after the 2021 season. He may not get the job simply because of his longevity potential compared to Pyne or Buchner.
Another option for the Irish could be Drew Pyne. Pyne saw limited action in his first season, but he was a highly-touted four-star recruit in the 2020 class, per ESPN. Additionally, he has shown some potential as of late in practice. Like Coan, Pyne is more of a pocket passer quarterback. He also does not fit the mold of the typical all-purpose quarterback of the Brian Kelly offense. Despite this, it is expected Pyne will get a serious look at quarterback.
The last option for the Irish is an early enrollee and incoming first-year Tyler Buchner. Buchner is the biggest quarterback recruit in recent memory to come to Notre Dame. Because of that, there is some speculation that Buchner might start this season if he is deemed ready. This is especially possible as Buchner is the QB option with seemingly the most potential longevity. The San Diego native was also a four-star recruit and ranked number one in the country in total yards as a high school junior. Buchner fits the mold of the typical dual-threat quarterback seen at Notre Dame during the Brian Kelly era, and if he is ready to go in 2021, he could have the starting job.
Wide receivers/Tight ends
Sophomore tight end Michael Mayer will surely be a huge factor for the Irish once again in 2021. But the Irish will still need to find some replacements at wide receiver with the departure of Ben Skowronek and Javon McKinley. There are a lot of unproven players on the depth chart, but also a lot of raw talent there that should translate into success.
Graduate student Avery Davis and senior Braden Lenzy are the two receivers with the most experience for the Irish. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said he has been impressed with their performances so far in spring practice.
“A guy like Avery Davis is the leader of that group. He’s been extremely steady, someone that is dependable and we can count on,” Rees said. “Braden Lenzy, the last couple of days, has really come on. I’m excited about the trust that we’re building there in order for him to be in an expanded role and hand him more on his plate.”
Rees discussed the development of senior Lawrence Keys III during the Spring season as well.
“I think Lawrence Keys has probably had as good of a spring as anybody on offense,” Rees said. “He’s shown the ability to stretch the field, make explosive plays and that was one of the things that we challenged him with: ‘We’re gonna put you in opportunities to make plays down the field, it’s time to go make them.’ Some of that is continuing to develop his strength, some of that is just understanding what we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to do it.”
Other possibilities for the Irish could include senior Joe Wilkins Jr., sophomore Jordan Johnson and first-year Lorenzo Styles Jr. Styles, who is an early spring enrollee, will need to develop more in order to receive notable playing time next season, but we could see him for at least a few snaps this weekend.
“Lorenzo Styles has certainly done some good things,” Rees said. “But just like any [high school] senior, there’s a new speed, there are new expectations, there’s a level of detail that goes into playing at this level that those guys need to learn.”
One of the top targets for the Irish in 2021 will surely be sophomore tight end Michael Mayer. He had a phenomenal first season with 42 receptions for 450 yards and two touchdowns.
Rees believes that Mayer — or “Baby Gronk” as he has been nicknamed within the Irish community — has even more potential than was apparent last season.
“In terms of Mike’s ability, I think he’s really only scratching the surface” Rees said. “Last year was only a brief glimpse of how good this kid can be.”
Rees discussed Mayer’s work ethic on a daily basis at practice.
“There’s something to say about the way he works, the tenacity that he plays with, and the edge that he plays with,” Rees said. “Obviously, he’s extremely talented, but there’s a reason why he’s a great player and the mentality is there.”
Running back is arguably the most stable position for the Irish in 2021. The backs will see the return of junior Kyren Williams and sophomore Chris Tyree. Both of these young running backs had very successful seasons in 2020, and they could be the best running back duo in the country going forward. Senior C’Bo Flemister could also be a good option for a change of pace at back for the Irish.
Williams had a breakthrough year in 2020. The redshirt freshman often provided the spark plug that the Irish needed on offense in the 2020 season. And he definitively proved himself in the big games. On top of the rest of his impressive season stats, Williams rushed for 140 yards and three touchdowns in the Irish home win against first-ranked Clemson. Williams also notched a rushing touchdown in the College Football Playoff loss to Alabama. That touchdown then propelled him to 13 rushing touchdowns on the year. Williams was awarded ACC Rookie of the Year for his efforts on the season. In 2021, Williams should continue to be a huge part of the Irish offense.
Chris Tyree will also likely play a larger role in the offense in 2021. The five-star recruit is one of the biggest running back recruits that Notre Dame has been able to obtain in recent years. Both his talent and speed were on full display in his first season. Although he was a clear second back to Williams in 2020, it is possible that they will split snaps more evenly in 2020. Both backs have a different running style, and they should be able to complement each other well in the backfield.
Rees discussed the importance of playing the right running back at the right time.
“It’s our job to get the best players on the field all the time,” Rees said. “For Kyren, because he has an innate ability in the passing game, it’s going to be — ‘How do we expand his role to maximize even more touches and get him into more space?’”
Rees admitted that he is trying out different formations in Spring practice.
“We’re doing a lot of things right now, playing around with him and the other backs, whether there’s two of them in the game, or we’re lining them up outside of the backfield,” Rees said. “That’s the next progression in terms of how we want to play this year.”
The offensive line is another area of possible concern for the Irish. Key players such as Aaron Banks, Tommy Kraemer, Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey are not returning for the 2021 season. Additionally, senior center Jarrett Patterson is currently still sidelined with a foot injury. Before the injury, Patterson started for the Irish in the 2020 season.
Assuming Patterson is able to take the field in September at the center, that leaves junior Zeke Correll and graduate student Josh Lugg as the two other likely starters. Correll played the center position during Patterson’s absence in 2020. He might be expected to fill that role once again if Patterson is not ready to return at the beginning of the season. Lugg has been an all-purpose guy on the line for the Irish during his career, and he will certainly have a spot somewhere on the line in 2021. Where that spot will be, however, has yet to be determined. This weekend could provide some of that insight.
After that, the Irish will look to a plethora of talented but inexperienced offensive linemen to fill the remaining two spots. Graduate student Dillan Gibbons could be an option for the Irish. Although he doesn’t have a ton of experience, he got some playing time in 2020 and started against Syracuse. As far as the fifth offensive lineman, there remains almost complete uncertainty. Early enrollees and first-years Rocco Spindler and Blake Fisher have wowed in practice so far. While not definitive yet, it is still unlikely that the pair get a start as first-years.