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Capece: Styles is Notre Dame’s most important player down-the-stretch

| Friday, November 5, 2021

The righting of the ship by Notre Dame’s offensive line and the reemergence of Kyren Williams are stories that have grabbed the headlines for the Irish the past couple of weeks, but there’s another offensive playmaker that people should be paying more attention to. Lorenzo Styles, the freshman wide receiver out of Pickerington, Ohio, is slowly making a name for himself in this Notre Dame offense. With three receptions each against USC and UNC, his numbers don’t necessarily jump out, but his speed and route-running ability sure do. When Jack Coan threw the ball his way, Styles looked like a four-year veteran with poise and confidence. His contributions down the stretch could prove to be a turning point for Brian Kelly’s offensive philosophy if the Irish head coach recognizes he’s looking at a player that can be a game-changer.

For years now, justifiably or not, Irish fans have used Alabama’s Nick Saban as the measuring stick for their own head coach. To be the best, of course, you first have to copy the best, and that’s exactly what Kelly has tried to do since he met the certified future Hall-of-Famer in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game. However, the maybe future hall-of-famer has yet to sniff another title contest, as the Irish have gotten run out of the building in two College Football Playoff appearances. Kelly has failed to mold his team into the kind of squad that owns title-town Tuscaloosa, but not for the reason you might think.

Way back in September I wrote that, newsflash Mr. Kelly, it’s not 2013 anymore. Alabama today doesn’t run out the here’s the rock Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy-dare you to stop the run offense it did when it obliterated Notre Dame in Miami. Instead, Saban’s staff focused its recruiting prowess and elite talent development on turning the Crimson Tide offense into the air-raid system of the future. And boy has it worked. I’d peg the start of the track-meet era at Alabama to be 2014, and since then, the Tide have claimed three national titles. Besides picking up the nation’s best dual-threat quarterbacks, Alabama has also recruited a plethora of explosive playmakers on the outside. Players like Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy and Calvin Ridley were all first-round draft choices coming out of Tuscaloosa.

Brian Kelly has recruited his fair share of talented wideouts in his 11 years at the helm, but the difference between him and Saban is that the latter has focused on developing them, while the former has been set in his ways as a run-first coach. All of the aforementioned former Crimson Tide wide receivers played a major role in the offense as true freshmen because Saban recognized their potential as impact players. Despite their inexperience, those Alabama players were the most talented guys on the field, and the guy who’s owned college football for the last decade wasn’t afraid to give them significant playing time. Kelly, on the other hand, hasn’t provided his freshmen wideouts with a chance to contribute in a long time. The last true freshman receiver to have a consequential supporting role in the offense was Will Fuller in 2013, who became a first-round pick in 2016. Players like Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool didn’t become household names until their junior seasons.

Styles could change all of that if he keeps playing the way he has, and the Irish will be better off for it. He’s showing Irish fans that a Notre Dame true freshman receiver can be trusted to make big plays, and there’s no doubt in my mind he can eventually become the primary option on the outside. Kelly needs to recognize the games remaining on Notre Dame’s schedule are more than winnable if the Notre Dame offensive line protects the way it has been, which means that he and Tommy Rees can experiment with different players and concepts. Throwing your best receiver the ball more than three times a game is not a hard concept to understand.

Styles can help the Irish win games right now with more targets, but his involvement is also pivotal for Brian Kelly if he wants to take his team from one that can’t win the big game to a national title contender. It’s clear this offense needs to be redesigned to get to the promised land. At this point in time, Notre Dame can’t win high-scoring games against elite programs. Once the Irish fall behind by two scores, they’re forced to abandon their run-first identity, but they also don’t have the speed or explosiveness to get themselves back in the game. This is the primary reason we’ve seen blowouts against Clemson and Alabama on the big stage in two of the last three seasons.

Kyren Williams running behind a revamped offensive line has been a godsend for this team, but Styles and players like him are the future for this Notre Dame offense. High school prospects probably don’t remember Fuller wearing a gold helmet, but Lorenzo Styles is someone many of them are paying close attention to right now. Notre Dame needs more talent like Styles to match the offensive firepower that Alabama has amassed. As Styles gains more of a role in this offense and finds success, Kelly and his staff can make a different kind of recruiting pitch to elite wide receiver recruits than they have in the past: you will develop into an NFL talent if you come to South Bend because you will play right away.

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About Colin Capece

Colin is a senior at Notre Dame, majoring in political science and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. He hails from the great state of New York and currently serves as an Assistant Managing Editor at The Observer for the 2021-2022 academic year. You can sometimes find him on Twitter at @ColinCapeceND

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