Despite brutal loss, Irish youth shine bright
Aidan Thomas | Sunday, January 2, 2022
While the 2021 Fiesta Bowl didn’t end the way Notre Dame wanted, there were positives to take away from the volatile performance. The Irish receiving corps has received much scrutiny, and the depth is a major question mark. But on Saturday, the Irish did show that maybe the demise of the receiver room was exaggerated. Every single player who caught a pass against Oklahoma State is eligible to return in 2022, and with the potential of nine returning starters on offense, the Irish aren’t going anywhere.
The offense boasts so much young talent everywhere. On Saturday, the Irish had three freshman starters on the offense and two sophomores. Freshman running back Logan Diggs and receiver Deion Colzie also appeared in the game. Second on the depth chart, Diggs notched 13 touches against the Cowboys. The Irish distributed 41 offensive touches to their freshman and sophomore playmakers. That’s just under 70% of all touches given to guaranteed returners next year. Throw in Braden Lenzy and Kevin Austin’s combined 14 touches, and you have 93% of the offensive touches by players who could return next year.
Editor’s Note: Since the writing of this article, senior wide receiver Kevin Austin has declared for the NFL draft. He announced his decision Sunday evening.
The keys to the receiving room success next season sit primarily in the hands of Lenzy and Austin. Both could potentially leave after this season but are eligible to head back to South Bend. In the first game without Brian Kelly, both receivers saw an increased role, with Lenzy’s target total standing out. Austin was the No. 1 receiver all year, but in the regular season, Lenzy never caught more than four passes.
On Saturday, graduate student quarterback Jack Coan targeted Lenzy 15 times. The senior brought in seven of those passes for 60 yards, coming inches away from a couple of big contested catches. He led the Irish in targets. Austin tied for second with 13 targets, and he notched six catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. If both seniors return, the Irish will have two playmakers who showed an increasing ability to be a No. 1 receiver and handle a significant workload.
Beyond Lenzy and Austin, the Irish have plenty more returning, and that shone through on Saturday.
What about sophomore tight end Michael Mayer? He continues to be an absolute monster, collecting seven receptions for 72 yards and two touchdowns. The two touchdowns bumped his season total to seven, which is a single-season tight end record at Notre Dame. After the Stanford game, Mayer noted that he didn’t believe there was a single player in the country that could cover him one-on-one. Against a top-10 defense with a month to prepare, that remained true. Oklahoma State only found relative success when double-teaming the sophomore, and they still couldn’t contain him in the red zone. Mayer will be back, and he may be ready to firmly cement himself as the best ever in the vaunted litany of Irish tight ends.
And then there was sophomore running back Chris Tyree, who flashed his incredible speed en route to 115 yards and five catches. Tyree has not always had a huge role over his first two seasons behind Kyren Williams. The Irish running back had two career 100-yard games — both last season — in his career. However, his 133 all-purpose yards set a career high and displayed his potent ability in the open field. In the first quarter, he blistered 53 yards on a short catch-and-run for a touchdown reception. He returns as one of three primary running backs who will be a key factor in the offensive game plan.
“That was one of the reasons that I came here. Coach [Tommy] Rees and Coach [Lance] Taylor made it pretty clear that I was going to be used to the best of my abilities,” Tyree said.
And last but most certainly not least, there’s freshman receiver Lorenzo Styles. Styles featured plenty of talent and promise throughout the year. The reality was, though, that there never was a legitimate breakout game. Four receptions marked his career high, and 74 yards remained his best effort of the season. For the year, Styles notched 16 catches for 208 yards. But as the season progressed, Styles saw an increased role in the offense. Against the Cowboys, Styles cranked up the heat.
The freshman hauled in eight of his ten targets for 136 yards and a touchdown, remaining the most consistent threat in the passing game throughout the contest. Even if Austin and Lenzy choose not to return to the Irish, Notre Dame can be confident that they’ve got two more years of Lorenzo Styles. In a receiving corps that has lacked a true No. 1 receiver since Chase Claypool left, Styles is the heir apparent.
“He’s a special player. I’ve known him from day one,” Coan said of Styles. “He’s an extremely hard worker, an exceptional athlete.”
Quite honestly, the team’s record of 509 passing yards will not be remembered. The Irish weren’t here to set some individual records. And the loss takes away the fact that no offense scored more than three touchdowns against Oklahoma State this season. But every single one of those 509 passing yards may have been caught by a player suiting up for the blue and gold again next season.
So don’t get it twisted: Despite the disappointing result, Notre Dame showed they have the playmakers to score 30+ on an elite defense — and they did so with a near shutout in the second half.
Give this program a few months to catch their breath after the recent events. And if everyone’s back in 2022? Well, Coan said it best: “That’s pretty scary for other teams.”
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.