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Former walk-on Matt Salerno primed for bigger role in Irish offense

The pass was tipped once, twice and then three times before Matt Salerno, on his back, brought the ball in for a 31-yard gain. The improbable catch extended a Notre Dame drive early in the second quarter and led to their only touchdown of the game. 

 “It’s probably the biggest play I’ve made in my career,” Salerno said. “It was great to have that opportunity, I’m glad Tyler (Buchner) trusted in me enough to throw me that ball.”

Salerno didn’t see the field much on Saturday — he was on the field for just eight snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, but he was there when the team needed him to make a critical play. For the former walk-on, it was impactful for him to be able to contribute in such a big matchup. 

“That’s really my first time taking significant reps [against] a big team and a big moment like that on offense,” he said. “For me, [it is] that personal confidence that I know I can compete at that level.”

It was only Salerno’s second career reception — the first, which came in November’s blowout victory over Georgia Tech, went for a loss of four yards. 

Salerno joined the team as a walk-on prior to his freshman season in 2018 and only saw the field once in his first two years. He became the team’s primary punt returner during their run to the College Football Playoff in 2020 but managed just 45 total yards on 10 returns. He reprised that role at times throughout 2021, including in the Fiesta Bowl loss against Oklahoma State.

Prior to the 2022 season, Salerno finally earned a scholarship after four years in the program. This year, he will likely play a pivotal role in a wide receiver group that was already thin before Avery Davis suffered a season-ending injury. 

“We’re so short on guys that everyone has to play a lot of different positions,” Salerno said after a practice last month. “Being a fifth-year guy, I know the offense really well so just being able to fill in any role that needs someone.”

The loss of Davis — a sixth-year player and team captain — hurt the team’s morale, but Salerno said it was important to keep going.  “He wouldn’t want us to be moping around, we still have a mission to do, so we’re going to do it for him,” he said. 

As a whole, the play of the wide receiver group underwhelmed many observers during Saturday’s loss to the Buckeyes. The group totaled just three receptions for 117 yards. Junior tight end Michael Mayer was Buchner’s primary target throughout the game, hauling in five passes for 32 yards Saturday. 

For Salerno himself, it wasn’t all celebratory Saturday night, either. With the Irish trailing 14-10 in the fourth quarter, after they had driven into Ohio State territory, he was called for a controversial offensive pass interference call. 

The penalty pushed the Irish back to their own 44-yard line. The offense never regained its momentum, losing 2 yards over its remaining two drives, while Ohio State scored another touchdown to put the game out of reach. 

“I think we handled it well,” Salerno said of the challenge of playing in Ohio Stadium. “I know a lot of people are talking about the lack of receptions, but there was also just a lack of plays we ran on offense in general.” 

Salerno said the team ran less than 50 plays on offense as part of a strategy to keep the Buckeyes’ explosive offense off the field as much as possible. “It was part of our game plan to limit their offensive possessions,” he said. “Even though the production wasn’t necessarily there, it wasn’t really a slight on the receivers. We’re just going to keep building on that.”

Sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner, starting his first collegiate game, had an up-and-down performance, starting off by completing his first eight passes, but finished 10-18. 

“I thought he did really well,” Salerno said of Buchner’s play. “As a receiver, there’s a lot of things that I need to be on top of in terms of the playbook and that’s just a single little sliver of what Tyler needs to be on top of…just for him to be so poised in that moment and perform, proud of him.” 

Despite the loss to the Buckeyes and the fact that the wide receivers were held to such a low output, Salerno believes that there were many positives to take away from the matchup in Columbus. “We know we can compete against one of the best defenses in the country,” he said. “Like Coach Freeman said, this will be our floor and it’s only going up from here.” 

Salerno will certainly play a pivotal role in the wide receiver group moving forward, especially with graduate student Joe Wilkins and sophomore Deion Colzie working through foot and knee injuries, respectively. 

After toiling for four years while rarely seeing the field on offense, Salerno will take a turn this season stepping into the limelight. 

Liam Coolican

Contact Liam Coolican at lcoolica@nd.edu

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