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Thomas: How the Irish can build for the future without sacrificing 2022

Hopes of a national championship, a playoff berth, or even a New Year’s Six bowl game have evaporated for Notre Dame this season. The first two ended when the Irish dropped their second straight game to open the season, a stunning loss to Marshall. The latter ended upon Notre Dame’s embarrassing 16-14 defeat to the Stanford Cardinal. 

So what’s left to play for? And how can Notre Dame build for the future while not trying to give away wins? As much as tanking is a part of professional sports, it doesn’t exist in college. You only get four years with players — if you’re lucky. If you are an elite-level program, your top players stay for just three years. To simply give up on winning to play some younger players could instantly lose a locker room.

Notre Dame’s culture is praised by current players and alumni alike. And if Marcus Freeman jeopardizes that to start planning for 2023, it would be a catastrophic mistake. So here’s a look at some of the dos and don’ts over the last five or six games of this season (bowl eligibility pending).

DON’T: Start Steve Angeli

I like freshman quarterback Steve Angeli. He was a fun player to watch in the spring game last semester. His performance there is largely why so many are rooting for him to usurp Drew Pyne as the starter. Realistically, Angeli is not going to be some kind of instant upgrade to Pyne, nor does he give the Irish a better chance at winning games at the current moment.

Give me another ten minutes on this deadline I’m writing on right now, and I could probably find a nice long list of quarterbacks that had a good spring game and disastrous seasons. Let’s not assume Angeli is some savior because he had a couple of spring-game touchdowns.

Pyne has proven he has starting quarterback-caliber talent. He played very well against UNC and BYU. He was serviceable against Cal and UNLV. We didn’t get a full glimpse of sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner this year. And there’s no guarantee the Irish go to the transfer portal for a quarterback next year. Pyne remains part of this team’s future under center, and he’s a key leader in the locker room. To bench him so the Irish can “see what they have” would be a quick way to lose the locker room.

It’d be nice to see the Irish get some big leads against inferior opponents down the stretch (Navy, Boston College), so Angeli can get some game reps in. But he shouldn’t be starting. No matter how much I want to write “Peanut Butter Angeli” as a headline.

DO: Get everyone not named Michael Mayer more action in the passing game

Last week should have been a prime opportunity for this. But rather than expand the offense, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees demonstrated what we already knew about the Irish. Junior tight end Michael Mayer can dominate most teams and, in single coverage, he’s a total mismatch. The problem? Not only will teams like Syracuse, Clemson, and USC likely find ways to make life harder for Mayer, the Irish won’t have Mayer next year. Finding additional threats in the passing game will benefit the Irish in the short term and the long term.

The list is extensive. Do you want sophomore Lorenzo Styles to be your No. 1 receiver for the next year or two? Start getting him more than three or four targets a game. The drops are bad right now, but the lack of a consistent workload is also hampering his development. Same with sophomore Jayden Thomas.

And your guess is as good as mine when it comes to why freshman Tobias Merriweather is barely seeing the field. He played a bit under a third of the offensive snaps last week, which was a welcomed bump from past contests. The Irish have to see what they have past Mayer, or else the wide receiving corps is going to remain a crippling part of this roster moving into 2023. Get tight ends sophomore Mitchell Evans and freshman Holden Staes some reps in the passing game and not just in the quarterback sneak game. The Irish will need both to be a threat next year.

DON’T: Give up on Estime, Styles, etc

At the beginning of the year, a lot of the Irish’s hopes were contingent on unproven talent having big years. Topping that list were sophomores Styles and running back Audric Estime. Both have had some issues this year. Styles has had some brutal drops this season. Last week, on a 3rd and two, he was wide open on a return arrow route and dropped a pass that was a likely first-down conversion. Last week, Styles got wide open on a 3rd and 10 route. Pyne hit him in the numbers, but the sophomore dropped it.

Estime has looked great at times, but he’s fumbled the ball three times in the past four games. One of those fumbles came on a potential game-winning drive versus Stanford.

It’s easy to advocate for the younger guys getting more touches. But the younger guys are also definitively part of the offensive problem. That being said, the ceiling is still really high. Styles is getting open, which is half the battle. Estime is still an absolute ox of a running back, and he has solid numbers overall. Mistakes and growing pains are going to happen when you heavily rely on unproven talent. The Irish can’t let that affect their game plan.

Staes had a tough drop last week. Sophomore wide receiver Deion Colzie has had a forgettable season to this point. Merriweather has hardly even tapped into his potential. Notre Dame has young talent to work with, but they have to be patient. The Irish have seen issues with poor development at key skill positions haunt them in 2022. They have to stick to their guns and continue getting their young guys the necessary reps. The Irish need them now, and they’ll need them even more next year. 

DO: Start utilizing more linebacker depth

Notre Dame’s linebacker room is an interesting piece. They’ve struggled at times this year, but they’ve also made some big plays. It remains to be seen how many of those players will take their extra year or two of eligibility and stay at Notre Dame. 

The Irish reeled in some impressive linebackers last year. Freshman Junior Tuihalamaka and freshman Jaylen Sneed should see at least some rotational snaps. They could become key pieces of the defensive rotation next year. Last week, senior J.D. Bertrand played 62 snaps. That’s a ton, and the Irish have some depth to spell Bertrand and some others in that position group. The Irish rotate their defensive line relatively liberally, and it would be nice to see the linebackers at least embrace some of that moving forward.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu

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