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Thomas: Seven Irish players who need to step up after the bye week

After a sluggish start, the Notre Dame football team has begun to turn things around. A gritty, if closer than desired, win over Cal pushed the Irish into the win column. A week later, head coach Marcus Freeman and Co. went on the road as underdogs and decimated UNC. Now, after a week off, the boys in the blue and gold, or should we say white and gold, head to Vegas. The game feels like a make-or-break moment in this season.

If the Irish win and move to 3-2, there’s every reason to believe they’ll be back in the Top 25. Additionally, they have a couple of almost guaranteed wins approaching on the schedule. A real chance at being 6-2 and in the top 15 heading into the Clemson matchup emerges. From there, ending in the 8-10 win range feels almost certain, and with a solid bowl game.

With a loss? Well, Notre Dame would fall to 2-3. With Clemson, USC and a thus-far unbeaten Syracuse squad remaining on the schedule, topping seven wins feels even more unlikely. 

So no doubt the Irish are at a critical point in their season. While it’s not at the halfway point just yet, here’s a look at five Irish players (plus two honorable mention) who need to step it up as the Irish try to continue their renaissance. 

Honorable Mention: freshman wide receiver Tobias Merriweather and tight end Eli Raridon

The honorable mentions go to the true freshmen due to a lack of opportunity. Merriweather has barely seen the field, although comments from the coaching staff seem to imply he’s tracking towards an increased snap count. He’s a tall and speedy wide receiver that could give the Irish a much-needed boost in the passing game. 

Raridon was just elevated into a bigger role last week with the season-ending injury to junior Kevin Bauman. The 6’7 tight end emerged in Week 1 as an absolute force in the run-blocking game. It’s not too controversial to say he was an immediate upgrade in that department. However, what remains to be seen is how he can impact the passing game. Raridon is a matchup nightmare, particularly when opposing defenses are also concerned with guarding junior All-American tight end Michael Mayer. Deploying both of those guys on pass routes could be a sight to see. 

5. Senior corner back Cam Hart

Cam Hart took a big step forward against UNC, and he’s been serviceable throughout the year. But starting across a true freshman, Hart needs to lockdown and be less prone to the big plays that have victimized him through four weeks. He hasn’t necessarily been bad, but a step up from Hart could elevate this secondary to a new level. 

4. Sophomore wide receiver Jayden Thomas

Jayden Thomas received a lot of hype this season, and he feels like a major breakout candidate. However, so far, Thomas has played a lot of snaps and made minimal impact. Despite starting and playing the majority of offensive snaps, Thomas is sitting on three receptions for 32 yards in four games. That needs to improve from a player that has the talent to become the WR2 in this offense. 

3. Senior linebacker JD Bertrand

Part of this is on Bertrand, and part of it isn’t. For the second straight game, Bertrand will miss the first half of the game after a second-half targeting penalty in the prior contest. The first one was a pretty clear-cut targeting call, and it was really a mental mistake from the senior captain. The second call was far more questionable, and Notre Dame appealed the decision, albeit unsuccessfully. But beyond the targeting calls, Bertrand hasn’t been the impact player the Irish need at linebacker.

That unit has been the weak spot of the defensive corps, although they took a step forward against the Tar Heels. Bertand himself has 18 tackles, which ties for fourth on the team. However, he really hasn’t created much in the way of disruption, with zero tackles for loss, sacks, pass breakups, forced fumbles or interceptions. The Irish need some more dynamic play from their linebackers, and that starts with their senior captain. 

2. Graduate student wide receiver Braden Lenzy

Three years ago, Lenzy was the former track star that the Irish plugged into gadget plays. Lenzy utilized his speed well, and he figured to be a weapon at wide receiver. Injuries marred his development at times, but now fully healthy, Lenzy has looked almost lost at times on the field. Whether it’s poorly timed drops, a failure to get open or anything else, Lenzy has simply not made an impact. He’s touched the ball eight times in four games for 76 all-purpose yards. Between him and Thomas, they need to solidify the wide receiver corps for the Irish. 

1. Sophomore offensive line Blake Fisher

The offensive line has improved greatly since the start of the year, but right tackle Blake Fisher has continued to struggle. He’s consistently been one of the weak links on the line, and he has missed blocks in key moments that have hurt the Irish. Think back to Week 1, with the Irish up 10-7 at the start of the second half. Sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner had sophomore wide receiver Lorenzo Styles open down the sideline but rushed the throw as Fisher got beat around the edge. The Irish missed on the potential touchdown, and didn’t score again. Fisher has monster size and potential and he needs to translate that into on-field production in the coming weeks.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.

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