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Thomas: Five potential 2023 stars emerge from Gator Bowl performance

The 2022 season is in the books for Notre Dame, punctuated by their wild 45-38 win over South Carolina in the Gator Bowl. The Irish will replace four offensive starters (five if you count the quarterback) and up to five defensive starters, depending on a few pending decisions. In particular, the defensive line loses All-American Isaiah Foskey along with the highly productive Jayson Ademilola. In the secondary, cornerback TaRiq Bracy and safety Houston Griffith are out of eligibility. Senior safety Brandon Joseph is headed to the NFL Draft and another senior safety DJ Brown may depart as well.

Over on the offensive side, the Irish will obviously replace All-American tight end Michael Mayer, along with two offensive linemen and graduate student receiver Braden Lenzy, who announced his retirement after the bowl game. The Irish will break in a quarterback with no more than three career starts in a Notre Dame uniform. 

So, what did a thrilling Gator Bowl provide in terms of insight into the 2023 season? Here are a few players who stood out and could become X-Factors next year. 

Safety Ramon Henderson

The junior was a standout in the secondary during the Gator Bowl, and he will be called upon to continue that trend in 2023. Ahead of the game, I wrote about how the Irish safety group was a solid group that frequently failed to make major plays that impacted the game. In particular, Henderson and classmate Xavier Watts needed to step up, as they might be next year’s starters at the position. 

Henderson stepped up in a six-tackle performance with 0.5 tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. He had a few major impact plays that don’t go down in the box score, as well as a few that do. On South Carolina’s second drive, Henderson worked around a block — on a similar play call to the one that netted the Gamecocks their first touchdown — and minimized a screen pass to a three-yard gain. On the ensuing play, Henderson helped pursue a screen and was in the right position to recover a fumble. That was the start of a solid performance from the junior safety, who disrupted the Gamecocks throughout the game. 

On a South Carolina trick play, Henderson blew up a reverse to a wide receiver who looked to pass. The coverage was tight, and Henderson flew into the backfield to eliminate a scramble attempt. Although not credited with the tackle, Henderson’s read forced a three-yard loss on the play. He notched a tackle to save a potential first down on the ensuing second-down screen pass and ultimately helped force a punt.

One of his biggest ‘invisible’ plays of the evening came in the third quarter after the Irish turned the ball over in their own territory. On a first-down screen pass from the Notre Dame 41, Henderson read the play to perfection, drilling the receiver in the backfield. The receiver stayed on his feet, but he stumbled and was then hit at the line of scrimmage by two more Irish players to keep the play to no gain. South Carolina ultimately punted on the drive, and Notre Dame managed to critically stay within one possession. 

Henderson delivered a performance that had been lacking from the Irish safety room — a disruptive performance with a few drive-changing plays that ultimately helped swing the result. It felt like the junior hit a new level with that performance, and it’s one he’s going to need to stay at in 2023 to lead a safety room with little to no depth. 

Vyper Jordan Botelho

Junior edge rusher Jordan Botelho had eyes on him in his audition to be Foskey’s replacement. And, Botelho responded with a two-sack performance, notching multiple quarterback hits and hurries to go with it. He blew up a pair of option plays, reading South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler perfectly, notching a sack and a quarterback hit on two plays. On a crucial end-of-half drive, South Carolina had a chance to extend their lead to two possessions, moving to midfield with time for two or three more plays. Botelho notched a quarterback hit on the final two snaps. The first led to just a three-yard completion that forced South Carolina to call their final timeout. The second led Rattler to underthrow a deep pass down the sideline, which was intercepted by freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison. 

Botelho delivered a quarterback hurry and his second sack in the second half, as the Irish defense allowed just seven points in the comeback victory. He’s almost a lock to be a starter on the defensive line next season after a promising Gator Bowl performance. 

Tight End Mitchell Evans

Entering with two career receptions, and zero in 2022, sophomore tight end Mitchell Evans faced pressure in the Gator Bowl. He was tasked with replacing All-American Michael Mayer, widely regarded as the best tight end in Notre Dame history. Evans responded with a rock-solid performance, punctuated by his game-winning touchdown reception. Overall, Evans had three receptions for 39 yards. Two came on the final drive, and the other was an 18-yard reception in which Evans made a man miss to convert a 3rd and 15. 

On the blocking side, Evans was fantastic, picking up a blitz on the Irish’s game-tying 44-yard scoring pass in the third quarter. He also had a key block in the 39-yard touchdown run that temporarily gave the Irish the lead. Throughout the game, Evans sealed the edge for quarterback Tyler Buchner to break off some big runs. Overall, Evans showed he could be a weapon in the passing game while providing the physicality and blocking prowess that Notre Dame seeks in their starting tight ends. The Irish will miss Mayer, but Evans is a budding star to watch. 

Wide Receiver Jayden Thomas

If Tyler Buchner does indeed start the 2023 season, the connection he showed with sophomore receiver Jayden Thomas is extremely promising. Thomas led the Irish with five catches, good for 67 yards. He was on the receiving end of a 25-yard bomb that set up an Irish touchdown, as well as a key 14-yard reception on 3rd and 12 that led to three more Notre Dame points. Thomas also displayed versatility late in the game, delivering some massive blocks on big Notre Dame runs as they overpowered South Carolina on the ground in the fourth quarter. He lined up like a second tight end at times to seal the edge and he even went in motion and served as a lead blocker on a few runs. Notre Dame will be seeking a true WR1 in 2023, and Thomas made a convincing case that he can be the guy. 

Cornerback Jaden Mickey

Heralded as a potential instant-impact player heading into his freshman season, Jaden Mickey endured some struggles in 2022. While Mickey saw the field, it was somewhat sparingly and in a reserve role. Thrown into the fire to replace senior Cam Hart against USC, Mickey struggled, he allowed a catch on every target, several for first downs and missed a few key tackles. 

On Friday, Mickey displayed the grit and talent that originally had the Irish excited about his future. He could become a key player in a thin Notre Dame secondary in 2023. Mickey provided tight coverage during the Gator Bowl and made a few big plays to get the Notre Dame defense off the field. 

In the first half, Notre Dame forced their first punt after Mickey delivered a booming tackle that held a screen pass to a one-yard gain on third and five. Later, after the Irish turnover that gave the Gamecocks the ball in plus territory, Mickey provided the tight coverage on third down to force an incompletion and punt. And on the final play of the game, Mickey was one of the players in coverage on South Carolina’s Hail Mary, helping break up the pass and delivering the final blow, swatting the ball to the ground after it popped up in the air one more time. The Irish lose TaRiq Bracy at the cornerback position, and Mickey will have a chance to get more snaps in his sophomore season because of that. He put forth a convincing audition during the Gator Bowl.

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