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Irish receivers face important test against Duke

| Friday, September 29, 2023

Mary Votava
Irish freshman wide receiver Rico Flores Jr. prepares to catch a touchdown during Notre Dame’s 17-14 loss to Ohio State at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 23.

When Sam Hartman arrived at Notre Dame as a graduate transfer from Wake Forest, there was little doubt surrounding him. It’s hard not to have faith in one of the most decorated passers in the history of the ACC. But his presence alone wasn’t enough to guarantee a high-end Irish passing attack.

It wasn’t because of the offensive line. The Irish have a future top-10 pick in the NFL Draft at left tackle in junior Joe Alt and other potential NFL talents. The tight ends were bound to take a step back with the great Michael Mayer departing for the NFL. But between dependable junior Mitchell Evans and talented sophomore Holden Staes, there was enough at the position to feel good about. Running back had both depth, especially thanks to a pair of emerging underclassmen in sophomore Jadarian Price and freshman Jeremiyah Love, and star power with junior Audric Estime returning as the team’s top rusher.

Through five games, those predictions have largely held up. Tight end has been a bit inconsistent and the offensive line has had some suspect moments in pass blocking. Overall, though, the Irish have to be happy with how those groups have held up.

Unfortunately, the preseason worries about wide receiver are also still hanging around. Early on, it looked like that might not be the case. Notre Dame received three 60+ receiving-yard performances from the unit in the first two games of the season. Hartman hit four 35-yard passes against Central Michigan, two of which went for touchdowns of more than 75 yards.

There were some concerns against NC State, when the receivers combined for less than half of Hartman’s 286 passing yards. But they still hit on some big plays, with senior Chris Tyree and sophomore Tobias Merriweather each making catches of 40+ yards. But then the Ohio State game rolled around. Facing their first high-quality secondary of the season, the wideouts failed to make an impact. Irish receivers combined for just eight catches, none for more than 30 yards. Only two went for more than 20 and both featured significant yards after the catch.

Things won’t get any easier this week. Duke’s defense has allowed just 143 passing yards per game, the third-fewest in the country. Junior Deion Colzie is out and junior Jayden Thomas is questionable due to injuries. It would make sense for the Irish to lean on their ground game in enemy territory, especially since Estime didn’t have a heavy workload last week.

But for Notre Dame’s offense to reach its full potential, there needs to be more from the wide receiver group. That’s not to say the Irish have to hit 40-yard deep shots left and right like they did against the Chippewas. It isn’t a requirement for someone to emerge as an Emeka Egbuka or Marvin Harrison Jr.-type star, either. The group did make some big situational plays against Ohio State, finding pockets of space on third down several times. Freshman Rico Flores Jr. hauled in his first collegiate score to give the Irish a late lead on a nice route. The talent is there.

It may take some creative play-calling from offensive coordinator Gerad Parker to get the most out of this group. The Irish used quite a bit of wide receiver motion last week, but it was almost always a decoy, with the exception of one jet-sweep to freshman Jaden Greathouse that went for just three yards. Irish fans may have a hard time thinking about screen passes without seeing flashbacks of the late near-interception last week that ultimately gave the Buckeyes enough time to conduct their game-winning drive. But mixing more of those in could let the speed of Greathouse, Flores Jr. and Tyree flourish while also relying more on the quality blocking of the line and tight ends.

Despite last week’s loss, the Irish still haven’t squandered anything for good. They still have a chance to reach their potential and so does their receiving core. If they can’t show signs of progress against Duke, though, that will become less of a hope and more of a long-shot.

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About Andrew McGuinness

Andrew McGuinness is a senior in Siegfried Hall and Sports Editor of The Observer. He is from Haddonfield, New Jersey, and loves all of his Philly sports teams, even if they don't always love him back. Reach out below or on Twitter (@_AndrewMcG) to talk sports or TV shows, especially if they're Stranger Things, Survivor, Abbott Elementary or/and Severance.

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