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Post: Irish receivers answered questions in week one, but one final piece remains missing

| Friday, September 1, 2023

This column was actually inspired by a question in this year’s inaugural Observer Sports mailbag, so thanks to whoever submitted it.

Is [graduate student quarterback] Sam Hartman good enough to win big games with a still-unproven receiving corps?

It’s a good question. One Notre Dame will need to have an answer for by the time they play the likes of Ohio State and USC. Everyone saw how great Hartman can be last Saturday. He was precise, deft-footed and confident, everything you’d want to see in a graduate student quarterback.

Junior receiver Jayden Thomas was expectedly reliable, posting four catches for 63 yards and a touchdown. Thomas leading the way in catches and targets is a pretty safe bet for Notre Dame this fall. He’s a vocal leader and a (relative) veteran in a young unit. He led all wide receivers in yards and touchdowns last year. His stripes have been more than earned on the current Irish depth chart.

Freshman receiver Jaden Greathouse flashed moments of excellence, turning eight snaps into two touchdowns. The highly-touted freshman has been a revelation since the Blue-Gold game, showing early signs of being a major recruiting win at a position that badly needed one. He’ll get a whole lot more than eight snaps as the season goes on.

Senior Chris Tyree looked comfortable in the slot, which says a lot, given he hadn’t played the position until the spring. He’ll continue to develop, attempting to use his speed to turn short catches into long ones in a hurry.

That said, neither Thomas, Greathouse nor Tyree fit the traditional mold of a team’s leading receiver. Think of A.T. Perry, Hartman’s most recent top target at Wake Forest. Perry is long, fast and prefers to play on the boundary. He’s generally at his best sprinting vertically down the sideline running down deep throws.

And it’s not that Thomas, the team’s projected leading receiver, can’t do that. His 46-yard catch in the Blue-Gold game this spring showed evidence that a similar connection with Hartman could emerge. But it’s not where he’s at his best either. Thomas’ strength lies in his versatility. He’s a Swiss army knife, capable of lining up in the slot or on the boundary. And his value as a blocker can never be understated either.

Notre Dame has an emerging stable of receivers. But it’s difficult to see any being the deep threat Perry was for Hartman last season. 

The man who can potentially change that? Sophomore Tobias Merriweather. Merriweather has a unique profile in the receiver room. He is, potentially, that vertical threat that Notre Dame needs. He was also the only receiver in the starting rotation that missed the stat sheet in last Saturday’s game.

It’s not for a lack of physical tools. Merriweather currently lists on the Irish roster as 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds with a background in track to boot. It’s not for a lack of pedigree, with Merriweather arriving in South Bend a consensus top-200 recruit. And it hasn’t been for a lack of opportunities. His 35 snaps against Navy placed him second after Thomas. He also accumulated over 100 snaps in 2022. 

Still, Merriweather’s career stats for the Irish remain a single reception against Stanford. That lone reception, though, showed exactly the player he could become for Notre Dame. In a game where the Irish completed just one other pass for a gain of more than 20 yards, Merriweather’s 41-yard score gave Notre Dame their first lead of the contest. Therein lies the power of the vertical threat. All it takes is one strike a game to change the complexion of a game.

A breakout showing by Merriweather would benefit the rest of the room as well. Between Thomas, Tyree and Greathouse, the Irish are well-stocked with options that can consistently keep the chains moving. Notre Dame’s receivers picked up seven first downs against Navy, none of which came on especially deep throws.

But teams will begin to key on this. Thomas and Greathouse in particular have shown a knack for finding space in opposing defenses, but those spaces will become less and less common as the Irish face opposition with more tape to study on the Notre Dame passing attack.

The benefit of a quarterback like Hartman is, of course, it becomes easier for the Irish to mitigate such effects of stronger defenses, even if they do arrive this season. Hartman’s poise and ability to go through his progressions make him an ideal candidate to break down even the most prepared secondary.

But a breakout from Merriweather would make Hartman’s job considerably easier. A deep threat in the Notre Dame offense would force teams to throw out the current book on how to best defend the pass against the Irish. Committing more and more bodies underneath is far less advisable if Notre Dame has a player who can stretch the field on any given play.

Offensive coordinator Gerad Parker’s inaugural offensive display against Navy was surgical in nature. The Irish moved the ball with remarkable efficiency, skillfully blending a forceful running game with a confident passing attack. The efficiency shown last Saturday didn’t come against the best opponent but should scale up to match higher competition.

But there’s another gear this Notre Dame offense, and Hartman, can find. It’s one thing to be efficient. It’s another to be dynamic. The Irish hope Merriweather’s emergence will allow Hartman to sling the ball downfield more than he did in Dublin.

The Irish justifiably flew home last Sunday feeling tremendously pleased with their opening offensive showing. But with the likes of Ohio State, USC and Clemson on the schedule, it never hurts to have more weapons. And against a Tennessee State secondary playing its first game of 2023, Parker and Co. will no doubt look to get as many of those weapons up and firing as possible.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to wide receiver Tobias Merriweather as a freshman. Merriweather is a sophomore.

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About J.J. Post

J.J. Post is a senior in Fisher Hall. Hailing from Mountainside, New Jersey, he's currently working his way towards being the nation's foremost expert on college soccer. Whether via the button below or his overly active Twitter (@JayJayPost), feel free to reach out and talk about Notre Dame soccer, football, basketball, volleyball, baseball or softball. Or any other Notre Dame sport you can think of. Odds are he watches it as well.

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