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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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Sports

Herko: Will the next Michael Mayer please stand up?

After the abysmal Marshall game that culminated in Tyler Buchner’s shoulder injury, no one would blame any Notre Dame fans who decided to check to see when basketball season started. Buchner’s replacement, junior Drew Pyne has been up and down for sure, but there has definitely been some great improvement since his interception in the fourth quarter on that terrible day. But, how much of this improvement is a result of increased reps at practice that comes from being the starting quarterback versus having the benefit of a future first round draft pick in Michael Mayer on call whenever Pyne gets into trouble?

Mayer is certainly the star player on this inconsistent Irish offense, but with him on his way to the NFL, who will the Irish rely on next year? If Pyne is to be the starter next year, which would make sense because he has far more game experience than Buchner now, this is the time he should be building better chemistry with his younger wide receivers and tight ends to see real cohesive play next season. 

For every game except his first as a starter against Cal, Mayer has been on the receiving end of the majority of Pyne’s passes. At North Carolina, just under a third of Pyne’s total passes were to Mayer, while the four underclassman receivers combined for 14 catches. 

Against BYU, Mayer caught 11 of Pyne’s 22 passes for 116 of his 262 total passing yards, including two touchdowns. Only nine passes were completed to freshman and sophomore receivers and running backs with Jayden Thomas and Lorenzo Styles leading the pack.

Hosting Stanford, five of 13 passes were caught by Mayer and six others were caught by the underclassman. And in the Irish’s win against UNLV, Mayer caught six of Pyne’s 14 passes. Four passes combined were completed to sophomore Lorenzo Styles and redshirt freshman Jayden Thomas, which totaled all of the passes completed to underclassmen. 

The first problem is Pyne is just not throwing enough. Whether this is by design or is the result of a lot of broken plays, Pyne needs to learn that good things happen faster when you put the ball in the air. If the lack of throwing is commentary on Pyne’s playing abilities, practice more throws during practice reps; We should not be looking to Navy’s offensive schemes as a role model. 

Additionally, lots of short passes especially on later downs will not cut it. Defenses that Notre Dame plays are starting to key in on these patterns. To free up areas closer to the offensive line for runs and shorter passes, these defenses have to respect the deep ball. And they just don’t right now because they occur so infrequently. 

This is not to say that Notre Dame needs to become predictable or aggressively throw downfield on every play — just that the play call and execution need to match the situation. For example, toward the end of the second quarter during the UNLV game, the offense turned it over on downs after two incomplete passes. It was 3rd and 3 (and then 4th and 3) on the UNLV seven-yard line. Pyne threw for the end zone both times when it may have been easier to run or look for a shorter pass. 

Or last week against Stanford, when the Irish completed a five-yard pass on 4th and 7 at the end of the game. This offense can play well –  they just need to make logical decisions based on the looks the defense is showing them. 

Besides the fact that Pyne is just not throwing enough for Notre Dame to be successful against halfway decent teams, he and his younger receivers need to build greater trust between them if there is going to be any chance for good games against Clemson, Syracuse and USC.  Or, even more importantly, for a better season next year. Those teams will be stacked enough on defense that may be able to double team Mayer for large portions of the games, to force Pyne to throw elsewhere. Styles, Staes, Thomas and Merriweather all have flashed at different points this season. The young star power is there in the receiving core. Drew Pyne has to utilize them if Notre Dame football wants to keep winning football games. 

The only way that trust between the offensive skill players is going to form is if it shows up in the stat book. Everyone loves Michael Mayer, but Pyne needs to figure out who his next Michael Mayer is going to be. 

Contact Annika at aherko@nd.edu.

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

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Sports

Ladd: Offense rewrites their narrative in the Bible Brawl

The Irish played their cards right as they kept their perfect Shamrock Series streak alive with a 28-20 victory against No. 16 BYU out in Sin City. Though the Irish were favored by four, this was no walk in the park against a ranked team. Just getting this was huge for the Irish. But more importantly, the execution during the game demonstrated that the Irish offense CAN close. The early loss of sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner at Marshall only added fuel to that fire in a game – to put it bluntly – that was chaotic and quite abysmal. 

A mediocre Cal performance did not help the Irish offense’s case much. And their inability to carry out the run game became a point of worry for Irish fans. It was unclear earlier in the season if junior Drew Pyne would perform as expected as a starter.. This weekend’s performance though ended that concern.

Before this weekend, a UNC victory showed signs that the Irish offense could gain momentum and put it all together. I was not sold though, as UNC’s defense is one of the weakest of all Power 5 teams. To me, the matchup versus BYU was a real test of what the offense can do. Pyne looked comfortable in the pocket yesterday, despite playing in front of a very vocal crowd of 62,742 in one of the NFL’s sleekest stadiums.

We’ve come a long way from Tommy Rees shouting expletives to a befuddled Drew Pyne on the phone at the Cal game. I felt proud of the offense last night as they did what they had to do and showed us the potential they were hiding. 

The offense started well early by controlling the line of scrimmage and despite struggles in the second half, they were able to pull off a win. An obvious point of notice was the Vegas quality show junior tight end Michael Mayer put on. Though I will not exhaust the topic, I thought the early use of Mayer was a smart game plan. He was able to make big plays early on in the game and is now the leading tight end in receptions for the Irish.

It goes without saying that the Pyne-Mayer duo certainly stole the show, and I was continually impressed by Mayer’s ability to “be there” and make some serious plays. A role model and leader for the team, Mayer’s hard work shines through on the field. I’m excited to see how he continues to be an asset for the Irish as the season progresses.

Another notable point for the offense was the number of other players who were able to step up and make plays. Aside from Mayer, Pyne connected with seven other receivers, including Jayden Thomas who was able to get his shining moment. The stellar 30-yard touchdown catch from Thomas was a difference-maker in the game and the first of his career. 

Freshman tight end Holden Staes also contributed, making his first career catch on a critical third-down conversion. Sophomore running backs Audric Estime and Logan Diggs were also active on the field. Estime finished with 110 total yards, 97 on the ground and 13 through the air, good enough for his third straight game with 100+ yards from scrimmage. Diggs finished with a team-high 17 carries, which he turned into 93 yards.

All in all, everyone really showed up last night, which is what is most important. I saw an Irish offense ready for action and looking to help their leader, a poised and decisive Drew Pyne. The O-line also contributed substantially, providing time for Pyne to get comfortable. I enjoyed this quote by Freeman via the post-game press conference. 

“It’s too often the quarterback gets too much blame and too much praise, right? We need guys to make the quarterback look good. And to see Jayden (Thomas) make some of those big catches that he made the day was huge for the confidence of our wideouts room, but also the confidence of our quarterback to be able to spread the ball around. And so, it was really good to see that.”

Pyne demonstrated his growth and ability to perform as the leader of the offense. Compared to his performances earlier this season, it was clear he took ownership of the position and knew exactly what job he needed to do. He excelled on third down in this game, which I think was a large part of the team’s success. Pyne showed excellent decisiveness and accuracy in the majority of his looks in the game. 

There is always room for improvement, however. In the second half of the game, BYU’s defense seemingly knew exactly where Pyne would go with the ball. Focusing heavily on Mayer almost began to hurt him, and the fourth quarter interception was especially problematic. Nevertheless, this is a learning experience for him. There is plenty of teaching tape for him to work on with Rees.

Though it is early, Pyne is on track for a historic year. His current completion percentage (72.5%) and passer efficiency rating (167.3) would represent single-season records for the Irish. The former is currently held by Ian Book, while the latter is shared by Jimmy Clausen and Bob Williams.

Will Pyne be able to keep this up? I do not know. But if he continues to play the way he did this weekend while perfecting mistakes, I think it is quite possible.

All in all, I think it was a stellar performance from the Notre Dame offense. At least, compared to what we have seen at the beginning of the season. Pyne’s poise and increasing confidence, paired with the help he received from the wideouts, was key in the victory over the Cougars. It will be interesting to see who continues to rise up and assist in making those plays. It takes everyone engaged and on the same page to create a cohesive and dominant offense. This was definitely the most we have seen of that from the Irish thus far. 

Contact Madeline Ladd at mladd2@nd.edu.