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2023 Notre Dame depth chart projection: Irish running back prepared to run it back

The Irish return the key pieces from their vaunted rushing attack in 2022, and they’ll look to establish more consistency to bring the offense to another level in 2023.

2022 Summary

It’s fair to say that the running back room was by some distance Notre Dame’s strongest position group in 2022. With the Irish passing offense oftentimes limited, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees leaned on the ground attack to set the tone in nearly every game over the back half of the season. And set the tone it did. The Irish exceeded 200 team rushing yards in 5 of their last 7 games while posting a 6-1 record. 

Part of what made the running back room click so well was the balance struck between different player profiles. Every back that played significant snaps brought something unique to the table that opposing defenses would have to contend with. Sophomore Audric Estime provided the power, using his 220-plus pound frame to wear down defenses and bully his way through the line of scrimmage in short yardage situations. Junior Chris Tyree brought flash, adding a dynamic playmaker to the room that Rees could deploy in the backfield and as a slot receiver. Sophomore Logan Diggs offered a nice blend of both Tyree’s speed and Estime’s strength. Diggs also led all backs in receiving yards. 

Key Departures

Nothing but good news in this department for the Irish. There was some speculation that Chris Tyree could enter the transfer portal after he saw his snap counts decrease over the back half of the season. However, the junior running back opted to stay in South Bend for another year.

Transfer Portal Additions

Unsurprising given the amount of returnees in an already-crowded running back room, Rees and running back coach Deland McCullough opted not to take any transfers at the position.

Freshman Additions

After two late decommitments, the Irish will add one freshman running back to the 2023 depth chart. Consensus top-100 recruit Jeremiyah Love profiles more in the Diggs mold of a hybrid back than a pure power or speed addition. While Love certainly doesn’t lack in the speed department — the high school track star boasts a Missouri 5A state title in the 100 meters — it’s not the only aspect of his game. All scouting reports of Love mention his receiving ability as a major aspect of his skillset. Rees will all but certainly utilize him in the passing game either next season or further down the line.

Projected two-deep

The two-deep for the running back spot is either the easiest or hardest to figure out on the 2023 roster, depending on your perspective. On one hand, the starting options are pretty much all sharpied in. Estime, Diggs and Tyree all logged over 250 snaps last season. Rees settled on Estime and Diggs as names 1a and 1b and Tyree as a change of pace option. Given the impressive results once that rotation emerged, there’s little evidence to suggest it will be tweaked heading into 2023.

What does allow for intrigue, however, is the back end of the rotation. Jadarian Price, for instance, received strong reviews throughout training camp last offseason and was a Blue-Gold game standout. Though a summer achilles injury ended his 2022 campaign before it could start, it stands to reason that if he makes a full recovery he could potentially push Tyree for playing time further down the committee depth chart. The same applies to the aforementioned Love, who at 6’0, 190 pounds, likely doesn’t have a long way to go on the physical end of being game-ready for college football. While Estime and Diggs are locked in to play big roles in 2023, how Rees and McCullough split minutes between the veteran Tyree, the wild card Price and the rookie Love remains to be seen and could be one of the most interesting things to keep an eye out for in the 2023 Blue-Gold game.

Contact J.J. Post at jpost2@nd.edu.

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Moller: Freeman can use Gator Bowl to gain momentum into next season

As more and more college players decide to sit out bowl games to prepare for the NFL draft or enter the transfer portal, bowl games have lost their significance to an extent. In Friday’s Gator Bowl between the Irish and the South Carolina Gamecocks, the Irish will be without junior tight end Michael Mayer and senior defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey. Both All-Americans opted out to pursue the NFL draft. The Irish will also be without junior quarterback Drew Pyne. Pyne started the last ten games for the Irish but decided to transfer to Arizona State. On the flip side, the Gamecocks will likely be without some important wide receivers and tight ends and pieces in the secondary. 

So with all of these key players out on both sides, what does the Gator Bowl mean for head coach Marcus Freeman and the Irish?

After falling short of some lofty preseason goals, winning the Gator Bowl in itself might not mean too much for the Irish. However, this is an opportunity for Marcus Freeman to gain more experience as a head coach and build momentum into next season.

Building momentum into next season starts with sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner. The dual threat will start in the Gator Bowl for the first time since week two. He suffered an AC sprain to his non-throwing shoulder in Notre Dame’s loss to Marshall. Expected to lead the Irish this season, Buchner never got a chance to prove himself after two modest performances in his only two starts.

Despite a very disappointing season for Buchner, he will have the chance to prove himself in a low-stakes game this Friday. Buchner really didn’t get a chance to show off his abilities in seven quarters of action this season. Conservative game plans only allowed him to attempt 50 passes. Buchner completed 28 of those passes for no touchdowns and two interceptions. 

Without a key offensive weapon in Michael Mayer, there will be a lot of pressure on Buchner to perform at a high level if the Irish are to beat the Gamecocks. Although Buchner will have some high-quality running backs to rely on, the playbook will likely be more open for Buchner in the bowl game. With rumors swirling around that the Irish are pursuing a quarterback in the transfer portal, Buchner’s performance in the bowl game is very important for him if he wants to secure his starting spot for next season. 

In Mayer’s absence, the Irish will need a plethora of players to step up at the wide receiver position. Mayer accounted for roughly one-third of all Irish receiving yards on the season. There will be a major void that needs to be filled in the bowl game and next season. Although graduate student Braden Lenzy will be around for the bowl game, he isn’t expected to return next year. That leaves it up to a young, inexperienced Irish receiving corps. 

To build momentum into next year, the Irish should prioritize getting sophomores Lorenzo Styles Jr., Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas involved in the offense. All three receivers have shown flashes of their potential this season, but none of them have contributed to the offense on a consistent basis. Freshman Tobias Merriweather is another receiver that should see plenty of the field in Jacksonville. Although Merriweather only has one catch on the year, that catch was a 41-yard touchdown reception that showed just how explosive he can be. At tight end, it’s worth seeing what sophomore Mitchell Evans and freshman Holden Staes bring to the table.

The bowl game might also provide more clarity on the Irish run game going forward. The Irish stuck with a three-man backfield during the regular season. Junior Chris Tyree and sophomores Logan Diggs and Audric Estime each recorded over 400 yards on the ground. With the backfield becoming potentially more crowded next year with the return of freshman Jadarian Price from injury, there could be some major splits in playing time among running backs. The Irish can use Friday’s game to figure out which back they trust most going forward. Audric Estime appeared to be the Irish’s best option on short-down situations towards the end of the season, but Tyree and Diggs proved themselves as reliable options as well. If one of these three players can step up on Friday, that could help them secure more playing time in next year’s season opener. 

On the defensive side of the ball, the Irish have the chance to prove themselves against a South Carolina team that is led by quarterback Spencer Rattler. Although Rattler has proved to be inconsistent at times this year, he is one of the most talented players in college football and he will prove to be a challenge for an Irish defense that recently struggled to contain USC quarterback Caleb Williams. Rattler is nowhere near as talented as Williams, but the Irish defense will have a chance to redeem themselves from their poor performance in Los Angeles to close out the year. 

All in all, the Gator Bowl is a low-risk game for the Irish. They really have nothing to lose considering the players that are going to be missing, so they should prioritize opening up the playbook on offense and seeing what players can make big plays. If the Irish are going to perform well on Friday without some of their top players on both sides of the football, they are going to need some new faces to step up. And those players that step up might prove to be key pieces to next year’s Irish team. 

Additionally, this game gives Marcus Freeman another head coaching game under his belt. There have been lots of ups and downs in Freeman’s inaugural season, and the Gator Bowl has the potential to be the perfect segue into Freeman’s second year as head coach.

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Notre Dame 2023 recruiting class instant analysis, grades

Notre Dame signed its recruiting class after an eventful early signing day. Most notably, the Irish entered the day with 26 commitments, but flips affected the class. Five-star safety Peyton Bowen flipped to Oregon and four-star running back Jayden Limar is projected to do the same. 

Here’s an instant analysis and grades given to each position group. 

Quarterback: A- 

Four-star quarterback Kenny Minchey would have probably been worth a B or B+ by himself. However, the recruitment’s timing plays a big role in elevating this grade. After losing out on the Dante Moore sweepstakes, the Irish were down and out on a quarterback in the 2023 cycle. Although projected to get highly-ranked C.J. Carr in 2024, the transfer of Drew Pyne left the Irish with questionable depth at the position. 

Minchey re-opened his recruitment late in the fall after previously committing to Pitt. The Irish coaching staff turned up the heat and landed a prolific passer who impressed at the Elite 11 camps. Not only did the coaching staff walk away from this class with a quarterback, but they walked away with one of the best signal-callers.

Minchey ranks 13th among quarterbacks by the On3 consensus rankings. Rivals ranks Minchey at No. 11 among pro-style quarterbacks. In an interview with The Observer, Rivals Notre Dame recruiting analyst Kyle Kelly compared Minchey to both C.J. Stroud and DeShone Kizer in his skillset and physical makeup. He also called it arguably the Irish’s biggest win on the recruiting trail, so it’s hard to drop this grade below an A-.

Running Back: A-

Don’t stress about the de-commitments in this group. Dylan Edwards and Jayden Limar both flipped to Pac-12 schools, but the Irish held onto their highest-ranked running back in Jerimiyah Love. Love is an explosive runner and playmaker ranked as the 5th overall running back by On3 Consensus. Plus, the Irish have a trio of lethal running backs from this season returning, as well as a high-ceiling freshman in Jadarian Price. The Irish did lose two intriguing names in this group. But it was from a deep-position group that was likely going to see some transfers anyways.

Tight End: B+

Cooper Flanagan is the only signee at this position for Notre Dame. However, much like running back, the Irish didn’t need a ton of depth here. Although they will lose Michael Mayer, the Irish have five tight ends currently rostered that will fight for playing time in 2023. Notre Dame also signed a pair of four-star tight ends last year in Holden Staes and Eli Raridon. As such, there was no real need to go after more than one tight end this cycle.

Flanagan, ranked the 14th-best tight end by On3 Consensus, is an intriguing prospect with big-time upside. The biggest impact here for the Irish is Flanagan’s run-blocking ability. He fine-tuned this skillset in a run-heavy high school offense, and that talent could get him on the field early. He’ll have to earn his snaps in a deep tight end room. But Flanagan’s physicality is a big win for the Irish who must get more reliable blocking at the position in 2023.

Wide Receiver: A 

Unlike at running back and tight end, the Irish needed depth here. They signed just one receiver — Tobias Merriweather — last season, and expect to enter next year with just five returning receivers who combined for under 1,000 yards in 2022. The Irish desperately needed depth, and, if possible, talent that could impact their depth chart immediately. 

Check and check. The Irish produced a haul of four receivers, including three from Texas. Jaden Greathouse and Braylon James may be the biggest names in the group. But Rico Flores Jr. out of California and three-star Kaleb Smith represent solid additions to the group as well. 

Greathouse played with Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik in high school and posted some gaudy stats. His experience playing with a high-level Power-5 quarterback could help him get on the field early. James gives the Irish a third big vertical threat, joining Deion Colzie and Merriweather as receivers that are at least 6-foot-4. Flores posted consecutive 1,000-yard seasons to end his high school career. And Smith flashed his athleticism while notching two special teams touchdowns to go with five receiving scores. This class is flush with impressive raw athletes that could get on the field early in their Irish careers.

Offensive Line: B-

A little undecided about the haul here. Notre Dame brings in five guys to compete in a loaded offensive line room. This grade is on the higher end of the B- spectrum, and it only falls from a B due to some of the bigger names that Notre Dame missed on. However, Charles Jagusah, the fifth-ranked tackle by On3 Consensus, is a great headliner to this class. Kelly called Sullivan Absher a “prototypical right tackle.” The Carolina native should fit in well as he tries to earn the right to be sophomore Blake Fisher’s eventual successor at the position.

Joe Otting, Chris Terek and Sam Pendleton will probably need more time before having a chance at cracking the starting lineup. They could eventually turn into starting guards or centers for the Irish. The Irish did miss on a few big five-star names, including Kadyn Proctor (Alabama signee) and Samson Okunlola (Miami) along with four-star Monroe Freeling (Georgia) that could have elevated this group.

Defensive Line: B

No major complaints about this group. Although it definitely would have crept up into A/A- territory had they held onto prolific edge rusher Keon Keeley. As it is, however, stealing a high-level pass rusher out of Ohio in Brenan Vernon, directly beating Ohio State for an in-state recruit, is a massive win for Notre Dame. Vernon could be an instant impact player in the edge rusher rotation. Notre Dame is losing Isaiah Foskey and potentially graduate student Justin Ademilola. If Ademilola does depart, senior Nana Osafa-Mensah is the only returning player with more than 80 snaps at the position.

Outside of Vernon, Boubacar Traore is an intriguing prospect. If he stays healthy, which is a prominent concern, he becomes a steal. Canadians Devan Houstan and Armel Mukam are unlikely to make immediate impacts. Time will tell how much the Keeley miss will hurt the Irish. 

Linebacker: A

Just another phenomenal linebacker class from Marcus Freeman and the Irish. Butkus award winner Drayk Bowen has been all-Irish all the time since he verbally committed. He could be an instant contributor on special teams while waiting to crack the rotation in a deep linebacker corps. Jaiden Ausberry is higher-ranked than Bowen by some services. And the Irish stole him out of the heart of LSU territory, winning a key recruitment battle for an elite-level linebacker.

Preston Zinter is a three-star recruit with an intriguing upside. The Irish have maximized recent three-star linebackers, such as team captains Drew White and J.D. Bertrand or 2022 starters Marist Liufau and Jack Kiser. Zinter will be a name to watch. A great group with elite talent and a high upside follow a 2022 class that was high on both quantity and quality.

Defensive Back: B+ 

The Bowen de-commitment hurts. Losing a five-star always will. The Irish lost a pair of them in this cycle, albeit one before the season started in Keon Keeley. That being said, the Irish have buckets of talent here. Christian Gray is the highest-ranked Irish recruit at cornerback since Shaun Crawford in 2015. Micah Bell brings “a rare sort of speed,” with several sub-10.5 100m dash times.

At safety, four-star Ben Minich has run a 10.47 100m and brings elite speed to the position. Adon Shuler was a two-way star this past season and featured dynamic athleticism while accumulating over 100 tackles and 662 all-purpose yards from scrimmage. Irish cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens got four-star cornerback Benjamin Morrison ready to play in a hurry this fall. And he’s got a whole bunch of young talent to work with here.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.