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2023 Notre Dame depth chart projection: Evans and Co. look to replace Mayer

Tight end will be a position to keep an eye on for Notre Dame in 2023. They lose projected first-round pick and All-American Michael Mayer and will look to replace Mayer’s leadership and team-leading production in the passing game. The Irish record holder in virtually every major statistic for tight ends, Mayer leaves a big hole in an Notre Dame offense that will feature a new-look passing attack in 2023. 

2022 Summary

Prior to Notre Dame’s bowl game, Mayer collected 67 receptions. All other Irish tight ends combined to record four catches. Three came from sophomore Kevin Bauman, who sat out the final ten games of the season due to injury. He did have 75 snaps in two games, however, and seemed primed to be Mayer’s successor prior to his ACL tear. 

Sophomore Mitchell Evans operated as Mayer’s primary backup, not notching a reception until the Gator Bowl. Sophomore Davis Sherwood was third on the roster with 78 snaps at the position. Freshmen Eli Raridon and Holden Staes also got some run, although Raridon went down with an ACL tear midseason.

Key Departures

Undoubtedly, much of the Irish passing attack revolved around their dynamic tight end, as Mayer recorded 809 yards and nine touchdowns. No other Notre Dame receiver notched more than 361 yards or three receiving touchdowns. In fact, the Irish’s top two wide receivers combined for just 55 catches and 701 receiving yards. The Irish lose their biggest passing game weapon, and it’s not close. 

Key Returners

At this point, the Irish have not pursued any tight ends in the transfer portal. They’re sticking with their current pool of tight ends, which is a deep, albeit unproven, group. The returners are headlined by Mitchell Evans. Evans received the most playing time as Mayer’s backup, although he was never a target in the passing game until the Gator Bowl. However, Evans flashed improvement as a blocker, and in the Gator Bowl, he impacted the aerial attack with three receptions for 39 yards. 

Along with Evans, the Irish return freshmen Eli Raridon and Holden Staes, sophomore Davis Sherwood and junior Kevin Bauman. Raridon and Bauman both missed significant time with injury. Bauman actually did catch three passes for 44 yards in the first two games of the season, but an ACL tear ended his campaign prematurely. The same injury ended Raridon’s season before the freshman could see significant playing time. At 6’7″, Raridon could become a passing weapon and slotted ahead of Staes on the depth chart when he was active. Staes played the Gator Bowl as the backup tight end and caught one pass this season for 11 yards. Sherwood is another name to consider, as he played a versatile role in 2022, lining up at fullback and primarily serving as a blocker. He also threw the pass on Notre Dame’s fake punt in the Gator Bowl. 

Freshman Additions

The Irish add Cooper Flanagan as an incoming freshman. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees noted in a press conference on National Signing Day that they understand Flanagan to be the “best tight end in the Bay Area”, so that’s a definite vote of confidence for Flanagan. The four-star recruit is unlikely to be a passing game threat early. He did not play in a pass-heavy high school offense and is not enrolled early, so there will be a delay in learning the playbook. 

However, Flanagan comes to the Irish with well-developed run blocking skills. The Irish love to utilize their tight ends in the run game, and Flanagan’s run-blocking prowess serves as his best chance to crack the depth chart. 

Projected Depth Chart

Notre Dame routinely listed three tight ends on their depth chart this season, so this article will do the same. 

TE1: Mitchell Evans

TE2: Kevin Bauman

TE3: Cooper Flanagan

This set up leaves Evans, the most experienced tight end in the room, as the starter. He proved in the Gator Bowl that he can impact both the run and pass game. He provided a key blitz pickup on a 44-yard touchdown pass, set a few key blocks to spring big runs and caught the game-winning touchdown pass. He’s the obvious candidate to start and make a big jump. 

Bauman remains an intriguing puzzle piece within the Irish offense. Three catches in two games, despite playing with Mayer, seemed to indicate the Irish like what Bauman can do in the passing game. If he stays healthy, he could turn into a big-time weapon for the Irish in 2023. 

Flanagan gets the nod for the third tight end spot. If the Irish want the bigger passing-game threat, it’s likely going to be Raridon, or maybe Staes, depending on their offseason development. However, Flanagan’s physicality and blocking experience might make him the preferred option in run-heavy, three-tight end packages, which is what this projected depth chart predicts. Expect Evans and Bauman, should they stay healthy, to be the most prominent names, but the other four members of the tight end room should receive opportunities to carve out a role for themselves in the 2023 offense.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.

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‘Meant for Mitch’: With Mayer out, Evans steps up in tight end role

On Friday afternoon, the Notre Dame football tight end room was tasked with filling an All-American-sized hole that Michael Mayer left in the Irish offense. Mayer declared for the 2023 NFL Draft after serving as the offensive crutch for the Irish throughout the 2022 season. 

Mayer set several records in his time at Notre Dame. He set the Irish tight end records for career receptions, touchdown receptions and receiving yards. He also owns the single-season records in each of those statistics, along with the single-game receptions record (11 against BYU). Since Mayer arrived on campus, he played in every Irish matchup except the 2021 game against Virginia Tech and over the last two years, started in every single one of his appearances. He caught a pass in every career appearance. The junior was also a captain on the Irish squad in the 2022 season. 

His departure left three active names in the tight end room: sophomore Mitchell Evans, freshman Holden Staes and sophomore Davis Sherwood. Injured freshman Eli Raridon and sophomore Kevin Bauman round out the squad currently, and the group will add Cooper Flanagan in 2023. No member of this group has played for the Irish in a heavy receiving role before. In 2022, Mayer notched 67 receptions, while all other tight ends combined for one catch. With Mayer’s presence, the rest either did not see the field much or took up blocking roles. 

So, when the Irish found themselves without Mayer for only the second time since his arrival, the tight ends had to figure out how to contribute. On the receiving end, that responsibility fell most often to Evans. 

In an offense that threw 33 times, Evans took on a receiving role in addition to his usual blocking responsibilities. The junior tight end was targeted four times. Of the four, he made three receptions for 39 yards and grabbed the game-winning touchdown. 

First quarter

In the first quarter, Evans and Staes both took to the field. Staes was targeted once but sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner fired just too high out of Staes’ reach. Evans also ran a route on that play but a hurry on Buchner didn’t allow his role in the progression to unfold. 

Buchner found Evans on the very next play though. On third and fifteen from the Carolina 45, Evans leaked up the middle late in the play. Once he caught the ball from Buchner, Evans then stepped around the first tackle and across the 30 to ensure a first down for 18 yards. These accounted for two of his seven routes in the quarter and the reception would ultimately be his longest of the night. With his 18-yard reception, Evans became Buchner’s second completion of the night and one of six receivers the Irish used through the matchup. 

For the rest of the quarter, Evans blocked for the Irish, most notably making the key edge-sealing block in a shovel pass to wide receiver Braden Lenzy that converted for an Irish first down. 

Second and third quarters

In the second quarter, Evans played in his usual role most effectively. He ran five routes but was never the target. On the way to an Irish field goal, Evans set a key block, enabling Buchner to scramble to the left for 21 yards. While Staes and Sherwood did not see the field in the first half, Evans played 32 of 33 snaps. He ran 12 routes and blocked on his other 20 snaps.

The third quarter started slow for the Irish tight end. While he played 18 snaps, Evans saw no targets and only ran six routes. Still, he continued to be a force to be reckoned with in his blocking, especially at key moments. With 0:37 left in the quarter, Evans lined up behind the left side of the line. As Buchner snapped the ball, Evans bounced to the right and picked up a quick Carolina blitz just long enough for Buchner to get a pass off to Lenzy. Lenzy then turned the corner and snuck inside the pylon. That allowed the Irish to tie the game at 31-31.

Fourth quarter

It was in the fourth that Evans started to find a bit of a route-running rhythm, and another Irish tight end made a contributive appearance. 

South Carolina punted to start the final quarter and it looked like the Irish would have to do the same on their own three-and-out. Enter Davis Sherwood. The sophomore lined up behind the line of scrimmage with the rest of the Irish in punt formation. As Lenzy came around on the sweep, Sherwood took the snap and dished it to Lenzy who took off for 20 yards and the first down. The play kept the Irish drive alive so running back Logan Diggs could take off for a 39-yard score two plays later. Irish head coach Marcus Freeman was proud of the execution from everyone involved. 

“We ran a punt earlier in the game,” Freeman said. “We wanted to see the look we would get, and after we ran the punt, [special teams coordinator Brian Mason] said ‘it’s there if we want it.’ Right before we went out there, he said ‘it’s there.’ I said ‘let’s do it.’ We’ve been practicing that fake all year long … and I wanted to run it. I knew going into the game, if the opportunity presented itself, I wanted to run it. Mase said ‘let’s do it here,’ and I said ‘let’s go.’ We executed; it was beautifully executed.” 

On the 39-yard run from Diggs, Evans contributed again, picking up a block behind the line. The blitz likely would’ve caught Diggs before he reached the line and bounced out right to take off for the touchdown.

From there, Evans continued to represent the tight ends, through to the end of the night. He ran seven routes in the fourth and Buchner attempted to find him on three of those but one ended drastically wrong for the Irish. After running the ball all the way up the field, the Irish opted to switch it up on the Gamecocks and attempt a pass. The play was designed for Evans to be the receiver, the same way it would have been for Mayer. Buchner threw late and into tight coverage though and instead of Evans, the Gamecocks scored on the play via a pick-six. Still, Evans ran the route well but a late-arriving ball, with a defender almost waiting for it, wasn’t going to make it to him.

The final Irish drive featured Evans twice in the receiving game and more in his blocking. He delivered a key block on Diggs’ 17-yard run to open the drive. He caught a five-yard pass just past midfield, allowing the subsequent Estime rush to earn the first down. Two plays later and the Irish were at the Carolina 16. The next play saw Evans’ role look the most like Mayer’s but he made it his own. 

In post-game press conferences, both Freeman and Buchner said if the final play of the Irish drive didn’t open for Evans, it would’ve been dead. The goal was to get the ball to Evans, the same way it would have been for Mayer. 

“I know someone talked about it earlier how [Jayden Thomas] was open. The thought on that was ‘it’s kind of a shot or nothing,’ so if Mitch was covered, throw out of bounds, and if not, give him a chance and try to score a touchdown,” Buchner said. 

And it was there. Evans faked a block and then peeled off, almost forgotten about by the Gamecocks’ defense. Buchner waited for that to unfold and then hit a wide-open Evans who practically walked into the end zone. The score ultimately sealed the Irish win. 

“That was meant for Mitch, and it unfolded beautifully,” Freeman said. “Again, I think it’s a credit to how we were running the ball. Run the ball, run the ball, run the ball in that short yardage situation, be able to leak Mitch out, that’s a tough play versus a defense, especially when you’re able to run the ball. But it was great execution by these guys.” 

Evans played 76 of 80 snaps. Not only did he close the game out for the Irish but he took on full tight end responsibilities for the first time in his two years with the Irish. And, he did it his own way. Blocking remained just as important in his game but he became a receiving option who, along with the rest of the receiving corps, can make up for a lack of Mayer without giving up essential run game and pocket protection.

The final Irish offensive play was ‘meant for Mitch’. And, after a strong effort throughout the Gator Bowl, taking over the starting tight end role at Notre Dame appears to be meant for Mitch as well.

Contact Mannion McGinley at mmcginl3@nd.edu.

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Irish Insider: Notre Dame v. South Carolina in Gator Bowl

Freeman, Irish captains discuss leadership, team culture ahead of Gator Bowl

Everything Freeman said as Irish seek win to end season

‘You want to take every opportunity you can’: Buchner prepares to start in Gator Bowl

Next man up: Mitchell Evans steps into larger role after Mayer’s departure

Observer Sports Staff predicts Gator Bowl: Notre Dame v. South Carolina

Keys to Victory: Notre Dame v. South Carolina

Thomas: Gator Bowl, recruiting dram puts spotlight on Irish safeties

Irish role players have big opportunity in Gator Bowl after opt-outs, transfers

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

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Freeman, Irish captains discuss leadership, team culture ahead of Gator Bowl

With Isaiah Foskey and Michael Mayer moving onto the NFL, the Irish locker room is left with four official captains. Graduate student offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson leads the offense with wide receiver Avery Davis, while senior linebackers JD Bertrand and Bo Bauer represent the defense.

On Friday, the Irish will take on the South Carolina Gamecocks in the 2022 Gator Bowl. While Patterson could have joined Mayer and Foskey in opting out for the draft, he decided instead to stay and play one final game with Bertrand and the rest of the Irish. 

“The way I look at it is just it’s one more opportunity to play with this group. For me personally, to pass on that opportunity despite all the injuries — you know injuries come and go, but the memories last forever and I really had no thought of opting out or not practicing or anything like that. I wanted to finish this thing out the right way and play my last game as a Notre Dame football player,” Patterson said. 

In maintaining Patterson’s presence, the Irish keep one more starter but also a stable official leadership. But Patterson said there’s no shortage of leaders on the rest of the roster. 

“Isaiah and Mike, those two guys were great leaders but also tone-setters for this team,” Patterson said. “But I feel like just because a couple guys are named ‘captain,’ that doesn’t mean they’re the only leaders on the team. We have plenty of guys on this team and I think one of the strengths I’ve seen — especially throughout the summer, working with coach Balis in camp — is that there are plenty of other guys who are vocal as well who aren’t seen as captains or ‘leaders’ on the team. But they trust the process, and those guys in those position groups know they’re going to have to step up and be as great leaders as they possibly can. They’ve done a great job for us.” 

Bertrand echoed the success that Patterson has seen on the leadership front. He celebrated the space that bowl game preparations has left for younger guys to step up and lead, as well.

“It’s an exciting time for a lot of young guys to one, be able to get these [leadership] opportunities in this bowl prep time and then also be able to display their talents and be able to have an opportunity to play their best out here tomorrow,” Bertrand said. 

One of the guys stepping up has been freshman linebacker Jaylen Sneed, and Bertrand said he’s excited to see what the young linebacker starts to do. 

“The biggest thing is, he’s very raw athletically. He has so much athletic talent and potential that you can see such flashes …Those instances where you see that are super exciting and he has so much to build off of. It’s just exciting to be able to see him step into a little bit bigger role one step at a time,” Bertrand said. 

Head coach Marcus Freeman echoed the importance of the bowl game and its practices, not only as a cap to the season but also as a space to see what young players can do on the field and as leaders.

“You get a chance to prepare for a great moment, but also early in the Bowl practice you really get a chance to develop some of those guys who haven’t gotten the opportunities throughout the season,” Freeman said, specifically of Chance Tucker taking advantage of that opportunity.  

Patterson said readiness to lead didn’t come out of nowhere; he could see it working in his position group throughout the year. Particularly, he and offensive line coach Harry Heistand were talking after the UNC game. 

“We could finally see the cohesiveness and the togetherness of the unit, and he understands that with a new group of guys out there … It’s going to take time. But I think throughout the season, as the moment’s more crucial and you gotta have a situation where it’s two-minute, four-minute or short yardage, that we improved in that area,” Patterson said.

On Bertrand’s side of the ball, improvement both on the field and in the team culture came from communication. 

“As the year goes on, you continue to grow. You continue to see where you were at the beginning of the year and going forward. One of the biggest things is the communication piece, especially going into a new defense and being able to start at the beginning of the year and come to this point — it’s that communication piece. Not just between the three of us, but to the guys up front to the guys behind us, being able to make sure we’re all working and flowing as one,” Bertrand said. 

Both captains and Freeman shared how important the culture is to the Notre Dame program and its ability to see improvement. 

“We’re fortunate,” Freeman said. “We have a great group of captains, a great group of leadership that you really don’t have an option when you come into our locker room. You’re going to convert to the way these guys lead or you’re going to say, ‘This isn’t the place for me.'”

About Bertrand, Patterson and how both embody that leadership and culture, Freeman said, “Your culture, your leadership is really revealed when things aren’t going so well. I learned more about these two guys, our captains, in the difficult times than I did during the times that things were going really well. These guys continue to take control of this team. Sometimes as the head coach, you feel like it’s everything you say to the team that’s going to get this culture, get this program where it needs to go. These guys, they take care of the messaging that needs to be said. I’m fortunate that I have a great group of leaders that when things weren’t going so well, they really took care of it.” 

Bertrand and Patterson, on the other hand, said their ability to lead successfully comes from learning from Freeman. 

“The biggest thing for me was being able to have that steady voice that no matter how the season was going throughout we could always look to someone that was always pushing us to get better throughout every single day and every single week,” Bertrand said

Patterson, on the other hand, celebrated Freeman’s authenticity, making him a leader that players not only want to play for, but win for. To win tomorrow, Patterson said, would be the perfect feather in his collegiate-career cap. 

“It would be that one last great memory I could have,” Patterson said. “I have so many these past four-and-a-half years, five seasons with these guys. Especially for the other guys in the locker room who are going to move on later in life and not even try to go to the NFL, to play the last football game is going to be special for those guys, as well.”

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Gator Bowl: Everything Freeman said as Irish seek win to end season

With the Irish set to face the South Carolina Gamecocks tomorrow afternoon in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, head coach Marcus Freeman discussed his team’s experience so far in Jacksonville

“We are so excited to be here in Jacksonville, Florida. This has been a first-class bowl game all week, and our guys have been able to do some great things in the city of Jacksonville. We have had some really good preparation, and it’s been going really well. We are excited to play a really talented opponent tomorrow here at this stadium. This has been a great experience for our guys.”

Building momentum for 2023?

When asked about the importance of this game heading into next year, Freeman emphasized that winning the Gator Bowl is of the utmost importance.

“Most importantly it’s winning,” Freeman said. “As I told our players yesterday in our team meeting, our focus is right now. Our focus is finishing the season off the season right now in the right way. If you continue to focus on the future and think about the future, you lose this opportunity we have right in front of us. The future will be taken care of if we finish the season off the right way.”

Different mindset, one year later

Last season, Freeman was announced as the head coach just weeks before the team’s Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State. Freeman discussed how the preparation for the Gator Bowl has looked different this season.

“My emotions were all over the place [last year]. I remember having the press conference with [Oklahoma State head coach] Mike Gundy, and it was all surreal and I was kind of just figuring it out one day at a time,” Freeman said. “This year, I think we are still figuring some things out, and I don’t think the day will come when you say that you’ve got it all figured out. That’s the reality of this profession.”

Freeman stated that for this year’s Gator Bowl, his team has a more defined plan and practice schedule.

“You have a plan for how you want to succeed, but those plans have to continuously enhance and change depending on the situation you’re in,” Freeman said. “A year later we have a practice structure. We have a plan that we looked at for this year compared to what we did last year.”

Preparing for South Carolina

Freeman is excited to play a talented South Carolina team and use this bowl game as another learning experience for bowl games in future years.

“We get the chance to go out and play a really talented football team and reflect on our performance,” Freeman said. “We will be able to look back and ask where we can enhance our preparation and make sure that the next bowl opportunity we have we are in a better situation.”

After starting the season 6-4, the Gamecocks have put together their two best performances of the year over their last two games, upsetting Tennessee and Clemson. Freeman has made sure his team is prepared to face a South Carolina team that is currently playing its best football of the season.

“Their last two games they have shown they can beat any team in the country. That’s our preparation and that’s our challenge. That’s the team we are going to face, and we will see what happens tomorrow, but that’s what our preparation has been,” Freeman said.

Freeman discussed some of the difficulties of having a month to prepare for an opponent.

“When you have almost a month to prepare for an opponent, sometimes that’s too much time. The beauty of playing a team in seven days is that you can only watch so much film,” Freeman said. “Sometimes you can watch too much film and assume that you are getting an idea of what the other team is going to do, but you don’t really know.”

Freeman understands that with opt-outs, the South Carolina team on the field on Friday will look a lot different than the South Carolina team from the rest of the season.

“We spent a lot of time going over the fact that our offense has to go against their defense, which isn’t South Carolina’s defense, and our defense has to go against their offense, which isn’t South Carolina’s offense. That forces you to be able to execute off of your fundamentals, basic schemes, and basic concepts, and not just always attack an opponent’s tendencies,” Freeman said.

Freeman expects to see some different play calls and tendencies from South Carolina because of the players they will be missing. 

“With opt-outs, you don’t know what you are going to see. We don’t know what we are going to see tomorrow. We will have an idea of the basic concepts that they do on offense, defense, and special teams, but we obviously have to prepare for some different wrinkles and things we haven’t seen,” Freeman said.

On Buchner’s readiness, passing game

When asked about sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner’s preparedness for the bowl game, Freeman said that Buchner is ready to go.

“I think he’s ready to roll. You are talking about a guy that hasn’t played football from week 2 to week 12. He had some time where he wasn’t on the practice field, but after 14 practices, I think he’s ready to roll. And he’s been magnificent in practice. He’s done a great job of leading the offense,” Freeman said.

With junior tight end Michael Mayer not playing in the bowl game in order to prepare for the NFL Draft, Freeman has seen a group of wide receivers emerge during practice.

“At some points when in doubt you throw that ball to [Michael Mayer], and now he’s not out there. It’s been excellent to see what [wide receiver coach Chansi] Stuckey has done with that wide receiver room and seeing those guys elevate and take advantage of those opportunities,” Freeman said.

Importance of bowl game prep for development

During the bowl game preparation, Freeman has seen a lot of competitive situations among players that didn’t see the playing field as much during the regular season.

“We have had a lot of competitive situations. That’s been the focus for me in this bowl prep,” Freeman said. “With opt-outs and guys not playing, you don’t know what you are going to see. This game is going to be about our preparation and what we can do. We have been able to see our top defensive backs on our wide receivers in competitive situations. We are doing a really good job and I am excited to see them play tomorrow.”

Freeman stressed the importance of the bowl preparation process in developing inexperienced players.

“Bowl preparation is so important. You get a chance to prepare for a great opponent, but also early in the bowl practice you really get a chance to develop guys who didn’t get the chance to see a lot of action throughout the season,” Freeman said.

Evaluating transfer portal options

The transfer portal is becoming a huge part of college football, and Freeman discussed how there is really no timeline associated with the portal.

“There is no timeline and the important thing is finding the right fit,” Freeman said. “We are constantly looking and evaluating at all positions until we find the right guy.”

Freeman emphasized that any additions from the transfer portal have to fit well in the program and not just improve the roster. 

“It has to be the right fit. They have to not just enhance our roster athletically, but they have to fit into the Notre Dame locker room,” Freeman said. That’s something that we will continue to access. Recruiting is an everyday thing.”

On Shane Beamer

Freeman discussed the incredible job that South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer has done in just his second year as head coach.

“He’s done an excellent job recruiting, developing and improving. That’s the challenge to continue to enhance and develop your roster. His team throughout the season has gotten better and better. At one point, you could have seen the South Carolina season go one way or the other, and they got better. That’s a reflection of the way he’s led,” Freeman said.

On the 2022 Irish legacy

Freeman hopes this year’s football team can be an example to future groups.

“I want this group to be an example for our future groups. We have talked about it all season in that this road where we want to go isn’t always as we see it on the front end. I want this group to be the one that sets the example for why you continue to trust your coaches and continue to work no matter what the outcome is each week,” Freeman said.

Freeman believes that a victory in the Gator Bowl would help propel his football program forward for future seasons.

“To finish this thing off the right way with a victory in the Gator Bowl would be tremendous,” Freeman said. “It would not only be a congratulations to this senior group of players that have been so resilient, but I think it’s going to be an example of what we can continue to do to propel this program.” 

Contact Nate Moller at nmoller2@nd.edu

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Next man up: Mitchell Evans steps into larger role after Mayer’s departure

With projected first-round NFL Draft pick Michael Mayer officially out of the Irish tight end room, the remaining members of this position group have big shoes to fill in this 6-foot-5 offensive hole. One player shouldering that responsibility is Mitchell Evans, who notched a touchdown for Notre Dame against UNLV earlier this season. The sophomore has emerged as a valuable member of the developing offensive makeup and already has the next-man-up mentality intact. This mindset will come in handy with the recent changeover in the Irish’s roster.

Notre Dame’s pedigree in developing tight ends signals a high standard. Evans acknowledged that standard is an expectation amidst everyone in the tight end room. He cited both football and academic excellence as aspects that attract players of that caliber and said these qualities will continue even without a star player at the forefront.

“Notre Dame is Tight End U,” Evans said. “Mike [Mayer]’s gone, but you gotta keep that standard of this room and keep it positive, keep it good.”

When the Gator Bowl picked the Irish to play in the game, there was still no official word from Mayer as to whether or not he would take the field. After his announcement came on Dec. 7, however, the likelihood Evans’ number would be called significantly increased. He will seek to carry the tight end standard into Notre Dame’s matchup against South Carolina in Jacksonville. 

“All around, they’re a good team,” he said of the Gamecocks. “They’ve got a good front, good DBs. I respect them, so it’s gonna be a good game.”

During this time of preparation after the regular season, Evans said that he focused on his footwork and run blocking ahead of Notre Dame’s postseason showing Friday. Because of this, he said that he has developed a lot as a player in the past few weeks especially from taking on a bigger role.

“I’m just learning more. I’m just kind of seeing more, in a way,” he said. “I kind of feel it out better a little bit more, read the defense a little bit better.”

Focusing on fine-tuning his own game will be beneficial ahead of the larger offensive adjustments the Irish will have to make, especially given Drew Pyne’s recent transfer to Arizona State. Sophomore Tyler Buchner will retake the helm at QB1 after suffering a regular season-ending shoulder injury in September, which will alter the chemistry of the unit. Despite this change, Evans said he is excited to have Buchner back and is looking forward to working with him on the field.

“It’s going to be exciting just having Tyler [Buchner] back, just new guys stepping for us in some big roles,” he said. “It’s gonna be fun, it’s gonna be energetic.”

He will most likely be working with Buchner at a larger capacity given Mayer’s departure as Mayer was a key part of the offense, especially as a blocker in the run game. The unit has worked to develop their blocking capabilities in light of this.

“They’re all doing a great job of kind of filling in that void of Mike,” Evans said. “We have young guys stepping up.”

Evans himself is one of these players that is stepping up, and he said that he has prepared for this. He said that his coaches and his own work allowed him to develop enough to take this new role in the offense.

“Just watching extra film with the extra time that we have now, just taking that extra step to kind of put myself in that position,” he said. “Learning what to do against certain fronts, certain looks.”

Ahead of their showing in Jacksonville, Evans has had time to put his work to the test against the defense in practice. This serves as the culmination of the team’s hard work.

“That’s what builds a good culture,” he said. “Just going at it, having fun, but at the same time also executing. We’re doing that at a high level”

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Observer Sports Staff predicts the Gator Bowl: Notre Dame v. South Carolina

Aidan Thomas – Sports Editor

Bowl games are a bit of a battle of attrition with all the opt-outs, and Notre Dame loses two All-Americans for this battle with South Carolina. However, the Gamecocks will be down about half-a-dozen starters, so it feels like, while lacking their star power, Notre Dame might have an edge in player availability. Quarterback is obviously the big question mark, and we’ll see if Tyler Buchner made much progress since completing 56% of his passes for no scores, two interceptions and a 54.0 quarterback rating in seven quarters earlier this season. He’ll have his opportunities against a Gamecocks’ defense that has struggled in all phases of the game of the year.

The Irish were victimized by the big play occasionally, which could bite them versus the explosive Spencer Rattler, but they generally contained opposing offenses well. They only gave up 300+ passing yards once (Drake Maye). South Carolina will likely have to run the ball to win this one — the Irish finished 2-4 this year when allowing 90+ yards to an opposing rusher and 6-0 when keeping the leading rusher under that number. The Gamecocks’ two starting running backs on Friday combined for 339 yards this year. If the Irish stop them, Notre Dame should have enough offensive punch against a depleted defense to win. 

Notre Dame 31, South Carolina 24

Nate Moller – Senior Sports Writer

This game almost feels like a season opener because of the number of opt-outs on both teams, which will leave a lot of question marks for the Irish and the Gamecocks. Although the Irish will be without All-American tight end Michael Mayer, there are plenty of young, talented wide receivers that should step up to fill this void. One name that comes to mind is sophomore Deion Colzie, who had 192 receiving yards over the Irish’s last five games after struggling with a knee injury at the beginning of the season.

The Irish running game should still be intact with Audric Estime, Logan Diggs and Chris Tyree leading the way behind a vastly improved offensive line. The biggest question mark offensively is quarterback Tyler Buchner, but I expect him to be effective enough to make some big plays. On the defensive side of the ball, the Irish will need to contain Gamecocks’ quarterback Spencer Rattler, who has accounted for 9 touchdowns in his last two games. Despite his recent success, Rattler has thrown 11 interceptions this year, and I expect the Irish to force some turnovers in this one. The streak of the Irish winning when I picked against them ended with the loss to Southern California, so I am taking the Irish in this one. 

Notre Dame 27, South Carolina 20

Madeline Ladd – Associate Sports Editor

As the Irish take on the Gamecocks this Friday, the makeup of both teams will be strikingly different from the rosters fielded earlier this season. With Mayer and Foskey both opting out to prepare for the NFL draft, the Irish will be lacking their star players. However, this provides the opportunity for more young talent to shine, especially among the wide receivers. Tyler Buchner will take the field for the first time since Marshall, as a recent Drew Pyne transfer opened up the starting QB spot. Buchner will be key to the game, and whether or not his previous injury will make him hesitant to run is the question. However, I expect him to be able to play with intensity upon his return and rely on the continued excellence of the offensive line — which surprisingly includes Jarrett Patterson. 

The Gamecocks have a dangerous QB in Spencer Rattler but his receivers are a question mark due to injuries and losses to the portal. South Carolina did upset Tennessee and Clemson but can be run on if Buchner can open up the field with passing. Though Notre Dame historically does not fare well in bowl games, I think they can pull this one off on Friday considering South Carolina’s lack of depth and the Irish’s strong run game. 

Notre Dame 28, South Carolina 17

Mannion McGinley – Assistant Managing Editor

It will be blatantly obvious that both the Irish and the Gamecocks are missing key players from their seasons on Friday. There’s no question about that. With that said though, it comes down to how big the holes on each side are.

Yes, Notre Dame has lost Michael Mayer and Isaiah Foskey. That’s two game-changing players and they’re accompanied by a Drew Pyne departure to Arizona State. Losing your star tight end and your signal caller on top of that will hurt. But an intact — and consistently stellar — run game has been the key to the offense all year. Estime, Tyree and Diggs will play behind the same strong offensive line and with their former starter back under center. The Gamecocks cannot boast as strong an offensive safety net outside of Rattler’s arm. After losing two tight ends that sat in his top five receivers and two of his leading rushers, Rattler will almost be an island. He’ll need a lot more activity from his wide receivers, and quickly.

On the defensive side, without Foskey, it will take the Irish defensive line a bit longer to figure Rattler out. But after a few stops, they’ll start to get to him. Between that and convincing play from the Irish secondary that limits where Rattler can look, the Irish should take this one home. Figuring Rattler out will cost the Irish a few points but ultimately the run game and a successful return for Buchner will lead to an Irish win. As always, a turnover or two for the Irish could seal it, no questions.

Notre Dame 27, South Carolina 17

Emily DeFazio – Associate Sports Editor

The Gator Bowl will be the first showing for the Irish without some superstar members the likes of Michael Mayer and Isaiah Foskey. Despite the fact that they will be preparing for the NFL draft, the team will certainly feel their absence on the field. Not only that but with Drew Pyne — the season’s unexpected QB1 — transferring to Arizona State, the team will be facing the Gamecocks with a semi-new leader at the offensive helm. Buchner led the Irish against Ohio State and Marshall, but that was before the team found its groove this season. He will be reintroduced to a new dynamic than he remembers from September; his play, then, will be the make-or-break to offensive success. That being said, with a solid offensive line and a system of running backs in his arsenal, Buchner should be able to largely pick up where he left off.

South Carolina is not to be underestimated, either. The Gamecocks were Clemson’s only other loss this season, albeit by one point. If that is a comparison to go by, then Notre Dame should be able to secure a definitive win. Should they figure out how to take advantage of a significant depletion to South Carolina’s roster, the Irish should walk away with their first bowl win in the past few years.

Notre Dame 28, South Carolina 21

Liam Coolican – Associate Sports Editor

The question that will decide this game for Notre Dame will be: can the Irish run the ball well enough to secure the win? The answer, throughout the year, has mostly been a resounding yes, but occasionally it has faltered. There will be nothing to fall back on against South Carolina, as the losses of Pyne and Mayer both hurt immensely. Notre Dame certainly has talent at quarterback and receiver, but they are mostly unproven. Buchner was good but not stellar before missing most of the regular season, and outside Mayer, no receiver has emerged as a consistent threat. 

On defense, too, there are some concerns. The defensive line was already thin, and the loss of Foskey only exacerbates the problem. In the secondary, the loss against USC exposed just how much the Irish need Cam Hart, and he’ll miss the bowl game as well. Rattler — Caleb Williams’ former teammate at Oklahoma — is a similar player and also extremely talented. Of course, he’s not the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, but expect him to be able to take advantage of the Irish defense in many of the same ways. 

South Carolina has some opt-outs, too, but unlike the Irish, they aren’t missing their starting quarterback and arguably two best players. This game will look much more like the opening two games of the season than the Irish team we saw in the second half of the year. Buchner will play well, but a late turnover will be costly for the Irish, and Rattler will lead a game-winning drive.

South Carolina 31, Notre Dame 28

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Irish role players have big opportunity in Gator Bowl after opt-outs, transfers

As Notre Dame prepares for the Gator Bowl against South Carolina Friday afternoon in Jacksonville, they will be without several key players. 

Most notably, junior tight end Michael Mayer and senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey have opted out of the contest in order to prepare for the NFL draft. Junior quarterback Drew Pyne transferred to Arizona State, ending his Notre Dame career as well. Senior cornerback Cam Hart will also miss the game due to a shoulder injury. 

Here are some key players who will have increased workloads, and with strong performances, could make a case for an elevated role next season. 

Tight end Mitchell Evans

Well-known for his signature tight end sneak in short-yardage situations, Evans will have the opportunity to showcase a much wider range of abilities against the Gamecocks. Not even listed on Notre Dame’s first two-deep depth chart of the year, Evans earned a spot in the rotation thanks to his reliable play. Mayer’s departure leaves him as the top tight end heading into the bowl game. 

While Mayer will undoubtedly be difficult to replace, Notre Dame will have no shortage of options heading into next season. Junior Kevin Bauman, who was Mayer’s primary backup to begin the season, missed most of the year with a knee injury but is expected to return. Freshman Eli Raridon will return from injury as well, and the Irish also add highly-touted recruit, Cooper Flanagan, to the mix. 

Yet Mayer has commanded the lion’s share of targets over the past three years, which means that the position of his successor is effectively wide open. Notre Dame is well-known for its tight-end-heavy offense, meaning Evans will have a massive opportunity to show that he can be the top option heading into 2023. 

Defensive ends Nana Osafo-Mensah and Alexander Ehrensberger 

In the wake of Foskey’s departure, some new pass rushers will have the chance to make a name for themselves. Graduate student Justin Ademilola will take Foskey’s role as the primary Vyper, while junior Rylie Mills was listed as the top defensive end on the roster. Both of these players already have had substantial roles this season, so two lesser-utilized defensive ends will certainly rotate in and see plenty of snaps Friday. 

Osafo-Mensah tallied 11 total tackles and a forced fumble this year, while Ehrensberger has appeared in just three games this year, notching two tackles against Boston College. The defensive line position appears to be wide open next year. In addition to Foskey, at least one of the Ademilola twins will be graduating, although Justin has another year of eligibility if he chooses to stay at Notre Dame. Graduate transfer Chris Smith will also be departing.

This leaves several spots open. Mills and junior Jordan Botelho will both likely see expanded roles next year, but the defensive line is a position that requires a great deal of depth. With strong performances against South Carolina, Osafo-Mensah and Ehrensberger can take a step towards an increased role next year. 

Quarterback Steve Angeli 

Interestingly, the depth chart listed both sophomore Tyler Buchner and freshman Steve Angeli as the QB1 for the bowl game. Head coach Marcus Freeman has since specified that Buchner, as expected after Pyne’s transfer announcement, would be the starter. However, the “or” designation signifies that Angeli may be in line to get his first meaningful action of the season Friday. 

As rumors continue to swirl about potential transfer quarterbacks, Notre Dame could be in an interesting situation next year. While the coaching staff continues to insist that Buchner is fully healthy, injuries have plagued his short tenure with the Irish and he is 0-2 as a starter. While it is clear that Buchner has the talent to lead a team, his availability will remain a question mark. 

If Notre Dame doesn’t add a transfer signal caller, depth could be extremely thin at the position, with Buchner, Angeli and incoming freshman Kenny Minchey leading the group. This bowl game is extremely important for Buchner to prove himself, but it is also vital for Notre Dame to see what they have in Angeli. 

Cornerback Jaden Mickey

Hart’s continued injury gives Mickey another opportunity to prove himself. It has been an up-and-down season for the freshman corner, but he wasn’t expected to play as much as he has prior to the season. The comparisons to fellow freshman Benjamin Morrison and rising superstar are inevitable, but Mickey has generally played well in his role this year. 

However, with Hart set to return for the Irish and Morrison seemingly locked into the other starting role, Mickey needs to have a big game this weekend to show that he can be a continued factor in what is shaping up to be one of the nation’s better secondaries. Graduate student Tariq Bracy is set to graduate and Clarence Lewis continues to be an up-and-down performer. The opportunity is certainly there for Mickey if he can seize it.

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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.