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The Observer grades each position and selects players to improve

Editor’s Note: Sports Editor Aidan Thomas contributed to this report.

With almost a week in the books since Notre Dame fell in the season opener, sports editor Aidan Thomas and associate sports editor Emily DeFazio handed out grades to each position group and discussed which players need to break out for the Irish in the coming weeks. 

Offensive Line

There were too many times that Buchner was left scrambling when the line broke. Moments of discombobulation cost the Irish some yardage and playmaking ability. The Irish averaged 0.4 yards before contact on running plays. By PFF, three of the Irish’s four lowest-rated players were offensive linemen. That is not to say the linemen are the only ones to blame or that they were ineffective. As Buchner himself said in the post-game press conference, it is his job as well to find protection. But the trend must continue upwards for this group, especially if Jarrett Patterson’s return is at all in question.

Thomas: D, DeFazio: C+

Wide Receiver

The 39 yards per catch by the wide receivers is eye-popping. The three total catches? Not so much. Some of the wide receiving corps had some highlight plays in Columbus, notably Lorenzo Styles, Jr. with his opening 54-yard gain and Matt Salerno with his recovery catch. Braeden Lenzy added a 32-yard reception. However, this group was not used to the extent it could be, and they weren’t getting open quickly.  They need to work out some issues and find a solid possession receiver so the Irish don’t have to lean on Michael Mayer on every crucial down.

Thomas: C+, DeFazio: B 

Quarterback

This grade can depend on what you were looking for. Buchner delivered a few electrifying moments, and he played turnover-free. It was a solid performance but one with a lot of room for improvement. Buchner seemed confident on the field. His strength was in his passing game, yet he didn’t exhibit it enough in the second half. He needs to get a consistent rhythm of passing and rushing to sure up this position group.

Thomas: A-, Defazio: B

Running Back

The running backs boast the only touchdown on the season so far with Audric Estime. But that will not be enough moving forward. This group averaged 2.5 yards per rush against OSU, which is not enough to have a major effect on the game. That being said, they also received little help from the offensive line, frequently getting hit at or behind the line of scrimmage. They have the talent in the likes of Estime, Chris Tyree and Logan Diggs to really step it up moving forward and to maybe even utilize Tyree in a receiver position should this group get locked down.

Thomas: B+, DeFazio: B- 

Tight End

The Irish tight ends notched six of the ten receptions in the passing game. Both Michael Mayer and Kevin Bauman played a key role in the touchdown drive. This is where the strength of the offense is right now. Mayer is an instrumental player for the Irish, but only averaged 6.4 yards — after ending the 2021-22 season at an 11.8 average — and had an uncharacteristic bobble. This and missed blocks by him and Bauman dropped the position score.

Thomas: B+, DeFazio: A-

Defensive Backs

This position group objectively had the best showing at Ohio State. Cam Hart, Tariq Bracy and Clarence Lewis all showed up and helped hold Ohio State to its lowest number of points since 2018. The Irish also saw breakout performances from freshmen Jaden Mickey and Benjamin Morrison. We’re expecting big things from this group going forward and are excited to see them be a premium feature of our defense.

Thomas: A, Defazio: A  

Linebackers

It was good to see Marist Liufau back in Irish uniform; with a year of waiting under his belt, he and his pent-up energy will be a welcome addition to the ranks of JD Bertrand and Jack Kiser moving forward this season. The Irish were solid but had some slips and also didn’t make any disruptive plays, with zero sacks or tackles for loss. Those slip-ups and lack of impact play helped OSU to pull away late in the game.

Thomas: B+, DeFazio: A-

Defensive Line 

Pretty much the same problem for the defensive line. This group was not as effective as it needed to be and needs to consistently add pressure to matchups moving forward. Key players also need to play at the elite level they normally do; Isaiah Foskey may have notched four tackles against the Buckeyes, but he was not as dominant of a force as he usually is on the field. Additionally, the second unit needs to be more effective in relief, as the Irish wore down late in the Buckeyes’ final two touchdown drives. 

Thomas: B, DeFazio: B+

Special Teams 

The special teams unit saw a lot of action Saturday night. When the Irish were kicking or punting, they looked great. When they were receiving punts or kicks, the Irish struggled. They didn’t get a punt return off, and two kickoff returns averaged 11 yards. That played a big role in Notre Dame losing the field position battle all night. Blake Grupe’s kick was good to put the Irish on the board first, and Jon Sot was rock-solid in the punting game. This group needs to focus on tightening up their performance to where they are consistent every time they take the field.

Thomas: B-, DeFazio: B+

Two offensive players that need to breakout or improve

Thomas: Lorenzo Styles, Blake Fisher. Styles caught the first pass of the game, broke a tackle and ran for a 54-yard gain. He must provide that electricity but also more consistency. He only saw one more target and no more receptions. Blake Fisher also needs to be a rock at right tackle. He got beat in a critical moment on Saturday, forcing Buchner to rush a deep throw to an open Styles. That could have been a potential touchdown and a 17-7 Irish lead. Fisher (and the offensive line as a whole) must improve.  

DeFazio: Chris Tyree, Braden Lenzy. Tyree’s speed continues to amaze me. He needs to have a stellar season for the Irish, which may even include a position switch to receiver and must be a more dominant force on the field. Lenzy also has to focus on being more of a presence for the Irish offense. He only had one reception on the night at OSU; he needs to break out and be a consistent find for Buchner.

Two defensive players that need to breakout or improve

Thomas: Isaiah Foskey, Brandon Joseph. I’m turning to the star power here. They both played well on Saturday, but they weren’t disruptive. In those big games, the Irish need disruptive plays from their stars, and they really didn’t get them all day from either Foskey or Joseph. 

DeFazio: Marist Liufau, Rylie Mills. Liufau started the game off strong, but his energy seemed to dwindle in the second half. He has the capacity to be a key defender for the Irish if he focuses on bringing the same amount of energy on the final block as he does to the first. Rylie Mills had three tackles in Columbus, and also has the capacity for a breakout season. He looked pretty solid in the season opener.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu and Emily DeFazio at edefazio@nd.edu.