What this spring could do for Notre Dame's eight early enrollees on offense
If Lorenzo Styles Jr. started a game for Notre Dame next season, the incoming freshman wide receiver would join a select group.
Kevin Stepherson (2016) is the only Irish receiver to earn at least one start as a true freshman since 2014. Five other Notre Dame receivers under head coach Brian Kelly have started at least one game as a true freshman: T.J. Jones (2010), Chris Brown (2012), Will Fuller (2013), James Onwualu (2013) and Corey Robinson (2013).
Styles will also have to compete with experienced receivers for playing time. At slot receiver, Styles’ position, graduate senior Avery Davis and senior Lawrence Keys III top the projected depth chart. Sophomore Xavier Watts seems poised to be another promising option, too.
The 6-foot, 180-pound Styles is expected to eventually bring the type of speed the Irish lacked at receiver in recent seasons. He may not see the field much in year one. But enrolling a semester early could help Styles accelerate his development.
On Wednesday, Styles and 13 other early-enrolled freshmen will officially begin the spring semester at Notre Dame. A majority of them moved into their on-campus dorms over the weekend. The 15-practice spring football schedule has yet to be announced.
As a four-star recruit on 247Sports and Rivals, Styles brings impressive recruiting pedigree. He’s also the son of Lorenzo Styles Sr., a former star linebacker at Ohio State who played in the NFL for six seasons.
The earlier the Irish can play Styles, the better. This spring gives him an opportunity to prove he’s ready.
What about the other seven midyears on offense? Here’s a look at how they could benefit from enrolling early and playing spring football.
• QB Tyler Buchner, 6-2, 205; La Mesa (Calif.) Helix: Being the understudy to graduate transfer quarterback Jack Coan this offseason could do wonders for Buchner.
Coan started 18 games for the University of Wisconsin. Buchner started a fewer amount of games at quarterback in all of high school. He’s one of five early-enrolled freshmen who missed his entire senior season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Junior Brendon Clark, sophomore Drew Pyne and fellow incoming freshman Ron Powlus III will also compete with Buchner. Before Buchner separates himself from that younger group, he will need to adjust to the speed and complexities of college football.
• OL Rocco Spindler, 6-4, 295; Clarkston (Mich.) High: Spindler will be critical to Notre Dame filling one of its most glaring position needs, offensive guard.
The Irish lost every starter from their 2020 offensive line besides center Jarrett Patterson. Senior Josh Lugg (eight career starts) sophomore Zeke Correll (two career starts) are the only returning offensive linemen beyond Patterson who have made multiple starts.
What if Correll starts at center while Patterson and Lugg are the offensive tackles? In that scenario, Spindler would compete with only a few players at offensive guard, including graduate senior Dillan Gibbons, senior John Dirksen and junior Hunter Spears. An impressive spring campaign could realistically launch Spindler into starting status, which is uncommon for an offensive lineman as a true freshman.
• OL Caleb Johnson, 6-7, 275; Ocala (Fla.) Trinity Catholic: The line at offensive tackle is a long one, especially if Patterson and Lugg are the starters.
Juniors Andrew Kristofic and Quinn Carroll and sophomores Tosh Baker and Michael Carmody are among Notre Dame’s other offensive tackles in waiting. All four of them held a four-star rating during the recruitment process.
For Johnson, the Irish don’t need him to see the field immediately at offensive tackle. He could move to guard, but tackle looks to be the more suitable position for him. If he stays at tackle, Johnson can bide his time this spring. He can work on improving his technique and continuing to grow physically. There would be no rush.
• OL Blake Fisher, 6-6, 330; Avon (Ind.) High: Former Notre Dame offensive lineman Aaron Banks seems like a fitting comparison for Fisher.
Banks began his Notre Dame career as Robert Hainsey’s backup at right tackle. Midway through his sophomore season in 2018, Banks slid to No. 1 left guard after starter Alex Bars suffered a season-ending injury. Maybe Fisher could serve the same purpose, sliding to whichever position Notre Dame needs filled.
Like Banks, Fisher could probably play offensive guard and tackle at a high level. He likely just needs to lose weight after arriving on campus. If Fisher is ready physically, the Irish will have the flexibility to plug him into a few different spots.
• TE Cane Berrong, 6-3, 215, Hartwell (Ga.) County: Just because Michael Mayer will have a featured role doesn’t mean Berrong can’t find a place in Notre Dame’s offense.
Mayer appears to be poised for an All-American type season as a sophomore. The Irish still involve multiple tight ends offensively. Senior George Takacs and sophomore Kevin Bauman could see the field more. Berrong and fellow incoming freshman Mitchell Evans are the other options.
Berrong will likely have to gain weight before being ready to handle blocking responsibilities. Putting on 10 or more pounds while maintaining his speed and athleticism should be Berrong’s focus this offseason.
• TE Mitchell Evans, 6-7, 240; Wadsworth (Ohio) High: The coming months could determine the position Evans plays long term.
At Wadsworth, Evans showed a multi-faceted skill set. He played quarterback, tight end and punter. Notre Dame recruited Evans as a tight end but could move him to offensive tackle if he continues to grow physically. Evans knows if he grows another inch or puts on enough weight, he could become an offensive tackle.
Whichever position Evans plays, he will have time to develop. There’s no immediate need at tight end or offensive tackle.
• QB Ron Powlus III, 6-3, 230; Mishawaka (Ind.) Penn: The surprise addition to Notre Dame’s 2021 class could benefit from being challenged by Coan, Clark, Pyne and Buchner. Coan’s leadership presence could help Powlus acclimate to college, too. If Powlus never starts a game for the Irish, he could still carve a meaningful role as a practice player and backup this spring and onward.