Top 5 questions Notre Dame football offense must answer this spring
SOUTH BEND — This will be Tommy Rees’ sixth spring practice since returning to his alma mater in early 2017.
It will be his third spring practice as Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator.
And yet, the 29-year-old play-caller said recently, he understands things will be a bit different when the first spring practice of the Marcus Freeman Era opens early Thursday morning — St. Patrick’s Day.
“I’m excited for spring,” Rees said. “I think it’s going to look unlike any other spring I’ve been a part of at Notre Dame, and I’m excited about that challenge.”
Inexperience at quarterback, the loss of a two-time, 1,000-yard rusher and a completely overhauled set of offensive assistants are just part of the dynamic that makes this set of 15 offseason practices both challenging and energizing for Rees.
Here’s a look at five key questions the Irish OC will be looking to answer by the end of the Blue-Gold Game on April 23:
Who’s the quarterback?
Will it be Tyler Buchner (Plan A) or Drew Pyne?
Buchner impressed a year ago as an early enrollee, but the ante has been upped considerably now that Jack Coan has taken his 23-8 career mark as a college starter to the next level.
Coan was brought in from Wisconsin as a grad transfer to bridge the gap from Ian Book (30-5 career record as the starter) to Buchner. Barring another grad transfer pickup after the Blue-Gold Game, that safety net is gone.
Freeman raved about Buchner’s mechanics and progress in the run-up to the Fiesta Bowl, but then Coan took every snap in the 37-35 loss to Oklahoma State. That loss included program records for pass attempts (68), completions (38) and yardage (509).
Judging from the 163-snap audition Buchner received last fall in a relief role, the offense should be far more balanced with the former four-star recruit from La Jolla, Calif., at the controls. Buchner’s footwork, accuracy and decision-making as a passer must be honed this spring while also taking advantage of his natural ability as a runner.
Buchner saw action in 10 games as a freshman but had to deal with nagging hamstring and ankle injuries along the way.
Pyne, a rising sophomore, made the most of his brief looks last year against Wisconsin and Cincinnati. What he lacks in physical talent, he seems to offset with natural leadership and instincts.
Early enrollee Steve Angeli and redshirt freshman Ron Powlus III round out the quarterback room.
Who replaces Kyren Williams?
Most likely it will be a committee for new position coach Deland McCullough.
When Freeman rattled off his top running backs a month ago, he named Logan Diggs, Chris Tyree and Audric Estime – in that order. Each option brings a different skill set to the task of replacing a remarkably productive player who also served as Notre Dame’s spiritual leader in 2021.
Diggs, an uncommon aerial weapon near the goal line, averaged 4.4 yards per carry and showed good wiggle at 6-foot and 206 pounds.
Tyree, the rising junior speedster, was slowed by turf toe last season but remains a home run threat in the return, receiving and running games.
Estime, the 228-pound punisher from Nyack, N.Y., averaged 6.3 yards after contact on just seven carries last year.
Rising senior C’Bo Flemister remains in career limbo after just three carries last season.
And don’t forget early enrollee Jadarian Price. Just as Diggs did a year ago, the four-star signee from Denison, Texas could carve out a reserve role sooner than expected.
Price (5-10, 190) had nearly 800 touches during his high school career, including 55 combined receptions over his final two prep seasons.
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Will the offensive line jell?
That’s certainly the expectation now that highly regarded line guru Harry Hiestand is back on the coaching staff. Hiestand’s previous run with the Irish from 2012-17 yielded a slew of NFL draft picks and was capped by the Joe Moore Award, given annually to college football’s top offensive line.
Losing senior center Jarrett Patterson (34 career starts) for the second straight spring due to injury, this time after a reported pectoral surgery that will keep him out 3-4 months, doesn’t help. But that doesn’t mean the linemen Hiestand does have at his disposal won’t make significant progress in the meantime.
Bookend tackles Joe Alt and Blake Fisher return after making a combined 10 starts as freshmen. Eight of those belonged to Alt, who stepped in at midseason to stop the revolving door at left tackle.
Fisher, termed a “genetic phenom” by football performance director Matt Balis, started the opener and the bowl game. In between, the Avon, Ind., product rehabbed from knee surgery to make it back in less than four months.
It’s possible Alt and Fisher could flip-flop at times this spring, but the Irish appear set at tackle for the next few years.
After finishing 72nd in the nation with just 4.14 yards per carry, the bigger concern is whether the Irish O-line can develop a drive-blocking mentality.
Versatile sixth-year senior Josh Lugg (21 career starts) is expected to bounce inside to replace Cain Madden at right guard, but Lugg missed the Fiesta Bowl following knee surgery of his own.
Rising sophomore Andrew Kristofic is the projected starter at left guard after starting the final eight games a year ago. Kristofic allowed just one sack and 10 quarterback pressures in 314 total dropbacks.
Zeke Correll, who started the first five games last year at left guard, has experience at center. Rocco Spindler, a four-star recruit who saw just 16 snaps as a freshman, could see more opportunities this spring as well.
Who will follow Michael Mayer?
Wait, doesn't the All-America team candidate at tight end have two more years of eligibility?
Yes, but this almost certainly will be his last fall on campus. The only question is how many school records Mayer will set at the position before he heads to the NFL.
Tight End U. has no shortage of contenders to step forward once Mayer is gone, and this spring under new position coach Gerad Parker will offer the first hints of how that might shake out. With George Takacs’ now at Boston College as a grad transfer, rising sophomores Kevin Bauman and Cane Berrong and redshirt freshman Mitchell Evans should get the longest looks in 12 personnel groupings (one back, two tight ends).
Both Bauman (fractured leg) and Berrong (right knee) are former four-star recruits who are coming off surgeries last fall. Bauman made it back for the Georgia Tech game after being injured in the opener at Florida State, while Berrong went down in Game 6 at Virginia Tech and did not return.
Evans saw action in 10 games, most notably when Mayer was sidelined at Virginia Tech.
Eli Raridon and Holden Staes, four-star signees in the 2022 recruiting class, weren’t among the dozen early enrollees and won’t arrive on campus until June.
Is there enough depth at wide receiver?
Those holes in consecutive recruiting classes began to show themselves last fall, when receiver depth became a concern amid season-ending injuries to Joe Wilkins Jr. and Avery Davis.
Now that Kevin Austin Jr. (48 catches, team-high 888 receiving yards) has moved on to the NFL as an early draft entrant, those concerns have only been heightened.
The good news for new receivers coach Chansi Stuckey is that speedster Braden Lenzy is back as a rising senior after a surprisingly healthy 2021. Lenzy had a career-high seven catches in the Fiesta Bowl to finish with 32 receptions, best among returning wideouts.
No one in that group, however, reached the 400-yard mark last season.
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Davis should be back as the slot receiver by August after suffering a torn ACL against Navy. Lorenzo Styles Jr., should continue to build on the gains he made last fall (24 catches, 344 yards) while stepping in for Davis as a freshman.
Rising sophomore Deon Colzie (four catches) and redshirt freshman Jayden Thomas should get long looks this spring as will former walk-on Matt Salerno.
Depending on the group’s progress, this remains the most likely area for a post-spring addition from the transfer portal.
Staff writer Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for ndinsider.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino.