Where will Notre Dame look to find production at wide receiver? There are some options
SOUTH BEND — Following a pedestrian Blue-Gold Game to conclude Spring football practice, Notre Dame's wide receiver group stood out.
But not in a good way.
There was almost no separation created from the Irish defensive backs. There were no impact plays. There was no spark.
The main takeaway from Notre Dame football's first spring practice cluster under first-year head coach Marcus Freeman, is that the Irish lack the offensive playmakers on the edges to compete for the program's first national championship since 1988.
And Freeman knows it.
"There's got to be guys that make the quarterback look good, right? And that's the challenge," Freeman said. "It's always about making a perfect throw, but we have to have some guys that can make him look good."
Which means the Irish coaching staff needs to look for more of those guys in the transfer portal. Since its inception in 2018, players who switch programs with eligibility remaining don't have to sit out a year as they had to previously. They can play right away at their new school.
In 2020 Notre Dame turned to the portal to land wide receiver Ben Skowronek from Northwestern who caught 29 passes for 439 yards and five touchdowns in helping the Irish qualify for the College Football Playoff.
Last year it was quarterback Jack Coan from Wisconsin who was brought in to replace three-year starter Ian Book and led Notre Dame to a fifth-straight 10-win season.
The portal has already been good to Notre Dame this offseason. The Irish added All-American safety Brandon Joseph from Northwestern to replace Kyle Hamilton who was the 14th overall NFL Draft pick by the Baltimore Ravens.
They signed kicker Blake Grupe from Arkansas State to replace Jonathan Doerer who made 49 of 65 field goals attempts and 162 of 164 PAT attempts in his five years at Notre Dame.
They also added punter Jon Sot and defensive lineman Chris Smith, both from Harvard.
All four players are expected to contribute to the team this season.
So, who could the Irish land at receiver who would not only bolster the depth chart, but provide a threat downfield? Keeping in mind that the player is both a program and academic fit.
A receiver who just hit the transfer portal is Toledo's Matt Landers. The former Georgia Bulldog is 6 foot 5 and is a big-play threat. He averaged 25.7 yards per catch in 12 games last season, catching 20 passes for 514 yards and five touchdowns.
Landers could seemingly slide in and contribute to Notre Dame's offense. He caught touchdowns of 85 and 90 yards while shining for the Rockets in the second half of last season.
Quarterback battle unsettled
Notre Dame is also still deciding who its starting quarterback will be when it opens the 2022 season Sept. 3 at Ohio State. Neither of the top two candidates — Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne — have ever started a college football game and they have a combined 68 career pass attempts between them.
Spring practice didn't settle the matter and Buchner missed the Blue-Gold Game due to a minor non-football ankle injury. Pyne certainly didn't shine in Buchner's absence, playing QB for both teams in the first half.
“It's tough," former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire said recently on the Tribune's Pod of Gold podcast, "when guys can get open,”
Also missing this Spring was the chance to develop chemistry with wide receivers Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins Jr. who both sat out with injuries, Davis with an ACL and Wilkins with a broken foot.
Wilkins has played in just nine out of 37 possible games in his career, missing most because of injury.
Both Davis and Wilkins are expected to be back for the fall.
Gone, though, is last season's leading receiver Kevin Austin Jr., who recently signed a free agent contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars after going unselected in last month's NFL Draft. Austin had 888 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 2021. He left with eligibility on the table.
The second-leading wide receiver was Davis, with 386 yards and four touchdowns in eight games. A quarterback in high school who has also played both running back and cornerback at Notre Dame, is by far the most experienced receiver on the roster. Davis has played in 40 games the past four seasons, catching eight TDs.
He also has proven to be clutch, scoring the game-tying touchdown to force overtime against No. 1 Clemson in 2020 that was set up by his 53-yard reception with less than two minutes to go in regulation. The Irish went on to upset the Tigers, 47-40 in double OT.
But without question, Notre Dame's biggest returning offensive weapon is tight end Michael Mayer, who most experts slot as a first-round NFL draft pick a year from now. Mayer caught 71 passes as a sophomore for 840 yards and seven touchdowns.
If the receivers aren't playing at a high level, it could affect Mayer's production. If cornerbacks can consistently cover receivers one-on-one, it leaves a possibility of double covering the opposing team's best player, which would be Mayer in this case.
What are other options at wide receiver?
Besides the transfer portal, should the Irish go that route, Notre Dame will still need to lean on in-house options.
Notre Dame may count on young players like Deion Colzie, a 6-foot-4 receiver who has a similar build — minus about 15 pounds — to former Irish standout Chase Claypool, now with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Sophomore Jayden Thomas was the only receiver who stood out in the Blue-Gold Game with four catches for 39 yards.
“You also got to look at it as our defense is pretty damn good too,” Zaire said. “Marcus Freeman put a lot of effort in building out the middle of the defense. It looks really stout, and we got some guys flying around in the back.”
Aside from presumably getting Davis and Wilkins back, Notre Dame will also have incoming freshman Tobias Merriweather, a four-star prospect out of Camas, Wash.
Merriweather is similar to Colzie at 6 foot 4, but could grow a little more. Based on his film, Merriweather is able to control his body in jump ball situations, usually coming down with the football. He isn't afraid of laying out to make the grab and uses his head to sell a double move.
How Merriweather works out this summer and fits in during fall practice could provide a viable edge option for Offensive Coordinator Tommy Rees and WR coach Chansi Stuckey.
Freeman isn't worried that Merriweather wasn't an early freshman enrollee this past semester that would have allowed him to take part in spring ball.
"The misconception is that, if you come in early, it's going to give you a better chance to play," Freeman said. "If you're a guy that's going to be able to play early, you're going to come in in June or come in January, we're going to know."
► Blue-Gold game:This one was about as spring as spring games go for the Irish
What we do know is Notre Dame's inexperience at both quarterback and wide receiver are the biggest question marks going into Freeman's first year as head coach.
Even with what is expected to be one of the top defenses in the country, can the Irish offense produce enough to keep up with high-scoring teams such as Ohio State, Clemson, and USC.
Spring's small sample size suggests that will be a challenge, at best. But whether Notre Dame adds depth via the transfer portal or not, Zaire believes much will change before Notre Dame's season-opening trip to Columbus.
“I do think," said Zaire, "you'll see a different team by the first game than you did in the spring."
It will need a spark at wide receiver if that's going to be the case.