Chat Transcript: Sizing up expectations, personnel for Notre Dame's receiver corps, O-line

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Eric Hansen: Welcome to Notre Dame Football Live Chat, as a third of the 15 spring practices are in the books. A reminder ... PLEASE include your name and hometown with your questions. Without further blather ...

Marie from Atlanta: Hi Eric. I hope you had a great Easter. When looking at the receivers this spring, they seem to be a diversely talented group. Unlike past years there does not appear to be a dominant receiver such as Chase Claypool or Miles Boykin, who will automatically claim a large percentage of the plays. Do you think this will result in a deeper rotation with a more even distribution of plays, utilizing each individual's unique skills? Perhaps a rotation five or six deep? It seems this would be advantageous as the offense could throw a lot of different looks at opposing teams. It feels like in the past Brian Kelly was somewhat resistant to having so many players in the mix. Perhaps BK thinks Kevin Austin will be his high-volume player this year, but with his injury history, he may not be able to tolerate a large volume of plays, and a back-up plan would definitely be necessary. Thanks for hosting the chat, always enjoy what you have to say.

Eric Hansen: Hi Marie and thanks. Had a great Easter with family. First holiday we've celebrated together in a while. ... The player development at the wide receiver positions this season (and offseason), I believe, will be the most scrutinized position group on the offense (or the defense). And I think there's justification for that. I do think Kevin Austin has the talent to lead ND in receptions and receiving yards. You're right, he has to prove his durability. Whether he is healthy or not, the potential is there for a deep receiver rotation. The guys who have exceled through the first third of spring are Avery Davis, Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys III, per Kelly. My expectation is that Jordan Johnson, Xavier Watts and Lorenzo Styles Jr. will make a case to be in the rotation. You add back in Austin and Joe Wilkins, and that's eight. I don't think it'll go that deep.

I think Brian Kelly likes the idea of a deep rotation and then that notion gets clipped typically in September. I could see that last season, because there wasn't the typical offseason opportunities (or spring) to work on timing and chemistry. There is now. And that's why I point to development. There's no reason not to be able to go six deep with this group. That doesn't mean equal reps for all six, but certainly meaningful plays for the second wave of receivers.

ND Harvey Sumner from South Philly P: E, hope all is well. Do you see tight end Kevin Bauman getting on the field more this coming season and who do you think will be opposite All-American Kyle Hamilton? I need a tailgate party very soon. Thank you. Be safe. Go Irish.

Eric Hansen: Harvey, all good here, thanks. I know tight ends coach John McNulty was really high on Bauman last year, citing that he could have played quite a bit at most schools as a freshman. He has a real opportunity this spring to convince the coaching staff that he's the best option to be Michael Mayer's sidekick in multiple tight end sets. Senior-to-be George Takacs is his most direct competition. Indirectly, he's competing against three-wide receiver and two-back sets in a way. Again, a big opportunity for him over the next 10 practices with Tommy Tremble coming out early and Brock Wright opting not to use his COVID exemption year.

As far as the safety opposite Kyle Hamilton. Really, I think there are two options Houston Griffith and DJ Brown. I except both of those guys to play a lot, with Griffith finally breaking through this season as an impact player.

Jake from Saratoga Springs, N.Y.: Hi Eric. Hope you’re doing well. I believe that Jack Coan will be the starting QB, as do you, come the beginning of the season, but I’m a little bit surprised about all of the attention on Drew Pyne, who regardless of his high school ranking is another QB with a low ceiling due to arm talent much like Ian Book. Why do you think that is happening instead of much more attention on Tyler Buchner? I realize the maturity levels are different at this point, but I don’t believe ND can really advance without finding a high-ceiling QB.

Eric Hansen: Jake. I don't agree entirely with the premise of your question, but I'll try to answer it without getting bogged down in that. I wrote about this quote extensively this past weekend.

Analysis: Look beyond the QB derby to the process driving Notre Dame's offensive evolution

I think Drew Pyne has earned his place based on hard work and understanding of the offense ... and his play in practice. Buchner had the disadvantage of having played just one year of football the past three seasons. He has the opportunity to work his way up the depth chart. Brian Kelly mentioned last weekend that Buchner was finally shaking the rust. So that Tyler is No. 3 at the moment does not mean that's a permanent standing he can't overcome.

John (6-2, 259 pounds) from Munster, Ind.: Who will lead the team in receiving yards, yards after the catch and receiving TDs?

Eric Hansen: John, if you had included your 40 time, I might have put my money on you as the answer. ... I think the three I would choose from would be Avery Davis, Michael Mayer and Kevin Austin. I still think if he's healthy, it'll be Austin in most if not all of those categories. Maybe Mayer in YAC.

Alan from Whiteland, Ind.: Eric, with Jarrett Patterson likely taking over the left tackle position, what do you think his ceiling is? Can Patterson ascend to the Zach Martin/Mike McGlinchey level, or is that being more optimistic than realistic? Thank you for answering my question, and I enjoyed your analysis regarding Notre Dame's offensive evolution.

Eric Hansen: Thanks., Alan. Patterson could end up at either tackle spot, to be honest, but I expect it to be left tackle. I need to see him play there some, before I can make that comparison ... and that won't be until August. However, like Zack Martin, he's athletic, assignment-correct, great with technique, with an extremely high football IQ. Great instincts. So all the ingredients are there. I just want to see how they look at left tackle rather than center.

Jeff from East Longmeadow, Mass.: If you had to choose between the ND O-line excelling in run blocking or pass blocking, which would it be? Why? Thanks and stay safe.

Eric Hansen: Jeff thanks. I have to be honest, I don't like my options. Obviously. I'd want a line that could do both. Given who the quarterback is likely to be (Jack Coan), I guess I'd pick pass blocking, since I can have only one. I expect ND's line to be better than average at both, however.

Dale from Placerville, Calif.: Eric, thanks for keeping all of us Irish diehards up to date on ND news. With the O-line replacing many pieces, do you still think that there is enough talent in place to put a strong unit together and allow for the chemistry to build as the season progresses? In your opinion, who is the vocal leader of the offensive line group? Thanks for your insight.

Eric Hansen: Dale, thanks for being part of the chat. ... I don't think talent is an issue at all. It's experience and chemistry. And yes I do think this is a group that can and will make gains during the season in terms of growth. I think there will be some growing pains, too. I like the potential for the 2022 group better at O-Line, but again talent always give you a chance to surprise. As far as it's vocal leader, I think it's Jarrett Patterson. I think freshman Rocco Spindler is just plain vocal, and darn entertaining.

Megat Muzaffar from Malaysia: Hi Eric, when the time comes, who would you choose as Brian Kelly's successor? Can Tommy Rees or Marcus Freeman be a contender? Not too long ago, we let Urban Meyer go. Recently, Ohio State managed to keep Ryan Day. Having said that, can you see any similarities in Tommy Rees' and Marcus Freeman's coaching trajectory with that of previous or current successful/unsuccessful head coaches in college football?

Eric Hansen: Hi Megat. Not every successful assistant ends up making a great or even good head coach. The job is just so different, especially at a place like Notre Dame. That's because it requires a different skill set than your strengths as an assistant, and the diversity of demands pulls you away from some strengths and forces you to make tough choices with regard to your time and what you have to delegate. ... At this stage of their careers, I think it's easy for me to see Marcus Freeman as a head coach someday, somewhere. Let's see where Tommy Rees is in 2-3 years. Now, you're asking me this question in the context of Brian Kelly's successor. If I know the end date of his time at ND, the answer would be easier, but it's my expectation the successor would be someone with a proven track record as a head coach.

Lee from Lancaster, S.C.: Hi Eric, have any of the current or past players ever expressed to you that they read your columns or listen to your podcast? If so, has any player ever disagreed with your opinion on a particular issue?

Eric Hansen: More former players than current players have expressed that they are regular readers or listeners, and that would make sense. I don't think current players, at least most of them, have their antennas up that far. And that's probably a good thing for their sanity, whether the media is favorable or grating. Disagreements? I'm sure there have been plenty of those. I just haven't heard about them directly. And I think that's pretty natural and healthy to not always see things the same. What I place above all else in my reporting and write are two things — accuracy and fairness. I can't say I've never fallen short, but those are the two constants I strive for. I think if you do that, people are more apt to respect differences of opinion. It's also the way I would want to be treated if I were in their shoes.

Pat from Springfield, Ill.: From the too-early-to-predict department: If ND is undefeated through Virginia Tech — which means they've navigated 60 percent of the rugged five-game stretch of teams that likely will be ranked — can it finish undefeated? As always, thanks for the chats and keep up your insightful work.

Eric Hansen: Pat, you may be better of calling Miss Cleo at the Psychic Hotline. Notre Dame itself is difficult to predict just because of the personnel turnover at so many positions. ND's standing in a lot of the way-too-early polls is based on its recent track record, its recruiting, its player development model and its strong team culture. ... So at the juncture you're talking about USC and North Carolina are next on the schedule, both at home. I don't consider either of those game a slam dunk. So at this point, I am not predicting an undefeated season and I am not predicting an undefeated mark even given that scenario. I may have different thoughts in August. Right now this feels like a 9-3/10-2 type of team.

Jeff from Phoenix: Hey Eric! Does the June retirement of Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez put the rescheduling of the 2020 ND-UW game at Lambeau Field in further jeopardy? That was a bucket list game/location for me and for many of the Irish faithful, I'm sure. Thanks again for the chats.

Eric Hansen: Jeff, I don't think so. That was Barry's and Jack Swarbrick's baby, but if you're the new Wisconsin AD, why wouldn't you want what's technically a road game to take place in your own state, rather than having to play that game in South Bend? Seems like a no-brainer for the new person.

Tom from Georgia: Do you believe the Irish will have camp this summer at Culver? Do you believe UND will allow in 2021 a full stadium for home games?

Eric Hansen: I haven't talked to athletic director Jack Swarbrick on the Culver issue. The world could really have changed a lot by the time we get to August, and every player who wants to be vaxed will be fully vaccinated before the end of the semester. My sense, though, is that Notre Dame will pass on Culver this summer and maybe go back in 2022. ... As far as a full stadium in South Bend, a lot of it depends on the viability of vaccine passports. Also, will people still be hesitant to be in crowds? It seems like we should know those answers in June. My educated guess is yes, there will be a full stadium at least at some point in 2021 at ND.

StanCakes from Chester, Va.: Best wishes to you, Eric, and kudos and sympathy to you. Kudos for being able to keep us informed with virtually no eyes on the product, and sympathy for your being hamstrung by having to rely solely on video snippets and coach's interviews as the resources. Is it so that the Blue-Gold game will be the first time you get to see, in person, the workings of the Irish? Now for the question(s): From what you are seeing on tape and hearing, who among the newcomers are lighting it up and may see serious playing time in the fall? And, do you think Kyren Williams' offseason regimen of last year is rubbing off on some of his teammates? Thanks for all you do.

Eric Hansen: Hey Stan. Thanks for that, but it's my job to overcome those things, and I am grateful that we have spring practice to cover this year. ... I asked your question to Brian Kelly the first day of practice (March 27) and he kind of deferred, so he'll get that question again this Saturday. But we've gotten some indication: OL Blake Fisher and Rocco Spindler (not as starters but as two-deep guys most likely), WR Lorenzo Styles, TE Can Berrong are all guys I've heard good things about. Kelly touted Buchner last weekend. Philip Riley and Justin Walters in the back end have received mention as has Gabriel Rubio on the D-line. Again, this is who can help, not who can start. I hope to refine this for you Saturday. ... Yes the Blue-Gold Game is likely going to be our first in-person exposure of the spring. And yes, Kyren rubs off on a lot of people, which is a very good thing. Keep an eye on Jordan Johnson in that regard.

Gabriel from North Liberty: Thanks again for opening up some time for us curious fans. I hope you're enjoying the weather. If you had to name a few players that you did not see becoming such terrific players in previous classes that ended up being very good, who comes to mind? For me it is Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.

Eric Hansen: Gabriel, thank you. I'll limit it to the last five classes (2016-20). No. 1, without a doubt is Ade Ogundeji. No. 2 is Drew White. Others include Ian Book, Julian Love (based on his recruiting rankings ... first time I saw him in practice, I loved him), C'Bo Flemister, Clarence Lewis (again based solely on his 3-star status, since we didn't see him practice). Cam Hart, if he ends up playing a lot this year, could fit too.

Tim from Pleasant Prairie, Wis.: Hi Eric. Has Jack Swarbrick given any indication as to the latest possible date — considering future immunization progress nationally — when a decision will be made on crowd size, and to whom tickets will be made available (e.g. alumni lottery, season ticket holders)?

Eric Hansen: When I spoke to him last, he wanted to wait as late as possible to take into account the changing landscape, much of which has been very positive on the vaccine front lately. I need to check in with him against soon and plan to.

Ken from Pensacola, Fla.: Eric - It's always GREAT to chat with you again. Whom and when do you think will be named captains to lead this year's team and how critical will their leadership be for the coming year? Thanks mucho and GO IRISH!

Eric Hansen: Ken, thank you and nice to have you, especially on a day when we have Pensacola weather. ... The captain question hasn't come up and my guess is that'll be something that gets done in August. Since Kelly has SWAT team captains for the spring and summer, there's not a void in leadership during the offseason, and you also kind of get to test drive your leaders. ... Just very much off the top of my head, I'd consider Kyle Hamilton, Drew White, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Jack Coan, Jarrett Patterson and Kyren Williams to be in that pool of guys strongly considered. Leadership is always important, especially with a team like this where you've had turnover in both leaders and in top performers.

Erik from Granger: Thanks for being here! Does the Marcus Freeman “three-down” looks require a Louis Nix-style nose guard? If not, how is it different from the three-down looks that do? If so, do we have someone like that on the roster? Kurt Hinish?

Eric Hansen: Erik, I am cautious not to overstep and overreach on my analysis of things I have not yet seen. My sense is that it would not require a Louis Nix type. I think Hinish and Jacob Lacey can handle what the position demands, again not having watched it in action yet. If your base is 3-4 and you're going to play defense conceptually the way Bob Diaco did in the early BK seasons, then the Nix type — a guy that commands double teams — is a must. You can't function without that. But again, this isn't going to be ND's base and I don't expect it to function the same way.

Jim Tal from Valley Center, Calif.: Eric, hearty greetings from small-town California. So glad to hear that things are going good on your end. In my opinion there always seems to be an ND player or two that overreaches and comes out early from the NFL Draft when they really shouldn't and would have legitimately benefited from another year of playing college ball. The classic example being DeShone Kizer, and I'm not so sure Brock Wright isn't making a mistake by passing up on his remaining eligibility. My question is, in your opinion, which Irish players over the last five to 10 years might have seriously blundered and negatively impacted their careers by virtue of leaving too soon? Again, so grateful for all that you do, thank you.

Eric Hansen: Jim, hearty greetings to you too. I think players that turn down a fifth year and have their degree are in a different category, because they have their degree. So I'll focus on the juniors. It's easy to say undrafted guys like George Atkinson III or Darius Walker, but I'm not sure that extra year would have helped them given the circumstances that would have confronted them their senior seasons. Beyond Kizer (which tops the list), I would say Troy Niklas. He got drafted high, but I think he could have had a longer career had he played another year of college. Injuries in the NFL didn't help him. Beyond that, Equanimeous St. Brown probably could have helped his draft position had he come back.

Patrick from Fort Wayne, Ind.: Eric, Hunter Spears has disappeared from his lofty expectations two years ago. Does he have a future on the offensive line?

Eric Hansen: Right now he needs to get healthy. Then we can get a better feel for what he can do on the offensive line. I wouldn't write him off just yet.

Joe from Asbury Park, N.J.: Give us your prediction on who will be the Irish punt and kick return players this fall.

Eric Hansen: Chris Tyree on kickoff return;. Tyree or Lorenzo Styles on punt return.

Michael from Chicago: What positives does (wide receivers) coach (DelVaughn) Alexander bring? I read a fair amount about his perceived negatives (not a grinder on the recruiting trail, etc.) I believe he was a Chip Long guy, so what are the reasons Brian Kelly has kept him on the staff?

Eric Hansen: I'm not trying to dodge the question, but I want to be fair. I feel like I'd have a better answer if we had the chance to interview him ... at all. It won't happen this spring and didn't happen in 2020 at all. I can't remember the last time he was made available to the media. ... Here's what I can say, I get asked about him more than any other position coach. His recruiting was scrutinized, and he responded with two pretty good wide receiver classes in a row. I think this is an important year for him in terms of player development. That's not Brian Kelly saying that. That's my own projection. I think we'll all know those answers later this year.

Lee from Lancaster, S.C.: Eric, one of the sports writers who covered Wisconsin in 2019 mentioned that Jack Coan doesn't have a very strong arm and thus doesn't throw the deep ball well. If that is true, will that hinder the Irish from taking advantage of the speed that they will have at the receiver position?

Eric Hansen: Lee. I'm not sure whether it's true or not. ... yet. We have seen videos, 180 seconds at a time, but we don't have the context. Were those the best throws of the day? The worst? Representative of the sample? We had Jesse Temple from The Athletic on the Pod of Gold Podcast last week (you can listen here). He was pretty complimentary of Coan. If it's like our beat, you're not going to get a unanimous appraisal of very many players. I trust Jesse's assessment. That's why we had him on.

Gabriel from North Liberty: COVID-19 has brought many, many changes to the world of football. Through that, teams have had to make changes — i.e. zoom calls, virtual visits, etc. Do you think ND has seen any of these new recruiting tactics work so well they plan on keeping them after COVID restrictions have been fully lifted?

Eric Hansen: I do. I think Zoom is a great way to introduce the prospect to campus and it's better than phone calls in terms of communicating. Official visits and unofficial visits are still very powerful assets, but COVID has given ND more tools in its recruiting tool box.

James from Dallas: Hi Eric. What is your perspective on Nick Saban’s rant about his 5-3-3 defense of Notre Dame’s 1-3 personnel groups?

Eric Hansen: For those who didn't see it, here is the snippet of Nick Saban talking about how he matched up with ND's three-tight end formations.

I guess I didn't parse this as much as a lot of people did. I would expect the best defensive mind of our time, with the nation's best personnel, to be able to have a counter to just about any kind of offensive ploy (not that he always has had in the moment). Not a lot of coaches would have had the personnel to do what Saban did. It was interesting. Was there a way for Tommy Rees to have turned it into more of a chess game? Probably not without someone like Braden Lenzy or Kevin Austin in the game and playing to their potential. But I did enjoy the clip, mostly because it gives you a peek into Saban's process.

Tom from Georgia: Do you foresee Notre Dame ever refusing to play a specific opponent or in a specific venue, like MLB and the NCAA remove contests from "offensive" cities/states?

Eric Hansen: I don't think those are decisions made by individual schools. The NCAA, however, has and will make those kinds of decisions. I would expect that aspect to continue.

Joey G from Parts Unknown: Hi Eric. Last year going into fall camp. I felt like most the O-line was our strength and the running backs were the question mark. This year I think — maybe more like hoping — the D-Line is going to be a strength. And I think Jordan Botelho, the (Ademilola) twins and Isaiah Foskey are going to wreak havoc. And the O-line will be our question mark. But I think they might surprise like the running backs did last year. Any thoughts on my predictions?

Eric Hansen: Joey, I'd add the secondary to the questions marks. Otherwise, now I know who to call when I want a day off.

No name and no hometown: When will a decision be made about the number of fans ND will allow in the stands for each home game?

Eric Hansen: Normally, with no name or hometown, this would go into the ignore queue. But I'll use it as a follow-up to an earlier question. There are a lot of variables in play, and some which are very hard to predict. But if you want to keep an eye on certain things, this might be helpful. Read about what life is like in Israel in terms of sporting events, etc. They are furthest along in terms of vaccinating their population. The have a green pass app, which allows citizens to prove they are vaccinated or have recovered from COVID. It's playing well there. I don't know how that concept would play in certain parts of our country. So watch those two things, and then it's easier to project what could happen here.

Alan from Whiteland, Ind.: Eric, last season Notre Dame counted on the playmaking ability of Ian Book, both with his arm and legs, to keep the offense moving when the wide receivers could not create separation in their routes. Book has now graduated. In your opinion, who are two or three receivers your gut instinct truly believes are ready to be major contributors next season? Not to put you on the spot, but some players should be and some players will be. They are not always one and the same. Thank you for answering my question. I fully understand this is a tough one.

Eric Hansen: Well the only wide receiver who got more than 200 snaps last season was Avery Davis, so you could throw pretty much everyone else into players in position to make a leap. So let me focus on the youngest receivers ... and I like where Jordan Johnson, Xavier Watts and Lorenzo Styles are headed. Deion Colzie, who arrives in June, because of his size, could join them.

Frank from Rockwall, Texas: Is Drew White hurt? I haven’t seen him in any videos.

Eric Hansen: Frank, I don't believe so. I will ask around.

Pat from St Paul: Reaching for last call! Which QB do we land in 2023? Thanks Eric!!

Eric Hansen: Now this is a guess, but I'll say Dante Moore of Detroit King High School.

Eric Hansen: OK, that's going to do it for today. Thanks for all the great questions. We'll be back to do it all again next Wednesday at noon ET.

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