Chat Transcript: How will Notre Dame football fill the Avery Davis void ... and much more
SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino spent three hours answering reader questions in a Live Chat format. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity:
Mike Berardino: Good morning, sports fans. Great to be with you again here in this Live Chat format. Looks like we already have a number of questions in the queue, so enough with the pleasantries. Let us begin.
Ken from Pensacola, Fla.: Mike, Maybe I missed it but who has Coach Freeman named as captains & co-captains for 2022-23? And I think that ND will beat Ohio State. Why? Because Ohio State is overconfident! Thanks & Go Irish!!!!!
Mike Berardino: Hi Ken. Hello again and thanks for the question. Don't worry, you haven't missed the captains announcement. Marcus Freeman was asked about that on a newsy Saturday and said he wasn't "in a rush" to make that official, in part because he already had two returning captains in Jarrett Patterson and Avery Davis. Now that Davis has suffered a second ACL tear, that captains timeline might get moved up a bit but not much. Based on what Freeman said Saturday, you should get your captains in another 7-10 days.
Based on the 12 stretch line leaders we see at open practice periods, it could be a defense-heavy set of captains this year. Patterson, RG Josh Lugg and Davis are the only blue shirts at the front of those daily lines. Nine captain candidates wear white as defensive players: Liufau, Foskey, Bertrand, Kiser, Griffith, Brown, Bauer and both Ademilolas, Jayson and Justin.
Also, keep in mind what Freeman said to close Saturday's news conference: "Listen, if we’re looking for captains to lead us, then, whew, it’s going to be a long year. I’ve challenged every one of those seniors, I’ve challenged our squad captains: We need leadership no matter if you’re named a team captain or not. We need leadership amongst everybody in our program."
Sean from Greensboro, N.C.: Thanks for the chats, I know you are busy, but I wish they were longer. How do you think the new coaching staff is getting along with each other. I know it takes time for a staff to jell.
Mike Berardino: Hi Sean, my pleasure. Sorry it's been so long since our last chat. I promise to get back into a weekly groove now that we've pushed through that "camp wall." Clearly, seven new faces on the coaching staff — not counting grad assistant James Laurinaitis, who really should count — make for an interesting dynamic. That's partly why Freeman instituted daily staff meetings in the mornings, so the trust and comfort level could grow faster among the group. From the outset, going back to the mega-presser on Feb. 16, the group has gone out of its way to lob praise at other staff members. Al Washington, for instance, has been quite complimentary at several turns toward DC Al Golden and OL guru Harry Hiestand.
And just this week WR coach Chansi Stuckey, unsolicited, turned a question about the receiving ability of the tight ends into a hilarious ribbing of TE coach Gerad Parker. "Gerad Parker has the best job in the world," Stuckey said with a laugh. "Write that down. Gerad Parker has the best job in the world."
That doesn't happen publicly without genuine trust and belief in your fellow staff members. I think it's also wise for Freeman to roam constantly during practice and in unit meetings at the Gug. That's not just to keep him available to his players, although that's a large part of it. He also said recently he wants to be nearby so he can step in to reinforce certain coaching points his assistants make. All of those clues seem like healthy indicators for a staff that, by and large, is extremely outgoing and personable.
Dave from Wilmington, N.C.: Do you think ND will move Xavier Watts to wide receiver? If not him, someone else?
Mike Berardino: Hi Dave, thanks for the timely question. When Freeman asked Watts what his preference was, offense or defense, early in the offseason, the former 3-star WR recruit from Omaha said he'd prefer to stay at safety after making so much progress there down the stretch in 2021. While acknowledging Saturday that "moving that safety (Watts) could be an option," Freeman kept those options open. Would it just be simpler to flex out the tight ends more often? Put Chris Tyree and Gi'Bran Payne in the slot a few snaps a game? Quite possibly. Watts is having a strong camp at safety, Freeman said, but later in the session he characterized the safety battle to start alongside Brandon Joseph as one between D.J. Brown, Houston Griffith and, perhaps to a lesser extent, junior Ramon Henderson. Watts was the fourth name the HC mentioned in that context.
One other thing on that: Joe Wilkins Jr. is close to returning to practice off April 1 foot surgery. Freeman expects him to dress for the opener at Ohio State, which essentially makes for a trade of Davis for Wilkins, who wasn't due back that soon. Does that enable Jayden Thomas, another August standout who works at all three WR spots, to take more snaps in the slot? Quite possibly. We should know more Wednesday, the next time media will be allowed in for five periods of practice observation at the IAC.
Kerry, from a truck somewhere in the U.S.: Hello and greetings. With the loss of Avery Davis for the season, is there still potential for an explosive offense? If so, how might that look?
Mike Berardino: Hi Kerry, thanks for the question and thanks for doing your part to keep the supply chain moving. (Apologies in advance if that was a baseless assumption.) The Irish don't come back against Clemson in 2020 without Davis sneaking behind the defense, but we couldn't be sure how explosive he would be coming off that November 2021 ACL tear, even if he hadn't suffered that heartbreaking setback last week. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees made it clear there would be no excuses, even without Davis, for the year ahead.
Rees on Saturday: "Offensively, we’ve got enough talent. It’s my job to put our guys in the right spots. We’ve got plenty of talent around this team. I’m excited for the challenge and the opportunity to showcase it."
From All-America tight end Michael Mayer to a four-man freshman skill group (Merriweather, Payne, Raridon, Staes) and everywhere in between, Rees will keep opponents guessing with his play calls and willingness to stretch the field horizontally as well as vertically.
New QB Tyler Buchner can throw deep as well as beat you with his legs. I'd look for more run-pass balance this year, per Freeman's stated wishes, but the explosiveness of the offense remains. And keep in mind, TE Mitchell Evans (foot surgery) should return by midseason. Logan Diggs, the top returning rusher among the running backs, has home-run capability as well and could shed the no-contact designation sooner than later.
John from Berrien Springs, Mich.: What does the running back position depth chart look like? And how much of a distance is there between Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne at QB? Thanks from up in Berrien Springs!
Mike Berardino: Hi John, thanks for checking in. Deland McCullough's group is fun to watch, and not just because of DMC's high-energy coaching style and distinctive drills. Diggs is still in that red jersey, as mentioned earlier, but he should return sometime in September, if not for the opener. He's not taking hits on his surgically repaired left shoulder, but he's also not protecting it noticeably in position drills.
Chris Tyree is the most experienced and the most versatile of the group, and Payne, while he probably needs more bulk above the waist, has jumped right in since showing up in June.
If I had to pick the leading rusher this year, though, I'd go with Audric Estime. The "foot fire" McCullough referenced in the spring has shown up in the drills we've seen early in camp. The 229-pounder has worked hard to redefine his body, but Big "Es" is still going to be a load in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
As for the QB portion of your question, the whole point of Saturday's public announcement was to remove any lingering doubt and reticence from Buchner and the team as a whole. That clarity means the competition is over, and the only thing that could re-open the discussion is a few bad games (not just a few bad series) for Buchner. Considering the hamstring and ankle injuries Buchner has dealt with so far in his young career, as well as his willingness to run and his daring nature while doing so, I'd imagine you'll see Pyne here and there throughout the season.
As Rees said Saturday: "(Pyne) needs to be ready to play. I think we’ve all been around this game long enough that you better have two (quarterbacks) that can help you win games. That’s how we feel right now."
JET: What are your thoughts about the wideouts and cornerbacks?
Mike Berardino: Yo, Jet. You're not Chris Tyree, are you? That's his nickname. Anyway, we talked some about the wideouts earlier, and as I noted on Twitter yesterday, WR coach Chansi Stuckey was asked to give his ideal number of scholarship wideouts to run an efficient practice. The number he gave was "10."
With Davis out for the year, Colzie dealing with a PCL strain in his left knee and Wilkins (foot surgery) not quite back in the mix, the current WR group is down to FIVE healthy scholarship athletes: Lenzy, Styles, Thomas, Salerno (former walk-on) and Merriweather (June arrival). Not great. A group of 7 walk-on receivers, including seniors Conor Ratigan and Greg Mailey and a trio of juniors (Dixon, Eifert and Cook) will get more reps than normal until Colzie and Wilkins are back in the mix.
As for the corners, I find it interesting that Freeman has been spotted deep in conversation on recent walks to or from the Gug with Cam Hart (before practice), TaRiq Bracy (before practice) and cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens (after a walk-through). Considering the Irish open against C.J. Stroud, JSN and the No. 3 passing offense from 2021 (381 yards per game) and will see BYU, Clemson and USC along the way, that makes a lot of sense. I'm eager to see how freshman Jaden Mickey fares in Friday's open practice. He had a loud spring but struggled in coverage in red-zone work on Day 1 of camp.
ND Harvey from Philadelphia: Good morning, all the talk about our offense and defense. What is the latest on our kicking game? Who will be our punter and kicker? Thank you. Go IRISH!!!!
Mike Berardino: Yo, Harvey. How are things in Philly? New special teams coordinator Brian Mason suffered through a coach's nightmare last year with Cincinnati. His rotating group of PKs missed 10 of 19 field goal attempts, but the Bearcats were so good they still made the CFP. To avoid a repeat in his new workplace, Mason was allowed to bring in former Arkansas State kicker Blake Grupe as a grad transfer. Redshirt freshman Josh Bryan might have the stronger leg, but Grupe told me in the spring he's hit from 55 yards out in practice, although his long under game conditions is a 50-yarder for the Red Wolves last season. Said Grupe: "I’m not going to say my range is limitless, but I’ve never been out there for a kick that I felt like I couldn’t hit. That comes with confidence, comes with preparation, all of that. I feel like I’m good from 52-55 (yards)."
As for punter, I was told Harvard grad transfer Jon Sot did most of the holding for Grupe last week's night practice out at Saint Joe High School. Whether that means Sot has the edge on three-star freshman Bryce McFerson, who knows? But I did find that interesting since former punter Jay Bramblett (now at LSU) did all the holding the past three years. We should know more after Friday, when we'll get a chance to speak with Mason and the specialists. Should McFerson win the job and then hold it long-term, there's a chance the Irish could go 11 seasons (2015-25) using just three primary punters: Tyler Newsome, Bramblett and McFerson. That's pretty wild.
Tom D.: Notre Dame seems to have put itself in a perilous position regarding placekicking. It seems likely this will, at some point, cost the Irish a game. How did this happen?
Mike Berardino: Hi Tom, not sure if the previous answer will make you feel any better, but there's really no need to freak out just yet. Grupe has made 74.4% of his 86 career field-goal attempts, although he also has missed six career extra-point attempts (96.4% conversion rate). Grupe's FG success rate is right in line with ND predecessor (2019-21) Jonathan Doerer (75.4), but a few ticks behind what Justin Yoon (80.8) provided from 2015-18.
How did this happen? Harrison Leonard was considered the heir apparent after lighting up the kicking camp circuit before signing as a three-star recruit in the 2019 class. He never could knock down the Doerer (sorry), skipped spring practice and entered the portal as a grad transfer just before the May 1 deadline for immediate eligibility.
Ryan, Mars, Pa.: Mike how have Michael Carmody, Josh Lugg, Bo Bauer and Andrew Kristofic looked so far in practice? Go Irish. Can’t wait for the season to start soon.
Mike Berardino: Hey Ryan. Thanks for checking in on your Western Pa. boys. I know Bauer is from Erie, Pa. (not western) and has a good chance to become a team captain as well as an opening-night starter at middle linebacker. Lugg as well, although it might be tough for the Irish to sneak in two O-linemen with Jarrett Patterson a returning captain.
Kristofic lost out in the mid-line shuffle that saw Patterson kick out to left guard and Zeke Correll, whose job Kristofic took at midseason last year, move over to starting center. Pat Coogan is taking the second-team reps at center, but Kristofic has worked there in the past.
As for Carmody, backing up Blake Fisher at RT, Carmody was in street clothes taking mental reps for open portions of practice on Aug. 8 and Aug. 11. O-line coach Harry Hiestand said Carmody "just got banged" and didn't expect him to be out for long. We'll see if Carmody, who was not spotted at all on Friday Aug. 12 during the open practice periods, is back out there Wednesday morning when we get our next look.
Mike Berardino: Thanks for all the questions, everybody. It's been a pleasure. Hope you're enjoying our NDInsider.com coverage of Notre Dame football. Feel free to reach out on Twitter or via email (email@example.com) with any additional questions or story ideas. Let's meet right back here next Tuesday, Aug. 23, at 9 a.m.
Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for NDInsider.com and the South Bend Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino and TikTok @mikeberardinondi.