Drops don't deter Marcus Freeman: 'No faith has been lost in Lorenzo Styles'
SOUTH BEND — The message for Notre Dame wide receiver Lorenzo Styles after his fifth dropped pass was the same as it was for running back Audric Estime after his midseason fumbling woes.
Go back to basics.
“I told him, ‘The next time you get the opportunity, catch the ball. We believe in you,’ “ Irish coach Marcus Freeman said Thursday on his weekly video teleconference. “No faith has been lost in Lorenzo Styles. He’s a tremendously hard worker. We just have to tweak that work toward making sure we’re really intentional on catching the ball.”
Styles, who had just two drops as a freshman in 2021, wasn’t targeted again after dropping a pass in Clemson territory early in the second quarter. Styles finished with just 11 snaps on offense, his lowest total since moving into the receiver rotation after the bye week last season.
After making 19 catches for 260 yards and a touchdown through the first five games this year, Styles has just five catches for 32 yards over his past four outings. That includes just 13 targets after being the intended receiver 25 times through the BYU game.
Three of Styles’ dropped passes have come in the past four games, including one in the end zone against Stanford. According to Pro Football Focus, Styles is the only member of the Irish wide receiver group with a dropped pass this season.
Joe Wilkins Jr.'s 'mind was made up'
Asked about the odd timing of fifth-year wideout Joe Wilkins Jr.’s decision to leave the program so he could enter the transfer portal, Freeman suggested there wasn’t much discussion.
“That’s a decision he made,” Freeman said. “There was no influence I really could’ve had on that. His mind was made up when he told me. That was a decision that was totally up to Joe.”
Leaving now, so close to Senior Day on Nov. 19 against Boston College, doesn’t benefit Wilkins in terms of eligibility as he’d already appeared in eight games this season. Under revised NCAA rules, the transfer window for FBS football programs doesn’t open until Dec. 5 and runs through Jan. 18.
The FCS level has a transfer window from Nov. 21 through Jan. 4.
The Fort Myers, Fla., product was sharing kickoff return duties with Chris Tyree but never touched the ball after making it back from offseason surgery to repair a Lisfranc fracture in his foot.
Wilkins had just 27 total snaps on offense, including zero over his final two games.
“Joe worked tirelessly,” Freeman said. “He continued to find ways to improve. Joe was playing, probably not as much as he wanted, so he made the decision to make a change. Love Joe and love what he’s done for this program and wish him all the best.”
Notre Dame tight end Mitchell Evans has grabbed headlines with his quarterback sneak abilities, but the real “Mitch-a-Palooza” has been more traditional.
Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees traced this three-game surge in the Irish ground game to Evans’ blocking ability, especially in the “Duo” scheme that has been an Irish staple for years.
“Mitch has made an impact on our running game more than people want to acknowledge,” Rees said after Tuesday’s practice. “Mitch’s ability to be in there and own the point of attack has been huge. Not that (Kevin Bauman) wasn’t, but just a huge plus for our ability to run that play.”
Bauman, who opened the year as the No. 2 tight end to All-American Michael Mayer, suffered a season-ending ACL tear in practice after just three games. Freshman Eli Raridon, a key blocker in goal-line situations, joined Bauman on the shelf after the Stanford game with his second ACL tear since December.
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Evans, who had foot surgery on July 15, returned for the Stanford game and quickly re-established his credentials as a blocker.
Among tight ends with at least 50 plays in a run-blocking role this season, Pro Football Focus ranks Evans 37th in the country with a 71.3 efficiency mark. Mayer, who has triple the run-blocking opportunities as Evans, ranks 19th at 77.2 and Raridon (61 snaps in run blocking) is 15th.
Former walk-on Davis Sherwood, freshman Holden Staes and Bauman all rate below 50 percent in their blocking efficiency, according to PFF.com.
In this three-game winning streak, Notre Dame is averaging 50 rushes for 244 yards per game. That’s a per-carry average of 4.88 yards.
Rees also praised the “crackback” blocking of wideouts Jayden Thomas, Matt Salerno and Styles with making “Duo” go. When opposing defenses stack the tackle box with an eighth defender, “Duo” requires a down block on the safety, which often sets up a mismatch between the Irish running back and a smaller cornerback.
Logan Diggs, Estime and Tyree also have the option to run inside, where gaping holes have been the norm of late.
“Our backs have been unbelievable at reading it,” Rees said. “Our line has a ton of belief in it. You (need) the tight ends to run it. That is such a critical spot.”
'What just happened?'
While Drew Pyne’s stats pale in comparison to most modern college quarterbacks, he appreciates the unwavering support of Freeman.
“I love coach Freeman,” Pyne said. “He’s a guy that shoots you straight. He always keeps me on my toes.”
After Pyne capped a 75-yard touchdown drive with a 5-yard scoring run just before halftime against Clemson, Freeman met him as he came to the sideline.
“Drew, what just happened on that drive?” Freeman said.
Pyne paused before answering, wondering if this was the same call-and-response exchange the two often go through in practice.
“He goes, ‘It doesn’t matter!’ “ Pyne recalled. “And then I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s right. I don’t know what happened!’ “
Instant amnesia is a key aspect of Freeman’s “One Play, One Life” mantra.
“Whatever happens, (Freeman) puts me in a position to be able to just keep moving forward,” Pyne said. “Literally, good or bad, I’ll come over and he says, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ “
Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.