There is no question that Notre Dame has a depth problem at wide receiver, and it's one that won't be fixed with just one recruiting class. The Irish are looking to land a big receiver class in 2023, but even that won't solve the issue because the Irish are poised to lose at least three receivers from its current depth chart.
Even if the Irish are able to load up on big time pass catchers in the 2023 and 2024 classes, that won't do anything about Notre Dame's depth chart woes in 2022. There are, however, options to ensure the Irish pass game isn't harmed by the lack of ideal depth, and it doesn't involve moving a player from another position or reaching into the transfer portal.
Before explaining that, however, I think discussing the actual depth issues is important. Notre Dame doesn't lack talent at wide receiver. Notre Dame has seven wide receivers on the depth chart that were recruited to be scholarship players coming out of high school, and all seven were ranked as four-star recruits by at least one service, and all but senior Joe Wilkins Jr. were composite four-star recruits.
Three of the current wideouts were ranked as Top 100 recruits by at least one service (Lorenzo Styles, Deion Colzie, Tobias Merriweather), two were ranked as Top 100 players by at least two services (Styles, Merriweather) and two more were ranked were as high as No. 153 overall by at least one service (Braden Lenzy, Avery Davis). Can the overall talent be upgraded? Of course, but if this unit stays healthy there is plenty of talent on the roster to allow the pass game to be quite effective.
That's the positive spin, the "if everything goes right" angle, and it's true, but it's not often that everything goes according to plan. Notre Dame must have a plan for when things don't go right, which is part of the game. Davis and Wilkins are coming off major injuries and Merriweather is a true freshman, while Jayden Thomas has never played a snap of college football and was banged up as a senior in high school and for chunks of last season.
If everyone is healthy and stays healthy the unit should be good, but the odds of that being true are not great. Then we get into the assumption that everyone maximizes their 2022 potential, which also isn't a normal thing for most teams/units.
There are injuries Notre Dame can weather and others that would be more damaging, but assuming that Notre Dame can keep at least five of the wideouts healthy at all times the Irish have plenty of options to use its receiving corps as key weapons in the pass game.
What Notre Dame's staff must be mindful of, however, is that the injury history of the group and the youth of the group (over half the depth chart is filled with sophomores/freshman), means they need to be a bit more mindful of the reps that each player gets, especially early in the season.
There are several ways Notre Dame can break the reps up in a way that takes some of the workload burden off the rotation players while also maintaining a pass offense that is dangerous and effective no matter who is on the field. Here is a look at how that happens.
1) Use a deeper rotation - Notre Dame has primarily gone with a rotation that included three primary receivers with an occasional fourth and fifth player working in to take mainly "breather" reps from the starters. I'd like to see Notre Dame use at least a five-man rotation in every single game, which includes the big games like Ohio State, Clemson, USC, BYU, etc. If a "top three" is established that's fine, but Notre Dame needs to get at least two more players involved as legit weapons.
I'd like to see Notre Dame expand its early game rotation in some of the other games, especially in games like Marshall, California, UNLV, Syracuse and Navy. The same thing applies in regard to using them as actual rotation players who can and will get the football. If Merriweather, Colzie and/or Thomas crack the rotation it would be wise for Notre Dame to design touches for them very early (Marshall, Cal) in order to show defenses that they can't key away from them when they are in the game.
A deeper rotation takes the burden off the entire rotation, which limits the wear and tear on their lower bodies once November comes even before other options are considered.
A deeper rotation can also effectively allow wide receivers coach Chansi Stuckey to limit the overall knowledge volume on younger players early in the year. Good teams are able to take talented players like Merriweather and find a role for them even if they don't have the entire offense down pat as first-year players.
2) Use your tight ends - Notre Dame has often used its two tight end alignments as a key part of the offense, especially in recent seasons. When Notre Dame goes to its 12 personnel groupings (1 running back, 2 tight ends, 2 wide receivers) it takes one of the wideouts off the field, since Notre Dame's primarily personnel grouping is a three receiver offense.
Here's an example of Notre Dame using its 12 personnel grouping.
Notre Dame enters the season with six scholarship tight ends, which is a high number. Although sophomore Cane Berrong and freshman Eli Raridon are coming off knee injuries, both should be ready to go when the season starts.
Junior Michael Mayer was Notre Dame's top pass catcher last season, setting program single-season records with 71 catches for 840 yards. The depth chart behind him isn't overly experienced, but the Irish need just three of those six tight ends to be ready to play. A three tight end rotation gives the Irish plenty of options to use its 12 personnel effectively. It's obviously an asset to the run game, but with the unique skills of the Irish depth chart it also adds value to the pass game.
This is obviously true in the play-action game, but even in drop back throws. Notre Dame is more than willing to move Mayer around, something I think the Irish staff will expand on in 2022. That means the Irish can use him attached to the line in two tight end sets or they can line him up in other alignments (slot, as the boundary player, etc).
What Notre Dame needs is for a second legitimate pass catcher to emerge at the position. It can go two tight ends and keep the tight end in to block and release a back, or go with max protections and have Mayer running routes, and that can be effective, but it can't be all they do. Notre Dame needs a second tight end to emerge as a legit pass game weapon.
Berrong, Raridon and fellow freshman Holden Staes are players I'm keeping my eye on in this regard. They are very athletic players with a lot of pass game talent. If at least one of these young standouts can force their way onto the field it makes the 12 personnel grouping one that Notre Dame can rely on even heavier than it has in the past without having to hurt the pass game, which is essential.
Over-reliance on 12 personnel that is primarily a run blocking grouping can limit the effectiveness of the offense in the pass game, which can be especially problematic in the big games.
3) Use your running backs - Notre Dame can and also must use its running backs more effectively in the pass game and from a rotation standpoint. Injuries to Jadarian Price and Logan Diggs has created its own depth issues at running back, so using the 21 personnel (2 backs, 1 tight end, 2 receivers), 20 personnel (2 backs, 0 tight ends, 3 receivers) and 22 personnel (2 backs, 2 tight ends, 1 receiver) has to be a change up, it can't be something the staff can rely on for 25+ snaps a game.
But there is plenty Notre Dame can do with two-back alignments for at least 15-20 times a game if the wide receiver depth chart becomes an issue. It's something the Irish staff can do at least 5-10 times a game even if the wide receiver depth chart is rolling.
Here's an example:
This 20 personnel look doesn't really take the burden off the receivers, but the Irish could easily go with a 21 personnel look that replaces the WR2 or WR3 with Mayer, and he can line up and play all three of the spots show above.
This would give the Irish a very unique look, especially if Chris Tyree and Audric Estime are the two backs. Tyree is a major weapon in the pass game out of the backfield, which was obvious last season when he ripped off a pair of 50+ yard touchdown receptions. You can spread teams out with Tyree in the slot and have four pass game weapons, or you can keep him in the backfield and have some unique run game looks and use him out of the backfield as a pass game threat.
Keep in mind that both of his 50+ yard touchdowns last season were snaps where Tyree released from the backfield, not snaps where he was lined up out wide.
I really like the occasional 22 personnel option, which you can see here.
This isn't something you can use often, but it can be a very unique wrinkle that forces defenses to make some tough decisions. Do you go with heavy personnel of your own (putting an extra linebacker or safety on the field), which leaves you vulnerable to Notre Dame spreading out with its two tight ends or a tight end and a back. With Notre Dame's unique personnel, the offense could easily go to a 22 personnel look and have five legit pass catchers on the field, and can easily line up with four players lined up outside, which would create tough matchups for the defense if they go with a heavier alignment.
If a team stays with its skill players on the field it then gives Notre Dame some good looks in the run game.
4) Create more efficiency - Of course, the best way to limit reps is to have an efficient offense, which leads to an explosive offense. If the offense is efficient and explosive it will see a big jump in yards per play and limit the number of plays needed to get into the end zone. This might be listed last, but it's without question the most important to team success, but also very important to accomplishing the stated goal of this breakdown.
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