In almost every season the nation’s best programs have breakout players emerge, and sometimes those breakouts come from up-and-coming younger players, while other times it’s a veteran.
For veterans, it is often their last chance to make an impact on the roster. In recent seasons we’ve seen players like Miles Boykin, Tony Jones Jr., Dexter Williams and most recently Javon McKinley all see significant jumps in production in their final season. Early in Brian Kelly’s tenure we saw similar breakouts from players like Jonas Gray (2011), Mike Golic Jr. (2012) and Ben Koyack (2014).
There are plenty of players that fall into that category for the Notre Dame offense heading into spring. A breakout from them means the offense gets a big shot in the arm, but their failure to emerge in their last chance to make a splash will likely result in them getting passed up.
BRADEN LENZY, WIDE RECEIVER — Lenzy teased us with explosive playmaking ability in 2019, but the inability to stay healthy has kept him from making a significant impact. The Portland, Ore. native touched the ball just 20 times in 2019, but he had gains of 70, 61, 52, 51, 43 and 24 yards.
Lenzy has game-changing speed, and when he’s healthy we’ve seen it do just that, change games. Lenzy has had a multitude of injuries, from concussions to muscle issues, and just when he seems poised to become a focal point of the offense he goes down again.
He wasn’t healthy for the entire 2020 season and touched the ball just 10 times for 71 yards.
Notre Dame’s coaching staff is in a tough spot. There’s a clear desire to get Lenzy going, because they know he can add the kind of speed and explosiveness Kelly always says the offense lacks. But you can’t spend a lot of time and energy building your offense around a player like Lenzy when you never know if he’s going to be on the field from week to week.
A focused, hungry and healthy Lenzy would give the offense a major, major weapon. If he can’t stay healthy this spring he’ll find himself getting passed up. The coaches simply cannot continue to eat up snaps with a guy who can’t stay on the field. It’s now or never time for Lenzy.
Classmate Kevin Austin could be discussed in this space as well, but with his postseason surgery he will get his last chance to make an impact in fall camp.
GEORGE TAKACS, TIGHT END — Takacs was a four-star recruit when he arrived at Notre Dame, and he’s played well in the limited instances that he’s been on the field. A loaded depth chart has made it difficult for Takacs to get on the field. Takacs is now the veteran, and he enters spring with a great chance to secure the No. 2 tight end role, which means a lot of snaps and a healthy dose of targets in the pass game.
He will have a number of younger players breathing down his neck. Sophomore Kevin Bauman now has a season under his belt and he’ll make a charge this spring, and freshman Cane Berrong is going to be extremely hard to keep off the field this season.
Takacs needs a strong spring to stay locked into the No. 2 role. Any slip up or any missed time will result in Berrong or Bauman, or possibly both, passing him up on the depth chart. If Takacs finally taps into his potential he gives Notre Dame a huge and athletic target in the pass game and an effective blocker.
A tight end rotation with Michael Mayer, Takacs and either Berrong or Bauman would give the Irish a group capable of dominating the best of opponents.
DILLAN GIBBONS, GUARD AND JOHN DIRKSEN — Gibbons and Dirksen are now the veterans at guard, and both will get a shot to win a starting job. Gibbons, a fifth-year senior, likely enters the spring as the number one player on the depth chart at left guard. Gibbons got action against Florida State last season when Liam Eichenberg went out with an eye injury, and he got the start against Syracuse. Gibbons played well in both games, but he’ll need to be more consistent and stay healthy this spring if he’s going to hold off the talented younger players behind him.
He’ll have to battle talented junior Andrew Kristofic and talented young blockers like Michael Carmody and Rocco Spindler if he wants to hang onto that top spot.
The same is true for Dirksen, who is now a senior. He was the backup right guard last season, but the same young players that will push Gibbons are also candidates to push him at right guard. Dirksen doesn’t have nearly the experience that Gibbons possesses, so he’ll need to start strong and finish strong to have a chance to go into the fall with a shot to battle for the starting job.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see elite freshman Blake Fisher get a shot at guard at some point in the very near future if the veterans aren’t up to the challenge or the younger players aren’t pushing hard enough. Fisher is gifted and might be too hard to keep off the field, and guard could be his quickest path to playing time.
JOSHUA LUGG, TACKLE/GUARD — Lugg is on his list or a different reason. He’s not in jeopardy of losing his job like the four players listed above. For Lugg there are two questions facing him this spring, what position will he play and will he finally tap into his immense potential.
Lugg ranked as the No. 120 player in the country in the 2017 class, and he was an Army All-American. Classmates Robert Hainsey and Aaron Banks emerged as top starters, and both are about to become professionals. Lugg has been a swing player the last two seasons, getting starts at right tackle, right guard and center.
Now it’s Lugg’s chance to become a dominant blocker on one of the nation’s best lines. Lugg has excellent size, he’s a quality athlete at that size and he has power. The pieces are there for him to put them together and become a great player. Lugg breaking out this spring would be huge for Notre Dame, and he could combine with Jarrett Patterson to give the Irish a pair of talented and veteran players to build around.
Lugg played very well in his five starts at right tackle in 2019, if he can build on that this spring and start to turn his potential into dominant production we could be talking about where he gets drafted a year from now.
Past Spring Previews
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