NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Notre Dame went into its bye week riding its best offensive performance of the season. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’s unit posted season highs with 45 points, 289 passing yards and 287 rushing yards for 576 total yards.
The Fighting Irish looked nothing like the unit that sputtered out of the gate in back to back flat performances against Ohio State and Marshall, There is still room for them to grow as they get set to play BYU this weekend. Rees shared some thoughts on several parts of his offense this week.
Freshman wide receiver Tobias Merriweather has become the white whale of Notre Dame fans this season. The former four-star receiver and No. 46 player in the 2022 recruiting class according to SI All-American has only been on the field for four snaps this season while the rest of the receiving corps has underwhelmed.
Notre Dame’s wide receivers have tallied just 29 receptions for 364 total yards through four games. Merriweather has more tangible skills like his 6-4 frame, good hands and speed to stretch the field farther than the 12.4 yards per reception average Irish receivers currently sport, but he lacks experience. So, how can Merriweather get more involved on game days?
"I think for any young player, how important it is that all parts of the game plan are prepared for because your number could be called at any point,” Rees stated. "We’ve had plays the last two weeks that are specifically tagged for him. We didn’t get to them in Cal because the game flow wasn’t exactly dictating what his strengths were. We didn’t get to them against Carolina again because the game flow, we were in a rhythm, we were rolling. It just didn’t happen, right?
"It’s not anything specific to Tobias,” Rees continued. "We’re building in opportunities each week. He’s shown to continue to build. He’s practicing at a higher level, all those things he needs to do as a young player to earn that time is happening. I think he’s going to continue to progress as the season goes on and have those opportunities to make some plays for us.”
Head coach Marcus Freeman said earlier this week that it’s important for any player, Merriweather included, who isn’t playing as much as he would like to seek feedback both from his position coach as well as his coordinator. Rees says Merriweather is not lacking in that department.
"Tobias has been great,” Rees said. "He knows what’s been in, he knows what hasn’t. He knows there’s opportunities for him. We talk constantly. He’s with Coach (Chansi) Stuckey all the time. There’s no lack of desire to play Tobias. We just have to continue to get him ready to go, and when his number is called he’ll be ready to play.”
The Evolution Of Drew Pyne
Junior quarterback Drew Pyne has shaken off his inauspicious relief appearance in the loss to Marshall since moving into the starting role the last two games. The junior is 41-57 (71%) for 439 yards with five touchdown passes and no interceptions in his two starts. Rees discussed the emphasis for Pyne going into his third career start this weekend.
"You guys are going to laugh, but all we talk about is doing your job,” Rees noted. "That obviously came out in a different way, but that’s the emphasis to the whole offense. If every guy can just, play in and play out, it doesn’t matter how big or how small your job is, if you can just focus on doing that, play with relentless effort, good things are going to come.
"Specific to Drew, certainly we want to start with a better tempo than we did the first two weeks,” Rees continued. “So, try to get him in a rhythm early. We’re looking at some specific things footwork wise to help with some of those drops. Continue knowing the offense, but really focus on yourself, doing your job, being the best leader and quarterback you can be for the team and go trust the trust he’s put in.”
The Three-Back Attack
Running backs Audric Estime (134 yards), Chris Tyree (104 yards) and Logan Diggs (115 yards) each had over 100 yards from scrimmage in the 45-32 win over North Carolina. Estime and Tyree both topped the century mark against Cal as well when Diggs was out of action. It's a substantial step up in production after the trio totaled 135 yards in the Ohio State (71) and Marshall (64) games combined.
"We’re evolving as the season goes on and we’re finding ways to produce, we’re finding ways to get touches to guys,” Rees explained. "When you have three talented running backs it can be a bit of a balancing act. (Running backs) Coach (Deland) McCullough has done a nice job of providing some insight on getting those guys ready with the plan. We have a lot of talented players. It’s my job to find ways to make sure they’re featured and can touch the ball. Those three certainly fall under that.
"Guys all over the field are executing at a little higher level,” Rees continued. "Everybody’s owning what they’re being asked to do. There’s no secret to success, no secret to any of this stuff. If guys can focus, if coaches can get guys prepared, if all people in the building can just focus on doing what’s required of us and doing that consistently, then good things are going to come. Our guys prepare the right way. We have to make sure they know what they’re doing, and we have to make sure we put them in position to execute on Saturdays.”
Chris Tyree’s Touches
Tyree was practically nonexistent in the Ohio State and Marshall games. Despite being on the field more than any of the three backs, Notre Dame’s most experienced back coming into the season lacked touches in the two losses.
Tyree had six rushes for 28 yards and one reception for six yards against the Buckeyes and three carries for 17 yards and two receptions for 14 yards vs Marshall. That’s 12 touches for 65 combined yards.
He became a go-to-guy against Cal and North Carolina, with 17 carries for 66 rushing yards and five receptions for 44 receiving yards versus the Bears and 15 rushes for 83 yards on the ground and four more catches 24 yards through the air against the Tar Heels.
"He’s worked hard for that,” Rees said of the spike in Tyree’s production the last two games. "We had a conversation after the Marshall game. He’s been a nucleus really of our success the last two years. You look at the team in ’20, he was a big part of that. You look at the team last year, before the injury, he was a big part of that. You look at Chris, you look at Mike (Mayer), you look at Braden (Lenzy). You’re looking at guys that have had critical roles on some successful teams, and Chris certainly in the middle of that.
"The challenge to Chris was, hey, we need more than what’s there,” continued Rees. “That’s been the challenge. He owned that the last two weeks. He’s a strong kid. Pound for pound, you ask (football performance) Coach (Matt) Balis, he might be as strong as anybody on our team. It’s always been part of his build and makeup, and I think he’s owning that part of the game. You see him running through some tackles, you see him getting extra yardage, you see him playing with a physicality and a toughness. Kudos to Chris. It’s a mentality he wants to have and own. He can do pretty much anything he wants on a football field. We’ve got to find ways to continue to feature him.”
The return of Harry Hiestand brought with it high expectations for an offensive line that underperformed in 2021. Fifth-year senior Jarrett Patterson’s move to left guard from center was slowed when he missed the opener due to a left foot injury. His replacement at center, senior Zeke Correll, took time to get comfortable in his role as well. Sixth-year senior Josh Lugg also moved to right guard after starting at right tackle most of last season, but Rees has seen steady progress from the unit since a slow start to the season.
"If you look at the collective five that are playing right now, this will be their fourth week really playing together in preparation,” Rees explained. "All spring ball, they didn’t have all five of them. Majority of camp, week didn’t have all five of them. The first prep and week, we didn’t have all five of them. You’re looking at a group that, although it has been anointed, they’re relatively young playing together. You’re seeing the dividends pay off the more time they have together, the more the communication.
"You see a more confident, more communicative Zeke Correll,” Rees continued. “You’re seeing tackles that are trusting what they’re doing and playing to their abilities. You’re seeing two veteran guys inside really own the group and demand the expectations of everybody. That position group especially takes time to jell. We’re on week four of those guys really playing together. We’re excited about the progress. If you guys know coach Hiestand, coach ain’t going to stop.”
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