Notre Dame is coming off its best offensive performance of the season, and it heads into the bye week with some desperately needed momentum. Despite the 45 points and 576 yards against the porous North Carolina defense, the Irish offense is still averaging just 25 points and 369.3 yards per game.
One strong performance against a bad defense doesn't mean the unit has arrived, but it was certainly a step in the right direction. Over the next few days we'll break down areas that Notre Dame must show improvement coming out of the bye week, especially against a schedule of eight teams that include three currently ranked opponents, another unbeaten foe (Syracuse) and another 3-1 opponent (UNLV).
For the offense, the biggest concern even coming out of the victory over Carolina is the play of the wide receivers. If that unit doesn't make a big jump, and in a hurry, the Irish are going to struggle to put together a high quality offense, much less run the table. There are a number of adjustments that are needed.
GET STYLES ROLLING
Sophomore Lorenzo Styles had his first strong performance of the season (5 catches, 69 yards, 1 TD), and the biggest key is figuring out ways to get him more involved in the offense, and then Styles has to play harder and better.
Styles is too talented to produce the way he has through four games. His effort has been inconsistent and he has been visibly frustrated at times. That seems to have effected his play, which we saw especially against Marshall and California. Styles is still young and maturing as a player, and hopefully the performance against North Carolina springs him into a nice role.
His touchdown against North Carolina came with Styles in the slot, and he seemed to move around a bit more in recent games. Finding a spot he's most comfortable is part of that success, and against the Heels we saw that. Styles has the size and speed to play outside, but the reality is most of his production at Notre Dame has come with him in the slot.
We saw that against Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl, a game in which he caught eight passes for 136 yards. We saw against North Carolina on Saturday and in 2021. The reality is despite his physical tools being suited for the outside, Styles produces more inside. That kind of self-scouting needs to happen and the staff needs to start using him more inside moving forward, get him rolling, and then work for ways to get him production on the outside.
ADJUST LENZY'S ROLE
Notre Dame is starting to use fifth-year senior Braden Lenzy a bit more, but further adjustment is needed. Lenzy has started to do more in recent games on jets and shovels, and more of that is needed. That is in Lenzy's wheelhouse, and there is more the staff can do to get him going.
For one, Lenzy has been getting open on deep routes every game, but so far the quarterbacks have failed to get him the football. Designing a shot or two to get him the ball on a post, deep drag or a deep out from the inside are all ways to get Lenzy more deep shots instead of the straight go routes we have seen him get targeted with.
Lenzy is a complementary player, and he'll be better when others step up, but the staff still does not use him on enough on the concepts that fit his athleticism, fit his game and are areas where he has shown the ability to make big plays in the past.
MAKE ROLE PLAYERS ACTUAL ROLE PLAYERS
Notre Dame has a depth problem at wide receiver, and that issue is made even more substantial by the staff's insistence to keep the rotation the way it has used all season. That means making sophomore Jayden Thomas a prominent player from a snaps standpoint and continuing to have Matt Salerno be the next receiver off the bench.
This is not an advocation for Thomas or Salerno to be benched, because that's not the answer. Both bring value to the depth chart and both should be used in ways that help the team. The problem, however, is how they are used.
Thomas is basically a starter for Notre Dame when it comes out in 11 personnel. He has played between 30 and 58 snaps in each game, and he's averaging 42 snaps per game. In 168 total snaps this season, including 99 pass game snaps, Thomas has only been targeted eight times. Teams know he's not really a pass game threat right now, especially how he is being used.
Thomas struggles to separate vertically, and teams know it, and they play him for that. We saw ways he can help against North Carolina, and that must continue, but on a more limited basis. Putting a player on the field for over 40 snaps a game who threatens teams as little as he does is not an ideal use of the rotation.
Salerno's role is fine, and I really wouldn't do much to change it. My issue isn't that Salerno plays, it's who he is playing over.
PLAY MERRIWEATHER, NOW
I'm sick and tired of all the excuses Notre Dame coaches have used for years not to play young receivers. I hoped it would change under Marcus Freeman, but so far it has not. We hear the same "trust" word thrown around as a cop out not to play a very talented guy who clearly doesn't know the playbook as well as other players who aren't in the system.
The whole "Well he didn't arrive until the summer" excuse is also tired. You know who else didn't show up until the summer? Benjamin Morrison, who is currently starting at cornerback as a true freshman. Mike Mickens and Al Golden are showing trust in Morrison and he is rewarding.
It shouldn't always be up to the freshman to do all the work to prove himself, and it's hard to prove yourself when you don't play. We hear things like trust, yet the staff continues to put players on the field who have done things that shouldn't warrant the trust. Remember Thomas not fighting for a ball that ended up a pick six for Marshall? Drive killing penalties by fifth-year seniors? Your sophomore standout jogging off the ball when he knows he isn't going to get the ball?
Freshman Tobias Merriweather can do all of those negatives, but what he can do that none of the players I mentioned can do is be 6-4, run fast and make plays on the football. It's time to stop with the "trust" and "prove yourself" excuses. If the offense is too complex for Merriweather then make it less complex.
This will help the 2022 team and will also help Notre Dame on the recruiting trail, since they seem to be the only top program in the country who consistently struggles to get freshmen wideouts on the field unless an injury forces the issue, like we saw with Kevin Stepherson (Torii Hunter Jr.) in 2016 and Styles last season (Avery Davis, Joe Wilkins Jr.).
Merriweather is too good not to be playing more than four total snaps in four games. That's inexcusable, especially when you consider how bad the offense has been all season. Yes, they moved the ball and scored on North Carolina, but so did Appalachian State (61 points, 649 yards) and Georgia State (28 points, 421 yards). If you want to beat BYU, Clemson and USC it's time to stop making excuses and put the best players on the field.
SOMEONE MUST BREAKOUT
If the staff makes all the necessary changes it still comes down to the players making the plays. Right now my biggest complaint is that offensive coordinator Tommy Rees isn't doing enough to utilize certain players to fit their skills, and is instead running the stuff he wants and then fitting players into that. Freeman needs to demand that from his OC.
I want to see him adjust more to the specific players, and then do whatever it takes to get Merriweather (and eventually Deion Colzie when he gets back to full strength after getting four snaps against UNC) on the field more. There's no excuse not do to do that. Give Merriweather and Colzie more snaps (and throw them the ball when you put them in), continue to evolve Lenzy's role, find ways to get Styles more comfortable and adjust the rotation.
There's an opportunity for this group to shine against teams who aren't terrible on defense as well, they just have to be used correctly, and when that happens the players need to step up, compete harder, and start to make more plays.
If you can combine that with the production we are seeing from star tight end Michael Mayer, and the run and pass game production the backs are producing in recent games, you all of a sudden have the makings of the dynamic offense we thought we would see coming into the season.
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