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College Football Preview 2022: 3. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Michael Mayer, Notre Dame

3. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Continuity on the coaching staff and plenty of playmakers set up the Irish for their third CFB Playoff appearance

2021 Review
The start of the 2021 season was a chaotic one for Notre Dame, as they survived two serious upset bids in the first two weekends. They overcame a comeback attempt from McKenzie Milton and Florida State, then outlasted Toledo in South Bend. After beating Purdue and Wisconsin, the Irish faced off with Cincinnati in a game with major CFB Playoff implications. They fell behind early to the Bearcats and never recovered, losing 24-13. The Irish recovered to win their next eight contests, but none were able to significantly move the needle and boost their resume. Cincinnati used their victory over Notre Dame to secure a CFB Playoff berth, while the Irish were relegated to the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State. After building a lead, ND was the victim of a comeback from the Cowboys, losing 37-35 to drop them to 11-2 on the year. Irish fans can't be upset with a New Year's Six bowl appearance, but there has to be a feeling that 2021 could have been even more. With Brian Kelly off to LSU, new head man Marcus Freeman will be tasked with returning the Irish to the Playoff field.

2022 Outlook
Offense: Jack Coan was a superb one-year rental for the Irish, as the Wisconsin transfer threw for 3,150 yards and 25 touchdowns. His departure will leave Notre Dame looking for a new player to run the show offensively.

Both Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne saw action a year ago, with Buchner playing in ten games. He's the frontrunner to win the job, a true sophomore who had his ups-and-downs passing the ball, but who can add an element with his legs. He'll benefit from another year working with offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, who didn't follow Kelly to Baton Rouge.

Whoever takes over at QB will have a new backfield mate, as Kyren Williams left for the NFL after surpassing the 1,000-yard mark for the second straight year. Fortunately, sophomore Chris Tyree has flashed serious potential the last two seasons and should be ready to show what he can do. He's among the fastest players anywhere in college football and will give this offense real playmaking ability. Also returning is Logan Diggs, who had 230 yards in 2021.

Notre Dame got bad news just before the start of the season, with wide out Avery Davis set to miss the entire year. That will force others in this receiving corps to step up, namely names like Braden Lenzy and Lorenzo Styles. Lenzy has had his moments but is still awaiting the real breakthrough, while Styles had a productive 2021 campaign. Keep an eye on sophomore Deion Colzie, who may be the most talented receiver in the entire room.

Notre Dame has a long tradition of success at the tight end position and yet, Michael Mayer has a chance to conclude his career as one of the best in program history. He was a security blanket for Coan last fall, hauling in 71 receptions for 840 yards. He earned All-American honors last season and is my pick to win the John Mackey Award. 

The Irish tend to use two tight end sets, so it will be interesting to see whether someone else emerges at the position alongside Mayer. Sophomore Mitchell Evans played in all 13 games last year, but was little used. That could change, as the Irish will look to include others in the passing attack to take some of the pressure off Mayer.

Few programs in college football develop the offensive line better than Notre Dame. They were inexperienced along this group last season and still played well, so expect this to be a Joe Moore Award contender in 2022. Center Jarrett Patterson is the anchor, an All-American a season ago who has a chance to be first-round selection in the NFL Draft. The tackles aren't quite as strong, but the Irish are hopeful sophomore Joe Alt can continue his growth. He started eight games in 2021 and looks to be the next star at the position.

Keeping Rees was a huge win for Marcus Freeman and this entire offense. There is a lot of comfortability here, which will keep the unit centered as they break in a new quarterback. With Mayer, Tyree, and a strong offensive line the core is in place to have another successful campaign.

Defense: Freeman's promotion to head coach means that Al Golden will be running the show on defense in 2022. Golden was formerly the head coach at Miami before spending the last half-decade in the NFL. His return to the collegiate game shouldn't be a major adjustment, particularly with how well ND develops this side of the ball.

Sophomore Isaiah Foskey flashed ample potential in 2020 before a breakout season a year ago. He had 52 tackles and 11 sacks, developing into one of the most fearsome pass rushers in the nation. He'll command double and triple teams this season, but it's still a fair bet he will ravage opposing backfields. 

Senior defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola joins Foskey as a proven commodity along the defensive front, but the rest of the unit isn't quite as proven. Sophomore Rylie Mills appears to have a good shot at locking down the other defensive end spot, while sophomore Howard Cross and Harvard transfer Chris Smith battle for snaps at nose guard. There's not as much experience here as in year's past, but this is a position group you always feel comfortable ND will develop.

Linebacker should be a strength, even after the Irish lose Drew White, their No. 2 tackler in 2021. Senior Bo Bauer is likely to man the middle linebacker spot and the long, athletic linebacker should have a big year. He's played a bunch of football in his career and will play an important leadership role. Alongside him will be J.D. Bertrand, who led the team in tackles last season. Behind them, keep an eye on newcomer Jaylen Sneed, one of the big names in this year's recruiting class. Sneed impressed during the spring and could be ready to play earlier than expected.

There's no getting around it, losing safety Kyle Hamilton is huge for the Irish. Hamilton was a true sideline-to-sideline defender, and a constant presence on the back-end. Fortunately, Notre Dame got quite the replacement in Northwestern transfer Brandon Joseph. Joseph had a huge 2020 for the Wildcats and proved to be a disruptive force. He is expected to slide right into Hamilton's vacated free safety spot, while veteran Houston Griffith handles strong safety.

The Irish should be strong at corner, with two proven pieces in Clarence Lewis and Cam Hart, as well as a nice depth. Lewis built on an impressive freshman season last year, but ND is hoping he can become even more of a playmaker in 2022. Senior TaRiq Bracy and redshirt freshman Philip Riley are ready to step in and contribute if needed.

Golden is hoping to repair his broken image in 2022 and should have the tools to do so. The Irish should be able to make do on the back-end if Joseph can come in and make an immediate impact, and the front seven has real star power. I think this has a chance to be a Top 10 defense nationally.

Special Teams: Things are a bit unsettled on special teams, as the Irish must replace both Jay Bramblett and Jonathan Doerer. ND is hoping that Arkansas State kicker Blake Grupe can come on and handle the important role, but redshirt frosh Josh Bryan may also have a shot. A transfer may also be the starting punter, as Harvard transplant Jon Snot was a multi-time All-Ivy selection and now arrives in South Bend.

Bottom Line: As shocking as the Brian Kelly departure was, Notre Dame did a fine job establishing continuity by promoting Freeman and keeping most of their assistants. That's good news for a program that has been among the most consistent anywhere in the nation over the last half-decade and is fresh off an 11-2 season. Freeman has plenty to work with on both sides of the ball and a legitimate superstar in Mayer leading the offense. The schedule will test Notre Dame's chances, but the reality is that it will also give them plenty of opportunities to boost their resume. They open up in Columbus against Ohio State, and also square off with BYU, Clemson, and USC. Even so, this is a program I trust to figure things out, and I think Freeman will keep them rolling. I like them to return to the CFB Playoff for the third time this year, but the key is to do more once they get there. Both times they've faced elite teams, the eventual National Champions, but the next step for ND as a program is to start showing up on the sport's largest stages.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Marcus Freeman has had a quick ascent through the coaching ranks. Just over a decade ago, he was a grad assistant at Ohio State, now he's head coach of one of the sport's largest brands. His breakthrough came as Cincinnati DC, which earned him a spot on the Notre Dame staff prior to becoming head man. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees was a former quarterback here who has been coaching with the program since 2017. He flirted with the idea of following Kelly to LSU but instead opted to stay in South Bend. Replacing Freeman as defensive coordinator will be Al Golden, former head coach at Temple and Miami. Although his time with the 'Canes ended poorly, he's still well-respected around college football coaching circles.

Recruiting Breakdown
While Brian Kelly was a good recruiter, there are some wondering if Marcus Freeman may end up being an upgrade in that department. He kept together the 2022 Class, which finished seventh in the 247Sports Composite. The headliner is linebacker Jaylen Sneed, a major get from SEC country who came on during the spring and impressed. He has a chance to see immediate playing time, even in a position group where ND has plenty of veterans. The trenches were reinforced by the arrivals of defensive linemen Tyson Ford and offensive linemen Billy Schrauth and Aamil Wagner. Ford was wanted by a lot of the sport's big boys but ended up deciding on Notre Dame, while Schrauth and Wagner are local Midwest signees who should develop quickly in this program. One other name to watch is wide out Tobias Merriweather, a dangerous weapon on the perimeter who chose ND over Oregon. 

2022 X-Factor: Chris Tyree, RB
Notre Dame is hoping quarterback Tyler Buchner can come on and adjust quickly to the starting quarterback role, but the reality is that the offense is going to lean on the ground game early on. With Kyren Williams off to the NFL, that means Tyree is going to have to show what he can do. He's flashed serious upside backing up Williams the last two seasons, but is he ready for a feature role? Williams was a dang good running back, but Tyree is a speed demon who could end up being more elusive. He won't be as ground-and-pound, but could help open up this Notre Dame offense a bit more. If he can take the leap, there's less questions about this offense, and it should help set Buchner up for success with him in the backfield.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 11-1
Offensive MVP: TE Michael Mayer
Defensive MVP: DE Isaiah Foskey
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Deion Colzie
Impact Freshman: LB Jaylen Sneed

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