Preseason Grab Bag

Peacock

As much as I understand the impulse to critique the decision to make the home opener a paid Peacock exclusive from an impartial, dispassionate perspective, accounting for all the seemingly reasonable drivers involved — it was something of an inevitability, it’s where streaming media is headed, it’s a business decision and a trial balloon with FITV expansion in mind, blah blah blah — you won’t find me caping for Jack Swarbrick and NBC executives here. Why? Because none of us are actually obligated to spend our precious time caring about the high-level business angle of this (any?) issue. I’d invite you to do the same, because it’s less a problem of being change-resistant and more about viewers being subject to yet another blatant cash grab, one more in a long string of losses for regular people in the streaming wars. I can’t and won’t blame Notre Dame’s captive audience for feeling mildly disrespected by the new paywall. No need to waste your breath defending this move.

How does this translate for alumni clubs hosting gamewatches (that are functionally important fundraising events) at bars that may not have an expanded cable package, and are unaware of the change or unable to figure out the mechanics in time for the game? What about diehards in South Bend and across the country who never miss an Irish game, but don’t have the means to add another subscription service to their monthly bill? All cool-headed discussion of Where TV Is Going aside, it’s a loss for the actual end consumers of the product, especially in the sense that Peacock is (already!) maligned for app glitches and a subpar viewing experience. At least it’s only Toledo, but you have to figure this will end up being at least an annual occurrence from here on out. Thumbs down.

Shamrock Series Unis

They’re fine! Feels like ND and Under Armour are playing the expectations game with us, letting the design slip ahead of time in an offensively bland retail form and “exceeding” expectations when things are not quite as objectionable as they seem. Football uniforms look better on football players, so let’s maybe do a better job keeping the proprietary info private until the time is right, fellas.

Mostly, they’re another tick in the “inoffensive but arguably unnecessary” alternate jersey column. As critical as Notre Dame Twitter can be when UA swings big and misses big (as a normal, Yankees-hating baseball fan, I’m still not over that crossover event), shooting your shot on these one-offs is a worthwhile exercise. As others have pointed out, using the same lettering as the Green Bay Packers, the Bears’ PRIMARY RIVALS, and claiming that it’s somehow an ode to the city of Chicago is downright laughable, but on the other hand, who cares. They’re fine. Who cares.

WR

What’s the highest leverage (and perhaps lowest floor) position on the field for 2021’s Fighting Irish? I’d argue that it’s almost certainly wide receiver, with nearly all likely contributors relative unknowns. Avery Davis was a reliable contributor and occasional hero last year, but having him as the only truly known quantity is not an ideal situation.

Lawrence Keys’ best game to date (a relatively low bar to clear, sure) in blue and gold came on the road against the Georgia Bulldogs. We know what Braden Lenzy is capable of, having seen him run Southern Cal ragged. Kevin Austin is something of a practice field hall-of-famer, generating regular comparisons to former studs like Chase Claypool. But we’ve mostly seen them not contribute for one reason or another — like I said, the floor is low. At a certain point, the hype train needs to stop building steam and actually leave the station, but patience is especially advisable in Austin’s case, as he works his way back from surgery.

As valuable as Michael Mayer and the Williams/Tyree double-headed monster will be, a brand new quarterback cannot live on tight end shallow crosses and running back dump-offs alone. There’s no real reason one or two underclassmen can’t break the stale “young receivers don’t see the field under Brian Kelly” narrative, but it’s far from a guarantee. Point being, the Irish have more than enough talent at wideout (BK described their summer progress as “transformational” and singled out Joe Wilkins in particular) to operate an explosive, modern offense. Will they perform consistently enough to help Jack Coan settle into his role and allow Tommy Rees to open up the playbook? Your guess is as good as mine.

Alex note: We’d be remiss to put together a preseason roundup that didn’t at least touch on Shiny New Toys. If we’re honest with ourselves, the odds that an underclassmen receiver on this roster breaks out and becomes a meaningful contributor are low. Listen to Cam Hart’s comments on the Inside the Garage podcast about his time at receiver early at ND, and it’s clear that Del Alexander values trust over traits. Trust that his guys know the playbook, that they know defensive coverages and blocking assignments, that they’ll be in the right spot at the right time — that’s no small feat for a player making the transition to the college game. From the outside looking in, it’s easy to feel like all a guy needs to do at receiver to be a difference maker is GET OPEN. Hell, in some offenses it kind of is. Not so for the Irish position group, or the Irish offense in general.

So when you hear that Lenzy, Keys, and Wilkins have made transformational changes to their bodies and approach to their game (and that Austin is just plain healthy), keep in mind that they’ve already got the trust part down. That leaves you with Avery Davis (who is straight-up essential to this offense), four seniors who are pretty much locked in, and a frankly shocking experience gap between them and the talented underclassmen on the roster. Even with the position’s gigantic question marks, when you add in the targets that absolutely must go to Mayer, Williams, and Tyree, there actually aren’t a lot of opportunities for the young guys if everyone is healthy (a big if, to be sure).

That said, the future looks bright. You’ve probably heard about the back-to-back homeruns hit in the ‘22 recruiting class with the commitments of CJ Williams and Tobias Merriweather — both prospects with legit #1 receiver upside. And for this year’s class, the reports out of camp so far seem promising. Jayden Thomas is up to a linebacker-esque 215 lbs. and evidently stands out physically amongst the receivers. Deion Colzie has been described by Pete Sampson as someone who the staff already feels confident will be a recruiting hit. Lorenzo Styles, the top-ranked member of the group, is running with the second team at X behind Lenzy (you can already see the path to playing time there, and it’s much more direct than sitting behind Davis and Keys in the slot like most anticipated). Maybe one of these guys is the kind of freshman BK described in his opening Spring press conference, someone who isn’t “drinking out of a firehose” in the early days of their college transition. If so, we could use them on the field. And if not, they sure as hell better be ready come 2022.

Turnover

The Irish boast one of the lowest returning production rates in the country (only BYU, Northwestern, Temple, and South Carolina return less), but I think it’s safe to say there won’t be a vacuum of leadership, let alone anything like what we saw back in 2016. There’s shoo-in captain candidates like Kyle Hamilton and Jarrett Patterson, but I’m buying low on Houston Griffith here, captain’s C or no — after a flirtation with the transfer portal, all accounts point to him gelling with Marcus Freeman’s scheme (playing next to the best defender in the country will help). Brian Kelly made retaining Griffith an offseason priority, and it sounds like that paid dividends in terms of his recommitment to the program. Not to put too much stock into social media, but he’s been all over the official comms, most recently palling around with Kyren Williams for the Wisconsin game uniform reveal. There’s a sense of building confidence around Griffith that we haven’t seen before. It’s his time.

Recruiting

Not much to add to this conversation except to note how rad it is that Notre Dame continues to set itself up for continued success through, at the very least, the middle of our current decade. Quite simply, I didn’t grow up with that, and it’s so enjoyable to be comfortable in the assertion that the Irish will be a major player for years to come. Marcus Freeman has been the genuine game-changer (err, recruiting-changer) he was advertised as, but Tommy Rees (and Del Alexander!) aren’t letting the newbie outpace them by much.

Of course, ND won’t close out the 2022 class with a #1 ranking, but they continue to put in the work and get results that could ultimately help close the gap between very good and great. College football’s driving force may be entropy, but it’s also self-perpetuating (at the tippy top) to a degree, as the rich get richer and richer. There’s levels to it, of course, but Notre Dame seemingly reaching the point where success is begetting more success, thanks to the continued growth of a rock-solid coaching staff and consistent player buy-in, rocks.

Alex note: The recruiting subplot of this season is one I won’t be able to get out of my head as things unfold. Yes, I do have a perhaps unhealthy recruiting fixation — but recruiting legitimately does win championships in this game. It’s easy to see this season truly as a transitional year for the program, where a grad transfer bridge QB guides a talented but flawed team through a challenging but certainly manageable schedule to an 11-1 or 10-2 regular season and a gutsy win in a NY6 bowl. In a dream world where we run the table, it’s almost inevitable that this team would get eviscerated in a playoff matchup. Is that the ultimate goal for this program? Absolutely not. Will crotchety fans and gleeful trolls alike still spotlight the gap between us and college football’s elite? Absolutely, yes.

But if you keep the engine humming and this train rolls its way to another double-digit win regular season, that’s how you build on this recruiting momentum. That’s how you lock down a 2023 recruiting class that could legitimately add multiple 5* talents. We’ve already won a battle against the Buckeyes for an Ohio blue-chipper and another one has a brother on the Irish roster right now (plus Freeman is the king of Ohio recruiting). The 2023 class also features a legit 5* linebacker from Indiana who seems to be leaning Irish — we’ve seen before how crucial keeping close-to-home guys like that is for the program. Oh, and a Midwest all-everything 5* quarterback looks to be heavily considering teaming up with Rees and one of the nation’s best receiver prospects, who by all accounts has ND in his top two schools, in South Bend. 

There will be myriad recruiting rumors, on-campus officials, and Crystal Balls along the way, but we’re fighting for a different level of prospect here. And when they’re visiting campus officially this fall, it sure as hell helps the cause when you win the game they’ve come to see. A successful, top-10 type of season in what we expect to be a down year is absolutely vital to making a strong impression on elite recruits, securing their signatures, and developing them into the title contending teams of the future. We’ve got a long way to go to get there, but seeing a legitimate championship run in the BK era through my rose-colored glasses is getting easier than ever.

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