On Tuesday, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly participated in “The Fight-The Day We Fight For Our Notre Dame Family,” an online fundraiser towards Covid-19 relief efforts. Pete Byrne of WSBT radio interviewed him, and they covered several topics regarding the shutdown. One particular topic caught my attention, and it was regarding young players for the upcoming season, Kelly spoke generally about early enrollees initially and then said this
…I will say this, for our Notre Dame fans, a true freshman will emerge and play significant time on both sides of the ball. We saw that last year with Kyle Hamilton and the impact he made a freshman All-American. You’re going to see that this year in 2020.
On both sides of the ball.
Since anyone playing on both sides of the ball is pretty rare, the first question I had was is he talking about special teams. He did make the comparison to Kyle Hamilton, who didn’t play offense but did play special teams. But, coaches don’t really refer to special teams as a side of the ball, because it isn’t. No, I believe when Kelly says, both sides of the ball, he’s talking about offense and defense.
Of course, Kelly doesn’t specify who that could be, and there are a few candidates, so let’s dig in to try and figure this out.
Chris Tyree, RB
Tyree fits the first part of the criteria in that he figures to play significant minutes in at least one spot on offense. He’s the only speed back on the team, and he’s a five-star talent who comes in with tons of fanfare. The chances of him playing a lot on offense are very high. So, he’s going to get significant minutes.
But, what of the defensive part of this? Does that make sense? Yes and no.
Tyree was an excellent corner as a sophomore and junior, and he stated that a lot of schools initially saw him as a corner. At his size, and the fact that he’d be playing offense, Notre Dame wouldn’t want him on the boundary or the field, so a natural place for him is in the slot. Other than Shaun Crawford, the Irish haven’t really had anyone capable of playing the slot effectively, and Tyree, probably the fastest guy on the roster, would be a pretty good fit there.
Thing is though, Shaun Crawford is still on the roster, and with the addition of grad transfer Nick McCloud, they won’t need him at the boundary corner spot, so a top three of TaRiq Bracy, Crawford, and McCloud seems pretty likely. Do they want to give Tyree reps on defense as a backup when he’s their home run threat at running back?
Michael Mayer, TE
With the departure of Cole Kmet to the NFL, Mayer figured to have the chance to play significant time at tight end, with senior Brock Wright and junior Tommy Tremble. Notre Dame has always played at least three tight ends, so the five-star freshman figures to be in that mix.
He also played a good bit of linebacker in high school, showing tremendous athleticism in the middle. Given the bodies on defense at linebacker though, and the nuance of having to learn blocking schemes, plus pass routes, it’d be tough to see Mayer moving to the other side of the ball to split time, frankly at any point in his career.
Xavier Watts, WR
Watts is a fascinating case because he doesn’t really fit the most important criteria, and that’s figuring to get significant time on at least one side of the ball. There are lots of numbers at wide receiver right now, so it’s hard to see Watts doing anything more than cracking the rotation at receiver, which is hard to call significant. Watts did impress observers at Notre Dame’s lone spring practice, though, and when you hear remarks that his body looked like that of an upperclassman rather than an early enrollee, that’s when things start rolling.
Watts very much does fit the criteria in that he was an excellent safety in high school, and some have surmised this might be his best position. He’s got good size, excellent range, is aggressive, and possesses very good ball skills. The thought of him playing safety is very enticing.
He does have a bit of an opening as well, with the departures of captains Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman to the NFL. Only one safety spot is locked up, by Kyle Hamilton, though Houston Griffith and Isaiah Pryor figure to have a leg up on Watts should he make the move to defense. Still, though, if Griffith and Pryor are slotted for the same safety position, Hamilton will need a backup, and he and Watts possess similar games.
That said, it doesn’t make sense if they thought Watts was going to be a safety, not to have him move there permanently.
If Notre Dame is thinking of having a freshman go both ways, I’ll guess it’s Tyree. I think with a player of his caliber, they just want him on the field as much as possible, and with a potential need in the secondary, it makes sense to move him there, since he has that experience from high school.
In general, I’d bet against him going both ways. It’s such a rare thing in today’s game, especially for a very young player. And Brian Kelly has been pretty conservative in the past, and this is the opposite of that. But, it’s a strange time, so who knows what might be coming.