A lot has been said about the use of freshmen by Brian Kelly and Notre Dame – or the lack thereof. Freshmen have played a vital role in Notre Dame’s run to the Playoffs, though – and we’re talking about true freshmen here, not redshirt freshmen.
The main gripes of Notre Dame fans when it comes to freshmen this year is that Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts have mainly stayed on the sidelines, when they’ve dressed/traveled, while the Notre Dame passing game at times could have used some additional speed and athleticism. Never was that more apparent than the second Clemson contest. At the same time, the Irish receiving corps led by Javon McKinnley and Avery Davis were plenty athletic enough the first time out versus Clemson.
While the freshmen wide receivers have been spectators most of the season, plenty of other members of Notre Dame’s 2020 recruiting class have played big roles
Michael Maye (TE)
It didn’t take long for Mayer to become an integral part of the Notre Dame passing attack. Mayer made his presence felt in the season-opener showing fans why he earned the nickname “Baby Gronk” from teammates in camp (even if the handle doesn’t sit well with all Notre Dame fans). He hauled in three passes for 38 yards in the first game of his career. Two games later, he found the endzone for the first time in his career.
Mayer saved some of his best performances for Clemson. In the first contest, Mayer caught five passes for 67 yards after having a rough first quarter that featured a couple of uncharacteristic mistakes from the rookie. Last weekend he caught another five passes for 51 yards – one of the few bright spots for the Irish.
Mayer ended the season with 388 yards on 35 receptions with two touchdowns. Surprisingly, he jumped Tommy Tremble in the passing game with Tremble being relegated to more on an in-line blocking tight end – albeit one hell of a good one.
Mayer has 1st round draft pick potential written all over him if he builds on his freshman season. He is the kind of player that could start for pretty much any program in the country – including the one the Irish face on January 1.
Chris Tyree (RB)
No one should be shocked that Chris Tyree had an impact during his freshman season – almost every “immediate impact” article about the class of 2020 had Tyree listed prominently. Notre Dame didn’t have a speed back on the roster, and there were many questions about the running back position as a whole heading into the season.
It took Tyree a little longer to make an impact than Mayer – one whole week longer. In the second game of the season against South Florida, Tyree found the endzone while rushing eight times for 65 yards. In the third game of the season, Tyree ran for 103 yards on just 11 carries against Florida State, including a 45-yard touchdown run.
For some reason, Tyree didn’t get a single carry against Clemson until the Irish trailed 34-3 in the fourth quarter. On his first – and only – carry, he raced 21 yards untouched for the only Notre Dame touchdown of the day. Why that was his first and only carry, I don’t know.
Tyree ended the season with 480 yards on 68 attempts (7.1 yards per attempt) with four touchdowns.
It’s clear that Tyree is the kind of athlete that Notre Dame needs more of in games like the ACC Championship and the Playoffs. We’ll see if Tyree is used more against Alabama.
Clarence Lewis (CB)
I don’t think anyone saw the decline of Tariq Bracy coming in 2020, but it opened up the door for Clarence Lewis starting for the Irish down the stretch. Bracy actually looked like an ascending player early in the year, but his struggles led to Lewis’s insertion into the starting lineup.
Teams targetted the frosh, but he’s held his own. Syracuse, for instance, tried to go the route of death by 1,000 paper cuts by victimizing Lewis with out route after out route because Lewis was giving a bug cushion. However, he kept everything in front of him and tackled well – just what his coaches asked him to do.
Lewis looks like he will be a mainstay in the secondary for the next few years. Not bad for a 3-star recruit who wasn’t at the top of too many people’s lists for impact freshmen a year ago.
Jordan Botelho (DE)
He hasn’t played a ton of meaningful defensive snaps, but when he’s been on the field, Jordan Botelho has made his presence felt. He has also been an absolute nightmare for the opposition’s coverage units on special teams. Do you know who else was a terror on special teams before breaking out on defense? Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
The only knock on Botelho this year is that, at times, he has been too aggressive. The Notre Dame coaching staff needs to find a way to harness that aggressiveness without sacrificing any of the playmaking ability he’s capable of.
He’ll primarily stay on special teams this year. Still, next year between he and Isaiah Foskey, they should form the kind of duo at DROP that Notre Dame envisioned Julian Okwara and Daelin Hayes would be in 2019 before injuries killed that dream.
Rylie Mills (DT)
If this were like five or six years ago, Rylie Mills probably would have been forced into a starting role before he was ready for it – ala Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa in 2017. Notre Dame has improved its defensive line recruiting and depth enough, however, that Mills only played a small, situational role as a true freshman instead of just being thrown to the wolves. In limited action, though, Mills showed a lot of promise.
There were times this year when Mills was really impressive. The Syracuse game specifically was one example. Watching Mills that day, it was pretty clear that the youngster has a lot of potential.
Mills probably won’t play a ton against Alabama – unless things get ugly – but he did some good things this year and should be ready for a much more prominent role in 2021. Assuming Jayson Ademilola starts at DT, Mills figures to be his primary backup.