There were a number of important storylines for the Notre Dame football team going into spring practice. The quarterback competition, turnover on the offensive line, the defensive backfield among them. Even the way spring ball was covered was a storyline, with the lack of media access and the three minute video clips. But, following spring ball the overwhelming story is what Notre Dame got from their 13 early enrollees and what roles they could play in the 2021 season.
Usually the prospect of multiple freshmen playing is unlikely, whatever school you are talking about. There has been a recent narrative that Kelly was loathe to play freshmen at all, and while that has faded in recent years (it has since shifted to just a specific position group) it’s not something you count on.
That could see a big change in 2021, with a couple freshmen challenging to start on the offensive line and a number of others looking ready to contribute.
The Big Three
I’m actually surprised the play of Blake Fisher, Rocco Spindler, and Tyler Buchner, especially the two linemen, isn’t a bigger story within the Notre Dame media right now. These were the three highest rated recruits in the 2021 recruiting class, they all play premium positions, and they all look like they are going to be hits for the staff.
Fisher and Spindler look like they have the inside track to start on the offensive line, which is not something that happens very often, but is generally looked at as a bad thing due to their youth and lack of college weight room development. It is often referenced that super star Quenton Nelson did not see the field as a freshman in 2014, so if he wasn’t all the way ready, how could these two be ready? (I find that kind argument a little strange, since no one considers that maybe he ought to have played since, you know, he’s Quenton Nelson.)
But, even if it’s true that they aren’t physically ready, they are clearly gifted enough in their football ability to make up for the lack of physicality to find themselves on the verge of being first teamers on offense. They can work on their strength every day from now until the season starts, and we know Notre Dame has one of the best strength coaches in the business, but Matt Balis can’t make them good football players if they don’t have the goods, and these two appear to have the goods. That’s a huge development for 2021 and beyond.
As for Buchner, he was clearly going to garner a lot of scrutiny due to his position and he looked exactly how you’d want, showing the upside, arm talent, and playmaking that everyone feels Notre Dame has been lacking at the position. It’s one thing to be making throws, it’s another to be making progressions while standing in the pocket and firing bullets.
The degree that Buchner’s lack of a senior season hurt his ability to truly compete for the starting job is impossible to know, but it’s easy to imagine it was definitive. He could not have reasonably been expected to be where Coan or even Pyne was this spring. But, with the progress and aptitude he has shown over the last four months, he is going to close that gap very quickly and when he does there is no skill set on the roster to match him.
Wide receiver Lorenzo Styles was consistently mentioned by those on the beat as being impressive in winter workouts (he earned a SWAT award from Matt Balis for his efforts) and during spring practices. He is taller than initially thought at 6-1, and held up physically against Marcus Freeman’s aggressive corners. His spot in the top six at wide receiver is likely solidified by the departure of Jordan Johnson, and he’ll have a chance to return punts this year, something he did very well in high school. He played to the field during the spring and his speed and post-catch abilities can be well utilized in a screen/RPO style offense.
Tight ends Cane Berrong and Mitchell Evans combined for 5 receptions and 70 yards in the spring game, with Evans showing more potential than anticipated as a receiver. There is a role as a third or fourth tight end to be had and both look like they could contribute should an injury force them up the depth chart.
Safety Justin Walters made a tremendous interception in the spring game, and was a consistent play maker in the video clips as well. As a player who was known for his run support abilities, if he’s a playmaker in coverage he could see the field sooner than expected. I’d say there is a 100% chance he plays on all of the coverage teams.
Corners Philip Riley and Ryan Barnes also made strides, especially Riley, who is in competition for the nickel corner role on the outside. He’s been seen working with the first team often, and while it’s unlikely he can beat out the trio of Cam Hart, Clarence Lewis, and TaRiq Bracy, he’s a good bet to see the field in more than four games next year.
I view it as a really big deal that it appears Notre Dame has hit on the three highest rated players on the recruiting class and that those three players are well positioned to be among the core of the team over the next few seasons. Left tackle, guard, and quarterback are key positions and beyond the youth considerations those players being hits is very important.