Let’s start with the basic premise that for every championship team in any sport, the stars have to be stars. Players like Kyren Williams, Kevin Austin, Michael Mayer, Jarrett Patterson, and Kyle Hamilton have to be great for the Notre Dame football team in 2021. The team that ultimately holds the trophy at the end of the year, the stars have shown up. You can’t climb the mountain top on the shoulders of role players.
That being said, title teams usually have that one or two players who are a little too much for the opposition to handle because they cannot be matched up against, due to the attention other players receive. These are players who aren’t quite stars but can be definitive on a game-to-game basis. Sometimes a team can be so dominant they don’t need an under-the-radar difference maker (think Alabama last season), but think of the effect Clyde Edwards-Helaire had for LSU in 2019 or Amari Rodgers for Clemson in 2018.
And it isn’t just an offensive phenomenon. During Jeremiah Owusu-Karomoah’s break out in 2019, he was a notable player going into the season, but the focus was rightly on Alohi Gilman, Khalid Kareem, and Julian Okwara. JOK became one problem too many for the offense and he wrecked them to the tune of 80 tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss.
It’s been a budding storyline the last few seasons that Notre Dame was accumulating a depth of talent to where the top-line players weren’t A+ prospects, but the lower-tiered players were several cuts above what had been the norm in the past. What we’ve got now is a situation where the Irish actually have a few A- to A+ prospects–Hamilton, Mayer, Austin, Williams–that the accumulated depth could be definitive for them against a schedule that could struggle to match that talent.
Why Chris Tyree Could Be The Difference Maker On Offense
Let’s think about this from a defensive coordinator’s point of view. Any game you’ve got coming up against Notre Dame, you’re immediately thinking of containing Kyren Williams, Michael Mayer, and Kevin Austin. Austin is a mystery nationally, but he won’t be to an opposing coaching staff. They’ve read reports, they recruited him, they know what he’s got. So that’s a handful, right off the bat. Top line players at all three skill positions, and Williams is doubly problematic because he can moved to the slot. Then there is the Braden Lenzy problem, another player who is surely to have popped up in meetings. A deep threat who can be used on screens, end arounds, jet sweeps, all kinds of ways.
Then, there is Tyree, a former top 100 recruit with 4.3 speed, and similar versatility to Kyren Williams. It’s a particular problem because he’s not simply a gadget player, he’s a full on running back who can handle the ball 15-20 times in the running game.
So envision a scenario where all five of the aforementioned players are sharing the field at the same time. They can run with power to either back, they can throw to either back, they can go jet sweep with two players in the 10.6 100 meter range who are state sprint champions, they can throw medium or deep to two top 100 talents or the sprint champion from Oregon. So who is the focus?
In my view, the “throw your hands up and hope for the best” player is Tyree. He isn’t the lead back like Williams and he isn’t playing a lead position like Mayer at tight end or Austin on the boundary. And with Lenzy at wideout, you simply have to leave at least one safety deep. So who is focused on Tyree? A linebacker? The box safety? See where we are going with this? It’s a big problem with no good solution. If they want to bring in a 5th DB to counter Notre Dame’s 21 personnel, assuming the 5th DB can handle the assignment of being the answer to what Tyree brings to the table, Notre Dame can just run it. All those unfavorable matchups in the box last season are gone. And if you stay in your base with two 10.6 guys on the field then that’s good too. Without Tyree out there, that quartet is still formidable and presents a wealth of problems. With Tyree, it becomes unsustainable.
Marist Liufau Presents A Similar Issue
The beauty of the Marcus Freeman defense is no one really knows where anyone is going to be on snap to snap basis, on the line, with the linebackers, or the secondary. Is it three down or four down? Where is the Mike? Do they even have a Mike? Is Kyle Hamilton at safety? Or rover? Or nickel? The offense is thinking about a lot, and it’s mostly about Hamilton, who can destroy whatever they are trying to do by himself. He’s a constant headache. Then there is senior captain Drew White, at the center of everything. The Mike is always a big focus for the line and quarterback especially. The front in a Freeman defense is also a big source of intrigue from play to play, so between Kyle and White, and the line, there is a lot going on.
And then there is Liufau, who is coming on like a freight train during fall camp. What to do about him? Where is he going to be lined up? Is he the Will or the Mike or the Rover? Where is he coming from? We’ve heard all about his ability to blitz and wreak havoc getting to the quarterback. It’s one thing if he’s always in the same spot, but if he’s everywhere, and you’re also worried about Hamilton and the front, you can see how he’d get lost.
His strength is his versatility and his athleticism, much like JOK. He isn’t as versatile in coverage as JOK, but that almost works against the offense because at least when JOK was in coverage, he was simply a cover player albeit a tremendous one. Marist is coming, with fury, and they don’t know where from. They can’t focus on him because of all the other problems and they also don’t have a great answer even if they were. Like Tyree, it’s a hold your breath and hope for the best situation.
The Cherry On Top
Every sundae needs that final piece that sets it apart from the rest, every burger that one aspect that makes it worth the $15. That is what Tyree and Liufau can be for the 2021 Notre Dame football team, two pieces that will have the opponent closing their eyes and hoping it all works out, lamenting that they don’t have it themselves.