Notre Dame is already losing two players with eligibility to the NFL in Kyle Hamilton and Kyren Williams. Now that Marcus Freeman wrapped up what is officially his first recruiting class, even though he was the head man for just two weeks, his attention will shift to re-recruiting a host of current players with eligibility remaining that could make or break the 2022 season.
We’ve known who could come back in 2022 for a while. However, now that the class of 2022 is also largely signed (there still could be some additions in February), we know who is more vital based on what the scholarship numbers look like – specifically, which position groups Notre Dame needs the most help at with regards to players coming back.
The most significant position is clearly wide receiver. The way the class of 2022 unfolded over the last week of the cycle, wide receiver became the number re-recruiting priority for Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees. The 11th-hour decommitments of CJ Williams and Amorion Walker left Notre Dame with just one wide receiver in the class – albeit a great one in Tibias Merriweather. The only good news is that Notre Dame has four senior wide receivers who can all return in 2022. The bad news is none of them have said they definitely intend on returning, though.
Notre Dame has several players along both lines that could return that would obviously be welcomed back with open arms. Still, depth along both lines is relatively strong, making those returns more luxury than a necessity. Meanwhile, the backend of the secondary could be very inexperienced next year without a return or two.
Not all 10 of these players will return in 2022 and at this point, there’s no point in getting too worked up over the scholarship numbers. They have always worked themselves out even when it seemed like the Irish were destined to go over the 85 limit.
Austin might have topped the list even if Williams and Walker didn’t ditch the Irish in the last week. With the numbers what they are at wide receiver, though, Notre Dame needs to put on the full-court press to get Austin back for another season.
Austin has NFL talent, but injuries and suspensions killed the first three years of his collegiate career. He led Notre Dame in yards this year, but he could greatly benefit from another year of production – especially if the Irish open things up more. After all, he’s been through, though, maybe Austin just wants to move on and test his luck in the NFL. We just don’t know yet. Tommy Rees can sell Austin on being even more of a focal point in the offense in 2022 now that he will have more autonomy with the offense.
Notre Dame has is deep and talented along the defensive line. Therefore, having Isaiah Foskey return is not necessary from a numbers perspective. It is, however, essential from a competitive standpoint. Foskey broke out in 2021 as Notre Dame’s best pass rusher, and him coming back in 2022 would be a massive boost for a defense that has the assignment of slowing down Ohio State’s high-powered offense in the opener.
Foskey could easily leave for the NFL now and be a solid draft pick in the rounds 2-3 range, but he could play himself into the first round if he returns. There is a substantial difference between rounds 1 and 3, so that is clearly a selling point for Marcus Freeman. Another is giving Foskey some more pass-rushing freedom and less coverage responsibilities in year two of the Freeman defense.
Again, because of the numbers at receiver, Notre Dame needs every receiver back they can get. It seems highly unlikely that Notre Dame goes 4 for 4 with the receivers eligible to return, but getting at least three feels vital.
Before the season started, Lenzy said he didn’t plan on returning for a 5th year. His senior campaign didn’t quite go as planned, however. It seemed like early on, the plan was for Jack Coan to take a few deep shots to Lenzy every game. But, when the line didn’t hold, and Coan became a sitting duck in the pocket because of his lack of mobility, that offense was scrapped at the bye week for a quick strike attack.
It took a few more weeks before Tommy Rees started using Lenzy’s speed more, but overall, Lenzy’s senior season was a disappointment because he’s capable of much more. A Tyler Buchner-led offense, with a receiver like Lenzy on the field for jet sweeps, reverses, and long bombs, is what Rees has to sell to try and convince Lenzy to return.
It looked like things were finally in place for Avery Davis in 2022. After seemingly eighteen or so position changes, Davis settled in as the slot receiver and was a reliable third option behind Austin and Michael Mayer. Then a non-contact knee injury against Navy ended Davis’s 5th year. Before the injury, no one felt he might return for a 6th year made possible because of the free COVID year, but now that it’s on the table, Notre Dame should do everything they can to get him to return.
Logistically, it makes sense for Davis too. If he leaves for the NFL, chances are he’ll be a very low pick or an undrafted free agent. By the time he’s cleared for contact, though, he’d have missed so much time with whatever NFL team he lands with that it’d be an uphill battle for a roster spot. On the other hand, if he returns, he can rehab with Notre Dame’s staff all year long, and the missed time won’t be as much of a concern since he knows the offense already.
Injuries ended Wilkins’s 2022 campaign by game five. Before the Cincinnati game, I wrote that the game had the feel of a Joe Wilkins kind of game. He was targeted early in the game but then got hurt.
Convincing Wilkins to return might be the toughest of the group – depending on the decisions of the other three. There really isn’t a clear path to a lot of playing time for Wilkins if the other three return along with all of the current underclassmen wide receivers. It would be understandable if someone like Wilkins wanted to use his remaining eligibility somewhere where he might be featured more. That’ll be the uphill battle for the Irish staff in this re-recruitment.
Like Foskey, Notre Dame doesn’t need Ademilola to return in 2022 from a numbers standpoint, but getting him back would be huge for the defense. He finally broke out in 2021 after moving into the starting lineup, and while it might not have always shown up on the stat sheet, he was consistently one of Notre Dame’s best-graded players each week.
Like Foskey, he would be drafted this year, but not as high as if he returns and puts another good year on tape. At this point, I am assuming Justin Ademilola also returns.
Before the season, I thought it would be impossible to get Patterson to return for a 5th year, but there is some momentum here for a possible return. Notre Dame has a clear succession plan for Patterson in Zeke Correll, but it would be massive for the offensive line if Patterson were to come back.
The OL already figures to be a strength in 2022, with Blake Fisher returning and Joe Alt emerging as a future star this season. If Patterson were to return, Notre Dame would essentially just have one new starter in 2022 at guard – likely former top-50 overall recruit Rocco Spindler. That would be a helluva position to be in heading into Columbus in September.
Josh Lugg has said he is open to returning as well. However, if he did, it might have to be at guard with the combo of Alt/Fisher looking like they will handle the tackle positions for at least the next two seasons.
Xavier Watts and Ramon Henderson started to emerge at safety for the Irish in the second half of the season with Kyle Hamilton injured. They are both still new to the position, though, so it’s not quite ideal if you are heading into the season with that level of inexperience. Both DJ Brown and Houston Griffith are eligible to return, and Notre Dame would take both back, assuming all of the numbers work out.
Brown tied for the team lead in interceptions,, though and displayed perhaps the best skill any defensive back could have – he just always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. His interceptions in the second half of the year were a product of recognition and reaction. Give me that skill at the back end of the secondary any day.
No player surprised me more on defense in 2021 than Bo Bauer. Until this year, he was a big-hitting linebacker who was more of a throwback to 90s style linebacker. Somehow, though, Bauer turned into Notre Dame’s best cover linebacker. Now, the bar was a little bit lowered in that department because of the injuries in the linebacker room, but Bauer showed so much in the second half of the year that he’s likely to challenge for the starting MIKE position in 2022 if he returns. In an ideal world, Bauer returns and splits time at MIKE with JD Bertrand. Marist Liufau returns and has the breakout season he was supposed to have this year. And Prince Kollie settles in at BUCK. Mix in some Jaylen Sneed and maybe another frosh or two, and you have yourself a heck of a linebacking corps.
I didn’t think there was any chance MTA would return in 2022, but the jovial Hawaiian native left the door open for a return, so here we are. Like Foskey and Ademilola, Notre Dame has players behind Tagovailoa-Amosa who could step into the starting lineup in 2022. Still, if you can get someone with his experience and leadership back, you make every effort to do so.
Some other candidates could return, but we’ve already seen some roster departures like Shayne Simon over the weekend. The former 4-star linebacker announced he would seek a graduate-transfer after the Fiesta Bowl. So expect more of those to occur over the next few weeks.