Neither part of last season’s prolific combination for Notre Dame is back this season after quarterback Drew Pyne entered the transfer portal and tight end Michael Mayer headed to the NFL. While new quarterback Sam Hartman has yet to establish a favorite target, a potential candidate for that role very well might be wide receiver Jayden Thomas.
Thomas makes for a comparatively large option at 6-feet-1 and 200 pounds and has more than enough speed to have an impact in 2023. The fact that his route-running emerged as last year progressed offers the hope that he can develop into a dangerous weapon for Notre Dame. One subtle aspect of his production last season showed off his flair for the clutch grab.
All of the Notre Dame wide receivers and tight ends will try and establish a smooth-flowing passing attack with Hartman early on, a task that should be considerably easier than last season’s bumpy beginning. That’s because the Irish’s first two games in 2023 come against Navy and Tennessee State, which should allow for more yardage gained as well as the freedom and flexibility to experiment.
Slowly Making His Presence Felt
Thomas was part of Notre Dame’s 2021 recruiting class but was essentially invisible as a freshman, partly because of a leg injury that earned him a redshirt season. Last year, especially in the latter part of the campaign, his year closed out better than his early production of just three catches in his first four contests.
Against BYU in Las Vegas, Thomas finally got the attention of the Irish fan base by matching his season total of three receptions for 74 yards and one score that required outstanding concentration to haul in. That was followed by seven catches and one touchdown in the next four games and set the stage for a strong finish.
Thomas collected a season-high 80 yards on three grabs against Navy, including a 37-yard score late in the first half that ultimately served as the winning score. A trio of games with two receptions to close out the regular season was then capped with five catches in the Gator Bowl win.
In Prime Position
Besides making grabs at opportune times, Thomas also became a valuable component of Notre Dame’s offense when it came to sustaining drives. Breaking down his 25 catches from last year shows that 18 of them helped deliver a first down, a clear indication that he’s already established himself among the Irish coaching staff.
Despite not really becoming more of the offense until the latter part of the 2022 campaign, Thomas finished third among Irish wide receivers. The two players above him, Mayer and Lorenzo Styles are both gone, which places Thomas in a clear position to become the go-to player for Hartman.
Early returns in fall camp point to Thomas being more than ready for the opportunity.
Building Toward a Goal
It’s been a while since any Notre Dame wide receiver has made a major impact on the team’s offense. Miles Boykin’s 59 grabs in 2018 and Chase Claypool‘s 66 the next year are the most recent examples, with Claypool’s effort coming after a 50-catch season the year before.
Claypool’s production translated into becoming a 2020 second-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he caught 153 passes before being dealt to the Chicago Bears last year. In contrast, Boykin has had a much more modest NFL career, starting as a third-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens before moving on to the Steelers last year.
Battling for Position
Those variations show that even with a big year or two, Thomas may not be guaranteed a future spot in the NFL. That potential big year could also end up being a mirage if the emergence of Tobias Merriwether also takes place. Merriwether only had one catch last year, a 41-yard touchdown in the loss to Stanford, but he had the attention of the coaching staff during spring drills.
There are only so many passes that Hartman will be able to throw, and Thomas has to manage to stand out among other prime contenders in this area. The list includes players like Deion Colzie, former running back Chris Tyree and even true freshman Jaden Greathouse.
In a best-case scenario for Thomas, he becomes Hartman’s most popular outlet. From a team perspective, an even better situation would be Thomas and Merriwether mirroring or improving on the dual production of Boykin and Claypool in 2018. Regardless of what happens, Thomas now has the opportunity to make his mark.