Notre Dame enters tonight’s showdown with #17 Duke with very little healthy depth at the wide receiver position, with four receivers most likely unavailable for the contest. Notre Dame will have to rely on their young receivers and get creative with their passing sets to bounce back from last week’s disappointing loss to Ohio State.
On Thursday, head coach Marcus Freeman said junior Deion Colie had his knee scoped this week and would be unavailable for a while. Matt Salerno suffered a lower leg injury against Tennessee State and won’t be available any time soon. Junior Jayden Thomas suffered a hamstring injury against Ohio State, and Freeman said he was “doubtful/questionable” for tonight. In Freeman-speak, that means we would be lucky to have him back for the USC game in two weeks. True freshman Kaleb Smith is still not ready to return after an injury in camp.
The losses leave Notre Dame with just five scholarship wide receivers – three of whom are true freshmen. Senior Chris Tyree, sophomore Tobias Merriweather, and freshmen Jaden Greathouse, Rico Flores, and Braylon James are the only healthy scholarship receivers the Irish have available. Freshman walk-on Jordan Faison turned some heads in camp, but there’s been no indication that he is even a consideration right now. James has played just 11 snaps this year in blowouts of Tennessee State and Central Michigan.
UPDATE: News broke around 5:00 PM ET that freshman Jaden Greathouse is now ALSO unlikely to play tonight due to a hamstring injury furthering weakening Notre Dame’s depth at wide receiver for their clash with Duke. Irish Illustrated was first to report Greathouse’s injury
UPDATE #2: Reports on the field indicate that Greathouse warmed up with the receivers and might at least give it a go tonight.
With the injuries, look for Notre Dame to start Tobias Merriweather on the boundary instead of Thomas, with Flores on the field side. Tyree and Greathouse will continue to share reps in the slot. Merriweather and Flores can’t play every snap, so either James will have to get some run tonight, or Notre Dame will have to deploy heavy usage of their 12 and 21-personnel package.
Notre Dame already runs a lot of 12-personnel (two tight ends) so an increase is the most likely adjustment for the Irish – especially with both Holden Staes and Mitchell Evans having breakout games receiving already this season. We also saw a lot of 21-personnel (two running backs) against Ohio State, which led to Audric Estime’s lack of usage (just 14 carries). Both formations will likely be relied on heavily tonight by offensive coordinator Gerad Parker.
Mitchell Evans hauled in 7 passes for 75 yards against Ohio State. Holden Staes caught 4 passes for 115 yards with 2 touchdowns against NC State three weeks ago. He has 4 touchdowns on the season.
Duke’s defense has been surprisingly good this year, allowing less than 10 points a game, albeit to pretty weak competition outside of Clemson. The Tigers themselves have proven to be rather weak offensively this year as well, though. Still, Duke will be all too aware of Notre Dame’s lack of receiver depth and likely try and force Notre Dame to pass their way to victory.
Notre Dame has seemed to be reluctant to push the ball vertically this year despite having one of the best deep ball passers and offensive lines in college football. When they have tried, they’ve been successful. Both Merriweather and Tyree had touchdowns of over 75 yards against Central Michigan two weeks ago.
Notre Dame quarterback Sam Hartman is 12 of 20 for 426 yards with 8 touchdowns and 0 interceptions on passes of 20 or more yards this year. That’s pretty damn good and works out to an NFL QB Rating of 143.8. A perfect NFL QB rating is 158.3. PFF grades Hartman at 97.0 out of 100 on pass attempts of 20 yards or more, which is by far his best rating. Hartman’s worst range? Passes of 0-9 yards, which account for 47 of Hartman’s 117 pass attempts on the season.
In short, when Notre Dame passes the ball deep, they are very good at it. They just don’t do it very often for… reasons. What those reasons are, I am just not sure.
If Duke crowds the line of scrimmage and forces Notre Dame to throw the ball tonight, the Irish could be forced to go outside of the comfort zone of short to intermediate passing we’ve seen through five games.
Against Duke last season, Sam Hartman attempted 11 passes of 20 or more yards and completed 6 for 162 yards with a touchdown and an interception – an 84.1 PFF grade and 92.0 NFL passing rating. And he did that without much of a running game.
If Notre Dame does push the ball more vertically tonight, Merriweather, Tyree, Flores, and Greathouse have all shown the ability to get open downfield. Greathouse has been targeted three times on throws of 20+ yards and caught all three for touchdowns. Merriweather has caught one of two targets of 20+ yards, the 75-yard touchdown. Tyree is 2 of 2 on targets of 20+ for 100 yards and two touchdowns.
Based on everything we’ve seen from the Irish offense this season, we’ll most likely see them try to run the ball, stick with their 12- and 21-personnel sets, and force Duke to stop them. For better or worse, they have leaned in on that identity without wanting to venture too far away from it. Duke might force them out of that comfort zone. If they do, the Irish have shown the ability to be highly effective when doing so.
If Notre Dame plays to their standard, they should be able to navigate the limited numbers at receiver this week and next, but with USC looming large in two weeks, the Irish need to get some of these receivers back sooner rather than later.