Two regular season games along with an as-yet-unknown bowl opponent remain for the 2023 edition of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The team’s three losses this season have resulted in some looking for silver linings in what’s turned out to be another frustrating season of near-misses and aggravating mistakes.
Those bright spots have been the emergence of certain players who either began the year with question marks attached or were likely not even on the radar of the Irish fan base. While another infusion of recruiting talent and the addition of more players through the transfer portal awaits, the three players below have already managed to at least enter the conversation for next season’s starting units.
A player who arrived on campus with a lacrosse scholarship has already impressed Marcus Freeman and his staff enough that his scholarship will now be for football. Faison will keep playing for Notre Dame’s lacrosse team, but the fact that his ability garnered such a switch is a testament to his potential.
Faison was a high school quarterback but is now on the receiving end of throws, hauling in seven passes for 102 yards and one touchdown. That one score came in his Irish debut at Louisville on a 36-yard pass from Sam Hartman and he fished with two grabs for 48 yards.
One week later, he made his first Notre Dame start and caught two passes for eight yards in the rout of USC. That small amount was supplemented with a 16-yard run and gave an inkling about the different ways he could be an asset to the Irish offense. He followed that up two weeks later with one catch for 14 yards and also returned a punt 20 yards in the Pitt pounding.
Last week, his two grabs for 32 yards were one of the very few positives in the Clemson defeat. His arrival on the scene may have been expedited by injuries and overshadowed by the even more prominent emergence. Yet, his ability to make things happen is something that will be fascinating to watch unfold over the next few years.
While Xavier Watts’ six interceptions on the year serve as the bold headline within the Notre Dame secondary, Christian Gray has managed to see action in nine of the Irish’s 10 games. His lone game away from the field was against Ohio State, a school he was strongly considering attending.
Gray’s six tackles on the year are a modest acknowledgment of his performance that’s largely taken place on special teams. In Notre Dame’s blowouts, he’s gotten the opportunity to see action in the secondary and has managed to collect one interception and also break up a pass. The pick came in the rout of Pitt and enlivened the garbage-time atmosphere of the contest, thanks to his acrobatic talents in snagging the ball.
The slow emergence of Gray was likely tied to his recovery from a knee injury during this year’s spring ball. He was an early enrollee who managed to avoid surgery, but with Benjamin Morrison and Cam Gray already in place, there was no need to rush him back.
Even though Hart has the option of coming back next season, he appears ready to take the plunge at the next level. If that occurs, a potential starting berth for Gray emerges, though he will likely have to take on Jaden Mickey and other defensive backfield talents also waiting in the wings.
As part of a talented group of tight ends, Flanagan’s first year at the collegiate level might have been an otherwise quiet one. However, once Mitchell Evans went down for the year, Flanagan’s importance rose, with Freeman stating during his pre-Clemson press conference that Flanagan and his fellow tight ends needed to pick up the slack.
Flanagan’s emergence was hailed by Freeman, who noted that the 6-foot-5, 240-pounder brings a more physical presence that surpasses his fellow receivers. That was in evidence during team practices and was shown off during the Duke win when he opened up a hole for Audric Estime to score the game’s first touchdown.
Blocking may have been Flanagan’s most impressive calling card this season but he also managed to make the most of his one catch on the season. That was a 19-yard grab in the mauling of Pittsburgh. Many more catches could be on the horizon for a player who already has something of a bullseye on his back, given that he’s wearing the number of Notre Dame great Michael Mayer.
There’s certainly no guarantee that all three of the above players are destined for standout careers. Still, is a season that now is staggering from a third loss, such promise is one way to envision the possibility of more playoff appearances in the years ahead.