We usually do a preview of Notre Dame’s early enrollees in a single post as they report to campus. This year, Notre Dame is welcoming a program-record 14 total early enrollees, so we’re going to break them up into two posts starting on the offensive side of the ball. Notre Dame has eight early entrants on offense this year. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if a few of them find their way on the field.
Tyler Bucnher (QB) – The most interesting early enrollee to watch this year – and perhaps in a few years – is quarterback Tyler Buchner. Before the transfer of Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan, it seemed like Buchner would be in a head to head battle for the starting job with sophomore to be Drew Pyne – with the uncertain health of Brendon Clark. Coan’s arrival changed the dynamic of Buchner’s spring, but he will still be one of the most fascinating players to watch.
Buchner hasn’t thrown a ball in a game since the fall of 2019 since California didn’t play their prep season in the fall due to the pandemic. His lack of experience overall is well documented. Once he arrives on campus, though, that won’t matter, and he’ll be just another quarterback fighting for reps.
If Buchner makes some noise this spring and seriously challenges Pyne and Coan, well, then Notre Dame fans should be doing cartwheels because it could mean the Irish finally have their game-changing quarterback. Even if he doesn’t, though, Notre Dame fans shouldn’t be overly worried either. With Coan on campus, a perfect scenario might be Buchner winning the backup role and gaining experience along the way in 2021 to be prepared for the 2022 season and that gauntlet of a schedule.
Ron Powlus III (QB) – The last-minute surprise to the Notre Dame class of 2021, Powlus is not expected to do much this spring other than learning the offense and get some experience. A lot will have to go wrong for Powlus to see the field at any point for the next few years.
Lorenzo Styles (WR) – Notre Dame has to find more game-wreckers at wide receiver. They don’t have a Devonta Smtih on the roster – at least that we know of right now – but there are a few receivers that have the potential to be the kind of dynamic receivers the Irish offense has lacked. Styles is one of those receivers.
The one big thing working against Styles forcing his way into the lineup in 2021 is experience. Styles played in a run-first and run-second offense in high school, so he will have a lot to learn this spring. At the same time, Styles has something you can’t teach, and that’s speed and athleticism.
Styles has some upperclassmen ahead of him on the depth chart, but none of them outside of Avery Davis and Braden Lenzy have done much in games to this point in their careers. I broke down the wide receiver room at Notre Dame last week, and while it is full of potential, there’s a lot of opportunity for playing time.
At a minimum, Styles’s early start should allow him to challenge for a role as a return man – specifically on punts – for the Irish this fall.
Cane Berrong (TE) – Notre Dame only returns three tight ends from the 2020 roster since Tommy Tremble and Brock Wright are both headed off to the NFL. With that in mind, one of the two incoming freshmen tight ends – both of whom are enrolling early – will likely play in some capacity this fall. Which one, that is, could be determined based on how the three returning tight ends develop.
With Michael Mayer and Kevin Bauman, the Irish have two legit receiving threats. George Takacs was ironically considered more of the blocking tight end when he enrolled with Tremble, who developed into an elite blocker. We don’t know yet if the Irish have a Tremble and a Wright for their multiple tight end sets yet.
Berrong is considered the more all-around tight end in this class, but he also improved significantly as a blocker during his senior season. Ideally, Berrong would spend 2021 redshirting and bulking up a bit.
Mitchell Evans (TE) – Evans comes to Notre Dame not nearly as polished as his classmate and fellow early enrollee at tight end. As a senior this past year, Evans played quarterback after he caught just 19 passes a junior. He has the frame, however, for the position and to potentially play early if needed. He’s liked at 6’7”, 240 lbs. That same frame is why many think Evans’s future is ultimately on the offensive line for Notre Dame.
If one of the two freshmen is forced into action, Evans figures to be more physically ready just given his size, but he will be drinking from a firehose this spring after playing quarterback. Like Berrong, the ideal scenario would be Evans redshirting in 2021.
Blake Fisher (OL) – The mayor of Notre Dame’s 2021 recruiting class, Blake Fisher, looks like he will be another in a long line of elite offensive linemen for the Irish. He and classmate Rocco Spindler – who we’ll get to in a minute – feel like they could be another Mike McGlinchey-Quenten Nelson type combo. With four starting roles seemingly up for grabs for the Irish this fall, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility for one of them to force their way into the starting lineup.
Conventional wisdom right now suggests that Jarrett Patterson will swing back out to tackle with Josh Lugg starting opposite him. Notre Dame will be looking for their best five offensive linemen, though, and if Fisher, who’s been putting in a lot of off-season work, proves to be one of the best, he’ll be on the field. Remember, no one really thought Robert Hainsey would be a co-starter at tackle in 2017, but he enrolled early and forced his way onto the field.
You aren’t starting freshman offensive linemen in a perfect world, but Fisher is an elite prospect ranked #25 overall by Rivals. Notre Dame could try to get Fisher some reps while still redshirting in 2021, but given what the 2022 and 2023 schedules look like, Notre Dame would be wise to get Fisher ready as much as possible in 2021.
Rocco Spindler (OL) – Like Fisher, Spindler could force his way onto the field sooner rather than later. He appears to have a better chance at challenging for a starting role in the fall than Fisher, given there is less certainty on the Notre Dame offensive line’s interior. Unlike at tackle with Patterson and Lugg, the only lineman with starting experience at guard is Dillan Gibbons, but he started just one game in his career.
Spindler is an elite prospect who looks physically ready to play early at Notre Dame (he’s listed at 6’4”, 295 lbs by UND). Getting on campus early could let that happen. Starting Spindler in 2021 would be a wise move for the future for Notre Dame, and it’s a bit easier to start a true freshman on the inside of the line versus on the edge.
Of all the incoming freshman early enrollees, Spindler looks like he has the best opportunity to start in 2021.
Caleb Johnson (OL) – The last early enrollee was a late addition to the class of 2021. After previously committing from Auburn, Notre Dame was able to flip Johnson close to Signing Day. While Johnson has a high ceiling as a prospect, he is likely to need more time than Fisher or Spindler to get on the field. He was listed at just 275 lbs on the UND Signing Day bio. He’ll need to spend some time working with Matt Balis before he’s ready to make some noise. Starting early though, gives him a head start on the work he’ll need to put in in the weight room.
Imagine Nick Saban’s dilemma: having at least 7 5-stars, and the highest ranked class in the history of college football, coming in to a team already overloaded with championship-proven talent.
Sorry…you were saying..