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Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024
The Observer

Amidst recruiting success, Irish must address wide receiver losses

The announcement that Lawrence Keys would be sitting out the remainder of the season — and then likely transferring — highlighted a growing problem for Notre Dame. And that is not only their recent struggles to retain wide receivers on their roster, but frequently an inability to recognize the most talented players on the roster. 

Whether Keys was a starter or not, his two years of experience and a strong spring suggests that he deserved more than five snaps in the opener. And the issue isn’t exclusive to Keys — the Irish have lost five wide receivers from their depth chart since the end of the 2020 season. In an interview with the Observer, Bryan Driskell of the Irish Breakdown expressed his concern about this trend: “They need to re-evaluate what they’re doing at recruiting. Notre Dame doesn’t seem to have any pressing concern at that position, and I think that’s a mistake.”

The struggles to retain receivers tracks back to a tendency of Notre Dame that has long frustrated Irish fans. And that is frequently refusing to play young, talented players. They saw a five-star receiver in Jordan Johnson leave, another talented receiver in Jay Brunelle depart and just recently, four-star recruit Xavier Watts has been switched to linebacker.

“The depth chart is getting thinner and thinner at receiver,” Driskell said. “It’s a matter of [wide receivers coach] Del Alexander doing what he’s been reluctant to do and that’s get those young guys ready to play … [freshmen receivers] Lorenzo Styles and Deion Colzie are simply too talented to not use them.”

Styles was on the second-team offense for the Florida State game, but he played just a single snap in the contest. Colzie did not see the field after not being listed in the two-deep depth chart. Alexander appears to prefer waiting until year 3 or 4 to utilize his receivers in the offense, and that trend simply must end. It has cost Notre Dame some elite talent, continually plagues their offense, and may begin to cost them recruits. 

Driskell added: “Who’s to say the departures end with Keys?”

The incoming 2022 recruiting class is a fantastic one, by virtually any standard. But for all the outstanding talent, Driskell does believe the Irish need to add more wide receiver depth.

“They’ve got an outstanding 1-2 punch, but they need more,” Driskell said. 

Indeed, the Irish have a pair of outstanding recruits in C.J. Williams — the 12th ranked receiver in the class by 247Sports — and Tobias Merriweather, who Driskell said is “the top player in Notre Dame’s class on my board.” Both are promising four-star recruits, but that’s beginning to mean less when it comes to the Irish’s receiving corps. Five stars are transferring out, switching positions or never breaking out. It’s an anomaly almost entirely exclusive to the wide receivers, as Notre Dame’s roster continues to improve, with their program on the rise by virtually every other metric.

“The best schools find ways to get their best players opportunities,” Driskell said. “And the fact of the matter is that there are players in the freshman class who are some of your more talented players. They don’t have to start, but you’ve got to find a role for them.” 


Despite Struggles At Receiver, Notre Dame recruiting thriving elsewhere

Despite some needed additions, the Irish have been recruiting at an elite level, spurred by their recent on-field success. With two playoff appearances in the last three seasons, the Irish are raking in quality classes. “It’s no coincidence,” Driskell said. “Winning sells.” 

The Irish have lost just two regular season games in the past three years, and that has helped lead them to a 2022 recruiting class ranked 2nd in the country. Amidst the many strengths of the class is an exceptional linebacker room. “I really like the linebacker class. You’ve got three top-100 players,” Driskell notes. “It’s the best class in the country, and it’s the best linebacker class in the Brian Kelly era”.

 Driskell noted that even outside the top linebacker recruits — Jaylen Sneed, Joshua Burnham and Niuafe Tuihalamaka — the Irish have great depth with guys like Nolan Ziegler. Driskell commented on Ziegler’s fantastic start to his senior season in high school, as he outplayed 2023 five-star linebacker  — and Notre Dame target — Drayk Bowen in the season opener. 

Elsewhere, the Irish have some talent to get excited about. Holden Staes is a four-star tight end worth some hype, while Tyseon Ford and Aiden Gobaria give the Irish a pair of four-star defensive line recruits.

The offensive line has some talent in four-stars Joey Tanona and Ty Chan, but Driskell would like the Irish to improve their depth. “The offensive line class has to be elite. You’ve had some good players — Blake Fisher and Rocco Spindler — in the past few years, but the depth hasn’t been there.”


2023 Class Show Early Promise

“They’re off to an incredible start,” Driskell said of Notre Dame’s early return from their 2023 recruiting efforts. Four-star Keon Kealy and five-star Brenan Vernon form a fearsome pairing of D-line recruits. Tight end Cooper Flanagan and safety Adon Schuler are another pair committed four-stars that the coaching staff is excited about.

But even more exciting than the haul of already-committed prospects is Dante Moore. Moore is one of the consensus top quarterbacks in the 2023 class — Driskell even went as far as saying Moore is a better prospect than Arch Manning. 

“He’s smart, accurate, he’s got a big arm. He has some leadership and swag to him that I love at the quarterback position,” Driskell said of Moore. “Once you get a five-star quarterback, you get other elite players that want to come and play with him, and I think Dante Moore is that kind of name.”

It’s no secret that the Irish have been held back by quarterback play in their recent trips to the Playoff. They hope freshman Tyler Buchner may be the answer, but even still that’s not enough to start challenging the premier programs. With the Irish’s control in the wide receiver room slipping away, beginning to land some big-time targets under center could help the Irish boost their recruiting at other offensive skill positions, as they gain players that want to play with the top quarterbacks in the country.

“Dante Moore is an absolute must-get. Tyler Buchner is an elite player, but elite programs get those players every couple of years,” Driskell said, referring to the string of successful quarterbacks at Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson. “Notre Dame has to start stringing some of those recruits together. You don’t know if Buchner is gonna pan out or if he’s going to leave after his junior year or if he’s going to get hurt. You need players ready to step in and replace him and Dante Moore is clearly that guy.”

It’s been a largely successful era of Notre Dame recruiting, but recent struggles to retain top recruits and players on the roster could begin to affect these fantastic classes. Dante Moore could act as a stabilizer, as Notre Dame tries to stem the bleeding from yet another blow to their receiving corps. With a lot of exciting talent entering South Bend, Notre Dame fans should be tracking the commitment status of Moore, because he could be a piece that ties things together for the Irish.