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Sunday, May 26, 2024
The Observer

2023 Blue-Gold Game offensive position preview

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Ryan Vigilante | The Observer
Irish RB Chris Tyree stiff arms a Tiger defender during Notre Dame's 35-14 victory over Clemson.


For the first time since 2020, Notre Dame’s offense will be led by someone new this fall. Fresh off a promotion from tight ends coach, new offensive coordinator Gerad Parker will lead his unit out in front of fans for the first time in the Blue-Gold game. Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of the offensive players and storylines to watch out for on Saturday.

Quarterback

At quarterback, it’s unclear precisely how much of a competition Irish fans should be tuning in for. Conventional wisdom figures that graduate transfer Sam Hartman, with 48 games and 127 collegiate touchdowns under his belt, would be all but assured to be Notre Dame’s starter under center against Navy. But buzz throughout spring camp has indicated that junior Tyler Buchner has outperformed Hartman.

Such buzz is not entirely unexpected. For all of Hartman’s general experience, Buchner has a substantial head start in regard to his knowledge of Notre Dame’s playbook and system. The spring game could offer Hartman the chance to assert himself as the unquestioned No. 1 or Buchner the chance to further make his own upstart case for the starting job. Marcus Freeman will no doubt be hoping for both.

If you only watch one player, it should be: Tyler Buchner

Both quarterbacks have an interesting case for this slot, for different reasons. But the pick is Buchner. Not many would have faulted Buchner if he looked at other options when Notre Dame opted to bring in a 48-game veteran at quarterback, even after he posted a career performance in the Gator Bowl.

However, Buchner opted to try and give Hartman a run for his money. Thus far, he’s done just that. A strong spring game would only add more wind to his sails as he looks to pull the upset. And an improved Buchner is undeniably good news for Notre Dame, both this year and beyond.

Running back

Running back is likely the position with the least interesting storylines to follow on Saturday. One incumbent co-starter, junior Audric Estime, will start for the Blue team. The other, junior Logan Diggs, will be unavailable due to injury. Also unavailable is last year’s spring game standout, sophomore Jadarian Price, as he recovers from a summer injury. Sophomore Gi’Bran Payne figures to be a reserve in the fall, but he’ll get the chance to show he can be more than that for the Gold team.

If you only watch one player, it should be: Gi’Bran Payne

Notre Dame already knows what they have in Estime. So the nod here goes to Payne, the No. 1 overall pick in Thursday’s Blue-Gold Game draft. Payne faces a steep uphill climb for reps this year. The Irish return a pair of strong starters, a recovering standout from last spring and add a highly ranked freshman in Jeremiyah Love. But Payne will have the Gold teams’ reps all to himself on Saturday. If there was a time for him to make his move, it's now.

Wide receiver

Wide receiver is all but certainly the most fascinating offensive position to evaluate on Saturday. Severely short on returning production, the Blue-Gold game should prove an important benchmark for determining the next steps taken by coach Chansi Stuckey’s unit. With graduate transfer Kaleb Smith medically retired and junior Lorenzo Styles seemingly in transition to an "athlete" role with responsibilities on both offense and defense, Notre Dame is down to just two receivers who made consistent contributions at the position in 2022.

But that’s part of what makes Saturday so intriguing. The fact that Stuckey was fine with Smith retiring and Styles moving seems to indicate that he’s comfortable with what Notre Dame has at receiver. So what is he expecting from the rest of his unit? Have juniors Deion Colzie or Jayden Thomas taken steps forward? Is sophomore Tobias Merriweather set for an injury-delayed breakout campaign? Will any of the three early-enrollee 2023 recruits at the position flash? Can senior Chris Tyree be a difference-maker in the slot after switching from running back? We’ll get some much-anticipated answers on Saturday.

If you only watch one player, it should be: Chris Tyree 

Tyree is the biggest wild card on the Irish offense this spring. Everyone knows about his top-end speed once he gets downhill. Former offensive coordinator Tommy Rees spent the better part of his final two years in South Bend trying to figure out ways to get Tyree the ball in space. The senior has flashed the ability to be a “home-run play” weapon. At his best, he’s the team’s most dynamic player.

But all too often last year, Tyree’s best was merely a hypothetical. After he was unable to break off many big plays in a solid amount of opportunities early in the year, Rees and Freeman eventually opted to switch to more of a two-deep in the running back room with Estime and Diggs.

Could a move to receiver allow Tyree to unlock his potential? Notre Dame is hoping so. While it would be unfair to expect him to be a star just a couple of months into his time working with receivers, simply showing his potential on a few reps would be a win for Stuckey.

Tight end

Like running back, the tight end position will be heavily understaffed at the spring game. Assumed starter junior Mitchell Evans will not play Saturday. Nor will several depth options occupying various roles on the depth chart, including senior Kevin Bauman, sophomore Eli Raridon, sophomore Justin Fisher and senior Charlie Selna. As a result, it will be sophomore Holden Staes as the full-time starter for the Blue team and junior Davis Sherwood in the same position for the Gold. Freeman assigned junior Andrew Yanoshak to the Blue team, but mentioned he’d likely be working with both.

If you only watch one player, it should be: Holden Staes

If Evans is the expected starter at tight end, the same is true for Staes as deputy. A former four-star recruit in the class of 2022, Staes received 67 snaps last fall, per PFF. Four of the five tight ends who received more than him, however, are either departing or unavailable for action on Saturday. He’ll have a major chance to audition himself to the coaching staff with such a high amount of reps to play.

Offensive line

The offensive line is where things, once again, get interesting. Due to the de-emphasized physical nature of the Blue-Gold game, it will be hard to fully evaluate play in the trenches. But there are some position battles to keep an eye on. The tackle position is locked down, with juniors Joe Alt and Blake Fisher split between the two teams. Alt is a projected first-round pick in next year’s draft. With a strong 2023 season, Fisher could very well join him in earning future first-round buzz. 

On the interior offensive line, however, it's less clear who the preferred options are. Graduate student Zeke Correll will remain at center, barring change. But the two guard spots remain sources of an open competition. The four primary options for the two guard spots will be split between the two teams. The Gold team will feature senior Michael Carmody, sophomore Billy Schrauth and junior Rocco Spindler, while graduate student Andrew Kristofic will suit up for the Blue team.

If you only watch one player, it should be: Billy Schrauth

Any of Notre Dame’s guard options are fair game here. But Schrauth is the youngest and thus gets the nod. The sophomore from Wisconsin has seemingly been building momentum for a starting guard spot in 2023 since he arrived on campus. After being an early spring standout in 2022, he played his way onto the travel roster by the end of the year. He faces a steeper learning curve compared to some of his more veteran competitors, but his upside as an underclassman might be impossible for new offensive line coach Joe Rudolph to ignore.