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Sunday, May 26, 2024
The Observer

Irish receiving core eases concerns with strong opening performance

Ever since graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman announced he would make the 10-hour trek from Winston-Salem to South Bend, everyone and anyone with an interest in Notre Dame football has been excited to see how he would revolutionize the Irish offense. After two seasons of turbulence at the quarterback position, the Irish would have a decorated signal caller at their disposal in 2023. Sure enough, Hartman lived up to all of the hoopla in his Irish debut on Saturday. He threw as many incompletions (four) as touchdowns. He played both a mistake-free and aggressive game. It's only one game, of course, but Hartman looked like a game-changing talent Saturday.

Of course, the Irish offense had a skill player who met that criteria last year. Former tight end Michael Mayer finished off a recording-setting collegiate career in 2022. Like with Hartman this year, he was the focus of opposing teams’ game plans to trip the Irish up. Like with Hartman on Saturday, executing that plan was much easier said than done.

Sure enough, Mayer enjoyed a third straight dominant season in South Bend en route to becoming a second-round NFL draft pick. However, his production dipped a bit as the 2022 regular season progressed. In the first seven games of the season, Mayer averaged 75 receiving yards and scored five touchdowns. In the final five games leading into the Gator Bowl, though, Mayer's production declined to average of 46 receiving yards and he caught just a single score.

There are a lot of possible explanations for that development. One of them is that opposing teams spent more time and attention keying in on Mayer because there wasn't anyone else catching passes for the Irish worth doing so. Mayer, one of the greatest pass catchers in school history but still just one person, accounted for over 30% of Notre Dame's receiving yards 36% of its receiving touchdowns. His 809 yards were more than double the next most prolific Irish pass catcher. No other member of the Irish roster hauled in more than three touchdowns a season ago.

Quarterback is, of course, a more important position to an offense's success than tight end. But ask anyone heading into Saturday — coaches, fans, seven college students with WordPress accounts — and wide receiver was still one of the team's biggest unknowns heading into 2023. It's not that the Irish weren't taking measures to improve their receiver room. Virginia Tech graduate transfer Kaleb Smith was expected to make an impact before retiring from football in the spring. The team brought in four wideouts in its 2023 recruiting class, including a trio of four-stars. It's just that their efforts weren't likely to bear fruit right away.

But you might not have expected to hear that if Saturday was your first exposure to Irish football. Hartman was undoubtedly excellent. But a quarterback is only as good as the people he is throwing too. Hartman figures to give the Irish receivers the best chance possible to make plays, but they still have to make them. On a misty day in Dublin over eight months removed from game action, they did just that.

Junior Jayden Thomas, the team's most prolific returning receiver, showed flashes of looking like someone who deserves to be No. 1 on the depth chart, not just someone who's there because of a lack of quality options behind him. Thomas finished with four receptions for 63 yards. He set the tone with a 19-yard reception on Hartman's first pass with the Irish. He also fought through contact in the Navy end zone to haul in Hartman's last throw of the half, putting the game out of reach seconds before half-time.

The receiving core wasn't just lacking for star power last year. Depth was an issue, too. So it was encouraging to see junior Deion Colzie, coming off a mere nine-catch season, flash some of the promise he showed in the Fiesta Bowl two seasons ago. Colzie hauled in three catches for 45 yards, including a nifty sliding catch along the sideline to pick up a first down in Navy territory and a deft maneuver upfield after catching a screen pass for a 25-yard score. Senior Chris Tyree didn't look out of place in his first game lining up the slot after spending three seasons at running back. He came away with 36 yards on three receptions.

But arguably the most positive development of the day for the Irish came from freshman Jaden Greathouse. Even Notre Dame's best receivers in recent years, players who went on to the NFL like Will Fuller, Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool didn't make much of an impact in their freshmen campaigns. In fact, that trio combined for 241 yards and one touchdown in their freshmen seasons. Boykin didn't even play. Greathouse, meanwhile, accumulated 68 receiving yards and two scores in his Irish debut. He flashed speed and soft hands throughout the day, most notably on his first score, a 35-yard dime from Hartman.

This pass is a beautiful ball by Hartman, but he still needs his receiver to make a tricky play through contact. The Irish probably wouldn't have felt good about both ends of this play being executed a year ago. Things are different this year. And there's a much wider range of goals Notre Dame can achieve in 2023 as a result.

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