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Monday, Feb. 26, 2024
The Observer

Young receivers lead Irish into Ohio State showdown

Notre Dame wide receiver Jaden Greathouse (19) celebrates his first touchdown with fellow Notre Dame wide receivers Rico Flores Jr. (17) and Jayden Thomas (83) at the Aer Lingus Classic between Notre Dame and Navy at Aviva Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023.

In past seasons, Notre Dame was dependent on upperclassmen to carry their passing game. On Saturday, a trio of underclassmen wide receivers delivered in an exciting way that could translate into Notre Dame’s highly anticipated matchup with Ohio State.

It’s not that Notre Dame hasn’t produced quality wide receivers in recent memory. In fact, the Irish currently have four active NFL wideouts, the most of any skill position outside of tight end. And that group doesn’t even include Will Fuller, who posted three seasons of at least 600 yards in a six-year pro career. Miles Boykin, Equanimeous St. Brown, Chase Claypool and Ben Skowronek all enjoyed plenty of success in South Bend. And that’s helped prepare them to be quality NFL contributors — and in Skowronek’s case, a Super Bowl champion.

It took a while for most of them to reach that point, though. None caught more than eight passes as a freshman — including Skowronek for a 7-6 Northwestern team. Expecting them to be key contributors heading into a Week 4 showdown against a top-10, blueblood opponent like Ohio State might’ve been too much to ask.

But if Notre Dame’s day-dreaming victory over Central Michigan on Saturday was any indication, things might be different this year. They already are in a lot of ways for the Irish passing game. Against the Chippewas, graduate student Sam Hartman became the first Irish quarterback with multiple 75-yard-plus touchdown passes since at least 1996. The first one came on just the third offensive play from scrimmage for the Irish.

And it wasn’t a veteran on the receiving end of it, but sophomore Tobias Merriweather. It was the fifth reception of Merriweather’s Irish career, which started last season with lots of promise but was derailed due to injuries. Yet that first-quarter score was already Merriweather’s third career reception of at least 40 yards. His lone catch last season, in fact, was a go-ahead fourth-quarter touchdown against Stanford from 41 yards out. Against NC State, he hauled in a 45-yard grab that set up graduate student Spencer Shrader’s record-setting 54-yard field goal. And of course, he galloped down the sun-soaked left sideline Saturday for 75 yards to start the scoring.

“I think, obviously, first, that’s your dream. You want to score every play, ” Merriweather said. “I think football is a patient game. You have to wait for the ball to come your way. A lot of things have to happen for you to get the ball and for you to make big plays. So I think just staying patient and having a good support group around me — my close friends, my family, my coaches — just telling me to keep going.”

The Irish didn’t play their most crisp game, especially through the first 40 minutes or so. The Chippewas kept chipping away at Notre Dame’s lead, drawing within 11 on a field goal with 1:59 left in the third quarter. It set up an important drive for the Irish, knowing extending the lead could be enough to put the game out for reach. Their first play wasn’t a hand-off to electric junior running back Audric Estime, nor was it a short Hartman throw to a trusted target. Instead, the Irish quarterback looked deep down the opposite sideline as his first-quarter bomb and completed another one, this time for 42 yards to freshman Rico Flores Jr.

It was no secret entering this season that the Irish receiver room needed some help. The wideout corps were basically outproduced by Michael Mayer all by himself last season. Flores was one of three four-star recruits brought to South Bend in hopes of adding more talent to the Irish aerial attack. Flores beat junior corner La'Vario Wiley clean off the line, hauled in the pass in stride and fought off Wiley’s reach to add a few more yards onto the play. Sometimes, a wide receiver gets open deep based on brilliant scheming or a bust in coverage. Flores’ big play was pure skill, which is what makes his future so exciting.

But not all big plays have to go for big yardage. The Irish settled for a field goal on that drive which, while important, kept Notre Dame’s lead at two scores. After getting the ball back, Marcus Freeman found his team at a critical fourth and two at the Central Michigan 40. The Irish could’ve gone conservative, either punting the ball or calling a safe running play. Instead, Hartman rolled to his right, counting on freshman Jaden Greathouse to get open to sustain a drive that would ultimately put the Irish ahead by three scores.

That’s exactly what he did. Greathouse has already made some explosive plays this season, catching three touchdowns in Notre Dame’s first three games. But Freeman knows a huge key to the Irish taking a step forward from last season is perfecting the little things. Whether it’s converting on short-yardage situations or Merriweather taking pride in his blocking, the Irish offense has largely made strides in that department.

When the dust settled, Merriweather, Flores and Greathouse combined for eight catches going for 164 yards and a touchdown. None of the three are game-breakers by themselves yet. Maybe they’ll reach that level someday. But they are rewriting what young receivers are capable of in the Irish offense. That bodes well for their futures — and their team’s.

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