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Saturday, May 25, 2024
The Observer

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Previewing Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game offense

The Irish ranked seventh in the country with 39.2 points per game in 2023.

Quarterbacks

Scholarship players: Riley Leonard, Steve Angeli, Kenny Minchey and CJ Carr

The outlook: This is likely the most healthy — in makeup if not physical health — Notre Dame’s quarterback room has been in years. Transfer Riley Leonard leads the way, arriving from Duke with an impressive pedigree. The Irish got Leonard from the portal because they think he can elevate the first team offense’s ceiling, not because they needed a body to fill out the room. Steve Angeli represents Leonard’s incumbent challenger for the starting job, fresh off a strong showing in his first career start at the Sun Bowl. Young guns Kenny Minchey and CJ Carr respectively are competing to be the long-term future of the room, even though it’s highly unlikely either sees serious gametime in 2023.

The key question: What does the quarterback competition look like once the game finishes?

Marcus Freeman spent a good portion of last spring attempting to underline that Sam Hartman and Tyler Buchner would be competing for the starting quarterback job. Hartman’s impressive Blue-Gold game performance all but ended any battle that had occurred. Buchner entered the portal days later. The spring before that Irish fans left Notre Dame Stadium feeling uncertain about the state of the quarterback competition following an uneven performance by Drew Pyne, playing for both teams after an injury to Buchner. The Blue-Gold game is just another data point in a spring and summer of competition between Leonard and Angeli, but it’s a data point nonetheless. A strong outing from Angeli will be further evidence that he’s firmly in the battle for the starting gig, but a weaker one could help default the job to the more experienced Leonard.

If you watch one player it should be: Steve Angeli

1-5 Intrigue Level: Had Leonard been expected to play, this would be a 4. Since we’re likely only seeing Angeli, it’s a 3.

Running backs

Scholarship players: Jadarian Price, Gi’Bran Payne, Jeremiyah Love, Aneyas Williams, Kedren Young

The outlook: The Irish have a glut of talent at running back, but no clear bellcow with 2023 star Audric Estime off to the NFL. Deland McCullough is a major proponent of having a number of specific responsibilities available for his charges to compete for, and this year should be no different. Price, Payne and Love all carved out varying roles for themselves last fall, and all three should be in line for increased work without Estime in the picture.

The key question: Does anyone assert themselves as the 1A option in the room?

Conventional wisdom is Notre Dame are going to roll with a committee approach to their running back room this fall. Price seems to be the most well-rounded, Love the fastest and Payne a short-yardage specialist. It makes sense to spread the wealth around. But there inevitably will still be a hierarchy in any committee that emerges. Touches will be available for everyone, but somebody will still need to get the most. Price and Love have both previously flashed game-changing ability, and a big day by one of them — or anyone else in the room — could potentially move them into pole position to lead the group in 2024.

If you watch one player it should be: Jadarian Price

1-5 Intrigue Level: Notre Dame is in a good spot here no matter what occurs. It’s a healthy 2.

Wide receivers

Scholarship players: Kris Mitchell, Jayden Harrison, Deion Colzie, Jayden Thomas, Jordan Faison, Jaden Greathouse, KK Smith, Micah Gilbert and Cam Williams

The outlook: It’s a new-look room for the Irish, fresh off a change in position coach at the end of the 2023 campaign. An eclectic mix of program veterans (Thomas, Colzie), rising sophomore standouts (Faison, Greathouse) and graduate transfers (Mitchell, Harrison) are all jockeying for depth chart positions in Mike Denbrock’s new offense. Beaux Collins won’t be available for the game while he finishes his degree at Clemson this spring, but he figures to be a key piece as well. The room also boasts a pair of early enrollees in Cam Williams and Micah Gilbert.

The key question: Who stakes their claim in an unclear rotation?

There’s a lot of intrigue in Notre Dame’s receiver room, but not a lot of set knowledge. The “key question” for this group is really just a number of smaller questions — the graduate transfers will presumably all be factors, for instance, but to what extent? What are the next steps for Faison (who won’t be playing on Saturday due to his commitments with the lacrosse team) and Greathouse after productive rookie campaigns? Gilbert has flashed throughout practice sessions open to the media, can he parlay that into a strong outing akin to when Greathouse turned heads with an 11-catch Blue-Gold game last year? 

If you watch one player it should be: Micah Gilbert

1-5 Intrigue Level: This is a fun one. The Blue-Gold game has proven conducive to strong receiver showings in past years and there’s no shortage of interesting players to watch here. 4.

Tight ends

Scholarship players: Kevin Bauman, Mitchell Evans, Davis Sherwood, Eli Raridon, Cooper Flanagan and Jack Larsen

The outlook: Evans’ emergence was on pace to potentially be the story of the 2023 campaign for the Irish, but the rising senior was lost to an ACL injury mid-season. With Evans still working his way back to full health, this spring is a chance for the rest of a traditionally excellent Notre Dame tight-end room to get reps in. The Irish have a nice mix of seasoned veteran experience and younger options to work with. Saturday should be a good opportunity for that depth to shine in Evans’ absence.

The key question: Who’s the No. 1 as long as Evans is out?

Raridon figures to be in pole position to be Evans’ deputy, which makes plenty of sense. There’s a lot to like about the rising junior’s game, and he served as Notre Dame’s primary tight end over the back half of the 2023 campaign. But Raridon has an injury history of his own to be managed, so his involvement in practice sessions open to the media has been more limited. Who stands out when he’s not on the field — be it reliable veteran Sherwood or underclassmen Flanagan and Larsen — could be telling as to the pecking order of the Irish’s tight end depth.

If you watch one player it should be: Cooper Flanagan

1-5 Intrigue Level: Notre Dame figures to just be sorting out the pecking order lower on the depth chart here. A good opportunity for all involved, but far from the most compelling position showdown of the day. 1.

Offensive line - Tackles

Scholarship players: Tosh Baker, Aamil Wagner, Sullivan Absher, Charles Jagusah, Styles Prescod and Anthonie Knapp

The outlook: Welcome to the story of the spring (and likely summer) for the Irish offense. With both 2023 starters Joe Alt and Blake Fisher off to the NFL, who will bookend Notre Dame’s offensive line come Aug. 31? Charles Jagusah seems to have locked down one tackle slot. The inside track for the other will go to Sun Bowl starter Tosh Baker, but it very much looks to be an open battle. Can someone else on Notre Dame’s depth chart make a move?

The key question: See above. Can someone else on Notre Dame’s depth chart make a move?

Baker and Jagusah acquitted themselves well in the Sun Bowl, but that’s a one-game sample size. For Jagusah, it’s the only start on a young career. For Baker, it was his first since he briefly entered the lineup in 2021 before being supplanted by the now-departed Alt. Wagner is the most obvious candidate to push his way into the starting tandem, but offensive line coach Joe Rudolph would no doubt welcome a breakout showing from any of his potential options. That being said, the low-impact nature of the Blue-Gold game makes it a suboptimal testing ground for offensive line play.

If you watch one player it should be: Tosh Baker

1-5 Intrigue Level: As an overall storyline, this is a 5. But because the Blue-Gold game probably isn’t actually going to tell us too much it gets bumped down to a 4. 

Offensive line - Interior

Scholarship players: Pat Coogan, Rocco Spindler, Ty Chan, Ashton Craig, Billy Schrauth, Sam Pendleton, Joe Otting, Christopher Terek and Peter Jones

The outlook: The Irish bring back both their 2023 starters at guard, but Rocco Spindler’s injury late in the season — and Billy Schrauth’s strong play in relief of said injury — left the door open for change in the lineup over the offseason. What is certain is that Notre Dame will have a new center at the top of the depth chart, with Ashton Craig taking over at the end of the fall and making the starting job his own.

The key question: Has Schrauth supplanted Rocco Spindler?

As discussed above, injuries forced a youth movement for the Irish on the inside of the offensive line late in 2023, with sophomores Craig and Schrauth each ascending to starting roles. But these changes came with strong results, leading to speculation that Joe Rudolph could stick with the group he ended with as the top line in College Station. Schrauth has run with the first-team unit throughout the spring (at least in sessions open to media), but whether he still holds that starting spot come August remains to be seen.

1-5 Intrigue Level: As with offensive tackle, the low-impact nature of the Blue-Gold game means even if the battle between Schrauth and Spindler is fascinating in the long run, we probably won’t see anything especially of note on Saturday. 3.