Heading into the 2021 season, most people probably weren’t expecting to see a lot of true freshmen make an impact. The prevailing and at least somewhat incorrect talking point tossed around was that Brian Kelly’s program rarely got freshmen on the field fast enough, and even though the Irish lost a ton of talent from the 2020 team, depth was considered the best it’d been in years as veterans looked to step into starting roles almost across the board.
Thus, it was pretty exciting and surprising to see how many class of 2021 guys ended up playing SUBSTANTIAL roles in this current Fiesta Bowl season for the Irish. LT Joe Alt is a freshman All-American who replaced injured true freshman Blake Fisher, who had won the job outright before the season. QB Tyler Buchner earned a role as the change-of-pace QB who could provide a running threat and a jolt of new energy, finishing 2nd on the team in rushing (336 yards) while also getting to sling it around just a bit.
Logan Diggs more or less finished the year as the #2 running back, with fellow frosh Audric Estime flashing some serious promise as well. Lorenzo Styles Jr. and Deion Colzie both saw solid amounts of playing time while combining for 20 receptions and 275 yards. TE Mitch Evans played a lot, even if mostly as a blocker. And defensively, there weren’t a ton of snaps to go around with so many talented veterans, but guys like Prince Kollie and Kahanu Kia still managed to make themselves noticed in blowouts and on special teams.
So, now that head coach Marcus Freeman has signed today what could end up ranked as a top 10 class, who are the guys in that group best positioned and best able to see the field right away in their 2022 debut season?
Tobias Merriweather: 4-star WR from Camas, WA
I cannot imagine this comes as a surprise to anyone who’s even remotely followed the Fighting Irish the past couple years. The depth chart at wide receiver has gotten scary recently, as transfers, poor recruiting efforts (1 WR in the 2019 class!!!!), position switches (the one 2019 WR, Cam Hart, and the only remaining 2020 WR, Xavier Watts, moving to defense), and injuries decimated the Irish to the point where by the end of the 2021 regular season, the Irish had 5 available scholarship wideouts, with three of them being the 2021 freshmen (Lorenzo Styles Jr., Deion Colzie, Jayden Thomas).
Heading into 2022, there are all sorts of question marks about who’s going to return. Styles and Colzie and Thomas should all be back (barring the temptation of the transfer portal becoming too much), and all the seniors technically have eligibility remaining. But will Avery Davis want to play a 6th season after tearing his ACL? Will Joe Wilkins want to finish his career as a likely reserve? Are Kevin Austin Jr. and Braden Lenzy interested in playing another college season, let alone another for the Irish?
It’s really all up in the air, and if some of those guys decide they want to move on, ND will be looking at a serious dearth of capable wideouts. Of course, Marcus Freeman, Tommy Rees, etc. could attempt to bring in a couple guys from the transfer portal or some unsigned diamonds in the rough prior to February to help bolster the numbers. But considering CJ Williams’s decommitment this week and Amorion Walker flipping to Michigan on Early Signing Day, Merriweather may be the sole true freshman wide receiver in 2022, meaning he may have to step into the rotation by default.
Luckily, Merriweather is also an awesome prospect.
He’s 6’4” with great length, athleticism, and hands, and combined with Colzie really will give Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne some nice catch radii and jump-ball ability to throw to out there. He may just earn a spot on the field, whether guys like Austin and Davis and Wilkins and Lenzy return or not.
Bryce McFerson: 5-star P from Indian Trail, NC
Yeah, I know he’s actually a 2-star recruit on 247sports, but that’s of course because he’s a punter.
Ignoring that, McFerson is a certified stud punter, ranked #2 in his class by Kohl’s. He’s good enough that when it became clear Jay Bramblett intended on grad transferring elsewhere to finish his career, the Irish coaching staff made a point to go flip the then-Wake Forest commit to ensure his services could immediately be used by the good guys in 2022.
With no other punters on the roster, it goes without saying that McFerson is expected to step right in and start at punter for the Irish, just like Bramblett was asked to do back in 2019.
Jadarian Price: 4-star RB from Denison, TX
This one might take a chunk or more of the 2022 season to come to fruition, but with Bellyman moving on to the NFL and a potential WR shortage that could lead to a lot more of Chris Tyree in the slot than we’ve seen previously, it’s not out of the question that we will see Jadarian Price receive some degree of playing time next year.
Even if all the running backs exclusively play running back, it’s obviously a high-contact position where guys get dinged up and reserves see the field, especially if they bring something different to the table. Tyree is obviously the home run threat and will likely be RB-1A as the oldest in the crew, with Logan Diggs nipping at his heels for carries as RB-1B. Diggs doesn’t have the breakaway speed of Tyree, but he’s smooth, has good hands, and is fast enough to do significant damage once he hits the second level.
Price seems similar, with maybe a bit more strength and long-distance acceleration and a bit less agility than Diggs, whereas Audric Estime, who will certainly be the backup to Tyree and Diggs to start 2022, is much more of a bruising power back (although with decent feet of his own).
If Tyree or Diggs or both get banged up, Estime will need to share carries with someone who’s got a little more speed and big-play ability, and Price could definitely provide that. He looks college-ready just in terms of the eye test, so there’s definitely a chance we get to see what he’s made of early, just like we did with Diggs and Estime in 2021.
Jaylen Sneed: 5-star LB from Hilton Head Island, SC
You’d basically need to be Jaylon Smith to begin your time as an ND linebacker with a more college-ready body and skillset than Jaylen Sneed, who comes to South Bend as the highest rated player in the Irish class, ranked 35th nationally in the 247sports Composite rankings (#3 at LB).
Linebacker, of course, isn’t quite as dire of a situation as a position like WR. Most of this unbelievable 2022 LB class (Sneed, Joshua Burnham, Niuafe Tuihalamaka, Nolan Ziegler) probably won’t play much in 2022, at least during any meaningful span of clock on defense. However, Sneed is the type of athlete who will be hard to keep out of the rotation, just considering his 6’2”, 210-lb chiseled frame and versatile skill set (he also played QB for his high school this past season, winning Mr. Football in South Carolina).
At the very least, it seems like Marcus Freeman or whoever is calling the defense next year will want to include Sneed in some 3rd down packages, either for his coverage abilities or his speed and aggression in blitzing the QB.
The linebacker depth chart could open up a bit to help enable this, as well. The main rotation of linebackers at the end of the 2021 season consisted of Drew White, Bo Bauer, JD Bertrand, and Jack Kiser, with White (5th year) and Bauer (senior) being guys who may not be interested in coming back for a final year. Add in that Kiser and Bertrand aren’t exactly fleet of foot or freak athletes, and there could be some opportunity for Sneed — although we do need to remember Marist Liufau and Paul Moala will be returning from injuries, and Prince Kollie and Kahanu Kia are chomping at the bit to get into the rotation themselves (not to mention Xavier Watts potentially playing a lot more Rover).
So, it won’t be a given, but if Sneed is the kind of athlete he appears to be, I’ve gotta think he’ll be pushing for immediate opportunities out there in some way, shape, or form.
Who got more bounce than me??✌ pic.twitter.com/SrIAuJ9RqI— Jaylen Sneed (@sneed_jaylen) August 2, 2021
Joshua Burnham: 4-star LB from Traverse City, MI
I’ll keep this one short, as it’s much the same as Sneed’s — Burnham is a fantastic, versatile athlete whose body looks ready for big-boy college football playing time, and so I think there may be some specific situations or packages where he could get some run.
It might not happen until later in the season once some injuries occur and Burnham has some time to get his assignments down and get used to the speed of the college game, but he’s a really, really great athlete that could probably help out right away — even if only on special teams.
I will say, I think Sneed is on another level at least a half-step above Burnham, but that’s much more a reflection of Sneed’s talent and promise than it is a knock on Burnham, who stands ranked as the 2nd-best player in this ND class and who will be a GREAT Notre Dame linebacker when it’s all said and done.
Jaden Mickey/Benjamin Morrison/Jayden Bellamy:
4-star/4-star/3-star DBs from CA/AZ/NJ
First, let me be clear here: 4-star DB Devin Moore’s name would have replaced these three if he hadn’t decommitted from the Irish when Brian Kelly left for LSU, and then ultimately signed with the Florida Gators. He was a severely underrated and talented DB prospect who could have helped RIGHT AWAY considering his mix of length and speed — especially considering Kyle Hamilton’s departure for the NFL and potential losses of guys like Houston Griffith, TaRiq Bracy, etc.
With that said, I don’t know if any of these three 2022 DB signees will for sure see the field next year in any significant fashion other than special teams or garbage time, but considering the lack of depth at safety and the lack of proven guys at cornerback after the starters, there’s always a possibility one of these guys has a Clarence Lewis-esque rise to playing time that wouldn’t have seemed likely just from their recruiting ratings.
The 2021 class had a number of DBs itself in Philip Riley, Khari Gee, Ryan Barnes, Justin Walters, Chance Tucker, and JoJo Johnson, but despite plenty of promise amongst those guys, they were almost all 3-star guys as well, meaning there’s a chance a number of them never really develop into starting-caliber DBs.
Hopefully that’s wrong and Mike Mickens and Nick O’Leary coach them up into a bunch of world-beaters, but if not, don’t be surprised if someone like Mickey or Morrison comes in as a polished player and snags some PT in certain DB-heavy packages.
God Forbid, But Quite Possible...
Steve Angeli: 3-star QB from Oradell, NJ
This is really more of a “knock on wood” one than anything, but assuming the Irish don’t go grab a QB from the transfer portal, there’s a solid chance Angeli could be QB3 entering the 2022 season (assuming he can beat out Ron Powlus III).
If that’s the case, I think we’ve seen enough over the last few years to know that starting and even backup QBs can get hurt and in rough situations, the 3rd guy off the bench may need to be called upon (*cough* Drew Pyne this season against Wisconsin and Cincinnati *cough*).
Thus, there’s certainly a scenario where Buchner and Pyne can’t go for whatever reason (or an even darker scenario where one or both have performed poorly enough in a game to warrant benching them), and Angeli could be asked to step in. I don’t think it would go super great, as Angeli strikes me as a guy who will need time to develop before potentially earning real playing time. But it’s possible, and as Irish fans we should prepare for every possibility. And hell, the kid clearly seems like a winner — maybe he’s THE FUTURE.