Welcome, everyone, to the weekly One Foot Down listicle! Each week on Friday, Matt Greene and I will alternate providing for you all a listicle of the greatest/top/best Notre Dame Fighting Irish-related things we can think of. They might be more serious, but mostly they will probably be wacky (what else would you honestly expect from the two of us?). We are AMPED to provide these for you each week.
This week, I want to talk about the 2021 Irish recruiting class and who I’m excited to see immediately step in and show us something this coming season, because there will likely be some major opportunities to be grasped.
It’s not news to anyone here that our beloved ND squad lost a lot of key players and production from the 2020 team that made the College Football Playoff — by Bill Connelly’s calculations, the Irish are 124th out of 127 in terms of returning production.
Alright, I've officially scrubbed all the rosters, and I think I'm up to date on the portal, so...— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) July 6, 2021
2021 RETURNING PRODUCTION RANKINGS AS OF JULY 6.
* Typical national avg: 62.6%
* 2021 avg: 76.7%
Only 14 teams below the typical national avg this year. Crazy. pic.twitter.com/nam8od5Z6V
Obviously, in plenty of situations we’ll see a more experienced/tenured guy step into a starting role — such as someone like junior Jack Kiser assuming the Rover spot, or grad transfer Jack Coan likely taking on the QB position.
However, there are some positions that are ripe for the taking by elite, college-ready true frosh from this very solid 2021 recruiting class, not to mention some positions with such uncertainty and unproven talent that the right freshman could easily grab a spot in the rotation, depending on what they show in summer/fall practice.
So, let’s dive into the list of freshmen we should be most excited to watch in 2021 as they potentially immediately contribute on the field.
True Freshmen Who Could Make an Immediate Impact in 2021
Blake Fisher, Offensive Tackle
This one seems like the most surefire bet in the list — coming out of spring ball, reports are that the blue-chip tackle from Avon, Indiana has emerged as the heavy favorite to fill Liam Eichenberg’s cleats at left tackle.
“Big Fish” (this is the only name any of us should call him going forward, FYI) arrived in South Bend very much looking the part, considering his 6’6”, 330-lb frame that he’s somehow able to move in a very athletic fashion.
What’s impressed everyone most is how he’s legitimately beaten out older guys like Tosh Baker and allowed the coaching staff to keep someone like Jarrett Patterson on the interior, because he’s so polished and reliable in just his first semester of college. Multiple ND defensive players have been quoted saying that he’s probably the best freshman lineman they’ve ever seen.
If the current feeling on Big Fish’s starting status holds heading into the fall, we’ll see the first true freshman to start the season opener on the Notre Dame offensive line since Sam Young in 2006. That seems very likely at this point, and so it’s going to be very fun to see if Big Fish can not only hold his own, but if he can excel on this very new offensive line that Jeff Quinn will be trotting out after losing Eichenberg, Aaron Banks, and Tommy Kraemer from a year ago.
Deion Colzie, Wide Receiver
I know, I know — there are those of you screaming at me right now about how Brian Kelly rarely, if ever, gets true frosh wide receivers onto the field and contributing immediately. And although guys like T.J. Jones, Kevin Stepherson, Will Fuller, and Corey Robinson could tell you differently, I won’t sit here and claim Colzie being in the rotation is any sort of certainty.
However, what I can say is the Notre Dame wide receiver rotation is kind of a shit-show right now, with really only Avery Davis locked into his slot receiver role. Sure, guys like Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy SHOULD round out the starting group because of their physical attributes, but after a few years of injuries and a lack of consistent production, it’s unclear how much Jack Coan and the Irish offense can rely on those guys.
So, when you look at Deion Colzie, standing at 6’4” and having the speed and athleticism to go with that size, there’s a potential path to playing time — especially considering the Irish’s two big-bodied WRs from 2020, Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek, have moved on from the program.
Colzie brings that height and leaping ability and catch radius that none of the other receivers bring, and so although it’s possible he needs some time to pick up the playbook, etc. and won’t be ready to contribute significantly on offense until 2022, it’s also possible Colzie finds himself heavily in rotation as the big jump-ball and red zone target at receiver.
Rocco Spindler, Offensive Guard
Big Fish wasn’t the only true freshman lineman to shine in spring ball, and for a while there it sounded like Rocco Spindler was going to start right next to him on the left side of the line, considering how much he impressed at the guard position. Kurt Hinish had some HEAVY praise for Spindler and how he was able to play with the big boys so immediately.
However, Spindler probably won’t be starting come Game 1, thanks to the grad transfer of All-American guard Cain Madden from Marshall. The starting line now will likely be Big Fish, Madden, Zeke Correll, Jarrett Patterson, and Josh Lugg.
But, Spindler is still almost certainly going to be part of the rotation and get some playing time, and he will absolutely be the first interior lineman off the bench if and when someone goes down with injury. So, there’s still a chance we see Rocco play LOTS of minutes and even a chance we still get to see the left side of the future with Rocco and Big Fish pummeling unsuspecting defensive linemen and linebackers. That’s exciting as hell.
Lorenzo Styles Jr., Wide Receiver/Punt Returner
Styles, like Colzie, comes to the Irish as a blue-chip receiver prospect who definitely has the tools to contribute right away. However, unlike Colzie with his size and high-jump leaping ability, Styles is just 6’1” and 188 lbs, meaning there’s not a lot about him physically that other receivers on the roster don’t already bring to the table.
Which is not to say he’s not ultimately going to be a better receiver than those guys, but coming in as a true freshman with similar measurables as the more experienced guys certainly is a tough position to be in, and although Styles may end up making the two-deep behind a guy like Lenzy, it’s unclear how much we will see from him in year one, despite the fact he’s clearly a fantastic receiver.
However, another area we could see Styles immediately contribute to is special teams — he’s a dynamic kick returner with great speed, vision, and cutting ability who could push senior Matt Salerno for the starting job. Salerno is a trusted fair-catcher of punts, no doubt, but if Styles can prove reliable while also offering what Salerno cannot — the ability to break one or two returns for touchdowns — then Styles will bring a whole new dynamic to Brian Polian’s special teams that we haven’t seen since...C.J. Sanders?
Here’s to hoping we get to see some pure electricity back there returning punts, because this offense may need the occasional help from a nice return that sets them up with solid field position.
Audric Estime, Running Back
With Kyren “Bellyman” Williams, Chris Tyree, and C’Bo Flemister all proven to be fantastic and reliable options at running back, it’s unlikely we will see either of the true freshmen (Estime and Logan Diggs) getting a high volume of carries in 2021.
However, with Flemister’s recent legal issues and with Estime’s huge, college-ready body, there could be a chance for him to earn some short-yardage and/or goal line carries. Certainly Bellyman will still get his share of goal-to-goal handoffs, and Flemister may be cleared to play sooner rather than later and getting the short-yardage opportunities he’s used to getting, but it may be hard for Tommy Rees to NOT utilize this guy in situations when the Irish need power and strength.
Philip Riley/Ryan Barnes, Cornerback
The cornerback rotation is fairly set, with the likely starters being Clarence Lewis and Cam Hart and then with TaRiq Bracy and Ramon Henderson considered the #2s who will be heavily in rotation at the position. However, if anyone gets hurt or if any of the unproven/unreliable guys in that group (Hart, Henderson, Bracy) don’t pan out, Marcus Freeman may be calling upon the true freshmen to step in and play.
If that happens, then we may see either Riley or Barnes (or both) inserted into key moments, expected to help lock down opposing receivers. That sounds both exciting (to see the future at the CB position in action so early) and frightening (to see the future at the CB position in action potentially TOO early), but either way it will be fun to see who may be ready to step in and contribute immediately. For all we know, there’s another Clarence Lewis in this class who’s ready to seize an opportunity to be a 3-4 year starter.
Tyler Buchner, Quarterback
We all know Buchner is the starter of the future — the kid has been the most hyped and talked-about QB recruit the Irish have signed since at least Brandon Wimbush and maybe even since Dayne Crist.
We also know that the starter in 2021 is almost certainly going to be Jack Coan, with Drew Pyne likely to be the backup, and so Buchner isn’t likely to be taking over the reins of the offense by mid-season.
However, Buchner is good enough that the Irish coaching staff may try to find a way to get him onto the field in some specific package or at least in some garbage time — which I realize may not be “making an immediate impact” per se, but it will be fun to see the arm of the future let loose in real competition at some point in 2021.
And who knows? Maybe Buchner will continue to develop and impress in practice and put himself in a position on the depth chart where he’ll be called upon in real, important game moments sooner rather than later.
Others to Think About
- Will Prince Kollie be too good and athletic to keep off the field in his first year with the defense?
- Will Justin Walters or Khari Gee be needed at safety if veterans like Houston Griffith and D.J. Brown can’t hack it?
- Will Gabe Rubio be called upon at DT at any point in his freshman season?
- Will Mitch Evans or Cane Berrong push for any of Kevin Bauman’s or George Takacs’ playing time at TE?