Notre Dame football spring practice begins on Mar. 22. To prepare, here’s a preview of the offensive side of the roster, featuring scholarship totals for the fall and players who will dominate discussion at the outset.
Scholarship Players: 5
All Eyes On: Sam Hartman
Underclassman to Watch: Kenny Minchey
Make-or-Break Spring: Tyler Buchner
Barring injury, Hartman is starting. Period. Quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli has to say there’s a QB competition, but 110 career touchdowns and nearly 13,000 career passing yards don’t choose a sixth collegiate season instead of the NFL Draft if there’s even a remote chance of riding the bench. Regardless, the story is what Hartman looks like in an offense other than Wake Forest’s patented slow mesh, specifically how he fits in a run-first attack with talented but inexperienced receivers.
On the flip side of Hartman, the freshman Minchey won’t be getting many reps behind sixth-year Hartman and rising junior Buchner. But the four-star ex-Pitt commit’s offseason will be important for gaining a lead on 2024 Irish quarterback commit C.J. Carr and for indicating what Buchner’s development looks like.
And that’s why this is a make-or-break spring for Buchner. His sprained shoulder last season cost him what he needed most: in-game reps. He’s unlikely to get many more this year with Hartman in the fold and a run game that will probably be viable without a Buchner “package” as was necessary in 2021. But this is his reality, so the one-time five-star recruit needs to make strides any way he possibly can.
Scholarship Players: 6
All Eyes On: Chris Tyree
Underclassman to Watch: Jadarian Price
Make-or-Break Spring: Gi’Bran Payne
Logan Diggs and Audric Estime are 1A and 1B in the running back room, although not necessarily in that order. Tyree’s speed is a unique weapon on the roster, but two Irish coaching staffs have yet to figure out the best way to use it. It’s important that this one does — perhaps at wide receiver — considering Tyree very conceivably could have been the fourth-string running back last season if not for Price’s preseason achilles injury.
Speaking of Price, the four-star recruit out of Texas turned heads last offseason until his freshman year ended before it started. He’s another dual-threat weapon who can supplement a talented but young Irish receiving corps. How he bounces back from that injury will be important for sorting out the pecking order within the position group, both this season and beyond.
Which brings us to Payne. Running backs coach Deland McCullough brought the former four-star recruit with him from Indiana last offseason. Payne’s injury history is extensive and he’s only a sophomore-to-be, but the potential is there. It’s up to him to find a niche on special teams — a vacant punt returner spot and even Tyree’s kickoff return duties should certainly be up for grabs — or he risks getting passed over by four-star Jeremiyah Love once the summer enrollee arrives on campus.
Scholarship Players: 10*
All Eyes On: Tobias Merriweather
Underclassmen to Watch: Jaden Greathouse and Braylon James
Make-or-Break Spring: Lorenzo Styles Jr.
*Pending the status of former walk-on Matt Salerno’s scholarship
This will be the year a freshman wide receiver makes an impact at Notre Dame. Yes, yes, that’s been said many times and virtually never actually happened. But this year will be different. “Why?” Um, well… because Brian Kelly isn’t the coach anymore? Because Tommy Rees isn’t OC anymore? Because probability suggests that this trend of freshmen wideouts failing to produce can’t go on forever?
Regardless of the reason, position coach Chansi Stuckey deserves a statue if he actually manages to pull off this feat. That was supposedly going to be the case with Merriweather last season. Instead, concussion issues limited him to one catch (albeit for a touchdown) all season. But now the Irish need receivers to step up, so it would be the perfect time for Merriweather to live up to the hype and for Greathouse, James, or any other freshman to finally become an exception to the rule at Notre Dame.
That’s especially true given the way Styles regressed last season. His freshman year wasn’t world-beating by any stretch, but last season was still a bucket of cold water to the face. Whatever the issue is, Styles needs to put it to rest this offseason if he’s going to reclaim his starting spot (or simply prevent more players from passing him over). If he doesn’t, he may not be on the Irish roster to kick off the 2023 campaign.
Scholarship Players: 6*
All Eyes On: Mitchell Evans
Underclassman to Watch: Holden Staes
Make-or-Break Spring: Kevin Bauman
*Pending the status of former walk-on Davis Sherwood’s scholarship
Evans caught the game-winning touchdown pass in the Gator Bowl, effectively establishing himself as the de facto heir to Notre Dame’s No. 1 tight end spot. The former high school quarterback has impressed the staff since enrolling early as a freshman but will have to hold off talented underclassmen who contributed last season.
One of those underclassmen is Staes. Staes received less pomp than his classmate Eli Raridon, the Notre Dame legacy who was desperately pursued by in-state Iowa. Raridon made an impressive offseason recovery from an ACL tear suffered during his high school basketball season before tearing his other ACL as a true freshman. With the coaching staff likely to be more cautious with Raridon’s rehab this time around, Staes has an opportunity to build off a good freshman season and become a more frequent contributor.
All of that means that rising senior Kevin Bauman finds himself in a precarious position. Like Raridon, Bauman also missed the majority of last season with a torn ACL after sitting out much of the previous year with a broken leg. He seemingly carved out a niche for himself in last season’s opener against Ohio State, but even his role as the go-to blocking tight end could be forfeited to Staes or Davis Sherwood if Bauman can’t stay healthy.
Scholarship Players: 18
All Eyes On: Blake Fisher and Joe Alt
Underclassmen to Watch: Billy Schrauth and Aamil Wagner
Make-or-Break Spring: Caleb Johnson and Rocco Spindler
Alt and Fisher are NFL offensive tackles, and the former is all-but-assuredly a first-round pick. What’s unclear is how much either can be properly evaluated this spring considering Notre Dame’s losses on the defensive line. But it will also be worthwhile to see how they are developed by new position coach Joe Rudolph and how the tandem meshes with two new starting guards by their sides.
One of those starting guards could be Schrauth. The ex-Wisconsin commit has quickly taken attention off of Rocco Spindler (more on him momentarily) as the fan-hopeful underclassman to start on the offensive line. He’ll have to battle Spindler, Pat Coogan and veteran Andrew Kristofic for a starting job.
As for Schrauth’s classmate Wagner, he won’t supplant Alt or Fisher at tackle this offseason. Even so, it’s important for him to make a move against veterans Tosh Baker and Michael Carmody for a spot in 2024, especially since only one may open up by that point. Throw in rising junior Johnson as another competitor at tackle, because the former four-star and one-time Auburn commit likely has one chance left to earn a starting spot himself.
And now, Spindler. He was talked up as the potential second coming of Quenton Nelson but has yet to make a splash. That’s OK for Notre Dame given the depth of talent along the offensive line. But like Johnson, Spindler runs the risk of losing his (potentially only) opportunity to become a starter if he can’t impress enough this offseason.