2022 was far from a perfect opening act for head coach Marcus Freeman. Even with his mid-year adjustment to salvage the season, a lot needs to change. Here’s the five biggest bugs that need fixing:
5. Earlier Offensive Line Gelling
Jarrett Patterson’s pectoral injury during last offseason certainly set this unit back to start 2022. But there’s no reason Tyler Buchner should have been under as much pressure as he was against Ohio State, let alone what he was subjected to against Marshall. It took until the second half of the third game of the season for Notre Dame’s offensive line to finally start rounding into form.
Granted, the need for stellar offensive line play isn’t as pressing to start the 2023 season since the Irish don’t open with the Buckeyes again. But like last season, the tackle spots and center are decided, which once again leaves question marks for how the guards will look to begin the year.
The sooner this unit gets its act together, the sooner it can start churning out dominating performances (like the 2022 version finally did against Clemson in November), and the less risk of another Marshall disaster happening against Navy or (God forbid) Tennessee State.
4. Earlier Defensive Havoc
It wasn’t until the fourth game of the 2022 season against UNC that the Notre Dame defense recorded a turnover. (They would have had an interception to seal the win over Cal in game No. 3, but it was called back for targeting by J.D. Bertrand). And it wasn’t until the fifth game of the year versus BYU that TaRiq Bracy recorded the team’s first official interception.
It’s all well and good that Notre Dame finished the year with 10 interceptions — six of them by Benjamin Morrison alone. But eight of those picks came in the final five games of the regular season. And with just five fumble recoveries to boot, the Irish were tied for No. 99 in the FBS in turnovers forced.
Be more consistent in forcing turnover throughout the course of the season, and more teams start second-guessing certain decisions against you. Plus, Ohio State and USC visit South Bend in the first eight games of 2023, so Notre Dame can’t coast on turnover “luck” like it did to start last year.
3. Red Zone Defense
If you thought Notre Dame was bad at forcing turnovers last season, then brace yourself for this doozy: the Irish were the SECOND-WORST team in all of the FBS (besting only Rutgers) in red zone defense.
Opposing teams scored on 94.1% of their red zone trips against Notre Dame last season. The Irish held opponents to zero points on red zone trips just TWICE out of 34 times last season. The first time that happened was when Benjamin Morrison intercepted D.J. Uiagelelei for a pick-6 (that happened on Nov. 5).
At the very least, Notre Dame’s red zone touchdown-to-field-goal ratio needs to be better than 27-to-5. As good as the Irish were at keeping teams out of the red zone last season, they can’t turn into wet paper once opponents get inside 20 yards.
2. No Home-Run Runs
Notre Dame’s longest run of the 2022 season was a 51-yarder by Logan Diggs against Boston College. The longest touchdown run of the season was 39 yards in the Gator Bowl, also by Diggs, who is no longer on the roster. Notre Dame doesn’t need to annually recreate Kyren Williams’ 91-yard touchdown run against North Carolina in 2021. But the Irish do need to complement their chunk-running style with more of a home run threat in order to take pressure off the passing game.
Granted, maybe it isn’t a coincidence that the longest touchdown run of the season came in a game where Tyler Buchner returned from injury and the opposing defense had to account for a running quarterback with a big arm. Alternatively, maybe the reason for the long run is just that South Carolina had a bunch of opt-outs on defense in that bowl game. Either way, Sam Hartman should pose enough of a passing threat that there’s no excuse for a veteran offensive line and talented running back room to not deliver a few more breakaways.
1. A Nonexistent Kick Return Game
If it weren’t for that go-ahead kick-return touchdown against Wisconsin back in 2021, how would Notre Dame fans view Chris Tyree right now? (I have to give Tim O’Malley of the Irish Illustrated Insider podcast for bringing this thought experiment to mind). The (probably) fastest man on the roster should at least have gotten a couple more 40- or 50-yard returns under his belt, but that’s not just on ex-special teams coach Brian Polian.
For all the (well-deserved) praise Brian Mason received last season for what he did dialing up punt blocks, the kick return game was bad in all but the Marshall game (and no one wants to remember anything from that game). With a player as fast as Tyree, there seems to be no reason for Notre Dame to average fewer yards per return (19.3) than it could get from simply signaling a fair catch (20).
Still, Tyree has shown enough as a returner and running back to know that he chops his feet too much and gets tripped up far too easily. Rising sophomore running back Gi’Bran Payne and incoming freshman cornerback Micah Bell are candidates to supplant Tyree, and new special teams coordinator Marty Biagi needs to find a returner among those three who will warrant more respect and fear from opposing teams.