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Notre Dame Football: Which Players Will Emerge/Take Their Game to the Next Level in 2023?

We have an idea of how great some players already are — Joe Alt, Sam Hartman, Benjamin Morrison — but who else on the 2023 squad is about to take their game to another level this season and emerge as a key contributor?

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When it comes to the exercise of identifying the most elite and impactful players for the 2023 Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team this coming season, it’s pretty easy to get some of them right. Heading into 2022, we all knew how good Michael Mayer and Isaiah Foskey were, and sure enough, they were All-American caliber players. Back in 2021, it was those two plus Kyle Hamilton and Kyren “Bellyman” Williams.

And heading into 2023, I’d argue there’s a “core four” guys who we all know are elite players nationally at their position, and thus will be four dynamite players for the Irish this year: Joe Alt, Sam Hartman, Benjamin Morrison, and Audric Estime.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Ohio State Kyle Robertson-USA TODAY Sports

But who else on this 2023 roster do we expect will take their game up a notch and be one of the top performers for Marcus Freeman’s squad? Who will go from promising to fantastic like Estime did last season, or from an unproven frosh to an absolute stud and difference-maker like Morrison did in 2022 and Alt did late in the year in 2021?

I decided to pull together a short list of the guys I think are most likely to step up this year in terms of production and performance level and maybe even nudge their way into the that elite tier of Irish players for 2023 inhabited by the four names I listed above.

Let’s get after it.

Blake Fisher

NCAA Football: UNLV at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

This one is cheating a little bit, because we all know Blake Fisher is already a really freaking good offensive tackle and has been since he earned a starting spot as a true freshman back in 2021. But since his injury in the season opener eventually paved the way for Joe Alt’s ascension to where he is now, Fisher has played second fiddle on the line and hasn’t gotten basically any of the accolades Alt has.

Reports in the spring were that Fisher has lost a little weight and gotten a bit faster/stronger, and with that slight physical transformation along with his already rock-solid work ethic, leadership, and other intangibles, I think we’re all about to get front row seats to Fisher having a phenomenal junior season — much to the chagrin of anyone who wanted him to stay at Notre Dame for 4 years.

So, really I’m just saying that I think Blake Fisher goes from being a nice bookend to Joe Alt’s greatness toward being an elite tackle amongst everyone at the position across the country, and he plays his way into being a first round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft just like Joe Alt is a lock to be.

A Running Back Not Named Audric Estime

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 22 Notre Dame Blue-Gold Game Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This one is admittedly not a prediction of someone becoming an elite back nationally, considering that will be Estime’s role this year. But with Logan Diggs’ transfer and Chris Tyree moving to receiver, the run-heavy Irish will need multiple rotational backs to step in and spell Estime, and one of them is bound to emerge as a really damn good backup and the heir apparent to Estime when he likely leaves after this year to go get paid in the NFL.

Jadarian Price would have been the smart money choice pre-Achilles injury, and he still could be in 2023, but I think he’ll show some flashes this year before looking way more like a starter in 2024. Devyn Ford has been around the block and brings some good things to the table, but I don’t think he’ll suddenly become an absolute stud #2 to Estime. And Jeremiyah Love is an ultra-exciting prospect that will probably find ways to get on the field as a true freshman, but he’s still going to be a true freshman.

My choice, instead, is for Gi’Bran Payne to emerge as the clear-cut RB2 in 2023. He’s been forgotten in the shuffle a bit since arriving last year, but the reports have been quietly very encouraging on how he’s looked in practice, and I have a feeling by mid-year that we’ll love the 1-2 punch that Estime and Payne bring to the rushing attack, similar to how we were all digging the Estime-Diggs combo in games like the 2022 Clemson contest.

Jayden Thomas

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Thomas established himself as a solid contributor in 2022 (25 rec, 361 yds, 3 TDs), but with the limitations at QB and with Michael Mayer rightfully eating up targets, the redshirt freshman didn’t have much of a chance to show more than he did.

With Mayer gone and with Drew Pyne replaced by one of the best QBs the Atlantic Coast Conference has ever seen, I think we’re about to see the big-bodied, sure-handed, sneakily-athletic Thomas really step up into the #1 WR role and serve at the very least as Sam Hartman’s main security blanket, especially on 3rd down. He’s shown the ability to win some battles and make some really nice catches.

He may not have the game-breaker potential of some other weapons on the offense, but with Hartman running the show and with the confidence and experience Thomas picked up in 2022, I don’t think we should be surprised to see him essentially double his 2022 production and collect 50-60 receptions and over 700 yards receiving on the season.

Tobias Merriweather

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Whereas I see Thomas as filling that big-target, dependable-hands role Michael Mayer vacated, I see Merriweather stepping into a role that the Irish haven’t really been able to fully utilize since DeShone Kizer was quarterback: the field-stretching deep threat.

Merriweather’s one catch last year was tantalizingly fun and awesome, and another year of learning the offense and how to operate at the collegiate level will hopefully be enough not to keep him off the field anymore, because his natural length, speed, and athleticism would provide a perfect target for a guy who’s pretty darn good at tossing a deep ball in Hartman.

I think it’s entirely possible Merriweather goes from a 1-catch freshman season where he didn’t see the field much to a Chase Claypool junior season level of production (50 catches, 639 yards, 4 TDs) in 2023, setting him up for a monster year in 2024 if the QB situation develops well after Hartman.

Holden Staes

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I’ve mentioned a few times about Mayer departing and leaving a major void in the offense, but haven’t discussed his specific position and who I think may step into it and try to fill it (as best as possible, considering how great Mayer was).

In an “everyone is perfectly healthy” situation at tight end, we would all probably bet on Eli Raridon as the one most likely to seize the key role here and really elevate his game. But with another ACL tear last year and with other injuries at the position, I think a guy to watch in terms of stepping up and showing out in 2023 is Holden Staes. I think he showed flashes of major potential as a true frosh in 2022, and he’s a great mix of size and athleticism who could thrive both as a blocker and as a red zone target for Hartman.

Tight end is going to be interesting this season, but I think if I had to choose someone there to potentially become a top-3/4 receiver for Gerad Parker’s offense and a guy who’s constantly on the field, I’d go with Staes.

Jordan Botelho

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This one probably won’t surprise anyone, and it might seem foolish to expect a guy who’s already been at ND for 3 years to suddenly have everything click as a senior and really elevate their game, but we saw Botelho really start to show something at the end of the year in 2022, especially in the Gator Bowl with Foskey sitting out.

I think Botelho has just been a bit delayed in getting it all figured out, while also having to wait patiently behind some pretty talented pass rushers the last few years, and so I feel pretty confident he comes out in 2023 as a starter and guy who can give you way more snaps than he has been and lead the team in sacks in a season when Al Golden’s defense is going to need someone to provide that ability with Foskey gone and with games on the schedule against Caleb Williams and several other talented QBs.

Jaylen Sneed

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I completely understand why J.D. Bertrand, Jack Kiser, and Marist Liufau have gotten so many snaps the last year-plus. They may not be the most perfect or the most athletic or the quickest group of linebackers, but they’re veterans who mostly know where they should be and what their roles are, etc.

With that said, I simply refuse to believe that the Irish defense will go another season with those three being the main guys at linebacker, and that’s largely because we all know the athleticism, speed, and potential of former 5-star Jaylen Sneed is just WAITING to be unleashed. Sneed got into a few games in 2022 as a true freshman, and although it was clear there was still some work needed, the talent and ability were obvious.

With a year under his belt learning the defense, I believe this is about to be Sneed’s 2019 Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah season, wherein he explodes onto the scene as a lightning-quick, aggressive, hard-hitting, sideline-to-sideline linebacker who then emerges as an All-American candidate in 2024. I’m gonna speak this into existence, y’all.

Xavier Watts

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I’m excited about Antonio Carter and Thomas Harper transferring in to bolster the secondary with some promising veteran talent, but the guy I’m most excited about on the back end of the defense is safety Xavier Watts. He’s shown solid progression and improvement ever since he was moved from receiver to safety, and last season he really looked like he was coming into his own at the position in a season where Irish fans were left wanting thanks to Brandon Joseph’s meh showing.

I think this season Watts steps up and is a surprise STUD at safety, going from a nice project to a bonafide, full-time starter and leader on the defense who makes plays all over the place.

Jaden Mickey

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Benjamin Morrison is obviously the guy who took off last year as a true freshman, but Mickey has had people talking about him since he arrived. He’s got all the confidence and swagger and work ethic in the world, per reports, and he’s flashed talent as a cover corner for sure.

He took some lumps in 2022 just being a true freshman seeing a little too much playing time against teams with relentless passing attacks like USC, but I think he’s better for it and will use that experience and what he’s learned from it to really turn himself into an awesome CB3 behind Morrison and Cam Hart. In fact, I could see Mickey having a 2021 Cam Hart kind of emergence where he goes from being a relative unknown with potential to a reliably very good cover corner who steps up and makes some big plays in some big games.

Michael “Milk” Vinson

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The dude is gonna be a finalist for — if not outright win — the Mannelly Award this year. I just know it.

Time to take Irish long snapping to the next level, you guys.

Probably A Freshman or Two

There always are one or two freshmen who emerge as contributors earlier than you’d expect them to, and so I think the below true freshmen seem most likely to be the guys who immediately earn playing time and set themselves up to be starters or quasi-starters in 2024:

  • Jaden Greathouse
  • Jeremiyah Love
  • Christian Gray
  • Rico Flores
COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 22 Notre Dame Blue-Gold Game Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images