The viral video that made the rounds when Marcus Freeman was introduced to his team as their new head coach featuring how his players felt about the decision by the university brass. The rowdy reception for their new head coach and collective team embrace spoke volumes.
It was a decision universally embraced by Notre Dame fans, particularly those who had grown impatient with Brian Kelly’s 54 victories in five seasons yet hollow results against most upper-echelon opponents over his 12-year tenure.
Eleven victories per season for half a decade is a hard act to follow for the 36-year-old first-time head coach, as evidenced by Notre Dame’s blown 21-point lead in Freeman’s debut as the head man in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State.
Yet Irish fans were ready for a change from Kelly, who surpassed Knute Rockne as the winningest coach in Notre Dame history but couldn’t scale the higher elevations. Notre Dame lost in a national championship game by 28 points, two first-round playoff games by 27 and 17 and an ACC Championship Game by 24, and it failed to win a major bowl.
In Freeman, the Irish have a relentless recruiter with a full understanding of Notre Dame’s expectations and standards. “We will be disciplined, we will be tough, we will work tirelessly,” Freeman says. “As a team and as a family, we’ll accomplish all of our goals. I plan on leading this team with an unwavering standard. We will call it the golden standard.
“We’re going to out-work everybody in the country. We’re going to do things that no one else has done. We want to be unique in how we develop relationships.”
Previewing Notre Dame’s Offense for 2022
Third-year offensive coordinator Tommy Rees inherits his third starting quarterback in as many seasons after working with Ian Book and Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan, both of whom provided ample experience.
Sophomore Tyler Buchner and redshirt sophomore Drew Pyne played in 2021 with varying degrees of success in relief from Coan. Now one — or both — will be in a lead role, with Buchner offering a run-pass option.
The strength of the offense is the line, after an abysmal start to ’21 but a strong finish. Jarrett Patterson is one of the nation’s top centers, with sophomore left tackle Joe Alt and redshirt freshman right tackle Blake Fisher flashing future first-round ability.
The line will block for an exciting group of running backs, even with the loss of two-time 1,000-yard rusher Kyren Williams. Speedy Chris Tyree and up-and-comer Logan Diggs lead the way.
The concern is difference-making ability in the pass-catching corps beyond Michael Mayer, who likely will be the first tight end off the board on NFL draft day 2023.
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“I don’t believe anyone in the country can cover me one-on-one,” Mayer says.
Wideout Braden Lenzy has much to prove after four years of inconsistency, while Avery Davis is coming off a torn ACL. The star-in-the-making is sophomore Lorenzo Styles. But the Irish lack a proven wideout with size.
Previewing Notre Dame’s Defense for 2022
Notre Dame’s third defensive coordinator in three years is former Miami Hurricanes head coach and Cincinnati Bengals assistant Al Golden. Golden offers a wide-ranging background with three- and four-man front experience and is a vital sounding board for Freeman. “I sit in his defensive meetings, just to learn, just to hear him teach,” Freeman says. “He’s a great motivator. He’s super intelligent. Our players will tell you they’ve learned a lot of ball from him.”
The Irish have difference-makers on all three levels. End Isaiah Foskey, an NFL first-round draft candidate, had 11 sacks last season. Tackle Jayson Ademilola was a disruptive force in ’21.
The linebacker corps is talented and heady. Marist Liufau, a dynamic athlete, missed last season with a broken leg. Bo Bauer, a special teams standout and emotional sparkplug, moves into the starting lineup. There are larger and more talented athletes than Jack Kiser, but few headier and more consistent. Leading tackler JD Bertrand will be in the mix.
Notre Dame’s inability to match up athletically at cornerback was its downfall in Kelly’s biggest games. Cam Hart and TaRiq Bracy look primed to excel, but proven depth is a concern.
The safety position has absorbed a significant loss with first-round pick Kyle Hamilton’s departure for the NFL. But the Irish added Northwestern All-America safety Brandon Joseph through the transfer portal. Ramon Henderson adds athletic length.
Previewing Notre Dame’s Specialists for 2022
The Irish must replace three-year placekicker Jonathan Doerer and three-year punter Jay Bramblett. Grad transfer kicker Blake Grupe was a four-year starter at Arkansas State with redshirt freshman Josh Bryan competing. Harvard grad transfer punter Jon Sot holds the track-record edge over freshman Bryce McFerson. Tyree, who had a 96-yard kick return against Wisconsin, should be one of the nation’s top threats.
The Irish remain true to their strengths along both lines, which spearheaded two playoff appearances in three years.
The season hinges on a) the consistency of the unproven quarterback(s), b) the development of a big wideout and c) the evolution of Notre Dame’s secondary.
The shift from Kelly to Freeman is the great intangible in a season that’s more transition in leadership than a significant drop in talent/experience.
National Ranking: 7
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