Notre Dame will enter the 2022 season looking for its sixth straight season with 10 or more wins in Marcus Freeman’s first year as head coach.
The program has talent at all levels in key positions, but Freeman’s team will need a few players to accelerate its development and reach its ceiling.
It begins and ends with second-year quarterback Tyler Buchner.
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound picked up huge reps last year as a true freshman behind Jack Coan and showed his high potential in 10 appearances. Buchner’s running ability was on full display as he rushed for 336 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
Dual-threat quarterbacks have been the x-factor for many college football programs in recent memory, and Buchner is lucky to be as good as any of them. Buchner has the ability to make defenses pay when things break down in the passing game or a point defender peeks half a second too long at the ball carrier, leaving him enough time to detach.
Buchner was also able to show his ability to throw the ball in 2021. The role he played didn’t always call for him to spread the ball, but when he had extended playing time at Virginia Tech, Buchner did. could push the ball down and make plays. Now there have been throws that he definitely wants to get back, but that’s a freshman learning and there will be more of those moments this year.
Where should Buchner shine? Buchner needs to keep the game simple and throw easy. Complete bubble screens by Lorenzo Styles and Braden Lenzy. Knock Chris Tyree into the dish. Direct Michael Mayer on the crossing roads.
Buchner doesn’t need to come in and throw for 3,000 yards. He’ll have to do all of the above and Tommy Rees can make that even easier if the Irish can get a running game going. Buchner’s dual threat ability and a solid running game could lead to some big plays when it comes to play. Hitting on playaction plays and/or RPO play will be huge for Buchner and the Notre Dame offense as teams will stack the box early to get it flapping in the air.
The natural playmaker talent is there. Remember throwing off the platform against Toledo in Tyree? Buchner just needs to go play because he will make plays.
Linebacker Marist Liufau was expected to be a star in 2021, but a broken ankle ended his season at fall camp.
The 6-foot-2, 229-pound was missed a year ago as Notre Dame needed a little more athleticism and speed in the second tier, especially after Shayne Simon suffered an injury in Game 1. JD Bertrand filled in the Irish lead well in tackles while playing injured, but Liufau is a chess piece every defensive coordinator wants as a linebacker.
The Hawaii native is capable of playing inside, but also moving to the edge of situational football. Al Golden knocking Liufau and Isaiah Foskey off the edge is exciting – and maybe even more exciting if it’s the same edge.
That said, Liufau doesn’t have a ton of experience as he came on late in the 2020 season. He’ll have to show he’s a veteran by being disciplined and getting the right read. Liufau will have the advantage of being able to make a good play when he makes the wrong read because he is a good athlete, but he will have to keep growing on the fly.
If Liufau can become the player Notre Dame thinks they have, he can take a very good defense for an elite defense.
And I leave you to think about this:
Cornerback Clarence Lewis has been beaten by fans for the past seven months for his performance at the Fiesta Bowl. It was good ? No, it wasn’t, but Lewis put in a solid job in his first two seasons as well. Remember, he wasn’t a cornerback in high school, so Lewis had to learn on the volley combined with moving the field to the limit.
By comparison, Lewis finished 2021 with a PFF rating of 67.2 in 832 games. Ohio State’s top cornerback, Denzel Burke, recorded a PFF rating of 68.8 from 734 snaps.
And for the record, here are the grades of the cornerbacks selected in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft.
Gardner Sauce: 87.1
Derek Stingley: 66.6 (3 games)
Trent McDuffie: 86.8
Kaiir Elam: 61.8
There’s no doubt that Lewis has room to grow and that starts with earning his confidence back. Mike Mickens and Marcus Freeman have done a phenomenal job of boosting TaRiq Bracy’s confidence in eight months and there’s no reason to think they can’t do the same with Lewis.
Notre Dame doesn’t have proven depth at cornerback, but they’re finally starting to have bodies that can play at a high level. If Mickens can start a rotation, Lewis will become more efficient as those 832 games are completed, leading to a fresher player.
If Lewis can take a few steps forward, Notre Dame will have a very competitive and seasoned secondary and that’s dangerous.
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