The Notre Dame Fighting Irish continue to maintain a program filled with top-level talent and plenty of depth across many positions. However, as such playmakers progress to playing on Sundays — with many selected in the early rounds of the NFL draft — a number of opportunities arise for freshly incoming talent to make plays. Those have been clear contributors to Notre Dame's consistent success, which has seen the Fighting Irish reach a New Year's Six bowl in four of the last six postseasons and win at least 10 games five straight campaigns.
A year after joining the coaching staff as a newcomer himself, defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman was named the program's head coach this past December following the departure of Brian Kelly. In just a couple of months since rising to the top, Freeman has assembled a staff featuring a blend of familiar faces like Tommy Rees (returning as offensive coordinator) and Harry Hiestand (re-joining as offensive line coach) as well as some new names including defensive coordinator Al Golden, special teams coordinator Brian Mason, and running backs coach Deland McCullough.
That group will be one to watch as they look to make an impact in both their play-calling and player development. The group on the field will also feature plenty of impact players in their first season with Notre Dame — be they true freshmen arriving straight from high school or experienced players arriving via the transfer portal — en route to Freeman and his staff assembling a top-10 recruiting class despite being the head coach for just a few months. Here is a look at some of those incoming playmakers likely to make an immediate impact for the Fighting Irish in 2022 as Notre Dame seeks its sixth straight season with at least 10 wins.
Jaylen Sneed, LB
Coming to Notre Dame as one of the nation’s top recruits at linebacker with that first name — spelling aside — and a last initial of S appears quite promising for Jaylen Sneed… just ask Jaylon Smith.
Smith was one of just two 5-star prospects in Notre Dame's 2013 recruiting class, and Sneed enters as the Fighting Irish's lone 5-star in this year's crop. A top-3 recruit at his position and the No. 2 recruit from the state of South Carolina, Sneed enrolled this winter as the Irish's only top-100 enrollee (per Irish Illustrated/247Sports).
Named the 2021 winner of South Carolina's Mr. Football award — while playing both linebacker and quarterback at Hilton Head High School — and a semifinalist for the Maxwell Football Club's National High School Defensive Player of the Year Award, Sneed totaled 101 tackles, eight tackles for a loss, eight quarterback hits, one sack, two blocked punts, and two interceptions. With new head coach Marcus Freeman's extensive play-calling and player development experience on the defensive side of the ball, keep an eye on Sneed as someone with the potential to be making plays early and often while learning from experienced and talented upperclassmen including Bo Bauer, Jack Kiser and JD Bertrand.
Brandon Joseph, S
Two years after safety Isaiah Pryor joined Notre Dame as a graduate transfer from Ohio State, Joseph will similarly leave the Big Ten to join Notre Dame after three seasons with Northwestern. Joseph made a sizable jump from his four games played as a freshman in 2019 to his team-leading six interceptions as a redshirt freshman in '20. He parlayed that leap into his selection as a team captain and a preseason All-American and award watch list nomination in 2021. His in-season performance didn't quite live up to the hype, but with multiple seasons of eligibility remaining he'll aim to bounce back and prove why he was named a captain and leader on defense after just 13 career games played with the Wildcats.
One interesting note: Joseph became the first Wildcat since 2012 to collect at least 100 punt return yards in a game when he totaled 111 against FCS Indiana State last September. With Freeman indicating earlier this offseason that he intends to fill many of the roles on special teams with his starters on offense and defense, Joseph may be a name to watch, both on defense and in the return game.
Jon Sot and Bryce McFerson, P
Even if Brandon Joseph does see some playing time in the return game, he'll hardly be the only new face to watch on special teams. Retooling after the transfer of starter Jay Bramblett to LSU and the upcoming graduation of senior walk-on Jake Rittman, Notre Dame landed a pair of punters in Sot — a Harvard graduate transfer who will be walking on — and McFerson, an incoming freshman.
Last season, Sot placed 42 percent (24 of 57) of his punts inside the 20-yard line, and eight of his punts traveled beyond 50 yards with a season-long of 67 at Holy Cross. Sot was an All-Ivy League first-team selection in 2018, '19, and '21 (2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19) with conference-leading marks in average punt distance in two of the three seasons while finishing his Harvard career as the school’s all-time leader in career punting average.
247Sports lists McFerson — from Indian Trail, North Carolina, 30 minutes southeast of Charlotte — as the No. 5 punter nationally in this class. He stands atop the punter rankings, however, produced by Chris Sailer Kicking, a nationally renowned kicking and punting instructional camp. As a senior with Metrolina Christian Academy in 2021, McFerson averaged 46 yards per punt with a long of 62 yards, and he pinned six of his punts inside the 20-yard line.
Blake Grupe, K
Newly hired special teams coordinator Brian Mason — hailing from Zionsville, Indiana, just 130 miles directly south of Notre Dame Stadium — joins Notre Dame after five seasons with Cincinnati, four of which came alongside Freeman. The pair will not only be welcoming new punters to South Bend but likewise a new kicker, as Jon Sot isn't the only specialist transferring to Notre Dame. Grupe is a graduate transfer from Arkansas State, and he'll compete with redshirt freshman Josh Bryan for the starting kicking job.
In 47 career games for the Red Wolves, Grupe connected on just under 75 percent of his field goals, including a career-best 20-for-25 effort with a long of 50 yards as a senior in 2021. Bryan connected on an extra point in his collegiate debut, which came in Notre Dame's final home game last season against Georgia Tech.
Tobias Merriweather, WR
Merriweather follows a similar path to Jaylen Sneed thanks to both his talent and his opportunity to grow alongside a truly skilled and veteran receiving corps featuring Braden Lenzy, Joe Wilkins Jr. and Avery Davis all returning as graduate students. Merriweather arrives at Notre Dame as the No. 2 recruit (per Rivals and 247Sports) from the state of Washington, thanks in no small part to his combination of size (6-4) and track-team speed that saw him post league-best times in the 100 meters (10.95 seconds), 200 (22.01 seconds) and 400 (49.78 seconds) as a junior.
Another element in Merriweather's favor is the limited roster depth ahead of him. Only eight of the 11 returning receivers from last year’s team have seen the field, while only six — Lenzy, Wilkins, Davis, Deion Colzie, Lorenzo Styles and Matt Salerno — have caught a pass. Merriweather's frame, speed and playmaking ability will be a valuable asset for quarterbacks Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne as they look to spread the ball around in 2022.
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.