Notre Dame didn't have to look far for a new head coach after Brian Kelly's surprising departure to LSU. Rising star and defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman was ready to lead a program, and his transition into the top spot should be a relatively seamless one for the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame fell short in a close loss to Oklahoma State in Freeman's debut, but the collection of returning talent provides this team a chance to compete for 10 (or more) wins once again in '22.
How quickly can Freeman address concerns on both sides of the ball and get Notre Dame back into College Football Playoff contention in '22?
For every new coach, the to-do list after the initial press conference is pretty standard. The head coach has to recruit, add through the transfer portal, implement scheme changes, build a staff of quality assistants and coordinators, discuss potential NFL draft impact with juniors and work on any facility or support staff requests. Needless to say, that’s a lot.
While every coach has those goals in mind, it’s never too early to look at some of the personnel concerns surrounding a program and a new coach for the upcoming year.
Here’s an early look at five personnel question marks for Freeman to address in 2022:
Notre Dame Football: 5 Priorities for New Coach Marcus Freeman in 2022
1. Tyler Buchner’s Development
Jack Coan is off to the NFL, so unless another quarterback arrives via the transfer portal, all signs point to Buchner edging Drew Pyne to start next fall. Buchner played in 10 games as a true freshman in 2021, completing 21 of 35 passes for 298 yards and three touchdowns. He also added 336 yards and three rushing scores. Buchner – a former top-100 and four-star recruit – has all of the physical tools and skill set to be a high-level starter in South Bend. How far can offensive coordinator Tommy Rees develop his No. 1 quarterback this offseason?
2. Develop Playmakers at Receiver
The Fighting Irish aren’t particularly deep at receiver, and the loss of Kevin Austin Jr. (48 catches for 888 yards) to the NFL was a setback. Avery Davis (27 catches) and Braden Lenzy (32) both opted to return and should be atop the list of weapons for Buchner on the outside. Also, expected preseason All-American tight end Michael Mayer (71 catches) is back as the go-to target in the passing game. But who steps up behind those three players? Lorenzo Styles (24 catches) and Deion Colzie (four) are promising sophomores who should see more time in ’22. Could Notre Dame look to the portal or freshman ranks for help with depth here?
3. Find More Consistency in the Rushing Attack
Notre Dame’s ground game got off to a slow start in ’21. In four September games, the offense averaged only 2.3 yards per carry and 80 rushing yards a contest. However, those numbers ticked up to 4.7 a rush and 182.5 yards a game in October, followed by 5.7 and 195.0 in November. While the final product and production looked good on paper, the Fighting Irish averaged only 2.5 yards per rush and 76.2 yards a game against teams with a winning record.
The outlook at running back for ’22 remains strong despite losing Kyren Williams (1,005 yards) to the NFL. Logan Diggs (230) and Chris Tyree (222) are ready to handle an increased workload. Up front, the line is slated to return four starters for position coach Harry Hiestand, who returns to South Bend after spending 2018-19 in the NFL with the Bears. Replacing guard Cain Madden as the lone departure and sorting out how exactly the starting five will fall into place tops the list of priorities this offseason.
4. Patch a Few Gaps Up Front
The defensive front should be a strength for Freeman next fall, especially after end Isaiah Foskey passed on the NFL for another season in South Bend. Foskey recorded 12.5 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks last fall and should be in the mix for All-America honors in ’22. Fellow end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa is off to the NFL, and nose guard Kurt Hinish is also departed to the next level. This offseason is a big one for Nana Osafo-Mensah, Alexander Ehrensberger, Justin Ademilola and Jordan Botelho in the battle for snaps at end. Jayson Ademilola is back to anchor one of the spots on the interior, and Rylie Mills, Jacob Lacey and Howard Cross III return to alleviate the loss of Hinish.
JD Bertrand (101 tackles) and Jack Kiser (45) are back to lead the way at linebacker. Drew White (55) departed, so Freeman will have some production and snaps to replace. Marist Liufau missed all of ’21 due to injury but was expected to push for a starting role in the preseason. A healthy Liufau, combined with the arrival of five-star recruit Jaylen Sneed, should give this unit a needed boost.
5. Develop Depth in the Secondary
The Fighting Irish finished 23rd nationally in pass efficiency defense, but there are areas for Freeman and his staff to work on here. In two matchups against ranked teams, Notre Dame surrendered more than 300 yards (334) a game through the air and allowed six touchdowns with no interceptions. Also, Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders torched this unit for 371 yards and four scores in the Fiesta Bowl loss. Safety Kyle Hamilton’s late-season injury had an impact on that performance, but Cam Hart (739 snaps) and Clarence Lewis (832) played nearly every snap at cornerback last year. TaRiq Bracy (483) also chipped in at cornerback, but there’s not much else in the way of depth here. Ramon Henderson, DJ Brown and Houston Griffith are back at safety, and there’s extra help on the way in the form of Northwestern transfer Brandon Joseph – a potential All-American in ’22.
Podcast: Grading CFB's 2021 First-Year Head Coaches + Early Look at the '22 Hot Seat