All-American Bowl features Notre Dame’s near future
As one Notre Dame tight end star finishes his Irish career a season early to pursue the NFL, the next potential one gets his chance to shine on national television months before arriving at Notre Dame as the heir apparent.
There are obstacles to incoming freshman four-star tight end Michael Mayer becoming Cole Kmet’s immediate successor, worthwhile options already on campus, but Mayer will arrive with greater expectations on his future than any other recent Irish tight end has, including Kmet. An impressive performance in today’s All-American Bowl (1 ET; NBC) will only heighten those projections of Mayer.
Kmet’s early departure cannot be faulted — a second-round evaluation as perhaps the top tight end in the draft warrants the jump — but it does dampen the hype around Notre Dame’s offense next season. Kmet would have been the second name mentioned in any discussion of the Irish offense, behind three-year starting quarterback Ian Book.
Now, with receivers Chase Claypool and Chris Finke both out of eligibility, those preseason headlines will read something along the lines of “Book and entire Notre Dame offensive line …” By no means is that a bad spot to be in, but Book certainly would have preferred to have a returning pass-catcher with more than current sophomore tight end Tommy Tremble’s 16 receptions for 183 yards.
Tremble is not only emblematic of what will be in Mayer’s path to becoming a day-one starter, but also of Book’s targets in 2020. There is a talented sophomore grouping of receivers, led by Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys and Kevin Austin, but little experience aside from Northwestern graduate transfer Bennet Skowronek.
If Mayer can join that grouping, even just as Tremble did in 2019, a supportive piece providing a viable red-zone threat, then the effects of Kmet’s exit will be lessened. Similarly, if fellow All-American Bowl participant and five-star receiver Jordan Johnson can find a route to contributing, then Notre Dame may be just fine after losing a behemoth like Claypool.
With Lenzy the front-runner to start as the “field” receiver, and Austin that presumptive starter on the boundary until the Skowronek arrival may have created a position competition, there is little chance of Johnson starting in Dublin, even if he is the best receiver the Irish have signed in the recruiting rankings era.
“He’s well ahead of the curve developmentally — both physically and fundamentally,” Josh Helmholdt, Rivals’ Midwest recruiting analyst, told the South Bend Tribune. “So I expect him to be able to contribute right away year one assuming he has that ability.
“Wide receiver is one of those positions that has the shortest learning curve, so you see a lot of freshmen playing right away in year one. Jordan has those tools to be able to step into the receiving corps and immediately be an asset for the offense.”
Being an asset is different than starring or starting. This offseason’s losses have made Mayer and Johnson becoming assets a priority for Notre Dame if it is to turn Book’s return into a Playoff run. They should provide the currently-suspect, viable depth if nothing else. To a lesser extent, five-star running back Chris Tyree will also be called upon, though the Irish have a bevy of other backs who could yet become a workhorse, even without Tony Jones. That could reduce Tyree’s duties to change-of-pace moments, rather than the consistent offerings Notre Dame may need from Mayer and Johnson.
These additions of young talent are a step forward for Irish recruiting, and thus should be a step forward for the program as a whole. The question becomes if that latter step is sooner or later. As much as that depends on Notre Dame’s coaching staff and approach, it also hinges on how ready Mayer and Johnson, and again to a lesser degree Tyree, are when they arrive in South Bend.
The Irish return six starters along the offensive line, and thus there is less — read: no — concern about consensus four-star offensive tackles Tosh Baker’s and Michael Carmody’s readiness, so when watching today’s All-American Bowl in San Antonio’s Alamodome, focusing on the skill players may be the key to recognizing the possible heights Notre Dame could reach in 2020.