SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame opened its first fall camp under Marcus Freeman on Friday and practice was intense: 2 1/2 hours of nearly non-stop motion under a baking early-August sun, plus humidity so powerful it forced projected starting offensive linemen Blake Fisher and Zeke Correll out of practice early, much to Freeman's chagrin.
Here are some of my observations and notes from Day 1 in South Bend.
- Tyler Buchner looks to have the inside track at quarterback...: This was expected, but it was confirmed Friday. Although Freeman insisted Buchner and Drew Pyne are in competition and both got first-team reps in the opening practice, Buchner got the lion's share of the snaps with the starters and he seems likely to be the guy when the Irish face off against Ohio State. Moreover, Freeman doesn't seem likely to draw out the "competition," though he was not ready to name a starter Friday.
"(We'll name a starter as soon as we can," Freeman said. I love the competition aspect of it. You know, I think competition really helps people grow. But as soon as we're ready to name a starting quarterback, we're going to do it. We're not waiting for a certain time or certain day, but we just need to make sure we're ready to name is starting quarterback and we will."
- ...but that doesn't mean Buchner looked great: While Buchner, a true sophomore, is likely to start, he was not particularly efficient on his first day of practice. He made a couple of nice throws – touch passes to Matt Salerno (a nice one-handed catch from Salerno) and freshman Tobias Merriweather in the back of the end zone for "touchdowns" in red-zone drills stood out – but he also missed some short passes and threw an interception to safety DJ Brown. Buchner was deliberately hamstrung in goal-line drills by the non-contact nature of the drills, meaning he couldn't take off and run. He has a long way to go as a pocket passer and there will likely be growing pains in that area. His low-three-quarter arm angle is mostly unchanged from last season, it appears, and he might have some passes batted down because of it, as well.
- A glimpse of the offense?: While Notre Dame didn't do any quarterback runs in live-tackling drills, the Irish did practice zone-read hand-offs between the quarterbacks and the running backs fairly extensively. There was even some extended mesh-point work where the QB and RB held the ball jointly for a long beat – think Wake Forest's offense – before one or the other took off and ran with it. Such plays have not been a huge part of Notre Dame's offense basically ever because the Irish have never had a QB with the particular skillset of Buchner (extremely fast, shifty runner, iffy as a passer). Ian Book was somewhat in that mold, but even he was more adept in the passing game and probably not as fast or quite as athletic as Buchner. The Irish offense could look very different this year than most fans are used to. Michigan's offense under Denard Robinson (no, Buchner is not as fast as "Shoelace") but with a superior offensive line to the Wolverines of that vintage might be pretty effective. Is Buchner a good enough runner to pull that off? That remains to be seen.
- Changes up front: One of the most important revelations from the first practice was Jarrett Patterson's position switch from center to guard. Patterson is a two-time Phil Steele All-American at center, so moving him off that position means the Irish must be absolutely convinced the line is best with him at left guard and Zeke Correll at center. For this offense to work, the line is probably going to need to be excellent and Freeman dropped several hints that it might well be. “Man, I love being around our O-Line," Freeman said, when asked for groups that stood out. "I do. That is, I say it all the time, we're an O-Line and D-Line-driven program. And those guys work and they're pushed. And they continue to respond to being challenged. I love being around them. I love just the culture in that room, the vibe.
"I really spend a lot of time looking at those guys, maybe because I'm behind the offense and those guys are looking kind of in my direction. But as much as I can spend time with that O-Line and D-Line, I'm gonna continue to do it because those guys will drive our culture and our program.”
- Wide receiver might be ... fine?: Much ado was made around the Fiesta Bowl about Notre Dame's lack of receiving depth, especially after the Irish only brought in one wideout in the freshman class (Merriweather). Losing Kevin Austin was a significant blow, but Notre Dame might end up okay at the position this year if it can find a consistent passing threat at quarterback (a big if). Lorenzo Styles Jr. is obviously the star and I see no reason he shouldn't be the focal point of the passing offense alongside tight end Michael Mayer, but Avery Davis looks healthy and strong coming off his torn ACL, Deion Colzie showed a willingness to get physical Friday that wasn't always obvious last season and Colzie's fellow sophomore Jayden Thomas looks like he could be a factor, as well after making a nice touchdown catch on a pass from Pyne and a couple other eye-grabbing receptions.
"We're going to need him to have a huge role for this offense this year," Freeman said of Thomas. "We've challenged him. I challenge him all the time. 'We're going to need you. We need you to step up.' And he's a confident kid. He's getting better and better and better. And that's all we ask. But he's going to have to get better fast because we're going to need a lot out of him. He's got to be a guy that if the defense is playing man coverage against us, we feel like we can go to him and win. That's got to be who he is.”
Somewhat worryingly, we didn't see a whole lot from Braden Lenzy in the first practice. The fifth-year senior needs to step and be a consistent downfield threat this season, but he has not yet shown the ability to do that. Maybe we'll see more as the Irish push back from the red zone and use more of the field in their drill work. Freeman said the team is starting with a heavy red-zone emphasis and working its way backward, a tip he picked up from defensive coordinator Al Golden, the former Cincinnati Bengals linebackers coach, who told him NFL teams work camp that way.
- Next in line: Notre Dame has been absolutely loaded at tight end for years and has one of the best in the country starting there now in Mayer. Next up for the Irish at the position might be freshman Eli Raridon, who is immediately visible at nearly 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds. He made a couple of nice plays in the passing game and he handles his size well. At some point, he's going to be a load for opposing linebackers.
- Looking healthy: Running back Logan Diggs is coming off shoulder surgery and it was thought he might miss significant time in the regular season. As of right now, however, he appears ahead of schedule and went through most drills with the running backs Friday. He has not yet been cleared for contact, but he looks healthy and strong and does not seem completely out of the question for Week 1 against Ohio State. For now, Audric Estime is playing as the No. 2 running back behind Chris Tyree.
- Buckeyes, Buckeyes, Buckeyes: Notre Dame knows what it has ahead of it in Week 1. The Irish are ramping up earlier than usual this year in order to be in midseason form to face one of the best teams in the country on the road Sept. 3. They pumped in crowd noise for much of practice and showed a sense of urgency throughout. Only 28 days until kickoff. Tick tick tick.