Jan. 4—SOUTH BEND — The 2021 season may be over following Notre Dame’s 37-35 loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl last Saturday, but things are already beginning to take shape for 2022 after multiple reports of coaching changes and player moves occurring in the days after the Fighting Irish’s postseason appearance in the desert.
AUSTIN ENTERS NFL DRAFT
After struggling through injuries and suspensions early on in his Irish career, senior wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. had a breakout season in 2021, which led him to officially announcing via his Twitter page on Tuesday that he’d be declaring for the NFL Draft.
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart for making these four years the best years of my life,” wrote Austin Jr. to the Notre Dame community. “I will always cherish our time together, and your unwavering support through the many ups and downs is something I will be eternally grateful for. You make me proud to call myself an alumni from the greatest school in the world.”
Austin Jr. managed to stay healthy during his final season as a Notre Dame player, catching 48 passes for 888 yards and seven touchdowns through 13 games. He joins safety Kyle Hamilton and running back Kyren Williams as players declaring early for the draft. According to reports, junior defensive end Isaiah Foskey will also announce his final decision on Jan. 8.
LENZY, GRIFFITH AMONG PLAYERS RETURNING
Several veteran Irish players announced soon after the Fiesta Bowl that they’d be returning to play under Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman in 2022.
Senior wide receiver Braden Lenzy will return for another season after showing a lot of growth at his position this season. The wideout finished with 32 catches for 350 yards and three touchdowns after hauling in just 18 catches total in his career prior.
Also on the offensive side of the ball, veteran players in tight end George Takacs and offensive lineman Josh Lugg will be returning to contribute to the Irish in 2022 as well.
This will be Takacs’ fifth year after coming to Notre Dame from Naples, Florida. The former four-star prospect should provide some experienced depth behind Michael Mayer next season.
Lugg will be entering his sixth year at Notre Dame with the decision, having played in nearly 50 games over his Irish career. Expect Lugg to earn a spot along what should be a talented starting offensive line next year.
Defensively, starting safety Houston Griffith will be back to man the secondary after announcing he’ll be back for a fifth year. Griffith had 38 tackles for the Irish in 13 games this season.
MOALA, BRAMBLETT ENTER TRANSFER PORTAL
While there was some good news for the Irish football program over the last few days, a mix of bad news was also sprinkled in.
Linebacker Paul Moala, a Penn High School graduate, entered his name into the transfer portal shortly after last Saturday’s contest in Arizona. The former three-star prospect dealt with major injury issues with the Irish, including a torn Achilles he suffered in the first game of this season.
“I truly am grateful for the opportunity I have had to be a part of something so special,” wrote Moala via his Twitter page. “In my next chapter of my life, I will be continuing my football and academic journey at a new home. I want to thank the coaches for taking a risk on a local kid who grew up dreaming of playing football at Notre Dame.”
The Irish also lost a key special teams member in punter Jay Bramblett to the portal. Bramblett took care of the punting duties for three straight years with Notre Dame and was named to the Ray Guy Watch List prior to 2021. He averaged just over 44 yards per punt this season.
Other additional portal entries from the Irish were offensive lineman Quinn Carroll and defensive back Caleb Offord.
IRISH ADD LAURINAITIS, MASON TO COACHING STAFF
According to reports, Notre Dame will add former NFL player James Laurinaitis as a defensive analyst and Cincinnati special teams coordinator Brian Mason to the same position left vacant by Brian Polian.
Laurinaitis played four years at Ohio State from 2005-2008 before playing in the NFL from 2009-2016. The move doesn’t come as a huge surprise given how close he and Freeman are. The two played the same position together for four years in Columbus.
Mason has been with the Bearcats since 2017, helping that unit become one of the best in all of college football in 2021.
Along with the additions, two coaches will be departing from the Irish staff. Wide receivers coach Del Alexander won’t be returning to Notre Dame in 2022 after spending the past five seasons in South Bend. The Irish have been hurting significantly in recruiting the wide receiver position in recent years. Because of that, Alexander’s exit is one many likely expected.
In addition to Alexander, offensive line coach Jeff Quinn also will be parting ways with the university after six years with Notre Dame. He began his time in South Bend as an offensive analyst in 2015 before being promoted to OL coach in 2018.
Evan Lepak can be reached at [email protected] or 574-533-2151, ext. 240326. Follow him on Twitter @EvanMPLepak.