Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 29 Matt Salerno, sixth-year receiver, former walk-on

Dimensions listed: 6-foot-⅝, 195 pounds.
2023-24 year, Eligibility: Salerno, a sixth-year veteran, is in his final eligible season.
Depth map: Senior Chris Tyree’s move from running back to receiver is likely the answer to who will start as receivers for the Irish side. Behind him, Salerno will compete with newcomers Rico Flores and Jaden Greathouse for the role of Tyree’s primary backup. While the latter two may have higher caps, Salerno will likely be more reliable, and with an experienced quarterback like Sam Hartman, quality of use can be a receiver’s greatest asset, as Hartman will put the ball where it’s supposed to be when it’s supposed to be there be when its receiver can also be there.
Recruitment: Salerno, a former substitute, was accepted on a scholarship by Marcus Freeman just weeks after Freeman became Notre Dame’s head coach in the winter of 2021-22.

Concerns about the depth of the Ireland receiver in 2022 were underscored by the importance of Salerno early in the season and how evident that was early on in pre-season. He’s a more than competent collegiate receiver, but if Notre Dame ever had hope of batting for the college football playoffs last year, nobody in the receiver rotation could be of Salerno’s caliber. And so the Irish were never a serious contender for the playoffs last year.

He caught five passes for 62 yards and a touchdown in 2022, which is hardly a noticeable stat, but he played far more than those numbers suggest. Most memorable is that he pulled off a bobsled catch for a first down in the season opener against Ohio State.

The fact that Tyler Buchner had to look at Salerno at that moment made it clear how few receivers Notre Dame had available.

In previous years, Salerno had focused on punt return duties in 2020 and occasionally in 2021 as well.

2019: 1 game. 2020: 11 games; 45 punt return yards on 10 returns. 2021: 11 games; 13 punt return yards on five returns, 33 kick return yards on two kicks, -4 receiving yards.2022: 13 games; five catches for 62 yards and a touchdown, 37 punt return yards on five returns.

At Notre Dame, walk-ons tend to take on a lower profile once they have become former walk-ons. The Walk-On Players Union (aka WOPU Nation) will have its voice, but once it’s technically out of the game, players won’t want to steal from its thunder. Think of it as a form of understandable humility. And Salerno is no different.

Let’s take this moment to provide an example of how operational capability can best benefit the offense with Hartman at quarterback.

There was nothing dramatic about that touchdown in the blue-gold game. The route was not conspicuous. But by executing the design with precision, Salerno was not only open, but he was where Hartman expected him to be. Hartman has the experience and flair to capitalize on it almost every time.

If Salerno doesn’t crack the receiver rotation again, he’ll likely still see play time. In 2021, Kyren Williams beat him in punt returns; in 2022, Brandon Joseph did. That said, Salerno still hit five punts each season, and he’s back in that mix in 2023.

“A punt returner that doesn’t jeopardize imminent possession is not something to be taken for granted. As dynamic as Kyren Williams was, he too sometimes put the ball on the line. Salerno did not.

“Brandon Joseph, a safety transfer from the Northwest, could take on the punt returner, if not sophomore receiver Lorenzo Styles, but that’s both uncertain and somewhat risky. With Salerno, Notre Dame will know there is no risk and even new Ireland special teams coordinator Brian Mason is sure of it.

“If that’s the extent of Salerno’s scholarship contributions, so be it. Notre Dame will be better off.

“He will probably add some catches to the ledger as well. The Irish are too skinny at receiver for anyone to scoff at playing a former walk-on. Lenzy’s legs were rubbery at the end of the Fiesta Bowl when Notre Dame knocked out just four grantees.

“Imagine doing that for an entire season. That is the danger the Irish face. Lenzy, Styles, and sophomores Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas are the only sure things there are. (Avery) Davis should be healthy and eventually fifth year Joe Wilkins could join him (Lisfranc injury). Merriweather comes with a lot of hype, but few newcomers should be considered absolute graduates from the get-go.

“Salerno may not be a superstar. Actually, cross that out. The tense of the hesitant verb is imprecise. Salerno is not a superstar. But he’s a clean route runner who knows what risks to take and that most of the risks shouldn’t be taken. He can save Lenzy, Styles, Colzie and Thomas some fatigue. Whatever the catches and receptions, it will be a worthwhile asset for Notre Dame to keep those receivers fresh.”

At the start of last season, the Irish only had five truly healthy contenders and that included both freshman Tobias Merriweather and Salerno. Deion Colzie was hampered by a knee injury last season; a cruciate ligament rupture ended Avery Davis’ career; Joe Wilkins never found the field again after suffering a Lisfranc injury.

Therefore, there is an absolute and undeniable need for Salerno to contribute from the beginning in Columbus.

Notre Dame now has nine healthy scholarship recipients, including three early enrolled freshmen, one freshman, and again Salerno. The depth is better, but far from deep.

An honest coach would tell you that he wants at least 10 receivers available. So many are needed to practice in the way planned and desired. Obviously the Irish lack it. There will be Salerno’s first contribution.

On Saturdays, he’ll likely play more early in the season than the early-entered trio of Flores, Greathouse and Braylon James, but over time each of them should overtake Salerno. How that translates to catches could depend on how often Hartman has to watch out for his third climb in Salerno. So, it could be argued that the fewer catches Salerno has, the more explosive Notre Dame’s offense could be.

This will be it for Salerno, and there will be no NFL talk around him.

A walk-on from California who made his way to two seasons on a scholarship and the Ireland receiver rotation has something to be proud of.

The summer countdown begins again, Rylie Mills to Deion Colzie

No. 99 Senior defensive tackle Rylie Mills moves back in from the end

No. 98 Devan Houstan, early drafted four-star defensive tackle

No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, junior defensive tackle, one of three Irish DTs with notable experience

No. 95 Tyson Ford, defensive tackle sophomore, up 30 pounds from a year ago

No. 93 Armel Mukam, new defensive end freshman, ex-Stanford conscript

No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, a senior defensive tackle who is now “perfectly healthy” after tearing an ACL in 2022

No. 91 Aiden Gobaira, defensive end sophomore, former four-star recruit

No. 88 Mitchell Evans, the next starter at ‘TE U

No. 87 Cooper Flanagan, new freshman, tight end, four-star recruit

#84 Kevin Bauman, senior tight end, after torn ACL

No. 83 Jayden Thomas, junior receiver, likely No. 1 target in 2023

No. 79 Tosh Baker, senior tackle, backup again but next year…

No. 78 Pat Coogan, junior inside offensive player

No. 77 Ty Chan, offensive tackle sophomore, former four-star recruit

No. 76 Joe Alt, first-team All-American left tackle

No. 75 Sullivan Absher, new offensive lineman

No. 74 Billy Schrauth, left guard sophomore, likely starter

No. 73 Andrew Kristofic, right guard fifth-year, likely starter

No. 72 Sam Pendelton, early drafted freshman offensive lineman

No. 70 Ashton Craig, centre-back sophomore

No. 68 Michael Carmody, senior offensive lineman

No. 65 Michael Vinson, sixth year long snapper, fourth year starter

No. 64 Joe Otting, new offensive freshman, four-star recruit

No. 59 Aamil Wagner, offensive tackle sophomore

#56 Charles Jagusah, new offensive lineman, four-star recruit

No. 56 Howard Cross, fifth-year defensive tackle, perennial starter

#55 Chris Terek, newly minted offensive lineman, four-star recruit

No. 54 Blake Fisher, junior right tackle, sophomore starter

No. 52 Zeke Correll, center fifth-year, third-year starter

No. 51 Boubacar Traore, defensive end freshman, four-star recruit

No. 50 Rocco Spindler, junior offensive guard

No. 47 Jason Onye, junior defensive tackle just before game time

No. 44 Junior Tuihalamaka, sophomore defensive end, former linebacker

No. 42 Nolan Ziegler, sophomore linebacker, Irish heritage

No. 41 Donovan Hinish, defensive tackle sophomore, is following in his brother’s footsteps

No. 40 Joshua Burnham, sophomore linebacker turned Vyper end

No. 38 Davis Sherwood, junior defender/H defender, former walk-on

No. 34 Drayk Bowen, early draft freshman linebacker, baseball infielder

No. 32 Spencer Shrader, South Florida transfer kicker

No. 31 Nana Osafo-Mensah, fifth-year defensive end

No. 29 Christian Gray, early drafted freshman cornerback who sustained a knee injury

No. 17 Brenan Vernon, new defensive end freshman, four-star recruit

#13 Holden Staes, sophomore tight end, gained 20 pounds in one year

No. 12 Penn State RB transfer Devyn Ford gives Notre Dame new-found depth and experience in the backcourt

No. 4 Rhode Island transfer safety Antonio Carter gives Notre Dame some much-needed backline depth

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