The November 9
1.) Nyles Morgan: How good, how fast? Notre Dame's top-ranked recruit from its 2014 class steps into a crucial role this week -- the team's starting middle linebacker with senior standout Joe Schmidt's season over due to a broken/dislocated ankle.
While Morgan can't fill Schmidt's void as a leader and defensive quarterback, the former five-star Scout.com prospect could conceivably play near Schmidt's level if he's able to trust what he sees and attack. The more Morgan is asked to read and react, the more likely a missed assignment or vacated run gap will follow.
Expect Morgan to be far better in four weeks from now on the LA Coliseum turf than he is Saturday afternoon in Sun Devils Stadium, but the Irish need a sound effort at minimum from their new mike 'backer to emerge with a win in Tempe. A big-play wouldn't hurt the cause -- or Morgan's confidence level thereafter.
2.) Jaylon Smith: Next in command? That appeared to be Smith's status playing alongside Schmidt. Now the preternaturally gifted sophomore most evolve from promising second-year player (and intermittent destroyer of offenses) to a borderline All-America candidate over his next four outings.
How much of Schmidt's pre-snap burden can or will Smith absorb? How much is too much, thereby detracting from his unique ability to see a play and attack it at warp speed thereafter?
The coaching axiom, 'When you think, you stink' certainly applies to the rookie Morgan, though it seems Smith's not capable of the latter. But putting too much on the sophomore's plate likely isn't wise heading into the desert, either.
3.) Kyle Brindza: Two crunch time misses last week (including a blocked kick) -- the first such fourth quarter issues of Brindza's career that did not involve an impossible-to-handle snap or poor hold.
The Irish can't afford another shaky kicking Saturday. Or on Senior Day against Louisville. Or in Los Angeles. Brindza believes he's the nation's best kicker and punter. It's time for him to prove it -- and for his holder, snapper, and blockers to consistently do their part as well.
4.) Steve Elmer: Left tackle Ronnie Stanley is the unit's best player. Left guard Nick Martin has officially rejoined the fray over the last two weeks and now resembles the player Irish fans thought they'd see prior to suffering torn ligaments in his hand. Center Matt Hegarty has improved and both he and right tackle Christian Lombard are solid and reliable at worst.
Wither Elmer? Far better than he was at right tackle (first three games), and it appears better each week at right guard -- perhaps the unit's third-best overall over the last two games...
Can he take his run-blocking prowess to the next level? Both as a drive-blocker and pulling over the left side? More important, can he keep his feet in pass protection against the scrimmage penetrating athletes that await? (ASU ranks No. 7 in tackles-for loss; Louisville No. 9 in team sacks.)
5.) Ben Koyack: Was targeted more Saturday against Navy (7) than in any game this season and the senior responded with a team-high five receptions for 54 yards and a score. If slot receiver Amir Carlisle cannot regain his pre-injury form (he does not yet appear close, despite a vote of confidence from Kelly), Koyack's role in the passing game will continue to grow. (An apparent ankle injury for Corey Robinson is also a concern.)
Koyack has been strong at the point as a run-blocker and bubble-screen stalk blocker throughout the season. His pass-catching prowess appears to be presenting at the right time. Speaking of which...
6.) C.J. Prosise: Time for the next step.
Entering Game 9, Prosise can no longer be afforded the leash of wide receiver neophyte. He remains more athlete than polished target; more playmaker than pass-catcher. But with Carlisle recovering, and with Robinson potentially slowed, and with defenses sure to focus their downfield coverage to Will Fuller's side, it's incumbent upon Prosise that he advance his game.
Mistakes will be part of it -- the offensive staff will live with that reality and Irish fans will have to as well.
Prosise can make plays.
7.) Matthias Farley: Farley was withheld from option action against Navy on Saturday, a curious move by the coaching staff (he's started at both OLB and S vs. Navy in previous seasons), but one not likely to be repeated this week or against the myriad up-tempo spread offenses that await.
Look for the Irish to play a preponderance of Nickel sets over the next four games, and for Farley to absorb at least a portion of Schmidt's pre-snap checks and reads as a player aligned among the 'backers, but who's in constant communication with the defensive backs.
The senior has excelled in attack mode and in short zones. He'll have to tackle better in space downfield and tighten his coverage from the vexing "two-way-go" reality of slot coverage, because the team's best natural nickel, Cody Riggs, is obviously needed at left cornerback where understudy Devin Butler has yet to step to the fore, at least not at a championship level.
8/9.) Andrew Trumbetti/Romeo Okwara: Defensive end Isaac Rochell and nose tackle Jarron Jones are no longer variables. They're proven, solid-at-worst performers with a much higher ceiling than that hyphenated phrase depicts (both have had multiple standout games this season and rank among the team's top 10-12 players to date.)
And the aforementioned Day is among the nation's best, even if others have yet to realize it.
Thus leaves the remaining defensive end spot, shared by junior Romeo Okwara and true freshman Andrew Trumbetti. Both Okwara and Trumbetti shined early, but recent contributions have been intermittent at best. Each week hereafter, one from the pair must distinguish with his play -- the Irish front seven is already a man down in Schmidt. It can't afford slips elsewhere.