Two crucial questions have been answered among the myriad Notre Dame's football program faces entering 2015 --Year Six of the Brian Kelly era. Both pertain to the senior ranks where offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley and defensive tackle Sheldon Day return as a pair of rocks on which both sides of scrimmage will be built.
Thereafter? We have a few pressing questions of our own -- through the class ranks.
For a look at the senior class review, click here.
ANOTHER STANDOUT AMONG THE RANKS?
The team's juniors-to-be -- it's 2013 recruiting haul -- has already benefitted from standouts, and in some cases, star power, among its unbroken 23-player ranks.
Jaylon Smith, Will Fuller, Tarean Folston, Cole Luke, Isaac Rochell, and Corey Robinson emerged in 2014 to rank between solid starter and All-America status. Who among the remaining troops could take a similar step forward in their third season at the program? Five logical candidates include:
• RB Greg Bryant -- The king of pre-season and pre-game stories, Bryant enters his third season as Folston's definitive backup. One modest prediction/hope: by midseason, his head coach will stop referring to him as "a freshmen."
• OT Mike McGlinchey -- Purportedly nipped at the heels of 5th-year senior Christian Lombard throughout 2014 before finally taking over midway through the USC contest when the latter's body failed him. McGlinchey was shaky in the first half vs. LSU and -- at least at times -- outstanding in the second. His potential ascent would take Notre Dame's O-Line from promising to top-notch.
• OG Steve Elmer -- The team's most powerful run-blocker at the point remains a work-in-progress in space, but if there's anything Notre Dame's offensive front needs -- in perpetuity -- it's a physical presence inside. Elmer is in line for a major leap this spring, summer, and fall.
• S Max Redfield -- The Greg Bryant of the defense? Redfield's production plus opportunity certainly exceeds that of Bryant, but like Bryant, his preternatural gifts have yet to translate to the playing field. A true junior, Redfield is a clear-cut starter at free safety (field or "post" safety). Success is what happens when preparation meets opportunity -- from all indications, Redfield could focus a bit more on the former to achieve the goal.
• LB/Football Player James Onwualu -- Exits the season as the team's starting sam linebacker albeit for a unit that will undergo myriad evaluations among its ranks between today and September. Oddly, the undersized Onwualu -- a neophyte on the defensive side of scrimmage -- played two of his three best games against the two most physical teams Notre Dame faced: Stanford and LSU (Navy being the third). The true junior could serve at one or many among sam linebacker, dime linebacker, special teams -- or perhaps part-time wide receiver? (Safety seems unlikely other than the Irish need aid at the position.)
HOW MUCH BETTER?
Each member of the class's accepted six standouts -- Folston, Fuller, Luke, Smith, Rochell, Robinson -- has ample room to grow relative to their precocious status. Below is a realistic ceiling for each:
• Tarean Folston: The best running back on the field in 12 straight games next fall.
• Will Fuller: DeSean Jackson-lite (lacks only attention to detail; perhaps blocking acumen)
• Cole Luke: Has the ability to make fans wonder which side of the field has the better corner...
• Jaylon Smith: Butkus Award Winner
• Isaac Rochell: Premier run-stuffer from two positions; an NFL decision thereafter
• Corey Robinson: Suffered the same number of drops (5) as touchdowns -- a 4-to-1 ratio next fall would suffice, and would be commensurate with his skills.
Each of the above illustrates potential -- pre-season Pie-in-the-Sky forecasts of "upside" and the like. But in reality, rarely does a collection of standout sophomores continually progress thereafter. (Success is harder to improve upon than to achieve.)
Notre Dame can ill-afford stagnation from more than one of the above if it's to contend for the college football final four next fall.
Malik Zaire: THE PASSER?
The Music City Bowl sure was fun. The team's starting quarterback ran roughshod, competed with a clear head on every snap, protected the pigskin, slung a pair of one-read, downfield strikes on dig routes, and managed the game with guts and guile throughout. Heck, even threw a touchdown-paving block.
What Zaire didn't do much of was read a defense. Or hit consecutive passes that weren't thrown sideways. In short, he didn't do much of what Kelly has continually -- to a fault, perhaps -- asked his triggermen to do over the long haul. If Malik Zaire's ceiling as a passer for 2015 is anything close to what Irish fans saw in Nashville, a return trip to a pre-January 1 bowl awaits.
If he can augment his top-tier running ability (power, toughness, quick feet, good speed) with the ability to make everything outside of NFL-level throws, the Irish offense will be tough to stop next fall.
If not, Everett Golson will be tough to keep off the field -- assuming he's an option.