Questions by Class: Irish Sophomores

Our week-long series includes three pressing questions for each class, from the squad's seniors (and graduates) through its incoming freshmen.

Sheldon Day? Check. Ronnie Stanley? Check. Top-tier pledge added late in the recruiting process? Check, thanks to the flipped commitment of five-star TE prospect Alize Jones.

Three crucial January questions have been answered this week, each going in Notre Dame's favor. Hereafter? We have a few pressing questions of our own, class-by-class.

For a look at the senior and junior class reviews, click the links below:

Seniors/5ths | Juniors


ROOM FOR MORE SKILL?

A host of promising second-year players looks to make its mark this spring, summer, and fall, but who among them has true opportunity? Wide receivers Justin Brent and Corey Holmes both played (Brent often; Holmes early) as special teamers last season, but no member of the seven-contributor wide receiver ranks above them is expected to be gone from the fray for 2015.

Cornerback Nick Watkins earned a monogram as well, exclusively as a special teams participant. Can he work his way into a No. 3 cornerback role ahead of the now battle-tested Devin Butler?

Quarterback remains in flux, but no logical depth chart considers redshirt-freshman DeShone Kizer to be near the top. With no running back among the 22-player class, that leaves tight end as the lone "skill" position seemingly available for 2014 recruits. And it would appear junior Durham Smythe is the odds-on favorite to claim the starting role.

Who among the group can carve a second-season niche?

-- CB Nick Watkins: Enters spring ball as the de facto No. 3 cornerback (awaiting Keivarae Russell in the summer) after spending a season covering kickoffs and punts (no tackles). Watkins was lauded for his coverage skills prior to August camp but it was clear he needed strength to compete at the collegiate level. Opportunity knocked at the position in 2014 and it appeared Watkins was never considered. His competition with junior Devin Butler will be one to watch for Irish fans.

-- TE Tyler Luatua: Played the best game of his young career in the bowl victory over LSU. If Notre Dame commits to a running game, Luatua will earn consistent field time as his ability to block on the move guarantees a spot -- but will it be spot duty or an invaluable role?

-- TE Nic Weishar: Enters immediate competition with prized recruit Alize Jones for a detached tight end role. Both have to answer to nearly two handfuls of wide receivers that can get open and catch the ball as well.

-- QB DeShone Kizer: The redshirt-freshman's status for each upcoming segment (spring, summer, fall) is directly related to that of potential transfer Everett Golson. If Golson remains in South Bend, Kizer will hold a clipboard for one more season.

-- LB/S Drue Tranquill: A mortal lock for a role provided his torn ACL is ready to roll at some point this August, Tranquill remains a man without a position. Notre Dame needs safeties, he appears better closer to scrimmage. In good health, he's on the field, period.

WHO'LL EMERGE FROM THE TRENCHES?

The two-deep offensive and defensive front will be heavily populated with true sophomores and redshirt-freshmen alike. Defensively, Daniel Cage (NT), Jonathan Bonner (DT), Grant Blankenship (DE), Jay Hayes (DE/DT), Jhonathan Williams (DE/Rush End), and Kolin Hill (rush end) have nine months to establish early-season pecking order among the reserve ranks -- one that will likely remain in flux throughout 2015.

Starting roles? Those will be harder to come by:

-- DE Andrew Trumbetti: An argument can be made he was better overall than was junior starter Romeo Okwara throughout 2014 (though you'd be ignoring the extra reps Okwara was forced to handle to ease the wear and tear from the freshman Trumbetti). Okwara ended well, the sky's the limit for a player with Trumbetti's skills and motor. They'll likely remain in tandem if strong side defensive end Isaac Rochell remains outside. (Likely only if Jarron Jones returns at full strength.)

Regardless, Trumbetti will again be a major player next fall.

-- Offensive Linemen Alex Bars, Quenton Nelson: Neither will likely win a starting job, not with the entire offensive line from the 2014 Music City Bowl returning intact. But Bars (tackle) and Nelson (guard) take a backseat to no upperclassmen as potential first players off the bench at their respective positions. Nelson is tasked with beating out 5th-year seniors (Nick Martin if he remains at tackle; Matt Hegarty if he moves back from center to guard). Bars has a more plausible task, but junior (redshirt-sophomore) Mike McGlinchey visibly improved DURING the win over LSU.

The latter battle is one to monitor this spring.

Status quo up front seems likely (and prudent, considering the unit's final 2014 performance), regardless of the purported talents Bars and Nelson possess.

HOW GOOD, HOW SOON?

College football media would do well to produce sophomore All-America teams, because it's a good bet precious few honored as freshmen one season prior would repeat the feat.

Mike linebacker Nyles Morgan earned the honor for Notre Dame in 2014. He manned the middle in a winless November, missed ample run and pass fits, and made a lot of tackles, the majority far from the line of scrimmage. His best days doubtless lie ahead.

How far ahead?

Manti Te'o's jump from chicken-with-his-head cut-off freshman to standout sophomore was remarkable: 133 tackles including 9.5 for lost yardage for the nation's 23rd-ranked defense. (Of note, Te'o manned an inside linebacker role for a winless November, 2009, as a freshman, too.)

He's likely the outlier, but Morgan has the athletic gifts -- and players around him when the squad is at full strength -- to be one as well.

Settling Morgan into a position vis-à-vis incumbents Joe Schmidt, Jaylon Smith, and James Onwualu is likely spring goal No. 1.


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