Combining the Classes: Defense

Part 2 of our review of Notre Dame's recruiting efforts in 2014-15.

A collective total of 25 defensive prospects pledge to Notre Dame and head coach Brian Kelly over the previous two recruiting cycles. (A 26th, linebacker Nile Sykes, later transferred to Indiana before his freshman season.)

Add to that a combined 20 prospects on offense (reviewed here), plus a pair of specialists, and the 2015 Irish squad is likely to be comprised of more freshmen and sophomores, 46, than upperclassmen (no more than 39 pending).

Below is a review of the 25 defenders and two specialists ready to lend a hand in South Bend.

INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINE
The staff restocked with able-bodied competitors over the last two cycles, lead by long-time pledge Jay Hayes (2014) and crucial 2014 signing day addition Daniel Cage.

-- 2014-15 By the Numbers (7): Four-star pledges Daniel Cage and Jay Hayes, plus three-star addition Pete Mokwuah for 2014. Three-star recruits Micah Dew-Treadway (an early enrollee) and Brandon Tiassum, plus four-star pledge Elijah Taylor in 2015. Four-star offensive line pledge and early enrollee Jerry Tillery (2015) will begin his Irish career along the defensive front.

-- Projected 2015 Impact: It seems unlikely Tillery would be pegged on Signing Day as a defensive linemen if the staff was looking to redshirt him from the outset. To what end he'll be able to contribute will become clear as the spring session unfolds.

Among the remaining true freshmen, minimal, but 2014 pledges Cage and Hayes will be instrumental two-deep performers. If injured nose tackle Jarron Jones (foot) is not at full strength in August, a player such as Mokwuah will be asked to chip in with valuable snaps in September (which would likely be ahead of his projected development, otherwise.)

Dew-Treadway and Tiassum should be able to redshirt and it would be ideal for Taylor as well. In addition to the aforementioned Cage, Hayes, and Mokwuah, redshirt-freshman Jonathan Bonner showed promise last fall as a scout team member, and junior Jacob Matuska got his feet wet last season -- that's five viable, non-freshmen backups for Jones and captain Sheldon Day inside, plus cross-training DE/DT Isaac Rochell.

-- Realistic Long-Term Potential: Notre Dame should be able to develop four of the seven into rotation regulars with a realistic goal of three future starters. Tillery is the unit's X-factor and perhaps possesses the highest ceiling, while Hayes appears the "sure-thing" down the line. Cage will likely log the most career playing time due to his immediate impact last fall.

-- Need for 2016? Two -- there's no such thing as having enough quality interior defensive linemen -- the second-most important position in college football. Thus, as many Ian Williams, Louis Nix, or Jarron Jones-types that want to ink Irish should be welcomed aboard.

-- Overall Grade: A solid B. I'm a long-time believer in strength in numbers along the defensive front, and the staff's efforts to that end were successful, not to mention necessary.

DEFENSIVE ENDS/RUSH ENDS
With the notable exception of wide receiver, no position group has as much upside as this collection of edge players. (Plus I've finally worked the favorite buzz word of NFL Draft and college recruiting analysts, "upside," into a column. My life is complete.)

-- 2014-15 By the Numbers (6): Four-star pledges Andrew Trumbetti and Grant Blankenship, plus three-star recruits Jhonathan Williams, Jonathan Bonner, and Kolin Hill in 2014. The current cycle included four-star rush end, Bo Wallace.

-- Projected 2015 Impact: Trumbetti is a starter/part-time starter, while Blankenship, Hill, and Williams are all expected to compete for two-deep roles, either as defensive ends or rush ends. Bonner has grown into a defensive tackle's frame per his head coach and will likely begin spring ball as the top challenger to backup Day inside. Trumbetti is a potential difference-maker -- he'll have two springs, two August camps, and a full football season of heavy contribution to his credit when Texas touches down in South Bend.

-- Realistic Long-Term Potential: Outside of Trumbetti, sure things are in short supply, but there's not a member of the 2014 crop that doesn't appear capable of becoming major rotation players by 2016. Wallace should have a season to learn and hit the weights as a gaggle of sophomores are ready to roll at his position.

-- Need for 2016? One rush end (don't stop recruiting pass rushers) and one true defensive end (similar to Bonner/Hayes/Rochell -- a player that can grow into a tackle spot if necessary). Falling short in any class at any defensive line position is a recipe for future problems, as attrition is inevitable.

-- Overall Grade: B+ -- A grade of "B" would be acceptable considering the word "sleeper" is attached to most of the competitors. But I'm high on the collection above and a six-spot is a fine total over two cycles. (I considered and A-minus.)

LINEBACKERS
Numbers were necessary after losing two of five 2013 linebacker pledges to de-commitments (Danny Mattingly and Alex Anzalone). Two from the remaining 2013 trio have yet to make an impact (Michael Deeb and Doug Randolph) while the third, Jaylon Smith, is the standard by which all future five-star prospects will be judged.

-- 2014-15 By the Numbers (5/6): Five-star Nyles Morgan as well as four-star pledge Greer Martini and three-star Nile Sykes (2014), plus four-star prospects Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas, accompanied by three-star pledge Te'Von Coney (2015). Sykes transferred to Indiana in June 2014. (2014 pledge Drue Tranquill will be included with the safeties.)

-- Projected 2015 Impact: Among the five, only Coney is unlikely to contribute in some capacity next fall. (A redshirt season would be prudent to put distance between his eligibility and that of 2014 freshmen Morgan and Martini.) Morgan is a likely starter; Martini a likely two-deep 'backer and special teams starter as he was last fall.

It's unlikely the speedy Bilal won't be part of the Irish "run teams" (coverage and/or return units) -- and he could get a look as a backup safety pending future roster machinations. Bajaras will aid special teams as well and has the ability, frame, and demeanor to work his way into the two-deep at linebacker, though those spots could be at a premium if potential 5th-year seniors Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace both come through August camp in good health.

-- Realistic Long-Term Potential: Barajas and Morgan are likely three-year starters; two years at minimum, and Bilal's athleticism will allow him to forge a regular rotation role in the defense by the outset of 2017 at linebacker or much sooner if he's asked to play safety. Martini was a trusted player by the mid-point of his first collegiate training camp, a sign he's likely going to find his way onto future Irish fields as well. Coney will be afforded to grow before a getting a serious look for the 2017 season.

-- Need for 2016? One would suffice, pending an NFL decision by Jaylon Smith next January. Strong side starter James Onwualu (2016 eligibility), plus Morgan/Martini (2017), Bilal/Barajas (2018), and Coney (2019) are joined by Randolph and Deeb (2017), and if he fully recovers, Grace is likely to be part of the squad in 2016 as well.

(Of note: the plausible move of Bilal to safety for the 2015 season would not necessarily be permanent.)

If the Irish sign just one linebacker in the forthcoming cycle, a trio would likely be targeted for 2017.

-- Overall Grade: A-minus, and it was necessary to make up for losses and potential misses in 2013, plus the lack of a true linebacker in the 2012 class.

SAFETIES
Avert Your Eyes...

-- 2014-15 By the Numbers (3): Three-star prospects Nicco Fertitta and Mykelti Williams (2015) plus four-star pledge Drue Tranquill (2014).

-- Projected 2015 Impact: If Tranquill fully recovers from a torn ACL suffered in mid-November, he's the definitive No. 3 safety and will be instrumental in the team's sub packages (perhaps nickel, certainly the dime). In good health, Tranquill could win the starting strong safety role as well.

Fertitta could contribute on special teams (though a redshirt season would be welcomed) while Williams -- at least at present -- walks into a two-deep role at safety due to poor recruiting of the position in previous cycles (coupled with bad luck regarding promising but oft-injured 2012 signee, Nicky Baratti.)

Likely 5th-year senior Matthias Farley will be asked to lend a hand at his former position as well.

-- Realistic Long-Term Potential: Tranquill seems better suited for a linebacker position, but he could be a very productive box safety if used expertly -- pending if Notre Dame can put a standout athlete at free safety behind him (such as Max Redfield for 2016). Williams and Fertitta have opportunity on their side, and Notre Dame desperately needs one of them to be ahead of the curve as sophomores in 2016 -- both to reach that status for '17.

-- Need for 2016? Three. Period. The 2012 recruited safety trio has no legitimate fifth-year options as Baratti's shoulder is a major concern, C.J. Prosise is a slot receiver (eligible for a fifth) and Elijah Shumate enters his final season of eligibility. Couple that with a 2013 safety solo mission (Redfield) and a 2014 addition of just Tranquill -- who's two steaks shy of linebacker status -- and it's clear Notre Dame needs to re-stock the position for not only 2016, but 2017 as well.

-- Overall Grade: D -- bumped up a full letter grade due to Tranquill's presence. And he's in reality, a linebacker…

CORNERBACK
Three were necessary, three were signed, and there's a potential first-year scrimmage competitor among the trio.

-- 2014-15 By the Numbers (4): Four-star Shaun Crawford plus three-star pledges Ashton White and Nick Coleman (2015), as well as four-star prospect Nick Watkins (2014).

-- Projected 2015 Impact: Crawford is a nickel competitor from the outset while Watkins is a potential No. 3 cornerback behind Cole Luke and Keivarae Russell (with Devin Butler No. 3/No. 4, or a potential safety for 2015). White and Coleman should be given time to grow as redshirts this fall. (Still true if one is moved to safety.)

-- Realistic Long-Term Potential: Watkins is highly thought of by the staff and has a good chance to start opposite Luke in 2016. Crawford is the likely nickel starter as a sophomore while White and Coleman can take the natural step up from third-unit 2015 to two-deep 2016.

A Watkins/Crawford pairing seems likely for the 2017 season when Luke and Butler exhaust eligibility.

-- Need for 2016? Two are necessary after the one-player grab of Watkins in '14. The 2017 roster would then have Watkins, the 2015 trio, and two 2016 freshmen that should be ready to compete as second-year players.

-- Overall Grade: B. If one CB develops into a starter from each recruiting class, a program is on solid ground -- that seems the likely future between Watkins and the incoming trio. However, Notre Dame can't afford a miss with Watkins or Crawford.

SPECIALISTS
Kelly was in search of two future starters upon the graduation of three-year fixture Kyle Brindza. If one of the pair struggles, the Irish special teams will (again) follow suit this season.

-- 2014-15 By the Numbers (2): 2014 punter Tyler Newsome and 2015 kicker Justin Yoon.

-- Projected 2015 Impact: Massive. Meet Notre Dame's starting punter, kicker, and likely holder (Newsome). Dropped or mishandled placement of the football and errant kicks doomed Notre Dame in November -- and although the defense, the quarterback's penchant for mistakes, and the head coach's decision-making brain freezes likewise contributed to a four-game losing streak, it's true that execution in the kicking game could have prevented two -- arguably three -- of Notre Dame's four losses in the final month..

Yoon and Newsome are on the spot beginning Game One and, it is to be hoped, for the next 52-plus games through 2018.

-- Realistic Long-Term Potential: A top tier kicker/punter combo. Both are likely to be far more polished in future seasons, so clutch kicks and timely punts out of dangerous situations are the bottom-line goal for the rookie pair next fall.

-- Need for 2016? None. The staff will identify the best prospects at both positions for 2017, compare them to the 2018 candidates, and pursue one or both accordingly.

-- Overall Grade: A for effort, but A? B? D? F? are all possible in the end. This isn't high school. Nothing is relevant regarding kickers and punters until the bullets go live.


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