The “next man in” philosophy is a great approach. It keeps the whole team – or at least those that are Nos. 2 and 3 on the depth chart – engaged. Plus, it gives confidence to those who are forced into the lineup that they, too, will excel when their number is called.
The fact is it’s a “last ditch effort” kind of thing, one that no coach would willingly choose. Coaches would rather have the best players on the field all or virtually all of the time.
Technically, you don’t really know if you have depth on a football team until those players are called into action and the winning commences or continues. A pre-season analysis – let alone a spring analysis – is a guessing game as to which “non-starters” are capable of playing like a starter.
And yet when you look at the upcoming Notre Dame football team, one can’t but suspect that the depth in 2015 will be ample, at least in several areas of the team, particularly compared to recent years.
How good/capable is the perceived depth? As we look at the roster this spring, and then plug in the 24 incoming/early-entry freshmen, depth is a lesser concern, particularly as it relates to the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame.
“It feels like for me that we’ve got the depth necessary to go and play football,” said Brian Kelly prior to the start of spring drills. “I always felt like I was tiptoeing around this roster in the spring because we were afraid over here and afraid over here.
“We can go play, really target some of the younger players in certain areas, let them get in there and get after it. We have so many young defensive linemen; we need to see contact. This is the first time since I’ve been here where I feel like I can go into practice and bang around. I can have an Oklahoma drill. I can have tackling drills.”
The following are the areas where the depth is perceived to be high, beginning with the most depth-laden area and in descending order:
• Sam: James Onwualu, Greer Martini, Kolin Hill, Josh Barajas
• Mike: Joe Schmidt, Nyles Morgan, Jarrett Grace, Michael Deeb
• Will: Jaylon Smith, Te’von Coney, Austin Larkin, Asmar Bilal (Sam)
• 2014 depth: The depth as recently as a few months ago was virtually non-existent with Jarrett Grace physically unable to perform, Ben Councell coming off an ACL injury suffered during the latter half of the ’13 season, and Kendall Moore’s suspension. Sam linebackers James Onwualu and John Turner were transitioning from wide receiver and safety respectively. Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini and Kolin Hill were true freshman. Doug Randolph and Michael Deeb were red-shirt freshmen. It’s no wonder the Irish were without a consistent alternative once Joe Schmidt went down with a season-ending ankle injury.
• 2015 spring/fall depth: If anything, it appears the Irish have more capable linebackers than spots to fill. The logjam at Mike linebacker with Schmidt, Morgan and 2013 starter Grace is a good problem to have, but one that will prevent one and possibly two capable players from getting the playing time they likely deserve.
There’s a huge disparity in playing experience at Will linebacker with Jaylon Smith ahead of early-entry freshman Te’von Coney. One way to resolve the glut at Mike linebacker would be to move Smith to Sam and insert Schmidt or Morgan at Will. True frosh Josh Barajas’ has the raw ability to challenge for early playing time at Sam.
However it all breaks down and regardless who ends up where, Notre Dame’s depth at the linebacker positions is vastly superior to 2014.
• X (field): Will Fuller, Corey Holmes, Torii Hunter, Jr. (Z), Jalen Guyton
• W (boundary): Chris Brown, Corey Robinson, Justin Brent, Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin
• Z (slot): Amir Carlisle, C.J. Prosise, Torii Hunter, Jr. (X), C.J. Sanders
• Y (tight end): Durham Smythe, Tyler Luatua, Nic Weishar, Chase Hounshell, Mike Heuerman, Alize Jones
• 2014 depth: The loss of DaVaris Daniels to suspension was a significant blow to the wide receiver corps in the pre-season after the Irish already were trying to make up for the graduation of T.J. Jones and the early departure of tight end Troy Niklas. That meant that the leading returning receivers were wideout Chris Brown (15 receptions in ’13) and tight end Ben Koyack (10 catches in ’13).
Key insertions into the regular rotation included Corey Robinson (9 receptions in ’13), C.J. Prosise (7), Amir Carlisle (7), and Will Fuller (6). Torii Hunter, Jr. began the season still recovering from a nasty leg break dating back to his high school all-star game, which required additional surgery. Freshmen Justin Brent and Corey Holmes played very limited roles at receiver.
• 2015 spring/fall depth: With the exception of Koyack, who finished fourth on the team in receptions last season with 30, every key name is back in the receiving corps, including Fuller, who didn’t just emerge in ’14 but exploded into a prominent role, catching 76 passes for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns. They were astonishing numbers considering a) his penchant for dropping passes, b) the fact he caught just six passes for 160 yards as a freshman and c) a lack of a consistent complement among the wideouts.
Robinson (40 catches, 5 TDs) and Brown (39 receptions, 1 TD) still have to prove they can be consistent from week-to-week. Carlisle (23 receptions, 3 TDs) must show he can remain healthy over the course of a season. Prosise (29 catches, 2 TDs), who is cross-training at running back this spring, also needs to catch a higher percentage of the passes for which he is targeted. It’s still unknown just how significant a role sophomores Brent and Holmes will play. Durham Smythe must establish himself as the heir apparent to Koyack. No other tight end this spring appears to be ready to do so in the passing game, although incoming five-star freshman Alize Jones may alter that.
This unit is well beyond where it was when the ’14 season started without DaVaris Daniels. Freshman wideouts Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin, Jalen Guyton and C.J. Sanders join the mix this summer to provide even more promising depth.
• Left end (strongside): Isaac Rochell, Jonathan Bonner, Grant Blankenship
• Nose tackle: Jarron Jones, Jerry Tillery, Daniel Cage, Jacob Matuska, Brandon Tiassum
• Tackle: Sheldon Day, Jay Hayes, Pete Mokwuah, Micah Dew-Treadway, Elijah Taylor
• Right end (weakside): Romeo Okwara, Andrew Trumbetti, Jhonny Williams, Doug Randolph, Bo Wallace
• 2014 depth: The loss of Ishaq Williams – at least on paper – was significant since he was the projected starter at the strong side end position, which forced backup Isaac Rochell into the starting lineup. As it turned out, it was somewhat of a blessing in disguise as Rochell developed into a strong, steady, consistent defensive end. Sheldon Day took a jump up in terms of quickness off the snap and performance, as did Jarron Jones. First-time-hand-on-the-ground defensive end Romeo Okwara and true freshman Andrew Trumbetti got the bulk of the snaps at the weakside end position.
With the exception of fifth-year senior Justin Utupo and seldom-used Anthony Rabasa, the rest of the contributors were all babies: red-shirt freshman Jacob Matuska, and true freshman Grant Blankenship, Daniel Cage, Jay Hayes, and Kolin Hill. Their lack of experience showed in the final eight games of the season when the Irish allowed nearly 40 points per game.
• 2015 spring/fall depth: Health-permitting, all but Utupo and Anthony Rabasa are back from 2014. Whereas last year the Irish went into the season with just four players with playing experience – Day, Jones, Okwara and Utupo – Notre Dame has more than twice that many defensive linemen who have made a contribution up front, and that doesn’t include the promise of players such as Jhonny Williams and true freshman Jerry Tillery, who has played well enough to be considered a legit starter if Jarron Jones returns slowly from a foot injury.
It still remains to be seen how many playmakers the Irish have up front. They managed just 26 sacks a year ago. But at least the Irish have a sizeable unit of bodies that have taken significant/crucial snaps when it mattered as opposed to last season when much was pinned on promise and hope.
• Right cornerback: KeiVarae Russell, Devin Butler, Shaun Crawford, Ashton White
• Left cornerback: Cole Luke, Nick Watkins, Connor Cavalaris, Nick Coleman
• 2014 depth: The Irish were fortunate Cody Riggs came along when he did in light of KeiVarae Russell’s suspension. Otherwise, Notre Dame would have had two first-time starters at cornerback in Cole Luke and Devin Butler. Riggs played well until a foot injury sabotaged the final portion of his fifth year while Luke emerged as a standout in his second season of competition. Butler played as the third cornerback, and then started when Riggs went down. Freshman Nick Watkins played sparingly.
• 2015 spring/fall depth: As of now, the Irish should have at least four cornerbacks that will be ready for action as opposed to the three that were used last season. Butler should benefit greatly from the game snaps he received last fall in addition to the No. 1 reps he’s getting this spring. How rusty Russell will be after a year layoff will be interesting to track, although he is one of the more gifted athletes to play the position for the Irish in recent years. Luke could be ready for true stardom at the position after making a co-team-leading four interceptions to go with 15 passes defensed and 11 passes broken up. Watkins has quality size and talent for the cornerback position.
In freshman Shaun Crawford, the Irish have a smaller cornerback, but one who possesses great athleticism. Nick Coleman may be one of the more underrated players in the Class of 2016 while Ashton White offers some position flexibility.
• Quarterback: Everett Golson, Malik Zaire, DeShone Kizer, Brandon Wimbush
• 2014 depth: Everett Golson hadn’t played since the 2012 season, and no other quarterback on the roster had taken a live snap entering the season. Malik Zaire didn’t take a meaningful snap until the second half of the final game of the regular season (at USC), and then started the Music City Bowl against LSU. DeShone Kizer preserved a year of eligibility.
• 2015 spring/fall depth: Unless you’re Ohio State and suffer a host of injuries – which forced three quarterbacks into pressure-packed playing time en route to the national title – it’s difficult to have proven depth at the position.
Notre Dame won’t have a ton of proven depth at quarterback heading into the fall, but at least a) they have two quarterbacks that have won games, b) they have a third quarterback waiting in the wings that has been in the system for a year, and c) there are four, not three, quarterbacks on the roster with the arrival of Brandon Wimbush, an exciting run-pass threat.
• Left tackle: Ronnie Stanley, Hunter Bivin
• Left guard: Quenton Nelson, Alex Bars, Jimmy Byrne, Trevor Ruhland
• Center: Nick Martin, Sam Mustipher, Tristen Hoge
• Right guard: Steve Elmer, John Montelus, Colin McGovern
• Right tackle: Mike McGlinchey, Mark Harrell
• 2014 depth: A thumb injury suffered by Nick Martin prompted some shifts after the third game of the season with Martin moving from center to guard, Steve Elmer moving from tackle to guard, the insertion of Matt Hegarty into the starting lineup at center (bumping Conor Hanratty from the lineup), and the shift of Christian Lombard from guard to tackle. The move was the right one as the Irish played a more consistent brand of football up front. When Lombard finally succumbed to a back injury, Mike McGlinchey stepped into the starting lineup against LSU in the Music City Bowl and performed admirably, particularly for his first start.
• 2015 spring/fall depth: The loss of Hegarty to a fifth-year transfer is significant in that it forces an unproven player – either Quenton Nelson or Alex Bars – into the starting lineup without either having played a snap in 2015. It could be worse since Nelson and Bars were two of the nation’s more highly-touted prep offensive linemen and have drawn raves from Brian Kelly.
But the Irish need to replenish the offensive line. The shift of Jerry Tillery from offense to defense reduces the number of incoming freshman offensive linemen to two – early-entry center Tristen Hoge at center and guard Trevor Ruhland. The Irish have just four linemen playing offensive tackle this spring, although Nelson and/or Bars could play tackle. Bars probably is Notre Dame’s No. 6 offensive lineman, regardless whether it’s guard or tackle. Tommy Kraemer doesn’t arrive until 2016, but the Irish could use him right now.
• Running back: Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant, C.J. Prosise (Z), Dexter Williams, Josh Adams
• 2014 depth: The Irish were three-deep with Tarean Folston, Cam McDaniel and Greg Bryant. As it turned out, Bryant carried just 54 times, 39 of which (72.2 percent) came in the first five games of the season. Folston (175 carries, 889 yards, 6 TDs), McDaniel (77 attempts, 278 yards, 4 TDs) and Everett Golson (114 attempts, 283 yards, 8 TDs) handled the bulk of the totes. In other words, 82.3 percent of the running back carries came from two players.
• 2015 spring/fall depth: McDaniel is gone and C.J. Prosise is serving as the third back, although once freshmen Dexter Williams and Josh Adams arrive, the Irish will have four full-time running backs with Prosise serving as the wild card. It’s not easy stockpiling running backs with only one football to go around. The Irish have one less experienced running back than they had a year ago, but Bryant has the potential to be a dynamic presence with Folston.
• Strong safety: Elijah Shumate, Avery Sebastian, John Turner, Mykelti Williams
• Free safety: Max Redfield, Drue Tranquill, Nicky Baratti, Nicco Fertitta
• 2014 depth: Notre Dame’s backup safety troops took a significant hit early with the suspension of Eilar Hardy, the pre-season knee injury suffered by Austin Collinsworth, and the September shoulder injury endured by Nicky Baratti. That put the onus on Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield, who are known more for their physical skills than their mastery of the system, particularly one as new and complex as Brian VanGorder’s.
Freshman Drue Tranquill began the season as a jack-of-all-trades front seven performer in passing situations, but then was called into duty at safety when Collinsworth suffered a shoulder injury, and Shumate and Redfield struggled. While there was the temptation to move Matthias Farley from nickel to safety, the fact that he didn’t change spots kept the safety position threadbare.
• 2015 spring/fall depth: This remains the skimpiest portion of the entire depth chart. Collinsworth is gone, and with Tranquill recovering from an ACL injury and Baratti one hit away from another season-ending shoulder injury, the arrival of fifth-year senior transfer Avery Sebastian – more of a run-stopper than pass defender – can’t come soon enough. John Turner’s move back to strong safety offers little promise since he was moved away from that position last spring. If Mykelti Williams can grasp the system, he has the athletic skills to be an early contributor. The Irish may have enough cornerbacks to play Farley at safety, although nickel remains his most productive position.