Notre Dame’s most underrated players

After overcoming a 2013 shoulder injury, Matthias Farley’s assets blossomed. C.J. Prosise and Amir Carlisle give the Irish great potential at slot receiver. Steve Elmer showed his ability at guard after a tough time at tackle. Defensive ends Romeo Okwara and Isaac Rochell are primed for banner years.

What makes a player underrated?

It usually starts with a perception – which in and of itself is a subjective analysis -- that Player A is not as good as he’s been purported to be. An underrated player often toils in anonymity while others garner the headlines.

Offensive linemen are prime candidates for underrated status because most of their work goes unnoticed while the players running it, catching it and throwing it are mentioned prominently.

A prime example of an underrated player on Notre Dame’s 2014 team was center Matt Hegarty. To be sure, Hegarty had his moments of infamy. Usually, those lowlights were accompanied by an instant replay and a thorough analysis from a broadcaster. Often times, Hegarty deserved the notoriety for his missteps.

Yet Hegarty did a lot of positive things for the Irish offensive line when they reshuffled after the first game of the season. Hegarty moved to center for a banged up Nick Martin, which unseated guard Conor Hanratty – an underrated performer in his own right.

Hegarty was a long, active, aggressive center for the Irish, and he was doing it with just two starting assignments to his credit heading into the 2014 season. He played with a non-stop motor, always helping up his own ball carriers after chasing the play down the field. He was more productive than the feedback often indicated. (Editor’s note: Ironically, Hegarty himself may have overrated his abilities when he bypassed his fifth-year at Notre Dame.)

One year ago, linebacker Joe Schmidt would have been a top candidate for most undervalued, although he had yet to prove himself in a full-time role. It only took eight games in 2014 – he missed the final five with a broken ankle – to earn the team’s defensive MVP award. There’s no undervaluing him now, or at least there shouldn’t be.

The following are, admittedly, subjective opinions about the most underrated players on Notre Dame’s 2015 spring roster. Some observers may not underrate these players at all. The general perception, however, prompts many to look beyond their contributions.

8) CB-Cole Luke (Jr.) – This isn’t your typical “underrated” player because he was highly-touted coming out of high school and moved into the starting lineup as a sophomore. But he wouldn’t have been a starter had it not been for the suspension of KeiVarae Russell, which means he wouldn’t have developed as much as he did in ’14.

Luke was remarkably productive for a first-time starter in 2014. He tied Matthias Farley for the team-lead in interceptions with four. While Cody Riggs’ foot problems throughout most of the second half of the season put a damper on the fifth-year seniors numbers, Luke emerged as a standout. (Note: Luke and the rest of the Irish defense had a very bad day against USC.)

Luke paced the team in passes defensed with 15. That was 10 more than Farley, Devin Butler and Elijah Shumate, who finished second. Luke’s 11 passes broken up were seven more than Butler’s four, which also ranked second on the defense. Luke also played physically, finishing sixth on the team in tackles with 48 as he showed improvement and toughness supporting the run.

Admittedly, this player begins our list because most knew he was a quality prospect coming into the program. His rapid ascent as a first-time starter, however, was underrated. Now he has two years/26-games plus left in a Notre Dame uniform. His underrated status is coming to a close.

7) OLB-James Onwualu (Jr.) – You have to be productive to be underrated, and Onwualu has, to be sure, accomplished little statistically in the short time he’s been an outside linebacker after playing receiver as a freshman. The mere fact that he made the radical transition from skill-position offensive player to a cornerstone position along the defensive front seven is a huge accomplishment.

Onwualu does not have the stats to back up this assertion. He made 24 tackles in 13 games, although some might be surprised to hear that he started eight games for the Irish in ’14. And yet he has no coverage statistics – interceptions, passes broken up, passes defensed – to support the notion of the coaching staff that he excels as an underneath coverage guy, unless his coverage was so good that opponents simply avoided throwing his way altogether.

But he’s now in his second year at the position, remains Brian VanGorder’s top option at Sam linebacker this spring, and has, according to Brian Kelly, given the Irish a weapon defending the passing game. His intelligence and understanding of the big picture of Notre Dame’s defense have impressed the coaching staff, if not those who watch recreationally.

6) DE-Isaac Rochell (Jr.) – Despite the fact Ishaq Williams had yet to prove himself, there was much fretting over the 6-foot-5 ½, 270-pounder’s academic suspension last August. That meant Rochell, a sophomore, would be forced into the starting lineup at left end, which was perceived to be a downgrade as well as a blow to the defensive line depth.

And yet by the end of the 2014 season, it was clear that Rochell had been a productive member of Notre Dame’s spotty defensive front as well as an emerging leader for what should be one of the most improved unit’s productivity-wise in 2015.

Rochell finished with 7.5 tackles for loss – tied for second on the squad – while his 10 quarterback hurries ranked ahead of every Irish defender, including Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara. Make no mistake: Rochell was no pass-rush extraordinaire. In fact, one could call it a weakness in ’14.

But when you combine the improvement throughout the season, his physical strength, his maturity, his leadership and the promise of two seasons of eligibility remaining, Rochell is as valuable of a returnee up front as any player on the defensive roster. There’s also talk of improvements being made in his pass-rush this spring.

Rochell is captain material in 2016 if not 2015. When Notre Dame’s sports information department looks for a “face of the program” to represent the Irish in the interview room, Rochell is an easy choice.

5) RG-Steve Elmer (Jr.) – You might say that Elmer was too highly-touted coming out of high school to fall into the “underrated” category. Duly noted, but considering how much Elmer struggled at right tackle to start the 2014 season, his productivity after the move to right guard prevented him from getting the credit he deserved.

Not sure if Notre Dame’s charts back this up, but our guess, if we were to evaluate each and every running play after Elmer’s moved to guard, would show the 6-foot-5 ½, 315-pounder to have been the most effective and consistent run blocker along the offensive line in 2014.

Brian Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand wanted more bulk and physicality on the interior when the switches along the front were made prior to the fourth game of the season against Syracuse. The Irish converted all seven of their 3rd-and-short running plays that day, although the broadcasters chose to focus on Notre Dame’s modest 41-for-161 rushing effort instead.

Elmer proved to be a bull at the right guard position, exploding out as a run blocker while improving his pass-blocking skills on the interior. He is the anchor of Notre Dame’s interior run blocking heading into 2015 after a solid 2014. He also never got nearly enough credit for the notable job he did as a true freshman at left guard in 2013.

4) DE-Romeo Okwara (Sr.) – In a blink of an eye, the 6-foot-4, 260-pounder is entering his final year of eligibility with the Irish, and he’s yet to turn 21. Okwara saw action as a 17-year-old freshman in 2012 when the Irish were searching for players with the tools to participate on special teams.

That started his collegiate clock ticking, and it’s moved quickly. He played sparingly as a sophomore in 2013 behind seasoned veteran Prince Shembo. In search of a pass rush, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco inserted Okwara into a “rush nose tackle” position to tap into his athleticism. The move produced negligible results.

Last season, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder implemented a 4-3/one-gap scheme as Okwara adjusted to playing with a hand on the ground. He was inconsistent statistically, recording 2.5 of his four sacks in the first three games of the season. He had zero tackles for loss outside of his four sacks.

But for a guy who had to play too young and had to transition to a position unfamiliar to him, he had moments of effectiveness, particularly in the last two games of the season against USC and LSU in the Music City Bowl. Twelve of his 39 tackles on the season came in the final eight quarters of 2014, and his tackle total was tied with Isaac Rochell, who didn’t have share his left end position like Okwara did with freshman Andrew Trumbetti on the right side.

Entering the 2015 season, Okwara and Trumbetti represent Notre Dame’s top pass-rushing threats. Okwara should have enough experience under his belt to be a more consistent force off the edge.

3) WR-Amir Carlisle (5th year) – The USC transfer’s underrated nature stems from the fact that he’s been invisible for long stretches during his three years with the Irish.

An off-the-field injury after his transfer prompted him to miss the 2012 season. In 2013, he was Notre Dame’s leading rusher in the first two games of the season (Temple, at Michigan). He disappeared from the running back equation after a fumble in the third game as Cam McDaniel, George Atkinson III and freshman Tarean Folston swallowed up the majority of the carries.

Carlisle was switched to the slot in 2014, and it looked like a good move in the second game of the season against Michigan when he caught seven passes for 61 yards and two touchdowns in the whitewashing of the Wolverines. A knee injury a week later prompted him to miss most of Purdue and all of Syracuse, and then it took several weeks before he was right again.

After making nine catches for 105 yards and two scores in the first two games of ’14, he managed just 14 catches for 204 yards and one touchdown over the final 11.

Carlisle has proven his toughness. He was back on the spring practice field in short order in 2013 after suffering a broken collarbone. He only missed one game last year after the September knee injury. Brian Kelly cited Carlisle this week as one of the most improved offensive players this spring.

Simply put, when Carlisle is healthy, he’s an ultra-productive weapon for the Irish.

2) WR-C.J. Prosise (Sr.) – Part of the reason the former safety is so underrated is because Brian Kelly usually is good for a comment or two about how difficult the game is for Prosise. He did it again this week when he said that the senior-to-be with two years of eligibility “is not a natural football player.”

Kelly is right. Prosise has had to work diligently on his ball skills. He sometimes “fights” catching the football. His inability to snag a bullet in the end zone late in the Florida State game was an opportunity that, literally, slipped through his grasp.

But among the other things Kelly said about Prosise this week was that he is the fastest of the running backs on the second level, which says something when you’re putting him in the same company as Tarean Folston and particularly Greg Bryant. Prosise is cross-training at the position after showing a natural inclination as a ball carrier in ’14, including a 50-yard touchdown run against LSU.

It may not come naturally to Prosise, but he keeps adding skills to his toolbox after a 29-catch, 516-yard, two-touchdown red-shirt sophomore season in ’14. He averaged a team-high 17.8 yards per catch, which was boosted by that long score against the Tigers in the bowl game as well as the 78-yarder early in the Navy game.

Good things keep happening when Prosise catches the football. He may not develop into the No. 2 receiver that the Irish are looking for to complement big-play threat Will Fuller. But there may not be a greater weapon this side of Fuller than the always-improving Prosise. His combination of size and speed is a rarity.

1) S-Matthias Farley (5th year) – When Notre Dame went from national-title aspirant in 2012 to also-ran before the end of September in 2013, someone had to get the blame besides Brian Kelly. Farley – who emerged as a surprise starter in 2012 – was an easy choice.

Easy because Farley couldn’t defend and couldn’t tackle anyone a large portion of the time. He obviously was playing with an injured shoulder, but rather than risk putting a younger, healthier and more physically-talented player on the field, Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco went with Farley to take advantage of his heady play. Many Irish fans would have been content if Farley had run out of eligibility midway through the ’13 season.

Enter Brian VanGorder, who created a “nickel niche” for Farley in 2014. Lo and behold, a healthy Matthias Farley became an ultra-productive Matthias Farley, finishing with a co-team-leading four interceptions while ranking fifth on the team in tackles with 53.

He became a weapon along the line of scrimmage with 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 of which were sacks. His alert, heady play, and his intelligence to digest VanGorder’s complex defensive system were key components to Notre Dame’s blistering start to the ’14 season when they allowed just 12.0 points per game through the first five.

Farley will be a cornerstone for a defense that is sure to make significant improvements over the last eight games of ’14 when the Irish had difficulty stopping several quality offenses. His captain-like leadership is as important to the 2015 unit as anyone on the defensive side of the ball offers.


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