A year ago today, then-sophomores Cole Luke, Isaac Rochell, and Will Fuller were projected as backups for Brian Kelly’s 2014 Fighting Irish.
Conventional wisdom offered that Luke wasn’t going to beat out KeiVarae Russell and/or Cody Riggs; the previously little-used Rochell was behind senior Ishaq Williams, and Fuller – fresh off a spring case of the dropsies – was to take a back seat to returning senior DaVaris Daniels, not to mention Chris Brown and Corey Robinson.
The trio instead combined to lead Notre Dame in interceptions, passes defended, forced fumbles, quarterback hurries, receptions, receiving yards, first downs accrued, total yards from scrimmage, and touchdowns.
Russell, Williams, and Daniels didn’t play a down.
Opportunity knocked, Luke, Rochell, and Fuller answered.
Such opportunity admittedly seems sparse for a deep 2015 Notre Dame squad that returns 35 of its 45 most important players from last season, but off-the-radar contributions are the norm, not the exception.
We’ve identified a few to look for before summer OTA’s get underway:
(Part-Time) Wide Receiver James Onwualu: Huh? Stay with me.
Notre Dame’s best blocking wide receiver as a true freshman in 2013, Onwualu is now a strong side linebacker – the team’s second-best strong side linebacker, to be frank, at least if the spring plan of including Jaylon Smith in that role during multiple situations comes to fruition.
Behind Onwualu, the team’s second-best blocking receiver is likely C.J. Prosise – he appears slated for at least part-time duty carrying the football rather than paving a path for it.
Fellow pass-catchers Chris Brown and Corey Robinson have had their moments opening a lane for Irish runners, and Amir Carlisle delivers the occasional crack-back from the slot, but none from that trio will remind anyone of Pat Eilers or Mo Stovall or Duval Kamara in terms of perimeter lockdown.
At a legitimate six-feet-one, 220-plus pounds, Onwualu has the physical prowess to dominate as a perimeter blocker – and he has the mental makeup to play part-time offense, part-time sam ‘backer, and full-time special teams.
It’s the type of personnel usage head coach Brian Kelly would have utilized at his previous stops. To get the most out of his current roster, Onwualu should be considered for such a role on the perimeter of what is expected to be a power-oriented rushing attack, one that needs its wide receivers to block as much as stress a defense with speed downfield.
Defensive End Andrew Trumbetti: Not off-the-radar, officially, but I’m not projecting a garden-variety solid sophomore season from the Garden State product.
I believe Trumbetti would have been the defense’s top spring storyline during the spring had he not missed much of the middle section of practices due to a “virus” (per Kelly).
Look for Trumbetti to develop into one of Notre Dame’s six best defensive players by the end of next season. (More on that in a Trumbetti-based prediction set for Monday on Irish Illustrated.)
Safety Avery Sebastian: Yeah, this might be cheating, since the transfer Sebastian started six games over a 33-game career as a member of the California Bears, but all reasonable projections have the box safety slated for backup duty upon arrival.
I agree, at first blush, but he’s slated to backup senior Elijah Shumate, who’s yet to make it out of a season without either or all of the following:
A.) A mid-season benching
B.) A game’s suspension
C.) An injury that required him to miss games
D.) A reference to his struggles to communicate the multiple machinations required along Notre Dame’s back line of defense (where apparently they’re splitting the atom, pre-snap).
Ideally, Shumate would shine as a senior, but I’ll take my chances he doesn’t go through 13 games without hiccup and Sebastian gets his chance.
Cornerback Nick Watkins: The sophomore appeared to pull ahead of junior competitor Devin Butler at the conclusion of spring ball, but in reality, that’s no more than a consolation prize, because KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke are dead-certain starters on the corners for 2015.
But cornerback is a position susceptible to nagging injuries, ones of great concern as a season wears on as slowed corners tend to struggle covering the nation’s best targets on the perimeter.
Star corner Robert Blanton played hurt throughout 2011 because there was no one behind him. Ditto Bennett Jackson in 2012 and again in 2013.
Thereafter, Notre Dame lost 2014 standout Cody Riggs to injury for the season’s final month – a reality that brings us back to the aforementioned Butler, who started four games last season after entering August Camp no better than No. 4 in the pecking order.
It is likely Watkins will get his chance to shine sooner rather than later, and he has the talent to take advantage of that opportunity.
Center Sam Mustipher: If either starting tackle falls to injury, Alex Bars would likely step in. Ditto either starting guard – Bars appears to be the ideal “sixth man” for an offensive line viewed at present as the program’s greatest strength.
But what if team captain and starting center Nick Martin is lost to injury? (He enters 2015 on the heels of 2013 knee surgery and tearing ligaments in his thumb last season.)
Mustipher is a true backup – no chance to unseat the starter, but likely a full year ahead of his nearest competition, 2015 January enrollee Tristen Hoge (that position battle will take place next spring).
In other words, Mustipher is “No. 7” in what Kelly referenced as an at least 8-deep group up front.
And he’s the next man in at the line’s most important position.
Of note: Injury concerns kept both Drue Tranquill and Jonathan Bonner from joining this list. We’ll update the quintet above with relevant additions midway through August Camp.