Tim Prister’s recently concluded “First-Rate” series prepped Irish fans for a challenging slate of opponents this fall, detailing the talent level, between the lines production, and experience of each Irish position group in comparison to those of their upcoming foes.
In his annual summer series, Prister’s rating system pegged USC as the most powerful overall squad Notre Dame fans will encounter during 2015, the Irish included in that equation.
Sans his final category (strength of schedule), the Irish ranked second on the list followed by Clemson, Stanford, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, Boston College, Texas, Texas, Virginia, UMass, Temple, Wake Forest, and Navy.
(Per usual, Navy’s whole will prove far stronger than the sum of its parts.)
In one of our final pre-camp looks at the talent the Irish will encounter this fall, we present the site’s third annual Schedule All-Stars: offensive and defensive starting 11s made up entirely of the best players among Notre Dame’s 12 foes and the Irish players themselves.
OFFENSIVE LINE (1 ND)
All-America candidates highlight the list led by USC center Max Tuerk and Irish left tackle Ronnie Stanley. Stanford guard Josh Garnett and tackle Kyle Murphy aren’t far behind while Georgia Tech guard Trey Braun rounds out our T-T-G-G-C starting five.
Irish fifth-year senior center Nick Martin was not considered over Tuerk but is nonetheless poised for a strong final season in South Bend. Georgia Tech tackle Bryan Chamberlain and the Pittsburgh left-side pairing of Dorian Johnson (guard) and Adam Bisnowaty (tackle) also deserve mention.
OFFENSIVE BACKFIELD (0 ND)
Quarterback talent abounds on this season’s Irish slate, and at least four signal callers could be considered legitimate candidates for our top spot with two others on the cusp:
-- Dual-threat DeShaun Watson (Clemson)
-- Pure passer Cody Kessler (USC)
-- Option triggermen Justin Thomas (Ga. Tech) and Keenan Reynolds (Navy)
-- Savvy veteran Kevin Hogan (Stanford)
-- Powerful playmaker, but relative rookie, Malik Zaire (ND)
In good health, Watson (a torn ACL truncated his 2014 season) gets the nod, though Thomas is just as good at what he’s asked to do.
Watson simply does more.
-- The pickings are slim among running backs, with Pittsburgh’s James Conner followed by Notre Dame’s Tarean Folston at the top of the heap. Though not yet slated to start, USC’s Tre Madden could emerge as a dark horse following a lost 2014 campaign (toe injury). Potentially undervalued among the 12-week lineup is Texas veteran Jonathan Gray.
Conner is the clear pre-season choice, but Folston is on the verge of big things this fall.
RECEIVERS AND TIGHT ENDS (1 ND)
Will Fuller is the best offensive weapon Notre Dame fans will see live this season. He might have been last year, too.
Under consideration is a pair of Clemson pass-catchers, deep threat Mike Williams and Artavis Scott – he of the outstanding hands – plus the USC sophomore tandem of JuJu Smith and all-purpose superhero Adoree Jackson, who as a WR/CB/KR, is all over this column.
Despite myriad candidates, Fuller’s official running mate as a starting wide receiver for this all-star lineup is speedy Pittsburgh junior Tyler Boyd who has compiled more than 2,400 yards to augment his 15 total touchdowns as a true freshman and sophomore. (Boyd hit Notre Dame for eight catches and 85 yards as a frosh in 2013.)
-- The tight end spot is wide open so we’ll go with Stanford sophomore Austin Hooper ahead of Wake Forest’s Cam Serigne (led all tight ends in receptions last fall) and Pittsburgh veteran J.P. Holtz. Holtz scored a touchdown vs. the Irish in Notre Dame’s triple overtime, 2012 escape.
Notre Dame “rookie”/ junior Durham Smythe showed promise in the spring, but one career catch for seven yards doesn’t get you on this list.
DEFENSIVE LINE (2 ND)
An argument can be made that the Irish have the best interior lineman (Sheldon Day) and the best overall defensive end/swing lineman (Isaac Rochell). That duo is doubtless part of our starting front four.
Joining the Notre Dame pair is Clemson edge rusher Shaq Lawson while the interior spot next to Day belongs to one among Connor Wujciak (Boston College), Adam Gotsis (Georgia Tech), Hassan Ridgeway (Texas), Tyler Harris (Wake Forest), Carlos Watkins (Clemson) or USC’s Antwaun Woods. Or USC’s Claude Pelon, for that matter. Or Trojans defensive end Devlon Simmons.
I’ll go with Gotsis, but regardless, it’s there’s some front wall talent on tap when Notre Dame tees it up this fall.
-- Conspicuous in their absence are players from the Stanford Cardinal. No starters return, but it’s safe to assume defensive line coach Randy Hart will develop one, if not two candidates by season’s end.
Hart is clearly the “one that got away” in Notre Dame’s transition from Charlie Weis to Brian Kelly following 2009.
LINEBACKERS (1 ND)
Let’s dispense with the semantics: Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith and USC’s Su’a Cravens top our list, bookending the outside.
Stanford’s trio of Blake Martinez (an interior anchor), Peter Kalambayi (up-and-coming edge rusher), and the well-rounded Kevin Anderson could all be considered.
Likewise Georgia Tech’s P.J. Davis, Wake Forest’s Andrew Chubb and Pittsburgh’s Matt Galambos, but my choice is four-year starting middle ‘backer Tyler Matakevich, who impressed as a Temple true sophomore vs. Notre Dame in the season opener of 2013.
-- Notre Dame team MVP Joe Schmidt could threaten Matakevich’s spot in our three-‘backer lineup should he prove fully recovered from a major lower leg injury (broken foot/dislocated ankle) in August.
THE SECONDARY (1 ND)
Notre Dame’s KeiVarae Russell and USC’s Adoree’ Jackson could rank among the nation’s five best corners this fall – that is if the latter doesn’t spend too much time on offense. Regardless, Jackson is poised for a breakout second season and Russell is ready to take the schedule by storm.
Clemson freshman Mackensie Alexander is next in line among a myriad of cornerback candidates followed by Notre Dame’s Cole Luke, Temple’s tandem of Sean Chandler and Tavon Young, Navy’s Quincy Adams, Virginia’s Maurice Canady, Georgia Tech’s D.J. White, and Texas’ Duke Thomas.
Virginia sophomore safety Quin Blanding is the no-brainer selection to lead the last line of our defense. For his running mate on the back end, my selection is Tech’s Jamal Golden over Clemson’s Jayron Kearse.
-- Notre Dame’s safety combination of Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate has run the gamut, both in terms of hype and production. They could push for spots on this list by season’s end.
There’s your next dose of hype, now onto the production.