1. Perimeter Playmakers: Reasonable minds can disagree on the order, but the five best single-season cornerback duos at Notre Dame over the last 30 seasons include:
-- Shane Walton and Vontez Duff (2002)
-- Bobby Taylor and Greg Lane (1993)
-- Tom Carter and Lane (in 1992, with Taylor then a freshman free safety)
-- Todd Lyght and Stan Smagala (1989)
-- Lyght and Smagala (1988).
From that quintet, only the remarkable production of Walton and Duff seems unapproachable for the 2015 Irish tandem of KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke. Luke’s 15 passes defended last season were the most by an individual over the Brian Kelly (and Charlie Weis) era, while Russell’s athleticism ranks among the best at the program since Brock Williams (2001).
And Russell has 26 games of experience plus an off-season of re-purposed training at his disposal.
2. Have we overvalued the Music City Bowl win? It was enjoyable for Irish fans, and altogether necessary to stop the bleeding of November’s carnage. And Notre Dame’s 31-28 victory over SEC power program LSU allowed the Irish and their fans to enter the 2015 off-season with something more tangible than hope.
Not only was the conquest one of Kelly’s two best coaching efforts of his tenure in South Bend (Oklahoma 2012 the other), but one that also presented a 60-minute offensive blueprint on which to build.
But it must be asked: could Notre Dame’s defense have held LSU to three offensive touchdowns the Tigers had a varsity quarterback?
We’ll know more about the Irish and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder following a four-game, five Saturday stretch this fall that includes Justin Thomas, Deshaun Watson, Keenan Reynolds, and Cody Kessler under center on the opposite side of scrimmage.
3. While on the subject: have we overvalued the Irish offensive line? That is, based on the results of one late-December consolation game?
-- 12 Games Pre-Music City Bowl: 21 rushing TD, 4.18 yards per rush, 28 sacks allowed.
-- Music City Bowl: 3 rushing TD, 5.15 yards per rush, 0 sacks allowed.
And LSU’s rush defense ranked a middling 46th nationally. (The Tigers boasted the country’s top pass defense.)
That was then. Fast forward to now and the conclusion of spring ball when it was apparent to Irish Illustrated – we had nine aggregate hours of practice viewings not including the Blue Gold Game – that the Irish offensive front was a physical, cohesive, single-minded unit.
Did I mention physical? And angry?
Harry Hiestand’s front wall seemed to establish an identity at season’s end, imposing its will in Nashville and fueled by the fire of future pro Ronnie Stanley. It’s essential for the program’s future that one sunny day in late December wasn’t a mirage – but that a new paradigm presented.
4. If Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace are fully recovered… The Schmidt/Grace/Morgan logjam in the middle is a very, very good problem to have.
Cross-training Schmidt at Jaylon Smith’s Will ‘backer spot reportedly has begun in earnest while Smith’s assimilation to James Onwualu’s Sam ‘backer spot was part of the spring process.
Wither Onwualu in this instance? He can help everywhere, from part-time Sam, to ringleader of the quartet of the Irish “run teams” (kickoff and punt coverage and return), to, as I noted in March if you’re ready to think not-too-far outside the box, as a blocking wide receiver for the (it is to be hoped) ground and pound Irish.
He’ll play plenty, but a varied alignment of Smith/Onwualu (Sam), Schmidt/Morgan/Grace (Mike), and Smith/Schmidt (Will) would be among the best nationally.
Get ready for a rotation.
5. Best Among the Best – Considering Notre Dame in comparison to its foes, allow me to present the 2015 schedule’s superlatives:
Best pure passer: Cody Kessler (USC)
Best hands: Artavis Scott (Clemson)
Best deep threat: Will Fuller (ND)…and it’s an impressive list.
Best offensive weapon: Deshaun Watson
Best pass protector: Ronnie Stanley (ND)
Best run blocker: Bryan Chamberlain (Ga. Tech)
Toughest to tackle: James Connor (Pitt)
Best run stuffer: Tyler Matakevich (Temple)
Best defender in space: Jaylon Smith (ND)
Biggest hitter on the back end: Quin Blanding (Virginia)
Best pass rusher: Among an unproven group, Shaq Lawson (Clemson) or the about-to-be-unleashed Su’a Cravens (USC)
Best cover corner: Adoree Jackson or KeiVarae Russell, TBD. (And Russell will get the chance to cover Jackson as well.)
6. Top Six Seniors: Cody Kessler (USC), Keenan Reynolds (Navy), Ronnie Stanley (ND), Max Tuerk (USC), KeiVarae Russell (ND), Tyler Matakevich (Temple).
7. Seven Playmaking Juniors: Jaylon Smith (ND), Su’a Cravens (USC), Justin Thomas (Ga. Tech), Will Fuller (ND), James Connor (Pittsburgh), Tyler Boyd (Pittsburgh), Mike Williams (Clemson).
8. Eight More As Sophomores: Deshaun Watson (Clemson), Adoree’ Jackson (USC), Quin Blanding (Virginia), Artavis Scott (Clemson), JuJu Smith (USC), Mackensie Alexander (Clemson), Sean Chandler (Temple), Cam Serigne (Wake Forest).
9. Nine Impact Freshmen: Justin Yoon (ND), Malik Jefferson (Texas), Iman Marshall (USC), Aliz’e Jones (TE, ND), Deon Cain (WR/TE, Clemson), Ray-Ray McCloud (Athlete, Clemson), Ronald Jones (RB, USC), Mitch Hyatt (OT, Clemson), Jerry Tillery (ND).