Potential vs. Production

The majority of Notre Dame’s top players for 2015 likewise have the most to prove. We run through the squad’s top 40 players, noting perception, reality, and a projection for the fall.

On one end of the spectrum is a consensus Top 15 ranking in pre-season polls, two handfuls of athletes on positional watch lists, and the promise of a battle-tested group of 2014 youngsters developing into a force to be reckoned with as upperclassmen.

On the other is the stark reality of an 8-5 regular season, an offense that turned it over a ridiculous 26 times and a defense that surrendered more points than any in program history over an eight-game span.

Relative to both their talent and given stature on the 2015 Irish squad, the bulk of Notre Dame’s roster has much to prove. We run down the program’s top 50 projected players entering the season – 10 at a time – beginning with 10 defenders essential to the cause.

Junior LB Jaylon Smith
-- Perception: Notre Dame’s best player; future Pro Bowl outside linebacker.
-- Production: Earned 2nd Team All-America honors last fall from the Associated Press.
-- 2015 Projection: Butkus Award Finalist as the nation’s top linebacker.
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: Struggles at times against powerful ‘backs in short space, which isn’t an ideal quality for a linebacker forced to play inside at times.
-- The Bottom Line: We’re forced to nit-pick at times, otherwise Smith ranks as an ideal teammate and college athlete for any program.

Senior CB KeiVarae Russell
-- Perception: The Prodigal Son returns
-- Production: 26 consecutive starts at CB and a player that improved immensely in his last season (2013) after a rough early season.
-- 2015 Projection: Lock down cornerback, playmaker, on field leader.
-- Confidence in that Projection: Medium
-- Perceived Weakness: Russell has yet to show he’s more than a “good” football player between the lines. Not necessarily a fair comment for a guy that only played as an underclassmen, but it’s technically accurate.
-- The Bottom Line: If Russell plays to his ceiling in 2015, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will have his pick of jobs in 2016.

Senior DT Sheldon Day
-- Current Perception: Top-level collegiate defensive linemen; technically sound, reliable player.
-- Production: Returning captain, two-year starter and a three-year regular with 96 career tackles including 16.5 for loss
-- 2015 Projection: One of the nation’s 10 best interior DL
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: Missed crucial time due to leg injuries in both 2013 and 2014. Can he play a full season?
-- The Bottom Line: Day was my No. 1 Notre Dame player (either side of the ball) on film through the first 10 games of 2014.

5th-Year Senior LB Joe Schmidt
-- Current Perception: The most important player on the 2014 Fighting Irish
-- Production: Team MVP who in eight starts led the team with 65 tackles while being responsible for three opponents’ turnovers
-- My 2015 Projection: A player that struggles to regain his pre-injury form and one that cannot afford to lose a half step between the lines.
-- Confidence in that Projection: Low
-- Perceived Weakness: A lack of lateral quickness was an issue on touchdowns against both North Carolina and Navy. When he’s “wrong” on a read, it’s difficult for him to make up for that mistake with raw athleticism.
-- The Bottom Line: Doubting Joe Schmidt has proven fruitless for all. If he’s fully recovered, he’ll start and quarterback Notre Dame’s defense.

Junior DE Isaac Rochell
-- Current Perception: The team’s most improved and versatile defensive linemen from beginning to end in 2014.
-- Production: Led the team QB hurries (11) while recording 7.5 tackles for loss.
-- 2015 Projection: A nationally relevant player on film if not on the stat sheet. 
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: Not viewed as a pass-rushing threat off the edge – so is it good or bad he led the squad in quarterback hurries?
-- The Bottom Line: Rochell is the team’s best NFL prospect up front and one of the true underappreciated cogs in the 2014 machine. He’ll be a captain when he returns as a senior next fall.

Junior CB Cole Luke
-- Current Perception: Second banana after a starring role as a sophomore.
-- Production: Led the team in passes defended (15) while tying for the team lead with four picks.
-- 2015 Projection: Similar numbers and the potential to (again) rank as one of the team’s 10 best overall players at season’s end.
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: Doesn’t possess ideal makeup speed to be a true shutdown corner, a reality that presented when he switched to left cornerback early at USC and Trojans touchdowns followed.
-- The Bottom Line: Luke enters 2015 as Notre Dame’s forgotten man – opposing offenses won’t feel the same, and he’ll have ample opportunity to make plays as a result.

Senior NT Jarron Jones
-- Current Perception: Part-monster, part-time xxx
-- Production: Posted 7.5 tackles for loss as a 9-game contributor prior to November injury. Has blocked five kicks in two seasons.
-- 2015 Projection: A player that rounds into shape by October and produces at a high level thereafter.
-- Confidence in that Projection: Medium
-- Perceived Weakness: It’s more stated than perceived – Jones struggles at times because his lower body strength isn’t close to his upper/ability to dominate with his arms when locked on a lineman.
-- The Bottom Line: Arguably Notre Dame’s most important football player in that he has to be at least solid from the outset. A solid Jones makes Notre Dame a Top 15 contender. Anything more than that and the playoffs are within reach.

Junior S Max Redfield
-- Current Perception: A player just beginning to scratch the surface of his immense potential.  
-- Production: 68 tackles and a pick in 10 starts. Saved at least a full handful of touchdowns in 2014 with ankle tackles.
-- 2015 Projection: The team’s most improved player
-- Confidence in that Projection: Medium
-- Perceived Weakness: The ability to run the show on the back end. 
-- The Bottom Line: One of the more puzzling developments of 2014 was Redfield’s lack of consistency, both between the lines and between the ears. He’s smart, remarkably athletic, and entering his second season in a defensive system. He should break out as a true junior.

Senior S Elijah Shumate
-- Current Perception: Better late than never
-- Production: Notched 66 stops while creating two turnovers and breaking up five passes last season.
-- 2015 Projection: A breakout senior season similar to Gerome Sapp (2002), who likewise contributed for three seasons before rising to the fore in his fourth.
-- Confidence in that Projection: Low
-- Perceived Weakness: Immaturity? How else do you explain a junior season suspension and a senior season benching on a team bereft of safety talent?
-- The Bottom Line: One of Notre Dame’s most willing run stoppers and hitters, Shumate must secure the staff’s trust in camp then become a difference-maker at the second level of the 2015 defense. If not, other options should be activated.

Sophomore TE Nyles Morgan
-- Current Perception: Future star at middle linebacker
-- Production: Freshman All-America (hey, it’s official), a remarkable 40 tackles in 4.5 games as a starter late last season.
-- 2015 Projection: A top 10 defender regardless of technical starting and/or backup status
-- Confidence in that Projection: Medium
-- Perceived Weakness: He had no idea what he was doing last season.
-- The Bottom Line: Morgan was thrown to the wolves late last season and the Irish defense predictably suffered as a result. That’s on the staff, not the player, because Morgan is as studious and dedicated a freshman as we’ve seen during the Kelly regime.

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