Potential vs. Production Part II

Our weeklong series detailing 50 players crucial to the Irish cause this fall continues with another 10-spot of defenders.

Notre Dame’s sobering statistical reality of 2014 – the 82nd ranked scoring defense coupled with the 80th ranked red zone offense – does not jibe with national (and Irish Illustrated) projections for 2015.

Freshmen and sophomores thrown to the fire because of injuries and suspensions last fall are now battle-tested sophomores and juniors, and though the program’s contributing seniors and graduate students make up less than 18 percent of the current roster, it’s a collection of talent ready to leave its mark during its final seasons in South Bend.

In this ongoing series we examine Notre Dame’s most important players for the upcoming season – a collection of 50 we expect to contribute to what appears to be head coach Brian Kelly’s deepest team in his six seasons at the helm.

(Click here for Part I).

Sophomore DE Andrew Trumbetti?
-- Current Perception: Breakout candidate
-- Production: Posted five QB hurries and 5.5 tackles for loss in a reserve role as a true freshman last fall.
-- 2015 Projection: Trumbetti will lead the team in sacks this fall.
-- Confidence in that Projection: Medium
-- Perceived Weakness: A touch light at 255 pounds to hold the fort for 13 games at Rush End.
-- The Bottom Line: Notre Dame needs a difference-maker off the edge, and though Trumbetti isn’t blessed with a preternatural burst as a pass-rusher, he’s extremely (straight line) fast, uses his hands well, and is a high-effort player. He’ll be a household name entering 2017 – some of that needs to come to fruition this fall.

5th-year Senior Nickel Matthias Farley
-- Current Perception: A Jack-of-all-Trades/Master-of-None; the ideal role player.
-- Production: Tied for the team-lead in interceptions (4) including two in opponent’s end zones.
-- 2015 Projection: A second straight season starting in the Nickel role; intermittent and timely playmaker in short and intermediate zones.
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: Downfield/large space coverage skills against quick-footed targets
-- The Bottom Line: Farley is perfectly suited to lend a hand in myriad, part-time roles in defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s schemes. It should be noted that while November was wrought with team-wide failures across the board, Farley made potential game-changing interceptions vs. both Arizona State and Northwestern but the squad failed to capitalize thereafter.

Junior LB James Onwualu
-- Current Perception: Anything for the team
-- Production: After dabbling at safety during spring ball 2014, Onwualu started six games at Sam linebacker after moving from wide receiver following his freshman season. He ranked as a top 10 player in our site’s film review of the Navy contest and earned honorable mention against Stanford and LSU.
-- 2015 Projection: Part-time starter at Sam; full-time starter on the Irish run teams (Kickoff/punt coverage and returns).
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: VanGorder referred to him as a “compromised nickel.” Onwualu can run and hit, but coverage remains a work in progress.
-- The Bottom Line: A staff favorite, Onwualu’s best position is likely wide receiver, but that remains one of the deepest units in the program. (Though the group lacks the physical presence he could provide.) Expect a more comfortable Onwualu entering his second season at linebacker, a position in which he’s likely to share time with the squad’s best player, Jaylon Smith, who’ll move from the weak to the strong side pending the opponent and situation.

Senior DE Romeo Okwara
-- Current Perception: Too young to be a senior
-- Production: A team-best albeit paltry total of four sacks to go with 15 Stuffs and team-high two forced fumbles in 12 starts.
-- 2015 Projection: Starter in a timeshare with sophomore Andrew Trumbetti at the Rush defensive end position opposite Big End Isaac Rochell. Okwara is expected to improve his tackles-for-loss total (4) after registering 15 “Stuffs” (tackles for gains of 0, 1, or 2 yards) last season.
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: Consistent Production, at least relative to a 12-game starter
-- The Bottom Line: Okwara turned 20 years old this month and it is clear he could have benefitted from a redshirt season as a 2012 freshman. Entering his senior season, the 260-pound Okwara at last appears fully prepared to force the edge along the Irish defensive front.

5th-year senior LB Jarrett Grace
-- Current Perception: The best comeback story on the football team
-- Production: Posted 30 tackles in 3.5 starts before losing the next 17 months of development to a gruesome broken leg in Oct. 2013.
-- 2015 Projection: Run-stopper, on and off-field leader for the team, not just the defense.
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: Grace wasn’t blessed with sideline-to-sideline quickness before his debilitating leg injury. So unless he’s now bionic…
-- The Bottom Line: Media isn’t supposed to “root” for players or teams, but few with a heart aren’t rooting for Grace to enjoy a healthy season in which he approaches or reaches his previous level of play.

Sophomore S Drue Tranquill
-- Current Perception: Future strong safety starter; versatile 2015 reserve
-- Production: Tranquill starred as a dime linebacker last season before earning two starts at safety – then tearing his ACL midway through his second assignment. Season stats include 33 tackles, a blocked kick, a fumble recovery, a sack, an interception and a pass breakup.
-- 2015 Projection: First safety off the bench; full-time special teams player; dime package linebacker.
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: A surgically repaired knee and perhaps not enough quickness to play free safety, though he’s well suited to be an in-the-box strong safety.
-- The Bottom Line: If not for November knee surgery, Tranquill and enigmatic senior Elijah Shumate would likely be embroiled in a camp-long, and perhaps season-long battle for playing time and starting status at strong safety. Instead, Tranquill missed the contact portion of spring ball, Shumate rose to the occasion, and the spot is currently his. Tranquill will doubtless see ample time in various roles.

5th-year Senior Transfer, S Avery Sebastian
-- Current Perception: Veteran presence as a graduate transfer
-- Production: Sebastian started six of the 33 games he played for California during an injury-plagued career, recording 96 total tackles with two picks, two tackles for loss, a trio of passes defended and a forced fumble.
-- 2015 Projection: A backup role in the secondary; a starting role on the Irish run teams; a starting role in certain defensive packages.
-- Confidence in that Projection: Medium
-- Perceived Weakness: Injury-prone and – unrelated – Sebastian is yet another in-the-box safety at a program blessed with but one veteran to serve at free safety in 2015.
-- The Bottom Line: Sebastian will lend depth, a veteran presence, and likely bring the hammer down on a handful of ball carriers this fall, but his impact is not expected to be on par with that of Cody Riggs, the program’s graduate transfer of 2014.

Sophomore CB Nick Watkins
-- Current Perception: No. 3 cornerback slated for perimeter duties
-- Production: Appeared in 11 games as a true freshman special teamer but did not record a tackle.
-- 2015 Projection: In a reserve role, Watkins should lend a hand to the team’s nickel defense, allowing potential star KeiVarae Russell to move inside against slot receivers as necessary.
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: Strength in run support, which isn’t unusual for an underclassman at the position.
-- The Bottom Line: Watkins is – it is to be hoped – a year away from a starting role, but his coverage ability should provide either Russell or Cole Luke respite over the course of a long season. If he can hold his own on the perimeter, VanGorder can use Russell and the aforementioned Matthias Farley in myriad nickel and dime roles.

Freshman NT Jerry Tillery
-- Current Perception: Future starter on the nose
-- Production: N/A, though Tillery led the squad in both coaching staff and Irish Illustrated podcast mentions as an early enrollee in the spring.
-- 2015 Projection: Ideally Tillery will provide weekly support on the nose behind senior Jarron Jones.
-- Confidence in that Projection: Medium
-- Perceived Weakness: At present, only experience. Then again, rookies tend to show their warts when the bullets go live in September more so than in the press conferences of April and August.
-- The Bottom Line: Notre Dame was without a quality backup on the nose last season and it presented as a debilitating weakness during an 0-4 November. The athletic, preternaturally talented Tillery could be a godsend in 2015 – provided he doesn’t have to start.

Sophomore DE Jay Hayes
-- Current Perception: The guy robbed of his freshman redshirt
-- Production: Hayes was thrown to the wolves in Game 11 last season then was injured in Game 12 at USC and played sparingly in the bowl game. Was it a wasted season of eligibility? Yes. But it was likely necessary from a coaching perspective as Notre Dame could have beaten Louisville (Hayes’ debut in Game 11) due in part to his efforts.
-- 2015 Projection: A backup performance similar to that of redshirt-freshman Tony Springmann in 2012.
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: A ticking eligibility clock?
-- The Bottom Line: Hayes should start as a junior and senior in South Bend, but the 2015 season will be spent in support of starter Sheldon Day and perhaps lending a hand at defensive end should the Irish fall short in the reserve ranks behind Isaac Rochell.

Note: Tomorrow’s edition will flip sides of scrimmage to feature the Top 10 offensive players crucial to the 2015 cause.

IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories