Potential vs. Production: Part 3

Our camp preview capsules continue with Notre Dame’s 10 highest-profile offensive players.

Monday morning we began to identify and preview 50 of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s most important players for the 2015 season. The first 20 highlighted among that half-hundred work on the defensive side of scrimmage. (Part 1 | Part 2)

Today, we turn our attention to the offense, beginning with the 10 highest-profile players on the unit including a pair of potential All-Americans.

Junior WR Will Fuller
-- Current Perception: Notre Dame’s best playmaker and a top 10 receiver nationally 
-- Production: Tied a program-record with 15 touchdown receptions last season. Led the team in receiving yards, total yards, receptions, touchdowns, first downs accrued, pass targets, (drops) and most other relevant categories.
-- 2015 Projection: The team’s top playmaker for the second straight season, though a potential run-heavy offense could lower his target total from the 119 opportunities he received last season.
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: Not fond of blocking, a pre-requisite of the position if the Irish feature the run more in 2015. 
-- The Bottom Line: Aside from a (admitted) poor attitude against USC, nothing stopped Will Fuller last season. He was a playmaking force and even impacted wins over North Carolina and Navy when the coaches felt he wasn’t fully engaged.

Senior OT Ronnie Stanley
-- Current Perception: 2016 first-round NFL Draft pick.
-- Production: Twenty-six consecutive starts at tackle including 13 on the left side last fall, a position in which he rates as a pre-season All-American entering his senior year.
-- 2015 Projection: Look for Stanley to post one of the four top single seasons by an offensive lineman (Martin in 2012 and ’13, and 2002 center Jeff Faine) of the new millennium.
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: His internal fire needed to be stoked whereas it burned continuously for aforementioned program greats Martin and Faine. 
-- The Bottom Line: Stanley is one of four Irish players (Fuller, Jaylon Smith, and KeiVarae Russell) with the physical skill set to rank as the nation’s best overall player at his position this season. Though the sky is the limit regarding his future (both 2015 and into a decade-long NFL career), he’s been only “good” as a college tackle with the notable exception of the last game he’s played – a dominant effort, both between the lines and in the locker room/sidelines against LSU.

5th-Year Senior C Nick Martin
-- Current Perception: The best is yet to come
-- Production: Has started 24 of Notre Dame’s last 26 contests despite suffering a serious knee injury (November 2014) and tearing ligaments in his thumb.
-- 2015 Projection: Notre Dame’s most effective center, from season’s outset to conclusion, since John Sullivan in 2005.
-- Confidence in that Projection: Medium
-- Perceived Weakness: Inconsistency between the whistles relative to a two-year starter and team captain. (For instance, Martin was outstanding vs. Florida State and was bundled when it mattered most against Louisville a month later.)
-- The Bottom Line: Good health is paramount and if blessed with that, Martin should leave South Bend on a high note. He’s a dedicated team leader and versatile interior blocker who should conclude the season as the team’s second-best player up front.

Junior RB Tarean Folston
-- Current Perception: On the cusp
-- Production: Finished his sophomore season with five games in excess of 90 rushing yards over the final eight weeks, scoring eight touchdowns in that span. Eight of his 10 carries on third down moved the chains last fall.
-- 2015 Projection: A career-best five yards per rush and something in the neighborhood of 1,000 yards and 10 total touchdowns.
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: Pass protection as evidenced by the Debacle in the Desert.
-- The Bottom Line: A fully focused Folston should be the unquestioned No. 1 running back for an Irish offense that will ideally utilize two, if not three runners to keep Folston fresh for the stretch run. If Folston and C.J. Prosise (previewed below) are considered even on the depth chart exiting August Camp, I’ll question Notre Dame’s player development at the position. (That’s not a shot at Prosise, a neophyte to the position.) It’s time for Folston to prove over the next two seasons that he should be considered the best ‘back of the Kelly era.

Junior QB Malik Zaire
-- Current Perception: Captain Jack Sparrow to the rescue
-- Production: Won the hearts of Irish fans with a 96-yard rushing afternoon in Nashville, one highlighted by three touchdowns: rushing, passing, and blocking (for Folston).
-- 2015 Projection: Playoff contention. What else matters?
-- Confidence in that Projection: Medium
-- Perceived Weakness: Consistency in the short- and mid-range passing game; experience
-- The Bottom Line: The most important player on the team and thus, you could argue, for the future of the Kelly era. The 2015 squad will house more developed and developing talent than will the 2016 (or likely the 2017) edition. The time is now and Zaire must stand and deliver. Barring injury, Zaire’s development over the next two seasons will play a large role in defining Kelly’s legacy in South Bend.

Senior RB C.J. Prosise
-- Current Perception: Spring Star
-- Production: A combined 13 receptions/rushes in excess of 20 yards last season including three of more than 40 that accounted for each of his three touchdowns.
-- 2015 Projection: Including the quarterback, one of the four most important skill position players for the Irish offense.
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: Not a natural pass-catcher and a neophyte in the backfield.
-- The Bottom Line: There’s not a more intriguing – not to mention versatile and athletically gifted – player on the squad than Prosise, a player that could serve as the No. 2 free safety (had he remained in the defensive backfield), slot receiver, and running back. A senior with two years of eligibility remaining, Prosise is again forced to grow his game at a position foreign to him, a reality accelerated (and likely brought about) by the four-game suspension of teammate Greg Bryant.

Prosise’s ceiling for 2015 isn’t far short of offensive MVP, but unlike others in that rarified air (Fuller, Folston, Zaire), Prosise has yet to determine a skill set on which he can hang his hat.

Junior G Steve Elmer
-- Current Perception: Road-grading offensive guard
-- Production: Has started 17 games over his first two seasons including 13 straight, 10 at right guard after an ill-advised dalliance at right tackle to begin 2014.
-- 2015 Projection: Starting right guard (through 2016)
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: Footwork, both in pass protection and a tendency to lunge in space (the latter offered by Kelly last fall).
-- The Bottom Line: Elmer was good enough to contribute to a solid offensive line as a true freshman but serves as an example as to why freshman should be withheld from action at the position whenever possible. Elmer the senior (2016) and would-be 5th-year player (2017) could have ranked among the nation’s best. Instead, he’s halfway through his eligibility.

Solid as the 2014 season progressed but not yet a distinguished player up front as a sophomore, Elmer the junior is a bit of an X-factor on Harry Hiestand’s offensive line. That is, he’ll start, he’ll likely do well, but can he turn into a run-blocking force? If the season’s end result is the latter, Notre Dame’s offensive line will rank among the nation’s best.

Junior WR Corey Robinson
-- Current Perception: Red zone weapon
-- Production: Second on the squad in receptions (39), targets (75), and touchdown grabs (5).
-- 2015 Projection: With Fuller clearly No. 1, Robinson is wide receiver No. 2B behind/alongside senior Chris Brown.
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: Consistency across the board: getting out of his break, catching the ball (five drops last season), competing against top corners for 60 minutes, etc.
-- The Bottom Line: Robinson appeared to turn the corner last season in mid-October when he ranked as one of the best players on the field at Florida State – a game chock full of future NFL talent. He didn’t stagnate thereafter he regressed. The Irish offense needs a more consistent Robinson to reach its potential in 2015, and if he doesn’t show improvement from the spring, he’ll likely again cede time to senior target Chris Brown. 

Junior RT Mike McGlinchey
-- Current Perception: Starting tackle for 2015, 2016, and 2017
-- Production: One start (LSU) and myriad special teams performances as a redshirt-freshman who played in all 13 games last fall.
-- 2015 Projection: Starting right tackle and, relative to his experience, an impact player in the running game.
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: Inexperience. McGlinchey has good feet, an enviable frame and attitude, and a mean streak between the whistles. At some point, he’ll be great, not just good – but he has to be the latter for 13 games this fall.  
-- The Bottom Line: An inexperienced tackle is protecting the blind side of Notre Dame’s most important player this fall. While McGlinchey will doubtless shine after locking up with a defender, it’s his play in free space against speed rushers that could determine the team’s fortunes – vis-a’-vis Malik Zaire’s well being – this fall.

Junior TE Durham Smythe
-- Current Perception: The next link in Tight End U’s remarkable chain
-- Production: One reception (it moved the chains in the Desert) and very little playing time from scrimmage.
-- 2015 Projection: Starting tight end
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: Considering graduated senior Ben Koyack’s improvement entering 2014, it’s fair to surmise Smythe enters 2015 as the least consistent blocker at the position since Kyle Rudolph held the role as a freshman in 2008 – and Rudolph was an unparalleled weapon in the passing game.
-- The Bottom Line: Tight end has proven not only to be an invaluable weapon during the Kelly era (Rudolph to Tyler Eifert to Troy Niklas to Ben Koyack, who led the team in total snaps last fall) but also a position that rarely comes off the field. (In other words, the Irish rarely go four-wide in obvious passing situations; they go three-wide and detach the tight end.)

Can Smythe maintain a consistent level of play to ensure such a role over Notre Dame’s myriad wide receivers? Can he hold off incoming freshman Aliz’e Jones in detached mode and sophomore Tyler Luatua when the Irish look to pound it on the ground? The guess here is yes to both, and that Smythe will shine at times in 2015, but for the first time since the middle of the Tyrone Willingham era, Notre Dame’s tight end isn’t, on paper, a sure thing.

Note: On tap in the Potential vs. Production series: two more handfuls of key offensive players, only two of whom have started a college game.

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