Potential vs. Production, Part 4

Our fourth of five camp capsules discusses another 10 of Brian Kelly’s most important offensive players for 2015 including a trio of true freshmen.

Now two seasons removed from its run to the BCS Championship Game, Notre Dame’s 2015 roster will be guided in large part by the scores of newcomers that earned invaluable experience in both the 2013 and 2014 seasons.

Below is a collection of 10 part-time and first-time offensive starters plus a handful of key reserves for the upcoming campaign, each of whom is expected to play a major part in the program’s success and/or setbacks this fall.

5th-year Senior WR Amir Carlisle
-- Current Perception: A weapon…when healthy
-- Production: Eight of his 23 receptions covered 20 or more yards and all five of Carlisle’s third-down receptions resulted in a first down (4) or touchdown (1) last fall.
-- 2015 Projection: Starting slot receiver and starting kick returner
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: Playing through injury (not pain, but injuries). Carlisle started hot last season, catching each of the first 12 passes thrown in his direction including a pair of touchdowns. A knee injury suffered against Purdue caused him to miss the ensuing contest (Syracuse Sept. 26) but his next impact performance didn’t occur until the Irish traveled to Tempe on November 8.
-- The Bottom Line: Carlisle was tabbed by Kelly as the best wide receiver of the 2015 spring session and there’s little doubt receiving the lion’s share of reps with C.J. Prosise operating from the offensive backfield rather than in the slot aided Carlisle’s development. A healthy Carlisle will see the vast majority of snaps in the slot this season with support from Torii Hunter, Jr., and incoming weapon C.J. Sanders (both previewed below).

Of note: Carlisle is again expected to return kicks this fall and with better blocking, look for him to shine in that role.

Sophomore G Quenton Nelson
-- Current Perception: Four-year starter at guard. Mauler.
-- Production: N/A as Nelson was withheld from action as a true freshman last fall.
-- 2015 Projection: In good health, 13 consecutive starts at left guard though he’ll likely cede a series or two to classmate Alex Bars in an attempt to get the unit’s “sixth man” game experience. (More on Bars below.)
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: Inexperience and it’s fair to say Nelson is better prepared to line up and pound the defender in front of him than getting out in space and securing linebackers at the second level. Both are instrumental to a run-first offense. 
-- The Bottom Line: Nelson’s stock will never be higher among Irish fans than it is this pre-season. That’s not a knock on the youngster, merely a nod to the reality that offensive linemen – even the best of the best such as Zack Martin – aren’t appreciated for their weekly work. Nelson will miss a block or two vs. Texas and Virginia, it’ll be pointed out by the game’s color commentator, and the bloom will inevitably be off the rose.

But it’s a good bet his rookie season, taken in the aggregate, will be the most impressive since Martin’s redshirt-freshman campaign in 2010.

Senior WR Chris Brown
-- Current Perception: Senior underachiever, part-time starter
-- Production: Hauled in 39 receptions on 72 targets including eight grabs in excess of 20 yards while drawing five pass interference calls, good for second on the squad behind Will Fuller’s remarkable eight. (As a point of comparison, Tyler Eifert collected six in 2012.)
-- 2015 Projection: Starting wide receiver opposite Fuller and a relative breakout season.
-- Confidence in that Projection: Medium
-- Perceived Weakness: Doesn’t create yards after the catch. 
-- The Bottom Line: Brown is more effective than most realize but not as good as his head coach forecasted prior to 2014. It was evident Brown pressed early last season after being thrust into the contrived role of “go-to” receiver in the absence of DaVaris Daniels. That mantle was seized instead by Fuller and Brown fell into lockstep as a member of the deep supporting cast thereafter.

As the season progressed, Brown showed improvement as both a blocker (where he’s underrated, though he tends to get flagged for holding) and consistent pass-catcher, settling into the latter role with just one drop in his final seven games (four prior).

A senior season in which Brown finishes second to Fuller in every meaningful receiving category is plausible.

Freshman K Justin Yoon
-- Current Perception: In Yoon We Trust
-- Production: N/A – the true freshman ranked as the nation’s No. 1 placekicker prospect in 2015.
-- 2015 Projection: Starting kicker
-- Confidence in that Projection: Couldn’t be higher
-- Perceived Weakness: We’ll find out soon
-- The Bottom Line: The list of highly touted prep place-kickers to fail at the college level is long and distinguished, but Yoon’s qualifications are second-to-none. If he’s not a four-year starter at the position it likely means Notre Dame last more than a couple games it should have won because of his late-game efforts.

Sophomore G/T Alex Bars
-- Current Perception: Future starter; 2015 backup at four positions
-- Production: N/A –
-- 2015 Projection: First man in at LT, LG, RG, and RT and a part-time member of the rotation at left guard, spelling Nelson
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: Not as physically powerful as is Nelson and likely better suited to play tackle due to his ability to play in short space.
-- The Bottom Line: Bars battled with Nelson at left guard throughout the spring and the common (media) belief is that Nelson won the role with Bars slated to take over for Ronnie Stanley at tackle in 2016. The redshirt-freshman appears a teammate’s injury away from prime time action at four of the line’s five positions. Meaningful backup work – something similar to that of redshirt-freshman Chris Watt in 2010 – is nearly guaranteed, regardless.

Junior WR Torii Hunter, Jr.
-- Current Perception: Two-sport participant in search of a role
-- Production: Came all the way back from a gruesome January 2013 broken leg (femur) and a 2014 August camp groin tear to contribute in the season’s final 10 games, catching seven passes on 10 targets including a chain-mover on third down against Stanford and one week prior, his first career touchdown, against Syracuse –  on his first career reception.
-- 2015 Projection: Backup to Carlisle in the slot and to Fuller at the X spot, though he won’t be officially listed as the first man in at both.
-- Confidence in that Projection: High
-- Perceived Weakness: What’s his greatest strength at present?
-- The Bottom Line: The question above is relevant (and not at all in jest): What does Hunter do well that distinguishes him from the four more trusted targets on the squad? (Fuller, Carlisle, Brown and Corey Robinson.) Did the aforementioned injuries rob him of his quickness? Does baseball limit his focus on football? Can he carve a niche in Year 3 (though to be fair to Hunter, it’s more like Year 2)?

Kelly was exceptionally high on Hunter prior to his groin tear last August. It’ll be interesting to see if the redshirt-sophomore regains that status by the conclusion of 2015 camp.

Freshman TE Aliz’e Jones
-- Current Perception: Notre Dame’s most intriguing tight end prospect since Kyle Rudolph or perhaps Derek Brown. 
-- Production: N/A – the five-star talent is Notre Dame’s best overall prospect since, though perhaps not including, Jaylon Smith in 2013.
-- 2015 Projection: Impact in the passing game as a detached tight end
-- Confidence in that Projection: Medium
-- Perceived Weakness: Hey, those aren’t high school defensive backs hitting me!
-- The Bottom Line: He won’t beat out starter Durham Smythe, and despite Jones’ frame, he’s not going to immediately take to blocking at the collegiate level. And Notre Dame already has a rookie tight end that can beat defenders as a detached target.

But Jones could be special and sooner rather than later. And it’s likely he’ll show his wares in the passing game this fall. The question is: which teammate comes off the field in third down situations?

Junior RB Greg Bryant
-- Current Perception: Underachiever
-- Production: Posted a 61-yard punt return against Louisville plus an 18-yarder vs. Rice – at issue are the nine games played in between. Registered a rushing score against Rice, North Carolina, and USC – at issue are the four and five games betwixt, respectively.
-- 2015 Projection: Second-half of the season contributor
-- Confidence in that Projection: Low
-- Perceived Weakness: The first four yards belong to him instead of the offensive line. To quote former Holtz-era running backs coach Earle Mosley: “The first four yards are mine, what you do with the rest is up to you.” Bryant, like myriad highly regarded prep runners before him, did not adhere to that time-tested credo as sophomore.
-- The Bottom Line: Bryant’s four-game suspension to start the season is setback No. 3 in his three seasons at the program (knee in 2013, ankle in 2014). Considering his first game back is at Clemson in Death Valley – not the ideal matchup to return to the fold – it’s likely Irish fans won’t see Bryant as a member of the game plan until Game Six against Navy. What happens in the seven outings that follow will be the most important stretch of his collegiate career.

Of note: I’d argue the transfer of Everett Golson could serve as a saving grace to Bryant’s 2015 campaign, for with Golson in the mix, whether he received 25, 50, or 75 percent of the snaps in congress with Malik Zaire, the Irish would have inevitably passed more than they will without the strong-armed righty.

The new-look run-first Notre Dame offense could aid Bryant’s growth upon his return.

Sophomore TE Tyler Luatua
-- Current Perception: Jumbo package blocker
-- Production: Notre Dame’s two tight end sets weren’t consistently effective until the post-season Music City Bowl, a game in which Luatua in part aide a rushing attack that registered 263 yards and three scores via the ground.
-- 2015 Projection: Motion and in-line tight end in certain game matchups and in most short yardage situations
-- Confidence in that Projection: Medium
-- Perceived Weakness: Ball skills
-- The Bottom Line: Luatua’s playing time as a sophomore depends on two factors: Notre Dame’s commitment to the run and his effectiveness as a blocker thereafter. He has ample room to grown and improve to ensure a consistent role this fall.

Freshman Punt Returner C.J. Sanders
-- Current Perception: Electric return man
-- Production: As special teams coordinator Scott Booker noted of Sanders as a punt return prospect “Have you seen his high school film? (Impressive). Now we need to see him do that against college players.”
-- 2015 Projection: Starting punt returner beginning in late September
-- Confidence in that Projection: Medium
-- Perceived Weakness: Notre Dame doesn’t – what’s the phrase I’m searching for – oh yeah, “block well” for its return men. 
-- The Bottom Line: Sanders unique ability to make others miss and hit full speed upon his second step affords him a chance to earn the starting punt return role from the outset, especially with Greg Bryant no longer a September option. At present, it seems to be Sanders vs. star receiver Will Fuller for the role, and Fuller needs to rest somewhere.

Note: For the first three editions of our camp capsules, click the links below. The conclusion of the series will be posted Friday.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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