This freshman class was supposed to be a complement to Notre Dame’s push toward the College Football Playoff. It’s played out that way.
Justin Yoon was the biggest lock for playing time considering Brian Kelly named him Notre Dame’s starting kicker on National Signing Day. After an inconsistent start, Yoon has hit 18 straight attempts (five field goals, 13 extra points).
Roles for Jerry Tillery an Alize’ Jones were less defined but almost as certain, even before season-ending injuries to Jarron Jones and Durham Smythe. Tillery has logged 241 real defensive snaps, which trails Sheldon Day (409), Isaac Rochell (429) and Romeo Okwara (263) at the position. Jones has started three games and leads all tight ends among targets with 14.
But there’s more for Notre Dame in the freshman class, which includes one particular red-shirt freshman for the sake of discussion. None of these five players can challenge for starting roles, but if the Irish can get just a little bit more from this group in the final five games it could make the difference between running the table and the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Equanimeous St. Brown
When Equanimeous St. Brown blocked that punt against USC it was a first game day glimpse of the athleticism he showed throughout training camp.
St. Brown remains stuck behind Will Fuller, the offensive equivalent of being stuck behind Jaylon Smith on defense. No matter what St. Brown does, it won’t be enough to jump Fuller, although Brian Kelly rates the freshman wide out highly.
“I think (St. Brown) would start for a number of Power 5 teams,” Kelly said. “He's ready to play right now. I'm just not taking Will off the field unless I have to.”
Could Notre Dame use the bye to get St. Brown reps behind Chris Brown and Corey Robinson? Could the Irish add a true four-wide set into the offense? That could make St. Brown a factor. That would also break Kelly’s trends, where the tight end and running back never come off the field. If the Irish stick with playing only three receivers at once, St. Brown has little chance.
Notre Dame hasn’t played a snap of nickel defense since the Massachusetts game. With Brian VanGorder either unwilling or just terrified of his secondary options, it’s time for some of the program’s young talent to make him a believer. Clearly, the training camp hype around Devin Butler has evaporated. That makes Nick Coleman the next man in.
If the freshman can convince the staff he’s worthy of time it would give the Irish defense a new flexibility and eliminate some of the awkwardness of the USC weekend. VanGorder was so short of options that he asked Romeo Okwara to play man-to-man against 6-foot, 170-pound slot receiver Deontay Burnett. He hit him for a 28-yard gain.
Notre Dame’s vanishing nickel defense traces back to Shaun Crawford’s pre-season ACL tear that bumped KeiVarae Russell into the slot and elevated Butler into that first unit. It hasn’t worked out that way. If Coleman can play his way into spot duty in nickel it would give the defense a new flexibility.
During the spring and summer Brian Kelly was up front that Notre Dame lacked a singular pass rushing talent. He was right. Romeo Okwara leads the Irish with three sacks, but that doesn’t mean he’s a terror for quarterbacks. His sack against USC came on the game’s penultimate play after Sheldon Day moved Cody Kessler off his spot. That let Okwara reach out and grab the quarterback. Right place, right time.
Jonathan Bonner has played just 43 real defensive snaps this season and logged just two against USC. In games against Virginia, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Navy and USC combined, Bonner has played just six snaps. If Bonner can become a five-snap player the next five weeks it might give the Irish a legitimate third down pass rush specialist.
The red-shirt freshman doesn’t need to crack the rotation on 1st-and-10, he just needs to give the Irish a spark on 3rd-and-long.d
If trends continue, C.J. Prosise will crush the high-carry mark by a running back during the Kelly era. The senior is on pace for a 239-carry season and the school record for rushing yardage. For now, Cierre Wood’s 217 carries during the 2011 season represent the most by an Irish back in the past six-plus seasons, and that’s by a wide margin. The five backs who led the Irish in carries under Kelly (Wood ’10, Wood ’11, Theo Riddick ’12, Cam McDaniel ’13 and Tarean Folston ’14) averaged 170.6 carries.
Josh Adams can reduce some of Prosise’s workload, now to the point he wears a no-contact jersey in practice. Adams is on pace for just 63 rushing attempts this season, the least by a No. 2 back under Kelly. From 2010-12, Notre Dame’s second back went over 100 carries each time.
Considering Adams is averaging 7.8 yards per carry, there’s obvious talent in the freshman. Getting him more touches can help save Prosise through November, including that date at Stanford.
No, this isn’t a call for Notre Dame to run a two-quarterback system with DeShone Kizer and Brandon Wimbush. But in an ideal world Brian Kelly would use the next four games to work the freshman quarterback into some live situations with his career limited to the Massachusetts game to date. Making that happen means Notre Dame must get a handle on Temple, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and Boston College, four opponents that shouldn’t be able to keep up with the Irish offensively.
Wimbush’s skill set is a mix of Kizer and Malik Zaire, a pass-first quarterback who’s naturally skilled at running the zone read. Odds are Kelly would like to see more of that ideal world running his offense to prepare him for an interesting off-season quarterback competition. With the red-shirt already off, it’s worth a deeper look at the four-star freshman.