It’s the annual tradeoff facing any intermittent contender: some Decembers – those that follow less-than-successful Autumns – offer a glimpse at a program’s future stars, while others, the ones that follow 10- and 11-win regular seasons, evolve more into a continuation of the task at hand.
Beginning Friday, and for the second time in his six seasons at the helm, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will prepare Notre Dame for a marquee bowl game. Winning is paramount and thus building for the future will have to wait until some time after the snow (it is to be hoped) melts away in South Bend.
“Look, we lost our last game, and nobody wants to end their season on a loss,” said Kelly. “They want to end it on a win. So the preparation for this game and its focus will be about preparing to win the football game.”
But at least a sampling of the 10-to-12 practices that precede Notre Dame’s trip to the Desert for a matchup with defending national champion Ohio State will include work from the not-yet-ready-for-prime time members of the Fighting Irish.
Previous bowl preparation periods have yielded the names of relative rookies Louis Nix and (senior-to-be) Jonas Gray in 2010, Jarrett Grace and C.J. Prosise in 2012 (as the squad prepared to face Alabama), Torii Hunter, Jr., and Durham Smythe in 2013, and last winter, Alex Bars, Quenton Nelson, and Jonathan Bonner.
Who among the current scout teamers will take steps forward this month before the Irish regulars re-assimilate to game mode?
ALWAYS ON HIS MIND
A few future contributors were on the cusp of cracking the varsity at the tail end of August camp according to Kelly and it’s reasonable to believe their ascent has continued:
Miles Boykin: What happens when you’re the seventh option on a team with five established pass-catchers and a sixth that pulls slightly ahead from your own class? You redshirt, of course. But Boykin’s previous work will afford him a shot at reps at the W position this December and his frame (listed at six-foot-three and half-inch, 225 pounds, and he seems much more imposing in pads) should aid his cause next spring.
Starter Chris Brown graduates and senior-to-be Corey Robinson took a pair of steps back this season, which provides Boykin a chance to win the job or at least earn his fair share of future reps – especially if his aforementioned classmate Equanimeous St. Brown remains at the X spot, behind (or replacing) Will Fuller.
Tristen Hoge: The Irish are in search of their center of the future and Hoge is the roster’s only natural at the position. More important, he received second-team reps in August in case starter Nick Martin was lost to injury. His one-on-one battle against Sam Mustipher will likely begin next week as Martin paces himself during the early portion of bowl prep.
Buried behind certain starters and set-in-stone two-deep competitors from the outset last August, each of the athletes below has a chance to crack the Irish two-deep next spring…and next fall.
Asmar Bilal: Assuming Jaylon Smith takes his act to the next level, the undersized Bilal will enter spring ball as Te’Von Coney’s chief challenger on the weak side. Bilal has the skill set to show well in rookie scrimmage this month when 22-year-old, fully developed offensive linemen (stressing “men”) aren’t barreling down on him.
An intriguing talent, Bilal could switch to the strong side to backup James Onwualu should the staff decide to return Greer Martini to Smith’s vacated WLB position.
Mykelti Williams: At minimum, a two-deep safety role appears to be Williams immediate future (others included Max Redfield, Drue Tranquill, Avery Sebastian), and if Kelly’s camp comments offer any future indication, Williams could earn second-season playing from scrimmage – and not merely due to a veteran’s injury.
Drilling down to the future three-deep, but not without cause:
Josh Barajas: Reported to camp out of shape, suffered multiple injuries early, and never had a shot to compete for even a three-deep role entering the regular season. But he’s a rugged player, and with Joe Schmidt, *Jarrett Grace, and *Jaylon Smith all likely gone after January 1, he’ll get his shot sooner rather than later.
“Within the last week or so, he’s beginning to catch our eye as to what we saw from him last year,” said Kelly of Barajas in mid-October. “He just came in a little bit bigger than we had scheduled him for a particular position.”
Elijah Taylor: Mentioned as potential varsity player by Kelly in early September (that was a contingency in case of injury to multiple DL starters, a reality that bit the Irish in both 2013 and 2014), Taylor will get his chance next week while the injured (Jarron Jones), recovering (Daniel Cage), and rookie (Jerry Tillery) members of the unit work their way back into game shape before attempting to peak in late December.
(*Grace an apply for a sixth season; Smith can choose to forgo the NFL for one more season.)
Ashton White: Cole Luke returns on the right side but with the expected exit of KeiVarae Russell, the left cornerback spot and in turn the nickel role remain there for the taking. Nick Coleman and Nick Watkins have the upper hand, and injured freshman Shaun Crawford was a full head above that pair prior to tearing his ACL in August, but White fared well early before tailing off a bit late. His reps this month could prove invaluable to his cause heading into winter conditioning.
PAST DECEMBER “STARS”
Over the next two weeks, Kelly will invariably be asked who among his young charges “jumped out at him” during recent practices. Past responses to this repetitive query include:
2010 Bowl Prep: Louis Nix, Kendall Moore, Cameron Roberson, Andrew Hendrix, Daniel Smith, Jonas Gray
2011 Bowl Prep: DaVaris Daniels
2012 Bowl Prep: Jarrett Grace, C.J. Prosise, Gunner Kiel
2013 Bowl Prep: Torii Hunter, Jr. and Durham Smythe
2014 Bowl Prep: Alex Bars, Quenton Nelson, Jonathan Bonner