Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Overcoming the Exits

Notre Dame has lost four top tier players with remaining eligibility in 2016 and a fifth is likely to follow. Irish Illustrated ranks and breaks down the departures of each while offering unsolicited advice for the 2016 calendar year.

WLB JAYLON SMITH
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

With his official decision regarding NFL riches still pending, Notre Dame is expected to lose its best football player, a team captain, and a once-a-decade (at most) athletic difference-maker. Less obvious than his on field impact is this reality: Jaylon Smith is cool, athletic, and an impact player – that resonated with recruits. Notre Dame isn’t always viewed as “Cool,” but Smith made them exactly that.

-- The Replacements: Smith’s weak side successors include sophomore-to-be Te’Von Coney, redshirt-freshman Asmar Bilal, and potentially redshirt-freshman Josh Barajas and junior Greer Martini, the latter a strong side ‘backer in 2015 but Smith’s backup on the weak side in 2014.

-- On the Bright Side: Martini is a fallback plan, a heady player that’s undervalued athletically (just don’t compare him to Smith) that can start at each of the three linebacker positions in the short term. Ideally, he’ll remain as part of a strong-side tandem with James Onwualu and as a trusted backup – the de facto “fourth-man in” among the position’s trio of spot.

Coney earned time this season as a special teams regular while Bilal has the speed and quickness to excel vs. modern spread offenses.

-- Harsh Reality: Coney suffered a severe shoulder injury and per our sources, will be out of action until August camp (or more directly, through the spring). Bilal lacks ballast to hold up inside at present while Barajas toiled through 2015 with too much.

-- Unsolicited Advice: Rather than plug the reliable Martini in as Smith’s replacement this spring, the staff should find out what it has in Bilal and Barajas, allowing the duo to duel for 15 practices with Coney out of action. Martini will contribute throughout 2016 in some capacity, both as a special teams regular and crucial cog at scrimmage.

WR WILL FULLER
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

This one hurts. Lost with Fuller’s defection is the offense’s top playmaker – in both 2014 and 2015 – its top game-breaker, its most consistent receiver and producer, and the lone perimeter player that makes every cog in the offensive machinery more difficult to contend with merely because of his presence on the field.

A reasonable argument can be made that Fuller is the team’s most valuable player – on either side of scrimmage – two years running.

-- The Replacements: Specifically at his X (field) position, sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown and redshirt-sophomore Corey Holmes. Included in the mix will be redshirt-junior slot/X Torii Hunter, Jr., and likely W (boundary) candidates Corey Robinson, redshirt-freshman Miles Boykin, and perhaps former wide receiver turned running back, redshirt-sophomore Justin Brent.

Neither Brent nor Holmes appeared in a contest in 2015 after both playing throughout their 2014 freshmen seasons. Of the players above, only Robinson exhausts his eligibility at season’s end.

Sophomore-to-be slot receiver C.J. Sanders is the least likely to get a look at the X. Incoming freshman Kevin Stepherson has a chance to make an impact with his potential early enrollment this month.

-- On the Bright Side: Wide receiver is the easiest position to replace on a modern football team, especially with Notre Dame’s depth and situation at quarterback. Hunter is a savvy player that could surprise nationally in 2016 as a possession receiver capable of big plays and Robinson has done it before. Should he refocus and merely be as productive as he was in 2014 it would be a boon to the offense.

The sophomore trio of Sanders, St. Brown, and Boykin is chock full of promise. 

-- Harsh Reality: There is NO CHANCE the Irish are better off without Fuller. None. Notre Dame’s passing game overall could be more efficient in 2016 than it was in 2015, but that’s a function of the quarterback play, not the wide receivers collectively. Fuller made everything better, and his ability to strike from long range was unrivaled nationally and in Notre Dame history.

-- Unsolicited Spring Advice: Line up Hunter at every position (X, W, and Z/Slot) in an effort to allow St. Brown (X), Sanders (Z), and Robinson/Boykin (W) to develop with ample reps in the spring.

Hunter is capable of playing all three positions and by his own words, is already comfortable at Z and X. The spring will allow him to grow as a player while younger players are developed and fit into ideal roles. (Hunter is the only no-doubt starter among the unit for 2016, and he’ll play everywhere.)

Additionally, find out if Justin Brent and Corey Holmes can be part of the game day plan for 2015 through their performances in March and April.

LT RONNIE STANLEY
USA Today Sports Images

The second-best offensive linemen of the six-season Brian Kelly era, Stanley is poised to be picked among the Top 10 in April’s NFL Draft. Stanley wasn’t expected to return at any point during the 2015 season but he nonetheless had a fifth-year of eligibility remaining due to a September elbow injury in 2012, his freshman season.

-- The Replacements: Candidates include left guard (but projected tackle) Alex Bars, technical backup Hunter Bivin, and right-side starter Mike McGlinchey. In terms of eligibility, Bars has three, Bivin two, and McGlinchey two seasons remaining, respectively. Others include

-- On the Bright Side: Bars projects well to the position and has the feet of a natural left tackle. McGlinchey could flip sides but Kelly has stated the need for a “blind-side” protector isn’t important in his offense (modern spread offenses). As well, quarterback Malik Zaire could start instead of DeShone Kizer, and Zaire is left-handed.

-- Harsh Reality: Bivin has yet to distinguish and Bars would be learning on the job at left tackle – that’s a massive drop-off after two seasons of Stanley and four of NFL All Pro Zack Martin.

-- Unsolicited Advice: Don’t move McGlinchey, it’s pointless and potentially weakens two positions – the right side due to his absence and the left side as he attempts to learn new techniques. Instead pit Bars vs. Bivin in the spring, with Bars at a bit of a disadvantage after suffering a broken ankle in mid-October. Additionally, if McGlinchey is asked to move, don’t make it “an experiment.” That’s wasted practice time.

CB KEIVARAE RUSSELL
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Though not as advertised – in his own words or those of the Irish Illustrated staff – the senior cornerback was the team’s best all around cornerback in 2015, making a major difference in run support throughout the campaign while providing game-changing big plays in wins over Virginia (a sack/FF late) and USC (securing one pick, creating another). Notre Dame loses an athlete and potential star fifth-year performer though the staff expected 2015 to be Russell’s last season in South Bend.

-- The Replacements: With senior Cole Luke entrenched as the starter at right cornerback, Russell leaves behind a quintet to duke it out in his stead: senior Devin Butler, junior Nick Watkins, sophomore Nick Coleman, and redshirt-freshmen Shaun Crawford and Ashton White.

-- On the Bright Side: Butler showed promise late, Watkins fared well against Ohio State in his only extended action, and Coleman has impressed since Day One of August Camp though he played sparingly this fall. Injured in mid-August, Crawford is an ideal nickel candidate while Ashton White showed well in early August before falling a touch behind his competitors.

-- Harsh Reality: None of the players I noted in the paragraph above have played well in consecutive contests. In other words, inconsistency reigns.

-- Unsolicited Advice: Butler vs. Watkins vs. Coleman in the spring with the bronze medalist moving to RCB in August to lend consistent backup reps behind certain-starter Luke. Allow Crawford to work primarily at the nickel where he has a chance to be an immediate impact player in 2016 and a future star. Considering the nickel package is the base defense for many modern college defenses, the Irish lose nothing by keeping Crawford at a position in which he shined in 2015 August Camp.

For those concerned with semantics, consider the following three-deep for the spring:

-- RCB: Luke, Crawford/White
-- LCB: Butler/Watkins/Coleman

RB C.J. PROSISE
USA Today Sports Images

A revelation in September and October, Prosise’s production waned as the hits and bumps and bruises piled up in November. One of the best position switch players in program history, but among the five studied in this column, the graduating senior (he could have returned for a fifth season) is clearly the most easily replaced.

-- The Replacements: Sophomore Josh Adams, redshirt-junior Tarean Folston, sophomore Dexter Williams, redshirt-sophomore Justin Brent and incoming freshmen Deon McIntosh and Tony Jones, Jr.

-- On the Bright Side: Adams looked the part of future star and if healthy after September knee surgery, Folston has already proven to be a solid college ‘back. Williams has speed to burn and the 2013 and 2015 seasons both proved that rookie running backs can make an impact in Kelly’s offense.

-- Harsh Reality: Depth took a hit with Prosise’s decision to pursue the NFL. Now the Irish must rely on Folston’s recovery to ensure the necessary 1-2 punch in their 2016 backfield, though Williams remains an intriguing prospect. Justin Brent’s position switch from WR to RB post-spring 2015 will likely be reevaluated during winter conditioning. Brent has three seasons of eligibility remaining but it seems his time to make an impact, at least in a trusted backup role, would be now – or never.

-- Unsolicited Advice: Choose a position for Brent and stick with it, for better or for worse. Pit Adams vs. Williams in a No. 1 vs. No. 1A role (in terms of reps) throughout the spring while Folston continues to recover. 
 
Note: on tap for Wednesday, a similar look at the replacements for Notre Dame’s graduating seniors


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