Brian Kelly could have gone anywhere with the answer.
He went straight at Asmar Bilal and Miles Boykin.
During Fiesta Bowl Media Day last week, Notre Dame’s head coach took questions on virtually every topic, from his NFL interest to future quarterback battles to scout team players who turned heads. Asked which players outside the spotlight intrigued him most moving forward, Kelly mentioned the in-state linebacker and Chicagoland receiver.
“We all know there’s going to be guys that are thrust into positions that are going to play for us next year,” Kelly said. “Those two guys clearly will be in the mix right away.”
Maybe sooner than expected.
Depending on where he slots into the depth chart, Bilal could be in the running for a starting job during spring practice. While the Sam linebacker position is set with James Onwualu and Greer Martini, the Will linebacker spot is wide open minus Jaylon Smith and Te’Von Coney.
Even if Smith shocked the NFL by returning, he faces a grueling rehab after that brutal left knee injury suffered in the Fiesta Bowl. Sources told Irish Illustrated that Smith suffered at least a torn ACL and LCL. A source also told Irish Illustrated that Coney suffered a shoulder dislocation likely to keep him out until fall camp.
That means Notre Dame’s depth chart at Will linebacker was effectively wiped out in the first half by Ohio State. Jarrett Grace replaced Coney in the game, but he’s out of eligibility. While Kelly wouldn’t commit to Bilal’s position within the linebacker corps just yet, it seems there’s a Smith comparison to be made.
“Asmar Bilal is definitely a guy that shows incredible traits at the linebacker position,” Kelly said. “He’s gonna be a guy in time where we’re all gonna look around and go, ‘Wow, he looks a little bit like that No. 9 guy.’”
Bilal was named Scout Team Player of the Year on defense last month.
While center Tristen Hoge won that distinction on the offensive side, it was Boykin who Kelly mentioned as Notre Dame’s next big thing. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound athlete should get a shot on the outside as the Irish rebuild a receiver depth chart that loses Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle at a minimum.
“Miles Boykin is gonna be a guy where we’re gonna go, ‘Wow, look at his size and range,’” Kelly said.
Notre Dame doesn’t have a body like Boykin on the outside, where Corey Robinson and Equanimeous St. Brown can offer height but not bulk. Boykin is listed as 10 pounds heavy than Robinson and 20 pounds bigger than St. Brown.
The only other remaining receivers on the roster are Corey Holmes (6-1, 184), Torii Hunter Jr. (6-0, 195) and C.J. Sanders (5-8, 185). The Irish will get Kevin Stepherson next semester as an early enrollee, but impacts by freshman wide outs are rare under Kelly.
All those dynamics point toward Boykin getting a serious look during his sophomore year. One of Notre Dame’s departing wide outs likes what he sees.
“When it’s his time he’s gonna be really good,” Brown said. “Really big kid who’s yet to know how to use his real strength yet and that’s his size. Being able to go and box out. We saw a part of it in some of our (bowl) preparation. He’s gonna be really good.
“He’s really quick for his size. When he’s able to use his strength to club off the line just boxing guys out, he’s gonna be a problem.”