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Through the Ranks – Irish Sophomores

Irish Illustrated offers a status report on the program’s sophomores-to-be for 2016. Who’s set to start? Who’s on the cusp, and who has a second developmental campaign on tap?

Two years ago, Brian Kelly’s 2014 Irish raced to a 6-0 start before scuffling to an 8-5 finish. Paramount among that season’s bright spots was a collection of sophomores – the 2013 recruiting class led by Jaylon Smith – that stepped to the fore, not only as contributors but eventually ranking among the program’s best players.

The sophomores-to-be of 2016 aren’t likely to match that group’s production, not with two handfuls of the former entering their senior seasons next fall and slated to start.

But the 2015 recruiting class, now 22 strong sans suspended wide receiver and expected transfer Jalen Guyton, appears poised to produce. We examine the various levels of projected production below.

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Two certain starters and two part-timers (at worst) highlight this short list:

K Justin Yoon – The freshman All-American will start and likely excel at the position over the next three seasons through graduation. Moving on…

DT Jerry Tillery – Expect the part-time starting nose tackle to move to the three-technique defensive tackle position vacated by Sheldon Day. Tillery worked behind Day in August camp before starting nose tackle Jarron Jones was lost for the regular season due to a knee injury, necessitating the true freshman’s switch the line’s pivot position.

RB Josh Adams – Enters winter conditioning as the program’s lead ‘back though senior Tarean Folston will provide a spring push and serious competition for the starting job in August. Expect both to start intermittently, both to play often, and both to be needed per usual at the position.

TE Aliz’e Jones – Senior Durham Smythe’s the far superior blocker but Notre Dame will find a way to re-embrace its preferred two tight end sets, aka, the “12 Package” to augment Smythe’s versatility with Jones’ preternatural athleticism.  An early prediction: Jones will receive more snaps (and targets) than Notre Dame’s No. 3 wide receiver in 2016.

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Three wide receivers and a promising defensive back appear poised to push for starting and/or crucial rotation roles over the next 12 months. The latter pair qualify as redshirt-freshman after sitting out 2015 while the former duo burned a season of eligibility last fall.

WR/Returner C.J. Sanders – Barring injury (or idiocy), Sanders will be the man running under punts and kickoffs for Kelly’s Irish over the next three seasons. The next step in Sanders’ development is competing full time as a Z (slot) receiver and opportunity knocks with the graduation of Amir Carlisle. Sanders won’t win the role over senior Torii Hunter, Jr, but the latter is capable of playing every position, opening the door for playing time for Sanders and classmate Equanimeous St. Brown (below).

WR Equanimeous St. Brown – Assuming full recovery – and successful weight room work – in the wake of in-season shoulder surgery, St. Brown is the odds-on favorite to start at the X (field) spot in superstar Will Fuller’s stead. Huge shoes to fill but Kelly was effusive in his praise of St. Brown throughout August camp and prior to the freshman’s October shoulder injury.

WR Miles Boykin – Repeatedly asked each season to comment on his young players not with the varsity in-season, Brian Kelly saved most of his 2015 praise for the six-foot five-inch Boykin. He’s expected to contend at the “W” (boundary) position vacated by Chris Brown and held at present by senior Corey Robinson. Expect a 1-2 punch throughout the ’16 campaign.

CB Shaun Crawford – Lauded by teammates for his coverage skills and raw speed (Crawford was tabbed by three veterans as the squad’s “second-fastest” player in August), Crawford turned heads in camp for his penchant for the physical despite the reality that he was a head shorter than most receivers he faced. Crawford’s rookie season was lost to a torn ACL but he’ll either contend for the starting LCB job, the starting nickel spot, or both.

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A bevy of athletes that appear ready for prime time and/or already made their mark on special teams as true freshmen.

CB Nick Coleman – A candidate to start at left cornerback along with the aforementioned Crawford, senior Devin Butler and junior Nick Watkins. One among the quartet will backup Cole Luke on the right side, but regardless of his scrimmage status, Coleman will again serve as a special teams starter.

RB Dexter Williams – Should receive the bulk of No. 2 running back reps this spring as senior Tarean Folston continues to rehab from knee surgery. In other words, Williams has a chance to greatly elevate his status before Folston returns to the fray and the bullets go live in mid-August.

LB Te’Von Coney – Suffered a major shoulder injury in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State and isn’t expected to be at full strength until August camp. Coney was the odds-on favorite to start at the Will (weak side) linebacker position after the loss of Jaylon Smith. He played most of the season on special teams and earned backup scrimmage time in mop-up duty but also was a “starter” on the team’s seldom-used goal line package defense. 

LB Asmar Bilal – With Coney out of contact this spring, Bilal will likely get first crack at the vacated Will backer position. The Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year, Bilal ranks as the “Miles Boykin” of the defense, that is, Brian Kelly raved about him repeatedly when discussing his scout team contributors.

S Mykelti Williams – Should receive work as the No. 2 free safety this spring after sitting out in 2015. Notre Dame needs ample aid at safety and Williams wasn’t far from varsity action last fall despite the presence of two veteran starters.

LB Josh Barajas – Fell behind his classmates Bilal and Coney after reporting to training camp with too much bad weight. Barajas was more highly thought of than either of the pair during his recruitment but his position is not yet set, and the defense is chock full of potential competitors at each linebacker position. He’ll doubtless begin as a third-stringer in the spring but is expected to develop beyond that by September.

C Tristen Hoge – Traveled with the squad and received varsity practice snaps as a true freshman last fall. Hoge will go head-to-head vs. redshirt-sophomore Sam Mustipher for the starting spot vacated by captain Nick Martin. Hoge is the only true (prep) center on the Irish roster and won Scout Team Player of the Year honors for the Irish offense.

QB Brandon Wimbush – Will he redshirt to make up for necessary action in 2015? Will he be too good in the spring of ‘16 for that to be a consideration? Wimbush possesses the most promise of any player in this category – perhaps in any of the categories – but it would be shocking if he beat out a healthy Malik Zaire or DeShone Kizer over the next nine months. And to be blunt, if he does, it would elicit a transfer from one of the remaining pair.

S/ST Nicco Fertitta – A spot in the rotation at safety is unlikely but Fertitta emerged as a monogram winner on special teams last fall and already has a (impressive) forced fumble to his credit covering kickoffs. He’s likely to retain myriad roles on the Irish run teams throughout his career.

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Another season of seasoning seems the order of the day for each member of this quintet.

DT Elijah Taylor – Nearly joined the varsity in September but as Tillery and Daniel Cage held their own, Taylor’s presence no longer appeared necessary in the rotation. Should lock horns with Jay Hayes in a battle for the backup three-technique role over the next, oh, three years.

CB Ashton White – At present the sixth cornerback among six varsity members, White’s off-season is crucial as ample, but unproven talent, dots the 2016 and 2017 roster. White will receive a full evaluation for the Irish run teams as well and likely could have contributed to that end in 2015 if not for preserving his redshirt status.

DT Micah Dew-Treadway – His 2016 fate likely depends on Taylor’s performance as a three-technique competitor – or a move to the nose where Dew-Treadway could win the No. 3 role. Senior Jacob Matuska is also in the mix for spring snaps and a potential impediment for consistent reps inside.

NT Brandon Tiassum – Fifth-year senior Jarron Jones and junior Daniel Cage are set in stone in front of Tiassum but the redshirt-freshman could contend with Pete Mokwuah for third-string duties.

OL Trevor Ruhland – Slated for third-string duties for at least one more season up front. Ruhland projects as a guard though he was seen at tackle in August camp reps.

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