Minus three from its original 23-player haul in 2014, Notre Dame’s score of juniors-to-be enjoyed a mixed bag of success as sophomores last fall. Emerging after redshirt rookie seasons were standouts DeShone Kizer, Quenton Nelson, and Tyler Newsome plus key backup Alex Bars.
On the flip side was a trio of expected breakout candidates that scuffled or failed to emerge for the bulk of the 2015 campaign.
It’s clear, regardless of their collective second-season grades, that head coach Brian Kelly’s juniors will provide the difference between three months of playoff contention or an unfortunate step back to single-digit wins in 2016.
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
More than two handfuls of juniors begin winter conditioning as projected starters or rank as at least 1B at their respective positions for the upcoming season.
QB DeShone Kizer – He could win the Heisman Trophy or he could start 0 of 13, 14, 15 games. (Chances are it’ll be somewhere in between.) If pressed to guess who’ll win the starting quarterback job entering the 2016 season I’d choose Kizer, adding that there’s less than a 10 percent chance Notre Dame will need/use just one starter throughout the campaign.
G Quenton Nelson – Notre Dame’s starting left guard until he chooses to take his act to the NFL (or perhaps moves to tackle to conclude his career). Here’s hoping he follows Chris Watt’s path and continues to improve through a dominant fifth season in South Bend. In just one season of play Nelson a
P Tyler Newsome – A legitimately great punter for most of his rookie season, Newsome lived both ends of the spectrum as shanked punts at Clemson and against Ohio State contributed to early deficits in each. Regardless, he’s set as the squad’s punter for the next three seasons (assuming a fifth) and will challenge for All-America and Ray Guy Award hours as long as he remains a collegian.
DE Andrew Trumbetti – Took three steps backward during a frustrating regular season but a major leap forward in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State. As Romeo Okwara’s successor at Rush End, Trumbetti will return to his natural position this fall.
OL Alex Bars – Slated (by the media and fans) to move to tackle for the 2016 season after competing with the aforementioned Nelson at guard over the last calendar year. Bars enters winter conditioning recovering from a broken ankle suffered in Mid-October and the only (near) certainty for the upcoming season is that he’ll start in some capacity – the guess here is tackle, left tackle.
MLB Nyles Morgan – Two seasons of apprenticeship at the Mike ‘backer position should be enough for the former five-star prospect. It’s Morgan’s show to run inside as of now and his athletic talent and diligent work ethic should take over from there.
NT Daniel Cage – Set to backup projected fifth-year senior Jarron Jones as the team’s oft-used backup nose guard. In good health the pair provides the best 1-2 punch at the position since Louis Nix and Kona Schwenke held down the fort inside during the 2012 campaign.
LB Greer Martini – Could start at the Will (weak side) or serve as an oft-used backup at Sam (strong side behind James Onwualu). Or he could beat out his classmate Morgan at the Mike. In an ideal world, the versatile Martini will emerge as the No. 1 LB off the bench at each position while still leading the Irish specialty units.
CB Nick Watkins – Earned his first career start in the Fiesta Bowl, that after rarely seeing time from scrimmage over the first 25 games of his career. Watkins will battle senior Devin Butler and sophomores Shaun Crawford and Nick Coleman for the starting left cornerback role. He emerged in our eyes as the lead candidate after faring as well as could be expected vs. Ohio State.
C Sam Mustipher – Ready for a nine-month battle with redshirt-freshman Tristen Hoge for the starting center role. (And it might not end there.) Mustipher is a converted guard in his third season with the program while Hoge, a true center, won Scout Team Player of the Year honors as a freshman last fall.
ON THE CUSP
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
Each among the quintet below should aid the cause to varying degrees in 2016 – then again, the same was expected and projected for ’15 and those contributions ranged from negligible (Blankenship, Weishar, Luatua) to minimal (Bonner) all the way back to none at all (Hayes redshirted as a sophomore).
DE Jonathan Bonner – Projected as the No. 2 “Big End” behind standout Isaac Rochell. Bonner could also play inside as a three-technique defensive tackle but that seems unlikely considering the enviable but unproven depth at that position beginning with his classmate, below.
DT Jay Hayes – Likely to begin and end spring ball and August camp as Jerry Tillery’s backup at the three-technique, the spot vacated by All-American Sheldon Day. Hayes was famously pressed into action late in his freshman season (Game 11!) but that lost season of eligibility was regained with a redshirt year last fall.
Multiple queries by Irish Illustrated with the Notre Dame defensive staff have posited Hayes could have a future at “Big End” but each was shut down (they noted his future is inside).
DE Grant Blankenship – Arguably had a bigger impact as an undersized freshman Rush End than he did as a sophomore still getting used to an extra 25 pounds on his frame. Like Hayes, Blankenship could have used a redshirt sophomore season to reset his eligibility clock but sources have indicated that what the junior-to-be could really use is a more consistent daily approach to his craft.
TE Nic Weishar – The best red zone threat in August Camp 2015 made almost no impact at the position for the Irish in 2016. His ability to get open in short space gives him a chance to contribute as a junior (redshirt-sophomore) but projected starters Durham Smythe and Aliz’e Jones have a leg up on Weishar entering winter drills.
TE Tyler Luatua – Luatua has one chance to earn consistent (or even intermittent) playing time from scrimmage in 2016: become far and away the best in-line and move blocker among the tight end quartet.
That niche would likewise lead to a starting spot on myriad special teams for the true junior next fall.
READY, ABLE(?) AND WAITINGMatt Cashore / Irishillustrated.om
Only one from the quartet below has made an on-field impact, that in the form of a brutish Justin Brent block vs. Louisville that led to a crucial 63-yard return in late November 2014. That was a long time ago, and none of the foursome in this group came close to game action last fall.
RB/WR Justin Brent – Easily the most intriguing member of this category, Brent could return to wide receiver – a unit that could use his athleticism in the wake of NFL defection and graduation – or he could continue to toil as a No. 4 running back…until the freshmen tandem arrives. He received a redshirt season as a sophomore after appearing in nine games as a true freshman in 2014.
-- Unsolicited advice: put Brent back on the perimeter where he could make an impact in a six, perhaps seven-receiver rotation and give him a chance to earn a starting spot on every specialty unit including the sorely needed No. 2 kick returner role.
WR Corey Holmes – Listed as the No. 2 X receiver behind Will Fuller throughout 2015 but that designation wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. Holmes instead redshirted as a true sophomore last fall after appearing in only the first two games as a freshman in ’14.
With Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle all gone from the rotation, a clean slate exists but it’s clear Holmes is miles behind his competitors entering winter conditioning. The next four months are crucial to his future prospects.
NT Pete Mokwuah – Work remains to ensure the redshirt-sophomore can keep a leg up on redshirt-freshmen such as Brandon Tiassum and Micah Dew-Treadway inside. Senior (redshirt-junior) Jacob Matuska is also in the third-string mix.
OG Jimmy Byrne – The only member of the class yet to appear in a contest, Byrne will challenge redshirt-freshman Trevor Ruhland plus seniors (redshirt-juniors) Colin McGovern and John Montelus for backup snaps this spring.
Note: Inside linebacker Nile Sykes plus hybrid OLB/DEs Kolin Hill and Jhonathon Williams are original members of the class no longer with the program.