One of the program’s three best recruiting classes since the oft-reference, star-studded 1990 haul, Notre Dame’s 2013 freshmen will enter their final seasons with a 27-12 record, but down six members from its original 23-player haul.
That sextet includes the class’s two best players, linebacker Jaylon Smith and wide receiver Will Fuller, both of whom await selection in the 2016 NFL Draft.
(Comprising the remainder of the lost six are transfer Greg Bryant, medical casualties Mike Heuerman and Michael Deeb, and dismissed defensive back Rashad Kinlaw.)
TOP OF THE HEAPMatt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
Including quarterback competitor Malik Zaire, no fewer than 11 seniors are slated to start or threaten that designation through season’s end.
QB Malik Zaire – As is the case with his competition, junior triggerman DeShone Kizer, Zaire’s 2016 season could include Heisman Trophy contention or a firm grip on the clipboard each Autumn Saturday. As noted with Kizer, both are likely to play, to start, and to help the Irish win at some point next fall.
DE Isaac Rochell – One of Notre Dame’s truly underrated players – albeit for an underachieving defense – over the last two seasons. Rochell finished with 27 Stuffs in 2015, one less than Jaylon Smith and two more than Sheldon Day.
CB Cole Luke – Was better as a sophomore than as a junior. Notre Dame’s secondary desperately needs Luke to be at his best as a senior next fall.
OT Mike McGlinchey – Whether it’s on the right side or after a switch to the left, McGlinchey is one of two sure starters for spring ball’s offensive line. (We can project four, but McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson are set in stone.)
LB James Onwualu – Solid two-year starter will return to the Sam ‘backer position where he’ll again be ably backed by the bigger Greer Martini.
WR Torii Hunter, Jr. – Expect the savvy slot receiver to play inside and out – and to lead the 2016 Irish in receptions and first down catches.
RB Tarean Folston – Expected to make a full recovery from ACL surgery and be part of a 1-2 (or is it 2-1?) punch with sophomore Josh Adams next season.
G Steve Elmer – Purportedly has intriguing options beyond football that have already presented. Assuming he’s in the fold, Elmer is your right-side starter and one of the leaders of the 2016 offensive front.
TE Durham Smythe – Return to form should lend versatility to a tight end unit that was in need of, well, anything, throughout most of the 2015 season. Smythe is the unit’s most complete tight end and should be complemented in the two-tight end package by sophomore Aliz’e Jones.
WR Corey Robinson – Lends veteran leadership and – prior to the 2015 season – unique 3rd-Down and red zone acumen to the wide receivers corps. Robinson must step into an Alpha Dog role for the first time in his football career next fall.
S Max Redfield – Not in the mood…
ON THE CUSPMatt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
Three likely backups comprise the trio though Devin Butler will challenge for a starting role for at least nine months, if not through 2016.
LCB Devin Butler – Younger competitors Nick Watkins, Nick Coleman, and Shaun Crawford are either A.) nipping at his heels, or B.) slightly ahead of the veteran in the pecking order to start opposite right-side certainty Cole Luke.
OT Hunter Bivin – Will likely battle with guard Alex Bars for the starting tackle spot opposite Mike McGlinchey. Bivin is likely best served as the No. 1 tackle off the bench in 2016.
OG Colin McGovern – Meet your No. 1 guard off the bench next fall.
READY, ABLE(?) AND WAITINGMatt Cashore / Irishillustrated.om
None from the trio will start but it would help immensely if each could contribute as backups in 2016.
DT Jacob Matuska – Provides insurance inside as a veteran of multiple November 2014 battles when he was both too young and too small, but still able to play well, at least against Louisville in a 31-28 defeat. Matuska will show well this spring, just as he did last March/April.
DE Doug Randolph – Recruited as a Cat linebacker in the old 3-4 front, Randolph earned starting assignments on special teams last season while playing sparingly as a backup pass rusher. An early-career shoulder injury doubtless inhibited his progress.
OG John Montelus – Early-career status was slowed by injury (shoulder) and weight gain (up to 345-plus pounds). It’s now or never for the former four-star prospect.