Dismissing of the standard letter and star grades, the below instead ranks each Notre Dame position group by the bottom line. That is, are they Playoff Level, New Year’s Six Level, Second Tier, or below?
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Senior (2) Malik Zaire, junior (3) DeShone Kizer, sophomores (3) Brandon Wimbush and Montgomery VanGorder, and incoming freshman Ian Book – From 1-2-3, there’s not a better situation in college football. Period.
2016 Grade: PLAYOFF LEVEL. The best unit on the team, and that wasn’t the case in 2015.
Quarterback 2017: Potentially, though unlikely, the same as 2016’s quartet. If the unit remains intact, that includes Zaire as a fifth-year senior. Notre Dame history and logic suggest it is highly unlikely Zaire, Kizer, and Wimbush are all part of the program in 2017.
But it’s likewise probable that at least two will remain, thus providing head coach Brian Kelly a potent duo under center.
2017 Grade: PLAYOFF LEVEL
RUNNING BACK 2016
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Senior (2) Tarean Folston, junior Justin Brent (3), sophomores (3) Josh Adams and Dexter Williams, incoming freshmen Deon McIntosh and Tony Jones, Jr.
If the former is fully recovered from September 2015 knee surgery, the 1-2 punch of Folston/Adams (choose your own order) will be used in tandem much more often than were C.J. Prosise and Adams last season.
2016 Grade: NEW YEAR’S SIX. Why not PLAYOFF LEVEL? I consider that reserved for the sport’s elite (Derrick Henry, Leonard Fournette, Ezekiel Elliott). The true difference makers that while they benefit from outstanding offensive lines, could excel with only solid support up front.
Running Back 2017: None of the above exhausts eligibility though Folston would likely be tempted to take his act to the NFL if he returns to form. With degree in hand, and considering a previous injury and the expected lifespan of an NFL running back, he’d be foolish not to.
2017 Grade: NEW YEAR’S SIX (with Folston). SECOND TIER (without, or without the addition of a dynamic freshman in 2017).
WIDE RECEIVERS 2016Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
Senior (1) Corey Robinson and senior (2) Torii Hunter, Jr., junior (3) Corey Holmes, sophomores (3) Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders, sophomore (4) Miles Boykin, incoming freshmen Chase Claypool, Javon McKinley, and Kevin Stepherson.
2016 Grade: SECOND TIER. You don’t lose Will Fuller and Chris Brown and even tread water with relative rookies replacing them. This doesn’t mean Notre Dame’s passing game has to take a major step back (the quarterback play will likely be more consistent) but Fuller was an all-time playmaker on the perimeter over the last two seasons.
He was elite, and the best deep threat in program history.
Wide Receivers 2017: Only Robinson is expected to be absent from the group above. A difference-maker at wide receiver for the 2017 recruiting class becomes paramount as, at present, only St. Brown appears to have an All-American ceiling among the current crop.
2017 Grade: NEW YEAR’S SIX. Expect St. Brown, Boykin, and Sanders, plus one of the incoming freshmen trio to provide athletic punch and experience while the fifth-year senior Hunter leads the unit.
TIGHT ENDS 2016
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Senior (2) Durham Smythe, junior (2) Tyler Luatua and junior (3) Nic Weishar, sophomore (3) Aliz’e Jones. Potential sixth-year senior Chase Hounshell could also return as a blocking tight end.
Projected to be the most improved unit in the program next season (and they better be), the group above is blessed with talent and, entering 2016, big-game experience. Smythe, Jones, and arguably Weishar could start for most Top 25-level programs.
2016 Grade: NEW YEAR’S SIX – in 2015, the Irish tight ends weren’t even worthy of a SUN BELT SIX moniker, so while this isn’t a leap of faith, it would equate to several major steps forward. Jones and Smythe rank among the five players poised to improve most from 2015 thru next fall.
Tight Ends 2017: Likely intact from ’16 (except of course for Hounshell).
2017 Grade: PLAYOFF LEVEL – Tight End U will again be the mantra in South Bend as Jones and Smythe rarely leave the field and the “12 Package” returns as Notre Dame’s preferred method of attack.
OFFENSIVE LINE 2016Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
Senior (1) Steve Elmer, seniors (2) Mike McGlinchey, Hunter Bivin, Colin McGovern, and John Montelus, juniors (3) Quenton Nelson, Alex Bars, Sam Mustipher, and Jimmy Byrne, sophomores (2) Tristen Hoge and Trevor Ruhland. Incoming freshmen Liam Eichenberg, Tommy Kraemer, and Parker Boudreaux.
Graduating senior Mark Harrell is a potential 5th-year and would round out a 15-man, three-deep practice unit.
2016 Grade: NEW YEAR’S SIX…or close to it. The 2015 group was at a PLAYOFF LEVEL. When a unit loses its two best performers – one a first-round draft pick, the other a three-year starter at the line’s most important position – there’s bound to be regression.
Offensive Line 2017: With the exception of Elmer (and if Harrell returns), more likely than not, the unit will remain intact. While McGlinchey should exit 2016 as an NFL prospect, a fifth-season of collegiate action could greatly enhance his stock.
2017 Grade: NEW YEAR’S SIX…but approaching PLAYOFF LEVEL. Notre Dame’s 2017 front of Bars, Nelson, Hoge/Mustipher (regardless, the starter will be in his second season at the pivot position), a new right guard, and McGlinchey will rank among the nation’s best.
Note: Tomorrow’s edition will breakdown the 2016-17 defense.