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Position Forecasts: Irish Defense

In the second of our two-part examination of Notre Dame’s position groups, Irish Illustrated grades each unit’s potential – both for 2016 and 2017.

Dismissing the standard letter and star grades, this column 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?

Remaining seasons of eligibility for each player are denoted in parentheses.


Fifth-year senior Jarron Jones, senior (2) Jacob Matuska, junior (2) Daniel Cage, juniors (3) Jay Hayes and Pete Mokwuah, sophomore (3) Jerry Tillery, redshirt freshmen (4) Elijah Taylor, Brandon Tiassum and Micah Dew-Treadway. Potentially incoming freshman Khalid Kareem.

2016 Grade (NT and DT): PLAYOFF LEVEL. An inside trio of Jones, Cage, and Tillery between the two positions would rank among the nation’s Top 10. Thereafter it’s up to Hayes to progress to a point where he’s viewed by the staff as a reliable, 15-snap backup at the three-technique behind Tillery. There is no proven depth thereafter though Elijah Taylor could develop into a reliable third DT, which equates to third-string, a few snaps per game.

Defensive Interior 2017: Only Jones is lost from the group and Matuska would likely be asked back to provide a versatile big body in practice and third unit depth. Interior defensive line commitments are paramount for 2017 with one capable of helping in a backup role from the outset.

2017 Grade: SECOND TIER. The loss of Jones will be huge, though Cage, Tillery, and Hayes would in theory provide a promising trio in his stead. Key to the position will be the development not only of Taylor but an anchor at the point to backup Cage, a senior in ’17. Kareem is an intriguing three-technique prospect at this point but his future could be at “Big End” replacing Isaac Rochell (below).

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Senior (1) Isaac Rochell, senior (2) Doug Randolph, juniors (2) Andrew Trumbetti and Grant Blankenship, junior (3) Jonathan Bonner, incoming freshmen Julian Okwara, Ade Ogundeji, Jamir Jones and perhaps Khalid Kareem and Daelin Hayes.

2016 Grade: SECOND TIER. Rochell is underrated nationally but his counterpart at Rush End, Trumbetti, is unproven. Taken alone, the duo could attain “Playoff Level” status, but depth behind them is not only unproven, but not overly promising, at least where we sit in January.

Bonner and Blankenship are slated to back up Big End (Rochell) and Rush End, respectively (though Blankenship has grown enough where he projects to Big End as well) while incoming freshmen such as Kareem (Big End) and Okwara (Rush) have the opportunity to make immediate sub package impact.

Defensive ends 2017: Only Rochell exhausts eligibility but it’s unlikely the oft-injured Randolph would return.

2017 Grade: SECOND TIER. The loss of Rochell will hurt but Bonner (a senior at this point), Blankenship (ditto) and Kareem would offer intriguing options in his stead. Trumbetti should shine as a senior, four-year contributor and there will be a host of sophomores behind him, including, potentially, five-star linebacker prospect Daelin Hayes.

In short, if Notre Dame’s defensive interior of Cage, Tillery, and Hayes plays well, the 2017 defensive ends will benefit greatly and out-perform this projection.

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Senior (1) James Onwualu, juniors (2) Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan, (3) sophomore Te’Von Coney, redshirt freshmen (4) Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas, incoming freshman Daelin Hayes.

2016 Grade: SECOND TIER. Harsh? Maybe, but Morgan is 100 percent unproven at the Mike ‘backer position and Coney will purportedly miss most of the off-season while rehabbing his surgically repaired shoulder. Onwualu is solid (and undervalued by the fan base) and Martini has proven to be a reliable player snap-to-snap with playmaking ability on occasion. Bilal and Barajas have great potential.  

Linebackers 2017: Only Onwualu is lost from the group above, though we project Hayes to move to defensive end.

2017 Grade: PLAYOFF LEVEL. Seniors Martini and Morgan, junior Coney, and redshirt-soph’s Bilal and Barajas will no longer be neophytes. With proper coaching, this quintet could shine in ’17.

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Seniors (1) Cole Luke and Devin Butler, junior (2) Nick Watkins, sophomore (3) Nick Coleman, redshirt-freshmen (4) Shaun Crawford and Ashton White, incoming freshmen Julian Love, Tony Pride, Jr., and Donte Vaughn.

2016 Grade: SECOND TIER. However, a healthy Crawford…a developing Watkins…the promise of Nick Coleman…the veteran backup ability of Butler…and a three-year starter in Luke…the unit ranks as a sleeper position group to be the most improved in 2016.

Cornerbacks 2017: Luke and Butler will both exhaust eligibility.

2017 Grade: SECOND TIER. But Crawford, Watkins, and Coleman comprise a promising trio. I’m bullish on the future of the cornerback position though the 2017 squad will need one of the current incoming freshmen or Ashton White to step to the fore to provide a quality two-deep.

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Potential sixth-year senior Avery Sebastian, Senior (1) Max Redfield, junior (3) Drue Tranquill, sophomore (3) Nicco Fertitta, redshirt-freshman (4) Mykelti Williams, and incoming freshmen Jalen Elliott, Devin Studstill, Spencer Perry and D.J. Morgan.

2016 Grade: Below the SECOND TIER. Notre Dame’s best defensive back, Tranquill, is coming off a second knee surgery. Its most experienced and talented, Redfield, has not proven reliable in any way, shape, or form, and the veteran backup presence, Sebastian, has already missed two full seasons and part of another due to injuries.

Only relative rookie Mykelti Williams is without such notable warts, and that’s in part due to the reality that he’s yet to appear in a collegiate contest to display them.

Competitive game playing time for two of the incoming freshmen in 2016 is essential to the unit’s future development.

Safety 2017: SECOND TIER. Assuming good health and development, Tranquill, Williams, and the best sophomore safety (Studstill is my current way-too-early choice) collectively provide hope. The development of Notre Dame’s safeties in 2016 and 2017 is crucial to the success of both defenses. They don’t have to be great – and won’t be – but they must improve greatly over 2015, 2014, and 2013 efforts. Top Stories