Those who scrutinized the Notre Dame football team over the last few years knew that the 2013-14 seasons were leading to a crescendo in 2015.
That crescendo came in the form of a 10-victory season and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl with narrow losses to Clemson, which played for the national title, and Stanford, which looked like it could have played for the national title after its impressive performance in the Rose Bowl.
The loss of talent at Notre Dame is huge. It expanded when linebacker Jaylon Smith, wide receiver Will Fuller and running back C.J. Prosise decided to bypass their final years of eligibility and enter their names in the NFL draft.
(Left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who also had a year of eligibility remaining, was certain to leave after contemplating the NFL draft a year earlier. Cornerback KeiVarae Russell, despite missing the ’14 season due to suspension, was ready to move on as well.)
Just how much talent walked out the door? There are several ways to evaluate it: 1) NFL draft picks, 2) yardage/tackles etc., and 3) starting assignments.
We won’t know about draft picks until April, but look for the Irish to have anywhere from seven-to-10 players chosen.
The 29 touchdowns in 26 games scored by Fuller, the 30-plus tackles for loss by Sheldon Day, the nearly 300 tackles recorded by Smith, and Stanley’s blocking prowess are at the top of the list of productivity lost by the Fighting Irish.
For the purpose of this study, we’ll look at starting assignments, which can be a bit misleading at times because of situational alignments to start the game. Tracking starting assignments, however, and comparing it to the projected starters for the upcoming season gives us an accurate portrayal of the experience returning to the squad.
Here’s our breakdown of the offense with speculation as to which players project as starters and/or frontrunners for playing time in ’16. Look for Part II on Irish Illustrated previewing the Notre Dame defense.
• Quarterback: Starts lost (None); starts returning (DeShone Kizer 11, Malik Zaire 3) – Other than the typical issues that arise at the quarterback position when two potential starters emerge, this is a good situation to have. There’s no shortage of college quarterback talent with Kizer and Zaire. If both can stay healthy, the Irish can recoup the year of eligibility used by Brandon Wimbush in ’15. Incoming freshman Ian Book also could save a year with a healthy Kizer/Zaire combo.
• Running back: Starts lost (C.J. Prosise 9); starts returning (Tarean Folston 13, Josh Adams 3) – The loss of Prosise’s big-play capabilities at the running back position he barely learned is a blow, particularly with the versatility he would have offered in tandem with the other backs. Prosise’s background in the slot would have offered some interesting possibilities.
But a healthy Folston after a season-ending knee injury in Game One, coupled with the rapid emergence of Josh Adams, should keep the position a strength for the Irish, particularly if Dexter Williams continues his development and incoming freshman Tony Jones gives the Irish a power/short-yardage dimension.
• Wide receiver (W): Starts lost (Chris Brown 31); starts returning (Corey Robinson 5) – Robinson has plenty of playing experience despite the limited number of starts, but the productivity and leadership lost with Brown’s departure is significant.
Robinson, due partly to nagging injuries, digressed during his junior season. Clearly, he’s thinking beyond football with his recent bid for student body president as well as myriad outside interests. Sophomore-to-be Miles Boykin will factor into the equation after preserving a year of eligibility. Freshman-to-be Javon McKinley has the skill set for the position as well.
• Wide receiver (X): Starts lost (Will Fuller 29); starts returning (None) – While there’s optimism that sophomore-to-be Equanimeous St. Brown has star qualities, including stallion-like length and athleticism, his productivity has come on the practice field, and he’s coming off a significant shoulder injury from the fall.
Junior-to-be Corey Holmes is completely unproven and hasn’t sniffed playing time. Freshman-to-be Chase Claypool could factor in at this position, if not another wideout spot.
• Wide receiver (Z): Starts lost (Amir Carlisle 19); starts returning (Torii Hunter, Jr. 1) – Carlisle is among the most underrated players lost from the ’15 team. By the same token, Hunter – who had increasing playing experience over the last two seasons – is a capable replacement and someone whose receiving numbers could rise sharply in ’16. Hunter also could play the X.
C.J. Sanders should be ready to expand his contributions beyond the return game. Recruit Demetris Robertson could play any of the wideout positions, and if the Irish can land him down the final days of recruiting, this would be an exciting place to station him.
Freshman-to-be Deon McIntosh might be more inclined to help at this position early in his career than in the crowded backfield. Kevin Stepherson – an early-entry freshman – might get a look here if not at one of the other wideout positions.
• Tight end (Y): Starts lost (Tyler Luatua 4, Chase Hounshell 3); starts returning (Durham Smythe 3, Aliz’e Jones 5, Nic Weishar 2) – Certainly the depth took a blow when Luatua decided to leave Notre Dame (although he hasn’t left yet) and Hounshell reportedly made the decision to use a sixth year of eligibility (provided it’s granted) elsewhere.
And yet if the Irish simply stay healthy at the position – which they couldn’t come close to doing in ’15 – this could be a dynamic position, led by Smythe and the wideout-like Jones. Defensive tackle Jacob Matuska, who played tight end in high school, could give the Irish depth at the position. Miles Boykin has the dimensions to play this position, at least in the passing game, but there’s too much playing opportunity at the W to cross-train extensively.
• Left tackle: Starts lost (Ronnie Stanley 39); starts returning (None) – When Zack Martin used his final year of eligibility in 2013, he took with him 52 starting assignments. So the loss of experience isn’t as great with the departure of Stanley, but it might as well be.
Fortunately, the Irish have a real talent in junior-to-be Alex Bars, who started two games at left guard when Quenton Nelson battled a sprained ankle midway through the ’15 season. Senior-to-be Hunter Bivin expects to contend for the starting spot as well, but Bars’ talent dictates that he moves into the starting lineup somewhere, and as of now, both starting guards are returning. Incoming freshman Tommy Kraemer projects at this position long-term if he can fine-tune his pass-blocking skills.
• Left guard: Starts lost (None); starts returning (Quenton Nelson 11, Alex Bars 2) – This spot is secured by the powerful Nelson, who was so impressive in his ’15 starting-debut season that there could be speculation of him leaving for the NFL as soon as the completion of the ’16 season (despite eligibility through the ’18 season).
This spot is locked down for now, unless there’s movement at the other guard spot (see right guard). Sophomore-to-be Trevor Ruhland worked on position flexibility during his rookie season. This could be an ultimate landing spot. Junior-to-be Jimmy Byrne needs to make a move this spring.
• Center: Starts lost (Nick Martin 37); starts returning (None) – Twenty-seven of Martin’s starts came at center. What he lacked in brawn, he added in brains and leadership, which evolved from his days of playing with his brother Zack.
Junior-to-be Sam Mustipher is the heir apparent based upon playing time in ’15, but sophomore-to-be Tristen Hoge is a center by trade and will compete for a spot after preserving a year of eligibility as a rookie.
• Right guard: Starts lost (None); starts returning (Steve Elmer 30) – There’s been speculation that Elmer might bypass his final year of eligibility to get on with his life after football. (There’s been no confirmation either way from Notre Dame or Elmer.) Elmer finished a solid ’14 as a run blocker, but was perhaps the most inconsistent of Notre Dame’s offensive linemen in ’15.
Still, this would be a huge loss for the Irish were Elmer to choose to move beyond football this fall. Senior-to-be Colin McGovern (with two years of eligibility) would become a much more important cog in the operation as one who has shown the ability to be productive. It’s now or never for senior-to-be John Montelus. Incoming freshman Parker Boudreaux seems to be tailor-made for this position long-term.
• Right tackle: Starts lost (None); starts returning (Mike McGlinchey 14) – McGlinchey made his first start in the ’14 Music City Bowl and then hit the ground running as a junior in ’15. With two years of eligibility remaining and the skill set to make a career for himself on the next level with his great length, this spot is in good hands. As of now, the Irish likely have McGlinchey for two more seasons. Incoming freshman Liam Eichenberg likely projects at this position long-term.