In the midst of winter conditioning and seven weeks away from its first spring practice, the Notre Dame football program faces scores of questions after the loss of NFL talent, dozens of long-time contributors, and immeasurable veteran leadership. Irish Illustrated examines the 12 most relevant questions to be answered over rest of the winter, spring, summer, and ultimately into the fall.
QUESTION #4 – WHICH JUNIORS WILL RISE?
“The third year is when you feel comfortable.”
Brian Kelly’s theory regarding football players and their assimilation to college football (and a university itself) was first offered during the 2012 season and specifically in an effort to highlight the improvement of breakout junior T.J. Jones.
A default starter in both his freshman and sophomore seasons, Jones elevated his game in Year 3, tying Tyler Eifert for the team-lead in touchdowns, receptions, and “Money Receptions,” aka, chain-moving catches on third down. Asked about his stark improvement over a disjointed sophomore campaign, Jones echoed his coach’s sentiments.
“My third year now, it's more of a routine, figuring out what's right, what type of food to eat, when to wake up,” Jones said. “It's not as much of a grind. College football can wear on you and I feel like in your third season at a program, you learn to better deal with that grind.”
Similar third season risers include Prince Shembo and Louis Nix (2012), Troy Niklas (2013), C.J. Prosise and Jarron Jones (2014), and last fall, Torii Hunter and James Onwualu. Each contributed prior; each became a major player in his third season.
(And while we’re at it, Brian Kelly, 2012.)
READY FOR PRIME TIME?
We devoted the first of our dozen questions to Nyles Morgan, the junior linebacker that must rise to the occasion next fall. (Linked below).
Who among Morgan’s junior classmates rank as prime candidates to develop from mere contributor status to household names among Irish fans next fall?
DE Andrew Trumbetti – Highlights of Trumbetti’s sophomore season include an outstanding second half against Ohio State, an impressive outing against Texas four months earlier, and an interception touchdown against Wake Forest on Senior Day – in that order. To be blunt, the rest was rough, the definition of a sophomore slump.
As our Tim Prister wrote earlier this month, Trumbetti was forced to play out of position often in ’15 – he’ll move from backup “Big End” (where he was too small) to his natural position of Rush End hereafter.
CB Nick Watkins – Highlights include…Ohio State – not a bad jumping off point for his junior campaign. Watkins battled the Buckeyes throughout the Fiesta Bowl and at no point was the 2015 squad’s third-string left cornerback noticeably overmatched against one of the nation’s best collections of perimeter talent.
Watkins will battle with at least two if not three corners (Devin Butler, Nick Coleman, Shaun Crawford) for a starting role opposite senior Cole Luke. Kelly noted in late November that Watkins had begun to shine in practice – now the spotlight waits.
NT Daniel Cage – From part-time sophomore starter to…junior backup? Why is Cage on this list when he clearly won’t start over a healthy Jarron Jones? Because a team’s No. 2 nose tackle is arguably more important than its No. 2 quarterback or running back.
A successful tag team effort between Jones and Cage would prove crucial over the long haul. Fresh legs between the line’s two anchors would go a long way to ensuring no drop-off – or possibly improvement – for Notre Dame’s rush defense next fall.
DE Jonathan Bonner – Bye bye built-in excuse (age/experience), hello land of the unforgiving, aka, the junior season.
Kelly lauded bonner last spring for his athleticism and promise off the edge. Those words inevitably elicited fan and media reaction anointing Bonner as a breakout candidate for 2015. One turf toe surgery and a measly 5 tackles and 1.5 Stuffs later and suddenly every recruit-nik throughout Irish Nation is looking to bury Bonner behind 18-year-old neophytes on the August depth chart.
But the better bet is on Bonner and another iteration of third-season magic in Brian Kelly’s developmental program.
OL Alex Bars – A bit of an outlier among this quintet in that Bars didn’t disappoint or fail to seize opportunity last season, he simply served as a backup to a line with five better players. That won’t be the case in 2016 when it’s presumed the junior (redshirt-sophomore) will start at either left or right tackle. The hiccup in that plan is that Bars is purportedly not yet recovered from a broken ankle suffered Oct. 18 against USC.
Of note: safety Drue Tranquill and linebacker Greer Martini weren’t considered because both made the most of opportunities as freshmen and sophomores.