Notre Dame's 2015 and 2016 recruiting classes currently include a combined 47 competitors, with 27 from the defensive side of scrimmage. Below is a review of those players tasked with improving the defense in South Bend over the next four to five seasons.
INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINE
Numbers were needed and that hasn’t changed for the future. Quality playmakers, however, are in short supply.
-- 2015-16 By the Numbers (5): Four-star pledge Jerry Tillery and a trio of three stars, Brandon Tiassum, Elijah Taylor, and Micah Dew-Treadway in 2015, plus four-star Khalid Kareem in this cycle. An early enrollee, Kareem appears slated to begin spring practice at rush end but we believe he’s been slotted appropriately here.
-- Projected 2016 Impact: A starter and at least one member of the two deep must emerge from this quintet if the Irish defense is to improve next fall. Ideally two backups will contribute meaningful snaps with Tillery the projected starter at defensive tackle.
-- Realistic Long-Term Potential: Tillery and Kareem are the top prospects with Taylor purportedly showing best among the 2015 freshman that did not play.
-- Need for 2017? One impact player plus another solid prospect or, failing the former, three solid prospects. Starting nose tackle Jarron Jones exhausts his eligibility at season’s end and junior-to-be Daniel Cage will do so following 2018. Behind them on the nose are unproven veterans such as Jacob Matuska (a potential tight end) and Pete Mokwuah that have yet to challenge for roles.
Notre Dame is likely to find a quality player among the Taylor, Dew-Treadway, Tiassum trio, and redshirt-sophomore Jay Hayes could emerge as a DT of note, but more quality – and thus quantity – are necessary for the 2017 cycle and beyond.
-- 2015-16 Overall Grade: C. And that’s with Tillery already hinting at a quality career. Fortunately for Irish fans, 2014 Signing Day pledge Daniel Cage took a major leap forward last season as a sophomore and should be a strong backup for Jones on the nose this fall. If Kareem develops to the level Tim Prister and I have projected (we had him as the third and fourth best prospect in the class, respectively) this grade will be proven off base.
The search for edge rushers continues after two of four such prospects transferred from the 2014 class (Andrew Trumbetti and Jonathan Bonner remain) while the lone 2015 signee, Bo Wallace, never enrolled.
-- 2015-16 By the Numbers (3): Four-star pledges Daelin Hayes (projects to Big End) and Julian Okwara (Rush End) plus three-star prospect Ade Ogundeji (Rush End/Elsewhere), each from the current cycle.
-- Projected 2016 Impact: Necessary, but likely minimal. Hayes continues to rehab from shoulder surgery and though Okwara is ahead of his brother at this stage of their respective development, he’s still raw. Speaking of raw, Ade Ogundeji projects to rush end but he could grow into multiple positions, perhaps on either side of scrimmage.
-- Realistic Long-Term Potential: There’s a lot to like, even from the green Ogundeji, though Hayes and Okwara would likely make their marks, first.
-- Need for 2017? Absolute. As with quarterback, Notre Dame should never be bereft of a pass rush prospect in any recruiting cycle. They are imperative in the modern era.
-- 2015-16 Overall Grade: C-Plus. Though this time it’s reflective of the dearth of prospects, not their talents. Hayes is a top-notch prospect but one that has to overcome injury while Okwara is likely a year away from making an impact a New Year’s Six level. Ogundeji is the definition of a “project” though his frame is enticing. He’s certainly on the five-year plan.
The aggregate talent level in the trio broaches a B-Plus, even without a fourth option in Wallace. But at least two defensive ends need to develop as playmakers over each two-season span, and the Irish are down to three options between ’15-16.
Note: If Kareem remains at Big End (rather than DT where I’ve projected him above), this DE grade becomes a strong B+
A new era dawns in South Bend for 2016 (two new starters) and 2017 (a third) after Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt led the way over the last three and two seasons, respectively.
-- 2015-16 By the Numbers (5): Four-star prospects Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas, plus three-star early enrollee Te’Von Coney in 2015 and a pair of three-star pledges in Jamir Jones and Jonathan Jones for the current cycle.
-- Projected 2016 Impact: If Coney recovers from January shoulder surgery in time to have a productive camp, each of the three 2015 pledges are likely to be part of the two deep among Sam, Mike, and Will linebacker positions. Bilal and Coney are starting candidates while Barajas was viewed as the best among them one year ago today, but bad weight put on in the off-season negated any potential impact last fall.
-- Realistic Long-Term Potential: There’s no reason the 2015 crop won’t all start for two, perhaps three seasons in South Bend. The staff is high on Jonathan Jones as a future Mike ‘backer and he should have ample time to grow into the role with 2014 pledges Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini both on board through 2017.
-- Need for 2017? A Mike ‘backer – insurance for Jones – and a Sam ‘backer (starter James Onwualu will graduate) both seem necessary. The Irish are well stocked at the Will going forward.
-- 2015-16 Overall Grade: B-Plus. All five won’t pan out, but Notre Dame set itself up well for the future with a Mike (J. Jones) a Will/Sam (Bilal) a Mike/Will (Coney), and two that could perhaps play all three positions in Barajas and Jamir Jones.
Notre Dame brought aboard five, arguably six players that could be collegiate safeties in this cycle. That’s a clear indication it swung and missed, wildly, in past years.
-- 2015-16 By the Numbers (6): After inking just two in 2015, three-star prospects Mykelti Williams and Nicco Fertitta, Brian Kelly and his staff brought aboard (at least) four for 2016 including three-star prospects Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry, and Devin Studstill, plus four-star prospect Donte’ Vaughn who currently projects to CB and will thus be discussed below.
-- Projected 2016 Impact: Immediate. Either Williams or one of the incoming freshman is slated for two-deep duties at free safety and considering Notre Dame’s three veteran safeties are either A.) Injured (Drue Tranquill), B.) Oft-injured (and not yet officially on the roster, Avery Sebastian), or C.) Maddening (Max Redfield), all of the above could make waves on the Irish depth chart.
-- Realistic Long-Term Potential: High. Personally I’m high on Vaughn (at either S or CB), Studstill and Williams while I like Perry as a potential Sam Linebacker down the road. But those opinions need to be verified when each takes on college competition.
-- Need for 2017? A top tier safety prospect should be targeted.
-- 2015-16 Overall Grade: B-Minus. Notre Dame will find three quality safeties from the six it brought in over the last two cycles but there’s also going to be some roster fodder. Will a player the level of Zeke Motta, Jamoris Slaughter, or David Bruton emerge among these classes?
Competition suddenly reigns at one of the modern game’s most important positions…
-- 2015-16 By the Numbers (6): Four-star pledge Shaun Crawford plus three-star commits Nick Coleman and Ashton White in 2015, along with four-star pledges Donte’ Vaughn and Troy Pride, Jr. and three-star pledge Julian Love in 2016.
-- Projected 2016 Impact: Two potential starters (Nickel and left cornerback) plus domination of the two and three-deep ranks along with starting spots on the Irish Run Teams (coverage and returns). Only senior Cole Luke has a relatively secure spot in the starting rotation while his classmate Devin Butler and junior Nick Watkins will compete with youngsters for key roles.
-- Realistic Long-Term Potential: Five future starters.
-- Need for 2017? As always, a top tier cornerback should be targeted, but numbers are no longer necessary.
-- 2015-16 Overall Grade: A-minus. It was necessary to stock up on the corner after batting .333 (as of now) in 2013 with the Luke/Butler/Rashad Kinlaw trio, and bringing in only Watkins in ’14.
Note: We’ll have more on the cornerbacks, defensive line, and offensive linemen in Monday’s Musings.