Re-grading the Notre Dame Class of ‘15

Eleven freshmen made their collegiate debuts in 2015 with promising prospects Shaun Crawford, Miles Boykin, Asmar Bilal, Josh Barajas and Mykelti Williams preserving a year.

Now that we’ve analyzed the recently-signed Class of 2016 inside, outside, backward and forward, it’s time to take a look at our grading of the group that arrived one year earlier.

In many instances, an “incomplete” grade is most appropriate since only a handful of players from the original 23-man class were in a position to make a significant contribution.

What was thought to be a 24-man class came up a spot short when linebacker Bo Wallace never did enroll at Notre Dame. The class dipped to a present-day 22 when wide receiver Jalen Guyton was removed from the equation at the end of the semester.

QUARTERBACK
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• Signed: Brandon Wimbush
• 2015 Grade: B+
• Freshman Year: Wimbush burned a year of eligibility with spot duty against Massachusetts and Pittsburgh when the Irish felt the need to get his feet wet in case something happened to DeShone Kizer, who took over for injured Malik Zaire in Week Two.
Wimbush flashed his athletic skills on a 58-yard touchdown run against the Minutemen while showing his inexperience on an ill-advised fumble against the Panthers. Wimbush significantly trails Kizer/Zaire in terms of grasp of the overall offensive scheme. Brian Kelly announced on signing day the intent of preserving a year of eligibility for Wimbush in ’16 with Kizer and Zaire competing for the starting spot. Incoming freshman Ian Book will take over the No. 3 spot on the depth chart.
• 2016 Re-grade: B+

RUNNING BACK
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• Signed: Josh Adams, Dexter Williams
• 2015 Grade: A-
• Freshman Year: Adams factored into the backfield equation from the outset when Tarean Folston went down with a season-ending knee injury against Texas and Adams scored two touchdowns in his debut. Adams finished with an impressive 835 yards, a 7.1-yard average per carry and six touchdowns, including a 98-yarder against Wake Forest -- the longest run in Notre Dame history. He cracked the 100-yard mark four times, including three of the last four regular-season games.
Williams threatened to make it a three-man running back crew with Adams and C.J. Prosise, but was limited to 21 carries for 81 yards (3.9-yard average) and a touchdown against UMass.
No reason to downgrade the original opinion of this duo, although most thought it would be the more highly-touted Williams, not Adams, who would make the first impact. Adams looks like a perennial 1,000-yard back moving forward while Williams’ potential remains high.
• 2016 Re-grade: A

WIDE RECEIVER
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• Signed: Equanimeous St. Brown, C.J. Sanders, Miles Boykin, Jalen Guyton
• 2015 Grade: A
• Freshman Year: None of the four made a significant impact in the passing game with St. Brown and Sanders each making one catch for a combined eight yards. But St. Brown blocked a punt in the victory over USC, and Sanders emerged as Notre Dame’s kickoff and punt returner with touchdowns against UMass (50-yard punt return) and Stanford (93-yard kickoff return).
Guyton never made it to the field in ’15 while off-the-field issues led to his dismissal. Boykin preserved a year of eligibility with Kelly occasionally referring to his long-range potential, particularly during pre-season camp when the decision to preserve a year of eligibility was made.
Meanwhile, the hype machine surrounding St. Brown since suffering a season-ending shoulder injury late in the season has been churning. He is the projected heir apparent to Will Fuller at the X position with plenty of plaudits from Kelly.
• 2016 Re-grade: A

TIGHT END
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• Signed: Aliz’e Jones
• 2015 Grade: A+
• Freshman Year: With five scholarship tight ends heading into the ’15 season, it was unclear just how much the five-star Jones would contribute as a freshman. Durham Smythe had won the job, Tyler Luatua had established himself as a competent blocking tight end, and Nic Weishar flashed some goal-line skills during camp.
But Jones’ talent rose to the surface as the season progressed. He finished with 13 catches for 190 yards, including a crucial 45-yarder that set up the game-winning touchdown against Temple as well as a 35-yarder from Torii Hunter, Jr. versus USC.
Smythe and Weishar return with Luatua and Chase Hounshell no longer in the equation. Smythe is the most well-rounded of the trio, but Jones is a wide receiver in a tight end’s body with assets the Irish will continue to exploit moving forward.
• 2016 Re-grade: A+

OFFENSIVE LINE
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• Signed: Tristen Hoge, Trevor Ruhland
• 2015 Grade: C+
• Freshman Year: Not much to evaluate, at least from the outside looking in, as Hoge – a center/guard – and Ruhland, who received practice reps at both tackle and guard, preserved a year of eligibility.
Hoge could be in a position to challenge unproven center Sam Mustipher for the starting job, although Mustipher has an extra year in the program jump. In order to balance the depth chart bodies along the offensive line, Ruhland could work at right tackle behind Mike McGlinchey this spring.
Without much feedback offered on the two young offensive linemen up to this point – look for more this spring – it’s difficult to upgrade or downgrade the smaller-than-normal offensive line haul of ’15, although Ruhland’s best positional fit remains in question.
• 2016 Re-grade: C

DEFENSIVE LINE
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• Signed: Jerry Tillery, Micah Dew-Treadway, Elijah Taylor, Brandon Tiassum
• 2015 Grade: D+
• Freshman Year: The initial grade seems a bit harsh now, but it reflected the prospects Notre Dame failed to land along the defensive line as well as film reviews of Dew-Treadway, Taylor and Tiassum, which weren’t overly optimistic. Plus, the bulk of Tillery’s four-star production out of high school came from his work along the offensive line.
But Tillery emerged as an instant contributor at nose tackle while cross-training at the three-technique. He played in 12 games – missing the Fiesta Bowl due to suspension – started three, and finished with 12 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack. The other three prospects preserved a year of eligibility.
Tillery’s performance alone, plus his 2016 projection as the starting three-technique with Sheldon Day off to the pros, is enough to significantly upgrade this position. The verdict is still out on Tillery’s ceiling as well as the capabilities of the other three.
• 2016 Re-grade: C+

LINEBACKERS
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• Signed: Te’von Coney, Asmar Bilal, Josh Barajas
• 2015 Grade: A
• Freshman Year: Coney emerged as the backup to Jaylon Smith, which is an achievement without much to show for it by way of playing time. It’s tough getting on the field ahead of the most dynamic athlete ever to play the linebacker position at Notre Dame. Then, when Coney did have a chance for an extended look, he suffered a significant left shoulder injury in the Fiesta Bowl, which will limit him in the spring when he could have been nailing down a starting job.
Barajas, a four-star recruit with some five-star qualities, had a disappointing rookie campaign, arriving with a few too many pounds and then suffering physical setbacks that kept him sidelined for the season. That may prove to be a real blessing.
Bilal was voted the defensive prep team player of the year and offers the Irish position flexibility heading into the spring, particularly with Coney limited at the Will. Bilal could line up inside or outside while Barajas remains a very promising prospect.
• 2016 Re-grade: A

CORNERBACKS
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• Signed: Shaun Crawford, Nick Coleman, Ashton White
• 2015 Grade: B
• Freshman Year: It was a disappointing year for the rookie cornerbacks from the standpoint that Crawford had won the starting nickel job during pre-season camp, only to miss the entire ’15 season with a knee injury. Coleman was a pleasant surprise from the outset of camp, putting himself in the running for action, although he never was able to find a consistent niche outside of special teams. When KeiVarae Russell and Devin Butler both were down with injuries for the Fiesta Bowl, the older Nick Watkins got the starting nod.
And yet both are in position to make significant impacts this spring while White remains a promising if not a front-line prospect at the present time. Crawford will be the starter at nickel or cornerback while Coleman, at worst, should be in the thick of the cornerback battle.
• 2015 Re-grade: B+

SAFETIES
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• Signed: Mykelti Williams, Nicco Fertitta
• 2015 Grade: D+
• Freshman Year: Williams went through the typical struggle of a freshman safety in Brian VanGorder’s complex defense that puts a ton of mental stress on his safeties. Fertitta quickly worked his way onto Notre Dame’s coverage units. The only tackle for which he was credited caused a fumble against Wake Forest.
Williams remains a promising prospect – one of the most underrated three-stars in the class – and has a chance to work his way into the rotation if not a starting spot next to Max Redfield. Fertitta’s size and lack of great quickness likely keeps him on special teams, where he can carve a solid four-year niche with his savvy and aggressiveness.
The original grade was a reflection of a poorly-handled recruiting effort at the position when the Irish had a significant need. That need increased/spilled over to the Class of ’16, which was thoroughly addressed. The new grade puts the failed recruiting efforts at safety in ’15 in the rearview mirror and reflects the promise for the future of Williams at safety and Fertitta on special teams.
• 2016 Re-grade: C

KICKER
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• Signed: Justin Yoon
• 2015 Grade: A
• Freshman Year: Could you expect any more from a rookie kicker than what the Irish received from the unflappable Yoon? Yoon converted 15-of-17 field goals, including a 52-yarder as time expired in the first half against Navy and each of his last 12 field-goal attempts. He made eight extra points, missed, made eight more, missed for a second time, and then converted his last 34.
The Irish have themselves a quality four-year kicker and a budding star. His range, despite the 52-yarder, is not huge, but when he lines up for a field goal, the feeling is that three points are going up on the board. That shouldn’t change.
• 2016 Re-grade: A+


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