Re-grading the Class of ‘14

Of the 23 prospects in the signing Class of 2014, 10 were defensive front seven players. The Irish need a big step up in ’16 from this group.

Notre Dame’s signing Class of 2014 was compromised down the stretch of recruiting after Bob Diaco left his defensive coordinator’s role with the Irish and took the head-coaching job at Connecticut.

The continuity gap led to Irish head coach Brian Kelly taking over some of the heavy lifting on the recruiting trail before he tabbed Brian VanGorder as his defensive coordinator.

Ultimately, it became a bit of a body grab in January/early February as the Irish missed out on defensive linemen Andrew Williams (Auburn), Thomas Holley (Florida) and Solomon Thomas (Stanford), linebackers Richard Yeargin III (Clemson) and Raekwon McMillan (Ohio State), cornerback Adoree Jackson (USC), and safety JuJu Smith (USC), who would flip to the other side of the football with the Trojans.

The biggest miss of all, however, was the loss of previously-committed running back Elijah Hood, who just couldn’t leave his home state of North Carolina and landed with the Tar Heels. The Irish missed out on a host of quality running backs such as Sony Michel (Georgia) and Joe Mixon (Oklahoma), receivers Allen Lazard (Iowa State), Mark Andrews (Oklahoma), Michiah Quick (Oklahoma) and Isaiah McKenzie (Georgia), and offensive linemen Ross Pierschbacher (Alabama) and Damien Mama (USC).

The inability to land a cross-section of this talent shows up in the Class of 2014 as it enters the third year in the program.

A maximum of nine and perhaps as few as six juniors-to-be project as starters this fall, led by quarterback DeShone Kizer, guard Quenton Nelson, defensive end Andrew Trumbetti and linebacker Nyles Morgan, who has been caught in a logjam for the past two seasons.

Here’s our position-by-position look at the Class of 2014.

QUARTERBACK
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• Signed: DeShone Kizer (4*)
• 2014 Grade: B
• Freshman/Sophomore Years: As recently as the spring of ’15, Kizer looked mired on the Irish depth chart behind Everett Golson and heir apparent Malik Zaire. In fact, Kizer had a poor spring – by his own admission – as the other two received the bulk of the reps on the heels of Kizer preserving a year of eligibility in ’14.
But when Golson transferred to Florida State and Zaire suffered a season-ending injury in the second game, Kizer took over and flourished, leading game-winning or potential game-winning (or tying) drives against Virginia, Clemson, Temple and Stanford. Kizer completed 63 percent of his 355 passes with 21 touchdowns. Interceptions (10) plagued him at times, particularly in the red zone. But he rushed for 520 yards and 10 touchdowns, the latter a Notre Dame single-season quarterback record.
• 2016 Re-grade A-: Kizer enters the spring with three years of eligibility as he begins the battle of maintaining the starting spot over Zaire. His upside is very high.

RUNNING BACK
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• Signed: None
• 2014 Grade: Incomplete
• Freshman/Sophomore Years: It was a complete swing-and-a-miss effort by the Fighting Irish in their pursuit of one running back in the Class of ’14. The Irish appeared to have Elijah Hood locked up, which would have been a huge addition to Notre Dame’s short-yardage/red-zone rushing attack, only to have the North Carolina native reverse field and sign with the Tar Heels.
Notre Dame made a run at big-name running backs Leonard Fournette (LSU), Sony Michel (Georgia) and Joe Mixon (Oklahoma), but to no avail. Once Hood escaped, the Irish weren’t in position to land a top-rated back, and thus, passed.
• 2016 Re-grade: Incomplete

WIDE RECEIVER
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• Signed: Justin Brent (4*), Corey Holmes (4*)
• 2014 Grade: B+
• Freshman/Sophomore Years: It would be difficult for the one-two pass-receiving tandem of Brent and Holmes to have played a lesser role than they did during their first two years in the program.
Brent stirred up some controversy when his private life became public after playing a bit role on special teams as a freshman. As a sophomore, he was shifted to running back, where he never threatened to make a mark during the ’15 season.
Holmes preserved a year of eligibility as a freshman and never could get in the mix during his sophomore campaign as the backup to record-setting wideout Will Fuller.
• 2016 Re-grade D: Brent could be in position to move back to receiver following the emergence at running back of Josh Adams, the promise of Dexter Williams and the recent signing of two incoming rookie running backs – Tony Jones, Jr. and Deon McIntosh. But with the shortage of bodies at the position in the spring, he’ll likely have to stay at running back. Holmes now faces the challenge of competing with promising sophomore-to-be Equanimeous St. Brown at the X position.
Until further notice, Brent and Holmes were vastly over-graded.

TIGHT END
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• Signed: Tyler Luatua (3*), Nic Weishar (4*)
• 2014 Grade: B+
• Freshman/Sophomore Years: Luatua, who also was a linebacker prospect coming out of high school, made an immediate impact in camp as a freshman by developing into a solid if not an overly consistent blocking tight end. He saw action in 10 games and formed a one-two punch with Ben Koyack when the Irish tried to emphasize the run in September games against Purdue and Syracuse. Luatua maintained his blocking role in ’15 with sporadic results. He recently informed Notre Dame of his desire to transfer to Brigham Young, which he will do upon the conclusion of the spring semester.
Weishar preserved a year of eligibility as a freshman and then entered the rotation as a sophomore with Durham Smythe, Luatua, Aliz’e Jones and Chase Hounshell. Weishar played in 12 games, starting two, and caught three passes for 19 yards.
• 2016 Re-grade C-: Weishar joins Smythe and Jones this spring as the only three true tight ends in the program until ’17 commitments Brock Wright and Cole Kmet join the program next year. (Defensive tackle Jacob Matuska, a former prep tight end, is a candidate for a position switch.) Heading into his junior year with three years of eligibility remaining, Weishar is the third-team tight end.

OFFENSIVE LINE
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• Signed: Quenton Nelson (4*), Alex Bars (4*), Sam Mustipher (4*), Jimmy Byrne (4*)
• 2014 Grade: A
• Freshman/Sophomore Years: All four offensive linemen from the Class of ’14 preserved a year of eligibility as freshmen, but Nelson was pegged as the heir apparent at left guard in ’15 with the promising Bars establishing himself as the clear sixth offensive lineman.
Nelson turned in an outstanding first season of participation, starting the first four games, missing the fifth with an ankle injury, coming off the bench in Week Six for an injured Bars, and then starting the rest of the season. (Note: Irish Illustrated projected Nelson as a five-star prospect coming out of high school.)
Bars started the Navy and USC games and, considering it was his first notable action, performed quite well. He suffered a season-ending injury against the Trojans, but clearly projects as a starter somewhere along the offensive line in ’16, perhaps at the left tackle spot vacated by the graduation of Ronnie Stanley.
Mustipher played in a reserve role behind Nick Martin in ’15 and appears to be the heir apparent, although sophomore-to-be Tristen Hoge could apply some pressure. Byrne has yet to make a significant move for playing time, but enters ’16 with three years of eligibility.
• 2016 Re-grade A: Nelson and Bars look like college standouts and future NFL talent. Next year at this time, after Bars has established himself and if Mustipher wins the center job, the grade could reach as high as A+.

DEFENSIVE LINE
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• Signed: Andrew Trumbetti (4*), Daniel Cage (4*), Grant Blankenship (4*), Jonathan Bonner (3*), Jay Hayes (4*), Pete Mokwuah (3*), Jhonathon Williams (3*)
• 2014 Grade: B
• Freshman/Sophomore Years: Attrition hit the seven-man defensive line class when Williams, who preserved a year of eligibility as a freshman, left the program following his rookie season.
Trumbetti had the greatest impact in ’14, playing in 12 games and starting one while flashing long-range pass-rushing prowess. He had difficulty getting on the field in ’15 as a backup big end behind Isaac Rochell, but saved his most impactful performance for last in an impressive effort against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Cage also was an early contributor, seeing action in 11 games as a rookie in ’14. He shared the nose tackle spot with freshman Jerry Tillery in ’15, starting seven games and finishing with 18 tackles, including four for loss.
Blankenship, like Trumbetti, made a greater contribution as a freshman when he saw action in 11 games with 12 tackles and a sack. He saw time in just three games in ’15 with one tackle.
Hayes appeared poised to preserve a year of eligibility in ’14 before being called into duty over the final three games when injuries took a toll on Notre Dame’s defensive line. He instead preserved a year of eligibility in ’15 and enters ’16 with three years left.
Bonner and Mokwuah did not see action as freshmen. Bonner had five tackles in 10 games in ’15 with a fumble forced and a quarterback hurry. Mokwuah saw sparse action (two games) last season.
• 2016 Re-grade C-: This group caught our attention with its number of bodies, but after two years, only Trumbetti projects as a starter heading into ’16. Cage falls to No. 2 on the depth chart behind a healthy Jarron Jones at nose tackle. Neither Cage nor Mokwuah are good fits for a four-down, one-gap approach. Bonner, Blankenship and Hayes are wild cards. Considering the number of prospects and the current projection, this area has been a disappointment with a chance for inroads in ’16 as a whole new set of prospects arrive.

LINEBACKER
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• Signed: Nyles Morgan (5*), Greer Martini (4*), Kolin Hill (3*), Nile Sykes (3*)
• 2014 Grade: B+
• Freshman/Sophomore Years: Morgan served in a backup role as a freshman in ’14 before being forced to take over at Mike linebacker in the seventh game of the season when Joe Schmidt went down with a season-ending injury. He finished with 47 tackles and 3½ tackles for loss. But Morgan remained stuck behind Schmidt in ’15 and played sparingly, even in goal-line situations.
Martini also was pegged for backup duty as a rookie, but started against Navy’s triple-option attack, and then earned the nod against USC in Game 11 when injuries took a toll on the Irish. Martini had 35 tackles in spot duty as a sophomore, again getting the starting call against option foes Georgia Tech and Navy.
Hill found his way onto the field in ’14 as a pass-rush specialist, participating in nine games with a pair of sacks and seven tackles. He has since transferred from Notre Dame. Sykes signed with Notre Dame and began summer school in June, but left Notre Dame less than a month after his arrival.
• 2016 Re-grade B-: Morgan is halfway through his eligibility, but the path to a starting spot is now clear with the departure of Schmidt. He has much ground to cover to live up to his five-star billing. Martini has given Notre Dame more playing time than many anticipated at this point of his career. He remains a candidate for playing time/a starting spot. This grade could really shoot up after the 2016 season.

CORNERBACK
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• Signed: Nick Watkins (4*)
• 2014 Grade: B
• Freshman/Sophomore Years: Watkins, much like LB Nyles Morgan, was a ballyhooed recruit who has yet to live up to his billing. He played in 11 games as a freshman, but all of his work came on special teams. Expected to put himself in position for at least part-time playing time in ’15, Watkins didn’t see the light of day at cornerback until the Fiesta Bowl after KeiVarae Russell and Devin Butler went down with injury.
Watkins started the Ohio State game and made five of his eight tackles on the season against the Buckeyes with a pass defensed. He figures to be the leading candidate to take the spot vacated by Russell based upon his solid performance in the Fiesta Bowl, although Butler returns in ’16.
• 2016 Re-grade C+: There’s never been a question of talent with Watkins, but rather, practice work habits. Perhaps the light at the end of the tunnel shed during Fiesta Bowl week is the motivation he needs to maximize his skill set.

SAFETY
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• Signed: Drue Tranquill (4*)
• 2014 Grade: C
• Freshman/Sophomore Years: Tranquill proved to be a pleasant surprise during his rookie season, making 33 tackles in 11 games with a tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick before suffering a knee injury in the 11th game against Louisville.
Tranquill returned to health for his sophomore season and was having the game of his life as an in-the-box safety against Navy in Game Six when a celebration following a pass breakup led to another season-ending knee injury.
• 2016 Re-grade B-: If he can overcome a second torn ACL (one in each knee), Tranquill’s a weapon near the line of scrimmage where he defends the width of the field well and has a penchant for getting after the quarterback. He’s less effective as a true safety where he still could compete for a starting spot. When healthy and put in a position to maximized his strengths, he’s a real asset.

PUNTER/KICKER
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• Signed: Tyler Newsome (3*)
• 2014 Grade: B
• Freshman/Sophomore Years: Newsome preserved a year of eligibility as a freshman and then took over kickoff/punting duties as a sophomore in 2015, where he excelled in both roles. Newsome has All-American potential as a punter, averaging 44.5 yards with a long of 62. Of his 55 punts, 21 (38.1 percent) traveled at least 50 yards.
• 2016 Re-grade A: With the exception of a few too many kickoffs out of bounds (five), Newsome is a long-term weapon for the Irish as a kickoff man but especially as a punter, where he appears to have NFL potential.


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