QUESTION: Is Notre Dame in a position to get a consistent pass rush from its defensive ends?
SPRING SPECULATION: The loss of Romeo Okwara, who emerged as Notre Dame’s most dominant pass rusher over the last half of the ’15 season, is significant in light of his dramatically-improved play.
Of Notre Dame’s 25 sacks in ’15, just 11 came from defensive ends – eight by Okwara and one each by Isaac Rochell, Andrew Trumbetti and Jonathan Bonner. Trumbetti’s came in the last game of the year against Ohio State.
Trumbetti should benefit greatly by the departure of Okwara and the shift back from big end to rush end. He was misfit as a big end in ’15 with Rochell seldom coming off the field. Trumbetti enters the spring of ’16 as the hands-down frontrunner at the rush end position.
Rochell’s value in passing situations cannot be measured by sacks alone. He had a team-leading 10 quarterback hurries in ’14 and another seven in ’15, which ranked second on the team behind Sheldon Day. His physical presence provides opportunities for others up front on defense.
The Irish need more productivity from junior-to-be Grant Blankenship, who faded into the woodwork as a sophomore after showing flashes in ’14. Senior-to-be Doug Randolph has yet to make a dent. Early-entry freshman Daelin Hayes – who is coming off a series of shoulder issues on the prep level – could provide a spark in the fall if he’s physically prepared to make an impact.
As of now, there are no clear-cut solutions, although there’s promise with Trumbetti as he moves back to a more comfortable rush end spot.
QUESTION: How will the Irish compensate for the loss of Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle at the X, W and Z positions?
SPRING SPECULATION: In Fuller, Brown and Carlisle, the Irish lost 142 receptions, 2,210 yards and 19 touchdowns from ‘15, most of which was provided by the record-setting Fuller.
Among the returning wideouts that caught at least one pass in ’15 – Torii Hunter, Jr., Corey Robinson, Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders – only Hunter and Robinson have notable experience at receiver, and those two accounted for just 44 catches for 563 yards and three scores. That’s a mere 23.4 percent of the receptions, 20.2 percent of the receiving yards and 13.6 percent of the touchdowns accrued by Irish wideouts in ’15.
If Hunter remains at the Z and Sanders continues to evolve at that position, overcoming the loss of Carlisle figures to be the easiest of the three positions for which to compensate.
Notre Dame needs Robinson to return to his ’14 form when he caught 40 passes for 539 yards and five touchdowns. Yet in his last 18 games – since his breakout performance against Florida State in ’14 (eight catches for 99 yards and two touchdowns) -- he’s managed just 29 receptions for 380 yards and two scores. The path to playing time, however, has been cleared by the underrated Brown’s departure.
St. Brown, who is coming off shoulder surgery, is Brian Kelly’s star-in-waiting, although he has just one career catch for eight yards. He’ll likely take over for Fuller at the X. It’s unrealistic to expect comparable production to Fuller’s, at least out of the chute, although he has some of the qualities that Fuller offered when he emerged as a sophomore in ’14.
The Irish need red-shirt freshman Miles Boykin to play a role as well. Boykin – a 6-foot-3 5/8, 225-pounder – begins his ascent in an effort to assist Robinson at the W. A breakthrough from junior-to-be Corey Holmes would be a pleasant surprise as well at the X and take some of the pressure of St. Brown.
Because of the inexperience at wideout, the Irish also could use a contribution from the incoming rookie receivers – Javon McKinley, Chase Claypool and/or Kevin Stepherson (an early entry) – although they obviously have even less experience in the system than St. Brown, Boykin, Holmes and Sanders.
A late-winter Christmas present from unsigned Georgia prospect Demetris Robertson would be huge boost and would add some flexibility to where the staff stations Hunter.
QUESTION(S): Who will replace Elijah Shumate at safety? Is Max Redfield ready to maximize his playing experience? What can be expected of the rest of the safety prospects?
SPRING SPECULATION: All difficult questions to answer.
The health of sixth-year candidate Avery Sebastian and junior-to-be Drue Tranquill is critical, and in both instances, a bit of a longshot.
The reason Sebastian has a sixth year of eligibility is because he’s been unable to stay on the field, first at Cal and again at Notre Dame after suffering a season-debilitating injury in the ’15 opener against Texas.
Tranquill has been very effective when VanGorder has used him as an in-the-box safety/nickel back near the line of scrimmage. He was much less effective as a deep safety when he was forced into action as a freshman in ’14. Tranquill has missed 12 of the last 15 games with back-to-back torn ACLs.
If one or both of Sebastian/Tranquill are healthy, they figure to have a significant edge over anyone else to replace Shumate, who was much improved in ’15 over his previous seasons, but was inconsistent at times as well.
Redfield – a four-to-five star prospect coming out of high school – didn’t get on the field (at safety) as a freshman until Diaco departed for the head-coaching job at Connecticut, and that came in the Pinstripe Bowl against a less-than-stellar Rutgers squad.
He emerged as a starter during his sophomore season in ’14, but lost his job in the lineup for two weeks in November before injuries to other safeties forced him back into a starting role the last two games of the season.
It should be noted that Redfield finished fourth on the defense in tackles in ’15 with 64. His interception against USC was crucial in holding off the Trojans in the fourth quarter, although he was the beneficiary of a tip by cornerback KeiVarae Russell.
Redfield fought through a broken thumb through the middle portion of the schedule after missing the Georgia Tech game, which may have been a bit of a short-term blessing since he’s struggled against option-based offenses.
The greatest disappointment of all was Redfield’s violation of team rules in Arizona, which led to his exclusion from the Fiesta Bowl.
Red-shirt freshman Mykelti Williams is worth keeping an eye on this spring. Irish Illustrated named Williams one of the top three-star prospects in the Class of ’15. He preserved a year of eligibility as a rookie and could be in a position to begin his ascent as early as this spring, particularly with Tranquill still in the rehab process.
Sophomore Nicco Fertitta is more likely to become a mainstay on special teams than he is to crack the lineup at safety.
Early-entry freshmen Devin Studstill (free) and Spencer Perry (strong) will get a jump this spring on classmates Jalen Elliott and D.J. Morgan, who will arrive this summer.
To summarize, the safety position, which has been a trouble spot, remains at the top of the list of concerns, although nine scholarship players for two positions lends itself to more competition, which will assist the process.