Speculating Spring (Part III)

Despite early departure of Prosise, ND’s backfield options are strong following Adams’ debut season, return of injured Folston, and arrival of two rookie RBs this summer.

QUESTION: What will the running back position look like without C.J. Prosise in the mix?
SPRING SPECULATION: The next chapter at the Irish running back position began to take shape over the second half of the 2015 season when Prosise went down with a concussion in the ninth game of the season against Pittsburgh, and again two games later when he suffered a significant high-ankle sprain against Boston College.

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By and large, the Irish lost Prosise with one-third of the season.

Enter Josh Adams on a full-time basis with Tarean Folston already long-removed from the equation with a first-quarter, season-ending knee injury against Texas in the season-opener.

While many projected Dexter Williams to be the first to emerge from the freshman duo, it was Adams who showed the first inclination to assimilate to the offense during the pre-season, sliding into the No. 3 spot on the depth chart behind Folston and Prosise.

When Adams rushed for 133 yards in the fourth game of the season against Massachusetts – including a 70-yard touchdown run – it seemed as if the Irish/Adams were just taking advantage of an inferior defense.

But when Prosise basically was lost for the final five games, including the Fiesta Bowl, Adams took off, rushing for 147 yards against Pittsburgh, 141 yards versus Wake Forest, and 168 yards against Stanford.

Adams set a Notre Dame freshman rushing mark with 835 yards while averaging an impressive 7.1 yards per his 117 carries with six touchdowns.

Prosise’s big-play ability is gone with his decision to enter the NFL draft, and Folston remains less than six months removed from a torn ACL. So Adams remains the clear No. 1 running back heading into the spring with Williams taking the rest of the contact reps while Folston continues the recovery process. Freshmen Tony Jones, Jr. and Deon McIntosh enter the equation this summer.

How good can Adams be? He has the size and has proven he has the breakaway speed to remain a big-play back, even with a healthy return by Folston.

Pad level remains a point of emphasis for running backs coach Autry Denson as it relates to Adams’ development this spring. But the natural instincts and skills at the running back position point to the continued evolution of a real quality ball carrier with three years of eligibility remaining. Pass protection also moves to the forefront of Adams’ spring priorities.

QUESTION: How good can Notre Dame’s interior defensive line play be without Sheldon Day?
SPRING SPECULATION: While the healthy return of nose tackle Jarron Jones and the continued evolution of sophomore-to-be Jerry Tillery lend great promise to the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line in ’16, the Irish do not have a playmaker between the tackles like Sheldon Day.

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Few do.

Day developed into an outstanding three-technique, particularly over his final two years in a Notre Dame uniform when he had a 23 tackles for loss in his last 24 games.

Day was a disruptive presence for the Irish, forcing the opposition to account for him every single snap due to his lightning-quick reactions off the snap as well as his relentless approach on every single down. Notre Dame will not match Day’s productivity with the current/incoming players on the roster.

Tillery, with his exceptional length (6-foot-6 ½), is a fascinating alternative. After playing the nose throughout the bulk of his rookie campaign, he is the natural heir apparent to Day at three-technique, which is why defensive line coach Keith Gilmore cross-trained Tillery in ’15.

To expect Tillery or any other player on the roster to provide the disruptiveness Day did is unrealistic. Tillery gives the Irish great promise at the position. If Gilmore can maximize Tillery’s potential, it would be a huge step for defensive line this spring, although Tillery’s interests outside football will challenge his rate of improvement.

Jones’ return to the field in the Fiesta Bowl was a boost emotionally, but quite frankly, he was predominately ineffective against Ohio State’s interior offensive line in the 15 or so snaps he took against the Buckeyes. That’s neither here nor there as it applies to this spring/fall with Jones in the process to returning to his 2014 form, which was not a complete maximization of his skill set, although he was an effective barrier in the middle of the defensive line when at his best.

A healthy stretch of time leading up to the ’16 season will make a huge difference for Jones/the Irish defense. Consistency of performance, effort and pad level are critical to a maximization of his talent.

Behind Tillery and Jones are a bunch of bodies and the great unknown. The most established is junior-to-be nose tackle Daniel Cage, who logged more time his first two years in the program than anyone could have anticipated. There were flashes, particularly in ’15, although for the most part, Cage was a big body with limited productivity. Cage is a better fit for a 3-4/two-gap approach, which would mesh more with Notre Dame’s former (Bob Diaco) than current (Brian VanGorder) coordinator.

Youngsters Jay Hayes, Elijah Taylor, Micah Dew-Treadway, Pete Mokwuah and Brandon Tiassum are unknowns with Hayes likely providing the greatest upside of that group, although Hayes’ lack of bulk leaves more question marks than answers.

The Irish really could use combo three-technique/big end Khalid Kareem – an early-entry freshman – to make a quick impact, particularly inside to challenge Tillery. Another possibility is John Montelus, a guard the first three years of his career at Notre Dame who could slide inside along the defensive line.

QUESTION: What’s the ceiling for kicker Justin Yoon and punter Tyler Newsome?
SPRING SPECULATION: When you assess the greatest assets of the upcoming 2016 season, this kicker-punter duo is at the top of the chart.

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Yoon struggled a bit early with rookie nerves, missing two field goals and two extra points within the first three games. But he converted his final 12 field-goal attempts of the season, including a 46-yarder in torrential rain at Clemson and a 52-yarder as time expired in the first half against Navy.

Twelve of Yoon’s 15 field goals were less than 40 yards. The 52-yarder notwithstanding, Yoon doesn’t have a big leg. He is more of an end-over-end kicker, which helps with accuracy but limits distance. Yet long field-goal attempts tend to be the exception to the rule, and all things being equal, you’d take accuracy and a shorter range over the big leg.

Newsome preserved a year of eligibility in ’14 and was an unknown consistency-wise heading into ’15. He exceeded all expectations, banging out a 44.5-yard average with 21 of his 55 punts of 50 yards or more. More importantly, Newsome was very consistent with exceptional hang time. Of Newsome’s 55 punts, 21 landed inside the 20 while only eight (14.5 percent) resulted in touchbacks.

Plus, Newsome has more than enough leg to improve upon the 21 kickoffs (out of 84) that resulted in touchbacks. He can reach the end zone virtually any time the Irish choose to settle for the opposition starting at its own 25.

The only alarming stat is the five kickoffs that went out of bounds, although his ability to tuck kickoffs into the left corner of the end zone leaves little margin for error. Newsome’s directional kickoffs were, by and large, very accurate.

To summarize, Notre Dame heads into the spring of ’15 with one of the best kicker/punter duos in the country.

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