QUESTION: Beyond Cole Luke, what do we know about the cornerback position and who will emerge?
SPRING SPECULATION: One of the unknowns heading into the spring, although ample bodies in the secondary – nine cornerbacks and nine safeties come fall – should make for some interesting competition and a busy schedule for secondary coach Todd Lyght.
Luke is a given, but even defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder questioned his progress from his sophomore season in 2014 to his junior campaign in 2015.
Luke’s numbers – from tackles to passes broken up to passes defensed to interceptions -- all decreased in ’15. A defensive player only has so much control over those categories, but Luke simply did not make as many plays and wasn’t in position to make as many plays against the pass, although he did tie for the team-lead in interceptions with two.
The starting spot opposite Luke is up in the air. KeiVarae Russell is gone, senior-to-be Devin Butler has the most experience and junior-to-be Nick Watkins has the best combination of size and athleticism.
When Butler suffered a broken foot during Fiesta Bowl week, Watkins started over Nick Coleman and represented himself pretty well against Ohio State’s passing game, which was content to take smaller chunks through the air as the ground game did the bulk of damage.
The Irish need Watkins to emerge and maximize his talent. He has a ton of it. From Day One, Coleman looked like a player, although technique on the collegiate level remains the focus.
Irish fans should be excited about a healthy Shaun Crawford in the fall. He’s coming off an ACL injury, so the staff likely will be guarded this spring. But the Irish will be inserting a four-star prospect back into the equation that offers more than just talent potential. He won the nickel job in pre-season camp before suffering the injury.
Also in the mix will be sophomore-to-be Ashton White, who preserved a year of eligibility in the fall and now has a real chance to show what he can do, although his time may come further down the road.
The real fun for Lyght starts this fall when he adds Donte’ Vaughn, Julian Love and Troy Pride, Jr. to the equation.
The competition this spring at cornerback will be open-ended with another layer coming a few months down the road.
QUESTION: Which players who played a bit role or none at all on offense in ’15 have the greatest opportunity this spring/fall?
SPRING SPECULATION: At the top of the chart is wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown who, barring the sudden emergence of Corey Holmes, is the heir apparent to Will Fuller.
The shoulder injury will moderate his contributions this spring. But Brian Kelly trumpeted the coaching staff’s excitement over the 6-foot-4, 205-pounder, and when he’s fully recovered from a shoulder injury that required in-season surgery, he’ll be a focal point of the passing game.
Although the Irish lost all three starters at the X, W and Z positions, guys like Corey Robinson and Torii Hunter, Jr. are natural insertions into the starting lineup. Hunter looked like a player on the rise in ’15; Robinson didn’t.
But if he doesn’t take his game to the next level, sophomore-to-be Miles Boykin could be poised to snatch playing time. If the staff takes advantage of Hunter’s position flexibility, that could provide some reps at the Z for C.J. Sanders.
Another great opportunity exists along the offensive line where the departure of Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin and Steve Elmer opens up playing time for several players who have virtually no experience.
The top three beneficiaries are Sam Mustipher, Alex Bars and the winner of the Colin McGovern/Hunter Bivin talent show.
Mustipher is the heir apparent to Martin at center, although there is some hesitation to making that a definitive statement since the staff wanted to and did preserve a year of eligibility for freshman Tristen Hoge. May the best man win with Mustipher possessing an extra year in the program.
Bars is coming off a broken foot, so his contributions this spring will be limited. But he’s a lock to land a starting spot. Whether it’s guard or tackle remains to be seen.
The McGovern-Bivin battle is not a direct competition with McGovern likely challenging for a guard spot and Bivin a tackle opening. But it could be a best-man-wins competition, which would have a domino effect on where Bars ends up.
QUESTION: Which players who played a bit role or none at all on defense in ’15 have the greatest opportunity this spring/fall?
SPRING SPECULATION: The aforementioned Nick Watkins is in great position to build off the momentum he generated in the Fiesta Bowl.
Although junior-to-be defensive end Andrew Trumbetti generally wouldn’t be considered a bit player on the Irish defense, the fact is after playing extensively as a freshman, he took a back seat to Romeo Okwara throughout much of the ’15 season.
His role expanded against Ohio State when an injury to Sheldon Day and Jerry Tillery’s suspension forced Brian VanGorder to move Isaac Rochell inside and Trumbetti into the lineup, an opportunity that he maximized.
If you’re listed among the linebackers, you have a chance to play. And while most automatically point to Nyles Morgan – Joe Schmidt’s backup – as the guy who steps into the starting lineup, it’s no sure thing come fall.
Greer Martini – who won’t take contact this spring following shoulder surgery – was the man VanGorder tabbed when he needed to dip into his bench at linebacker in ’15, particularly against option-based teams. Maybe he’s no Schmidt in terms of knowledge of the system, but he’s close.
Martini has quality size (6-2 ½, 245) and instincts. When given opportunities to contribute in ’15, he responded with eight tackles against Georgia Tech, eight stops versus UMass, and nine against Navy. One way or another, Martini is a probable starter in ’16.
With Schmidt and Jaylon Smith gone, there’s another starting spot open for competition. Maybe Morgan fills it opposite Martini. Perhaps it’s Te’von Coney, who will miss the spring with a shoulder injury. Opportunity is knocking very loud for guys like Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas.
A healthy Avery Sebastian has a distinct edge this spring at strong safety with Drue Tranquill on the mend for his second ACL tear. It will be interesting to see what the coaching staff does with sophomore-to-be Mykelti Williams, who could slide over opposite Max Redfield to compete for the open starting spot, at least until Tranquill is back to full health.
Early-entry freshmen Devin Studstill and Spencer Perry have a unique opportunity to turn some heads in their first set of spring practices.