On the eve of its first spring practice, the Notre Dame football program faces scores of questions after the loss of NFL talent, dozens of long-time contributors, and immeasurable veteran leadership. Irish Illustrated examines the 12 most important questions to be answered over the spring, summer, and ultimately into the fall.
QUESTION #9 – WHO’LL EMERGE AS LEADERS?
First, an examination of what was lost to graduation and/or NFL riches.
-- A pair of two-time team captains, Nick Martin and Sheldon Day
-- Another pair of fifth-year senior captains that served as leaders long before their official appointments, Joe Schmidt and Matthias Farley.
-- The team’s best player, junior Jaylon Smith, on whom leadership was bestowed…and he responded in kind.
And that’s just the quintet of official captains. Also in positions of leadership last season were the following:
-- 5th-year senior Jarrett Grace, likely not named a captain only because he’d missed the previous 18 months of football.
-- Senior Ronnie Stanley, apparently not named a captain because of indifferent parking habits.
-- Senior Chris Brown, the definitive leader of Notre Dame’s wide receiving corps.
-- Junior Will Fuller, the offense’s best player – two years running – and the clear heir to Brown for filling the leadership vacuum had he remained at the University.
-- Senior-to-be Steve Elmer, who, along with classmate Mike McGlinchey, were set to lead the offensive front before the former retired from the sport with a season of eligibility remaining.
-- Gregarious teammate KeiVarae Russell, not in the running for technical captaincy because of an academic transgression, but a respected locker room voice and on field competitor.
When each of the 11 above spoke, their voices and message resonated. The search for such impact – both in the locker room and between the lines – has begun in earnest.
DEFENSE: LEADERS IN MAKING
A pair of seniors on defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s unit, defensive end Isaac Rochell and linebacker James Onwualu, appear the most likely choices for future captaincy, but in the five-plus months between today and any such announcement, it’s clear both will be called upon to lead from within, beginning with their position unit and thus filtering through the defensive side of scrimmage.
Fifth-year senior Jarron Jones spoke openly in November 2014 about his desire to be a captain at the conclusion of his Irish career. He’s played less than three football games since, and will likely be asked to lead by example instead.
Senior cornerback Cole Luke and junior safety/athlete Drue Tranquill rank as the most respected competitors along the back end. Tranquill’s ascent as a leader has been repeatedly stunted due to extensive rehab following ACL tears in 2014 and 2015. He’s already a poster-child for work ethic – nationally, it must be said – the next step is to remain healthy so he can lead on Saturdays.
A two-year starter, senior Max Redfield has some ground to make up in that regard after a suspension for violation of team rules four days prior to last year’s Fiesta Bowl defeat.
OFFENSE: THE (WHAT ELSE?) QB QUANDARY
What if your natural born leader can’t win a starting job? And what if he plays sparingly as a result?
What if your emerging leader from 2015 is still just a redshirt-sophomore this fall…and has in his path is a respected senior that might beat him out for the position in which he shined as a rookie last fall?
Meet Notre Dame’s top returning offensive voices entering Spring Ball 2016: Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer. Their respective status – perhaps both on and off the field – to be determined over the next five to nine months.
NEXT IN LINE
Senior wide receiver Corey Robinson appears more than capable of leadership among Notre Dame’s students – can he attain the same status among his teammates? (Because it would be a major leap forward as of January 1, 2016.)
Classmate Torii Hunter’s personality and work ethic seems apt for a leadership role, but Hunter is a part-timer in the spring, roaming the outfield for Mik Aoki’s Irish baseball team. It’s hard to lead when you’re not always around.
Senior Tarean Folston’s dedication to return from early September knee surgery has been admirable. Will a new lease on football life for Folston include acceptance of his inherent role as tutor for a bevy of youngsters trying to take his job? It’s the nature of the beast for senior runners, but particularly tricky for Folston who can’t yet be at full strength just seven months removed from knee surgery.
The aforementioned McGlinchey ranks as the only upperclassmen with a modicum of experience among Harry Hiestand’s offensive front. Last season the affable McGlinchey admitted he needed leadership (read: hot-head). It’s a major leap for the senior (redshirt-junior) who was in an ideal role under the guidance of Martin and Stanley last season.
Head coach Brian Kelly has stated repeatedly that in an ideal world, a team’s best players are also its leaders. He’s likewise well aware that leading “a room” (position group) is far different than serving as the voice of Notre Dame’s football team.
Who among those that lead their respective rooms will be prepared to lead the squad as a whole next fall?
The first steps toward that end have begun, and will continue down a crucial path through the spring.