The following is a breakdown of 12 areas on the 2016 Notre Dame team upon the conclusion of spring drills. We’ve undertaken a very subjective ranking of those 12 areas as to where they stand in a pecking order.
12) Safeties (Max Redfield, Drue Tranquill, Devin Studstill, Avery Sebastian, Nicco Fertitta, Jalen Elliott, Spencer Perry, D.J. Morgan)
Redfield is one of the three or four most experienced players returning on defense, and you can count on one hand – perhaps with a finger or two left over – as to how many big plays he’s made in his career. He played quite well in the Blue-Gold Game, but we all know what that means in the grand scheme of things. Still, there’s promise.
Tranquill is a game-impacting, difference-making safety. For the purposes of this rating, however, that’s not the position he plays. Brian VanGorder admitted that he’s “concerned” with Tranquill on the hash.
Studstill is a very promising prospect, but an early impact is still to be determined. He’ll definitely be in the mix. Sebastian’s best days physically are behind him.
Elliott, whom DB coach Todd Lyght gushes about, could emerge early.
11) Defensive/Nose Tackles (Jarron Jones, Daniel Cage, Pete Mokwuah, Jerry Tillery, Elijah Taylor, Micah Dew-Treadway, John Montelus, Brandon Tiassum)
Question marks from top to bottom. At least Jones is a proven performer on a fairly high level, but he’s coming off two serious injuries and he’s never fully maximized his potential on a consistent basis.
Cage is coming along to form a one-two punch at the nose, but the Irish might need Jones to slide to the three-technique if Tillery doesn’t blossom, and Jones is a bit of a stretch at tackle because of his lack of side-to-side mobility.
At this point in their careers, Mokwuah, Taylor, Dew-Treadway and Tiassum do not look like Power 5 conference players. Montelus is just part of the pack after moving from offensive guard.
10) Linebackers (James Onwualu, Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini, Te’von Coney, Asmar Bilal, Josh Barajas, Jonathan Jones, Jamir Jones)
There may not be a player on defense that VanGorder respects more than Onwualu, who is a great and willing learner and a team-first guy all the way. He’s yet to prove he can be an impact player, although he won’t come off the field often because of his knowledge of the system from the Sam position.
Morgan certainly looked the part this spring at Mike. He has two years to make it fully translate. Martini, coming off a shoulder injury, is one of the most underrated players on the entire team. He’ll be involved in dime packages and is a key figure vs. option football.
The Coney-Bilal-Barajas trio is a very, very promising group without a lick of notable playing experience.
9) Offensive Guards/Centers (Quenton Nelson, Sam Mustipher, Hunter Bivin, Colin McGovern, Tristen Hoge, Trevor Ruhland, Parker Boudreaux)
This kind of subjective ranking is unfair to a great talent like Nelson. He’s so good he could singlehandedly place this group in the top five.
But we’re talking about three positions, and beyond Nelson, there are no proven players on the interior. To Mustipher’s credit, he won the center job hands-down this spring. But he’s unproven, as are Bivin and McGovern, who never seriously competed for a starting spot during their first three years in the program.
Hoge and Ruhland are undersized. If Boudreaux could pick up the system, his sheer power gives him a shot at guard.
8) Inside Receivers: Tight Ends/Slots (*Alizé Jones, Durham Smythe, Nic Weishar, Jacob Matuska, Corey Holmes, C.J. Sanders, Chris Finke, Chase Claypool)
With the multi-faceted Jones, this has the makings of a real dynamic tight end group provided Smythe stays healthy and Weishar continues to evolve. Matuska could play a role as an in-line blocker.
On the flip side, there is no proven experience at the Z position. Holmes showed promise this spring, but never came close to making an impact his first two years. Sanders, a key man in the return game, is coming off a significant hip injury that will cut into his off-season strength and conditioning.
Finke is, at the end of the day, an undersized walk-on. The most intriguing slot prospect is Claypool, whose length indicates wideout but whose athleticism could push him inside where there is playing time to be had.
* Also a wideout
7) Wide Receivers (Torii Hunter, Jr., *Alizé Jones, Kevin Stepherson, Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin, Chris Finke, Javon McKinley, **Corey Robinson)
The hole left by the departure of Will Fuller doesn’t look nearly as big after Hunter’s spring. Keep in mind, however, that Hunter – with two years of eligibility remaining – has just 35 catches and three touchdowns in his career. He has big-play potential, but probably not Fuller-level big-play potential with the game-after-game consistency Fuller offered.
Jones is the wildcard at W with the potential to be a 50-catch receiver in his second year. Stepherson is the most exciting prospect right now among the pups. He catches everything in sight.
It would be great if Robinson could take advantage of his experience and make a contribution, although it may stunt the growth of Jones in a multi-role capacity. Spring ended awaiting Robinson’s decision about his future after suffering multiple concussions.
Speaking of injuries, St. Brown can’t seem to shake them. Boykin is another big, exciting target. Incoming freshman McKinley is another exciting prospect.
*Also a tight end
** Injury status TBD
6) Defensive Ends (Isaac Rochell, Andrew Trumbetti, Jay Hayes, Jonathan Bonner, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji, *Grant Blankenship)
Rochell is the rock upon which the Irish defensive line is built, but he’s yet to prove himself as a pass rusher while the rest of the defensive ends have yet to prove themselves…period. What bumps this area up is the depth, which it appears the Irish were able to build this spring with three functional players at each end spot.
Given the next two years to settle in at rush end, there should be 12-to-15 sacks in Trumbetti’s game. Jay Hayes will get opportunities against the run while Bonner has to play well enough to allow DL coach Keith Gilmore to bump Rochell inside.
The wildcard is Daelin Hayes, who, if healthy and capable of fully maximizing his ability, has star potential in the long term. Kareem is the long-term heir apparent to Rochell. The Irish sure could use a pass-rushing specialist outside of Daelin Hayes. Okwara has the prep footage to warrant hope, although it’s likely down the road.
*Suspended; status unknown
5) Cornerbacks (Cole Luke, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins, Nick Coleman, Ashton White, Devin Butler, Troy Pride Jr., Donte Vaughn, Julian Love)
Besides Rochell, Luke is the most veteran player on the defense. VanGorder intimated that Luke had a better sophomore season (’14) than junior (’15). He has to maximize his experience, and if the Blue-Gold Game is a sign of things to come, he should be a real quality cornerback in ’16, at least against the run.
Crawford flat-out has star ability, which he showed throughout the spring and again in the Blue-Gold Game. He’s the starting corner, the starting nickel and the best cover man in the program.
It still remains to be seen what the other cornerbacks have to offer. A real shame Watkins had such a significant setback (broken arm) this spring after a noteworthy effort in his first career start in the Fiesta Bowl.
At this point in his career, Devin Butler likely will be passed by youngsters. Freshmen Pride and Vaughn are very exciting prospects. Love could be an early surprise as well. At least one – and maybe two – might very well move ahead of the sophomore contingent.
4) Offensive Tackles (Mike McGlinchey, Alex Bars, Mark Harrell, Jimmy Byrne, Tommy Kraemer, Liam Eichenberg)
The McGlinchey-Bars pairing at left and right tackle has the makings of an outstanding duo. Both are athletes, particularly McGlinchey, the former prep tight end. His length is overwhelming, so what he might occasionally lack in quickness, he has in reach. Bars, coming off a significant ankle injury, has the length of a tackle, the width of a guard and the athleticism of a former tight end. He flashes star potential.
We list Harrell and Byrne ahead of the incoming freshmen due to seniority. But realistically, both Kraemer and Eichenberg likely will hold down No. 2 spots on the depth chart this fall.
It is imperative that McGlinchey and Bars stay healthy this fall, otherwise, the drop-off in talent/experience will be precipitous.
3) Kickers/Punters/Snappers (Justin Yoon, Tyler Newsome, Scott Daly, John Shannon)
How do you rate kickers and punters against the guys that are at taking/delivering the blows? That’s one of the reasons the specialists have dedicated themselves in the weight room. They want to be considered football players.
As it relates to their jobs on the football field, Yoon and Newsome are two of the best. Yoon struggled this spring, but had a very, very good rookie campaign. Newsome, as both a punter and the added bonus of kickoffs, truly has All-American potential.
2) Running Backs (Tarean Folston, Josh Adams, Dexter Williams, Josh Anderson, Justin Brent, Tony Jones Jr., Deon McIntosh)
Despite the torn ACL that ended his ’15 season, Folston could be on his way to becoming a better version of what he was. He’s stronger and his body composition is improved. Now he just needs to continue to put in the work during the off-season and you’re likely to see a quality, multi-faceted running back with the ability to catch the football while easily ranking as the best blocker among the unit.
If his rookie season is any indication – and it is – Adams has a chance to be a 2,500-yard rusher at Notre Dame, and that’s a minimum. He’s on a much higher pace now, although his carries will be compromised if all stay healthy. His breakaway speed is a proven commodity.
Williams made tremendous progress this spring, particularly between the tackles as a downhill runner. His development could prompt a red-shirt season for one or both of the incoming freshmen.
1) Quarterbacks (DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire, Brandon Wimbush, Montgomery VanGorder, Ian Book)
Whether the depth chart reads Kizer-Zaire or Zaire-Kizer, the Irish have as good of a one-two punch at the quarterback position as you’re going to find across the country. Kizer likely will win the job, but there’s a role for Zaire in the red zone. Plus, getting a running quarterback through a 13-game schedule unscathed is no small feat. Both will be needed over the long haul.
Then there’s Wimbush, whose knowledge of the system lags behind the older players. But he possesses a loaded toolbox of athleticism and arm strength that exceeds his elders.
Book is a system quarterback who could allow Wimbush to preserve a year of eligibility, which would be ideal.