1 – Impact Player? What does the return of junior “non-transfer” Tyler Luatua mean to the Irish in 2016?
In order: 1.) Kick return/special teams impact, 2.) Relevant scrimmage depth (that is, he could help), 3.) Regular depth (at minimum, a veteran body at a volatile position), and realistically down the line 4.) A more successful short-yardage rushing attack, plus 5.) A better red zone offense.
Numbers 4 and 5 above are nebulous, because Luatua’s additional challenge is to prove his presence as a second (or third) tight end is more valuable than that of a slot receiver or even a second running back (motion, jet sweeps) in the ever-evolving Irish offense.
2 – Floor-to-Ceiling: To put a finer point on my favorite subscriber question from today’s Irish Illustrated podcast (click here) I think it’s clear that while 8 regular season wins is the lowest reasonable expectation for the 2016 Irish, that actually hitting that number would qualify as a poor performance – by the staff, by the players, by the program.
Conversely, the realistic ceiling of wins is probably 10 in 12 regular season games. That doesn’t mean the squad can’t exceed or fall short of either summer supposition, but it does bring up a relevant point of comparison.
Jump back into your DeLorean and consider each season noted below, but relative only to the summer months and what we knew at the time. I think the following is fair:
2010: 7-win floor with a 9-win ceiling (finished reg. season 7-5)
2011: 9-win floor with an 11-win ceiling (finished reg. season 8-4)
2012: 8-win floor with a 10-win ceiling (finished reg. season 12-0)
2013: 8-win floor with a 10-win ceiling (finished reg. season 8-4)
2014: 7-win floor with a 9-win ceiling (finished reg. season 7-5)
2015: 9-win floor with an 11-win ceiling (finished reg. season 10-2).
2016: 8-win floor with an 10-win ceiling (???)
3 – The Successful Side – Notre Dame’s once 23-player strong recruiting class of 2014 now teeters at 20 after the unexpected return of Luatua and pending the future of still-suspended DE Grant Blankenship.
Regardless of the once-promising Blankenship’s future in South Bend, it seems that through the class’s first two seasons and logically projecting into the upcoming third, the greater success rate among the ’14 crop lies on the offensive side of scrimmage:
-- Among the recruited (and remaining) nine players, QB DeShone Kizer and OG Quenton Nelson are inarguably two of the squad’s top 10 players. (They might ascend to Top 5 status by season’s end).)
-- OT Alex Bars could achieve Top 10 status, too, but doubtless ranks among the “Next 10” per most observers at present.
They’re joined by the squad’s starting C (Sam Mustipher), likely starting slot (Corey Holmes), a blocking TE (Luatua), a TE with promise (Nic Weishar), and two guys looking to carve a niche in RB/WR Justin Brent and OG Jimmy Byrne. Though the latter appears on the outside looking, Brent’s athleticism suggests he could one day aid the cause.
Nine players, two stars plus one in waiting, a potential three-year starter at the pivot, and three skill guys that should emerge in Year 3. If Brent were to add to the special teams cause, the offensive prospects of 2014 would not only remain completely intact, but qualify as fully operational.
4 – On the other hand... Holy Cow, the defense. Originally a Baker’s Dozen, they now number 10, and just nine if you include the likelihood that Blankenship will not play this fall.
The remaining 9 have promise, but the four lost – three from the Rush End position – have left a notable void on a defense in desperate need of a playmaker off the edge.
-- Still in the fold is one trusted playmaker and potential future captain in Drue Tranquill, a potential standout in MLB Nyles Morgan, two promising DEs Andrew Trumbetti and Jay Hayes, a starter/rotation corner in Nick Watkins, a starter/rotation NT Daniel Cage, key LB Greer Martini, backup DE Jonathan Bonner, and one big man on the outside looking in, NT Pete Mokwuah.
You’ll note that the paragraph above is, at present, defined by two realities: injuries of great concern (Tranquill, Watkins, Martini) and the dreaded “P-word”…Potential.
If this group doesn’t elevate its game in 2016 the Irish defense will be far worse than their 2015 predecessors, a unit replete with NFL talent.
5 – Where’s Joe Schmidt When You Need Him? For about the sixth time in my last 10 trips to buy my wife, Christy, a chai tea latte at Starbucks, the barista did not get the order right. Try as I might to explain the litany of ingredients and tweaks to the drink and despite writing it down – plus actually knowing that the order is coming when they see me enter the shop, so they’re veterans of the ordeal – the barista invariably gets something wrong, causing the entire drink to fall flat.
Yes, Christy’s is the VanGorder Defense of Starbucks orders – neither likeable, nor apparently, learnable.
6 – The Answer: Tyler Newsome, Jimmy Chitwood, and Stephon Curry: The question: Who are three guys arguably better at what they do than anything the rest of us do?
Incidentally, I haven’t been this interested in an NBA Conference Finals since the Lakers and Kings went toe-to-toe for seven games in 2002. (For a lengthy but enjoyable oral history on that epic series, click here )
If you’re not an NBA fan, or especially if you used to be and left the sport at the end of the Jordan Era, consider watching Golden State and Oklahoma City over the next two weeks. It is fantastic, thrilling offensive basketball.
7 – Who’ll Make a Play? Official statistical “Big Plays” for defenders include tackles-for-loss, interceptions, fumbles forced and recovered, and passes defended. (A sack is officially a tackle-for-loss in the college game.)
Last season, for a better objective review of Irish defenders, I added to those the unofficial trio of QB pressures, “3rd Down Wins” and Stuffs, aka, tackles behind or within two yards of scrimmage. (Jaylon Smith nipped Sheldon Day for the team lead at season’s end largely because he led in Stuffs and dominated the “3rd Down Wins” category.)
Who are the logical defensive big play leaders for 2016?
-- Isaac Rochell, as Stuffs will be ample supply as could be QB pressures.
-- Drue Tranquill. In good health you can expect impact plays all over the field, especially on third down.
-- Shaun Crawford, because players make plays, and this kid is the nation’s best kept secret. Crawford could become as a redshirt freshman what Irish fans wanted KeiVarae Russell to be as a returning senior last fall.
-- Nyles Morgan. Could he approach Jaylon Smith’s team-leading 2015 total of 27.5 Stuffs? For the sake of reference, 2015 Mike starter Joe Schmidt posted 17 Stuffs, but he had 19 in just 8.5 games during his 2014 MVP campaign.
-- As for a dark horse candidate, how about a return to form (plus senior season ascent) by 2014 defensive big play leader Cole Luke? Luke defended 15 passes as a sophomore in ’14 but had just seven PD last season.
8 – This Week’s Highlight: A new feature I hope you’ll enjoy for the Monday Musings: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50KogXGrwSQ
(Fast Forward to 1:06:16, take note of the familiar name on the ticker, then watch the ensuing snap.)
9 – On a Related Note, Add One… To the 2016 Irish team (and only for 2016) and discuss:
-- 1989 S Pat Terrell
-- 2009 WR/Slot Golden Tate
-- 2012 (sophomore) DE Stephon Tuitt
-- Bob Diaco
Until next week, Irish fans…