Most questions won’t be answered on opening day of training camp.
But when Notre Dame takes the field at Culver Academy two weeks from today we’ll still learn plenty from that first workout. In fact, that afternoon should give hints about a few key players who could sway Notre Dame’s season, perhaps all the way into the College Football Playoff.
Here are our picks for the five players we’ll track first when Notre Dame takes the field on Aug. 6 to start the preseason.
Daelin HayesMatt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com
Is it too much to set the ceiling of Notre Dame’s defense on a freshman changing positions and coming off shoulder surgery? Of course it is. But let’s do it anyway. Because Notre Dame is hurting so badly for weak side defensive ends that it’s fun to cast Hayes as the solution. The former four-star recruit put in a solid off-season and showed enough leadership during workouts to turn heads. He doesn’t need to be great this fall to have a great impact. Hayes just needs to show up in a few key situations where getting pressure on the quarterback is the difference between killing a drive and converting a third down. If he posts a half-dozen pressures this fall it upgrades Notre Dame’s entire defense. How quickly Hayes moves up in training camp will be telling.
Alizé JonesMatt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
On the final day of Notre Dame’s summer training cycle, Jones tweeted a photo of his weight room gains, standing at 244.1 pounds. That’s a 24-pound jump from when he signed with the Irish barely 18 months ago. If Brian Kelly sticks Jones at wide receiver as he did during spring ball, please say a few prayers for opposing cornerbacks. It won’t be a fair fight on the perimeter as Notre Dame looks to overhaul its receiver corps. That kind of role would suit Jones, not exactly an ideal blocker anyway, as the Irish have ample muscle on the interior in Durham Smythe, Nic Weishar, Tyler Luatua and Jacob Matuska. The former five-star recruit on Scout could be in line for a breakout sophomore season.
Jarron JonesMatt Cashore / Irishillustrated.om
Remember the Jones that whipped Florida State two years ago? Notre Dame needs to see that guy more often after Jones missed last regular season with his training camp MCL injury. The Irish don’t have a dominant interior force on the line unless it’s Jones, whose conditioning may be a hurdle to be cleared in August. How hard can the fifth-year senior go? Can he be a 40-snap player? A 50-snap player? Can he approach the workloads of Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell? That’s probably a big ask for the mountainous defensive tackle, but the Irish need the availability. If Jones is in peak condition after grinding through training camp the entire defense will be better starting in September. If Notre Dame gets a usually blistering hot opening practice, Jones’ conditioning levels should show immediately.
Greer MartiniMatt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com
Most underrated athlete on the Irish roster? It might be Martini according to those around the locker room. The utility defender was one of Notre Dame’s best against the option last season and it won’t be a shock if he pushes for a starting job at the Will. Asmar Bilal and Te’von Coney get more attention, but Martini has actual game experience. With James Onwualu entrenched at the Sam, getting Martini on the field means moving him to the Will (he also played Mike as a freshman). That would also help Nyles Morgan considering he’d have an experienced linebacker on either side of him. Where does Martini run on opening day now that he’s back from that shoulder injury that cost him spring practice? At some point during camp he’ll work with the starting defense. He’s got too much to offer to make him Onwualu’s backup.
C.J. SandersMatt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
Privately, the expectation for Sanders from the coaching staff goes well beyond a serviceable slot receiver who can flash speed at linebackers and safeties. Notre Dame believes Sanders can be an upgrade on Amir Carlisle, who produced 32 catches and 355 yards last season but just one touchdown. Torii Hunter Jr., now working on the outside, did a job share with Carlisle, posting 28 catches, 363 yards and two scores. Sanders, who underwent hip surgery during spring practice, must be at least a 30-catch, 400-yard, multiple touchdown threat to make this offense hum. He’s already scored twice on special teams, meaning the speed is there. Is he back to full health? If he is that should show on opening day. If he’s not, that might change the complexion of the offense throughout August.