Five (More) Guys to Watch

These are some of the greatest concerns heading into fall camp. Three are front seven defensive players. One is an unproven wideout. A third is crucial to OL chemistry.

Good thing Irish Illustrated has multiple sets of eyes.

While I, too, am wildly interested in the five players Irish Illustrated editor Pete Sampson said he’ll have his eyes on when we gather in Culver, Ind., next Saturday for the first Notre Dame practice of the pre-season, there are a handful of others that leave me wondering and scratching my head

Looks like we better bring Tim O’Malley, Jack Freeman, Jake Brown and Anna Hickey along with us if we’re going to keep tabs on all the top stories.

I, too, am fascinated with the potential a healthy Daelin Hayes offers at the rush end position. The possibilities that exist with tight end/W receiver Alizé Jones are promising.

For the Irish to be great in the trenches, they’ll need Jarron Jones to play the best football of his life. I totally agree that Greer Martini is too good of a football player to keep relegated to a backup role and special relief appearances versus triple-option based offenses.

If C.J. Sanders can bring the escapability he shows on special teams to the slot receiver position, the Irish will have another weapon.

But there are five other players who will catch my interest next Saturday when we take our position in the upper reaches of the Culver Academies bleachers, and that’s because all five have proven even less than the list Sampson offered.

NYLES MORGAN
Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.om

Seldom does the anticipation of the unveiling of a special talent exceed the focus that’s been on Morgan the last two seasons. Usually by now, someone like Morgan would have been in a starting position prior to his junior year.

In ’14, he was called into duty before he was ready following the season-ending injury to Joe Schmidt. In ’15, the clamoring for Morgan intensified as a banged-up Schmidt lost a step in the wake of his ankle injury.

There was no controversy this spring. Morgan was the starting Mike linebacker, no ifs, ands or buts. But he still has to prove he can find the run fits on a consistent basis, and perhaps more than anything, he’s going to need help directly in front of him (see below).

If the interior defensive linemen aren’t consistently effective, an inside linebacker will have a guard in his face on a regular basis.

JERRY TILLERY
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

The help Nyles Morgan will need comes from the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line where Jarron Jones/Daniel Cage return at the nose and sophomore Tillery replaces Sheldon Day at the three-technique.

Do Irish fan who are emphatic that Notre Dame is a playoff-contending team in ’16 realize just how significant the drop-off is between Day and Tillery? Until Tillery proves otherwise, the difference is massive.

Now, if Jones returns to and exceeds his previous form, and Tillery begins to show what all the hub-bub was concerning his arrival at Notre Dame as a defensive, not an offensive lineman, the Irish defense has a chance to improve and show itself to be formidable.

Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder may have to bite the bullet and shift Isaac Rochell inside more often, although that causes concern at left end. Perhaps Andrew Trumbetti and Daelin Hayes could handle the rush end spot with the potential for a flip of Jay Hayes from right to left end when Rochell slides inside.

HUNTER BIVIN
Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com

Bivin is in line to be one of Notre Dame’s most scrutinized players this fall because of the great unknown. He’s never started a game for the Irish. Although he played in 12 games in ’15, the overwhelming bulk of that action came on placekicks. He’s the only one of the projected starting five along the offensive line that didn’t get some type of endorsement from the coaching staff in the spring.

At 6-foot-5½, 308 pounds this spring, Bivin still looked a bit light in the britches. He’ll likely be a bigger, stronger version of himself when he appears on the Culver Academies practice field next weekend. He’s squeezed between two players – right tackle Alex Bars and center Sam Mustipher – who have limited-to-no significant playing time. Bivin doesn’t have the advantage a guy like left guard Quenton Nelson had a year ago when he was aligned between veterans Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin.

Irish Illustrated has speculated about the possibility of a true freshman pushing for time at right guard while veteran backup Colin McGovern likely has the most realistic chance of unseating Bivin. Chances are it’s Bivin’s job this fall, and the Irish need him to form cohesion with the offensive line brethren to make the consistency work.

EQUANIMEOUS ST. BROWN
Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com

There has been the quiet assumption when assessing Notre Dame’s receiving corps that DeShone Kizer/Malik Zaire will pick up where the passing game left off with the likes of Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle leading the way. Those were Notre Dame’s top three receivers a year ago with Fuller continuing his spectacular play, which led to a first-round NFL draft selection.

Torii Hunter Jr. looked like a star in the making all spring, but he’s scored a mere three touchdowns in his career and has not been a go-to guy for the Irish except in brief interludes last year. He’s never had more than 62 yards in a game. Fuller had that many by the fourth game of his sophomore season.

So it goes without saying that Hunter has to step up, and he’s going to need help. If Alizé Jones doesn’t play W receiver on a full-time basis, someone has to emerge as the complement to Hunter. That someone has to be St. Brown, who likely would have played in a supporting role had Corey Robinson’s concussion issues not led to his early retirement from the game.

St. Brown is long and has impressed on the practice field numerous times. But he’s caught just one pass and missed the last six games of the ’15 season with a significant shoulder injury. He battled through injuries in the spring.

St. Brown is strictly a promising wideout with no track record of success, let alone prepared to assume a No. 2 role in the passing game behind Hunter. And yet that’s what the Irish need from him.

TE’VON CONEY
Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.om

It’s kind of surprising how little talk/speculation there is about the Will linebacker position heading into next weekend.

Asmar Bilal played it all spring in the absence of injured prospects Coney and Greer Martini. It generally is assumed that Coney is the heir apparent to Jaylon Smith at Will since he was Smith’s backup as a true freshman throughout the 2015 season.

But Coney has no college track record. He didn’t get a meaningful snap at the Will spot until Smith went down with that horrific knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl, and within a flash, Coney went down with his own serious shoulder injury.

Coney is a bit undersized and his lateral mobility was a bone of contention during the recruiting process. Not only must he replace a freak of an athlete in Smith, but he also couldn’t possibly have the knowledge base that Smith had at such a crucial position of directing traffic.

Bilal, who preserved a year of eligibility in ’15, probably isn’t ready. Martini offers the better overall package in terms of size and knowledge base. But until we see otherwise in August, Coney is VanGorder’s preferred choice. That’s a lot to ask of an undersized guy with no experience.


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