Matt Cashore /

O’Malley’s Monday Musings

Word association, predictions, sophomores, and boo-boos.

1 – One Word For Each: How about a Training Camp 2016 word association game? One word…and then since I can’t stop myself, I’ll elaborate below:

-- Kevin Stepherson: Natural.
Brian Kelly was spot-on with his observation last spring that Stepherson rarely has to break stride taking in passes on the move. He and Miles Boykin are my choices to be the most impactful reserve pass-catchers this fall. (I appear higher on Boykin than are my colleagues.)

-- Cole Luke: Sound.
Luke will be the team’s most improved defensive player in 2016. He is already.

-- Quenton Nelson: Imposing.
Somebody get me a list of the purported best guards in college football so I can show you the real answer.

-- Isaac Rochell: Underrated.
And judging from Kelly’s recent comments, by his head coach, too. There’s not a more unheralded top tier defensive lineman in the nation entering 2016. By the way, total “Stuffs/TFL” last season: Jaylon Smith 27.5, Rochell 27, Sheldon Day 25…

-- Tarean Folston: Rugged.
The tough yards, the ones that salt away games and keep pressure drives alive, will belong Folston this fall.

2 – A Healthy Dose of Hunter: I have a feeling the 2016 passing attack will slant more heavily toward one player than it has in any season of the Brian Kelly Era save for his first (2010). In case you missed the numbers in our Torii Hunter story last week, here are the top targets by season under Kelly:

2010 Michael Floyd: 143 targets (and he missed a game)
2011 Floyd 133 (Tyler Eifert was targeted 99 times as well)
2012 Eifert 98
2013 T.J. Jones 125
2014 Will Fuller 119
2015 Fuller 99

Hunter was targeted for 35 passes last season. Look for that number to nearly triple this fall.

3 – On a Related Note: Expect Notre Dame’s offense to enjoy its most productive season from the tight end position since 2013 when Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack ruled the roost.

Durham Smythe, Nic Weishar, et al are unlikely to combine for 8 touchdowns as did Niklas and Koyack (it was the most in more than 35 seasons at the program), but I think they could combine to trail only Hunter in total targets and receptions at season’s end. (And don’t sleep on the running backs in that regard, but that’s a Musing for another day)…

4 – Great Q, Part II: Tremendous Twitter question to conclude today’s Irish Illustrated podcast from Jutin1993. “Who would you rather add to this year’s squad: Will Fuller or a healthy Jaylon Smith?”

I went with Fuller by the slimmest of margins but I’d like to throw another college eligible name into the mix: what about Ronnie Stanley?

Wouldn’t a left-to-right O-Line of Stanley, Nelson, (Mustipher or Hoge), Bars, and McGlinchey dominate every defensive front on the 2016 slate?

5 – The Greatest Sports Movie: Hoosiers was on television last night and I still remember the first time I saw it – at The Forum Theater on the north side of South Bend (I grew up on the South Side). My neighbors took me to the show and we were a touch late in order to see the conclusion of the now famous ND/USC game in Los Angeles, 1986.

Of course, we didn’t actually see the end, and unless you were there, neither did you, because CBS didn’t get back from its commercial break in time to see John Carney’s cathartic game-winner.

What we all did see was Tim Brown’s clutch punt return to set up the winning boot, and we’ll never forget:

On a related note: if anyone tells you Hoosiers isn’t the greatest sports movie of all time, please disassociate yourself from him or her.

6 – Another Sophomore Uprising? Remember the dichotomous regular season of 2014: a 6-1 start vs. an 0-4 finish? Well that’s the baseline story for Irish history books.

The backstory instead involved the emergence of the team’s sophomore stars – not just contributors, but the absolute top dogs for the eventual 8-5 Irish, many of them later shaped the Fiesta Bowl squad from a year ago.

Jaylon Smith, Will Fuller, Tarean Folston, Isaac Rochell, Cole Luke, Corey Robinson, Malik Zaire (ultimately)…it was a sophomore laden crew, for better or worse.

Now consider the impact of last year’s freshmen (sans playmaker Alizé Jones) and how many could play key roles this fall: Justin Yoon, Josh Adams, C.J. Sanders, Jerry Tillery, Shaun Crawford, Nick Coleman, perhaps Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin, Tristen Hoge, Te’von Coney and Asmar Bilal…

Aside from safety, and it is to be hoped, quarterback, there’s not a position group on the roster that won’t be impacted by the class of 2015. But unlike 2014, leadership from the quarterback position won’t waylay the season…

7 – I Owe a Prediction: Forgot to include the latest in last week’s edition of the Musings. To date, here are the 15 discussed:

#1 -- Notre Dame’s longest win streak will (again) be six games?
#2 -- The Irish won’t lose two straight
?#3 -- The Irish will lose once in September
#4 -- Notre Dame will play 7 games “Close and Late” in 2016
?#5 -- Torii Hunter will lead the team in touchdowns scored
?#6 -- Nyles Morgan will lead the defense in statistical big plays (aggregate Stuffs, turnovers forced/obtained, PD and third-down “wins”)
?#7 -- 34 combined TD are on tap for this quintet: Kizer, Zaire, Adams, Folston, Hunter
?#8 -- Shaun Crawford will lead the team in passes defended
#9 -- ND will lose one game in October
#10 -- Fewer offensive TDs will be scored by Irish then last season (58)
#11 – The Defense will yield three or more TD in LESS than 8 games
#12 – A different RB will lead the squad in rushing each of the three months
#13 -- The Irish will suffer an upset loss
#14 -- Highest Scoring Game USC
#15 -- Lowest Scoring Game – Texas

And for #16 – For the second straight season, Notre Dame will score more rushing TD than passing.

8 – The Fourth Necessary Skill: Sophomore running back Dexter Williams can run with the rock – anyone privy to a practice can see his natural ability. (He has the innate sideways jump cut among his arsenal of weapons.)

Likewise, Williams can catch the ball, and according to Autry Denson, he’s improved greatly in pass protection.

But we’ve been to three practices this August and Williams has either succumbed to the heat (practice #1), been knocked from action (last Thursday) or been relegated to a red non-contact jersey (two days later). You can’t take competitive game day carries from the likes of Tarean Folston and Josh Adams if you can’t stay on the field during the week.

Don’t think that Brian Kelly’s humorous “He has a boo-boo” response to Williams’ injury last week wasn’t telling and replete with subtext.

9 – Is 10 Mandatory? Notre Dame hasn’t won 10 or more games in back-to-back seasons since 1992-93. It’s remarkable, it’s sobering, it’s curious, and it’s about time, wouldn’t you say? (To be fair, Charlie Weis’ first squad likely would have won 10 had it played 13 rather than 12 contests, and he followed with a 10-3 2006 campaign.)

Including the bowl game, I feel like that streak might end in January.

-- So I leave you with this: Barring a ludicrous string of injuries circa 2013-14, would a 9-4 finish rank as a major disappointment for this squad?

It would for me.

Until next week, Irish fans… Top Stories