Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

The 1-2 (Or More) Punch

The duo with the most productivity already in the bank are Buck linebackers Greer Martini and Te’von Coney, who combined for 117 tackles and 11½ tackles for loss in ’16.

It’s great to have one good one. It’s a luxury to have two. It’s a chance to be very special to have three or more.

The following are the positions on both sides of the football for Notre Dame with the most talent and depth this spring.

11. Right Tackle: Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg
Neither has played a down for the Irish, but just about anyone in the country would love to choose between these two red-shirt freshmen for the open starting job along Notre Dame’s offensive line.

Kraemer is the bigger body with more sheer power while Eichenberg, physical in his own right, is more nimble-footed, and thus, the best prepared to handle a pass rush.

This battle will extend into August.

10. Strong Safety: Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott
Heading into the spring, many thought Studstill would win the strong safety job and Elliott would claim the free safety position with Drue Tranquill’s expected move to Rover. Nick Coleman apparently didn’t get the memo.

Studstill and Elliott are battling it out at strong safety this spring while Coleman has held the No. 1 job at free safety since the start of drills.

Like the right tackle spot, the quest for the starting role likely won’t be achieved until August.

9. Nose Tackle: Jerry Tillery and Daniel Cage
Tillery has bounced from the nose to the three-technique and back to the nose now that Jarron Jones is gone. Cage has battled concussion and weight issues, both of which have prevented him from becoming a full-time player.

Tillery has barely scratched the surface of his potential, but the Irish need him to shine now more than ever.

In a perfect world, Cage gets himself in the best shape of his life, wins the nose tackle job, and Tillery slides back to defensive tackle. If these two remain at the nose, it has the makings of a solid if not a big-play tandem.

Don’t be surprised if incoming freshman Darnell Ewell impacts this competition as well as where the interior defensive linemen align.

8. X Receiver: Chase Claypool and Kevin Stepherson
One is unproven but has a world of athletic talent. The other is proven, at least as a freshman, but obviously has a snag that is preventing Notre Dame from elevating him to second-team status, let alone first-team.

Claypool distinguished himself as a special teams coverage demon in ’16. Now he’s trying to take all that athletic skill and round into a major college receiver. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s happening.

Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and a team-leading 18.8 yards per reception. He was second among Irish receiver in touchdowns with five. But there obviously are some issues that are preventing him from ascending to the starting spot he earned on the field last fall.

If the Irish can get both on the field in 2017, it could be a dynamic pairing opposite Equanimeous St. Brown.

7. Boundary Cornerback: Julian Love and Donte Vaughn
When Nick Coleman opened the door, Love barged right in to form a cornerback tandem with Cole Luke over the second half of the 2016 season.

Love has the earmarks of a lockdown cornerback with top-level tackling skills. Vaughn played more sparingly in ’16, but his athleticism and length led to a noteworthy six passes broken up and seven passes defensed in limited action.

With both possessing three years of eligibility, the sky is the limit at this position with Vaughn working his way into the starting lineup opposite Love down the road.

6. W Receiver: Equanimeous St. Brown and Miles Boykin
This is a duo obviously slanted toward one player over the other. But it ranks sixth  on our list – and could be higher -- because a) St. Brown is a star in the making and b) Boykin should be ready to make a more substantial contribution after preserving a year of eligibility and coming on strong late in the ’16 season.

St. Brown’s 58 catches for 961 yards (16.6-yard average) and nine TDs set the pace for the Irish receiving corps last year. Boykin caught just six passes with a comparable number of drops. But three of his six receptions came in the final five games, including an 18-yard touchdown grab against Virginia Tech in Game 11.

Boykin’s emergence would give the Irish two big wideouts with Chase Claypool factoring in and Alizé Jones the equivalent of a bigger wideout.

5. Field Cornerback: Nick Watkins and Shaun Crawford
A slow-heeling broken arm sidelined Watkins in 2016 after a promising first career start in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. He has the size and athleticism to be a standout cornerback if he can maximize his talent and reach a level of consistency.

Injuries in each of the past two seasons – an ACL in the 2015 pre-season and an Achilles in game two of the 2016 season – have derailed Crawford’s promising career. He has the speed, instincts and maturity to be a dynamic cornerback or nickel back.

If healthy, both will see extensive duty this fall and should be top-notch. Crawford likely takes over as the nickel if Watkins proves to be a must-start cornerback.

4. Rover: Drue Tranquill and Asmar Bilal
From the moment the concept of Mike Elko’s Rover position was revealed, Tranquill seemed like the perfect fit for the half-strong safety/half-outside linebacker role. When healthy in 2014-15, Tranquill was a hitting machine with off-the-edge pass rush skills.

Bilal saw action at inside linebacker last fall after preserving a year of eligibility in ’15. He was productive in brief spurts, finishing with 29 tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack.

Both could see action at the same time this fall as off-the-edge rushers. This has the makings of a standout Rover tandem.

3. Running Back: Josh Adams, Dexter Williams and Tony Jones Jr.
Based upon the spring, this position looks jammed pack with talent, although Adams and his 1,768 yards, 6.4-yard average and 11 touchdowns dwarf Williams’ two-year numbers as well as Jones, who preserved a year of eligibility in ’16.

Adams is a big-time back with a chance to significantly crease Notre Dame’s all-time rushing chart – if he sticks around for four years. He has size, power and breakaway speed, and as a bonus, he’s lost just one fumble on 275 career carries.

Williams had just 26 touches last a season – 21 carries for a 3.9-yard average, four receptions for 16 yards, and a kick return for 20 yards. Surely, offensive coordinator Chip Long will involve Williams, at the very least, in the passing game.

Jones looks to be a nice combination of power, elusiveness and pass-catching ability, which makes this a potential 1-2-3 punch.

2. Buck Linebacker: Greer Martini and Te’von Coney
Martini was the preferred choice as a freshman in 2014 when the Irish squared off against option-based offenses. His playing time leveled off a bit as a sophomore in 2015, but he formed a nice tag-team with Coney last season as the duo heads into its second year together. Between them, they combined for 117 tackles in ‘16.

The difference between the two is anticipation and propensity for making big plays. Martini, who had seven fewer tackles than Coney’s 62, had seven tackles for loss and three sacks compared to Coney’s 1½ tackles for loss and zero sacks. Martini also is the better option against the pass.

Bottom line: This should be a productive 1-2 punch at the Buck position.

1. Tight End: Durham Smythe, Alizé Jones, Nic Weishar, Brock Wright, Tyler Luatua

It’s not the numbers that the Irish tight ends put up last year. It’s the potential in Chip Long’s offense of a much greater emphasis on the Y receiver in the passing game. Jones is the X factor with a virtually limitless ceiling.

Smythe caught just nine passes last year and Weishar added three. With Jones in the mix and freshman Wright offering immediate contributions if they choose to get him involved, Notre Dame will exceed its 12 total receptions last year by Week Three, if not sooner. Luatua likely gets caught in the numbers game.

Chances are high that two tight ends will be on the field as much if not more than the three-wideout/one-tight end alignment of the past. That in itself should increase the number of tight end snaps by a 65-75 percent, which makes this – on paper – the deepest and potentially most productive position on the team.


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