There’s a reason why “the more things change, the more they stay the same” is a frequently-referenced truism.
It certainly applies to Notre Dame football post-spring 2016 and post-spring 2017 as Irish Illustrated puts a wrap on Brian Kelly’s eighth spring at Notre Dame.
One year ago, we ranked 12 areas of Notre Dame football: Offense – quarterbacks, running backs, slot receivers/tight ends, wideouts, tackles and interior line; Defense -- ends, tackles, linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties; Special teams -- kickers/punters.
In our very subjective analysis, from greatest asset (No. 1) to biggest concern (No. 12), here was the order of our ranking post-spring 2016:
- Running Backs
- Offensive Tackles
- Defensive Ends
- Slot Receivers/Tight Ends
- Interior Offensive Line
- Defensive Tackles
The linebackers overachieved based upon that analysis. One could argue that the quarterback position with DeShone Kizer (and Malik Zaire) didn’t live up to expectations, although there were contributing factors involved.
But look at the last two on last year’s list – defensive tackles and safety.
Sound familiar? We’re still playing the same tune one year later.
12) Safety (1. Nick Coleman, 2. Jalen Elliott, 3. Devin Studstill, 4. Isaiah Robertson, 5. Nicco Fertitta, 6. Ashton White, 7. D.J. Morgan)
Last spring, there was still hope that Max Redfield would finally tap into his potential, which, of course, went by the wayside in August.
None of this year’s frontrunners has a) more than one year of experience at the position on the collegiate level or b) a pattern of collegiate success.
Coleman and Elliott are trending in the right direction, but consistency remains an issue. From early-entry freshman/possible starter to third man in the rotation, Studstill’s game does not appear to be on the uptick. Robertson has the highest upside.
Fertitta is a classic overachiever who’s productive in short space. White and Morgan don’t appear to have much of a future with the Irish.
11) Defensive Tackle (1. Jerry Tillery, 2. Daniel Cage, 3. Jonathan Bonner, 4. Elijah Taylor, 5. Micah Dew-Treadway, 6. Brandon Tiassum, 7. Pete Mokwuah)
With Jarron Jones returning for a fifth season, Daniel Cage in his third year of duty, and Jerry Tillery in his second, quite frankly, it looked better on paper last year than it does this year.
Playing experience is what bumps this area ahead of safety.
Tillery was said by the coaching staff to have had a good ’17 spring, but he had little success against Notre Dame’s veteran interior offensive line in the Blue-Gold Game and didn’t show much improvement in open practices to the media. Cage is the most experienced…and still has the furthest to go physically.
Bonner is undersized and lacks play-making skills. Taylor, who suffered a serious foot injury the first week of spring, is key. He flashed late in 2016. Tiassum made plays in the Blue-Gold Game vs. second-teamers. Still not sure what Dew-Treadway brings to the table. Mokwuah doesn’t appear to be making headway on the depth chart.
10) Kicker/Punter (1. Justin Yoon, 2. Tyler Newsome, 3. Sam Kohler, 4. Jeff Riney)
This unit probably doesn’t deserve to be ranked this low. Yoon and Newsome have a proven track record of success.
But we didn’t see Yoon all spring as he strengthened some leg/lower body issues, which means there’s no guarantee this fall. Newsome’s consistency slipped in 2016 and he still hasn’t found the balance between length/distance that special teams coach Brian Polian is preaching.
Kohler was flat-out impressive this spring, capping an opportunity with field goals of 42 and 46 yards and 5-of-5 on extra points. Riney had two nice punts in the Blue-Gold Game.
9) Offensive Tackle (1. Mike McGlinchey, 2. Tommy Kraemer, 3. Liam Eichenberg, 4. Robert Hainsey, 5. Jimmy Byrne)
That’s a pretty harsh rating for a unit that has a player with the potential of McGlinchey. But McGlinchey has not played to the first-round draft choice level that was purported a year ago while Kraemer and Eichenberg haven’t set foot on the playing field in a game situation. Hainsey is an early-entry freshman and Byrne can’t play at this level.
This group, like the linebackers last year, has a chance to work its way up this list if McGlinchey plays to his abilities and Kraemer/Eichenberg begin realizing their four-star potential, although that likely won’t come until 2018-20.
8) Quarterback (1. Brandon Wimbush, 2. Ian Book, 3. Montgomery VanGorder)
This ranking doesn’t represent Wimbush’s upside, but he hasn’t played a meaningful snap, and growing pains for first-time starters at the critical quarterback position can be game-changing. Book showed well this spring, but he, too, hasn’t played, and the Blue-Gold Game is a different animal than a regular season game. Wimbush has the ability to single-handedly shoot this position into the top 5.
7) Slot Receiver (1. Alizé Mack, 2. Chase Claypool, 3. Durham Smythe, 4. Nic Weishar, 5. C.J. Sanders, 6. Brock Wright, 7. Tyler Luatua)
Only Smythe has significant playing time, but if Mack can fully overcome his academic issues and remain eligible this fall, this can be a very productive area, particularly if Claypool continues to adapt to the game and taps into his athletic potential. Weishar will get his touches in Chip Long’s offense. Sanders could get lost in the shuffle between wideout/slot receiver. Wright likely won’t be needed this fall.
Among non-incoming freshmen, transfer Freddy Canteen could impact this area.
6) Defensive End (1. Daelin Hayes, 2. Jay Hayes, 3. Andrew Trumbetti, 4. Julian Okwara, 5. Khalid Kareem, 6. Adetokunbo Ogundeji)
There’s potential here, led by fast-rising sophomore Daelin Hayes and sturdy, improved Jay Hayes. Trumbetti has a much better chance for productivity in Mike Elko’s system. Okwara needs a bunch more strength, but clearly has off-the-edge potential. The Irish really could use a big step up by four-star Kareem, although evidence of a move is limited. Ogundeji showed well in the Blue-Gold Game, but needs size and strength.
5) Wideout (1. Equanimeous St. Brown, 2. Miles Boykin, 3. Kevin Stepherson, 4. Chris Finke, 5. Javon McKinley)
St. Brown is a star-in-the-making while Stepherson established himself as a legitimate playmaker as a true freshman. Boykin had an outstanding spring and Finke just makes plays. McKinley is a potential wildcard.
The upside of this group – provided Stepherson is in good standing this fall – is very high.
4) Interior Offensive Line (1. Quenton Nelson, 2. Alex Bars, 3. Sam Mustipher, 4. Hunter Bivin, 5. Tristen Hoge, 6. Trevor Ruhland, 7. Aaron Banks, 8. Parker Boudreaux)
Nelson alone makes this a noteworthy area. He has a great chance to be the first guard taken in the 2018 NFL draft. Now throw in solid performers like Bars and Mustipher, both of whom started all 12 games last year, and you have the makings of a real quality starting interior line.
What separates this from our Nos. 2-3 listings is the concern over depth. Bivin had a shot at starting last year and missed on the opportunity. He was on the periphery all spring. It’s difficult to ascertain just what the Irish have in Hoge and Ruhland. Right now, neither is threatening for a starting spot. Banks has the makings of one helluva guard while Boudreaux already is in serious catch-up mode.
1t) Cornerback (1. Julian Love, 2. Nick Watkins, 3. Shaun Crawford, 4. Donte Vaughn, 5. Troy Pride, Jr.)
The term “lockdown” is used too often as it pertains to cornerbacks in college football because there are so few legitimate lockdown corners. But Love – despite not having great speed for the position – has been like Velcro since his arrival last summer.
Watkins has the makings of a very good boundary corner. Crawford is the wildcard coming off a second major injury, but if he’s full-go in the fall – he recently tweeted that he’s been fully cleared – the Irish have a dynamic top three at the position.
Vaughn and Pride Jr. aren’t quite there yet, but there aren’t many teams in the country with Nos. 4-5 cornerbacks as talented as these two.
1t) Linebacker (1. Nyles Morgan, 2. Greer Martini, 3. Drue Tranquill, 4. Te’von Coney, 5. Asmar Bilal, 6. Jonathan Jones, 7. Jamir Jones, 8. Josh Barajas)
In Morgan, Martini and Tranquill, the Irish have three linebackers with play-making ability. It’s difficult to rank them 1-2-3. They’re all good.
Coney actually started more games last year than Martini and is a solid replacement. Bilal helps form an impressive one-two punch at Rover. Jonathan Jones has a lot of Bobbie Howard (1995-98) in him as an undersized but productive inside linebacker.
Jamir Jones might grow into a defensive end while Barajas’ profile continues to sink.
1t) Running Back (1. Josh Adams, 2. Dexter Williams, 3. Tony Jones Jr., 4. Deon McIntosh, 5. C.J. Holmes)
When healthy, which he was this spring, Adams is a dynamic running back. Did you see his 25-yard touchdown run early in the Blue-Gold Game? A beautiful jump-cut at the line of scrimmage to avoid one tackler, a tackle-breaking move through the hole, and then a determined effort to get to the end zone while beating three of Notre Dame’s best defenders to the stripe. He should tack on another 1,000 yards to his 1,768 two-year total.
Williams flashed big-time in Saturday’s spring finale and Jones Jr. was impressive all spring.
Throw in the pass-catching ability of these three, as well as the pass protection capabilities of Adams and Jones Jr. in particular, and you have a three-pronged attack that should thrive in Long’s offense.