We’ll take an early glimpse at the component units of the 2014 Irish. Obviously, such predictions are perilous:
(1) injuries occur
(2) departures occur
(3) players develop, sprout and regress at different paces
(4) projecting freshmen before the LOI Date or, vanderdoesingly, after the LOI date, has risks
We’ll rate the units projecting them from Strongest to Weakest for 2014.
(1) Offensive Line
Stanley, Elmer, Lombard and Nick Martin have had multiple starts. Hanratty and Hegarty were blooded against BYU, Stanford and Rutgers. Mark Harrell is a swingman. It is some time since we have had six players return with multiple starts. It has been some time since we have had 11 scholarship offensive linemen available for the Spring. It has been some time since we will have had 15 scholarship offensive linemen available for Fall practice.
2013 frosh like McGlinchey, Montelus, McGovern and Bivin do not want to “wait their turn.” Remember, these four and Elmer were the first “handpicked” by Harry Hiestand. Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars may be as ready for action as Stanley was in 2012 and Elmer was in 2013. It is not a given that either or both will redshirt. After 2012′s problems on the O-line, the OL may be the team’s anchor in 2014 and beyond. Big, mean, unified and well-coached.
This year they will have a more nimble quarterback, or two or three, to block for. Their sack protection credentials in 2013 were astounding. As in the nation’s leader, according to one quantitative analysis, all while guarding winged Mercury. We may be on the brink, soon, of being known for our offensive line pipeline.
(2) Outside Linebacker
Experienced, tall, athletic. Williams and Councell are in their fourth year, Romeo Okwara is in his third, and Jaylon Smith is Jaylon Smith. We wait yet for Ishaq Williams to “arrive” at the level of his confreres Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch; perhaps Van Gorder can solve the puzzle. Jaylon Smith was the best freshman linebacker in the post-Leahy era. Neither he nor we yet know his ceiling. Councell and Okwara are the kind of depth you need to see on a contending team.
Ranked here only because of the lack of an experienced backup. In 2012, the Everett Golson of Oklahoma and beyond was far more settled and effective than the Golson of the first 6 games. Kelly was emphatic that the Golson of the Spring of 2013 had taken another leap forward, fully grasping the offense for the first time. The Whitfield continuing QB education should help. A relevant case study may be Browner and Bradley. They left as precocious kids after ’73 and returned as bigger, tougher, more impactful MEN in ’75 and beyond. If Golson can achieve 50% of the maturational development that Browner and Bradley achieved in their year away, then he will be a sight to behold. Zaire was an early entrant and showed glimpses last Spring. He should be ready for the backup position and he and Kizer will be brought along. Somewhere, in California, Blake Barnett dreams and throws passes. Just four years ago, in January 2010, the depth chart at QB was Dayne Christ on crutches, and a fresh-faced, freshly arrived Tommy Rees. That is in the rear view mirror.
A year ago, there was a vacuum after Riddick and Wood departed. Folston and McDaniel each proved capable of being the lead back or a co-lead back. McDaniel had 742 yards, Folston 494. Bryant is bristling with potential, and would be expected to deliver in 2014 at least what Folston did in 2013. Amir Carlisle is puzzling, but he is too talented-and too fast- to ignore. He will have his day in court in the Spring. Will Mahone switch back to a full time RB?
KeiVarae Russell is in the All-American conversation. It was laughable to hear commentators call Jackson Notree Dame’s best cover corner. Cole Luke and Devin Butler played CB in High school, and were more ready, knowledgeable and capable than Russell was when he arrived. Luke and Butler(Surgery recovery?) will battle in the spring for the starting job opposite Russell, with a nickel-plated consolation prize. Nick Watkins is the most accomplished CB recruit since Tee Shepard. OY! Rashad Kinlaw is the 5th CB, having retired as the prep team QB.
(6) Wide Receiver
121 career receptions, 1923 yards,10 TDS and Daniels, Fuller, Brown and Robinson have all caught TD passes. Brimming with potential more than accomplishment, but this is an area where player development has produced tangible results. Daniels is still spotty, but this could be his “Money” year. Fuller accomplished more as a frosh than either Daniels or Brown. Fuller and Brown have elite speed, Prosise is close. Corey Robinson has elite hands. Onwualu is athletic and can block. Coaches and players each rave about Torii Hunter, Jr. We know this much: Daniel Smith and Robby Toma are not walking through that wide receiver door. Brent and Holmes, highly rated, experienced and successful, may just have to wait a year.
This group could be the team’s best weapon if the tumblers click for several of the prospects. We have this rating at #6, which may be curious to some, only because only Brown and Daniels have double digit reception totals. Daniels being out for the Spring only provides more time for the Magnificent Seven: Fuller, Brown, Prosise, Hunter, Robinson, Onwualu, and Brent, to compete, progress and get coached up by Mike Denbrock.
One other thing; Golson’s most dangerous skill is scrambling, looking down field, resetting and hitting a receiver. Occasionally, chaos is your friend. There is a lot of explosive potential with the above listed running around enemy secondaries while Golson Tarkentons about. Explosive potential. Ka-Boom!
NOTE; THIS COULD BE THE STRONGEST AREA OF THE TEAM BY MID-OCTOBER. This crew is bristling with athleticism and skill.
A frustrating area this past year. Farley made his bones as a tackler in 2012, but had HUGE misses against Michigan, Oklahoma, Pitt and BYU. Baratti was missed, Shumate did not take a big step forward, Collinsworth was consistent but limited and Redfield took the full season to acclimate. Farley and Collinsowrth got the most time, but Baratti, Shumate, Redfield, and perhaps Hardy have more athleticism. It is conceivable that Collinsworth and Farley might each be more effective if they played fewer snaps and were used situationally. The potential is there, and Van Gorder will need to be decisive about the priorities at SAFETY. The first order of business for a “SAFETY” seems to be to be to “SAVE” the team from big plays. This could be the pivot area for the defense in 2014. This is a puzzling area, because there is talent and athleticism. 2013 level performance just won’t do.
(8) Tight End
Ben Koyack has now settled in and is in the top 10 of TES in America. He scored three touchdowns in 2013 (did you know that?) and his now 261 lbs has helped him as an in-line-blocker. Durham Smythe has been identified by Kelly as the “Next thing,” but Kelly was specifically focusing on Smythe’s downfield receiving skills. Heuerman was an early entrant last Winter, and has a full year under his belt. The question is whether Smythe or Heuerman, who came in at 235 and 225 respectfully, can gain enough bulk to be used in the power phase of the two TE alignment. Nic Weishar may be the “next” “next thing.” Luatua is an intriguing, but not riskless prospect.
Here is the import of being “Tight End U.” In 2012 Tyler Eifert was spectacular as a de jure TE and de facto WR. When he left there was weeping and gnashing of teeth about “replacing” (sic) Eifert. But when you have the pipeline that Tight End U has, you don’t replace you just move up the next stud or two. In 2012, Notre Dame, at the TE position, generated 58 catches for 809 yards and 5 touchdowns. In 2013, Niklas and Koyack generated 42 catches for 669 yards and 8 touchdowns. TD production was up and catches were down a mere 1.2 per game with 10 fewer yards per game from the position. Tight End U. It’s an empirical description, not false labeling.
(9) Inside Linebacker
The 2012 ILB logjam has been cleared. There are bodies and potential, but only Jarrett Grace has successful experience. He will not have contact in the Spring. Moore showed promise against Air Force and later in the year. He will get the fifth year. Deeb was successful as a redshirt and will get a lot of work in the Spring. Joe Schmidt showed against USC that he is worth his scholarship. Doug Randolph will bring an OLB’s speed to the inside, but he may not be able to take contact in the Spring. Nyles Morgan, Nile Sykes and Greer Martini arrive this Summer. The group is faster, quicker, more athletic than the predecessors. Van Gorder will coordinate the defense, and he made his bones as a linebacker coach. Don’t be shocked if they pull in another player or two from another position for the Spring. Remember, only Moore leaves after 2014.
(10) Defensive Line
THE TEAM’S ACHILLES HEEL-there are plausible solutions in the other areas, and we may well be pleasantly surprised at S and ILB. At DL, there are just not enough experienced, healthy bodies. Sheldon Day should be ready to take the next step forward, having put the nagging high ankle sprain incurred against Purdue behind him. Jarron Jones came on late and STRONG and will be more than adequate at nose guard. He finished with ten tackles. ten assisted tackles and two blocked kicks. Tony Springmann was a second team NT on a national championship contender. If Tony returns to full health, Springmann and Jones are a nice duo at Nose. The end opposite Day is the rub. Rochell showed flashes as a frosh, but got fewer snaps than you’d think with all the available playing time from the injuries to Tuitt, Nix, Day and Schwenke. He was credited with 5 solo tackles and 5 assists. Hounshell had a nice frosh campaign in 2011, playing in seven games, credited with 1 tackle and three assists. While out with surgery, he has done all he can to build his body with lean mass. If he and Rochell can split the position, disaster MAY be averted.. Matuska, Rabasa, and a couple of frosh (Trumbetti is in for Spring) will have to generate a vaible alternative as Day’s backup and then populate the third string.
Remember this is the DL. Having nine ready to go seems a minimum requirement, not a luxury. This area will be in crisis throughout the Spring and in pre-Fall. Solutions best be found by the end of September. October begins with Stanford, North Carolina and Florida State, three successive unforgiving moments. Stanford, North Carolina and FSU each know how to attack good defensive lines, and anything less. This is the fulcrum, the tipping point of the 2014 D and the 2014 Fighting Irish team.
Overall, at all positions other than DL, this roster is deeper and more talented throughout the full range of the depth chart, than in years past. If we can whistle past the potential graveyard at DL, then the talent may well show on the field.