Note: While this evaluation is for the 2015 season, previous performance, or lack of it, or incomplete data, is a significant factor. Ratings may change SIGNIFICANTLY after the first four games.
Final Four Caliber
It took four years, remarkable recruiting and persistent insistence on outstanding practice and playing habits, but Harry Hiestand’s offensive line has arrived. Let’s get to the punch line: There will not be 5 better offensive lines in America this Fall, and it could be fewer than that.
This line has height, mass, agility, and just enough “darkness in their hearts” to excel. Steve Elmer, Nick Martin and Ronnie Stanley all have made double digit starts. The upgrade in length and weight from the 2012 offensive line that paved the way to a 12-0 record is startling.
In 2012, the starting lineup averaged 6’3.6” 305 lbs. The projected 2015 starters average 6’6” 315 lbx. That 2 ½ inches taller and ten pounds heavier. In 3 short years. Simple arithmetic, even without body fat data, suggests more lean muscle mass.
Further the current evaluation from the insiders at Cartier is that all five of the offenisive line starters will play in the NFL. Assuredly, there’s many a slip twist cup and lip, but the talent is there.
But why will the 2015 line be so much better than a year ago? Frankly, there were some questionable decisions regarding the Offensive Line in 2014. Spots were held open for injured players in the Spring. The Elmer experiment at tackle was an abject failure. Mike McGlinchey needed more time and the September OL was misaligned, precipitating the shift of Nick Martin to Left Guard, Matt Hegarty to Center and Steve Elmer down to Right Guard, all prior to the Syracuse game.
But in 2015 none of those problems exist. The line that started at first string in Spring has remained the same, notwithstanding the “battle” between Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars for the Left Guard spot.
Stanley’s flirtation with the NFL draft ended and Ronnie seems to have taken on a more active leadership role. Nick Martin is healthy once again, stronger, and not moving from his post at Center. Martin is confident and a roaring lion of a leader in his group.
Steve Elmer has just completed his sophomore year. The future paradigm for Notre Dame offensive linemen may well be McGlinchey and Bars, redshirting as a frosh, competing but losing out as a starter in the second year, and starting in the third year as a redshirt soph. Elmer is just beginning his third Autumn. Elmer’s challenges were compounded last year with the ill-conceived experiment of playing him in space at tackle. Now, he has hunkered down at right guard as he enters his Junior year.
Mike McGlinchey had pushed the oft-injured warrior Christian Lombard aside by the USC game. McGlinchey then drew first blood against LSU. McGlinchey has had only one problem in the early practices, being too feisty. Note: that is against his friends. It might be intriguing to see how “feisty” he is against strangers
Certainly the Left Guard will be a redshirt frosh, but when was the last time ND had two highly probable NFL players in a battle for an open offensive line spot? Quenton Nelson is, to use the cliché, a “road-grader” at guard.
This time, there’s depth. McGovern, Bivin and Montelus are classmates of Elmer and McGlinchey and holding their own on the second string. Sam Mustipher had settled in as the backup center. But Tristen Hoge, even as a true frosh is now battling the highly-regarded (by Hiestand and Kelly) Mustipher for the second team center position. The battle between Hoge and Mustipher next Spring to succeed Martin at Center would have been noteworthy, except that it is being presaged by the Alex Bars/Quenton Nelson battle at LG this Fall.
Harry has a pipeline now, just like Milt Tenopir used to in Nebraska’s glory days.
McGlinchey and Stanley, both former basketball players, are the most athletic tackles Notre Dame has had in recent memory.
Of the two offensive lines that took the field when Notre Dame played Alabama for the National Championship game, Notre Dame’s 2015 line more closely resembles the 2012 Alabama line than it does the 2012 Notre Dame line. That is highly significant. It’s different now.
2015 will be outstanding and the future of the ND OL is bright as far as the eye, and Dillan Gibbons and Josh Lugg, who may still be playing OL in 2021, can see.
This area is so deep that Torii Hunter Jr. was able to play baseball in Spring and C.J. Prosise and Justin Brent went on lend-lease to Autry Denson and the running backs corps. Most probably Denson will exercise his “buy” option at the end of the lease.
Will Fuller played at an All-America level in ’14. Chris Brown makes Jac Collinsworth, he with NFL wide receiver DNA coursing through his veins, froth at the mouth. Yet Kelly identified Amir Carlisle as the most improved receiver in the Spring. While we have heard such plaudits about Brown and Carlisle before, it could be different this Fall. But it is the players behind Carlisle and Brown who elevate this receiving corps.
The next tier includes Corey Robinson, who gave FSU’s talented secondary fits, Torii Hunter, still shy of his one year anniversary of a return to full health and fitness, and Corey Holmes. Hunter’s recent progress has helped mitigate the effect of Prosise’s full time commitment to running back. Hunter is ready for a big impact. And while not as big as Prosise, he may be the favorite option on the jet sweep.
Robinson suffered under the handicap of a broken thumb in 2014, and his sure hands will return with all 10 fingers functional. Kelly has been consistently insistent that Robinson will now be too skilled for single coverage.
It was thought that the frosh would all redshirt, but Equanimeous St. Brown has shown enough in the early practices to warrant getting his length, his speed, and his hands on the field in the receiver rotation. While it is not official, it is likely that he has moved past Holmes in the pecking order. “Elite speed” lacks a precise, or even Prosise, definition. But if Fuller, Brown and St. Brown do not have “elite speed” then the Irish can get along quite well without it!
C.J. Sanders may be called on to return kicks, and that does not mean FIELD kicks, but RETURN them.
If he doffs his redshirt to return kicks,, he will certainly get some snaps in the slot, Miles Boykin and Jalen Guyton will probably redshirt.
In 2014, the top six wide receivers (including the now migrated Prosise) combined for 214 catches for 3071 yards and 27 touchdowns. Only Brown and Carlisle were upperclassmen last year. Think back to the “player development” path that T.J. Jones followed. The wide receiving corps should improve significantly this year. Of the top 6, only St. Brown is an underclassman.
There are some great receiving corps in America, notably at Texas A&M and Oregon, but the Irish now have the size, speed, separation and hands to make plays in a Final four game. In 2012, Daniel Smith, Robby Toma and John Goodman were part of the rotation. In 2015 they would be third stringers.
Selection Committee Bowl Level
No units in this category preseason, though the units listed below in the “Bowl Level” category could easily move up to this level after the first four games. Perhaps even to the highest level.-
Malik Zaire is the heir apparent at quarterback. The facts however are that Zaire has not started a regular season game, nor did he finish the win against LSU.
Zaire is a bristling, confident leader and a fast, powerful runner. But Malik has thrown only 35 passes, completing 21 in 2014. Under Sanford’s tutelage, his passing is said to have improved, with better touch on the long ball, with some improvement in throwing into tight windows in the redzone.
Three things are yet to be proven under hostile fire:
- Can he read defenses at the Rees/Golson level and get the offense out of a bad play and into a good play?
- Can he read coverages and find and hit seams in the intermediate zones and between the hashes?
- Can he take a team from ten points down with his arm in the fourth quarter?
Deshone Kizer was written off by the cognoscenti after his frosh year, but now in the Fall camp has appeared to be worthy of the backup spot. Kizer is tall, and a former basketball player, with a strong arm. Deshone will now get plenty of reps and if he can succeed, that will allow the precocious Brandon Wimbush to redshirt. Always remember, Andrew Luck was redshirted as a frosh at Stanford.
Against Texas, against Georgia Tech, against Clemson, against USC and against Stanford, Notre Dame will start the less experienced quarterback. That is not trivial.
We will, as will every Notre Dame fan will, be keeping a close eye on the quarterback position in the first four games.
Tarean Folston arrived as a lead back in 2014 with 889 yards and 6 TDs. Folston has great vision and some wiggle in the hole, but he lacks breakaway speed. His longest run from scrimmage was 26 yards in 2014, and that is highly substandard for teams that wish to play in the last game of the year. Folston’s best in 2013 was 43 yards. This is not Ezekel Elliott or Leonard Fournette back there. Folston is steady, but not explosive.
Greg Bryant’s departure means that Notre Dame has only one player returning who carried the ball as a running back.
C.J Prosise had a successful Spring and will now be taking fulltime snaps as a running back. He is big enough and fast enough to break the long runs that Folston has not yet delivered. It has not yet been proven that he can take the pounding and hold on to the ball, both vital for A Notre Dame running back. His upside is exciting.
Justin Brent was a highly successful running back in high school , albeit at Speedway . He may be more than an emergency player.
With Prosise and Brent both at 6’1” 220 the Irish may have added some power, as well as speed.
Prosise and Brent are pivotal players. If they can “demand” carries, Notre Dame may have a surprisingly effective running back troika. If they are merely handmaidens to Folston, then Notre Dame will be less than daunting at running back.
Two frosh, Josh Adams and Dexter Williams have arrived, and Dexter Williams has generated a few whispers. While he will probably start out as a redshirt , injuries or slow transition for Prosise or Brent could give Williams some playing time.
In sum, this unit is rated as Bowl level because only one recruited running back isas on the Fall roster, and because of a lack of demonstrated explosiveness and breakaway ability. The jury remains out. It will be impaneled on September 5th.
Because Durham Smythe has only one catch this is the a low rated area.
But do not despair. It is conceivable that Smythe, Weishar and Alize Jones may fulfill the legacy of “Tight End U” and play in the future in the NFL.
Smythe has made strides and Kelly anointed Durham as ready to accept the legacy of the tight ends who have preceded him. Tyler Luatua is more blocker than receiver. Weishar is a skilled receiver but may need, just as Smythe did, one more year of weight training and maturity to be combat ready, though he may get there this Fall.
Alize Jones will probably play in some carefully etched spots, as Corey Robinson, Will Fuller and Chris Brown did as frosh. He is tall and has remarkable, CoreyRobinsonesque, hands. Give Alize September to get acclimated to the college game, then watch out for him as a spot weapon in October and November.
Lou Somogyi, a wise Michiana owl, has said that he has never seen anyone at Notre Dame kick field goals like Justin Yoon. Kelly had already anointed Yoon as the placekicker before he ever arrived on campus.
Brindza gave Notre Dame two parting gifts, one was the winning field goal against LSU, the other handling both punting and placekicking duties. This allowed punter Tyler Newsome to redshirt. Newsome was a bit erratic, abut has improved his consistency since last Fall while continuing to boom long, fair catch-inducing punts.
But if you are Missouri, and these kickers “have got to show you” well, each will make their first varsity appearance against Texas.
It’s sort of like when David Conover went in to the Radioplane Corporation plant during WWII to take pictures of “Women in War Work.” He noticed a girl putting propellers on planes. Her face was smudged with dirt, but when Conover snapped the picture of Norma Jean Mortenson he realized the camera loved her. She hadn’t done anything yet, like Yoon and Newsome, but he liked her potential. Today we know the propeller technician as Marilyn Monroe.
Yoon and Newsome? You have to like their potential
We will update these rankings after the UMASS game, just in time for Clemson.
Stay tuned, as some of these units may be moving on up!