On the heels of back to back 5-loss seasons, Notre Dame is at the very early stages of a pivotal off-season with spring practice about just a week away from kicking off. As the Irish look to get over the hump of pre New Year’s Eve bowl games, their junior class could very well be the difference between the Irish players preparing for a playoff game or planning where they will be watching the ball drop this year.
Notre Dame is one of the most experienced teams in the entire country heading into the 2015 season losing just three starters – Cody Riggs, Christian Lombard, and Ben Koyack – from the 2014 starting lineup. The Irish roster will be filled with both 4th and 5th year seniors – how many 5th years we won’t know for a little while – but it’s the juniors on the Irish roster who could potentially propel the Irish to a playoff run.
Let’s take a quick run through all of the juniors who will not just be starters, but have the ability to be difference makers for Notre Dame this fall.
Jaylon Smith. Smith already garnered All-American accolades as a sophomore and has bonafide star potential for the Notre Dame defense. Smith played all over the field last year filling multiple roles at times. If the young Irish linebackers grow up fast and let Brian VanGorder unleash Smith, he is going to be a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Look for Vangorder to experiment with Smith all over the field this spring as he looks to generate a pass rush and get his best three linebackers on the field at the same time.
Will Fuller. Fuller had a breakout season in 2014 with 1,096 yards on 76 catches with a Notre Dame record tying 15 touchdowns. All of that after coming into the season with just 6 career receptions. Fuller has elite speed and has shown that he is one of the elite big play wide receivers in all of college football. The best part is… he is still getting better. Fuller’s freshman and sophomore seasons are actually better than those of Golden Tate at the same point in his career. If Fuller has a similar season to what Tate put together as a junior, we’re in for a treat.
Tarean Folston. Folston will be the top back to start spring football for good reason. He’s shown he is the best all-around back Notre Dame has had in a little while. Folston racked up four 100 yard efforts over the final seven games of the season to finish up with 889 yards on the season. There really is no reason for Folston to not top 1,000 yards this season.
Greg Bryant. Ok, so maybe there is a reason Folston won’t top 1,000 yards and that is his backfield classmate and fellow Floridian. Bryant hasn’t put it all together yet like Folston has but the glimpses we’ve seen have shown why he was so highly regarded coming out of high school. Bryant was one of the few bright spots against USC with 79 yards on 7 carries with his 2nd career touchdown. The problem for Bryant was in 6 of the last 7 games he recorded no more than two carries. We saw what he is capable of against USC. If he can show that consistently, Notre Dame will have a heck of a one-two punch at running back.
Malik Zaire. Oh yeah, then there’s Malik Zaire. After not seeing the filed much throughout the season, Zaire provided a bit of a spark against USC after Everett Golson got the hook and then made his first career start in the Music City Bowl. Zaire will battle it out with Golson for the starting job this spring and fall. Zaire showed what he is capable of against LSU even if the playbook was limited with him in the game.
Mike McGlinchey. Another guy who made his first career start in the Music City Bowl, McGlinchey showed that he is a mauler of an offensive lineman and can play with anyone in the country. Making your first start of your career against the LSU defensive line is no small task. McGlinchey battled for 60 minutes though and showed that he has what it takes a rock solid bookend on the right side the line opposite Ronnie Stanley.
Isaac Rochell. Rochell could be on the verge of a breakout season for Notre Dame after being one of the most steady performers on an inconsistent Notre Dame defense in 2014. Rochell might not be a huge pass rushing threat at defensive end right now, but he is a run stuffer and still has plenty of time to develop his pass rush skills. Playing on a line with Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones, and potentially Ishaq Williams will only help Rochell in 2015.
Corey Robinson. Will Fuller isn’t the only junior wide receiver who can be a difference maker in 2015. Corey Robinson had his moments in 2014 where he looked every bit of the dominant receiver Brian Kelly imagined he would be when Notre Dame was one of the first major programs to offer him a few years ago such as his two – nearly three – touchdown performance against Florida State. A nagging thumb injury, however, kept Robinson from truly breaking out in 2014. Fully healed heading into 2015, Robinson has the chance to become a dominant force this fall.
Steve Elmer. After starting four games as a true freshman because of injury, Elmer was thrown into the starting lineup at right tackle to start the 2014 season. Not too long into the season though, Elmer was shifted inside as Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand reshuffled a struggling unit. Elmer will stay inside at guard this year and the continuity should not only help Elmer live up to the high billing he came to Notre Dame with but also help the Irish line as a whole.
Cole Luke. In his first year as a starter for the Irish, Cole Luke really came into his own at corner. Luke led Notre Dame with 11 pass breakups in 2014 and with the hopeful return of Keivarae Russell in 2015, opposing defenses will have to pick their poison as to who they will throw against. Luke has All-American talent and potential that could come out in 2015.
Max Redfield. If there’s one person on this list who can really swing some momentum for Notre Dame in 2015, its the former 5-star safety recruit. Redfield has his ups and downs in 2014. Actually he had more downs with a demotion following the Arizona State game, but the talent that earned Redfield 5-star recruiting rankings is still capable of coming out – especially now that Redfield will get to play in the same defense back to back seasons. Before fans write off Redfield, they should remember that at this point in his career Harrison Smith was considered a bust but he turned it around and became a 1st round draft pick so there is still plenty of time for Redfield to do the same.
Durham Smythe. With the graduation of Ben Koyack, the starting tight end position is up for grabs and Smythe will be the first to get a crack at filling the role. He’ll have a battle on his hands from Tyler Luatua, Nic Weishar, Mike Heuerman, and incoming freshman Aliz’e Jones, but heading into spring football, Smythe has the inside track to be the next tight end in Tight End U.
Notre Dame’s junior class could very well lead the way for the Irish in 2015 despite a deep class of 4th and 5th year seniors featuring Everett Golson, Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, Jarron Jones, Ronnie Stanley, Joe Schmidt, Keivarae Russell (hopefully), Amir Carlisle, CJ Prosise, and Elijah Shumate to name a few. If Notre Dame is still in playoff mix at the end of November this year though, it’ll likely be because of the juniors mentioned above.