With all of the talent Notre Dame lost from its 2015 Fiesta Bowl squad and with an upper class decimated by early departures, transfers, and retirements; Notre Dame will need big contributions from its sophomore class in 2016 if the Irish are to post back to back 10 win seasons for the first time in 23 years.
Notre Dame’s sophomore class signed in 2015 without much fanfare. 247Sports ranked the class outside the top 10 and only one other full class (2012) under Brian Kelly has been ranked lower. Note, however, that the class of 2012 still included Sheldon Day, Elijah Shumate, CJ Prosise, Ronnie Stanley, Chris Brown, and Romeo Okwara. It also included Gunner Kiel, Davonte Neal, Justin Ferguson, and Tee Sheppard though.
The class of 2015, however, has been outperforming its recruiting rankings almost from the time they stepped foot on campus. Notre Dame received big time contributions from its rookies a year ago as the Irish made a run for the playoffs that fell just short. That experience will hopefully fuel these super sophs as Notre Dame looks to break through the playoff barrier for the first time despite losing so many starters.
Here are eight sophomores who will need to play major roles for Notre Dame this fall for that to happen.
Jerry Tillery – Tillery was a spring sensation in 2015 after enrolling early and making the move from offensive to defense line. Tillery was thrust into a part time starting role a year ago when Jarron Jones went down with his pre-season ACL injury but hit the inevitable freshman wall and his season culminated in a Fiesta Bowl suspension. A year wiser and stronger, Tillery moves over to Sheldon Day’s DT position and could be primed for a big season. Tillery’s quickness will be more of an asset at DT as opposed to the NT position he manned last year with Daniel Cage. Tillery notched just 12 tackles, 2 TFL, and 1 sack (the sack coming in the season opener). Tillery will more than double all of those statistics this season.
Shaun Crawford – Crawford was all set for a prominent role as a true freshman as well until an ACL injury robbed him of his rookie campaign. Crawford was slotted to start at the nickel corner before the injury. A year later, Crawford will start opposite Cole Luke in the base defense and likely move inside to the slot when the Irish are in their nickel defense. Every single coach has raved about Crawford since day one. Considering he hasn’t played in over a year and since his next snap will be his first on the collegiate level, look for teams to test him early in the season. If the reports out of camp are accurate, Crawford will pass those tests with flying colors.
CJ Sanders – As a true freshman last year CJ Sanders returned both a punt and kickoff for a touchdown but hardly saw the field on offense. Then in the spring a shoulder injury sidelined the speedster allowing Corey Holmes to stack a claim to the Z receiver spot. Sanders came back with a vengeance in this summer though and looks like he has the slot wide receiver position on lock. Notre Dame will need playmakers to emerge early this season given all of the departures at wide receiver. Sanders has the speed and athleticism to fill the void. With his skill in the open field, Notre Dame will use him in a variety of ways this fall.
Equanimeous St. Brown – Another sophomore wide receiver expected to play a prominent role is outside wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown – aka ESB. The tall, lanky wide receiver runs very smoothly for a receiver his size much the way Maurice Stovall did back in 2005. Like Stovall, ESB has a chance to be a deep threat for the Irish given his height and ability to track the ball in the air. ESB was slowed early in camp by a thumb injury that lead to a case of the drops, but he came on strong down the stretch and was listed by Kirk Herbstreit in his annual pre-season Herbie awards in the “Welcome to the Party” category.
Miles Boykin – And yet another sophomore wide receiver who will impact this season. Boykin isn’t in line to start, but with his massive size and ability to shield defenders away, he could be a prime red-zone target for both Malik Zaire and Deshone Kizer. Boykin still needs refinement in his overall game, but for 2016, there’s no reason for him to be on the sidelines when the Irish get near the goal line. A 6’5′, 230 lbs target could be exactly what Notre Dame needs to ease its red-zone woes this fall. He’s made some circus catches in camp and should be fun to watch moving forward.
Asmar Bilal – Prior to the off the field issues for Tevon Coney, he would have made this list; but with his long term status still up in the air (the University can still place disciplinary actions on Coney and the other three players involved in the off the field incident that got Max Redfield kicked off the team) Bilal’s role become more prominent. Greer Martini will start the season as the starting WILL but Bilal’s athleticism is the closest to Jaylon Smith’s of any Irish backer. Against teams that want to play fast and spread the field, Bilal will likely be called upon while Martini will play in the base defense and against teams that want to thump it (ie Michigan State and Stanford).
Justin Yoon – Yoon was named Notre Dame’s starting place kicker before he ever stepped foot on campus last fall. He backed up Brian Kelly’s trust by nailing 15 of 17 field goals including a 52 yarder against Navy. Yoon started off shaky, but by the end of the season he was a weapon. Early in camp Yoon struggled though and caused some concern among any practice observers, but towards the end of camp he started to turn things around. Notre Dame needs Yoon back on his game in 2016. If he can improve on his rookie campaign, Notre Dame can afford to take some more chances in the red-zone knowing that if they don’t get six, that three is a given.
Josh Adams – Last but not least, Josh Adams may have had the biggest impact for Notre Dame as a true freshman in 2015. Adams broke Darius Walker’s freshman rushing record last fall while filling in for CJ Prosise who was filling in for Tarean Folston. With Folston back from his ACL injury, Adams will share the load at running back. Folston is still the more complete back and a better short yardage back, but Adams is the home run threat. Notre Dame hasn’t had a back with Adams big play potential since Julius Jones.