Every year there are players every fan feels their team can’t live without that they barely knew in August. Deshone Kizer and Josh Adams come to mind last year. Sometimes injuries thrust players into new roles. Sometimes players just force themselves on the field. Regardless of the way they got there, by the time the season ends they are a huge reason for the ultimate success of the team.
In 2016, Notre Dame has an over abundance of such potential players given all of the players they are replacing and all of the depth the Irish have built. Here’s a look at 14 players who could break out for Notre Dame this year. Not all of them will, but if even half of them do, the Irish will be in good shape.
Note: certain players like Nyles Morgan, Torii Hunter, and Drue Tranquill were left off this list because even though they may have played sparingly, they are locked into their roles heading into the season.
Alex Bars – This one should be obvious. Bars has played sparingly – in part because of injuries – but has been consistently praised by Brian Kelly since arriving on campus. If Bars stays healthy, he has a chance to secure the completely rebuilt right side of the Notre Dame offensive line. A playoff run in 2016 is dependent on Bars breaking out. Bars should be the next tackle in the line of tackles of Zack Martin and then Ronnie Stanley.
Equanimeous St Brown – Another fairly obvious one. The sophomore hauled in just one pass last year, but like Bars, Brian Kelly’s eyes typically glow when discussing St Brown. Torii Hunter will be the deep threat this year, but Brown could be the chain moving target the Irish lacked a year ago as Corey Robinon struggled. A similar stat line to Robinson’s 2014 campaign is not out of the question and honestly, might be on the low end for St Brown this season.
Alize Jones – The only thing that could dip into St Brown’s production is how much wide receiver Alize Jones plays this year. How Kelly and Mike Sanford figure out how to use Jones this year is one of the more interesting storylines of fall camp. Jones should be moved around a lot to create match up problems and could be a red-zone monster for the Irish if used right.
Dexter Williams – Josh Adams and Tarean Folston are getting the headlines this summer heading into camp but don’t sleep on Dexter Williams. Remember, at this time last year no one was talking about Josh Adams either. Williams has a hell of a burst and showed in the spring he can be a playmaker. If he can work his way into the rotation either by force or necessity, Williams won’t disappoint.
CJ Sanders – If healthy, Sanders has a chance to make a real impact this season. Sanders missed the spring with a shoulder injury that allowed Corey Holmes to reassert himself and stake his claim for the slot receiver position. If Sanders returns to form and retakes that role combined with his kick and punt return duties, he’ll be a major contributor this year. As a true frosh he already returned a kick and a punt for a touchdown. Sanders speed and versatility could lead to a “Rocket” Ismail type role where the staff gets him some carries in second halves of games to really use his speed like Lou Holtz did with the Rocket.
Corey Holmes – Speaking of Holmes, if he beats out Sanders, he’ll have just as good an opportunity to break out for the Irish offense as well. If he doesn’t he could end up being recruiting over eventually. He still has three years of eligibility though and after his strong spring, he has many confident in the potential that earned him a consensus 4-star ranking coming out of high school.
Kevin Stepherson – One of Notre Dame’s spring sensations, Stepherson enrolled early and turned heads all camp long. Stepherson has already drawn some unfair comparisons to Will Fuller. As more of a natural outside wide receiver, if Stepherson can continue his strong performance in fall camp, Kelly and staff could be tempted to play Hunter some at the slot where he has extensive experience. Stepherson probably won’t play a prominent role out of the gates in 2016, but by the end of the year he could work his way onto the field.
Tommy Kraemer – Most are chalking the right guard position up to a battle between Colin McGovern and Hunter Bivin, but don’t count freshman tackle Tommy Kraemer out of the mix. Like Steve Elmer before him, Kraemer reports to Notre Dame as a tackle, but in an effort to get him experience, I can easily see the staff giving Kraemer a look at guard. Kraemer is one of the best offensive linemen to enroll at Notre Dame under Kelly’s watch and by the end of the season he could find his way into the starting lineup just like Elmer did as a true frosh in 2013.
Jerry Tillery – Tillery played a lot as a true freshman, but he was really known more for his performances on “A Season With Notre Dame Football” than he was for his play on the field. If Tillery is fully focused, he could be a monster DT for Notre Dame. He might not immediately make people forget about Sheldon Day, but he’s got the talent to eventually be drafted just as high, if not higher, than Day.
Jay Hayes – After redshirting last season – and spending some of the year in Kelly’s doghouse – Hayes is a really interesting player to watch in camp. Hayes probably isn’t playing his most ideal position as a WDE – he’s more of a SDE – but he will be given every opportunity to start in camp and be an every down player. Hayes vs. Andrew Trumbetti could be one of the fiercest position battles for Notre Dame in 2016.
Tevon Coney – Notre Dame will have at least two new linebackers in 2016 and if healthy, Coney has the chance to be a star linebacker for the Irish. Coney spent 2015 as Jaylon Smith’s understudy. Injuries have slowed him but when healthy his talent is undeniable. He doesn’t have all of Smith’s athleticism simply because maybe one or two linebackers every decade does, but Coney can be an upgrade to almost any other linebacker in the Brian Kelly Era not named Smith or Te’o.
Asmar Bilal – Another linebacker to watch in camp. Asmar Bilal is an extremely athletic linebacker who was a bit undersized as a true freshman leading to a red-shirt season. A year later he could be ready to break out. Some have pegged Bilal as a potential week one starter for Notre Dame. In order to do so though Bilal would either need to supplant Coney at the WILL or James Onwaulu at the SAM. Given his size passing by Coney seems unlikely week one and given Kelly and staff’s loyalty to seniors surpassing Onwaulu week one also seems unlikely. That said, by the end of the year Bilal could easily force himself onto the field.
Devin Studstill – Another spring sensation for Notre Dame, Studstill passed Max Redfield on the depth chart for parts of spring practice. The early enrollee will be locked in a battle with Redfield throughout fall camp. I would still be surprised if Redfield didn’t get the nod in week one but Studstill will be on the sidelines ready should Redfield fail to fulfill his potential in his final season.
Shaun Crawford – Last, but certainly not least is sophomore Shaun Crawford. An ACL injury in fall camp a year ago robbed Crawford of his freshman season and his chance to start from day one at the nickel. A year later Crawford is battling Nick Watkins to be Notre Dame’s #2 corner opposite of Cole Luke. In the spring I felt Watkins would have the edge because of his size but more and more I see Crawford securing the starting spot while cross training at nickel.
Will all of these players break out in 2016? No. In fact, it would be impossible for St. Brown, Sanders, Holmes, and Jones to all break out this year – there just won’t be enough receptions to go around to do so. That said, these unknowns for Notre Dame will be what makes a difference between Notre Dame building on its New Year’s 6 appearance or falling back towards mediocrity like they did in 2013 following their 2012 perfect regular season.