Here are my top ten key players for Notre Dame heading in to the 2016 season. By no means are these the only players who will have a big impact on the upcoming season. I just took the time to select a few players who, in my mind need to step up and become leaders on and off the field for Notre Dame in 2016.
1/2) DeShone Kizer
Not even Brian Kelly knows who will be starting the first game of the year September 4th at Texas. He is giving all the quarterbacks an equal chance of earning the starting spot. I think this will only push the quarterbacks to perform better with the competition around them. Having three great quarterbacks forces them to become better and not be complacent.
But for now, since Kizer was the starter most of last season, I will give him the slight edge coming out of spring practice. As everyone knows the quarterback position is the most important position on the field. In order for the Irish to have success in 2016 DeShone Kizer is going to have to grow as a quarterback. He lost three of his best offensive linemen, starting running back, and three starting wide receivers. Last year the Irish had a great offensive line and Kizer could count on Will Fuller for a “go to target” almost every time. In this upcoming season all of the pressure will be put on him and finding a new “go to target”.
1/2) Malik Zaire
We all know Malik Zaire’s story last season. He essentially won the starting quarterback spot over Everett Golson last spring, causing Golson to transfer to Florida State. In his first game against Texas he had a near perfect game and looked poised to have a marvelous season. Unfortunately his season was cut short after he broke his ankle in the 2nd game of the year against Virginia. Malik has finally been cleared and no longer has any limitations according to Brian Kelly, which is great news for the Irish. Even if Zaire doesn’t become the starter, having a backup is so vital especially after what happened to us last year, and Ohio State a few years ago.
I can’t wait to see the Blue/Gold game this weekend. With three great quarterbacks trying to get the starting spot, I’m sure there will be a lot of great play from that position and a lot of points scored. This does not leave out Brandon Wimbush by any means, in my opinion he is the most athletic quarterback on the roster and has the greatest potential. He is only hurt by his lack of experience, and he might have to redshirt this upcoming season because he didn’t redshirt his true freshman season. Just for the purposes of the top ten list, I don’t want to include three quarterbacks.
3) James Onwualu
James Onwualu will be the only starting linebacker returning for the Irish next season. He will be a major part of helping direct the other linebackers in 2016 with the departures of both Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith. Perhaps the most important role he will play is becoming a leader for the other linebackers such as Nyles Morgan, Te’Von Coney, Daelin Hayes, Josh Barajas, Greer Martini, and Asmar Bilal. James Onwualu will have the job of directing the Irish defense and getting them in to position. He will be a major key if the Irish finally want to figure out Brian VanGorder’s scheme.
4) Corey Robinson
Since Corey Robinson was elected student body president it is uncertain how much his football career will be affected. In his sophomore season it looked as though Robinson was going to be a breakout receiver for the Irish. He had 40 receptions that season and five touchdowns, two of which were on the road against Florida State. But last season Robinson only had 16 receptions and a single touchdown. In order for Notre Dame to be successful on offense and for Kizer to be able to get the passing game going, Corey Robinson needs to step up. All Irish fans know he has the capability and the body for a big wide receiver target. At times last year he went one on one with a defender in the red zone and was a great receiver to lob the ball up to. But there have been many times that he has dropped balls right in his hands, mistakes that will cost the Irish this season. In order for the Irish to have a big year in 2016 Robinson is going to have to step up and play to the potential we all know he can. Robinson’s spring and future remain clouded with lingering concussion issues, but if and when he returns to the field he will be vital to Notre Dame’s success in 2016.
5) Devin Butler
Devin Butler is going to be a key to the Irish secondary in 2016. The reason I haven’t listed Cole Luke is because he is usually pretty consistent for the Irish, he has been a starter the last 2 seasons and we know what to expect from him. Butler will be coming off a broken foot injury that he suffered in practice before the Fiesta Bowl. He will be competing with Nick Watkins throughout spring and fall camp, and for the sake of this article, I’m going to assume Butler would be the starter just based on him being ahead of Watkins at the end of last year. But the main point is, whoever is opposite of Cole Luke needs to step up, the secondary has been a major weakness with the Irish the last few seasons. If we want to get in to the playoffs our secondary cannot get torched like it did at times last year.
6) Nyles Morgan
Nyles Morgan could’ve easily started last year, and for many Irish fans such as myself, I believe that he should have. The great thing about Morgan is that he has a lot of experience. Many people would think that a linebacker who didn’t start last year wouldn’t have much experience, but when Joe Schmidt went down in 2014 Nyles Morgan looked great at times for a true freshman. In just half the games, Nyles Morgan accumulated 47 tackles, which was outstanding for a freshman. He was a highly coveted recruit out of high school and I can definitely see him leading the team in tackles next year.
7) Josh Adams
Josh Adams had an unbelievable season for the Irish in 2015. He was able to use Notre Dame’s big offensive line to his advantage and accumulate 835 yards (a Notre Dame freshman record) in his true freshman season with an average of 7.1 yards per carry. Now we’ll have to see how Notre Dame’s offensive line will do this season. But if they can block for Adams, it will be very hard to slow him down. Hopefully the Irish can keep him for three more years, because the NFL will be trying to get him out of South Bend as quick as possible. Adams will be fighting with the once again healthy Tarean Folston for carries.
8) Torii Hunter Jr.
Torii Hunter Jr. had a good season for the Irish and was under the radar. The Irish had so many great receivers last year that Torii didn’t get to be on the field that much. But one thing is for sure, if the Irish want to have a good season in 2016 Torii Hunter Jr. is going to have to be a productive receiver for the Irish. He like many of the other Irish players has a lot of potential. He is very fast and has great hands, naturally being the son of Torii Hunter Sr., a future Hall of Famer. With all the departures at the receiver position, it is now his time to shine.
9) Max Redfield
Irish fans know that Max Redfield has had his share of ups and downs for the Irish, on and off the field. He was one of the biggest recruits for Notre Dame in the 2013 class. I’m writing this article assuming that he will be starting for the Irish this fall. I don’t think anyone will doubt that he has the best athletic ability of any safety on the roster. But he needs to be more consistent and become a leader for the secondary. He will play a vital role on defense, since he has experience and an understanding of the Brian VanGorder defense. Redfield has taken a back seat to early enrollee Devin Studstill at times this spring. Is the staff trying to light a fire under Redfield or has his ship sailed? We will find out this fall.
10) Alizé Jones
Alizé Jones might be one of the most athletic players on the roster. He looked unbelievable as a freshman last season. I’ve seen practice tapes of him making unbelievable catches, and he has come very close to making some amazing catches in the game. I’m going to say this now, Alizé Jones will have an Odell Beckham Jr. type catch this fall. This tight end has unbelievable size and hands. I think Brian Kelly might even have Alizé Jones lined up in the slot, and not just on the line like traditional tight ends. He can definitely help continue the tradition of great tight ends at Notre Dame and further assert Notre Dame as Tight End U.