Before we get into the doom and gloom of what would happen if something goes wrong with any of the following players, it should be noted that Notre Dame endured one of the worst runs of injuries to key players last season and finished 10-3. Just a few plays short of a playoff berth. So, indispensable doesn’t mean impossible. It means the drop off between these players and those who would replace them is drastic enough to make it extremely difficult for the 2016 Fighting Irish to accomplish their goal – making the playoffs.
Again, a playoff berth wouldn’t be impossible, and the unforeseeable is possible–something that was proven last season when DeShone Kizer went from a terrible spring quarterback to one of the best freshman passing efficiency seasons ever. It could certainly happen again, but no one really wants to count on that.
Notre Dame has, in fact, already lost a key player for the season, starting tight end Alize Jones, to academic eligibility, and in the interest of full disclosure, he would not have been a part of this column had that not happened. Tight end happens to be one of the deepest positions on the team, and the trio of players who are likely to play in his stead are more than capable.
1.) Nyles Morgan- MIKE
This is a case where Morgan’s backup–most likely Greer Martini–is more than capable, but given the role of the middle linebacker in this defense, and the lack of play makers at the other linebacker spots, someone of Nyles Morgan’s athletic skills is vital to this teams success. Anyone who grew frustrated by Joe Schmidt being set free on blitz’s only to miss or bounce off the quarterback and grasp for air in space while in pass coverage can imagine a Demetrius DuBose like player in that spot for Notre Dame in 2016. That’s the type of player that Morgan can be for this defense and given the same opportunities as Schmidt was afforded to him in Brian VanGorder’s scheme, it’s easy to imagine a monster year.
He is what makes this Notre Dame defense playoff caliber, and those who might replace him can do the job, but the ceiling would be considerably lower for the defense as a whole.
2.) Mike McGlinchey – LT
To be clear, if anything were to happen to McGlinchey Notre Dame would by and large be ok. There isn’t a position group on the team that Brian Kelly has recruited better than the offensive line. They are also coached by one of the best line coaches in the country in Harry Hiestand; he would find a way to put a solid unit out there.
But, great teams need great players, and Mike McGlinchey qualifies as one of the greats in all of college football. He will surely be the next first round offensive lineman from the Harry Hiestand line factory whenever he declares for the draft, and he might have a higher upside than his predecessors Zach Martin and Ronnie Stanley. Combined with left guard Quentin Nelson, they create a duo that could display “we’ll just tell you that we’re running left because there is nothing you can do about it” type dominance.
The best part of the Notre Dame offense is likely to be it’s running game, and losing its best lineman would force the Irish to alter their identity, something that would likely lead to Notre Dame being outside the playoff race once again.
3.) Torii Hunter Jr. X-WR
Hunter Jr. easily enters 2016 with the most career receptions from a Notre Dame receiver, with 35. Anyone fancy a guess which receiver is second on the team in career receptions? That would be starting SAM linebacker James Onwualu, with two in 2013 (credit to BGI’s Lou Somogyi and Bryan Driskill for that startling stat). Brian Kelly’s perceived fascination with the pass is well documented within Notre Dame fan circles, and in truth it’s a bit overblown. But, it is true that he’s not afraid to chuck it around, and the idea that Notre Dame would be a national contender with a bunch of guys who have literally never caught passes at the college level is a bit far fetched.
Because of his versatility, which allows him to play any of the three receiver positions, he can fill in anywhere on the field and therefore negate a loss by any of the younger receivers. He’s got excellent speed (clocked at a 4.42 40 in the spring), a strong red zone threat at 6 feet 195, and given his brief stint playing nickel corner last season, is clearly capable of being a strong blocker on the outside.
4.) Shaun Crawford – CB
The loss of Crawford during fall practice last season, and what it meant, was something of a controversial topic in Notre Dame circles during the off-season. It went from extremely underrated, due to his winning the starting nickel spot two weeks into the fall with no obvious replacement, to extremely overrated because while he showed promise, he was still just a true freshman who had never played a snap for Notre Dame. So strong was the opinion that his loss was overrated that it is now back to being underrated.
Full disclosure. I’m a Shaun Crawford fan boy. If you’ve seen his high school tape, maybe you are too. He’s basically Ohio Adoree Jackson. If you’ve paid attention to the comments surrounding Crawford from players and coaches, you’d conclude they all see stardom in this player.
His importance to Notre Dame lies in his ability to play the nickel spot in a defense that loves playing nickel. Brian VanGorder is a Rex Ryan disciple. Rex Ryan would play four lineman and seven defensive backs at all times if he could. He loves defensive backs and so does VanGorder. And Crawford’s game is tailor made for what VanGorder wants to do out of the nickel spot. He’s got incredible instincts for the game, which makes him fabulous against the run and screens. Think of him as a young Earl Thomas.
He also has stellar coverage skills that could win him the starting left corner spot vacated by KeiVarae Russell. But, given his knack for the nickel position, would it be smart to let Nick Watkins and Nick Coleman duke it out at left corner and let Crawford operate closer to the ball?
5.) Isaac Rochell – SDE
This one is pretty simple and straight forward. Rochell is Notre Dame’s best defensive lineman, a position group that has lots of bodies, but not a lot of production. He’s a senior who is very likely to be named one of the captains, and he can play anywhere along the line. Losing him would be devastating for Notre Dame’s chances of the playoffs on multiple fronts; leadership, playmaking, and versatility. Strong play from him is the best chance for the Irish do field a dominant defensive front, and given Notre Dame’s 175 yards given up on the ground last season (72nd nationally), it’s cringeworthy to imagine what those numbers would look like with Rochell sidelined.
[Related: Isaac Rochell was limited the past few years?!? ]
6.) Quenton Nelson – LG
Like Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Notre Dame simply does not have a player as dominant as Nelson on the offensive line. The same rule applies to a Nelson loss as a McGlinchey loss as well, Harry Hiestand would find a way to field a quality offensive line no matter what (the prospect of Notre Dame losing both of these guys is not an avenue that I am willing to go down at this moment and shall never be discussed).
To be frank, the left side of the Irish line is as good a left tackle/left guard combination as you’ll see in the college football; it’s the type of combination that makes a good team, great. Look at what these guys did to Isaac Rochell and Nyles Morgan in the spring game. Two of Notre Dame’s best defensive players simply moved off the field and out of the play. As mentioned above with McGlinchey, running left is going to be very common for Notre Dame in 2012, the other team is likely to know it, and it isn’t likely to matter.
7.) Jarron Jones – NG
There is some hesitation to add Jones to this list due to the fact that a.) he was hurt last year and players were able to fill in admirably and b.) Daniel Cage and Jerry Tillery should both be better players inside due to their experience last season. The thing is though, Notre Dame doesn’t want to be 10-3 again, they want to be a playoff team. And to do that, they need Jones to be healthy and playing at a high level. His upside is greater than either of the two guys playing behind him and he can provide cover to linebacker Nyles Morgan in a 2012 Louis Nix kind of way. The idea of Jones eating up blocks while Morgan roams free along the line is pretty tasty.
He also adds a pass rush dimension up the middle which is uncommon for a nose guard and his extraordinary length makes him a threat on any opponent extra point and field goal attempt. Let’s just say it would have been nice to have him out there when Stanford lined up for their game winner last season.