In part one we zeroed in on the offensive recruits of 2015 and how they looked to impact the team in 2016, now in part two we focus on the defense. Of the twelve players signed on the defensive side of the ball in the 23 man class, only four saw the field last season, and just Tillery saw the field consistently during meaningful action. The Irish defense is going to lose six frontline starters from last season including four in the front seven, two of which were the very best players on the team. Those vacated positions are wide open for the taking for several members of the 2015 class who will attempt to get the Irish over the hump defensively under coordinator Brian VanGorder.
Here is a recap of those players and how they figure into the Irish defense in 2016.
Micah Dew-Treadway, Elijah Taylor, Brandon Tiassum, and Jerry Tillery
The 2015 defensive line haul has to be the biggest wild card of the entire recruiting class heading into spring practice and the fall. Aside from Jerry Tillery who was able to come in and make an immediate impact, while he was essentially playing out of position, the other three players redshirted and there hasn’t been much in the way of news regarding them. There have been a few little tidbits here and there from Brian Kelly, but nothing that anyone could really get excited about and it’s tough to get a feel for what to expect from this group.
It’s no secret the defensive line has not been a strength for Notre Dame since the fabulous 2012 unit, and Notre Dame simply cannot miss with the three redshirted players in this unit. Fortunately, defensive line coach Keith Gilmore has a strong history of developing young talent into quality football players; those skills will be needed if Notre Dame is going to become strong on both sides of the ball.
Further complicating matters is Tillery who, as previously mentioned, was able to be a key contributor in his first season, but was suspended for the bowl game. This is a player who used his bye week last year to fly to Ireland and is involved in a number of non-football related school activities. Great for the person, maybe not so much for the football player. He was the lone bright spot on the defensive line for the 2015 class, if for whatever reason he finds himself regressing as a player, the Irish could find themselves hurting at a position unit that can ill afford to be ineffective.
Josh Barajas, Asmar Bilal, Te’von Coney
If wide receiver isn’t the most important position group in the 2015 class, then it is most certainly linebacker. It’s quite possible that two of the three starting linebacker spots are occupied by members of this trio, and if Barajas moved to the Mike linebacker spot, it could be a clean sweep at the position. With the losses of Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt, two players who accounted for about 95% of the snaps, there is a huge opportunity for these three to thrust themselves into the starting lineup.
Coney figured to have a leg up on the Will linebacker spot occupied by the unanimous All-American Smith until he injured his shoulder in the Fiesta Bowl after replacing Smith do to his own injury. Coney had been Smith’s backup all season, and as an early enrollee had already gotten a head start in learning the defense. He figures to at least be limited in the spring, if not completely out, and interestingly that absence could be a springboard for Barajas or Bilal to receive reps in his stead and make their case for the starting role.
Barajas was perhaps the top rated linebacker in his class and many saw him competing for time in his first season. However, in his attempt to add weight over the summer he put on a little too much weight and subsequently battled injuries early in fall camp and into the season. Word is Barajas slimmed down and looked a lot better during bowl prep and looks to fulfill the potential that many saw in him coming out of high school.
Besides Equanimeous St. Brown, perhaps no player is trending up as much as Bilal, who won Scout team player of the year on defense, and was another player Kelly called out as needing to be ready to play in 2016. While Barajas and Coney figure to be best suited to play Will, Bilal’s skill set screams out Sam linebacker, as he is someone who is good in space, but also strong enough to blitz and take on blockers. It might be hard to unseat senior James Onwualu completely–we all know VanGorder likes experience on defense–but it is hard to imagine Bilal not making a major impact in 2016.
Nick Coleman, Shaun Crawford, and Ashton White
Midway through fall practice this cornerback group looked like it was going to be a major haul for the Notre Dame defense. Crawford had won the nickel corner position and Coleman was battling for time behind KeiVarae Russell at the other corner spot. Then, Crawford tore his ACL and was lost for the season and Coleman fell behind Butler and Nick Watkins on the depth chart, although he made a significant impact on special teams throughout the season. White always figured to be a redshirt during his freshman year, but with the injury to Crawford, 2015 was a what-could-have-been season for this group.
Fortunately, Crawford has been given a clean bill of health heading into the spring and he figures to challenge heavily for the starting corner position vacated by Russell with Nick Watkins and 5th year senior Devin Butler. I’d say Crawford is easily the odds on favorite to take over the nickel position that wasn’t really manned by anyone last year, so we figure to see plenty of him.
Coleman showed lots of competitiveness and speed during his freshman year, it’s likely that he will take over behind Cole Luke next season and the staff should feel completely comfortable with him should he be pressed into duty.
Kelly had some nice things to say about White following bowl prep, which is an indicator that he put his freshman season to good use despite never seeing the field. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him move out of the corner spot, perhaps to safety somewhere, simply because there has been an influx of talent at the corner position in the last two classes. When watching his senior highlight film it’s easy to see that he doesn’t mind hitting people, and safety might best fit his skill set.
Nicco Fertitta and Mykelti Williams
When Brian Kelly introduced Fertitta to Irish fans last signing day, he stated that the freshman from Las Vegas would likely be a four year starter on special teams because of his love of hitting and his doggedness on the field. Following his first season, Fertitta seems to be on track to do just that. He participated in 11 of 13 games during his first season somewhere on special teams and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him on every special team for the rest of his career. The 5-8 185 pounder will likely always be considered undersized for the position that he plays, and he isn’t the most athletic of players at his position either. It would seem difficult to forecast his ability to enter the lineup at safety on a regular basis, yet it’s hard to completely count out someone with his tenacity for the game.
Williams, who redshirted last season, has the size and athletic ability to compete at the strong safety position, yet he and Fertitta have the same issue as Ashton White at corner in that there has been an influx of talent at the safety position that must be overcome. In many ways, this illustrates the success of Brian Kelly on the recruiting front; it used to be can this guy play the position and it has morphed into we know this guy can play, but can he outplay his teammate in getting onto the field? Williams and Fertitta will have their work cut out for them this spring and into the fall doing just that, and must make a name for themselves before the 2016 freshman get onto campus.