Injuries were the theme again for Notre Dame in 2015. In fact, if there is a more snake bitten team by injuries than Notre Dame the last two years, I’d love to see it. This isn’t a column on injuries being an excuse for Notre Dame’s performance – both teams were banged up and Ohio State ended up playing with 3/4 of its starting defensive line out. Rather, this is a look at all of the injured players returning next year and the impact they could have for the Irish next fall.
Malik Zaire – We’ll never know how different the season would have played out if Malik Zaire hadn’t broken his ankle in week two, but we do know that in the only game Zaire started and finished, he was sensational. Zaire lit up the Texas defense and played a nearly flawless game. Now, a week later he looked shaky on the road at first, but was starting to really get things going right before his injury. Deshone Kizer played better than anyone could have hoped in 2015, but with Zaire returning, we will have another quarterback battle on our hands in 2016 and no one should count Zaire out of the mix. At the absolute worst, Notre Dame should have the best backup quarterback in the country next fall whoever it is between the two.
Tarean Folston – When Folston went down in week one there was a collective “oh no” felt throughout the Notre Dame fan base given the lack of depth the Irish had at the position, but then CJ Prosise came in and rushed for 1,000 yards before injuries derailed his season and then Josh Adams came in and broke the Notre Dame freshman rushing record. With Folston on the mend and returning in 2016, it will be very interesting to see where he fits into the running back depth chart. He was the unquestioned starter in 2015, but we’ve never seen the type of explosive runs out him that became common place for Prosise and Adams in 2015. Prosise’s NFL future also clouds where Folston will fit in next fall as well. If Prosise leaves for the NFL it will be a battle between Folston and Adams for the starting gig.
Durham Smythe – Smythe returned for Notre Dame yesterday for the first time since week two but was not featured at all in the passing game. Tight end is one of the few positions on offense in desperate need of attention this off-season. Smythe was supposed to be the next guy in the line of Tight End U, but injuries cost him the season pretty much. Smythe is the most complete tight end on the roster right now, but by next season he will have a heck of a time fighting of Alize Jones for the top spot in the offense after the sophomore to be has a full off-season in the weight room. Smythe should team with Jones to give Notre Dame another great combo of tight ends with Jones most likely filling the more glamours role in the passing game.
Equanimeous St Brown – The rookie receiver drew rave reviews in camp but never saw much action outside of special teams before injuries took him out for the year. With starting roles to be filled in the receiving corps this off-season, Brown could be in line for a starting role in 2016. He is not the speed merchant that Will Fuller is but really, who is? Brown, however, is a tall, lanky wide receiver with deceptive speed for his size (think Maurice Stovall) and could be a weapon for the Irish in the red-zone where his 6’5″ could be utilized next fall by whoever lines up behind center.
Alex Bars – Notre Dame’s top reserve offensive lineman in 2015 is a lock to be a starter in 2016 – it’s just a matter of where. Bars could play either guard or tackle for the Irish in the fall. If Notre Dame slides Mike McGlinchey over to left tackle this off-season to replace Ronnie Stanley, Bars could fill McGlinchey’s role. The staff could however keep McGlinchey where he is and give Bars a shot at being the left tackle. Bars could also push for playing time at guard given the struggles on the interior of the Notre Dame line in 2015. A lot will depend on how the competition at the guard and center spots go as well. Kelly and Harry Hiestand will look to get the best five lineman on the field. Bars is clearly one of those. It’s just a matter of who else emerges as to where Bars can help the most.
Jarron Jones – We got a brief glimpse of what the Irish defensive line could have been like if Jones didn’t get rolled over in practice in August. He was a force in the middle in limited action which is insanely impressive given he hasn’t played since last fall and missed all of spring practice and almost all of fall camp. I am calling it now that if Jones stays healthy and focused this off-season, he will be an All-American by the end of 2016.
Drue Tranquill – Tranquill was having a hell of a game against Georgia Tech before his freak injury cost him his season. Tranquill is going to be a lot of fun to watch because he is so versatile for the Irish and could play a number of roles for Notre Dame in 2016. He isn’t a prototypical safety, but he is one of the few defensive players who seemingly was always around the ball and flying all over the place. Given the lack of depth at safety he will get a crack at a starting role in 2016 and at a minimum will play a key role in the Notre Dame defense.
Shawn Crawford – People tend to forget about the freshman slot corner when talking about the 2015 injuries because of how early he got hurt and because he was a true freshman. Crawford, however, was slated to be the starting nickel corner for the Irish in 2015 before he tore his ACL. Crawford should resume that role in 2016 regardless of whether or not Keivarae Russell returns.
CJ Prosise – Prosise has a decision to make on the NFL in the next couple of weeks. On one hand, he showed he could pick up the running back position quickly this fall. On the other, he showed he couldn’t exactly stay healthy playing the position either. Given the lack of priority given to running backs in the draft and Prosise’s small sample size, a return makes the most sense for him since he is most likely looking at a late round or undrafted free agent deal if he leaves. Should he return, he will have a fight on his hands for carries though with Folston and Adams. Given his versatility, it’s possible the staff also moves Prosise back into more of the hybrid role they envisioned for him in 2015 before injuries and transfers thrust him to the top of the depth chart.
Tevon Coney – Added to the injury list just yesterday, Coney is the most likely replacement for Jaylon Smith should he leave for the NFL which is now more up in the air than ever following his injury yesterday. Coney’s injury status as of now, however, is not known. Assuming his shoulder injury isn’t too serious, he will battle with incoming freshman Daelin Hayes for Smith’s carting role if the Butkus Award Winner decides to leave for the NFL.
Avery Sebastian – The graduate transfer for Sebastian didn’t work out how he had hoped. Injuries cost him a significant portion of his Cal career and ended up robbing him of most of his season with Notre Dame. It is possible that Sebastian could receive a 6th year of eligibility from the NCAA on a medical hardship waiver so there’s a chance he ends up playing for the Irish in the fall. If he were to return, he would be fighting for a starting role in the secondary either to replace Elijah Shumate who will graduate or Max Redfield who has eligibility but has underwhelmed after three seasons.