With the 2016 Notre Dame recruiting class all inked up and ready to make their names known to Irish fans in the fall, let’s take a look back at the 2015 recruiting class, how they fared, and they big shoes and roles they need to fill for Notre Dame team 128.
To refresh your memory, the 23 man class was ranked by 247Sports as 13th in the nation, with zero composite five stars and 14 four stars. It was highlighted by quarterback Brandon Wimbush and tight end Aliz’e Jones, Jones being ranked the #1 tight end in the nation. The book on the class was it laid claim to lots of solid players, but not one true difference making star, hence the ranking outside the top 10, but still in the top 15.
And then they played the games. In total, the class of 2015 was responsible for 1,255 total yards, another 822 return yards, 34 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack, and 11 touchdowns.
Not bad for a bunch of three and four stars.
With the loss of some key players for Notre Dame, several 2015 recruits will be tasked to play major roles for the Irish in the 2016 season. Here is a position by position breakdown of where the former 23 man class fits in the depth chart and the roles they are likely to play on the offensive side of the ball.
Quarterback: Brandon Wimbush
Wimbush is relatively easy to break down, as Brian Kelly has already stated he is going to redshirt next season. Redshirting the former New Jersey Player of the Year was always the plan heading into his initial season, but the transfer of Everett Golson and the season ending injury to Malik Zaire halted those plans very quickly. Wimbush showed his physical tools in his limited time, and his inexperience with his fumble late against Pittsburgh that was returned for a touchdown. A year off to develop his body, his technique and knowledge of the offense will set him up to battle for the 2017 starting QB spot.
Running Back: Josh Adams and Dexter Williams
Both freshman backs saw time in 2015 with Adams making the very most out of his opportunities and Williams showing burst and power on a touchdown run against UMass. Notre Dame sees last seasons starter CJ Prosise depart for the NFL and opening game starter Tarean Folston is returning from injury. It will be very interesting to see if Adams holds off Folston for the starting job in what will surely be a running back by committee. Adams can hit the homerun, obviously, and he can run with power, a lethal combo for any running back. Notre Dame could lean on the senior in Folston, who figured to have a strong season prior to his injury, and might be Notre Dame’s most natural running back, but Adams will play a huge role next season.
The big question is will Dexter Williams do well enough in the spring and fall to force his way into some kind of role for Notre Dame? It’s likely a matter of developing an understanding of pass protection and blitz pick-up; his running ability appears to not be in question. The 5-11 200 pounder figures to be a solid mix of both speed and power, thus he can enter the game in any situation and be successful. It’s likely he will have a large role in the Notre Dame offense at some point; the likelihood of either Adams or Folston going through the season unscathed isn’t very high, such is the nature of the running back position. A strong spring will vault Williams into the running back conversation permanently.
Wide Receiver: CJ Sanders, Equanimeous St. Brown, and Miles Boykin
With the departures of Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, Notre Dame says goodbye to 309 career receptions, 4,569 yards, and 40 touchdowns. There are a few position groups on the team where the 2015 class looks to make a major impact and receiver is one of them. Coach Brian Kelly has not been shy about what he expects of the soon to be sophomores at the receiver position, continuously talking up St. Brown to the media (and when I say continuously I mean every PC) and stated Miles Boykin needs to be ready to roll for Notre Dame in 2016.
St. Brown, the 6-4 205 pounder from Anaheim, CA, saw limited action last season as he watched Will Fuller have an incredible season at the X receiver position. Talk from Kelly suggested that had St. Brown been behind a lesser player at that spot, he’d have certainly seen the field. Fans would obviously love St. Brown to have a breakout sophomore season a la Fuller in 2014, when he caught 76 passes for over 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns after just six receptions as a freshman. That’s a lot to ask of anyone, but St. Brown figures to be the leader to start at the X and given Kelly’s talk, something of a breakout season appears to be in play, if not the expectation.
Boykin is one of the players Kelly singled out post bowl game as a player who needs to be ready to make a contribution next season. The 6-3 225 receiver from Tinley Park, IL reportedly progressed very well for the scout team and is another player who on a lesser Notre Dame team could have seen game action as a freshman. He’s thought to be a faster, more athletic version of Corey Robinson, who after winning Student Body President could be a little distracted heading into his senior season, and the W wide receiver spot might be there for Boykin to snatch.
CJ Sanders electrified fans in the kick return game, bringing back two kicks for scores, and he figures to play a much bigger role for the offense in 2016. It would make sense that he would be behind incumbent Torii Hunter Jr., who really came on in the slot last season, but Hunter is versatile enough that he could see time at any of the receiver positions, paving the way for Sanders to get some offensive snaps. The word on Sanders last summer was he caught everything in practice, which my sources tell me is a good quality for a receiver, and the coaches are surely eager to get Sanders more touches after the explosiveness he displayed in the return game.
Tight End: Aliz’e Jones
It was a mixed bag for Jones in 2015, as he was pressed into a starting role with season-ending injury to Durham Smythe late against Virginia. Generally speaking the tight end position was a disappointment for Notre Dame last season, and Jones played some part in that. He simply wasn’t ready physically to be the every down tight end and his blocking let him down against some of the bigger defensive ends and linebackers at times last season. Heading into the season, Notre Dame had planned to use him in passing packages and perhaps on the weakside of two tight end sets. This plan was obviously thwarted, and Jones was put into a position, because of his immense talent, where he wasn’t ready to excel.
Fortunately, he did make some huge plays for Notre Dame, as noted above. His two late receptions against USC and Temple led directly to scoring drives and in both cases provided the game deciding points. It says a lot about what the coaches think of Jones that two key plays were designed to go specifically to him, especially his late reception against Temple. Jones figures to be much better prepared to handle the rigors of tight end next year after a full offseason of strength work and a better understanding of the position and the expectations. A big year figures to be coming for the lone tight end of the 2015 class.
Offensive Line: Tristen Hoge and Trevor Ruhland
Given that offensive line is probably the deepest and most talented unit on the entire team, it is no surprise that both linemen in the 2015 class redshirted during their freshman seasons. For his part Hoge received rave reviews from coaching staff in both the spring and summer camps, and there was even talk he worked his way onto the two deep behind Nick Martin at center. The race between him and Sam Mustipher was close enough that Mustipher was given the second team nod, allowing the staff to redshirt Hoge.
With the departure of Martin to the NFL, the center spot is wide open for either player to take a hold of and there is even some talk that Hoge could move over to one of the guard spots that is rumored to be coming available sometime soon. Fans should look for Hoge to play a significant role for Notre Dame in 2016.
The book on the 6-4 270 pound Ruhland was he was nasty player coming out of high school, he just needed to put on some weight to effectively play his projected position which is guard. The good thing about Notre Dame is they are deep enough to where a talented player like Ruhland can come in develop his body in the weight room for a couple of years while honing his technique under Harry Hiestand and come his junior year is ready to role. This is the projection for Ruhland going forward although a strong spring could vault him into the two deep conversation.
Kicker: Justin Yoon
What can be said about a guy who started every game, didn’t miss a field after week 2, and performed admirably in some harsh conditions, notably the monsoon at Clemson. Barring injury, he figures to make every kick for Notre Dame during his three remaining years of eligibility and if his first year is any indication, it’s likely he reaches All-American status at some point.