Notre Dame Football ’16 Top 10 Key Players


Deshone Kizer - Notre Dame QB
Photo: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

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.

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  1. You left out BVG. If he has not adapted, this could be a long year. Everyone is focused on the QB battle, but none of those guys play defense. Defense wins championships- I.e. Alabama , Broncos.

  2. Good picks but Corey’s been MIA for a while and looks like he’s done. Fingers crossed on BVG defense. Looking most forward to Morgan replacing Schmidt. Go Irish!

  3. I like Zaire. I really do. But lets not pretend he’s played against a gauntlet. He got some time in a USC game they got blown out, split time against an average LSU team, then torched an awful Texas team. He was struggling against Virginia before getting injured.

    He’s yet to play in a big game, especially a big game on the road.

  4. Listen guys, I like Zaire as much as anyone; and as I said, feel for the guy as much as anyone. But, Kelly’s responsibility isn’t toward an individual player, but the team as a whole. The game is a violent one, and plenty of guys get passed over because of injury. Pretty much everyone is conceding the starting position to Kizer now, including Kelly if your reading the language and spring game OL decisions. That being said, I’d be happy to see either. But, my guess is that if we see Zaire in first team reps, it’ll be red zone. That’s the only weakness in Kizer’s game. But, also not necessarily a strong point for Zaire either.

    My guess… Barring injury, Kizer has a good to great season and goes first round pro. Zaire graduates, and leaves to another top 25 program and does very well, also earning pro consideration. Winbush starts ’17.

    As to the B&G play of Morgan… He did everything he was supposed to do well. For the D it’s going to be about technique and understanding. Their not going full speed into tackles, and no blitzes were ever called. Everyone knows that the first concern is injuries, and the quickest way to become the guy everyone hates in the locker room is to injure a player in a meaningless game for over aggressive play. I’d be willing to go out on a limb and state that Morgan will be number 1 or 2 in both tackles and sacks this year.

  5. Beatha Breath, sorry but I agree with Subway about Zaire being the starter. I’m going to argue that red-zone efficiency with Zaire as the starter will increase dramatically in the TD to FG ratio simply because he is the better runner. Zaire has the better vision for finding the holes (see running TD in spring game) and is more shifty…just a bit quicker than Kizer. This argument alone is a must for consideration of who the QB should be unless they plan on running a 2-QB system. Redzone offense blew last year. Zaire brings that dimension.

  6. Beatha Breath…you know, eventually not just your breath but the whiskey will begin to rot your brain as well.

    It was a total cop-out for Kelly to publicize a bogus competition for QB. All a thoughtful and player-respected coach would have said was … “if Malik is fully healthy, he’s my starter”. Make it the Sr’s job to lose, after all he earned it with great game-time performances against SC, LSU and UTx. He didn’t lose the job with poor play.

    Having said that, i admit, from my own observations that DSK out QB’d MZ Saturday. He was cool, calm and effective not just in execution but in decision making as well. We are loaded at QB going into this season. But the ‘it’ factor was clearly apparent on a number of plays as MZ made something out of broken plays with his arm and legs. I think his first couple of possessions showed some of the strain of the ‘bogus’ competition. Kelly, let him play with a free mind. It’ll be exciting to watch.

    I saw a lot of up tempo defense Saturday. I’m hopeful. But again, NoMo was a non entity. What happened to the pre-game hype about his ‘shooting’ gaps. I didn’t see one solo tackle. I remain in the NoMo camp. Give someone else a shot.

  7. Nick Watkins injury hurt him. Believe he would’ve been the start opposite Luke.

    Morgan will be fine. Give me Kizer. He’s better, but either way QB play will be good.

    The OL will be good. WR corp will be fine. They’ve recruited those positions as well as anything on the roster.

    This season all boils down to the back end of the defense. Studstill will overtake Redfield. Need Tranquill to stay healthy.

  8. To finish out you defensive leaderboard david r., I’d bet it’s shaun crawford. He’s drawing raves again. And while he’s smaller, he’s fast, instinctive, and a thumper.
    It’s going to be fun to watch the new recruits get into the d backfield in the coming years.

  9. Wow subway, I’m not sure which part of your prognosticating is more errant; where this team is, or where it will be…

    First, your assumption that the quarterback battle is bogus because Zaire is the clear starter is just batty. While I can appreciate Zaire’s charisma and athleticism as much as anyone, and definitely feel for the guy suffering such a career altering injury, he has only played one full game for ND…one. Kizer on the other hand finished up a 10-3 season with impressive numbers, a host of fourth quarter wins, and put the struggling defense in position to contend for a playoff slot. He’s bigger, has more experience, and he’s collected under pressure. Right now most journalists with team access are speaking openly of Kizer being the presumptive starter. The only argument I’ve heard for Zaire starting has been that Kizer’s the one with the emotional maturity to take the blow. Further, emotional quarterbacks tend to be erratic quarterbacks, and if there’s one thing coaches hate, it’s inconsistent play.

    Kizer doesn’t have the It Factor? Hmmm…last second touchdown passes, fourth quarter scoring drives, and 90 yard touchdown runs. Yeah, the guy seems like a poser playing the role of future NFL quarterback to me. Again, Zaire seems like a great guy, but with how little we’ve seen, he’s the ladies bet.

    “Myles NoMo (really?) shouldn’t and won’t see the light of day”? Well, considering he’s the starting middle linebacker, and has received more praise, from coaches and press alike, than any other player on the defense, I’m going to go out on a limb here and state that you’re just flat clueless. Sure, many thought it was just coachspeak before contact practices were opened to the press. But after, there hasn’t been a single journalist that hasn’t expressed astonishment at his play, not only athletically, but also mentally. He’s been nearly flawless at reads and alignment, while also flying viciously around the field. I think it was somogyi and driskell that said they had to count the number of tackles he Wasn’t involved in during elevens.

    I know it’s early sub, but you may want to start doing your butterfly stretches now. My prognostication is that MtArchangel or the Anchorman will be reposting you sometime in the fall.

  10. MZ is the guy, in my opinion. If BVG’s D in year 3 doesn’t produce, it’s time for a change.

  11. This will be Kelly and staffs biggest coaching test for development success yet. Pass this test well, and with his recruiting success, Kelly detractors will have a difficult time railing against him. I am hopeful he can prove my questioning of him as wrong! I want ND to be successful!!!!

  12. Tarean Folston will come back strong this season and retake his starting role.

    Cole Luke is the top corner on the team now

    Isaac Rochell is their top player along the defensive line.

  13. Redfield is about to lose his starting spot to Studstill, and Robinson will likely retire within weeks. So both are irrelevant now. Just FYI, Mr. Ownens

  14. ChrisJ…thanks for your thoughtful comments. I welcome an open and constructive forum.

    The way i hope it goes down, BK boosts Malik’s confidence by claiming him the “winner of this competition” for QB. A competition that BK should not have created. Yet again he proves he has little knowledge of what it really takes to motivate and inspire. I give him his due as a recruiter, not however as a HC. Months ago, BK should have stood before the press and announced Malik his starter… “as long as he is physically able”. Do i think DSK would do a capable job, absolutely. But, give Malik his season in the spotlight. In addition to his raw talent, he earned it by virtue of the fact that he patiently waited through 2 inactive seasons and another on the sideline while another QB proceeded to turnover the ball 23 times before given a shot. He actually did very well in that game against SC and followed that up with a gem against LSU. What i love most about Malik is his ability to check off on 2 and 3 potential receivers before he gives up on the play. Watch him in the Spring game Saturday. Watch his footwork when he looks for multiple receivers. Admire his ‘gun’ for an arm. But i guarantee BK will still say, following that game, the “competition” is still on.

    The “it” factor…the thing you can’t put your finger on…yet it is the thing that gets your team 6 (not 3, or worse) when they’re in the red-zone. DSK does not have it, yet.

    One more thing, you know my feeling about VanNo…as long as he is billed as DC, there is no NC in our future. So, Malik is a Sr, give him that status. Announce him as the “winner” of this bogus competition.

  15. Sub,

    I agree with you that Zaire should be the starter because he has in my opinion better all around tools and upside in comparison to Kizer. However, to say that Kizer doesn’t have the ‘it’ factor may be a stretch. He had four games in which he won/gave a chance to win the game on the very last drive when they were down…Virginia, Clemson (with a wet ball), Temple, and Stanford. If that isn’t having the ‘it’ factor, then I’m not sure what your definition of that is. Zaire just has slightly better tools than Kizer does and I’ll call it more ‘drive’ than Kizer. When I say that, I’m talking about the emotional side of the game. Everyone is different in how they act during games, but when Zaire got his first start against LSU, got MVP, throwing blocks for his teammates during the games, cried in his interview afterwards because its his dream to play QB for ND…that’s the kind of kid I want as the starting QB on my team. Don’t underestimate this type of emotion and how it impacts how your team responds to you as their leader. I just don’t see the exact same leadership from Kizer and I prefer Zaire here as well.

    I will say that whoever does start, we are lucky to have the core of QBs we have. My guess is no other team has that type of depth on their roster.

  16. Of course Morgan should have started. Malik had great game againstTexas last year. We open with
    them. Will this factor in?

  17. M Owens…

    Two of your picks stand out to me as grossly wrong…DSK should not and will not be a factor in 2016 (absolutely w/b in 2017)…Nyles NoMo may not and should not see the light of day at any LB position. Period. Special teams, sure, why not, but as a vital cog in the D, get real. Pray for Coney’s rapid recovery. Altho not great, he may be all we got.

    To all you ‘fans’ (tic) of my posts, I offer my reasoning…Malik is the force, the pure talent with all the tools. DS just doesn’t have the ‘it’ factor…witness Temple, BC. Re NoMo… just doesn’t have the grey matter. But more importantly, Van No cannot risk another season of 74th ranked (or worse) D in the country…job and reputation are on the line.

  18. Team leaders. McGlinchey and Nelson on the line. Kizer and Folston in the backfield. Smythe and Hunter at receiving/tight end. Rochell and Trumbetti on d line. Morgan and Onawalu lb. Luke and ??? D backs. I swear to God if I hear another player is still learning the “nuance’s” at a particular position on defense I will like. It’s on BVG’s shoulders to prove this defense works. It’s his defense and he’s teaching it. If it sucks again, it’s on him.

  19. Good choices, with the exception of Robinson, who I admire and respect, but ND has an abundance of talent at WR.

    I’d add RG and RT- whoever they may be- will be key. It’s Alex Bars’ time to establish himself as the dominant OL recruit that BK has droned on and on about in practices the last two years.
    And the DL, be it Tillery or whomever replaces Sheldon Day. Line play distinguishes contenders from pretenders. But the critical measure of ND success this season will be generating a pass rush, with however many and from whatever formations, to pressure the majority of inexperienced QBs ND will face this season. Despite having to replace 13 starters, those, and avoiding another season of debilitating key injuries, will keep ND in the conversation for the playoffs, or at least among the New Year’s Day invitees.

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