The yearly long national nightmare known as the college football off-season is finally almost over. Notre Dame officially kicks off the 2016 football season on Saturday with their first official practice at Culver Academy for their fall camp. Just like with every year, optimism is reigning freely. At the same time, a number of key position battles still loom large for the Irish.
With Notre Dame replacing Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin, Will Fuller, CJ Prosise, Keivarae Russell, Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Romeo Okwara, Elijah Shumate, Steve Elmer and Joe Schmidt; playing time and starting positions are up for grabs. Some positions like center were solidified in the spring when Sam Mustipher seized the opportunity. Others, however, are still up in the air.
In what has become a yearly trend for the Irish, the marque battle is at quarterback between Deshone Kizer and Malik Zaire. Much has been written and a whole lot more will be written between now and whenever Brian Kelly names a starter. On top of quarterback, there’s competition at running back, W wide receiver, right guard, weakside defensive end, weakside linebacker, strong side linebacker, corner, and free safety.
We asked our staff or writers to predict who will be the opening day starter at each position and provide some comments. Here’s the summary of predictions from our esteemed panel with quotes below at specific positions.
|Position||Frank Vitovitch||Scott Janssen||Greg Flammang||Duranko||Michael Owens|
|QB||Malik Zaire||Deshone Kizer||Deshone Kizer||Malik Zaire||Deshone Kizer|
|RB||Tarean Folston||Tarean Folston||Tarean Folston||Tarean Folston||Josh Adams|
|Z WR||CJ Sanders||Corey Holmes||Corey Holmes||CJ Sanders||Corey Holmes|
|W WR||Equanimeous St. Brown||Equanimeous St. Brown||Equanimeous St. Brown||Equanimeous St. Brown||Equanimeous St. Brown|
|RG||Tommy Kraemer||Hunter Bivin||Hunter Bivin||Hunter Bivin||Hunter Bivin|
|WDE||Jay Hayes||Jay Hayes||Jay Hayes||Jay Hayes||Andrew Trumbetti|
|WILL||Tevon Coney||Greer Martini||Tevon Coney||Tevon Coney||Tevon Coney|
|SAM||Asmar Bilal||James Onwaulu||James Onwaulu||James Onwaulu||James Onwaulu|
|CB2||Shaun Crawford||Shaun Crawford||Shaun Crawford||Shaun Crawford||Shaun Crawford|
|FS||Max Redfield||Max Redfield||Max Redfield||Max Redfield||Max Redfield|
Everyone knows who is competing here. Does Zaire retake his starting spot now that he’s healthy or does Kizer keep hold of the position that he grabbed and ran with a year ago? This might just be the best and most competitive quarterback derby in the seven years of the Kelly Era. Our panel is split here with two votes for Zaire, three for Kizer.
- Duranko: Zaire ekes it out, leadership and gusto triumph, along with superior read option nuance Kizer is the relief pitcher.
- Frank: I’ve gone back and forth on this all off-season. After all Kizer did last year it just makes sense that he gets the nod. That said, I remember the pain in Zaire’s eyes at UVA – not from the pain of the injury but from the pain of knowing he might have lost his chance. Zaire comes out in fall camp motivated like we’ve never seen a QB motivated before and wins it.
Like Zaire, Tarean Folston was the unquestioned starter in 2015 before his injury in week one. Then CJ Prosise ran for 1,000+ yards and Josh Adams broke the Notre Dame freshman rushing record. Does Folston get Wally Pipped? Our panel doesn’t think so with four votes for the veteran. Everyone seems confident that Adams will still play a lot though.
- Scott: I think it will be a committee approach but if I have to pick one, I bet Folston has more carries.
- Duranko: Oh, that clever Frank V. Folston is the nominal and ceremonial starter but Adams winds up with more carries.
- Frank: Folston is steady and a better between the tackles runner. He is going to hit a ton of singles and a bunch of doubles. Adams plays a lot and provides the home runs.
Z Wide Receiver
Notre Dame has never really had great production out of the slot receiver position under Brian Kelly. Can that change in 2016? CJ Sanders missed the spring with a shoulder injury that opened the door for Corey Holmes. After redshirting as a sophomore many wrote Holmes off but he rose to the occasion in the spring and now our panel is split with two predicting Sanders and three predicting Holmes. If Holmes doesn’t take hold of the position, he might not live up to his 4-star recruiting rankings.
- Duranko: Sanders- more explosive, more dangerous in space.
- Frank: I had been feeling like this will be Holmes all off-season. Having a last minute change of hear though and predicting CJ Sanders.
W Wide Receiver
Before Alize Jones was ruled ineligible for the 2016 season this competition was going to be awfully interesting. Now it’s down to just Equanimeous St. Brown and Miles Boykin. The suspense here is not quite what it is at other positions. Our panel all agrees that St. Brown starters the season atop the depth chart at W.
- Scott: Tough because I think they will split time, but I’m actually going to predict St. Brown gets most of the snaps at W.
- Duranko: Equanimeous St. Brown, astounding speed, great athleticism (rewatch his punt block against USC)
- Frank: This one was more interesting competition last week before the Jones suspension, but taking St. Brown.
The only position along the offensive line that is up for grabs despite Notre Dame having to replace three starters up front. The competition will be between Hunter Bivin, Tristen Hoge, and Tommy Kraemer in camp according to Kelly. Four of our five panelists here predicted the veteran getting the nod while one bucked the trend and selected the freshman.
- Duranko: Hunter Bivin, 4 th year, knows Harry’s techniques, strong enough. Kraemer a future superstar, but neither McGlinchey nor Nelson played as frosh.
- Frank: I am going against the trend here and picking the frosh. Kraemer is checking in at 315 lbs and I think he steals the starting spot.
Weak Side DE
Notre Dame might not have a true WDE on the roster right now. Andrew Trumbetti and Jay Hayes aren’t traditional WDE’s and freshman Daelin Hayes might not be quite ready for a full-time role and has a history of injuries. Four of our five writers feel Jay Hayes gets the nod while Trumbetti picked up one vote here. All seems to think the frosh carves out a niche in this defense though.
- Scott: I actually think it will be Jay Hayes with Daelin coming in on rushing situations
- Duranko: Say what? An embarrassment of riches at WDE? Is this really Notre Dame? Jay Hayes gets the start, Trumbetti gets about the same number of snaps and Daelin Hayes leads the position, the line and the defense in the most “explosive” plays: TFLs, sacks, hurries and forced fumbles.
- Frank: I think this one goes to Jay Hayes with Daelin Hayes playing the role of freshman pass rush specialist ala Prince Shembo 2010 and Aaron Lynch in 2011.
The unlucky winner of this competition has to fill the shoes of Jaylon Smith – a linebacker Duranko recently ranked as one of the top 25 Notre Dame football players of all-time. That’s not an easy task. Coney trained as Smith’s understudy last year while Bilal stepped up in the spring with Coney sidelined. Greer Martini, Notre Dame’s Swiss Army Knife LB, is in the mix as well. Coney almost swept the predictions here, but Martini picked up one nod.
- Duranko: Tevon Coney, the quiet assassin
- Frank: Coney not only starts, he stars as the WILL. He won’t make anyone forget about Jaylon Smith – we’ll all tell our kids and grandkids about Jaylon Smith. BUT, Coney will be a star LB along with Morgan this year.
Is there a competition here in camp? Maybe, maybe not. James Onwualu is the incumbent multi year starter but the senior to be has just 62 tackles total the past two seasons despite 17 starts. Greer Martini and Asmar Bilal have the ability to challenge for playing time here as well.
- Duranko: Onwualu blossoms as a senior
- Frank: Onwualu has the experience and leadership and all that, but I think Kelly and staff learns from the Joe Schmidt experience in 2015 and plays the most talented, not the most experienced here. Bilal is listed as a WILL but I’m calling for the upset.
Shaun Crawford was set to start the 2015 season as the starting nickel corner before he tore his ACL. Nick Watkins got thrust into the lineup after Keivarae Russell and Devin Butler were both lost for the Fiesta Bowl. Our panel all feel confident in Crawford picking up where he left off before his injury.
- Scott: I’m going to go with the upset here and pick Crawford
- Duranko: Shaun Crawford, with Watkins as a CB when Crawford becomes slot nickel. The biggest challenge to Crawford will come when the Honey Badger, Tyrann “Devine” Mathieu, sues Crawford for stealing his routine.
- Frank: Easy one. Crawford as the starter opposite Luke and then slides inside to the nickel with Watkins on the outside.
Rarely is there a competition with a multi-year incumbent starter and a true freshman, but in the spring Devin Studstill overtook Max Redfield on the depth chart. Redfield came to Notre Dame with 5-star accolades, but to date he has failed to live up to those rankings. Can he do so in his final season at Notre Dame or will the rookie relegate him to backup duty? Our all at least thinks Redfield starts the season as the starter.
- Scott: Redfield but with plenty of snaps for Studstill
- Duranko: Redfield, then off to a ten year NFL career, joins CIA, hacks Putin’s email.
- Frank: I think Studstill moving ahead of Redfield in the spring was used to light a fire under Redfield. It’ll prove effective.