With the rapid pace at which Notre Dame football news has been occurring, it’s been a bit overlooked that spring football is just over a week away. Finally, Notre Dame can start to remove some of the stench that has been lingering from last year’s clunker. As Notre Dame gets set to kick off the eighth spring practice of the Brian Kelly era, we’ll take a look at some players facing critical springs. Players who might not be quite at make or break status, but players who are pretty damn close to it.
We’ll start up by looking at one of three defensive linemen on our list.
Elijah Taylor (Jr) – DT
Two years ago when Notre Dame tried to stock up on defensive linemen following the shift from Bobby Diaco’s 3-4 defense to Brian Vangorder’s what the hell that was 4-3 defense, the highest rated of the bunch was Elijah Taylor. The rising junior who is reportedly one of the strongest players on the team, has yet to make much of a mark on the field. That could change in a big way in 2017.
With the future for Daniel Cage still a little cloudy – hopefully we’ll hear something from Brian Kelly next week on Cage – due to his previous concussion issues, Taylor could be thrust into a prominent role in 2017. The starting line up. Should Notre Dame not have Cage this fall, it would likely come down to Taylor or Pete Mokwuah at NT. Now, that could change if Clemson graduate transfer decides to enroll at Notre Dame.
Regardless, Taylor needs to use this spring to prepare as though he will be a starter in the fall. The limited body of work we’ve seen – most notably an extended audition in the season finale vs. USC – Taylor has flashed. There is a big difference between flashing and starting though. Taylor needs a big spring, but his performance against USC was very encouraging. A big spring from Taylor could put a lot of pressure on the next player on our list regardless of the status of Cage or Pagano.
Jerry Tillery (Jr) – DT
It may seem a bit unbelievable but Jerry Tillery is going to be just a junior next fall. Despite being a mainstay in the Notre Dame lineup over the last few seasons, however, Tillery has yet to really establish himself. Add to that his notorious end to the 2016 season and this spring will be pivotal for Tillery’s future.
The last time we saw Tillery on the field, he was getting flagged for stomping on the foot of USC offensive lineman Zach Banner. That was a few plays after it looked as though Tillery bumped the head of Trojan running back Aca’Cedric Ware with his foot as he lay on the ground following a big hit (that most certainly was not targeting but was still called targeting because, hey why not?). The plays got Tillery an unofficial ejection (he was pulled by Brian Kelly) and one hell of verbal dressing down on the sideline.
Those plays are the last memories of Tillery’s otherwise unmemorable sophomore campaign. Those kind of plays don’t just get overlooked by teammates and while Tillery has had an entire off-season to restore his image with his teammates, spring practice will be his first time back on the field following a series of plays that hopefully will not define his career.
On the field, Tillery still has a lot of work to do in order to live up to his potential and honestly, the rising junior has not done anything to suggest that he should have a starting job locked up heading into the 2017 season. If Taylor becomes best friends with Matt Balis this off-season and plays in the spring like he did against USC, Tillery will be in a battle with him throughout camp.
Jay Hayes (Sr) – DE/DT
Ok, this is the last defensive lineman on the list, I promise. Although, I could write about how many more linemen are facing critical points in their careers, but for now let’s talk about Jay Hayes and then move on to other positions. To this point in Jay Hayes’s career, we’ve talked a lot more about his potential than his production. Forced into action as a true freshman, Hayes redshirted as a sophomore.
Heading into 2016, some where expecting a breakout season. That didn’t happen. While Hayes played in 10 games as a junior, he collected just 10 tackles and only 0.5 TFL. He saw a brief uptick in production immediately following the dismissal of Brian Vangorder, but it was short lived and Hayes never broke out.
As he enters his senior season, Hayes will be in fight for a starting position with fellow senior Jonathan Bonner at SDE. Some, however, wonder if Hayes might be better suited for the interior line in Mike Elko’s defense. Hayes still has two years of eligibility left and a lot of untapped potential, but if he doesn’t settle into a position and establish himself early on in spring he could get lost in the mix. With the talent Hayes possess, however, there is a chance that two years from now we’re talking about a multi-year starter getting ready for the NFL.
When Notre Dame landed Josh Barajas, Asmar Bilal, and Tevon Coney in the class of 2015; many felt it was a turning point in Notre Dame linebacker recruiting. The Irish hauled in three 4-star linebackers in a single class. Coney spent most of 2016 as a starter while Bilal cracked the rotation and had some moments of his own. Barajas, despite being the most highly rated of the group out of high school, has become an afterthought to this point in his career.
As Barajas enters spring football this year, he still has three years of eligibility and a world of ability. Early on in his career the knock on him was that he needed to spend more time in the weight room. That has not been mentioned as much in the last year or so, but perhaps a new S&C coach will still do him some good.
Barajas will be battling for a backup spot behind Nyles Morgan who is as etched in stone of a starter as there is on the Notre Dame defense. Barajas will have to fend off 2016 Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year Jonathan Jones for that role. If he is able to do so Barajas can set himself up nicely for a starting gig as a senior. If Barajas doesn’t make the most of spring football though, he could easily get passed on the depth chart and continue to be an afterthought.
Heading into the 2016 season Nick Watkins was poised to be an opening day starter. Then he missed spring practice with a broken arm. His recovery lingered into the summer and he missed fall camp as well. There was still optimism that he would play in the second half of 2016 as late as September, but by the first week of October, the decision was made to shut him down for the entire season.
Watkins injury combined with the suspension/injury of Devin Butler and the injury to Shaun Crawford thrust freshmen Julian Love, Donte Vaughn, and Troy Pride Jr into prominent roles. Each had their moments a year ago and each will have their eyes on a starting spot.
Watkins hasn’t played since the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State when he made his first career start. While he had his ups and downs that afternoon, he showed the promised that had him rated a 4-star recruit out of high school. He’ll need to shake off the rust in spring practice if he wants to ascend back into the starting lineup this fall.
Dexter Williams (Jr) – RB
With Tarean Folston off to the NFL, Dexter Williams starts spring practice as the #2 running back behind Josh Adams with rising sophomore Tony Jones Jr third in the pecking order and early enrollee CJ Holmes hungry for playing time as well. While it is generally assumed Adams will be the top back, the staff has to find a role for Dexter Williams given the junior to bes speed and athleticism.
Between Adams, Jones, Williams, and Holmes the Irish have four pretty different backs. Adams is more of a one cut and take it to the house back, Jones the bowling ball inside runner, Holmes the do it all kind of guy, and Williams the guy who can take a play destined for lost yardage all the way to the endzone as he did against Syracuse. No other Irish back has that kind of ability. Chip Long and Brian Kelly need to find this young man a prominent role in the offense starting this spring.
Miles Boykin (Jr) – WR
I predicted a big bump in production for Miles Boykin in 2016. That didn’t happen. Boykin caught a single touchdown while hauling in just 6 passes for 81 yards on the season. Given his height and hulking size for a wide receiver, Boykin has the makings of a red-zone monster. To this point in his career, that potential has not been extracted from his 6’5″ frame.
Boykin will start spring football 2nd on the depth chart at the “W” receiver position behind Equanimeous St. Brown but will have rising sophomore Chase Claypool on his heels. Claypool might be one of the most athletic players on the team and could very well pass Boykin on the depth chart if Boykin doesn’t bring his A game this spring and fall.
Boykin’s size will work in his favor as Notre Dame doesn’t have anyone built quite like him. That size could allow him to carve out a niche in this offense as a red-zone target even if Claypool overtakes him in the rotation. Boykin will need a strong spring to fight for reps though.
Brandon Wimbush (Jr) – QB
Ok, this one goes without saying, but Notre Dame’s new starting quarterback needs to make the most out of every snap of every one of the 15 practices Notre Dame has this spring. Wimbush has had the off-season to start to take ownership of this team, but for the first time in his career he will line up behind center as THE starting quarterback for the University of Notre Dame on the first day of spring practice.
We’ve heard reports for a few years that Wimbush has the highest ceiling of any of the quarterbacks on the roster the last few years, but this spring we will start to see what the young man’s got. Brian Kelly will likely not be far away from Wimbush much throughout spring ball even though he’s said he wants to be more present to the rest of the team as well. Kelly’s future at Notre Dame very much rests with the junior quarterback who will take his first practice rep as a collegiate starter next week.