For Notre Dame to have a big bounce back season in 2017, the stars will have to align and the bounces will almost have to go all their way unlike 2016 when all the bounces seemingly went against them. Notre Dame will needs its stars to shine bright obviously, but it’s the wildcard players who will ultimately tip the scales in one direction or another. Today we’re going to talk about them.
There are headline players for Notre Dame who everyone knows the Irish need to play big. Guys like Brandon Wimbush, Nyles Morgan, Mike McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson, Equanimeous St. Brown, Daelin Hayes, Greet Martini, Julian Love, etc. Guys who, for the most part, we know what we are getting or whose roles are pretty well defined.
These eight players though are players who could take the Irish to another level this year by complementing the Irish standouts.
Nelson and McGlinchey will make all of the headlines this summer, but senior Alex Bars is the guy who will really determine how much the offensive line improves. I expect McGlinchey and Nelson to play like 1st round picks so there isn’t much either can do this year that would really surprise. Bars on the other hand struggled in his first year as a starter in 2016. He wasn’t necessarily bad, but he also wasn’t necessarily good either.
In 2016, Bars was “just a guy” essentially. He has the talent and potential to be much more than “just a guy”, however, and if his move to right guard pans out, the Irish offensive line could be special this year. Tackles get most of the glory in pass protection, but with Brandon Wimbush shorter than his predecessor at just a shade under 6’2″, the guards will be equally important in terms of giving Wimbush a clean passing lane.
At the end of the season, the campaign that Bars has will very likely be indicative of how well the offensive line played as a unit in 2017. If he steps up and excels this year like he can, we’re talking about one of the best lines in the country.
If nothing else, it’s about damn time Shaun Crawford catches a break on the injury front. Between Crawford and Drue Tranquill it’s a neck and neck race as to which has been more snake bitten by freak injuries in their careers at Notre Dame. And in both cases, it couldn’t have happened to better kids.
When healthy, Crawford’s talent is undeniable to anyone who has watched him play. Problem is, he’s only been able to play in 1.5 games in his Irish career because of serious leg injuries. Crawford is remarkably 100% from last year’s ruptured achilles and once again ready to make his mark.
Remember the kid picking off Texas in the opener and then racing down the field later in the game with Jarron Jones blocked PAT. Same kid who ripped the ball out of a Nevada receivers hands on what was ruled a fumble originally before being overturned on the same play that he ruptured his achilles? Now imagine that kid playing a full season for the Notre Dame defense. It’s a really fun thought isn’t it?
After a second major injury we might not see that same player even if Crawford plays every game this fall, but if he does play every game, the Notre Dame defense will be getting one of its best players back. That would be a huge boost for a defense that will need its back 7 to lead the way.
The back seven will need to carry the way because Notre Dame has some very apparent depth issues along the defensive line thanks to losing out in the Scott Pagano sweepstakes, the unfortunate need for Daniel Cage to medical redshirt this season (and possibly retire), and the loss of Elijah Taylor who has predictably taken longer to recover from the lisfranc injury he suffered in the fall.
Those losses have now put a lot of pressure on the remaining linemen – along with defensive line coach Mike Elston. The pressure might not be on anyone more than Jerry Tillery though. Tillery will be manning the NT position with little depth behind him and will be the only starter on the line with starter’s experience this fall.
Notre Dame needs Jerry Tillery to start playing like the kid that made an instant impact as an early enrollee in 2015. To date Tillery has flashed at times, but has never been able to put together consistent effort and output week to week. If that does not change in 2017, the Notre Dame defensive line might not have much of a chance baring someone else coming out of nowhere to lead the line.
Another pivotal member of the defensive line, Jay Hayes is going to need to be a jack of all traits in 2017 for the Irish. Right now Hayes is slated to start at the strong side defensive end position, but with dodgy depth on the interior, he will likely need to play inside at the 3-technique as well this fall. Jonathan Bonner is slated to start alongside Tillery but as a first time starter, it’s tough to predict what the Irish will get from him too.
Where Notre Dame will need Hayes’s versatility to move inside the most is on pass rush downs. Bonner hasn’t shown much of a pass rush to this point in his career while Hayes has. If Elko and Elston can move Hayes inside on passing downs and bring in Andrew Trumbetti who Kelly has talked up already in camp on the strong side, Notre Dame could maybe, just maybe cobble together a solid pass rush this fall.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this list is primarily defensive players given all of the talent the Irish have back on offense and the firepower that we know the offense possesses. Kevin Stepherson is one player who could really make the Irish offense fly this fall though. For a 3-star recruit, Stepherson had a better freshman season that almost anyone could have hoped for. He flashed big play potential, downfield speed, and elite hands.
The problem is that it is very apparent that he was – maybe still is – in the doghouse even though Brian Kelly won’t admit it. Stepherson ran with the third team through much of spring practice and was there again during 7 on 7 drills on day one of camp. Stepherson is simply too talented to be running with the third team.
Of all of the wide receivers on the Notre Dame roster, none have Stepherson’s downfield playmaking ability. He might not run as fast a 40 time as Will Fuller, but he has the ability to be that kind of playmaker for the Irish in his career. While he might not have Fuller’s pure speed, he’s got better hands and is a more advanced route runner at this point in his career.
Notre Dame could have a dynamic offense this year and if Stepherson is starting on September 2, they will have a big play, downfield threat they were missing in 2016. If he stays in the doghouse, Notre Dame still has some really good receivers, but Stepherson can be the most dynamic of them all this fall.
Ok back to defense. One of the biggest stories of the spring was the move of Nick Coleman to safety – a position where Notre Dame has some depth but not a lot of experience. Coleman was last seen getting burned at corner early in the 2016 campaign, but after moving to safety in the spring he started to establish himself.
If Coleman continues his ascent in fall camp and ends up starting for Notre Dame, the Irish will have some legit depth in the secondary for 2017. Notre Dame’s surprising depth at corner made this move possible in the first place. At this time last year Coleman was looking like a starter at corner. That didn’t last long and with last year’s crop of frosh corners getting experience combined with Crawford’s return, Notre Dame had the luxury of moving Coleman.
Should Navy transfer Alohi Gilman get cleared by the NCAA to play immediately, Coleman will definitely have a fight on his hands for the starting gig. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Devin Studstill get looks at free safety as well. If the Coleman experiment works out for Notre Dame though it’ll go a long way towards shoring up the secondary.
No one on the Notre Dame roster may have benefited as much from all of the off-season changes as Drue Tranquill. Not only did the arrival of Mike Elko bring in a new position – the ROVER – that is almost tailormade for his skillset, but the arrival of Matt Balis and the expansion of the strength staff benefited Tranquill during his first offseason spent building strength instead of rehabbing a major knee injury.
Last season Tranquill looked a bit like a small linebacker playing safety. He was strong against the run, but struggled in deep coverage. His lone interception in fact came on a play in which he was well behind the play but a dropped pass serendipitously fell into his arms. In the new defense, he is playing a role designed for a smaller linebacker with safety skills. If Tranquill takes to the position like the staff hopes and expects him to, Notre Dame will have a playmaker on defense whose turnover total should skyrocket.
As a freshman, Justin Yoon was a weapon for Notre Dame. A reliable kicker with the kind of leg capable of nailing a 52 yard field goal in a close game. As a sophomore, Yoon was more of a liability as he battled through pain much of the year. After sitting out this spring to rest his leg, Yoon is said to be back at 100%. If true, that would be a huge boost for Notre Dame.
Justin Yoon was as good as a freshman as anyone could have hoped for and it benefited the Notre Dame offense in more ways than just making field goals. With a reliable kicker with a big leg, the offensive play calling changes greatly. If you know if you have a kicker who can come in and nail a 48 yarder, you might be more likely to take some downfield chances when the defense is expecting run.
If Yoon kicks like he did in 2015 instead of 2016 he will make a big difference in some close contests this year.
A lot has to go right for Notre Dame this year to get back to where it looked like they were headed just a couple years ago,. If these 8 players all step up alongside Notre Dame’s stars though, we are having a much different conversation than we were having last December.