We continue our preseason roster breakdown as we head toward the season opener September 2nd against Temple. Last week I looked at quarterback where I made the, apparently, audacious claim that quarterback was in better shape in 2017 than it was last season. I came to find out that many people did not share that opinion. Which is fine and good. Disagreement never hurt anything.
Today is a look at the offensive skill positions with each position group getting it’s own breakdown. You’ll soon see this isn’t a tough call for any of these groups, which is why I lumped them into a single column.
Let’s get to it.
Gone is Tarean Folston and in his place is Tony Jones Jr., who was the talk of spring ball and following the first fall practice. He is around the same physical build as Folston, lacks the same home run burst that Folston lacked, and has been lauded for his excellent hands out of the backfield. New offensive coordinator Chip Long‘s offense is heavy on utilizing it’s backs as receivers and this is an area where Jones Jr. can separate himself from his teammates.
Josh Adams is back, healthy, and looking as good as he ever has. He looks to be primed to deliver his best statistical season as the bonafide starter. Junior Dexter Williams looks poised to break out as a big part of the offense on a week to week basis.
Just on the basis of those two returning players, and with Tony Jones Jr. looking like a better fit and option at running back than Tarean Folston last season, it’s fair to say the running back spot is in better shape than at this time last season.
Gone are Corey Holmes and Torii Hunter Jr., in are grad transfers Cam Smith and Freddy Canteen. Notre Dame returns three of their top four leading receivers from last season, including top wideout Equanimeous St. Brown, and has a couple of young players ready to breakout–namely Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin.
The loss of Hunter Jr. is not nothing. He was a captain last season and could be counted on when the lights came on. He was a known quantity. For all of the talent at receiver the Irish appear to have on paper, it would be false to say they know exactly what they are going to get from any of them, save for St. Brown. This is true even of Kevin Stepherson, who hauled in 25 receptions last season for 462 yards as freshman in 2016, but had a roller coaster spring and ran with the third team to open the fall on Tuesday. It’s hard to know what the Irish offense can expect from the sophomore from Florida.
It’s reasonable to expect St. Brown to improve on his sophomore season and first real time on the football field in a featured role. And while there is no known player in the mold of Hunter Jr., just given the number of options at receiver, someone is bound to emerge.
That includes a group of Smith, Canteen, Claypool, Boykin, Stepherson, CJ Sanders, and Chris Finke. That’s a lot of talent to choose from. Sheer numbers says at least two from that group is going to prove reliable week after week, if not a turn-taking situation like we saw so often in the early nineties receiving groups during the Holtz era.
The improvement of their best receiver is enough to say this group is better now than last season and with the upside of Claypool, Smith, or Stepherson to take over for Hunter Jr., who was more of a possession guy, this is the group you’d want given the two situations.
Out is Tyler Luatua due to a medical redshirt, in is Alize Mack, back from academic suspension. This isn’t a close call.
In addition to Mack, Notre Dame has two incoming freshmen, Brock Wright and Cole Kmet, who were widely considered two of the best tight end prospects in the country, and certainly the best duo.
Durham Smythe and Nic Weishar also return as the senior leaders, but they both need to be on the top of their game to hold off the two freshmen..
As far as receivers go, Mack is the one to watch here. A big season could put him up there for Mackey Award consideration, and he is one of the best prospects on the team, regardless of position. His addition to this group makes this one a no-brainer.
Notre Dame returns their top running back, receiver, and tight end from last season. They are deeper at running back, receiver, and tight end. They are simply in a better position this season than last season at the skill positions. Moving the ball and finding weapons to hurt defenses should not be a problem.
Verdict: Much Better