I really like to do rankings when evaluating a team. It helps me get a read on the type of team I’m going to be watching in the fall. Where are they strong? Where are they weak?
Soon I’ll be breaking down the schedule for the upcoming 2017 season, and it made sense to first evaluate what Notre Dame will be good at and they will be bad at. What are we going to see from these guys?
Some of the conclusions are great news. Some of them are bad news. Luckily, what we’ve seen is an incomplete picture. A lot can fluctuate over the summer with the changes in approach to strength training and the heavy emphasis on the basics, especially on defense. In other words, defensive linemen can make huge physical strides, and freshmen can alter the dynamic.
That being said, here is the 2017 football team, from weakest to strongest:
It hurts me to put my former–and favorite–position in the weakest spot, but I’m a straight shooter. I liked what I saw from Coleman and Elliott in the spring game–the two likeliest starters–I’m just weary of the upside at this position. It was refreshing to see some playmaking for once; Coleman broke on a crosser by Alize Mack that led to the Elliott pick, and Elliott was very active in the run game. But, how consistent can Coleman be as a playmaker when he hasn’t played the position and the times we did see him on the field, he was getting barbecued against Texas?
Also, there is a rather large elephant in the room in regards to their tackling. Elliott was aggressive in the spring contest, but he also missed Josh Adams one on one in the hole, leading to a 25 yard touchdown run that also left Coleman swinging and missing.
This is a position where mistakes lead to touchdowns and I continue to be concerned.
The revelation that was Daelin Hayes and his three sacks in the spring game is what kept this group from the bottom spot. He looked quick, strong, and explosive. We need to see it in games that count, no question. But along with Morgan and Tranquill, he was one of the best players on the defense, if not the team, in the final scrimmage.
Beyond him, it’s a whole bunch of “we’ll have to see.” Jay Hayes looked good while making Mike McGlinchey look bad, but we saw these things last spring and then come fall, nothing. Tillery still appears to only want to be good sometimes, and it’s hard to know what the expect from Cage given his injury history.
I consider defensive line to be one of the three most important position groups on the field, along with offensive line and quarterback. Just like time is the key for any offense, lack of time is the key for any defense. When the offense lacks time–time to pass, time to set up blocks–it makes the defense as a whole much better.
As with the safeties, I remain concerned.
Count me among the people who needs to see Alize Mack out there and performing before I decide this guy can be the centerpiece of an offense. He’s showed flashes as a freshman, which is nice, but he didn’t show in the red zone and hasn’t played a meaningful game in over a year. I like his talent, but I just haven’t seen the guy Brian Kelly describes as “uncoverable.” I feel similar regarding Durham Smythe, who looks great every spring, and then doesn’t show in the fall.
That being said, given the emphasis Chip Long places on tight ends, it’s easy to see improvement from a group that hadn’t seen the best coaching the last few years.
The gap between the remaining groups and the previous three groups is pretty vast, because I actually like the remaining units quite a bit. Between Nick Watkins, Julian Love, Donte Vaughn, Troy Pride, and Shaun Crawford, Notre Dame has five guys that can play. Admittedly, my view of Pride and Crawford are more anecdotal since we haven’t seen them much due to injury (Crawford) and lack of time (Pride).
I do wonder what the drop off is between the top three–Love, Watkins, Vaughn–and the other two. Crawford is a total wild card coming off of a torn ACL and Achilles in back to back seasons. Pride has looked playable, but not necessarily someone who gives a lot of confidence. Lack of bodies is what holds this group back for me.
Needed to see more out of Equanimeous St. Brown to put them higher, but I really like this group. My football crush on Chase Claypool is well documented, and the emergence of Miles Boykin was a very pleasant surprise.
I think the two most overlooked players at this position are CJ Sanders and Chris Finke. They are both very good with the ball in their hands, and a tough cover in the Chip Long RPO system. If the defense presents a matchup he likes, Brandon Wimbush can flip the ball out to his smaller receivers and let them work. If the Notre Dame offense is humming, chasing around these two jitterbugs is an unwelcome issue for the defense to combat. Tired legs lead to missed tackles.
The wildcard here is the status of Kevin Stepherson, whose presence would push the group higher in the rankings.
Notre Dame can, and will, play three backs a lot in 2017. This is going to happen. Josh Adams is a no brainer, the staff loves the skill set of Tony Jones Jr., and it is Dexter Williams’ time. Everything about the makeup of this team screams running game with an emphasis on play action creating big plays for their receivers.
This projection also doesn’t change with an injury to any of the top three. Freshman CJ Holmes provides the type of versatility that excels in a Chip Long offense and can fill in as the third back if needed.
This group can hit the home run, go between the tackles, and catch the ball. Pretty much all the things we want running backs to do.
I hope I’m wrong. I want them to be the top group. I really do. I just can’t do it.
There is no reason for them not to be very good to great. They are loaded with talent and experience. They might have two first rounders playing on the left side. They should dominate. But, it’s just not what I saw. Not last season, and not in the spring.
McGlinchey should not be lunging to save his quarterback in the spring of his fifth season. Quarterbacks should not be sacked eleven times, even if some of those are inflated.
I realize I’m talking about the third ranked group with disappointment, but this group is the season. It is the season. If they are great, given the weapons Notre Dame has, this team is a real problem. If not, they’ll just be a team who flashes every now and then. 8-4, program purgatory.
I believe Wimbush to be the goods, but Ian Book is what puts them in this spot. I used to think Brian Kelly was a Wimbush injury away from being out the door.
This is no longer my belief.
Book can do what the offense needs, in totality, just without the electricity of Wimbush. Which is fine, that’s what makes Wimbush great, or potentially great.
Perhaps most importantly, there is a clear pecking order, and none of the quarterback competition mumbo jumbo that plagued the team last season. Each player should feel comfortable within their role. And that feels pretty nice.
Just to make things crystal clear, I’m putting Tranquill and the Rovers with this group.
It all comes together for this unit. It’s a perfect blend of talent, experience, and leadership. Morgan may be the most talented player on the defense, playing arguably the most important position, as a two time captain.
Tranquill, also a captain, found his football soul mate at Rover, where he can emphasize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses. No more deep half. No more getting over top of the deep post. He can attack, he can thump, he can disrupt. It’s his destiny.
Overlooked is Greer Martini, who dropped weight and had his best spring. Also a senior, Martini will tag team with Te’Von Coney at the Buck next to Morgan.
When your fifth linebacker is an athlete the caliber of Asmar Bilal, your unit is in a good place.