We’re about to get our yearly taste of spring football with the Irish set for their first of 15 practices on Tuesday. Notre Dame heads into the spring with a new defensive coordinator and a quarterback competition on their hands. So, business as usual for the Irish in the Brian Kelly era. As they look to build on last year’s 10 win season, Notre Dame will need several players to step up to take this team to the next level. Today’s column looks at all of them.
We’re not talking about players like Tevon Coney or Drue Tranquill or Julian Love. Those players are expected to be stars this year. We’re also not even talking about the quarterbacks right now since we know the Irish need on of the them to stand out and we’re going to be talking about them A LOT this spring.
No, today we’re talking about players who have either had smaller roles or who haven’t quite fully reached their potential yet who the Irish need to do so in order to build on those 10 wins.
Chase Claypool – Jr, WR
Is Chase Claypool Notre Dame’s new #1 wide receiver? We’re about to find out. With Equanimeos St. Brown off to the NFL and Kevin Stepherson out of the University following all of his legal problems, Claypool is the defacto #1 wide receiver right now. The question is whether or not the Canadian import is ready to fill that role. At times in 2017 Claypool looked like a #1 wide receiver like when he caught 9 passes for 180 yards against Wake Forest. In 9 of 12 games played though, Claypool had two or fewer receptions. Notre Dame needs Claypool to take a big step forward this spring.
Miles Boykin – Sr, WR
Staying at wide receiver, Notre Dame’s new #2 wide receiver could be the hero of the Citrus Bowl. The senior to be had a relatively quiet junior season until erupting against LSU for 102 yards on three catches including the game winning 55 yard touchdown in the final two minutes. Prior to that performance, Miles Boykin had just 9 catches for 151 in the first 12 games of the season. There is golden opportunity in front of Boykin this spring before the likes of Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy, and Lawrencce Keys arrive in the summer. Was the Citrus Bowl a fluke or is Boykin ready to be one of Notre Dame’s top receivers?
Liam Eichenberg – Jr, OT
Notre Dame is replacing a consensus 1st team All-American at left tackle with Mike McGlinchey getting ready to be a first round draft pick. Liam Eichenberg could be the replacement. Eichenberg was in the mix for the starting right tackle position last year but that position ended up being split between Tommy Kraemer Robert Hainsey while Eichenberg served as McGlinchey’s understudy. While Kraemer and Hainsey got the playing time, Eichenberg got the practice reps at left tackle. He figures to be squarely in the mix for a starting position whether it’s at left tackle or right tackle. While Notre Dame also has to replace one of the its best offensive linemen in school history, Quenton Nelson, the open left tackle position will get most of the attention given importance of the left tackle position.
Daelin Hayes – Jr, DE
Many predicted a breakout season from Hayes as a sophomore last year, but Hayes’s season was largely up and down. He flashed big time pass rush potential in spurts but not with much consistency and finished the season with just 3.0 racks despite starting every game. With a full year under his belt starting and another off-season under Matt Balis in the weight room, Notre Dame needs Daelin Hayes to take a big step forward. The rest of the defensive line is deep and talented, but Notre Dame needs a real pass rush off the edge. Hayes has all of the tools to be that guy, but he will need to take a big step forward this spring and summer.
Dexter Williams – Sr. RB
If Dexter Williams can improve as a pass blocker this off-season the starting running back position should be his to lose. Based on the last three years though, that is a big if. Williams is a supremely talented runner who has the same kind of big play potential that Josh Adams delivered last year. The problem has been his pass protection has been underwhelming which has limited his impact and playing time. Time is running out for Williams though so perhaps that realization will force him to dedicate himself to improving in that area this spring. If not, Tony Jones Jr is more than capable of being the top running back.
Alize Mack – Jr, TE
Alize Mack is another player who was expected to breakout last year, but who fell short of expectations. Mack missed all of 2016 for academic reasons but was back and expected to be a major part of the offense in 2017. That never materialized as Mack struggled catching the football consistently and ended the season with just 19 catches for 166 yards. Mack’s only touchdown on the season – and career – was a garbage time score in the blowout loss to Miami. This is a crucial spring for Mack with rising sophomores Cole Kmet and Brock Wright hungry for playing time and a pair of talented frosh tight ends in Tommy Tremble and George Takacs – the latter of whom is already on campus.
Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa – So, DT
Notre Dame’s interior defensive is in pretty good shape this year with the returns of Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner. What could take the interior line to the next level this year though is if the depth behind them develops into more consistent forces. Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa was a late commitment in the class of 2017 and ended up being one of the most counted on true freshman last fall. Forced into a prominent reserve role, he played more than you ideally want any true frosh DT to play – along with classmate Kurt Hinish. With another off-season in the weight room both should be ready to be even bigger factors next year.
Khalid Kareem – Jr, DE
Notre Dame’s pass rush improved in 2017 but it was still a work in progress and the Irish enter 2018 in need of some more pass rushers. Khalid Kareem probably isn’t an answer at WDE, but he does give Notre Dame some pass rush potential from the SDE position. Will Kareem be able to unseat Jay Hayes as a starter? That remains to be seen since Hayes is so solid against the run, but if he steps forward this spring, he could force his way onto the field more in passing situations. Despite not starting a single game in 2017, Kareem was tied for second on the team in sacks with 3.0. If both Hayes and Kareem develop this spring, they could give Notre Dame its best pass rush combo in a few years.
Julian Okwara – Jr, DE
Speaking of the Notre Dame pass rush, the Irish could also really use Julian Okwara to take a big leap this spring. Okwara, like Daelin Hayes, flashed some pass real skills in 2017, but they came in spurts. Like Hayes, he also needs some time in th weight room with Matt Balis. Last fall Okwara could have passed for a linebacker in a SEC defense based on the looks test. Some added weight should allow for him to hold up better at WDE and become a more consistent force. Okwara had 4.5 TFL and 2.5 sacks in 2017.
Tommy Kraemer – Jr, OT & Robert Hainsey – So, OT
These two shared a position last year so they can share a spot on this list. The duo split time at right tackle last year and the experience both gained should serve them well in 2018. Both had their ups and downs a year ago without either really distinguishing themselves from the other. It will be interesting to see where the two end up this year and we’ll start to get an idea of that this week. One could move to guard with the other staying at right tackle. The two could split the tackle positions with one moving to the left side too. Given their starting experience it’s a safe bet that both will be in the lineup against Michigan. What position each plays could be determined by how both play this spring and summer – and by what other offensive lineman emerges for the other open vacate starting position.
UPDATE: Brian Kelly gave some clarity on the situation at left tackle on Monday stating that Robert Hainsey will move to Left Tackle. Odds still are Hainsey, Eichenberg, and Kraemer handle the three open OL positions in some capacity.
Brian Kelly says Robert Hainsey will slide over to left tackle, which we reported back in December after interviewing Chip Long at the bowl site.
— Pete Sampson (@PeteSampson_) March 5, 2018