National Signing Day on February 4th represents over one year’s worth of hard work by coaching staffs all over America as they shape the future of their respective programs. Most of the former high school stars turned college freshmen will spend their first year on campus learning the nuances of the college game and preparing their bodies for a new level of competition. A select few, however, will crack the two-deep and see the field immediately.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has more than shown a willingness to play first year players in the past, utilizing nine freshmen during the 2014 season alone. And while Notre Dame is on pace to sign a talent-filled top ten recruiting class in 2015, the results this fall should be drastically different.
Notre Dame returns 20 of its 22 starters from 2014, making the Fighting Irish one of the most experienced teams in the nation heading into 2015, and leaving little room for freshmen to enter the picture. Still, a few new names will be seen often on the sidelines, so let’s meet Notre Dame’s impact freshmen.
Justin Yoon, K
Nobody wants to talk about kickers until everything goes awry, much the way it did for Notre Dame in 2014. Soon-to-be NFL combine invitee Kyle Brindza struggled his final year at Notre Dame, hitting only 58-percent of his attempts, a significant decrease from his junior campaign when he connected on nearly 77-percent of his targets. Highlighting just how underrated but important the kicker position truly is, Brindza’s final boot in a Notre Dame uniform was a last second field goal that sealed an Irish victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl, and the hope is that momentum carries over into 2015.
Notre Dame’s future at kicker appears to be in excellent hands with Justin Yoon, tabbed by Rivals.com as the No. 1 kicker in the nation. Yoon started his post high school career on the right foot by setting an Under Armour All-American all-star game record by blasting a 47-yard field goal, as well as setting another record for most field goals made (three).
Yoon will compete with redshirt freshman kicker Tyler Newsome for the starting job, but the expectation is Yoon will start at kicker and Newsome at punter.
Josh Adams, RB
Given the offensive firepower Notre Dame signed within the Class of 2015, it might come as a surprise that Adams may see significant playing time. A 3-star prospect, Adams has largely flown under the radar as a recruit, but Notre Dame landed a jewel. The six-foot-three-inch, 210-pound Pennsylvania native fell off many recruiting boards after suffering an ACL injury during his junior season. Notre Dame’s patience paid off, however, as Adams came back with a vengeance his senior year, compiling nearly 2,000 all-purpose yards and scoring 31 touchdowns.
Adams’ senior highlight film shows a bruising back with cutback ability as well as soft hands, with Adams occasionally being split wide.
With the graduation of Cam McDaniel, Notre Dame currently only has two scholarship running backs in Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. Adams seeing the field as a freshman will be a necessity, particularly if Notre Dame falls short of landing 4-star running back recruit Dexter Williams on National Signing Day.
Adams has the potential to surprise many Notre Dame fans this upcoming fall with his combined size and north-south running style, an area where Greg Bryant has struggled significantly. If Bryant continues to run with indecisiveness when hitting the line of scrimmage, don’t be surprised if Adams sees an increased role as a freshman.
Aliz’e Jones, TE
While Justin Yoon and Josh Adams are likely to see the field early due to depth issues – though both are also talented enough to play immediately – tight end Aliz’e Jones is on an entirely different plane. Jones will begin his collegiate career with significant hype – already drawing comparisons to former Notre Dame tight end and first-round NFL Draft selection Tyler Eifert – and is likely to play immediately due to talent alone.
Rated as the No. 1 tight end prospect in the nation by ESPN and No. 2 by Rivals, Jones appears to be the heir apparent to Notre Dame’s status as “Tight End U.” Recruiting guru Tom Lemming was effusive in his evaluation of Jones, telling the South Bend Tribune, “I think he’s going to be a first-round NFL Draft choice in a few years.”
Though Notre Dame only received solid play from its tight end corps in 2014, Kelly and staff have had high praise for its young tight ends Durham Smythe, Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua. Adding Aliz’e Jones to the mix could allow the Fighting Irish to once again have a dangerous mixture of tight end talent moving forward.
While Justin Yoon, Josh Adams and Aliz’e Jones are the most likely to be impact freshmen due to depth and skill, several other talented freshmen may manage to fight through their crowded position groupings to see some playing time.
Notre Dame is set to sign an extremely talented group of linebackers in Josh Barajas, Asmar Bilal and Tevon Coney, a key development after losing team captain Joe Schmidt for the 2014 season with a fractured ankle and starting linebacker Jarrett Grace for half of the 2013 season as well as all off the 2014 season with a fractured tibia. The Irish linebackers should be healthy coming into the 2015 season, but the newly signed freshmen class has the talent to make some noise.
Barajas, a 4-star prospect from Indiana, opened eyes at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl with his range and athleticism, answering critics who questioned his level of competition in the Hoosier State. Tevon Coney, a 4-star early enrollee, has impressed the Notre Dame coaching staff with his size, and with several additional months to acclimate to the program, Coney will be in a good place to compete this summer.
An opportunity for playing time can also be found at the cornerback position after the graduation of Cody Riggs. Star corner KeiVarae Russell will return in 2015, and the expectation is Cole Luke will win the other starting cornerback position, but a battle will surface for the nickel spot.
Shaun Crawford, a 4-star cornerback and Ohio native, will have an opportunity to stake his claim for the nickel candidacy. Despite his smaller stature, Crawford drew praise for his toughness at the Under Armour All-America Game and is listed by Rivals as the fourth best player in Ohio and the seventh best cornerback in his class.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at [email protected] or you can follow him on Twitter.