SOUTH BEND, Ind. — With Notre Dame’s preseason camp wrapping up on Friday, the Irish begin preparing for Texas in earnest next week. And a handful of first-year players emerged during August practices who can be expected to play an important role when the season kicks off in primetime Sept. 5:
1. PK Justin Yoon
Yoon entered fall camp as the only Irish freshman guaranteed to play this fall, seeing as the Nashville native is Kyle Brindza’s replacement and Notre Dame’s only scholarship kicker. He looked good on field goal attempts during August, though kicking in the docile atmosphere of practice is far different from lining up for a critical field goal in front of 80,000 fans on Saturdays.
“Hits the ball solid, very consistent, doesn’t have any mechanical flaws,” coach Brian Kelly said. “Once in a while he’ll hit one heavy, but his momentum is through the target, he’s not off balance, so even if he hits one a little heavy he’s still clearing most of his kicks with great ease. So I feel really good there. Very solid, solid kicker. Very consistent.”
2. NG Jerry Tillery
With Jarron Jones out for the year, Tillery looks like Notre Dame’s No. 1 nose guard option. The early enrollee took nearly all of Notre Dame’s first-team reps during spring practice (when Jones was recovering from a foot injury) and appeared to beat out sophomore Daniel Cage for the starting job during August practice. The 6-foot-6, 305-pound native of Shreveport, La., has excellent athleticism and is in good enough shape to take on a high volume of snaps this fall. But defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said Tillery’s flexibility should allow him to make an impact right away.
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“It helps him if he does something wrong or gets his body in a bad position or he gets blocked or he gets knocked off his feet, he can recover and reach back and make tackles or get up in an awkward positions and not be out of a play,” Gilmore said, “while other guys would be on the ground for good and not be able to redirect to be a factor. He can combat that with his flexibility.”
3. TE Alize Jones
The Bishop Gorman alum (the Las Vegas school left tackle Ronnie Stanley and safety Nicco Fertitta also played for) is gifted as a pass-catcher and without a clear-cut tight end depth chart, he’ll be used situationally this fall. Coaches like Jones’ hands and catch radius, and it won’t be a surprise if he becomes Notre Dame’s first freshman tight end since Ben Koyack in 2011 to record at least one reception (and he’ll probably have more).
“He’s as advertised,” offensive coordinator Mike Sanford. “Great young man, unbelievably competitive, like Malik (Zaire) is so driven to be so great and that’s a great quality but he also has to be a young man that enjoys to play the game and he’s working through that. He’s done a great job.”
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4. WR Equanimeous St. Brown
St. Brown looks like he’s overtaken sophomore Corey Holmes, who didn’t have a bad fall camp at all, and has the kind of straight-line speed that’ll make him a deep threat for Malik Zaire this fall. The four-star recruit from Servite High School (Anaheim, Calif.) — the alma mater of former Irish tight end Troy Niklas — could fill the freshman deep threat role played by Chris Brown in 2012 and Will Fuller in 2013.
“Equanimous St. Brown has just blown me away,” Sanford said. “I honestly didn’t know he had that kind of straight line speed. You see it time and time again on film or watching tape, he just keeps running by people, running by people.”
5. WR C.J. Sanders
The quick, speedy Sanders could be a option on screens and sweeps out of the slot and likely will back up Fuller on punt returns and possibly Amir Carlisle on kick returns. With a crowded receiver depth chart — Kelly said Friday he and Irish coaches have to find touches for redshirt sophomore Torii Hunter Jr., who’s primarily a slot receiver but can play outside as well — Sanders may have to make his mark on special teams. That’s still encouraging for Notre Dame, though, seeing as Sanders returned a punt about 90 yards for a touchdown during one of the team’s practices open to media this month.
“Elusiveness, he can cut full speed,” Kelly said. “Some of our guys have got straight-line speed, but they don’t have the ability to cut it full speed. He has the ability to cut at full speed, and we haven’t had that in my time here. It’s something that has been lacking, and he has that ability to cut at full speed.”
Others in the mix: LB Tevon Coney (second-string Will linebacker), RBs Josh Adams, RB Dexter Williams (third-string running backs)