Notre Dame begins preparations in earnest for the 2016 season with its first practice Saturday in Culver, Ind. If the Irish are to improve off their 10-3 record in 2015 — which stands as the second-best season in the Brian Kelly era — these five (or, cheatingly, seven) players will be key to that improvement.
1. LB Nyles Morgan (Junior, Crete, Ill.)
Morgan is tasked with replacing Joe Schmidt — who one of his teammates once referred to as “Jimmy Neutron” for his genius-level knowledge of Brian VanGorder’s defense — after a quiet 2015 spent behind the now-former Irish Mike linebacker. The ex-four-star recruit was roundly praised for his ability to pick up and command the Irish defense during spring practice, but whether or not he can handle the heavy responsibility put on the middle linebacker in VanGorder’s scheme on gamedays is still a question mark. A strong season from Morgan, both as a physical, athletic tackler and a communicator, would go a long way toward keeping the Irish defense afloat after a number of key departures from last year’s unit.
2. DB Shaun Crawford (Redshirt freshman, Lakewood, Ohio)
Notre Dame sorely missed Crawford last year, even though the former four-star recruit was just an incoming freshman. VanGorder admitted during spring practice that the torn ACL Crawford suffered during preseason practice kept the Irish from deploying a nickel package with any consistency, which sorely hurt a defense that ideally would rely on a number of different sub packages. But with Crawford back — and ready to make his college debut — Notre Dame not only gets a cornerback to replace KeiVarae Russell, but someone who coaches expect can reliably play in a nickel role. If Crawford lives up to his billing, it would open up plenty of avenues for VanGorder’s defense to have a better shot at reaching the potential it’s promised for the last two years.
3. S Max Redfield (Senior, Mission Viejo, Calif.)
While Devin Studstill caused a stir during spring practice when he was taking first-team reps over Redfield, Notre Dame’s defense will be at its best with the former five-star recruit in its starting lineup. Maybe Redfield doesn’t live up to that blue-chip billing in his final season in South Bend, but the Irish need him to at the least be a solid free safety who largely eliminates the communication issues that’ve plagued the back end of the team’s defense for the last two seasons. With so much turnover in Notre Dame’s front seven — Schmidt, Jaylon Smith, Jarrett Grace, Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara are all gone — Todd Lyght’s defensive backs may shoulder an added load this fall. The success — or failure — of Redfield will be key in determining whether or not they can handle it.
4. QB DeShone Kizer (Redshirt sophomore, Toledo, Ohio)/QB Malik Zaire (Redshirt junior, Kettering, Ohio)
So I’m cheating here, but with Notre Dame not publicly leaning toward either Kizer or Zaire in its quarterback competition, who the starter will be Sept. 4 against Texas is fairly inscrutable. Kizer probably has the advantage heading into fall camp given he has more experience (11 starts vs. Zaire’s three) and a larger volume of film and statistics with which to work. The importance here is less about Kizer and Zaire — both of whom are extremely talented players — and more about how Kelly, Mike Sanford & Co. handle the competition. Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett said before the Fiesta Bowl he found it difficult to prepare when he was looking over his shoulder after every mistake wondering if Cardale Jones was warming up to replace him. Granted, Ohio State had a first-year offensive coordinator in 2015, while Sanford is in Year 2 and fits into a well-established system in South Bend. Having two talented quarterbacks can be described as a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem, and Irish coaches will have to work to avoid letting doubt creep into the mind of whoever the starter is this season.
5. LT Mike McGlinchey (Redshirt junior, Philadelphia, Pa.), LG Quenton Nelson (Redshirt sophomore, Red Bank, N.J.)
Cheating again, but the success of the left side of Harry Hiestand’s offensive line will be critical to keeping the Irish run game as successful as it was in 2015 behind C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams. Prosise is in the NFL now, but Adams returns, as does injured redshirt junior Tarean Folston and sophomore Dexter Williams. McGlinchey and Nelson have all the makings of future NFL stalwarts — Nelson was named a Sports Illustrated first-team preseason All-American this week — and it’d be foolish to doubt Hiestand’s ability to develop offensive linemen. But if the left side of the Irish offensive line is solidified — no matter if the right-handed Kizer or left-handed Zaire starts — it’ll take care of plenty of offensive issues, including the ones that may arise from losing go-to receiver targets in Will Fuller and Chris Brown.