Notre Dame

Reviewing Notre Dame's depth chart heading into the summer

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Reviewing Notre Dame's depth chart heading into the summer

With spring practice wrapped up in South Bend and three and a half months until Notre Dame begins its 2015 preparations in earnest, here’s a look at where the Irish depth chart stands heading into the summer:

Quarterback

1. Everett Golson (Graduate student)
1A. Malik Zaire (Junior)

There wasn’t any resolution here coming out of spring practice. Coaches like what both quarterbacks can do but want both Golson and Zaire to focus on their weaknesses this summer — for Golson, that means improving his pocket presence and ball security; for Zaire, that means refining his throwing mechanics and decision-making. If Golson is still with Notre Dame (graduating in May grants him the ability to play immediately elsewhere as a one-year transfer) come August, and he can prove to coaches he’s past his turnover issues, he could very well be the guy Sept. 5 against Texas (with Zaire still serving a role in the offense). But there’s still plenty of time between now and then.

[MORE: Uncertainty looms as Notre Dame's QB competition enters summer]

Running back

1. Tarean Folston (Junior)
2. C.J. Prosise (Senior)
2A. Greg Bryant (Junior)

There arguably was no more impressive player during spring practice than Prosise, who cross-trained at running back and led Notre Dame in carries during the Blue-Gold Game. If he continues on his trajectory, he very well could steal carries away from Bryant and, to a lesser extent, Folston this fall.

[MORE: C.J. Prosise exits spring practice as Notre Dame's biggest rising star]

Wide receiver

1. Will Fuller (Junior)
2. Corey Holmes (Sophomore)

1. Chris Brown (Senior)
1A. Corey Robinson (Junior)
2. Justin Brent (Sophomore)

1. Amir Carlisle (Graduate student)
2. Torii Hunter Jr. (Junior)
2A. C.J. Prosise (Senior)

Fuller reminded everyone of his explosive skillset in the Blue-Gold Game when he burned Nick Watkins for a 68-yard touchdown. Brent reeled in a 29-yard score and looked solid in his final showing after receiving some strong challenges from his coaches this spring. Hunter navigated a grueling schedule between football and baseball and would be an option to back up Fuller at X, especially with Prosise still in the slot mix.

[MORE: Notre Dame won't be surprised again by Will Fuller's growth]

Tight end

1. Durham Smythe (Junior)
2. Tyler Luatua (Sophomore)

Smythe exits the spring as the clear No. 1 tight end, though the bruising Luatua could allow Notre Dame to run some two tight end sets — he’d be an especially valuable asset if Zaire winds up being the starter this fall. Smythe is a smooth pass-catcher whose blocking skills remain a work in progress, though they’re at the point where Notre Dame should feel comfortable with him on the field. There’s still some question as to who the third-string tight end here will be, whether that’s sophomore Nic Weishar, incoming freshman Alize Jones or fifth-year candidate Chase Hounshell.

[MORE: Notre Dame wants Durham Smythe to be its next complete tight end]

Left tackle

1. Ronnie Stanley (Senior)
2. Hunter Bivin (Junior)

Stanley is squarely in the debate to be Notre Dame’s best player this fall, and he’s added leadership duties to his résumé since the Music City Bowl and his decision to pass on the NFL Draft. Bivin is someone coach Brian Kelly said still needs to grow, though if something were to happen to Stanley, don’t be surprised if Alex Bars — who’s battling Quenton Nelson at left guard — was the first tackle off the bench.

[MORE: Notre Dame's Ronnie Stanley 'at peace' with passing on NFL]

Left guard

1. Quenton Nelson (Sophomore)
1A. Alex Bars (Sophomore)

Nelson probably has the inside track here, though don’t expect this competition to be settled until sometime in August. Nelson is a physical player — “he just mauls people,” center Nick Martin quipped — while coaches like Bars’ technique. Both these sophomores profile as strong offensive linemen down the road, even if only one of them can start come September. If Bars doesn't win the job, he would probably become the first guard off the bench in addition to being the first-choice reserve tackle.

Center

1. Nick Martin (Graduate student)
2. Sam Mustipher (Sophomore)

While Kelly didn’t seem to happy about losing incumbent center Matt Hegarty as a graduate transfer, the coaching staff wanted to move a fully healthy Martin back to the position at which he started 11 games in 2013. Thus, Hegarty — who went through a pretty serious health scare in 2012 — wasn’t guaranteed his starting job back, and is now reportedly poking around championship-contending programs like Florida State and Oregon. Martin, though, is a solid anchor in the middle of what looks to be a strong Irish offensive line.

[MORE: Deep offensive line aiding Notre Dame’s QB competition]

Right guard

1. Steve Elmer (Junior)
2. John Montelus (Junior)

Elmer came to Notre Dame as a tackle, then was moved to guard, then was moved back to tackle and then to guard again all in the span of about a year and a half. He’s entrenched at right guard now and should continue to grow there — he’s already come a long way from moving like a “newborn deer” at times, in the words of offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

Right tackle

1. Mike McGlinchey (Junior)
2. Mark Harrell (Senior)

McGlinchey only has one start to his name, but the 6-foot-8, 310-pound Philadelphia native is an outstanding athlete who’s been groomed for two years for this role. He started the Music City Bowl — in which Notre Dame rushed for 263 yards against LSU — and said that game helped remove whatever doubt he had about his ability to succeed at the college level.

Defensive end

1. Isaac Rochell (Junior)
2. Grant Blankenship (Sophomore)

1. Romeo Okwara (Senior)
1A. Andrew Trumbetti (Sophomore)
2. Jhonny Williams (Sophomore)

There isn’t a pass rusher in this group who projects as a double-digit sack guy, but coaches think Rochell can be effective pressuring the quarterback and the Okwara/Trumbetti combo should do well in the sack and quarterback hurry department. Williams redshirted last year and still needs to gain strength, but we’ve heard plenty about his electric pass-rushing potential — we’ll see if that emerges this year or later down the road.

[MORE: Notre Dame will have time to get under college 'salary cap']

Defensive tackle

1. Sheldon Day (Senior)
2. Jay Hayes (Sophomore)

Convincing Day to pass on the NFL Draft was a major recruiting victory for Kelly & Co. in the winter, as the captain and best defensive linemen the team had in 2014 will be back for one more year in South Bend. Behind him is Hayes, the boisterous up-and-coming sophomore whose redshirt was torched with only three games remaining last fall — but coaches feel Hayes can be good enough to turn pro after his senior season (he could after his junior year, too, though they won't say that), so preserving that fifth year wasn’t much of a concern.

Nose guard

1. Jarron Jones (Senior)
2. Jerry Tillery (Freshman)

Jones will re-take his interior perch when he’s fully recovered from a Lisfranc injury in his foot — the same injury former Irish center Braxston Cave suffered in 2011 and returned from to start all 13 games in 2012. But Kelly took every opportunity to praise Tillery during spring practice, and his defensive coaches lauded the Louisiana native’s ability to use his hands, play with leverage and never make the same mistake twice. Whereas Notre Dame’s interior defensive line depth was weak last year, the guys behind Day and Jones look much better heading into 2015.

[MORE: With knowledge and reinforcements, ‘sky’s the limit’ for Notre Dame defense]

Sam (outside) linebacker

1. James Onwualu (Junior)
2. Greer Martini (Sophomore)

The plan here is to use Onwualu against more passing-oriented offenses and Martini against powerful, run-focused attacks. But the plan, too, is to use Jaylon Smith here in an effort to keep opposing offenses from keying on him and easily taking him out of plays. While Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder made it clear Onwualu had a strong spring, if Notre Dame wants to get its three best linebackers on the field at the same time, it’ll mean sliding Smith over to Sam.

Will (inside) linebacker

1. Jaylon Smith (Junior)
2. Te’Von Coney (Freshman)
2A. Joe Schmidt (Graduate student)

When Smith slides over to Sam, expect Schmidt — who will cross-train at Will when he’s fully recovered from his ankle injury — to move a spot over and play here instead of Coney, an early-enrolling freshman. Schmidt is a smart, physical player who won team MVP last year and will have an important place in the defense even with a loaded depth chart as his natural position.

[MORE: Jaylon Smith: We need physical players here]

Mike (middle) linebacker

1. Joe Schmidt (Graduate student)
1A. Jarrett Grace (Graduate student)
1B. Nyles Morgan (Sophomore)

Here’s where Notre Dame’s strong linebacking depth really shows itself. VanGorder and Mike Elston are blessed with three legitimate starters at Mike, between Schmidt, Grace — who was a starting middle linebacker before his devastating knee injury in October 2013 — and Morgan, who held his own after being thrown into a tough spot following Schmidt’s injury last year. All three of these players will have a role in Notre Dame’s defense this fall. Maybe Kelly should’ve said he’d take this unit over any other team in the country rather than his quarterback group.

Cornerback

1. Cole Luke (Junior)
2. Nick Watkins (Sophomore)

1. KeiVarae Russell (Senior)
2. Devin Butler (Junior)

Notre Dame may not have better top-end depth on its roster than it does here, with Luke emerging as a rock-solid player last year and Russell returning 26 starts and plenty of potential as a physical, man-to-man corner. Watkins made good strides during spring practice and looks like the first cornerback off the bench, and three freshman cornerbacks — Shaun Crawford, Nick Coleman and Ashton White — will fill out the back of the depth chart when they get to campus this summer.

Safety

1. Max Redfield (Junior)
2. Avery Sebastian (Graduate student)
2A. Matthias Farley (Graduate student)

1. Elijah Shumate (Senior)
2. Drue Tranquill (Sophomore)

Coaches praised the improvements made by Redfield and Shumate — who were among the more glaring weak links of the defense last year — during spring practice, but we’ll still have to see if those pay off when the games start counting this fall. Sebastian comes to Notre Dame from Cal and can provide good depth at either strong or free safety and free up Farley to stick in the nickel role he thrived in last year. But the onus is on Redfield and Shumate to shore up the back end of the defense because if they can, VanGorder’s group will have a pretty good chance to succeed.

[MORE: Farley on Sebastian: I think he's gonna do a lot]

Kicker

1. Justin Yoon (Freshman)

Punter

1. Tyler Newsome (Sophomore)

Newsome served as Notre Dame’s placekicker through spring practice, but Kelly said Yoon will take over those duties when he arrives this summer.

As for the kick/punt returners, those are usually decided in August but expect Carlisle and/or Bryant to return kicks and Bryant and/or Fuller to field punts.

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

A 4-8 season in 2016 has put Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly firmly on the hot seat as he heads into his eighth season with the Fighting Irish.

In response to a tumultuous season, Kelly made major changes to his staff this past offseason by hiring new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Mike Elko, who previously led Wake Forest to an FBS Top-40 total defense ranking, was hired by Kelly to be Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, and Chip Long — former offensive coordinator at Memphis — will now be in charge of the Fighting Irish offense.

However, the biggest change and arguably the No. 1 factor in Kelly's long-term future in South Bend, will be the person under center in 2017.

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — a former Rivals four-star recruit — will lead Notre Dame out of the tunnel in Week 1 vs. Temple.

Wimbush has only thrown five passes during his time at Notre Dame, but showed what kind of talent he has with a 58-yard rushing touchdown as a freshman in 2015.

Wimbush was one of the focal points of a recent Rivals story regarding quarterbacks who will be facing pressure in 2017

Earlier this week, Rivals Recruiting Director Mike Farrell gave his scouting report on the Notre Dame quarterback.


I’m a big fan of Wimbush but that hasn’t always been the case. It’s not that I didn’t like him when I first scouted him before his high school career took off, but what I saw way back when was a kid who had a rocket arm and zero touch. But throughout his high school career he improved every time I saw him, showed much more than just a strong arm and flashed impressive poise for his age.

I’ve seen very limited action when it comes to Wimbush in college as he hasn’t played often and his spring game performance had ups and downs, but I believe in this kid’s ability. He can extend the play, has that great arm and just needs to get comfortable in the Notre Dame offense and make sure he doesn’t try to use that cannon to fit the ball into tight spots. I can see him having some growing pains this season, but as he gets more comfortable and learns to take what the defense gives him while keeping defenses off balance with his athletic ability, I think he’ll finish strong.

Will Wimbush's rocket arm be enough to save Kelly from the hot seat?

That's still to be determined.

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018.