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2015 Fierce 40 Previews: #12 Notre Dame

by DJ Boyer on Sep. 4, 2015

#12 Notre Dame Fighting Irish

 

2014 Recap:

A 6-0 start for Notre Dame was filled with tons of promise even after dropping their anticipated showdown with Florida State 31-27, a game that ended controversially and would have had Notre Dame ranked #1 assuredly had the game gone the other way. After disposing of Navy the following week, four straight losses ensued, and suddenly Notre Dame had dropped from the rankings. The Fighting Irish rebounded with a hard-fought win over LSU in the Music City Bowl, but it was a bittersweet victory.

Coaching:

The five years at the helm of Notre Dame has been largely successful for Brian Kelly, as the coaching carousel at South Bend seems to have finally subsided. Kelly is entrenched at Notre Dame for the long haul, and he has a good staff surrounding him. Mike Sanford is the offensive coordinator. He leads a unit that ranked 32nd in total offense a season ago. Brian VanGorder is the defensive coordinator. The Fighting Irish defense was 71st overall and 82nd in scoring defense at 29.2 PPG to go along with a -3 turnover ratio.

 

Offensive Analysis

Quarterbacks/Running Backs:

Malik Zaire was inserted as the starter right before the bowl game against LSU, and that resulted in a win for Notre Dame after Everett Golson started turning the ball over with alarming regularity down the stretch. Golson has since graduated and has a season at Florida State where he can play immediately. Zaire is a junior, and the job looks to be safely entrusted to him. The biggest difference between the two signal callers is mobility, as Golson could run and was effective near the goal line, but he averaged under 3.0 YPC. Zaire is more of a dual threat and averaged close to 6.0 YPC without throwing an interception in his limited work last season. With Notre Dame it came down to protecting the football, something Zaire puts a premium on.

Tarean Folston wrestled the starting running back job away from the stable of backs who had been sharing it in South Bend. Folston had over 900 yards and averaged over 5.0 YPC. We would like to see Folston more active in the passing game, as he did well in the open field with his limited chances last season. C.J. Prosise is listed as the backup running back, and he will see some action as a wide receiver. The 6’0” 220 pound senior has been moved around on multiple occasions, and the Irish are just looking for the most effective way to get the ball into his hands.

Best Draft Prospect: N/A.

 

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:

Notre Dame has plenty of experience and talent at wideout, and we have already discussed the dual role of C.J. Prosise. Prosise won’t be the go-to guy at running back or wide receiver, but his agility and flexibility will make him an important part of the roster. Expect Prosise to be the starting slot wide receiver when he isn’t lined up in the backfield. William Fuller quietly had one of the best seasons receiving in Notre Dame history, as he tied for the single season mark with 15 touchdowns. A 76-1094-15 line at 6’1” and with the level of competition faced, it’s easy to see why so many people even outside South bend are talking about William Fuller. Fuller loses the immense Corey Robinson at receiver, but Chris Brown is back for his senior season after netting over 500 yards receiving a year ago.

When you talk about catching the football at Notre Dame it is expected you bring up the tight end spot, and Notre Dame did say bye to the reliable Ben Koyack who is now in the NFL. Durham Smythe takes over as the starter, and with Koyack around last year he didn’t really have a chance to shine or become a regular participant in the passing game. The development of Smythe will be a key for this offense, even if he isn’t used regularly. The Fighting Irish need that option to relax coverages over the top with deep threats.

Best Draft Prospect: William Fuller WR 3rd Round 2017 (possible early declaration candidate for 2016).

 

Offensive Line:

This could be the best starting offensive line in the country. To say this is the strength of the offense is an understatement. The best line overall may also have the best tackle we see this season in Ronnie Stanley. Stanley had a chance to go pro last season as a draft eligible redshirt sophomore, and he might have worked his way into the first round. Stanley came back to school and seems like the only player with a legitimate shot at knocking Ole Miss tackle Laremy Tunsil out of the top overall tackle drafted position. Both aforementioned tackles would have to declare and are juniors. The biggest weakness for Stanley seemed to be consistency with his footwork, but aside from that he has everything you are looking for in a franchise type lineman.

Fellow tackle Mike McGlinchey is one heck of a player, and at 6’7” 310 pounds, size isn’t hard to find. On any other team McGlinchey would be viewed as the top lineman or a franchise type player, but he is overshadowed by Stanley. Steve Elmer and Nick Martin are tough interior lineman, and like the other two players I mentioned, they are over 300 pounds and have NFL potential. Left Guard Quenton Nelson looks to be the lone starter on the line that is new. Nelson is a 325-pound sophomore that should make a name for himself this season. The talent on this line is ridiculous, and Notre Dame running backs have to be ecstatic at the line they get to run behind.

Best Draft Prospect: Ronnie Stanley OT 1st Round and potential top ten pick if declaring for the draft (part of 2017 draft class).

 

Defensive Analysis

Defensive Line:

The defensive line will be stout and one that will take down opposing quarterbacks with regularity. Looking at the defensive end position in the 4-3 alignment we will see Isaac Rochell and Romeo Okwara taking the majority of the snaps and starting. Both are returning starters and are capable of making big plays. While not yet a starter, Andrew Trumbetti may be the best prospect that Notre Dame has at the defensive end position, and we should see more of Trumbetti on the field in 2015.

While the ends are a capable portion of the line, the strength of the Notre Dame line is in the middle. Sheldon Day looks like a late round 1st round prospect who, at 285 pounds, could also be an ideal defensive end in a 3-4 scheme in the NFL (much like Stephan Tuitt in Pittsburgh). Day made 7.5 tackles for loss, but we should see more sacks from him during this year with an improved defensive tackle presence. Freshman Jerry Tillery may have wrestled the starting job opposite Day away from Jarron Jones, a player recuperating after undergoing foot surgery in the offseason. The defensive line is stacked, and it's why we expect Sheldon Day to have such a big season. He will not face the amount of double teams he had in the past. If teams do concentrate on Day, then other members of the line are going to have some monster numbers.

Best Draft Prospect: Sheldon Day DT 1st Round 2016.

 

Linebackers:

Joe Schmidt received a medical redshirt and is back to patrol the middle of the defense. This bodes well for both he and budding star Jaylon Smith along the edge. Much like what we profiled along the line, teams are not going to be able to send increased attention to just one of these players. Schmidt is a tough player who is the surest tackler the Irish have had since the days of Manti Te'o. Smith is just an athlete that creates havoc in a number of different ways. Smith led the team with 112 tackles and we feel Schmidt would have been right there with him if he played more than eight games. We would like to see Smith used a little more in pass coverage as he seems to not get the credit he deserves with his coverage skills.

James Onwualu should split time with Nyles Morgan at the other linebacker position, and Morgan is the first choice to play in the middle of Schmidt has a recoccurance of any injuries in the middle. This is an active group that play the pass and run with equal effectiveness.

Best Draft Prospect: Jaylon Smith LB 3rd Round 2017.

 

Secondary:

There is some potential in the secondary with three of the four starters from last year returning. The only player who is not a returning starter is the one that scouts will have their eyes on. KaiVerae Russell was poised for a huge junior season before academic improprieties led him to being suspended for the season. Russell has been reinstated and seems to be in tremendous shape. Russell has amazing leaping ability and plays well in the air against taller receivers despite being a shade under 5'11" himself. Russell could even be used on special teams if the Irish are looking to get him more involved early in the season. Russell has a chance to play himself into the first round for 2016, although round two or three is more realistic after the year away from the game.

Cole Luke will start opposite Russell and led the team with 11 pass breakups a season ago. Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate return at the safety spots, and last season they posted numbers of 134 tackles with three interceptions between them. Drue Tranquill started three games a season ago as a freshman, and the sophomore will be the top backup at both safety positions with Matthias Farley seeing some playing time.

Best Draft Prospect: KeiVarae Russell CB 2nd Round 2016.

 

Special Teams

Kyle Brindza was a valuable asset for Notre Dame while handling the kicking and the punting chores. Brindza is someone we have stated should land with an NFL team and make his mark as a kicker, although it may come with a team trading for him like we saw Philadelphia do for Cody Parkey last year. Freshman Justin Yoon will be the new kicker, and sophomore Tyler Newsom gets the call at punter. Since Brindza did everything, we have no way of knowing just how well this new blood will do for the Fighting Irish. The primary punt and kick return options from last year have also left, and it's expected that reserve running back Greg Bryant will get a crack at both positions

Best Draft Prospect: N/A.

 

2015 Schedule

Being an independent with the prestige of Notre Dame always leaves them with a grueling schedule. While this schedule will once again have it’s challenges, it’s far from being unmanageable. Notre Dame will open with a home tilt against Texas before early games involving Georgia Tech and Clemson come into view. Pac-12 opponents USC and Stanford come a little later in the schedule, as well as the annual game with Navy that always seems to turn into a slugfest.

 

Draft Prospects & Outlook

Notre Dame is loaded and getting back to being one of the leading schools as far as where prospects come from. Ronnie Stanley will likely not say no to leaving early for the draft a second time around, and he could be a top ten overall selection. KeiVarae Russell and Sheldon Day look like major picks for this season, and both could wind up being top round selections. Will Fuller and the rest of the starting offensive line looks like they could place fairly high in the process, and with Fuller it comes down to whether or not he declares.

 

DJ Boyer