It’s the Top 25 Notre Dame football players week 2016! Keith Arnold has surveyed esteemed Irish experts as well as folks like us lacking in both esteem and expertise to compile the Top 25 players on the roster. Follow along with the composite list over at Inside the Irish, and stay tuned here for the top ten coming later this week.
Also receiving votes: Daelin Hayes, Justin Yoon, Dexter Williams, Corey Holmes, CJ Sanders, Durham Smythe
The Irish have a fairly young depth chart, with lots of talent that could emerge in 2016. The question at many positions – wide receiver and linebacker to name two – is who will step up? At this point it’s pretty hard to predict, which led to zero true freshmen making the top 25.
25. Jay Hayes, DE: I think you could make a strong argument for Yoon or Sanders in this place, and by the end of the year Daelin Hayes may be the clear future at weak-side defensive end. But Hayes appears to be high on the list of likely breakout players, and looks to have an edge on Andrew Trumbetti for a starting role. He’s a much heavier guy than Trumbetti or Romeo Okwara, who he’s trying to replace, but should provide stout run defense. Can he hold up adequately enough in pass rush to cement a starting job?
24. Hunter Bivin, OT: With the talent shuffles along the offensive line, Bivin has moved inside from tackle, and with Steve Elmer’s retirement is battling Tristen Hoge to start at right guard. This feels like a make or break year for Bivin, who has the inside track to starting due to experience but will have to hold off Hoge and potentially Tommy Kraemer. How he gels next to Mustipher and Bars and his aggression I run blocking early may determine if he starts the final two seasons of his career or slides back into the second unit.
23. Andrew Trumbetti, DE: Could this be the year Trumbetti emerges? He’s been a favorite of our staff since he showed tremendous versatility as a true freshman, but 2015 has to be considered a disappointment. He has the pass rushing advantage over Hayes, but needs to be more consistent to beat him out for the starting role. If he isn’t as adept against the run as Jay, and can’t hold off Daelin as a better pass rusher, Trumbetti may be the odd man out as the Hayes show takes over on the defensive line.
22. Sam Mustipher, C: The Irish staff absolutely loves Tristan Hoge, so it’s hard not to get excited about Mustipher seizing control of the starting job at center. Mustipher has great size and appears to have transitioned well from guard to center. If he can be 90% of what Nick Martin was last season, that will be just fine – as with most offensive linemen, success is probably not being noticed by the average fan.
21. Greer Martini, OLB: Martini is a quality player who will play a key role in the 2016 defense – it’s just not clear when and where. The junior is versatile enough to play all three linebacker positions, and it’d be presumptuous to call any starter a “lock” right now (although Nyles Morgan, while unproven, may be closest). At a minimum, the sizeable linebacker should see a majority of the snaps against run-heavy and option offenses.
20. James Onwualu, OLB: Onwualu and Martini will likely compete for snaps and see different time depending on the opponents. In spring ball Mike Elston threw out that the comment that he might be one of the biggest coverage linebackers in the country! Onwualu did grade out positively in 2015 according to the folks at Pro Football Focus (Joe Schmidt, erm, did not) – for the “Defense will be better” truthers, here’s a nice excerpt: “If they can simply get consistent solid play from all three linebacker positions, it will be an upgrade”.
While he lacks ideal sized against the run, Onwualu has steadily improved as he’s found a home at linebacker after a couple of position switches. He should provide needed athleticism and coverage ability against spread offenses while Martini gets additional time against more physical, run-heavy teams like Michigan State, Navy, and Stanford.
19. Tevon Coney, OLB: The run on outside linebackers continues! Coney seems to have the brightest future of this group, with the tall task of replacing Jaylon Smith assigned to him. He shares some traits in common with Smith – Coney is a fluid athlete, could be an explosive blitzer, and can shed blocks in the run game. Compared to Martini and Onwualu, he likely has the highest ceiling and lowest floor due to his inexperience, but confidence from the coaching staff has us bought in on his upside.
18. Drue Tranquill, S: Maybe the biggest stated change this offseason has been how Brian Van Gorder plans to use his safeties- transitioning to more single-high looks that should simplify things for the secondary and let Tranquill play closer to the line of scrimmage. This puts more pressure on the corners, but for Tranquill this is fantastic news – Elijah Shumate likely would have benefitted tremendously from this scheme last season as he struggled mightily at times in coverage. Tranquill is an athletic and versatile leader who if anything is fair will catch a few breaks this season with some fumbles and interceptions bouncing his way.
17. Alize Jones, TE/WR: Jones is high on the list to pick up some of the targets that went to Will Fuller, Chris Brown, and Corey Robinson last year. He was targeted more often in the second half of 2015, and has a combination of size and speed that make him a matchup nightmare. He has room to improve as a blocker, but could also see an increase in time split out as a wide receiver, much like Tyler Eifert used to. Tight end remains a somewhat crowded position with Smythe back from injury, Tyler Luatua returning, and Nic Weishar, but Jones looks like the best bet to have a big impact.
16. Tarean Folston, RB: After his 2015 season was lost to an ACL injury, you can bet Folston will be excited to suit up against Texas on September 3. It will be interesting to see how the backs split carries over the course of the season – if everyone remains healthy, will some clear roles develop? Even before the injury Folston wasn’t as explosive as Josh Adams or Dexter Williams, but he’s likely a better blocker, more experienced receiver, and tougher runner between the tackles.
15. Max Redfield, S: It’s seemingly impossible to know how to rank Max Redfield for this exercise. He’s without a doubt one of the five most important players to the success of the 2016 team. But how will he perform? We’ve waited three years for the upside and athleticism that gave him a 5-star pedigree to translate into production. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him either in the top five at the end of the year or off the list altogether and replaced by Devin Studstill.
14. Daniel Cage, DT: Cage was quietly a beast last season – according to Pro Football Focus, he posted the 18th highest run defense grade among his sophomore class last year despite playing just 267 snaps (just over 20 per game). Even with Jarron Jones’ return, he should play more and continue to improve entering his junior season – you can never have enough run-stuffing defensive linemen.
13. Jerry Tillery, DT: Tillery just edges out Cage, likely due to higher perceived upside and in line for more snaps and a starting role. After the Terry Jillery hype reached insane levels last spring, he had a decent showing as a true freshman in 2015. Consistency was an issue, some injuries may have had an impact, but he was suspended from the Fiesta Bowl due to a team rules violation. It seems like a lot can break right for Tillery if focused and motivated in his sophomore season, and we might start seeing more of what all the spring hype was about.
12. Nyles Morgan, MLB: There are a few similarities with Morgan and Redfield to this point in their careers. Both were top recruits in their classes, had some playing time early but have had to improve their instincts and knowledge of the defense, and now have great opportunities in 2016. Morgan also has had the offseason praise Redfield received last year that things are starting to click and the lightbulb has turned on in terms of knowledge of the defense – is it true this time?
11. Shaun Crawford, CB: Don’t sleep on Shaun Crawford. He was ready to be an instant impact player as a true freshman before tearing his ACL in fall camp, and appears to have recovered well and locked down a starting role at corner. This may translate into playing a lot of nickel and allowing the winner of the last corner spot to play outside, but regardless, Crawford will play a ton. He’s a sparkplug with great athleticism and instincts, and I’m predicting he leads the team in turnovers gained (interceptions and fumble recoveries).