Every year the Notre Dame roster will provide us a bunch of positive surprises and 2019 will be no different. A while back our writers were discussing the annual Top 25 Irish players list that we vote on with other members of the internet community and how a few players came out of nowhere and would’ve placed very high on the same list after the season. So, it got me thinking about 2019 and preemptively making a list of these players for the future.

The formula weighs heavily on positions of need, where competition should bring us some new faces. If it’s a position of need that also means more successful players will be needed to win football games. I also wanted to stick to what I view as realistic possibilities. Coming out of nowhere to me means more of someone who might just miss the Top 25 players but if they were to actually perform closer to Top 12 or higher good things are in store.

Here are my 5 X-factors:

Linebacker, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Redshirt Sophomore

Following the spring game* last April I was so ready to watch Owusu-Koramoah blossom during the season. He spent most of spring in the backup Rover role but during the Blue-Gold Game received plenty of 1st-team snaps while looking very enticing. Unfortunately, JOK couldn’t stay healthy first dealing with scar tissue from a hamstring injury during fall camp then suffering a season-ending broken foot in a practice prior to the Vanderbilt game.

If he had stayed healthy I wonder how much he would’ve played. Not knowing his health it’s interesting to note that JOK didn’t play a single snap in the first 2 games when Asmar Bilal was making his debut at Rover.

Assuming Bilal moves inside–which everyone seems to concede is happening–watching JOK actually emerge could be wonderful for the defense. If we are handing out “Herbie” awards for the Irish I’m putting Owusu-Koramoah in the ‘Ballers’ category. I’m not sure there’s any linebacker on the roster with his type of quick-twitch athleticism and ability to impact an entire side of the field.

*Remember when the defensive line destroyed the offensive line during the game? Yup, it was a sign. 

Linebacker, Shayne Simon, Sophomore

Wait, isn’t Simon the one who is expected to step up into the starting Rover position with Bilal potentially moving? After all, he did become the understudy this past season. So let’s explore this a little bit more.

Simon logged 17 snaps as a true freshman in 2018, 10 in the blowout win against Syracuse. In 8 games he didn’t see the field beyond special teams. For all intents and purposes, he basically redshirt. He should have a leg up on any competition at Rover but it won’t be by much.

In my opinion, Simon could move inside and play the Buck position. He’s tall at 6’3″ and could be over 230 pounds (listed 8 pounds lighter as a freshman) even by spring time. A linebacker corps of Simon-Bilal-JOK has the highest ceiling of any combination available.

I realize this would make a smallish unit but there’s realistically no 240-pound thumping Mike linebacker like Coney in the cards next year. Might as well get the best athletes ready to see the field.

Wide Receiver, Kevin Austin, Sophomore

This would be one of the more obvious picks for the upcoming season. The trio of Boykin-Finke-Claypool ate up an incredible 89.4% of all wideout snaps, 780 from Boykin alone. No one on the offense logged more than Boykin with the exception of 3 offensive linemen. So, he’s leaving a rather large hole that needs to be filled.

Gobbling up those snaps, at least early in the season, will likely come down to Kevin Austin versus Michael Young. The former totaled 7 more snaps on the season while not playing in the final 3 games due to unspecified issues. However, Young caught 2 more passes in comparison for 48 more yards and has the experience factor working in his favor.

Since Austin was able to be the rare bird of a true freshman actually in the rotation you have to think he’s making a big jump in his second season. He has No. 1 receiver written all over him–something not likely happening for Young–and could provide some explosiveness at receiver that was lacking last year.

Cornerback, Shaun Crawford, 5th-year Senior

This is pretty much based on two crucially important things happening. One, Crawford stays healthy. Two, he’s a viable option at one of the two outside corner spots opposite Troy Pride. You may be thinking Crawford is too small to play on the outside and pretty much has never been used there throughout his career. You’re right, but what other X-factor options exist at corner?

Donte Vaughn is coming off shoulder surgery and will be lucky to be healthy by fall camp. Rising sophomore Tariq Bracy would be next in line but is only an inch taller than Crawford and 11 pounds lighter. Beyond that it’s a whole lot of unknown youngsters.

Moreover, the plan at nickel moving forward will affect Crawford’s role. Houston Griffith (6’0″ 205 lbs) should get a long look at outside corner but the fact that they moved him to safety early in last year’s fall camp–when Love and Pride would need some help–and then created a nickel role for him is a concern. Ideally, Griffith blossoms into an outside corner and he’s the 2019 X-factor. There’s also the belief that incoming freshman safety Kyle Hamilton will immediately get reps at nickel, too. Clearly, the staff isn’t going to juggle 3 nickel corners.

Running Back, Kyren Williams, Freshman

Help is needed at running back. So much so that word on the street is that incoming freshman Kendall Abdur-Rahman (who isn’t even on campus yet) is going to start out in the backfield instead of receiver. I’ll do the math for you and let everyone know that makes 7 running backs on scholarship which isn’t sustainable.

It’s only February and clearly Notre Dame is searching for more answers at running back. If you look at the player recruiting rankings, Williams isn’t going to stand out much like his teammates at this position. However, most believe he’s the most dynamic athlete of the group and he’s already on campus and will participate in spring practice.

It’s a lot to ask a true freshman to be a major contributor, especially if he has to wade his way through a bunch of teammates. But, Williams could be a difference maker early in his career at a position that would allow an athlete to make plays with the ball in his hands. That could do wonders for the 2019 Irish offense.