College Football 2015-2016: 15. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2014-2015 Record: 8-5 (0-0 Conference Record, Independent)
Coach: Brian Kelly, sixth year (45-20 overall)
Key Losses: TE Ben Koyack, QB Everett Golson
Heisman Hopeful: QB Malik Zaire
Breakout Player: WR Corey Robinson
It was perhaps the most questionable and scrutinized call of the 2014-2015 season: a late penalty on Notre Dame took away one of the team's touchdowns in a hard-fought battle against Florida State. In the end, it would be the deciding factor, and would drop Notre Dame to a 5-1 mark. The loss not only seemed to diminish the Irish's Playoff chances, it took away any confidence for the team. They would lose four of five following the heartbreaker, including a loss to lowly Northwestern and a blowout loss against archrival USC. A bowl victory against LSU gave ND fans something to cheer about, but in the end, the season was a downer. The impressive show put on by Malik Zaire, the backup QB, in that bowl game helped Everett Golson make the decision his time in South Bend had come to a close. And, while that will shake things up, it could improve the offense, which has a ton of playmakers. 10 starters on defense also are important, and the program looks primed to approve last year's eight wins.
Backfield: Golson's turnover problems became a death sentence to Notre Dame in the second half of the 2014 campaign. He finished with 14 interceptions and eight fumbles and just seemed to lose his confidence. He decided to head south to Tallahassee where he will compete for the void left by Jameis Winston. That opened the door completely to junior Malik Zaire, a dual threat who impressed in short action behind Golson. Zaire was very good in the Music City Bowl victory against a good LSU defense, and fans are excited to see what the gunslinger can do fulltime. The lefty will have some growing pains, but he has the arm strength and playmaking ability to be something very special. Tarean Folston returns as Notre Dame's feature back after a solid 2014 campaign, in which he ran for 889 yards and six touchdowns. The explosive junior is always a threat for a big run, but has to prove himself as a more worthy every-down running back. Unfortunately for the Irish, Greg Bryant, sure to fill in as Folston's backup in 2015, earned himself a four-game suspension to open the year due to violating team rules. Seen as a heralded recruit coming out of high school, Bryant has shown flashes of stardom in his time in South Bend, but has yet to truly deliver. He will be amped and ready to go when his suspension draws to an ending. Cam McDaniel was never a big-play back but he was a productive, efficient runner and his departure hurts, much like Bryant's suspension. Head coach Brian Kelly and staff did a great job finding players in this year's recruiting class that will be future stars for the Irish (which granted, isn't very hard at a program like ND). New Jersey prospect Brandon Wimbush is seen as a four-star recruit by nearly every recruiting service, and he could be the future at the quarterback position for the Irish. Dexter Williams is ranked as a Top-5 back by ESPN in the 2015 Class, and he could see action right away, without a ton of depth in the backfield. Three-star talent Josh Adams isn't as hyped as Williams or others, but he could be a solid contributor to the Notre Dame offense in a few years.
Will Fuller. Entering 2014, Fuller was seen as a rather one-dimensional receiver with one strength; his deep threat ability. But, Fuller quickly emerged as Golson's favorite and most reliable weapon and it helped him record 76 receptions, 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns. Fuller is an established route runner with great hands and is as speedy as you'll find. Perhaps what makes him dangerous the most is his burst in the open field, which enables him to make plays after the catch. While Fuller is clearly Notre Dame's top target, expect big things from Corey Robinson, entering his junior season. The son of NBA great David Robinson, Corey emerged as a legit weapon against Florida State a year ago and continues to improve each and every day. The 6'5" playmaker is fabulous in the red zone with his terrific size and uses that frame to make tough jump ball catches. Robinson had 40 catches, 539 yards and five touchdowns a season ago, all numbers that could absolutely explode this season. Senior Chris Brown is another established receiver who should put together a very good season. Brown has a lethal mix of speed and explosiveness, and he could take over as ND's top deep threat. He certainly showed he had big play potential, averaging over 14 yards per reception last season. Former USC transfer Amir Carlisle has grown into a productive receiver as well, in more of a slot receiver role. A small but shifty playmaker, Carlisle picked up 23 catches for 309 yards last season. Expect offensive coordinator Mike Sanford to utilize Carlisle as much as possible in screens and short yardage passing situations. Also returning is big-play C.J. Prosise, who returns for his final year in South Bend. Prosise averaged 17.8 yards per reception a season ago, and will continue to move the ball in big chunks of yardage for the Irish. Although he will drop the ball often and isn't a great route runner, there isn't any denying Prosise's importance to the Notre Dame offense. Sophomore Corey Holmes is in line for a breakthrough campaign. Holmes has been buried on the ND depth chart early in his career but he is another receiver with tremendous speed and big-play potential, and he could certainly become a valuable asset. The tight end position has been a strength at Notre Dame for years with players coming through like John Carlson, Tyler Eifert, Kyle Rudolph and more recently, Ben Koyack, who was solid last season (30 receptions, 317 yards). Now, the position falls to junior Durham Smythe or true freshman Alize Jones, with Koyack graduating. Smythe had just one catch a year ago and is more of a blocker than a receiver, but Jones is a very dangerous weapon who is a prospect from Las Vegas powerhouse Bishop Gorman. Not only is he a unanimous All-Name Team First-Teamer but Equanimeous St. Brown has some game, as well. The four-star prospect from Anaheim is an explosive playmaker who has all the talent to grow into a very, very good receiver for ND for years to come.
Offensive Line: Brian Kelly and staff got a great present last spring, when offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley announced he would spurn the NFL for one more year and return to Notre Dame for his senior season. Stanley was viewed by many NFL scouts as a first-round possibility and his return gives Kelly, Sanford and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand a real talent to work with. At 6'6", 315 pounds with tremendous strength and playing at the very important left tackle position, it is very understandable why Stanley has many pro scouts drooling. With Zaire being a lefty, he will roll out to Stanley's left side often and many opposing defenses will try to pressure that side the most, meaning Stanley will clearly play a very important role. Experience returns at other slots along the offensive line, including guard/center Nick Martin. The Martins have long been a staple of Notre Dame's offensive line (brother Zack, a tackle was a star before being a first-round NFL selection), and Nick adds plenty of experience. Nick brings a major dose of versatility and smarts to the interior of the O-Line. Having an experienced player like him at the center position should only help Zaire, who will have to learn on the fly. The right guard position should be manned by junior Steve Elmer, another pretty experienced linemen. Elmer is a gifted run blocker who has grown a lot and has all the tools to be a very solid guard for Notre Dame this season. The opposite guard spot is a little more of a question, especially after the transfer of Matt Hegarty. Hegarty started 11 games for the Irish at center last season, but announced he would spend his final, fifth college football season with the Oregon Ducks, who desperately need another interior linemen. His transfer helped push Nick Martin to fill in at center, leaving his more natural left guard a question. Two sophomores, Alex Bars and Quenton Nelson, appear to be the two with the best chance to take over for Martin. Both have plenty of upside, and bring great size (both are 6'5" or taller, and over 315 pounds). At right tackle, expect Mike McGlinchey, a name that just fits in perfectly with the Fighting Irish, to start. McGlinchey is massive, at 6'8", but may need some time to adjust to a starting role and opposing defenses will attempt to pick on him. Big things are expected of a number of newcomers, including center Tristen Hoge and tackle Jerry Tillery. Hoge is seen by many as the top center in the 2015 Class and he will learn and grow under Martin. Tillery is a tackle with high potential who is a four-star prospect out of SEC territory in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Defensive Line: Paramount on second year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's goals this season will be getting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Irish pass rush managed just 26 sacks and 73 tackles for loss, not great in either category. The good news is that the defensive line returns plenty of experience and breakout candidates at pass rusher. Sheldon Day is widely seen as Notre Dame's top talent on the line. The senior defensive tackle had 40 tackles, proving to be a strong run defender, and added 7.5 TFL. Day will also continue to improve as a pass rusher, utilizing his quickness as a tackle to fly past slower opposing offensive linemen. Joining Day inside will be another well-built defender in senior Jarron Jones. Jones, a nose guard, uses his large frame to get in the face of opponents, and also showed similar run stopping abilities, with 40 tackles and 7.5 of them for loss. The pair of them will form a formidable duo in the heart of Notre Dame's defensive line and keep the Irish's rush defense stout. A number of players are competing for starting gigs at the defensive end positions including returning starters Isaac Rochell and Romeo Okwara. Okwara showed plenty of playmaking ability last season, with four sacks. Now a senior, Okwara hopes to continue to use his quick first step and explosiveness to exploit slower linemen. Rochell is a gifted junior without a lot of weaknesses. Rochell recorded 39 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks and will hope to lock down one of the defensive end spots. Sophomores Grant Blankenship and Andrew Trumbetti will look for snaps as well beyond Rochell and Okwara. Newcomers like three-star defensive end Micah Dew-Treadway, a prospect from Illinois, along with well-rounded defensive tackle Elijah Taylor are merely depth guys at the moment, for a unit that certainly needs some more.
Linebackers: Although many NFL scouts are extremely high on Ronnie Stanley, no other player on this Notre Dame roster has more pro potential than junior Jaylon Smith. A former high-profile recruit, Smith has transformed into a superstar in short time with the Irish. Smith does it all, the outside linebacker uses his incredible quickness and nose for the football to make sacks and plays in the backfield (3.5 sacks, 9 tackles for loss). Though, Smith also has the versatility to offer a lot in run support, evidenced by his 112 tackles. Now, a year older and more comfortable in VanGorder's scheme, Smith will only continue to make plays all across the field for the Fighting Irish. Don't be surprised if he fights for All-American honors and more. Joining Smith in Notre Dame's middle will be proven Joe Schmidt, a strong-willed inside linebacker. Schmidt's 2014 campaign ended a little bit earlier than hoped, as he missed the last few games of the season with a dislocated and fractured ankle. Now healthy, Schmidt looks to once more prove his worth to the Irish defense. He isn't the most ferocious, intimidating or quickest linebacker in the collegiate game, not even close. But, Schmidt is a knowledgeable linebacker with great instincts and a feel for the game that can't be taught. Schmidt recorded 65 tackles and two interceptions last season, and both Kelly and VanGorder will lean on the senior veteran to continue to make important stops for Notre Dame. Joining Schmidt and Smith will be junior James Onwualu. Onwualu is a serious candidate for a major breakthrough. He saw a healthy amount of snaps last season, picking up 24 tackles with two of them going for a loss. But, expect even bigger things from the outside linebacker, who has the power and strength to become a dangerous pass rusher. Fighting for snaps at either outside linebacker slot will be sophomore Greer Martini, a well-sized linebacker with plenty of upside. The likely backup for Schmidt at the lone middle linebacker spot in the 3-4 defense is going to be sophomore Nyles Morgan. Morgan proved to be a very suitable rotational linebacker, picking up 47 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss. If Schmidt's ankle doesn't hold up or something else happens, VanGorder can feel pretty confident handing off duties to a weapon like Morgan. Four-star Te'Von Cooney is the most likely newcomer in the unit to see major action, especially with the dearth of depth at the outside linebacker position. A solid linebacker out of Florida, Cooney has plenty of potential and shouldn't be intimidated by big-time college football at all. Josh Barajas is a local Indiana prospect who is the future at middle linebacker, while Asmar Bilal will also compete for snaps. Bilal, out of Indianapolis is a well-built four-star who has the versatility to play either on the inside or on the perimeter.
Secondary: The academic fraud situation that hit Notre Dame a few off seasons ago that nearly cost Everett Golson his chance at Notre Dame also hurt a number of other players. Among them, cornerback KeiVarae Russell. A shutdown corner, Russell was suspended the entirety of 2014, and there was a wide belief that he might look at transferring or perhaps seeing where his pro possibilities were at. But, Russell instead choose to remain at Notre Dame, and it certainly will help the Irish this season. Russell is an athletic, playmaking cornerback who will likely retake his role as ND's top cornerback. His return is clearly a major plus, but he isn't the only other player returning to this secondary, which could soon be a major strength for the Fighting Irish. Free safety Max Redfield is Notre Dame's returning tackle leader with the exception of Smith, as he picked up 68 a year ago. Redfield is a defensive back with terrific range and a high football IQ. Don't be surprised if he seriously contributes to the Irish defense once more. Back as well is strong safety Elijah Shumate, who returns for his senior season. Shumate also proved that he could make important plays from sideline to sideline, with 66 tackles, along with four pass deflections. VanGorder and Notre Dame will lean on the two veterans to make plays in run support but also provide an important last line of defense against the aerial attack. The absence of Russell last year pushed junior Cole Luke into a very increased role, and the cornerback responded impressively. He had 48 tackles last season, and also showed a knack for making the big play, with four picks, which tied for the team's lead. Luke isn't the best athlete on the field, but he is a smart, adept cover corner. Also returning is another player that loves to make the big play in Matthias Farley. Farley was the one who tied Luke with four interceptions despite not having a true starting role. Once more, Farley will likely be a reserve, but one that the team looks at to step up and make important plays. Farley also showed he could do something once he did make the interception, bringing back the plays for 87 yards, an average of nearly 22 yards per return. Sophomore Nick Watkins is a talented cornerback who will be the primary backup for Luke and Russell. In terms of recruiting, Kelly and staff didn't bring in any huge names, but there is talent and upside there. Three-star prospect Ashton White was a gem from the East Coast, while Indianapolis product Mykelti Williams has a bright future at safety.
Special Teams: Although he slumped at times throughout his career in South Bend, there is no denying how much Kyle Brindza meant to Notre Dame, assuming both punting and kicking duties. True freshman Justin Yoon, seen by some as the Class of 2015's top kicker, will compete with others for the kicking duties. The punter position is wide open. Amir Carlisle offers big play potential every time he touches the ball as a returner.
Expectations are sky-high in Notre Dame, but when are they not? There is a wide contingent out there that think that Golson's transfer may improve ND's offense and having weapons like Fuller and Robinson will help Zaire grow and evolve. Though, perhaps the thing that has fans excited the most is the defense, with studs like Smith and Russell returning to a solid group a year ago. A Playoff spot isn't completely out of the question but it is hard for me to get overly excited about a team with as brutal of a schedule as Notre Dame. Meetings with Texas, Georgia Tech, at Clemson and Stanford along with rival USC doesn't bode very well, especially with a young quarterback. The talent that Brian Kelly has at Notre Dame is it's usually impressive stuff, but it may be hard for this year's team to completely fulfill their potential with questions at important positions: QB and kicker. Though, double digit wins is certainly a very real possibility, with a chance at a very good bowl.