Six Notre Dame recruits have best chance to play in 2015

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

As each day since the unofficial end to the 2015 football recruiting cycle passes, the hyperbole fades away with it.

National Signing Day brings praise to recruiting classes across the country, and Notre Dame’s 24-man class earned plenty. It was filled with high-ceiling prospects and instant-impact players, though the reality almost always proves slightly bleaker.

Not every Irish recruit will see the field as a freshman this season. Decidedly fewer will see consistent playing time. Just cracking the upper half of the depth chart will be a tall task on a Notre Dame squad returning 19 starters from its 2014 roster.

Last season, 12 freshmen played in at least one game. Five — linebackers Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan, safety Drue Tranquill, tight end Tyler Luatua and defensive end Andrew Trumbetti — made their first career starts in the 2014 campaign.

Many of the 2015 signees will try to do the same but will be limited by the older players ahead of them. Still, a handful of freshmen will likely make an impact in the 2015 season. Here are the six recruits with the best chance to break into Notre Dame’s rotation:

• Kicker Justin Yoon: Widely considered the nation’s top kicker in the 2015 class, Yoon will arrive on campus as the assumed starter following the end of Kyle Brindza’s Notre Dame career. Head coach Brian Kelly said as much on signing day.

“Somebody that will impact us probably more than maybe any one player on this roster is Justin Yoon,” Kelly said. “(He) is going to be our kicker, and he’ll come in and start right away. We think he’s the best kicker in the country.”

Yoon played in only three games at Milton (Mass.) Academy as a senior because of a back injury, but his recruiting stock was built on performances in the Kohl’s Kicking camps. He lived up to his billing in the Under Armour All-America Game when he hit five extra points and three field goals, including a 47-yarder.

Yoon will be a better field goal kicker than a kickoff specialist at the start of his career. The 5-foot-11, 185-pounder could be used in both roles when the Irish open the season against Texas.

• Tight end Alizé Jones: No offensive or defensive signee has a clearer path to the field than Jones. The 6-5, 220-pounder instantly becomes Notre Dame’s best receiving threat at the tight end position when he joins the roster this summer.

With Ben Koyack NFL-bound, the Irish are left with just two tight ends — Durham Smythe and Tyler Luatua — with game experience. Luatua owns the only start of the group, which came in the Music City Bowl against LSU, but has yet to catch a pass for the Irish. Smythe recorded one reception for seven yards in 2014.

“He will be a threat catching the football,” Kelly said of Jones. “You will not be able to put a linebacker on him. You’re going to have to use a safety to cover Jones.”

The only potential setback for Jones comes in his ability to block college defenders. He struggled blocking in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and will need to develop better strength and technique to become a tight end who can be used in multiple situations.

• Cornerback Shaun Crawford: Short certainly describes Crawford’s stature, but it might also fit his odds of seeing the field as a freshman. The 5-9, 170-pound ball of electricity has a knack for making plays.

Crawford could be used as a weapon on offense or special teams but will be slated to play in the secondary for Notre Dame. With KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke pegged as starting corners, Crawford could find a role in nickel and dime packages.

He will be better suited to cover quick slot receivers than Matthias Farley, who regularly played nickelback for Notre Dame last season. The addition of Crawford could allow the Irish to move Farley back to safety or play the two based on matchups.

Crawford will likely be in the mix to return kickoffs and punts as a freshman as well. He was a special teams star at Lakewood (Ohio) St. Edward as a senior. He returned one kick for a touchdown and blocked two punts, one field goal and one extra point.

• Wide receiver C.J. Sanders: Kelly may have finally found the slot receiver he’s been looking for in Sanders. The 5-9, 185-pounder is an elusive speedster who can attack defenses all over the field.

“He’s a guy that can open up the game for you with one missed tackle, because you won’t be able to catch him,” Kelly said. “Elite speed and a true slot receiver, one that we haven’t had, really, since Robby Toma.”

Sanders spent plenty of time exposing high school defenses as a receiver and running back. He totaled 734 receiving yards, 560 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns in his senior season at Sherman Oaks (Calif.) Notre Dame. Sanders recorded a 4.32 time in the 40-yard dash at The Opening.

Kelly’s offense could feature a special package of plays to utilize Sanders as soon as this fall. Sanders, like Crawford, will also compete to return punts and kickoffs for the Irish.

• Linebacker Josh Barajas: The most complete in a trio of talented linebackers joining the Irish in 2015, Barajas could find himself in the mix as a freshman. His best fit may come at Sam linebacker where James Onwualu played last season. Onwualu, however, remains a candidate to move back to safety to fill out a thin depth chart.

The only thing that seems certain at linebacker is a spot for Jaylon Smith. After that, a combination of young players and injured veterans cloud the picture. Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan showed flashes as freshmen, but are they tied to a specific position? Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace are both on the mend from serious leg injuries. Will they both be limited to playing middle linebacker?

Te'von Coney, who enrolled in January, will likely be slated behind the returning inside linebackers. Fellow signee Asmar Bilal should be somewhere behind Smith and Martini. All three could find time on special teams.

If an opening exists at outside linebacker, look for Josh Barajas to challenge for playing time. His 6-3, 212-pound frame should be an asset.

“We were looking for a guy that could potentially play on the outside and run and give us length and size, and Josh certainly can do that for us,” Kelly said.

• Defensive lineman Jerry Tillery: The one-time offensive tackle prospect gladly accepted a chance to play defensive line at Notre Dame. He saw it as his best opportunity to play as a freshman.

“I told them that’s what I wanted to do and they were down with it,” Tillery said before enrolling in January. “They were actually happier with me there. This was all my decision.”

Kelly complimented Tillery’s hands and ability to separate from offensive linemen on signing day. It helps that Tillery already measures 6-6, 318 pounds.

“We think that we’ve got a potentially dominating defensive lineman,” Kelly said.

Notre Dame’s defensive line depth was challenged in 2014 and didn’t hold up well. With a strong spring, Tillery could find himself near the top of the depth chart backing up Sheldon Day or Jarron Jones at either defensive tackle position.

tjames@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Wide receiver signee C.J. Sanders has a chance to play as a freshman at Notre Dame (Photo Courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News)