Five Notre Dame players whose roles could expand
Monday marked Day Four of the Notre Dame academic fraud scandal, a scandal that involves four football players – cornerback KeiVarae Russell, defensive end Ishaq Williams, wide receiver DaVaris Daniels and linebacker Kendall Moore. The four remain on scholarship, but are not allowed to practice or participate until the final findings of the investigation are made.
The important day on the calendar, at least in terms of football, becomes Aug. 30, the looming season opener for a roster that has had talent chipped away with the potential loss of three starters and a veteran reserve/special teams player.
Who fills in for those players? Answers began to crystalize Saturday during a two-hour practice that was made open to the media, although the team did not participate in any 11-on-11 action during the media viewing segment.
The following is a look at five players who likely will see their roles expand should the four under investigation lose any playing time.
CB Devin Butler: Butler already had earned a spot on the two-deep, but during Saturday’s practice he worked as the third cornerback as classmate Cole Luke stepped into Russell’s starting job.
Butler played in 12 games last year, albeit sparingly, but showed enough promise that it was expected he’d earn a spot on the two-deep this fall as the fourth cornerback. In fact, Irish coach Brian Kelly last week expressed how happy he was with the development of Butler and Luke thus far.
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Butler is long and has good size, although offseason shoulder surgery kept him out of contact during spring practice. He also added 14 pounds since last season.
In an ideal world, this would be a year in which Butler gains valuable experience in nickel and dime packages with the possibility of earning a starting spot next year should Russell not be back for one reason or another.
DE Isaac Rochell: Among the defensive ends gaining the most amount of media attention this fall were Williams in that 2014 is a now-or-never season for him, junior Romeo Okwara, who worked with the first group during the early stages of camp, and freshman Andrew Trumbetti, whose early enrollment went a long way toward him earning a starting spot.
Rochell entered that conversation late last week, a topsy-turvy week in terms of who sits where on the depth chart.
Okwara had long been presumed the starter but when Kelly met with the media last week and discussed depth-chart doings, he pointed out that Trumbetti had earned the starting spot (at that point) at the weakside spot, supplanting Okwara.
And then came the news about Williams, which put Rochell with the starting line on Saturday. The 6-foot-4, 287-pound sophomore, who is up seven pounds this year, was one of the rookies of note last year when he produced three tackles in the season opener against Temple and then registered four more tackles against Air Force.
Rochell finished the season with 10 tackles but seemed to be a forgotten guy along the line. He shouldn’t have been. He’s solid if not spectacular, and it’s not inconceivable that he could have taken over for Williams at some point. That point may be now.
LB Greer Martini: OK, so the path to playing time at this spot is blocked, perhaps barricaded, with sophomore sensation Jaylon Smith in patrol, but somebody has to serve as the backup, right?
Enter Martini, who has emerged from a pack of freshmen to earn a spot on the two-deep according to Kelly. The coach pointed out last week that Smith can’t play every snap (why not some ask), and Martini has found his spot on the depth chart.
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Martini isn’t the biggest name among the freshman linebackers, but he already had bounded ahead of Moore on the depth chart.
WR Will Fuller: This spot is a little tricky in that there are a number of young receivers vying for playing time, and replacing Daniels would not be a one-man job. But it was Fuller who appeared to be the guy who took on expanded snaps at last Saturday’s practice.
Fuller is a speedster whose biggest challenge will be busting through physical corners. Fuller, interestingly enough, enters 2014 at the same weight (180) as he entered his freshman season, and is down from 6-1 to an even 6-foot.
If Daniels is gone, it likely won’t be one guy replenishing Daniels’ expected production of 49 receptions for 745 yards from last year, which made him ND’s leading returning receiver. What does hurt is that if Daniels is gone, Notre Dame now must replace its top three receivers (TJ Jones, Daniels and Troy Niklas), who combined for 151 receptions, 2,351 yards and 21 touchdowns.
There are bodies on the roster who can get the job done, but those are big numbers to overcome. Ben Koyack figures to catch the bulk of the balls throw the way of tight ends. At 6-foot-5, Corey Robinson is a big, big target, particularly in the red zone. Chris Brown looks like he’s ready to emerge. C.J. Prosise is a now a junior being pushed by freshmen Justin Brent and Corey Holmes. Torii Hunter Jr. is slated to return at some point early during the season from a groin tear.
Fuller, though, is a guy who has shown the ability to make tough downfield catches. His time for a more expanded role may be here.
CB Cody Riggs: The Florida transfer, by default, becomes the leader in the cornerback meeting room, and you could do a lot worse than a guy who has started 40 career games at one of the top schools in the country (Florida), and has served as a captain for the Gators.
Because he was being tabbed as a potential All-American, and because of his outgoing personality, Russell was the natural leader among the cornerbacks, although Riggs’ resume made him someone for the younger corners to look up to.
Riggs is a quieter but confident guy who has played a lot of football. Yes, the loss of Russell would hurt, but having a leader like Riggs to fall back on is a luxury not a lot of coaches have.