Five Notre Dame freshmen who could play significant 2015 roles

Bob Wieneke
South Bend Tribune

The next month of Notre Dame’s football season will be as much about bowl preparation as it is preparing for 2015. With that in mind, the following are five true freshmen that did not play this season who could figure prominently in next season’s plans.

Nic Weishar, TE. In 2010, Brian Kelly’s first year at Notre Dame, Irish tight ends caught 58 passes. The next year it was 66, followed by 53 in 2012.

The last two years, however, those reception totals dropped to 42 in 2013 and 30 this year.

The difference? One common denominator in the 50-plus years was Tyler Eifert. The current Cincinnati Bengal caught 63 passes in 2011 (when the Irish used three quarterbacks) and 50 the following year.

Troy Niklas would have been the main guy at the spot this year but he left early for the NFL, in essence leaving the Irish offense without an experienced, dynamic player at the position.

Is there one on the roster? Durham Smythe was talked up during spring practice, but his season netted just one catch. Tyler Luatua appears to be more blocker than pass-catcher.

Which brings us to Nic Weishar, a guy who entered Notre Dame in somewhat the same manner as Eifert. Weishar was listed as 215 pounds on signing day but 237 in the media guide, a number that will no doubt be bigger by the time spring practice arrives. Eifert came in at 220 but played at 251 as a senior.

Most of Everett Golson’s passes went to wide receivers this year, but a safety valve in the form of a tight end can be a nice bailout.

Weishar could be the guy to fill that role.

Jonathon Bonner, DL. When the rash of injuries forced Kelly to un-redshirt a freshman along the defensive line, it was Jay Hayes who got the tap on the shoulder.

It was curious wording Kelly used when announcing that Hayes would play in the final two regular season games, with Kelly offering that he believed Hayes has the NFL in his future, and NFL players often aren’t five-year guys. That begs the question, why redshirt him in the first place?

One guy who is being redshirted is Bonner, who during camp seemed like he had 2014 playing time in his crosshairs. Kelly talked him up during camp, but the playing time never came for the 6-foot-3, 269-pounder.

Bonner is intriguing in that his size would figure to make him a fit in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme. The St. Louis-area product figures to be able to play inside or outside, making him a potentially valuable piece in defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s multiple schemes.

Jhonny Williams, DE. Before he arrived at Notre Dame, Williams had the physical look of a guy who could be a diamond in the rough, but also a guy who needed to physically develop.

Tall. Athletic. Shoulders that would have the ability to carry a lot more muscle.

Many times throughout the season Kelly was posed questions about Williams, and it became clearer and clearer that Williams was headed toward a redshirt season. It comes off next year.

At 6-4, 252, Williams is built to rush the passer, but he also has the athleticism to drop into coverage, giving VanGorder another piece in his toolbox.

Williams won’t be a finished product next season, but he’ll be far ahead of where he was this year. The redshirt year was a no-brainer for him.

Quenton Nelson, OL. Grades on offensive line classes typically come later than at most positions in that linemen ideally redshirt, but last year’s four-man haul was considered a very good one for line coach Harry Hiestand.

The best still figures to be Quenton Nelson.

Nasty seemed to be one of the words that recruiting analysts always seemed to throw around in conversations about Nelson, and the Irish could use some of that. It was a line that was shuffled early in the season, but at the end of the season, it was pushed around by USC.

The 6-5, 325-pound Nelson has the looks of one of those glass-eating, gasoline-drinking linemen who play to the last echoes of the whistle, one who can drive opposing defensive linemen to silly retaliation penalties.

Nelson could figure at guard or tackle, another reason to believe playing time is in his 2015 future.

Tyler Newsome, P/K. Starting punter and place-kicker Kyle Brindza is gone after this season, with the nation’s top kicker, Justin Yoon, on his way in.

Newsome, however, figures to fit in somewhere after being listed as the backup punter, place-kicker and kick-off guy this season.

Newsome could beat out Yoon for the place-kicking duties. He could serve as a punter. He could be a kickoff specialist. Might be a combination. Then there’s little matter of holding, which this year became a big matter for the Irish.

Newsome is a scholarship player, meaning the staff thought enough of him in the recruiting process to extend an offer. He’s probably going to figure in somewhere next year.

Notre Dame's Quenton Nelson could work his way into a contributing role next year on the Irish offensive line. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)