Six Notre Dame players who must rise to the occasion in December

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The indignant minority who wanted Notre Dame to curl up in a big ball of humiliation and hibernate during bowl season this year weren’t that far off from getting their wish.

Had Notre Dame not migrated to the Atlantic Coast Conference in most of its sports and forged a football scheduling arrangement, the Irish (7-5) could very well have been on the outside looking in this bowl season.

Instead, a handful of ACC-affiliated bowls are holding a lottery prior to Sunday’s official string of bowl and playoff announcements to decide which one of them gets to bump an ACC team out of their game and take an Irish team on a four-game losing streak and fresh off a 35-point loss to USC.

The Belk (Dec. 30 in Charlotte, N.C.), Music City (Dec. 30 in Nashville, Tenn.) and Sun (Dec. 27 in El Paso, Texas) are the logical destinations — and logic and negotiation are theoretically built into a process that makes the lottery more of a tiebreaker than ultimate determiner.

Theoretically begin the operative word.

The TaxSlayer (Jan. 2 in Jacksonville, Fla.) is essentially eliminated by a possession arrow arrangement with the Music City. The Pinstripe (Dec. 27 in New York), the fifth bowl in the ACC’s Tier 1, is unlikely, but not impossible, because ND played there last December.

Under the old system the Irish would have had to dumpster dive, as they did last year, and take a spot in a bowl shorted by one of its affiliated conferences that didn’t produce enough bowl-eligible teams.

The problem this year is that bowls that had been shorted in the past worked up secondary bowl affiliations for this new bowl cycle, and so there is likely to be at least one power five team left out of the mix, if not more. Florida, South Carolina and Illinois, per bowl/playoff-ologist Jerry Palm, are the teams on the bubble.

But ND, sans the ACC agreement, would definitely have been left out of the mix.

The official announcement for the four-team playoff is at 12:45 p.m. (EST), with the final CFP Top 25 and New Year’s bowl pairings set for 2:45. The ACC will announce the remaining bowl destinations for its conference teams and ND at 5:30, with Irish coach Brian Kelly meeting the media at 6:15.

ND’s bowl fate is expected to leak out long before then.

The biggest benefit of the bowl — wherever and whenever, even more than the opportunity of erasing the 49-14 loss to USC as the lasting offseason impression, are the bowl practices. There’s no NCAA-mandated number, but it tends to work out to roughly 15 — the same number FBS teams are allotted in the spring.

The bowl practices are every bit as valuable as the spring ones in building toward the next season, in addition to preparing for a specific opponent. Notre Dame, in this instance, very much needs them to fill both functions.

The players who stand to benefit the most really fall onto two different lists. The long-terms beneficiaries figure to be edge pass rushers eager to develop into every-down players, guys like redshirting freshman Jhonny Williams and non-redshirting classmates Andrew Trumbetti, Grant Blankenship and Kolin Hill.

In the more immediate view, here are the top six players who could benefit the most as it pertains to the bowl game and who ND needs to get the most out of between now and the bowl date.

Eilar Hardy, safety: The senior played in four games as a reserve/special teams player after being the only member of the Frozen Five to be reinstated to the active roster following the academic fraud investigation process.

Eight of his nine tackles came in the season-ending loss to USC, and his role will undoubtedly expand for the bowl game, given that he and junior Elijah Shumate will be the only two healthy scholarship safeties as bowl practices begin and may be at the end of December as well.

Kelly may have to get creative in forging some depth at the position if Austin Collinsworth (shoulder) and Max Redfield (broken rib) can’t return.

Nickelback Matthias Farley would seem to be a natural, given his history at safety. Backup linebacker John Turner, a former safety, would also make some sense. Wide receiver Justin Brent has the body type (6-2, 205) to play there as short-term solution.

Slot receiver C.J. Prosise, a 6-1, 220-pound former safety who has 10 special teams tackles this season, seems like a great fit, but is it worth taking him away from the offense (26 catches, 482 yards, 2 TDs)?

The more Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder can get out of Hardy in what would be his third career start, the less all those potential Plan Bs matter. Hardy missed roughly two months of practices and meetings because of the academic probe. The bowl practices give him a chance to be on equal footing.

Isaac Rochell, defensive end: Quietly the 6-4, 287-pound sophomore has been one of the most valuable and consistent players on a defense that could use more like him.

He’s at or near the top of the ND leaderboard in quarterback hurries (9), tackles for loss (7.5) and sacks (2.5), but if ND plays a team in the bowl with a strong running game, does moving him inside make the most sense?

Presumably star defensive tackle Sheldon Day (knee sprain) will return. In the three games that Day missed all or part of, the nation’s 99th-ranked rushing attack, 82nd and 68th each cracked the 200-yard rushing mark against the Irish.

With nose guard Jarron Jones gone (foot surgery), the replacement needs to command double teams to be consistently effective. Cobbling an inexperienced tag-team of sophomore Jacob Matuska and freshman Daniel Cage doesn’t address that requirement.

A move inside or even a time share by Rochell exposes the Irish at defensive end, but the options there may be more plentiful and palatable, especially against a strong running team.

Nyles Morgan, linebacker: The freshman had 31 tackles over ND’s final three games, some of them out of position, but it’s at least 10 more than any other Irish player in the same stretch save fellow linebacker Jaylon Smith (35).

Now that Joe Schmidt’s replacement has room to breathe, he can delve into the big picture of how the defensive parts fit together, how to manipulate them at the line of scrimmage pre-snap and how to communicate it all to the 10 teammates around him.

The coaching staff, in turn, has an opportunity to tweak the scheme to take advantage of the strong physical attributes Morgan brings to the position.

The fact that Morgan enjoys dissecting film, enjoys being a student of the game and has a history of surprising his (high school) coaches with huge leaps in production all bodes well for a transformative month for Morgan.

Devin Butler, cornerback: The sophomore is going to play whether or not starter Cody Riggs’ stress reaction in his foot mellows out and allows him to play. It’s just a question of how much?

Corners with the ability to play press coverage is a requisite in VanGorder’s defense, and Butler needs to be able to do what Cole Luke and Riggs do in that regard. Remember, this is a player who missed the spring following shoulder surgery after some flashes of encouragement during his freshman season.

Physically, Butler has the potential to play at a higher level. The bowl practices give him an opportunity to catch up mentally.

Everett Golson/Malik Zaire, quarterbacks: If there’s been a criticism of Zaire behind closed doors while fermenting the past three months, it’s been that the sophomore wasn’t as engaged perhaps as he could have been in practices and meetings while Golson was struggling with turnovers.

Now he is. And he needs to stay that way, whether or not he can overtake Golson and start the bowl game — because next spring and summer, he's going to start to feel a push from behind as well.

Redshirting freshman DeShone Kizer has only 20 fewer collegiate completions than Zaire, and at 6-foot-5 brings an intriguing skill set.

Recruit Brandon Wimbush, who was electric in a 34-18 quashing of pressure-happy Paramus Catholic in the New Jersey non-public group four state championship Friday night, may have the most raw talent of all of the eventual Golson challengers/backups.

Wimbush handled the blitzing Friday night for 167 passing yards and two TDs, and ran away from it and through it for another 158 yards and a score.

As for Golson, he’s determined not to run away from the problems that got him benched in the USC game, and he’s got plenty of opportunity away from the glare of the spotlight to rediscover his mojo.


Notre Dame cornerback Devin Butler (12) in the first half during an NCAA football game against Arizona State, Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014, in Tempe, Arizona. (Rick Scuteri/AP Images)