8 rising players who could make a difference for Notre Dame in 2016

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Perhaps the most encouraging and relevant takeaway for Brian Kelly in Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship won’t actually be a template extracted from the field.

But how No. 1 Clemson (14-0) and No. 2 Alabama (13-1) arrived in Glendale, Ariz.

And that is with more new faces in their respective starting lineups than familiar ones.

Kelly will begin his seventh set of 15 spring practice sessions as Notre Dame’s head coach in a couple of months, likely with no more than 10 starters left over from “Team 127,” which capped a 10-3 season Jan. 1 with a 41-28 loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.

That’s the same number of starters that each of Monday’s national title finalists emerged with last spring from their respective 2014 teams.

Clemson lost an additional starter, left tackle Isaiah Battle, to the NFL Supplemental Draft over the summer to reduce its number to nine. And then in Clemson’s season opener with Wofford last Sept. 5, the Tigers’ version of Will Fuller, wide receiver Mike Williams, was lost for the season to injury.

Program depth built through relentless recruiting, tested player development models and transformative players who made quantum surges turned potential rebuilding undertakings into title runs.

Can Kelly do the same in Year 7 at ND?

Two of the “way too early” top 25 projections issued so far peg the Irish at No. 6 (Athlon) and 12 (nationalchamps.net), respectively.

Here are eight players who need to have strong offseasons in order to catalyze the Irish into the 2016 playoff conversation:

Equanimeous St. Brown, wide receiver, sophomore-to-be

NFL Draft early entry Fuller’s value to the most prolific Notre Dame offense of the Kelly Era went well beyond his team-leading 62 receptions, 1,258 yards and 14 TDs. It showed up in his teammates’ stats as well.

The junior’s ability to stretch the field as a deep threat opened up the middle of the field to other Irish receivers and created room to roam for the ND run game when opposing defensive coordinators opted to double him up with safety help.

St. Brown, Fuller’s backup in 2015 until a shoulder injury prematurely truncated his freshman season in November, has breakaway speed and a 6-foot-4 frame.

The growth curve for the son of former Mr. Universe and current women’s fashion designer John Brown comes in his savvy as a route runner, in his confidence and in his consistency.

“A lot of receivers are scared to get physical, and he’s not,” ND safety Max Redfield offered. “He has a chance to become a dynamic receiver and possibly one of the best receivers in the country.”

Early enrollee Kevin Stepherson (6-1, 180), who starts classes Tuesday with the other four freshman early arrivals, gets the first shot at making an impression to get into the receiver rotation. June arrivals Javon McKinley (6-2, 194), who verbally committed Saturday, and Chase Claypool (6-5, 214) may be more college-ready, though.

Drue Tranquill, safety, junior-to-be

Staying healthy will be half the battle for Tranquill, ND’s most versatile defensive player, whose 2015 season was cut short by his second ACL surgery in as many seasons.

A left knee injury shaved the final two games off a promising freshman year. This torn knee ligament, in the right knee and three games into the 2015 season, came as Tranquill leapt to celebrate a pass breakup with a teammate.

Yet it was early enough in the season this time that he will be able to recoup it as a medical redshirt.

Defining the role in which Tranquill could make the most significant impact in 2016 is a nice problem for defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and Kelly to address this winter.

The 6-foot-2, 225-pounder seemingly fits best as a strong safety, but he’s played some free safety and certainly could slide over there if senior-to-be Redfield falls short of a redemptive offseason.

Thinking outside the box, Tranquill could also play in the box as an outside linebacker, with elite coverage skills and the ability to be an effective pass rusher if VanGorder were so inclined.

Nyles Morgan, middle linebacker, junior-to-be

Morgan went from a choppy-but-productive 2014 season, in which he finished with freshman All-America honors and seven more tackles (47 to 40) than standout defensive tackle Sheldon Day, to a decidedly reserve/special teams role in 2015 (17 tackles).

That doesn’t diminish the 6-1, 240-pounder’s still strong potential. His seemingly backward step was more a matter of VanGorder insisting the Irish defense couldn’t function effectively without grad senior Joe Schmidt, the QB of the defense, on the field in 2015.

Behind closed doors, Morgan reportedly did evolve and is the most developed of the small-but-prodigious core of underclassmen that look to join or displace senior holdover James Onwualu in the starting lineup next fall.

That’s assuming consensus All-American Jaylon Smith declares for the NFL Draft for his post-surgery rehab.

Redshirted freshmen Josh Barajas and Asmar Bilal are the wild cards in the equation. The Irish still could add elite talent to the corps in the final weeks of the 2016 recruiting cycle, with elite prospects Caleb Kelly, Jeffrey McCullough and Ben Davis all at least peripherally in play.

Tristen Hoge, center, sophomore-to-be

The Pocatello, Idaho, product and nephew of former NFL running back Merril Hoge likely begins spring No. 2 at his position, behind junior-to-be Sam Mustipher. But whether he overtakes Mustipher or pushes Mustipher’s development and settles in as a strong center/guard backup in 2015, it seems a matter of when and not if the former consensus prep All-American moves to the top of the depth chart somewhere in the interior of the line.

The parents of the 6-foot-5, 300-pounder and 2014 early enrollee are so invested that they bought a home in the South Bend area roughly a 10-minute walk away from Notre Dame Stadium. Hoge’s physical development in the last year shows that kind of extreme commitment is a family trait.

Hoge and Mustipher will duel to replace NFL-bound Nick Martin, easily the most unsung standout on ND’s offense last season.

An offensive line coming off a top six finish in the inaugural Joe Moore Award competition will be only as strong as its weakest link. Mustipher/Hoge will be tested early and often by opponents to see if the greatest vulnerability is playing center for the Irish.

Khalid Kareem, defensive end, freshman

The 6-4, 257-pound Farmington Hills, Mich., product had the kind of consistent production and faced consistently strong competition in high school that, with a semester head start, the early enrollee could be an answer toward improving a tepid Irish pass rush (75th nationally in 2015 in sacks, 109th in turnovers gained).

The same holds true for fellow Michigander and early enrollee Daelin Hayes (6-3, 240), though Hayes must first get a clean bill of health from a senior-season shoulder injury, and the coaching staff must determine whether they’d like to groom him as a linebacker or defensive end.

Both players spent months committed to other schools before the Irish won both taffy pulls, Kareem — the MVP of the Jan. 3 Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl — with Alabama, and Hayes with USC.

The hope by Kelly and company is that some players already on the Irish roster can provide some push up front as well, including junior-to-be Andrew Trumbetti, who had a strong finish to an otherwise quiet season.

The Irish lose Nos. 1 and 2 from 2015 in sacks, in end Romeo Okwara (8) and defensive tackle Day (4), and return no defensive lineman with more than one sack in 2015.

Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, sophomore-to-be

Replacing Day at defensive tackle will be a little more palatable because of Jarron Jones’ return to the lineup at nose guard and the double teams he figures to command.

An MCL injury limited Jones to just 14 plays in 2015, all in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State.

Tillery, himself suspended from the Fiesta Bowl for a violation of team rules, is one of three options that figure to get the most attention in the spring at Day’s position.

Juniors-to-be Jonathan Bonner and Jay Hayes, the latter of whom redshirted this past season, will try to push their way into the mix.

With another year in the strength program and with lessons learned as a part-time starter at nose guard in 2015, the 6-7, 300-pound Tillery should improve his production (12 tackles, only three over the final seven games), especially at a position that provides a better natural fit.

And if he doesn’t? He’ll likely hear about it long distance from the NFL-bound Day, and perhaps Day’s mom, Carol Boyd, might even Google him for motivation.

Alizé Jones, tight end, sophomore-to-be

Tight End U.’s production declined for the fourth straight season, not surprising given the injury/inexperience cocktail in 2015. But the combined 20 catches were 46 fewer than 2011 and the fewest in a season since John Owens and Gary Godsey combined for eight in 2001, coach Bob Davie’s final season as head coach.

The lone touchdown from the five-man tight end corps this season came on a fake field goal in one of three games Durham Smythe was healthy enough to play.

Jones accounted for 13 of the 20 catches this season, and may have had more if his blocking skill set had progressed as fast as his catching one did, allowing him to be on the field full time once Smythe went down.

That’s where the focus needs to be this winter, spring and summer — blocking. Smythe’s return to health benefits Jones in that it allows the three-headed play-calling group to get creative with how they use Jones as a second tight end.

Tarean Folston, running back, senior-to-be

The idea going into 2015 was that with Folston and C.J. Prosise tag-teaming, the Irish offense could wear down opponents with the run game.

That strategy lasted all of three carries for Folston, the 2014 leading rusher for the Irish who became a medical redshirt in ND’s 2015 season-opening rout of Texas.

The Irish only once had a true tag team going this past season, with Prosise and freshman Josh Adams each going over 100 yards in a 62-27 mashing of UMass on Sept. 26. Early in the season, the coaching staff was reluctant to put Adams in too many high-leverage situations.

Later, after Adams gained their trust, Prosise was limited by injuries.

Still, Notre Dame set a modern era record (post-World War II) for team average per rush (5.63 to 1992’s 5.62), with Prosise producing the 18th 1,000-yard rushing season in school history and Adams concocting the most prolific rushing season ever for an Irish freshman (835 yards).

His 7.1 yards per carry is the fifth-highest average in ND history and only the second time since 1948 that an Irish player (minimum 100 attempts) has rushed for more than 7 yards a carry (Reggie Brooks was the other, 8.0 in 1992).

Where Folston can be the ultimate complement, once he’s fully cleared from the season-ending ACL tear, is continuing to evolve in the passing game as a receiving target. That’s where the Irish will miss Prosise the most.

Folston, though, did have 18 receptions for 190 yards in 2014.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame's Josh Equanimeous St. Brown (86) could become an important piece in the Irish offense in 2016. (Tribune Photo/Becky Malewitz)