Six offseason wild cards who could impact Notre Dame football

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

In the same breath that Tommy Kraemer extolled Urban Meyer with words like “respect” and “greatness,” came the adjective annoying

Sixteen months before the national signing day 2016, the first February in three recruiting cycles that the No. 1 prospect in Ohio signed to go somewhere other than Ohio State, the hulking offensive line prospect from Cincinnati verbally — and completely — committed to Notre Dame.

Which only seemed to make Meyer, Ohio State’s head coach, more relentless in his pursuit of the 6-foot-5, 317-pound prep All-American from national prep power Elder High School.

“We talked all the time, about whatever,” Kraemer said of Meyer. “Toward the end, it got kind of old, because I was happy with what I chose and I really didn’t ever give it a second thought.”

That ND head coach Brian Kelly poached Rivals.com’s top-rated Ohio prospect — and Michigan’s No. 1 player in defensive end Daelin Hayes away from Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh — doesn’t push those players to the top of the list of ND’s most intriguing offseason wild cards.

That is, players who could ascend this summer into roles that could help boost Notre Dame’s bottom line in the upcoming season.

What does coax the freshman duo into that grouping is the talent/ambition/work ethic quotient to live up to and exceed those high expectations.

Kraemer, an elite tackle prospect, could get his first opportunity at offensive guard, and a starting berth isn’t out of the question. The 6-4, 257-pound Hayes, meanwhile, could embolden a pass rush that was on the tepid side in 2015, with ND ranking 75th nationally (out of 127) in sacks and 109th in turnovers forced.

Hayes is finally expected to physically be 100 percent this summer from offseason shoulder surgery that limited his contact as an early enrollee in spring practice.

Still, he showed enough in non-contact situations that the coaching staff is encouraged that he’ll be a factor on the edge of the defense by the time the Irish open the season Sept. 4 at Texas.

Here are the rest of ND’s most intriguing offseason wild cards:

C.J. Sanders, sophomore, wide receiver/returns: Sanders in 2015 became the first Irish player to return a punt for a touchdown since Golden Tate in 2009 and the first Irish freshman in 42 years to do so. He also had a 93-yard kickoff return for a TD in the regular-season finale at Stanford.

In practices last fall, Sanders showed flashes of that return-game explosiveness in the passing game as a slot receiver, but he didn’t have much opportunity to do so in games because of Amir Carlisle and Torii Hunter Jr., being stacked in front of him on the depth chart.

In the spring, a hip injury that will keep him on the recovery trail until July washed out his chances of establishing himself as the new No. 1 slot receiver, with Hunter having moved to Will Fuller’s old outside receiver spot and Carlisle now in the Arizona Cardinals’ training camp.

Hunter is unquestionably ND’s top receiver in a talented but inexperienced corps. But there’s little separation right now between Nos. 2 and 5 right now, spread over the three wideout positions. It’s plausible Sanders could push to be that second option in a time-share at slot with spring ascender Corey Holmes.

Jalen Elliott, freshman, safety: The Richmond, Va., product could do in August what fellow freshman safety Devin Studstill did this spring, immediately impact the depth chart.

Studstill, an early enrollee, not only provided much-needed competition and depth at free safety for senior incumbent Max Redfield in spring practice, he overtook him on the depth chart, for now anyway. Elliott’s role at strong safety is seen more as complementary to junior starter Drue Tranquill.

When Tranquill moves up into the box or lines up as a pass rusher in ND’s specialty packages, it could very well be Elliott who’s on the field playing man defense as the strong safety.

Jonathan Bonner, junior, defensive end: When Bonner arrived as a true freshman a couple of summers ago, his physical combine-style testing wowed the Irish coaching staff, and then came the fade on the practice field.

The 6-foot-3, 286-pounder is finally finding a way to translate those eye-popping numbers into actual football ability. After having bounced between end and tackle, Bonner now has a clear role and a future.

Not only does Kelly and Co., believe they have found a successor to senior Isaac Rochell — ND’s best defensive player — at the big defensive end position, they found ways this past spring to use them in tandem on passing downs.

Greer Martini, junior, linebacker: Martini has been a standout against the one or two triple-option offenses that Irish see each year, but he wants to be an every-down player. The 6-foot-3, 245-pounder may finally get that chance in 2016, but it’ll be quite a battle.

Offseason surgery limited Martini to mental reps in spring practice. He emerged as the No. 2 strongside (outside) linebacker behind senior incumbent James Onwualu.

Martini has a wide enough skill set to play all three linebacker positions, including backing up Nyles Morgan at middle linebacker. If he’s going to emerge as a No. 1 option, though, it would come at Jaylon Smith’s old weakside linebacker position.

Sophomore outside linebacker Asmar Bilal got a spring audition there and showed enough promise for the experiment to continue in August. Sophomore Te’von Coney, like Martini, was also largely a bystander in the spring while recovering from surgery, and he’ll challenge Bilal after backing up Smith last season.

Martini brings enough physicality and enough coverage skills to complement his knowledge of the defense to make it interesting if the ND coaches choose to go in that direction.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Freshman defensive end Daelin Hayes runs drills during Notre Dame spring football practice on Friday, April 1, 2016, inside the Loftus Sports Center at Notre Dame. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)