Noie: Four players to watch come New Year's Day and PlayStation Fiesta Bowl
PLAYERS TO WATCH
(7) JAYLEN WARREN, RB
An Oklahoma State offense that ripped through the regular season averaging 402.9 yards and 30.6 points per game looked a shadow of itself in the Big 12 championship game. A lot of that had to do with the Baylor defense, but it also had to do with no Warren in the lineup. He was out with an ankle issue, though there still were questions of would he play? Could he play? He dressed, but didn’t play.
It showed. The Cowboys had no swagger as an offense, and wound up with 242 total yards and a season low 16 points. Warren is the fuel that drives OSU. He rushed for 1,134 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. That included a 218-yard, two-score game against Boise State. He also caught 19 passes for 191 yards. He led the Cowboys with 1,325 all-purpose yards.
The 5-foot-8, 215-pounder from Salt Lake City and transfer from Utah State is due for a big game if he’s healthy. Warren managed only 56 yards on 17 carries against Oklahoma and 37 on 12 rushes against Texas Tech.
Want to slow the Cowboys? Slow No. 7.
(16) DEVIN HARPER LB
Fellow linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez gets a lot of attention as the ringleader on one of the nation’s best defenses, and rightfully so with his team-high 112 tackles. And that defensive line is sure to give the Irish front some frustration.
But it’s the 6-foot, 235-pound Harper, a redshirt super senior from Knoxville, Tenn., who makes a lot of plays. From everywhere. In 13 games, Harper is OSU’s second-leading tackler with 86 total stops — 57 solo, 29 assists. He’s first on the squad in quarterback hurries (15), fifth in tackles for loss (10), third in sacks (six), second in fumble recoveries (two) and has a forced fumble thrown in there for good measure.
It’s been a career final year for Harper, who made all of 37 tackles with one start in 2020. He’s been beyond good in his last season.
Oklahoma State will cause a lot of issues for a Notre Dame offense that spent the last month of the season manhandling inferior opposing defenses. The Cowboys often are the ones doing the manhandling, and Harper’s heavily involved. Nothing comes easily against Oklahoma State, be it scoring points, running the ball, passing it or moving it.
(25) CHRIS TYREE RB
When workhorse Kyren Williams opted out of the Fiesta Bowl to turn pro, it opened the backfield door to the proverbial next man up. In Notre Dame’s case, that should be Tyree, a 5-foot-9 1/2, 190-pound sophomore who rushed for 204 yards and one touchdown on 50 carries this season.
New Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman said last week, however, that he also expects true freshmen Logan Diggs and Audric Estime to play.
Known more for his work on special teams — his 96-yard kickoff return for touchdown swung the Wisconsin game — Tyree may get a chance to step into a main role in the Fiesta Bowl. He’s not been Williams-esque in terms of workload or versatility, but he can help alleviate some of the pressure coming at quarterback Jack Coan from an attacking and aggressive Oklahoma State defense.
Tyree can run the ball. He can use his speed. He can catch the ball and use his elusiveness. Diggs is pushing hard for a larger role and may be better suited to do it in this one, but expect Tyree to get the first chance to show his stuff. Without Williams, it’s a big day for someone else to deliver. Big.
(26) XAVIER WATTS, SS
How the 5-11 ¾, 195-pound sophomore (freshman eligibility) Watts got here is similar to what was just outlined in terms of Tyree stepping into a bigger role and on a bigger stage. No more Kyle Hamilton, who likely wasn’t going to play anyway because of a knee injury, opens opportunity for somebody new on the back half of the Irish defense.
Watts started the season as a wide receiver before moving to rover linebacker and then moving again to strong safety. He’s one of those guys that then-defensive coordinator and now head coach Marcus Freeman needs to get on the field. He’s a football player.
Watching Watts work late in mop-up duty, you were drawn by his ability to be drawn to the ball. He gets to it with cruel intentions. Classmate Ramon Henderson should get the first look at the free safety spot vacated by Hamilton, but he was slowed by a hamstring issue during bowl prep. Maybe Watts has shown enough and done enough the last month to move yet again from strong to free.
Watts made 14 tackles this season, but is one to watch. He could be special, in this one and moving through into 2022.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI