Signing Day has come and gone. While fans are still filled with the holy spirit of optimism that comes with analyzing their team’s newest toys, there’s an obvious question: When will these guys get on the field??? This is not an easy question to answer. Engaging in this exercise immediately following signing day is even crazier. Spring practice, injuries, defections, scholarship limits, and summer practice all have yet to occur. However, since so many fans view Signing Day as “February Christmas,” let’s see when ND fans might reasonably expect the team to open the packaging on their gifts.
To get a grasp on where this year’s incoming freshmen might fit in, I took a look at ND’s projected roster, making a few assumptions about players returning from injuries or, ahem, other things. I also assume for the time being that fifth year players could/will come back. Additionally, I looked at each of Brian Kelly’s recruiting classes from 2011-2014 to see who and how much those players saw the field as true freshmen.
Players are graded on an A-F scale. I am only evaluating their potential for on-field impact as true freshmen. Hence, the highest rated player in the class, Brandon Wimbush receives a very low grade because the chance of him contributing on the field as a freshman is virtually non-existent. I am not attempting to project a player’s career at ND or otherwise. Grades are affected by returning players as well as a recruit’s general expected development curve and Brian Kelly’s playing tendencies for true freshmen. So Tristen Hoge who was the #1 center in the country won’t fair well because there are so many offensive linemen returning and BK’s track record suggests he doesn’t play offensive linemen as freshmen.
For general reference, here were my thoughts on the grade scale:
A – Basically, your Jaylon Smiths. Guys who start from day one and have the pedigree and natural talent to impact the game from the very first time they hear the roar of ND stadium.
B – Solid, quality contributors. Will see extended playing time early even if it won’t always be in a starting role. Likely to see playing time in the vast majority if not all games. Might contribute in special teams as well. Reference point: Tarean Folston’s freshmen year.
C- Will see the field at least in a limited rotation most of the season. An injury away from being more highly involved, but if things hold true will be a complimentary piece as opposed to a guy who is leaned on. I would have scored Nyles Morgan as a C in last year’s class immediately following Signing Day. His on field contributions ended up more in the B+ range.
D- May suit up but not expected to impact the game either because they’re blocked by many players or need time beyond their freshman year in order to develop into a team contributor. Reference point: Corey Holmes’ freshman year.
F- Probably a quarterback or offensive lineman. Would only play because the World has collapsed around us and we’re all preoccupied discussing why Lane Kiffin’s not that bad when they get on the field.
The theme to this class is that there aren’t that many guys who I think will make instant dramatic impact but plenty that I expect to see in the rotation. Only one player received an “A” grade. Several more though are in the “B” range.
BK by Year:
Regardless of how talented or skilled a player is, there are only so many snaps in a season for a player to get on the field. Opportunity, position depth, and coach tendencies all play a part. Before diving into the grades, let’s consider BK’s tendencies. The chart below shows Brian Kelly’s recruiting classes for years 2011-14 and shows the overall playing time for each class. If you’re wondering, the percentages do include guys like Eddie Vanderdoes, Tee Sheppard, and Niles Sykes. While uncomfortable, early defections are part of the calculus. The overall trends you should expect: It’s pretty consistent for Brian Kelly to play roughly half of his recruiting class. 12/24 or thereabouts from 2015 should expect to see the field. About 20%, one in five, should expect to see at least one start. So, 4-5 players in the 2015 class on average we’d expect to see start at least one game. Finally less than one per class starts six or more games. In 2011, it was Aaron Lynch (6), 2012 – KeiVarae Russell (13), 2013 – Jaylon Smith (13), and 2014 nobody. Spoiler alert: Kickers don’t get “starts.”
|YEAR:||% PLAYED:||% STARTED > 0:||% STARTED > 6:|
Quarterbacks: Not surprisingly, since 2011 no true freshman has seen game action. The QB’s: Kiel, Golson, Zaire, and Kizer all red-shirted their freshman year. While speculation continues about where Golson will be in the Fall, the fact remains that with Zaire, Kizer, and Montgomery VanGorder (who will fill the role of Nate Montana), Wimbush is the closest thing to a guarantee to be a redshirt. If he sees the field, people won’t remember the grade I give Wimbush because they’ll be complaining about a lot of other things.
Brandon Wimbush: F
Runningbacks: Cam McDaniel graduates leaving the runningback position slightly thin. With Folston and Bryant, the team has a dynamic 1-2 punch, but not much behind it. Some will depend on the future of Amir Carlisle. With the WR position as deep as it is, it’s certainly plausible that Carlisle moves back to runningback a la Theo Riddick for his final season which would add some instant depth. Historically, runningbacks find their way into at least limited game action. George Atkinson played in all 13 games as a freshman, albeit namely on special teams. Cam McDaniel saw action in 8 games, similarly by finding a niche with special teams. Both Folston and Bryant played, and Folston actually started 2 games as a true freshman. The only runningback to not see any game action since 2011 as a freshman was Will Mahone. I’d expect both Josh Adams and Dexter Williams to see some game action. What level depends on the future of Carlisle and the health of both Carlisle and Bryant, neither of whom has been the most durable during their careers. Williams is talented and dynamic enough to make a difference in (hopefully) limited snaps. Adams is depth and special teams.
Josh Adams: C-
Dexter Williams: C+
Widereceiver: Returning next season: Corey Robinson, Will Fuller, Chris Brown, CJ Prosise, Torii Hunter Jr., Justin Brent, Corey Holmes. That doesn’t include Amir Carlisle. In other words, there’s depth, and lots of it. Kelly uses a deep WR rotation. A substantial number of ND’s plays come from 3 wide receiver sets. This past season, Will Fuller was the only guy seeing himself in on nearly every snap. Given Fuller’s season, that was understandable. Even assuming Prosise and Hunter become compliments out of the slot and Brown, Robinson, Brent, and Holmes sub into different packages, the path to playing time is exceedingly tough to find.
As freshmen Brown, Robinson, and Fuller all saw playing time early. All played in 12+ games as true freshmen and all received some starts. That was at a time with less depth at the position though. I’d expect this year’s batch to find the chances limited and more like what Brent and Holmes saw then what Robinson, Fuller, and Brown pulled off. Brent played in 9 games but made zero starts. Holmes played in just 2. My guess is that Boykin and St. Brown find it nearly impossible to break through this year. Guyton likely has issues as well, but there’s been enough discussion about his advanced maturity I won’t rule it out. The one guy who could find some time is CJ Sanders. Sanders is a speed talent of the highest order, and that might give him a chance along with Shaun Crawford to find some time on special teams if nothing else. Sanders skill set is the most unlike ND’s current receivers which is why he scores higher.
Miles Boykin: D-
Equanimeous St. Brown: D
Jalen Guyton: D+
C.J. Sanders: C
Tight End: For Tight End University, this season marks an interesting point. In recent years with the lineage of Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert, Troy Niklas, and Ben Koyack the obvious heir has been on the roster coming into the season. While Durham Smythe showed flashes last spring that many thought might push him into the rotation more with Koyack than ended up happening, there is not an obvious replacement. Kelly uses 1 tight end most of the time, and he’s previously put a premium on tight ends with the ability to split out wide to create mismatches. Koyack, Niklas, Smythe, and Luatua all saw game action in over half their games as freshmen, but very rarely in a starting role. Mike Heuerman and Nic Weisher add even more depth after failing to see the field last year.
Despite all of that, Jones is one of a handful of guys coming in that we should expect to see play a pivotal role. I don’t think he’ll be “the guy” from day one, and he might see a slow roll out as the season goes along. That said, I think Jones plays. Plays well, and this time next year we’re laughing about anyone new breaking into the tight end rotation.
Alize Jones: B+
Offensive Line: We can do this quickly….Play on the line as a freshman? BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Consider this: Alex Bars and Quenton Nelson were as highly rated if not more so than either of Hoge or Ruhland and neither saw the field. Since 2011, 2 freshman have found their way onto the field and only one for more than 2 games. Well done, Steve Elmer, for being the outlier. All other recruits, no matter how awesome, sit and watch because Harry Hiestand’s been an absolute machine.
Tristen Hoge: F
Trevor Ruhland: F
Defensive Line: This year’s group has five defensive linemen. Taylor, Tiassum, and Tillery are all interior linemen. Dew-Treadway is a hybrid as he may be too large already to play end but lacks the size or strength to play on the interior consistently. Bo Wallace is something of an Ishaq Williams 2.0 but even leaner. A true end rusher with athleticism and room to grow.
The generalized history for BK linemen is that they either make their way into the rotation or don’t play at all. With the expansive list of injuries last year, Daniel Cage, Andrew Trumbetti, Kolin Hill, and Grant Blankenship all saw the field in the majority of games. Jay Hayes saw game action in 3 when both Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones missed time.
Aaron Lynch, Ishaq Williams, Sheldon Day, Romeo Okwara, and Isaac Rochell also saw the field as freshmen. This year’s batch will see a lot of those exact names possibly returning. Day, Okwara, and Rochell are back. Jarron Jones should be too assuming rehab goes well. Williams is seeking reinstatement. Trumbetti, Hill, Blankenship, and Hayes all would expect to see upticks in playing time as well. For that reason, I rule out Taylor and Tiassum as early contributors. I’d probably have ruled out Tillery, especially if he’s moving to DT full-time after playing at OT for most of his high school career, but BK’s made comments that he expects Tillery to contribute in 2015. Dew-Treadway probably needs to figure out what his long-term calling will be before he’ll see extended action. Wallace is the most intriguing. I could see him being a solid special teams contributor and occasional sub-in on defense in the second half of the season.
Elijah Taylor: D
Brandon Tiassum: D-
Jerry Tillery: C-
Micah Dew-Treadway: D+
Bo Wallace: B-
Linebackers: It’s been an all or nothing proposition for linebackers. Jaylon Smith played and started from day 1. Nyles Morgan, partly due to injuries played in 12 and started 4. Both players were Freshmen All-Americans. Drew Tranquil and Greer Martini also appeared in double digit games and started at least one…although where exactly Tranquil fits into VanGorder’s plan long term remains to be seen. Ben Councell, Jarret Grace, Michael Deeb, and Doug Randolph didn’t see the field as other linebackers joining between 2011 and 2014. Probably no position’s opportunity has varied more on a year over year basis about chance to play than linebacker. Barajas, Bilal, and Coney are all capable of playing as freshmen, but this is where the logjam will dictate some things.
Virtually everyone named above returns along with Kolin Hill and the hopeful return of Joe Schmidt, although Schmidt’ll miss spring practice. I expect all three incoming freshmen to see action this season. Quite frankly, they’re just more athletic than some of the other guys on the roster already. They won’t get ahead of Smith, Morgan, or Schmidt in the rotation, but they’re all capable of contributing from the get go. However, there’ll be enough depth where I think they all see playing time more like what VanGorder and Kelly’s original gameplay for Morgan appeared to be as opposed to what it ended up being. I’m giving them all a C+ because I think it’ll be more than passing participation, but I’m unsure which of the three might establish themselves a little faster. One of them could even end up redshirting if a rotation becomes obvious.
Josh Barajas: C+
Asmar Bilal: C+
Te’Von Coney: C+
Cornerback: Starting as a freshman might be tough, but playing as a freshman hasn’t been that difficult. Basically, only Jalen Brown hasn’t found his way onto the field as a freshman since 2011. In the era of spread offenses, teams need a substantial stable of cornerbacks to survive the season. With the hopeful return of KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke, the top 2 spots are pretty locked down. Nick Watkins is a highly touted player who played in 11 games this past season and should be the favorite to start at the nickel going into spring practice.
Shaun Crawford is the defensive player I think makes the largest impact this year. The phrase I’ve heard over and over again to describe Crawford is “a 5-star player in a 4-star body.” Crawford’s height is his only drawback. Otherwise, he’s an elite physical specimen with by all accounts great natural football instincts. Crawford’s been another popular name to possibly make an impact in the special teams return game along with CJ Sanders. Similar to Alize Jones, Crawford might not start game 1, but he’s going to be a difference maker. Nick Coleman’s a taller corner who could push Devin Butler for sub time. Ashton White is a bigger question mark about where he fits in long term. A move to safety is not out of the question, but I’m not as optimistic he finds his way onto the field.
Nick Coleman: C
Shaun Crawford: B+
Ashton White: D+
Safety: Under BK safety’s been a lot like linebacker. Either you make your way into the rotation or you sit. With Austin Collinsworth and Eilar Hardy gone, safety is suspiciously thin. There’s thought that wide receiver turned linebacker James Onwualu might make one more move to help add some depth at safety. Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate are the likely starters, but after that, only questions. Drew Tranquill and Nicky Baratti’s health are both serious questions meaning that in the boom or bust position of safety, there is room for some playing time. Kelly’s discussed the possibility of trying to find a grad student transfer (think Cody Riggs) that could also change the window for playing time.
Fertitta is too small to be in serious rotation at safety, though he could contribute on special teams immediately. Mykelti Williams is a wild card that might be forced into action depending on how the rotation plays out. Williams is a 3-star composite who had vastly differing opinions across the recruiting services. Playing time the way Redfield or Shumate saw as freshman is not out of the question though.
Mykelti Williams: C+
Nicco Fertitta: D+
Kicker: Another easy one: Barring injury or unforeseen circumstances, Yoon is the team’s placekicker the next four years. He’s the only guy with a clear and obvious path to starting time from the very beginning. He is your lone “A.”
Justin Yoon: A
Survivor of the Davie, O'Leary, Willingham football eras. Southern. Charming and more often than not the wittiest person at his dinner table (he eats alone quite a bit).
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