Last looks: Secondary

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The pieces are in place for Notre Dame’s secondary to be great. Led by returning cornerback KeiVarae Russell and armed with depth at every starting position, first-year position coach Todd Lyght has considerable talent to work with.

But the Irish secondary remains a question mark, especially at the safety position where returning veterans Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate are still doing their best to play up to expectations. In a system where there’s nowhere to hide and aggression can expose sometimes critical mistakes, the secondary is better equipped to handle the flames, even if we aren’t exactly sure how they’ll do until we put their feet to the fire.

In our final section of last looks, Notre Dame’s secondary is under the microscope.

 

SECONDARY
Position Coach: Todd Lyght

 

DEPTH CHART

CB: KeiVarae Russell, Sr.*
S: Max Redfield, Jr.
S: Elijah Shumate, Sr.
CB: Cole Luke

CB: Devin Butler, Jr.
S: Matthias Farley, GS
S: Drue Tranquill, Soph.
CB: Nick Coleman, Fr.

Additional Depth:
Avery Sebastian, GS
Nick Watkins, Soph.
Mykelti Williams, Fr.
Nicco Fertitta, Fr.
Shaun Crawford, Fr.*

*Additional year of eligibility available. 

 

LEADING MAN

KeiVarae Russell. Russell will lead this group, dragging along every member of the secondary to compete at his level. That’s a good thing, especially after late last season when a confidence boost was needed in November and nobody was there to provide it.

Yet Russell needs to bring more than just pompoms to work. He needs to prove he’s worth all the headlines he’s garnered—not just for the mistakes that led to him missing the 2014 season, but the lofty projections people have made for him after a solid-but-not-quite-spectacular sophomore season.

Russell is playing in a new system, a challenge he craves. He’ll be bouncing inside and out, allowing him to make an impact in both the run and pass game. But in an aggressive scheme that’ll challenge the Irish secondary on a play-to-play basis, Russell not only needs to make sure he’s getting the best out of his teammates, but that he’s delivering the All-American caliber production that we all expect.

 

NEED A BIG SEASON

Max Redfield & Elijah Shumate. Put simply, this defense will be as good as its safety play. And with little depth behind Redfield and Shumate, it’s on the shoulders of this duo to do the job and do it well.

Last year, both ended up in the dog house, and only a MASH unit allowed either to emerge. But after a year of learning and a commitment to communication, Redfield and Shumate appear poised to play up to their blue-chip expectations.

 

Of course, that’s what everybody says this time of year. And while Kelly, VanGorder and Lyght have all been saying the right things, this is a put-up or shut-up time for two critical pieces to the puzzle.

 

THREE BIGGEST FACTORS… 

Can this group eliminate the big play? Bob Diaco’s secondary wasn’t the most exciting group in America. But it understood that you can win a lot of football games and keep the points down by not giving up the big play. Late last year when things started going wrong, the secondary was getting beat and giving up yards—and points—by the bushel.

With the talent that Notre Dame has, a repeat of that would be immensely disappointing. But with some talented quarterbacks and receivers on this schedule, it’s a key factor, especially if VanGorder wants to continue to play aggressive.

 

Can Redfield turn into a playmaker? Notre Dame hasn’t had a playmaking safety since Harrison Smith roamed centerfield. But Redfield has all the attributes you want from a free safety, and he’s literally the only guy on this roster who can physically do what this defense needs.

Redfield has a fresh start with Todd Lyght. He’s been filled with confidence by Brian Kelly. And he appears committed to football. Asking Redfield to be Smith—a first-rounder with elite talent as well—might be too much. But can he be at least above average, making some plays on the football that he was a step or two slow to last season?

Before Smith was ball-hawking he was getting kicked around for two seasons. And that’s reason for hope that the light can turn on for Redfield, too.

 

How versatile can this group be? Notre Dame will face teams that’ll spread the Irish out and also triple-option teams that’ll want to bully them. And with the depth chart still a little bit thinner than you want, how VanGorder and Lyght decide to use some of the key complementary pieces to this unit will be very important.

Matthias Farley won’t be asked to be a man-cover corner in the slot, but he’ll play a big role in other packages. Drue Tranquill might not be capable of being a half-field safety, but he certainly can attack off the edge, or hold-up against the pitch man versus an option attack. Beyond that, Notre Dame getting something out of Nick Watkins can only help, and if one of the freshmen safety can play it’d be a bonus, too. (Then again, so would keeping a redshirt on both.)

The loss of Shaun Crawford robbed the Irish of a little versatility, but seeing how this group mixes and matches will be fun.

 

THREE RANDOM THOUGHTS

Can Russell and Luke take their place among the dynamic cornerbacking duos? We’ve undersold Cole Luke’s 2014 season. He was really, really solid against a slate of wide receivers that looked like a murderer’s row. On the other hand, we’ve all bought in to KeiVarae Russell’s return to greatness, and the confident senior is deadset on making up for lost time.

There’s enough talent here for this duo to make the outside a no-fly zone. Just as important, this staff could have enough confidence in Luke and Russell to stay outside on islands against the option, allowing the Irish to put eight and nine men in the box as they aggressively attack the option, relying on their two corners to not get lost in the shuffle and get beat over the top.

It’s been since Vontez Duff and Shane Walton since the Irish had a duo that the college football world viewed as elite. If Russell and Luke can play up to that level, this defense will be in great shape.

 

Is Devin Butler really ready to be an outside cornerback? Want proof that Todd Lyght gave everybody a blank slate? Check out Butler’s ascent into the starting nickel corner role.

Last November, Butler had a two-way miss—giving up the underneath throws and still getting beat over the top. That’s a fatal flaw for a cornerback that some thought was a mismatch for this scheme to begin with, especially since he was recruited for Bob Diaco’s Cover 2.

But give credit to Butler for a big summer and preseason camp, earning his way into the lineup over a talented young cornerback like Nick Watkins. But also hold your breath, because you’ve got to expect offensive coordinators to throw at Butler early and often, especially after the game tape he put together last November.

 

Can Todd Lyght bring consistency to this group? Kerry Cooks is gone, off to Oklahoma after Signing Day, a calendar year after being passed up for the defensive coordinator job. So Kelly decided to bring Todd Lyght back to his alma mater, a decision that looks great on paper, with the former Irish All-American able to also point to a Super Bowl championship and a Pro Bowl NFL career as well.

But the move isn’t without risks. Lyght has barely begun his coaching career, serving as an intern at Oregon for two seasons under Chip Kelly before joining him in Philadelphia for parts of two seasons as an assistant defensive backs coach. And after just agreeing to join Vanderbilt’s staff to coach cornerbacks, Lyght took some convincing to turn around and head back to South Bend to coach the Irish secondary, a decision not without risk for either side.

The early returns say the decision was a good one, with Lyght quick to find his footing running the secondary while also hitting his stride on the recruiting trail. But in the past, Kelly has used two coaches to deal with the secondary, splitting jobs between cornerbacks and safeties. Lyght is handling it all, in his first full-fledged assistant job.

 

 

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 84 (theoretically) Michael Young, receiver

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Listed Measurements: 5-foot-10, 170 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Freshman with four years of eligibility remaining
Depth chart: Young projects as a prototypical slot, or Z, receiver. The Irish currently have two, maybe three, dynamic commodities at the position in—presented in order of top to bottom of a theoretical depth chart—sophomore Chase Claypool, junior C.J. Sanders and sophomore Kevin Stepherson. Stepherson could also be a candidate to spend the majority of his time at the field, or X, position. In offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, slot receivers are expected to have a working understanding on the field’s duties, anyway.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star recruit, Young provided consistency for Notre Dame at the receiver position in the class of 2017, as the only other commitment for much of the cycle de-committed in December, leading to the late addition of Jafar Armstrong.

QUOTE(S)
Irish coach Brian Kelly pinpointed the slot as Young’s likely landing spot in his National Signing Day comments.

“As a slot receiver, somebody that can really do a number of things for us inside and out, Michael Young out of Destrehan High School (Saint Rose, La.), great football at his high school in particular,” Kelly said. “We think he has the skills necessary to come in and push and compete at that position.

“We’re really pleased with the receivers, and those two in particular, how they’ll be able to come in and push the group that we have right now.”

WHAT WE SAID WHEN YOUNG’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
Perhaps comparing Young to Torii Hunter is too easy, and not only because both enjoy the suffix of Jr. Young is known for good hands and quick moves, using his smaller stature against defenders rather than letting them take advantage of him. With quick hands, he has shown no trouble getting off the line.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Notre Dame enjoys depth at the receiver position. It will be difficult for Young to crack that this season. Defaulting to a season preserving eligibility seems too simple an answer, even if is unlikely Young contributes to the offense in a meaningful manner.

Special teams coordinator Brian Polian publicly wished for more options for his coverage units this spring. Young could help fill that void, and while he is spending the eligibility, chip in on offensively in spot duty.

The slot might be the thinnest of the Irish receiving positions, especially if the cloud around Stepherson turns out to be more than idle speculation. At that point, having Young in the rotation could prove useful.

DOWN THE ROAD
Kelly has long enjoyed having a shifty option at the slot. Claypool may prove to be the exception this season, as Notre Dame embraces a size advantage at receiver, but Kelly’s track record speaks for itself. Young could follow in the footsteps of the likes of Hunter, Amir Carlisle, C.J. Prosise and Theo Riddick.

It is no coincidence three of those relied on the distinct footwork learned as running backs to excel at the slot position. Young’s hands are a known and respected bright spot for him. His breakthrough at some point may depend on the time he spends with receivers coach Del Alexander on his footwork and the other finer tools of the position.


Aside from the five early enrollees, the numbers are not yet known for the Irish freshmen class. That is one of the admitted drawbacks to organizing this summer-long series numerically. But a little bit of educated guessing can garner estimates for those numbers, and those estimates can allow the series to proceed without pause.

How are those estimates crafted? The first step is to take a look at certain NCAA rules. When it comes to an “end,” the NCAA limits them to Nos. 80-99. Looking at the Irish roster, this leaves only so many likely options for Young, hence slotting him at No. 84, though his likely landing at slot may reduce the need to fit in that range of 20

Michael Young, Jr., very well may not wear No. 84, but it is possible, and, frankly, it could be close.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2 ½, 207 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Senior with two seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season
Depth chart: While Notre Dame did unexpectedly add kicker Jonathan Doerer to its incoming freshmen class, his specialty is kickoffs. Newsome remains essentially unchallenged at the punter position.
Recruiting: Punters are not often heralded as recruits, but rivals.com did bestow a three-star ranking on Newsome, the No. 6 kicker/punter in his class.

CAREER TO DATE
With former Irish kicker/punter Kyle Brindza handling all the leg-swinging duties in 2014, Newsome preserved a year of eligibility before taking over as punter his sophomore season. With more than 100 boots to his name at this point, Newsome has been an example of consistency.

2015: 55 punts at an average of 44.5 yards per punt with a long of 62 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 38.1 yards per punt.
2016: 54 punts at an average of 43.5 yards per punt with a long of 71 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 35.3 yards per punt.

Newsome also handled the kickoff duties in 2015, but that was removed from his to-do list last season and should not return to Newsome’s plate this season, especially now with Doerer entering the picture.

2015: 84 kickoffs at an average of 61.6 yards per kick with 21 touchbacks and five sent out of bounds.

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“If 2015 was about exceeding expectations, 2016 will be about performing with the bar raised. Newsome’s rookie season was a good one. But there’s room for improvements.

“Expect new special teams analyst Marty Biagi to take Newsome under his wing. The former college punter will likely spend some time refining Newsome’s craft, looking to add hang time to his punts and kicks, and making sure there are more booming moon shots than side-footed shanks.

“Notre Dame doesn’t want to have a celebrated punter – and they won’t as long as the offense performs. But the combo of Newsome and Yoon has the chance to be one of the better special teams batteries in America.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Keith’s final point rings true. Notre Dame does not necessarily want Newsome to excel. If he is getting enough work to truly stand out, that simply means the Irish offense has turned stalling into a routine occurrence.

Whether he gets frequent use or not, Newsome has proven to be a consistent performer, largely immune to the pressure so often found to figuratively cripple college kickers and punters. Expect that steadfastness to continue this season.

DOWN THE ROAD
Unless Doerer begins punting in practices, in addition to his possible kickoff duties, Newsome should take comfort in the fact that the Irish coaching staff did not pursue a punter in the class of 2017. If nothing else, that indicates they expect him back in 2018, and they appear to be comfortable with that. Newsome is low maintenance, and that should not be undervalued.

Could he catch Notre Dame off guard and leave early? When is the last time a kicker or punter not named Aguayo declared for the NFL before his eligibility expired? (No, really, go ahead and do the research. Much appreciated.) If a non-football opportunity presents itself such that Newsome considers leaving for it, one would think that opportunity would still be around a semester later on. He isn’t a linebacker worried about his long-term health, so there should be less motivation to cut short his college football experience.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end

Friday at 4: A holiday with reason to be remembered

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This weekend marks the unofficial start of summer, and it has its mainstays. Some weekends will hinge around the parade up Main Street. At some point, everyone comes across a hot dog or hamburger during the long weekend. A beer or pop inevitably accompanies that grilled good.

Gathering college friends may even add a whiffle ball and bat to the grocery list.

Between innings, during one of those many social breaks, take a moment to remind yourself why Monday is a federal holiday, why it is a long weekend.

It isn’t just because the weather has finally turned as desired and now white pants are socially acceptable.

It is — as we all know but do not always take the time to recognize — because it is Memorial Day, a chance to remember all those people who died while serving the United States’ armed forces.

That obviously includes some former Irish football players, but they are merely a representation of the larger item.

Rather than continue on for who-knows-how-long with this point, let’s take this opportunity to deliver some Notre Dame-related tidbits. As it pertains to Memorial Day as a whole, either you already grasp the importance of taking a pause and understanding the significance of so many lost in service, or you don’t. This space is not going to be the piece that changes the latter’s view.

Looking through some of the internet’s depths, it appears at least 19 former Irish football players are among those who should be remembered Monday, including 17 from World War II, most notably 1942 captain George Murphy. In 2004, ESPN published a worthwhile story on a football game Murphy helped organize among Marines in the southwest Pacific.

Those 19 are among the approximate 500 alumni who died in World War II, the Korea War and the Vietnam War. The Clarke Memorial Fountain — more commonly known as “Stonehenge,” directly west of the campus library, more commonly known as “Touchdown Jesus” — commemorates alums lost in each of those three wars, as well as those alums lost in times of peace.

Of course, it should be noted many other World War II veterans — and simply by logic, many other World War II casualties — passed through Notre Dame. The naval training established on campus is the impetus to the Navy football series continuing to this day. In addition to the usual students, about 12,000 officers trained at Notre Dame in those days.

Campus features two other prominent acknowledgements of this country’s conflicts. The statue of Rev. Corby in front of Corby Hall depicts him delivering a blessing and absolution to troops during the Battle of Gettysburg. It is a copy of a statue standing where Corby stood back in 1863.

Perhaps most famously, an entrance to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart bears the etching of “God, Country, Notre Dame.” Partly since he titled his autobiography with those four words, many tie them to Rev. Ted Hesburgh. “God, Country, Notre Dame,” in fact, predates Hesburgh’s arrival to campus. The Basilica’s eastern entrance was constructed in 1924 as a World War I memorial. During World War II, 20 years later, the accompanying statues of St. Joan of Arc and St. Michael the Archangel were added above the well-known phrase.

Lastly, it has become something of a Notre Dame tradition to bemoan the selection for commencement speaker each spring. Forgotten amid the misguided vitriol and inaccurate historical claims is a recognition of one of the first University commencement speakers. Nowadays, he, too, would certainly draw some magnitude of controversy.

During the Civil War, Gen. William T. Sherman — yes, he of Sherman’s March — moved his family to South Bend. His children attended Notre Dame, and Sherman delivered the 1865 commencement address. That ceremony took place June 21, in short order after Sherman accepted the surrender of Confederate armies in the Deep South in April of 1865.

Sherman urged the graduates to “perform bravely the battle of life.”

Perhaps that is the message to remember this weekend. Perform bravely the battle of life. At least 19 Irish football players did, as well as more than 500 Notre Dame alums, and so many more, of which each of us assuredly knows of one personally.


It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who as given us freedom of religion.
It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the Solier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.
It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.

Charles Michael Province, U.S. Army

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 86 Alize Mack, tight end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ½, 245 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Junior with three seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season
Depth chart: The artist formerly known as Alizé Jones, now Alizé Mack, co-headlines a talented tight end corps along with fifth-year senior Durham Smythe. Due to Smythe’s edge in experience—and therefore further coaching trust in his reliability and blocking acumen—he may start the season ahead of Mack, but Mack will have plenty of opportunities to change that in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s two tight end-dependent system.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American, Mack originally committed to UCLA before opting for Notre Dame.

CAREER TO DATE
Mack saw action in all 13 games of his freshman season, making enough impressions to set future expectations high. His most notable statistic from that season may be his average of 14.6 yards per catch.

Mack spent last season on the sidelines, though he was allowed to participate in practice, due to academic issues.

2015: 13 catches for 190 yards

QUOTE(S)
Mack’s return and subsequent progress was an oft-discussed topic this spring. His freshman season showed glimpses of his athleticism and playmaking ability. Irish coach Brian Kelly made it a point to acknowledge Mack’s development as a blocker since he was last seen in a competitive environment.

“You can’t cover him, he just has that kind of talent,” Kelly said in March. “The one thing that stands out to me in the few days [of spring] is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Long echoed those sentiments the day before the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s a perfect fit, that’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State,” Long said. “He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.”

If Mack earns that trust as a blocker, then Kelly and Long can play him in any situation, only furthering the mismatches presented.

“I don’t know how you’re going to defend him,” Kelly said the week of the spring finale. “There’s not a safety or a linebacker—if you start spreading him out, maybe a corner can get a hand in there and deflect the ball, and maybe he doesn’t run the route quite the way a receiver would—but he’s going to be very difficult to defend.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
Jones could turn into Notre Dame’s No. 2 receiver in 2016 if he takes this opportunity and runs with it. That could mean a huge uptick in numbers, with 40 to 50 catches not out of the realm of possibility.

“While size and match-up issues haven’t necessarily turned Irish receivers into targets, Jones could also pick up some of the slack in the red zone, knowing that the Irish offense desperately needs to improve their efficiency in the scoring zones, especially without quick-strike scorers like Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise. Matching Chris Brown’s four touchdown catches seems like a logical next step for Jones.

“In many ways, Jones is one of several unknown quantities that’ll help determine whether or not the Irish are a playoff contender or just a team with some nice young talent. While much of his productivity will likely be determined by the team’s offensive identity and philosophy, he’s another key piece to an offensive puzzle that doesn’t have a lot of experience but has plenty going for it.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Obviously Keith’s projections for Mack were skewed both by the ineligibility and by the name change. That does not mean they would have been wrong.

Notre Dame’s second-leading receiver last season, Torii Hunter, Jr., caught 38 passes for 521 yards and three touchdowns in only nine games. It does not take much of an imagination to see Mack producing at a similar pace—though in a very different role than the 6-foot, 195-pound Hunter—over a full season, perhaps something along the lines of 55 catches for 750 yards and four scores.

That would rival, but not exceed, junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown’s output from a year ago (58 catches, 961 yards, nine touchdowns). St. Brown’s dynamism from all positions on the field makes it unlikely Mack outpaces him for top receiver honors, but the two can aid each other by forcing secondaries to split their focus.

More than St. Brown receiving an appropriately high number of targets, the biggest hurdle between Mack and impressive statistics will indeed be his blocking and overall attitude. The Irish have other options at tight end (see below: No.  89, Brock Wright) to contribute to Long’s preference for two tight ends. If Mack does not earn the playing time in all aspects of the game, he will not receive it.

DOWN THE ROAD
The excitement around Mack this spring may have exceeded realistic expectations. In that regard, Mack is set up for perceived failure in 2017. If he matched the above theoretical stat line, some would lament the fact that he scored only four times.

Taking a longer view of his potential, a stat line like that would make Mack seriously consider the NFL after this season, if only because of that buzzword of potential. Some team might draft him on the second day simply to have the opportunity to find out what he becomes. It is more likely Mack comes back for another year, with Smythe gone, but, frankly, it seems unlikely to think he will use the final season of eligibility lost to academics last year.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver