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Pregame Six Pack: Green Irish roster prepares for Blue-Gold game

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For the 87th time, Notre Dame will play the Blue-Gold game. And for Irish fans tuning in for the first time this spring, they’ll likely need a new program.

As Brian Kelly’s seventh team in South Bend takes shape, it’ll look drastically different from the core of the previous two teams. Gone are standouts like Jaylon Smith, Will Fuller, Sheldon Day, Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin. Captain Joe Schmidt no longer stands in the middle of the defense.

Offensively, the Irish are expected to retain their firepower, but they’ll do so without their leading rusher and three leading receivers. They’ll also need to replace three starters along the offensive line, the Irish without a Martin on the offensive line for the first time since Kelly took over.

For the second time in as many springs, the Blue-Gold game will give a national audience a look at one of the country’s most compelling quarterback battle. Only this time one quarterback isn’t likely to flee town.

With a picture perfect weather forecast and a good crowd expected, a new generation of Irish football players will step into the spotlight, their turn to build on the legacy of the group before them. With a senior class that set a record for winning games in Notre Dame Stadium, the bar has been raised.

Brian Kelly will be wired for sound. Friend of the program Jac Collinsworth will be holding it down on the sidelines in place of Kathryn Tappen who is on NHL duty. So let’s crack open a pregame six pack that ends in the perfect fashion: A 100-percent guaranteed Irish victory, televised live on NBCSN on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. ET.

 

Kizer versus Zaire will be the closest thing we see to a quarterback showdown. Blink and you might miss it. 

Brian Kelly raised some eyebrows when he confirmed that both quarterbacks would be live during the Blue-Gold game. (For how long? That’s the big question.) But as Kelly, offensive coordinator Mike Sanford and associate head coach Mike Denbrock try to get a better grasp on who’ll pilot the offense next fall, seeing both Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer in a natural environment is a necessary evil.

Both Zaire and Kizer will be aiming to impress on Saturday, each trying to make a final lasting impression before the long offseason months. For Zaire, he’ll once again remind people he’s a “lights-on” kind of quarterback, the type of player who elevates his play once he gets off the practice field and into a game situation. For Kizer, Saturday will be about dictating terms as a quarterback, showcasing the assets that made him one of the most impressive redshirt freshmen in the nation.

Kelly talked about having Zaire and Kizer both captain a team, pitting them against each other. He also talked about making both live—understanding that the zone read game will be a critical component of the offense. But don’t expect that to last.

Brandon Wimbush will eat up some of the snaps. So will fellow backups Montgomery VanGorder and walk-on Nolan Henry. The real goal is getting both Kizer and Zaire out of spring healthy, knowing that any final decision on playing time will be decided in the fall.

In the meantime, cherish our only great look at the battle all spring, because the next time you’ll see them is in August.

 

Will Jerry Tillery and Jarron Jones finally step forward in the last practice of spring? 

Brian VanGorder declared both defensive tackle jobs available heading into fall camp. And while just about everybody who follows the Irish have fifth-year senior Jarron Jones penciled in alongside sophomore Jerry Tillery, when VanGorder talks you’d be wise to listen.

While neither Tillery nor Jones were around yesterday to hear the third-year defensive coordinators comments, you can guess the message has been sent.

“If we started tomorrow, I am not sure who the starters would be,” VanGorder said. “I have an idea, but it’s going to be competitive going into training camp. No one has established themselves as a starter at the defensive tackle position. We will keep it competitive and see if we can grow and develop some young players.”

While we’ll get to see some of the young talent VanGorder referenced on the ascending defensive line, with Pete Mokwuah, Jonathan Bonner, Micah Dew-Treadway, Jay Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Elijah Taylor and Brandon Tiassum a strong core who could pick up some of the slack.

But these jobs needed to be seized by both Jones and Tillery, two mountainous men who could both wreak havoc against opposing offenses. Let’s see if the live action brings out the best in them.

 

For Folston, Crawford and Tranquill, getting onto the field for the Blue-Gold Game is gravy. 

That Tarean Folston, Shaun Crawford and Drue Tranquill have all rebounded and reasserted their position on the depth chart is impressive. Because in year’s past, they’d likely have spent 15 practices rehabilitating their knees and sitting in the cold tub.

The Irish’s trio of bad luck, season-ruining knees have all had ahead-of-schedule recoveries. Folston has reasserted himself at the top of the running back depth chart. Crawford has played his way into the conversation to start opposite Cole Luke when he’s not anchored into the all important job working in the slot. And Tranquill—two ACL tears in two seasons—is ready to go from the cold tub to the starting strong safety job.

How this trio is used on Saturday is anybody’s guess. But it’s already been a successful spring for three key contributors who worked hard to make it back to spring ball ahead of schedule.

 

With the depth chart open in front of him, Saturday could be a preview of Torii Hunter’s 2016 coming out party. 

After entering Notre Dame recovering from a horrific leg injury suffered at the Army All-American All-Star game, wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr.‘s career got off to a slow start. But after a redshirt and two years working his way into the rotation, don’t be shocked if Hunter tries making up for lost time on Saturday.

Expected to become Notre Dame’s next No. 1 receiver with Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle all gone, Hunter may have punched his own ticket to a monster statistical season. That’s what should happen when you run a 4.42 40-yard dash and have the ability to play anywhere on the field (even defense—Hunter was the staff’s choice to cross-train as a defensive back when the Irish went searching for a nickel back.)

Finally at the top of the food chain and also tasked with teaching a young group of talent with Corey Robinson still out with lingering concussion symptoms, don’t be surprised if Hunter decides leading by example is the best course of action, getting vertical on Saturday and running by every defensive back at least once.

Hunter’s a below-the-radar player who is primed for a breakthrough in 2016. Coming off of a 28-catch, 363-yard season, not too many people will see it coming.

So maybe Kelly is happy to let him stay off the grid, leaving spring to some impressive youth and Hunter to announce his presence once he arrives in Austin on Labor Day Weekend.

 

The kids are going to be all right. 

Keep an eye out for some of the quick studies earning a lot of kudos from the coaching staff. Early enrollee freshmen Devin Studstill (No. 13) and Kevin Stepherson (No. 29) may have numbers that look like they should belong to walk-ons, but both have been dynamic this spring. Studstill is challenging Max Redfield for playing time at free safety. Stepherson has already found his way into the two-deep, a three-star receiver who already looks the part of an ankle-breaking playmaker.

After preserving a year of eligibility last season, linebackers Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas will get more playing time than they can handle on Saturday. Both Indiana natives have had to learn through the firehouse as Mike Elston’s had just four healthy scholarship linebackers during spring ball. Both could take that momentum onto the field next spring, with Bilal in the conversation for the starting Will linebacker job.

While a new load of reinforcements will be on campus in June, a few defensive backs who spent 2015 watching now have a chance to charge into battle. We already talked about Crawford. But Ashton White also looks like a physical corner who has crossover abilities at safety. Redshirt freshman Miles Boykin could be another matchup problem as a receiver, the beneficiary of Corey Robinson’s missed practice time at the boundary wide receiver.

We’ve seen glimpses from emerging contributors like Equanimeous St. Brown, Dexter Williams, Alizé Jones (likely to spend some time with Boykin at W receiver), while Tristen Hoge fights for time at guard. All have essentially taken this spring as a chance to fight for a significant in the rotation.

Expect one (or more) of these names to have a big Saturday.

 

Take it from Junior Jabbie. Not all spring game performances are created equal. 

A clutch touchdown catch from Justin Brent and Corey Holmes sharing the team lead with three catches. Jhonny Williams and Grant Blankenship notching sacks. Max Redfield running an interception back for a touchdown. None of those occurrences in last year’s Blue-Gold game were signs of big things to come in 2015.

Of course, the flip-side is also true. Before he shattered most first-year quarterback records in South Bend, DeShone Kizer was getting outplayed by Montgomery VanGorder, hitting rock bottom with a 1-of-5 performance for three total yards, taking a safety and sack in a game where he wasn’t even full contact.

Spring games reveal themselves in different ways. Junior Jabbie will go down in Irish lore for a spring game performance that netted him an MVP trophy. He was never heard from again. John Owens was unblockable in the 2000 Blue-Gold game, notching three sacks. That was triple his career total. Chris Olsen went from MVP to quarterback transfer, a dozen years before Everett Golson pulled the same chute.

Last year, we saw clues of the team that emerged in the fall.  Notre Dame’s offensive line was a strength, C.J. Prosise‘s switch to running back looked natural. But this is also just 1/15th of spring drills—and the only ones broadcast to fans (and opposing coaches) trying to glean anything from an Irish team filled with unknowns.

I’m often reminded of comments former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco made when he discussed his first defense’s performance in his inaugural Blue-Gold game in South Bend. He was pleased with their effort, happy they executed the gameplan he delivered. Then he revealed they’ll never play that scheme again.

Happy Blue-Gold game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notre Dame’s 2018 defense bolstered with Coney & Tillery returns

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Notre Dame’s defense found some stability last week with the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston to associate head coach following Mike Elko’s abrupt departure, but only some stability.

That foundation is much more solid now after the Irish announced the returns of both junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery on Monday.

Both Coney and Tillery enjoyed noticeable developmental progress in one year under Elko.  Coney totaled a whopping 116 tackles to lead Notre Dame, far and away his best season. Among those takedowns, he managed 13 for loss, including three sacks. Tillery, meanwhile, led the Irish with 4.5 sacks this season, adding another 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Notre Dame’s defensive tackle situation may have bordered on dire if not for the return of junior Jerry Tillery. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With Lea and Elston sticking around, Coney and Tillery are well-positioned for even further growth. If nothing else, they will step into starring roles in a rather complete front seven.

Notre Dame loses senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, as well as senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner and senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. If Coney and Tillery had joined that group, the front seven would have been rife with unproven commodities and little depth. Instead, Coney will fill in at linebacker, meaning only one youngster will need to step forward, and Tillery will headline a defensive line surging under Elston.

After amassing 17 tackles in the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, Coney insisted he had not yet put much consideration into his future.

“I’m just right now still focused on the win,” he said. “We just got this 10th win. I’m just trying to soak up the moment. This is a great moment. … Focusing on that and the win and enjoying it with my brothers.”

Those words combined with Elko’s sudden departure for Texas A&M made Coney’s return seem unlikely. His breakout season at least placed him into NFL draft conversations and capitalizing on that chance would have made a good amount of logical sense.

With Lea in his ear for another season, Coney will have a chance to become more than a physical player excelling in run defense and develop his coverage skills. Coney and senior Drue Tranquill will lead an otherwise lacking linebacker corps.

Sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) made 10 and four tackles, respectively, this year. Jonathan saw more playing time on defense, occasionally spelling senior Nyles Morgan, but has not yet looked the part of an every-down contributor. Irish coach Brian Kelly has previously admitted to considering a move to defensive line for Jamir, but that unit’s progression made that position shift less of a necessity.

If any of the incoming four linebackers or the two current freshmen, David Adams or Drew White, were to emerge, however, such a move may become an available luxury. Only Tillery’s return makes it a genuine luxury, though.

Tillery’s 56 tackles this year showed a level of consistency not seen in his first two seasons. His length alone makes Tillery an intriguing draft prospect. Logically speaking, a second season of such production, if not even increased output, should further his professional hopes. By returning along with Elston, the player/coach combination will provide experience to a position group otherwise devoid of it. With Bonner having said he will not return, Tillery and current freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are the only returning defensive tackles of contributory note.

Freshman Darnell Ewell will also certainly enter the rotation after spending 2017 preserving a year of eligibility. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will be in the mix, as well. Incoming freshmen consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademiloloa (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) and consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin (North Caroline High School; Ridgely, Md.) will complete the fray.

Reports on Monday indicate junior Elijah Taylor will leave Notre Dame after missing 2017 with a LisFranc fracture suffered in spring practice. He appeared in four games in 2016, making four tackles including one for loss. More than anything else, his departure is a step toward reaching the NCAA maximum of 85 rostered players. With Coney and Tillery returning but Taylor departing, the Irish roster currently stands at 86 players, though a few more recruits may be added. (This does not count sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, indefinitely suspended and presumed not likely to play for Notre Dame in 2018.)

Monday’s Leftovers: Coney & Tillery once enrolled early at Notre Dame, now to the NFL or not?

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Today marks two occasions. It is the day before Notre Dame begins its spring semester. In other words, it is the day before this year’s seven early enrollees begin classes. It is also the deadline for early entrants to file for the NFL draft.

There are two common threads to the separate events. Junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery both enrolled early in 2015, and they have both delayed their stay-or-go decisions to today.

With the early signing period’s implementation, the former date holds less import. These players have already signed with the Irish. Gone are the days of putting down a drink and racing to a computer after finding a source to confirm a consensus five-star quarterback’s early arrival. With an early signing period, Gunner Kiel likely would have been bound to at least begin his career at LSU in the spring of 2012, rather than show up on Notre Dame’s campus at the 11th hour.

The tangible value of arriving early can still hold legitimacy, but that theoretical does not become much of a reality until spring practice commences, anyway.

Junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) will need to decide today if he will head to the NFL Draft or return for his senior year. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

So an early enrollee summary can wait until tomorrow’s first day of classes. In the meantime, breathes remain baited waiting for the decisions from Coney and Tillery. Will they return for a year under first-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea, or follow the lead of running back Josh Adams and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and head for the NFL?

As has been discussed and seems rather obvious, both Coney and Tillery would greatly boost the 2018 Irish defense. They would also both likely hear their names called in the NFL draft, so there is merit to whatever option each chooses.

— As it pertains to the early enrollees, the measureable benefit of the semester’s head start can be debated. In looking at the last three classes, it has appeared to have great effect with a few of the freshmen, but not for most.

2015: Tillery, Coney, defensive lineman Micah Dew-Treadway, offensive lineman Tristen Hoge.
2016: Safety Devin Studstill, receiver Kevin Stepherson, defensive end Daelin Hayes, defensive end Khalid Kareem, safety Spencer Perry.
2017: Offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, tight end Brock Wright, running back C.J. Holmes, safety Isaiah Robertson, offensive lineman Aaron Banks.

Of those 14, Tillery, Studstill, Stepherson and Hainsey offered genuine contributions in their debut seasons.

Tillery started three games in 2015, appearing in all 12, making 12 tackles with one sack. More than the counting statistics, the depth Tillery provided at defensive tackle was an absolute necessity.

As injuries and suspensions purged the Irish secondary just before the 2016 season’s start, Studstill was forced into a starting role. He finished the year with 38 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. He was not yet ready to be a collegiate starting safety, but he was needed to be, and the time spent going through the paces in the spring provided Studstill enough of a base to be somewhat serviceable from the outset.

Stepherson broke out as a deep threat right away — a likelihood with or without an early enrollment simply due to his speed. In his only complete season with the Irish, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Hainsey’s impact was far and away the most distinct. He went from the second most-heralded early-enrolled offensive lineman to a starter at right tackle. That surge puts Hainsey in pole position to start at left tackle in 2018. He may have ended up there, anyway, but the freshman first played a pivotal role on the best offensive line in the country.

— It would not be a site dedicated to football if it did not include some mention of the Minnesota Vikings’ victory Sunday evening. Some adjective should precede victory in the previous sentence, but no quick combination encapsulates just how absurd, dramatic and, per the quickly-adhered catchphrase, miraculous the conclusion was.

Stefon Diggs’ game-winning touchdown may not have been as excellent as Irish receiver Miles Boykin’s was in the Citrus Bowl if compared in a vacuum, but Diggs’ score came with no time remaining on the clock, while Boykin’s was merely an excellent play that if failed, other chances would have followed.

Of course, being the Vikings, the Notre Dame connection is thorough.

— A thought experiment sparked by that Minneapolis tangent … The Minnesota Timberwolves played their first game in franchise history Nov. 3, 1989, meaning it has endured a title drought the exact same length as the Irish have.

Which wins its respective championship first?

9-win, 30-TD quarterbacks like Wimbush are rare; Links to read

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It is not easy to win nine or 10 games in one season. It is not easy for Notre Dame, for any team, and it is not easy for a quarterback.

If granting the premise the Irish would have won at North Carolina if junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush had not sprained his foot the weekend beforehand, then Wimbush indeed notched nine wins this season. That does not credit him with the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, though it is certainly possible he would have found a way to win that game, too.

In doing so, Wimbush accounted for 30 touchdowns, 16 through the air and 14 through the ground.

Those two facts alone will guarantee Wimbush a chance to start at quarterback for Notre Dame on Sept. 1, as they should. After all, how many nine-win quarterbacks were there in 2017? How many players scored 30 combined touchdowns? Not many.

Obviously there will always be a Baker Mayfield or a Lamar Jackson, but consistent and frequent production is not as easy as the two Heisman winners make it seem. If narrowing the focus to Power Five teams, only 21 quarterbacks won nine games this season. That should probably bump to 22 out of deference to McKenzie Milton leading Central Florida to an undefeated season.

It bears noting the Irish faced six of those quarterbacks: Georgia’s Jake Fromm (13 wins) USC’s Sam Darnold (11), Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke (10), Miami’s Malik Rosier (10), North Carolina State and Ryan Finley (9), and LSU with Danny Etling (9).

Again keeping the field to the Power Five conferences with an exemption for the 13-0 Knights, only 14 players managed 30 total touchdowns, including Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford (29 passing, 10 rushing).

Between the two lists, just nine quarterbacks can claim both:
McKenzie Milton, Central Florida: 13 wins; 37 passing touchdowns, eight rushing.
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma: 12 wins; 43 passing, five rushing.
J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: 12 wins; 35 passing, 12 rushing.
Trace McSorley, Penn State: 11 wins; 28 passing, 11 rushing.
Sam Darnold, USC: 11 wins; 26 passing, five rushing.
Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State: 10 wins; 37 passing, 10 rushing.
Malik Rosier, Miami (FL): 10 wins; 26 passing, five rushing.
Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame: 9 wins; 16 passing, 14 rushing.
Luke Falk, Washington State: 9 wins; 30 passing.

This is not to say Wimbush should have an easy path to the starting gig for 2018. Before a long offseason of quarterback headlines and interminable debates, this is to say Wimbush has produced enough he will and should get his chance, despite any late-season struggles and obviously-needed improvements. Underselling Wimbush’s 2017 serves no point but to offer an exceptionally-flawed argument.

A FUN BIT OF TRIVIA:
No NFL team has both hosted the Super Bowl and played a divisional playoff game at home in the same year. The Minnesota Vikings will do just that Sunday (4:40 p.m. ET; v. New Orleans; FOX), as the Super Bowl will be at U.S. Bank Stadium in a few weeks. Some might deem the Vikings as “Notre Dame North” thanks to their reliance on former Irish safety Harrison Smith, tight end Kyle Rudolph and — less of a reliance, to be accurate — receiver Michael Floyd.

That is not the piece of trivia, though.

Stanford Stadium hosted the 1985 Super Bowl, with the San Francisco 49ers beating the Miami Dolphins.

Anyone who has been to a Notre Dame game at Stanford can use that fact to realize in a tangible manner just how much the NFL has grown in the last three decades. The idea of the world’s largest entertainment event being held at The Farm is genuinely beyond fathoming for those of a certain generation, this scribe included.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Monday’s Leftovers: On Notre Dame’s dual needs at defensive coordinator and those effects
Notre Dame promoting Lea & Elston bodes well for at least the short term
Harry Hiestand leaves Notre Dame on good terms and in good shape
A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s offensive roster

OUTSIDE READING:
Jack Lamb on Clark Lea: “best possible choice” for Notre Dame
Clark Lea’s promotion was a win for continuity, and one Notre Dame sorely needed
Optimism for Notre Dame football in 2018 starts with the Irish defense
Irish ‘feel really good’ about O-line in ‘18
In Harry Hiestand, Matt Nagy hits a home run on his first swing at Bears’ coaching staff
Notre Dame’s Moore Award personal for Taylor
What happens if the Vikings reach Super Bowl LII? Expect plenty of logistical challenges

Editor’s Note: Yes, the above quarterback bit was originally intended to run a bit longer in the weekly “Friday at 4” slot, but the timing did not fit last week with the defensive coordinator shift and the time was not at hand this week to get the piece put together as “Friday at 4” dictates.

Then again, stalling for a day creates another day of halfway-worthwhile content in a time of year that is devoid of much substance, aside from coaching changes, transfers, NFL declarations, et al.

And in the spirit of “Friday at 4,” how great would it be to have Dr. Stephen Strange as a weekend partner in figurative crime?

A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s offensive roster

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While Notre Dame awaits stay-or-go decisions from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, its offensive side of the roster is set … for now. As was briefly discussed in the most-recent “Monday’s Leftovers,” the Irish roster is currently at 87 players. That could rise as high as 90 if the incoming recruiting class rounds up to 25 signees and both Coney and Tillery return for the 2018 season.

A quick, even terse, look at the offense can provide reference for conversations and debates at both the virtual and real-world bar as the roster sheds a handful of players.

A couple quick notes: The order of this listing is not intended to stake a stance on positional competitions (cough quarterback cough). This is simply presenting the options available moving forward.

The designations following each of the 10 receivers are inherently speculative. With junior Equanimeous St. Brown declaring for the NFL and sophomore Kevin Stepherson not expected to be around next season, Notre Dame will need to tinker and experiment with receiver alignments throughout the offseason.

To a degree, the same goes for the offensive linemen, particularly among the backups. Rarely is there a genuine second-unit. Rather, one or two utility options will serve as backups for the whole line.

Quarterback (4):
Jr. Brandon Wimbush
So. Ian Book
Fr. Avery Davis
Incoming fr. Phil Jurkovec

Running back (5):
Jr. Dexter Williams
So. Tony Jones
So. Deon McIntosh
Fr. C.J. Holmes
Inc. fr. Jahmir Smith

Receiver (10):
Jr. Miles Boykin (field)
So. Chase Claypool (boundary)
Fr. Michael Young (slot)
Sr. Freddy Canteen (slot)
So. Jafar Armstrong (field)
So. Javon McKinley (boundary)
Jr. Chris Finke (slot)
Inc. fr. Braden Lenzy (slot)
Inc. fr. Kevin Austin (boundary)
Inc. fr. Micah Jones (field)

Tight end (6):
Jr. Alizé Mack
Sr. Nic Weishar
Fr. Cole Kmet
Fr. Brock Wright
Inc. fr. George Takacs
Inc. fr. Tommy Tremble

Offensive line (12):
Fr. Robert Hainsey (LT)
Fr. Josh Lugg (LG)
Sr. Sam Mustipher (C)
Sr. Alex Bars (RG)
So. Tommy Kraemer (RT)
So. Liam Eichenberg (T)
Fr. Aaron Banks (G)
Jr. Trevor Ruhland (G, C)
Fr. Dillan Gibbons (G)
Inc. fr. Cole Mabry (G)
Inc. fr. John Dirksen (G)
Inc. fr. Luke Jones (T, committed, not signed)

Specialists (4):
Jr. Justin Yoon (PK)
Sr. Tyler Newsome (P)
So. John Shannon (LS)
Fr. Jonathan Doerer (KO)