Less than 48 hours before Notre Dame is set to kickoff the season, it appears the Irish will open camp short another player.
Sophomore defensive end Kolin Hill plans to transfer, per a report from Irish Illustrated. The Texas native played limited minutes last season, contributing two sacks on the season, but had an early-season high point against Michigan when he racked up 1.5 sacks.
Hill likely played into the mix at weakside defensive end, a position where the Irish plan to feature Andrew Trumbetti and Romeo Okwara, but are limited in depth behind that duo. Linebacker Doug Randolph has converted to the defensive front. Michael Deeb was likely going to shift there before a medical redshirt ended his playing career.
The defensive end position has been a difficult one in recent years. Recruit Bo Wallace never arrived in South Bend after signing his letter-of-intent. Jhonny Williams decided to transfer this offseason, and Ishaq Williams is still in the middle of an eligibility appeal with the NCAA.
Hill’s reported departure pushes fellow sophomores Grant Blankenship and Jonathan Bonner into the mix. The move will likely be confirmed tomorrow morning when Brian Kelly addresses the media to kickoff fall camp.
Notre Dame’s returning MVP, Joe Schmidt is no longer just an underdog story. He’s one of the most important pieces in the Irish defense, the central nervous system for a defense that collapsed without him in the middle.
Coming off a major injury and returning to a depth chart filled with options, Schmidt has another reason for skeptics to doubt him. And that might be the best thing to happen to him since breaking his ankle against Navy.
Let’s take a look at the former Cinderella story, readying for his final season in a Notre Dame career we’ll remember for decades.
JOE SCHMIDT 6’0.5″, 235 lbs.
Grad Student, No. 38, LB
Schmidt was a recruited walk-on (I know, it’s been discussing), joining the Notre Dame program after turning down scholarship offers from smaller programs. Schmidt was a three-year letter winner and starter at Mater Dei High School, a Southern California powerhouse.
You want RKG? You’re not finding a bigger one that Schmidt.
Freshman Season (2011): Did not see action.
Sophomore Season (2012): Played in the season’s final 10 games, making mostly special teams appearances. Credited with six tackles, two coming against USC in the regular season finale.
Junior Season (2013): Played in all 13 games, making 15 tackles while receiving spot duty at inside linebacker. After injuries hit the defense, Schmidt played a key role late in the season, forcing a critical pass break-up against USC that helped cement a defensive victory.
Senior Season (2014): Started the first eight games of the season at middle linebacker before an injury ended his season. Named Notre Dame’s Most Valuable Player, collecting 65 tackles, two forced fumbles and two interceptions. Had a season-high 11 tackles against North Carolina and had eight against Navy before being injured in the second quarter.
WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR
I feel very good about this prediction.
Get ready to see a very productive linebacker. Capable of running down plays and excellent in coverage, Schmidt’s the type of player who may not have a future on Sundays but will certainly be productive on the field.
Talking with Schmidt earlier this week, it’s clear that he’s a born leader with a lot of sway in the locker room. He’s also an unselfish player, talking about the pride he takes in making sure fellow linebacker James Onwualu is lined up correctly or helping to put Jaylon Smith in a position that helps him make plays.
Schmidt will have his hands full, as the Irish implement a system that’s an NFL scheme. But I expect him to finish in the Top 3 in tackles this season, and play very good defense against the pass.
No, Schmidt’s not going to wow you with his physical traits. (Maybe the linebacker was wearing wedges when he stood in front of the yard-stick when the measured him at over six-foot.) But Schmidt is a high IQ, productive linebacker, capable of making the ordinary play as well as a few that were much better than that.
The MVP Award is perhaps the most telling piece of evidence when you consider the linebacker’s worth. He also made Jaylon Smith a much better football player and teammate, forcing the more talented athlete to play within the framework of the defense, something he didn’t do when Schmidt went down.
If there’s a question in Schmidt’s game, it’s the inability to make more big plays. Through eight games, Schmidt had just .5 TFLs. Lost as he was as a replacement, Nyles Morgan simply talented his way to seven times that amount.
There’s versatility in Schmidt’s game that could allow him to slide to the Will linebacker position if Morgan shows he’s capable of handling the starting job on the inside. But all of this presupposes that Schmidt’s healthy and fully ready to contribute after a fairly serious injury. We’ll know the status of that soon enough, as Schmidt will once again hold the keys to a successful defense.
Barring a health issue, it’s still hard for me to imagine Schmidt coming off the field in 2015. We saw what kind of tire fire this defense looked like without Schmidt helping get people aligned. And while Morgan’s more athletic and Jaylon Smith sure isn’t coming off the field, Schmidt is the key to making sure both guys are positionally sound in a scheme that was exploited at times last season when too many players were freelancing.
(That might be too kind, freelancing usually assumes some level of mastery.)
An undersized linebacker who relies on his speed and athleticism can’t afford a bad foot. So if Schmidt opens camp at less than full speed, it’s certainly worth watching, not to mention worrying about. But outside of health, it’s going to take a brick wall to slow Schmidt down during his final season in South Bend. And as the team’s unquestioned leader on defense, he’ll serve as the heartbeat of a unit that needs to rebound after a miserable stretch of football.
One of the eye-opening performers on last year’s camp circuit, freshman wide receiver CJ Sanders flashed elite speed at The Opening, running one of the fastest 40-yard dashes of any player in attendance. Now on Notre Dame’s campus, it’s up to Sanders to keep running fast, especially if he wants to find his way into the mix of a crowded wide receiver depth chart.
A diminutive bolt of lightning who profiles perfectly as a slot receiver, Sanders is one of the likely beneficiaries of CJ Prosise’s cross-training at running back, competing with Torii Hunter and starter Amir Carlisle for snaps. With return abilities that up his value, Sanders looks to open some eyes at training camp, a true freshman to watch in the coming days.
CJ SANDERS 5’10”, 185 lbs.
Freshman, No. 9, WR
Sanders’ performance at The Opening helped vault him to a national prospect, erasing any worry that his lack of size would make it difficult for him to compete at the highest level. A four-star prospect, Sanders had offers from Georgia, Tennessee, UCLA, USC, Stanford and others before committing to Notre Dame after a spring visit.
An offer from Ohio State—a school Sanders grew up following—never came, though it was reported that Urban Meyer and company were kicking the tires on Sanders, but after it was too late.
It’s hard not to love what Sanders could bring to this offense. If he’s as electric in space as he appears on his highlight tape, the Irish could have a super-charged Robby Toma on their hands. (And really, that feels like the floor of his abilities.)
That comparison might be underselling what Sanders is capable of doing, especially if you consider his return skills, where he could potentially make an early impact. And Sanders has elite speed—running in the 4.3s in Oregon and setting the 100m record as a junior at Brentwood Academy, running a 10.64. That’s really fast. (For reference, Florida State All-American Jalen Ramsey didn’t beat that time at Brentwood.)
Expect Sanders to come into camp and be among the fastest on the roster from day one. And that kind of speed usually gets you onto the field.
As much as I like Sanders, it’s hard to find a way where he’ll make a sizable impact on this offense, unless an injury limits Carlisle. (Then again, Greg Bryant’s suspension all but completes C.J. Prosise’s transition to running back.) But it’s too soon to tell if Sanders is advanced enough from a football IQ perspective to jump into the lineup.
But where he could shake things up is on special teams, likely serving as an upgrade in the return game, potentially taking over for Greg Bryant on punt return. (I’d kick the tires on Sanders as kickoff returner as well.)
Sanders shouldn’t be looked at like a normal freshman. He had a successful acting career as a child (stop me if you’ve heard this one, but he played a young Ray Charles in the film Ray…), accelerating his maturity process while also building some bulletproof confidence. That’ll help with the big stage that is Notre Dame Stadium.
Realistically, I’m pegging the return game as Sanders’ likely home. That hasn’t been kind to freshmen (we’re still waiting for Davonte Neal to break a return), but Sanders shows better instincts. He’s also a wonderful candidate for the “designated deep ball receiver,” a role dating back to Golden Tate, then passed along to Chris Brown and Will Fuller that usually means you’re destined for good things.
Washington State’s loss is Notre Dame’s gain, as the Irish accepted a commitment from California quarterback Ian Book on Tuesday. A former Mike Leach commitment who pledged to the Cougars back in April, the six-footer visited South Bend two weeks and gave his commitment to offensive coordinator and area recruiter Mike Sanford Tuesday evening.
Book gives the Irish a much-needed quarterback in the 2016 class, and with the departure of Everett Golson this offseason keeps Notre Dame’s roster “on schedule” at a position that is prone to attrition. And while Book’s three-star ranking and regional offer list has him lower on most recruiting service boards than quarterbacks the Irish usually recruit, one look at his game tape and you’ll see quickly why Sanford coveted him.
The commitment comes out of the blue, as most Irish fans were focusing on coveted 2017 recruit Hunter Johnson. Notre Dame looks to be in the final running for one of the elite junior prospects in the country, with the Irish locked in a battle with Tennessee for his pledge. Book joining the 2016 recruiting class does nothing to change Notre Dame’s interest in Johnson, nor should a quarterback in this recruiting class do anything to sway the mind of a five-star blue-chipper. (Per multiple reports, it won’t effect Notre Dame’s recruitment nor Johnson’s decision.)
In many ways, Book’s commitment is a fascinating look at Mike Sanford and how he envisions the quarterback position. While the Irish have chased high-ceiling prospects like Blake Barnett, Book’s game is already worlds more refined than the former five-star recruit, though his physical stature significantly lowers his overall ceiling. But if you’re looking for a quarterback who can run, shows the ability to throw timing routes in the framework of the offense and seems very accurate with the football, you should like the Irish’s future quarterback.
Book is Notre Dame’s 14th commitment in the 2016 class. He had interest from ASU, an offer from Boise State and UNLV as well.
What a difference a day makes. Just 48 hours into our rollout and Notre Dame announces it’ll be without our No. 24 player on the list, running back Greg Bryant. Already lost for the first third of the season, Bryant’s inability to handle his business in the classroom adds another detour to a promising football career that may never get back on course.
But for as important as Bryant may be on paper, he was essentially Notre Dame’s No. 3 running back. So for all the five-star hopes, if this is “the big preseason story” that usually collides with Brian Kelly’s team in its opening days, the Irish should feel lucky.
Now back to the players eligible in 2015…
After looking at five experienced players who’ll help make up the core of the Irish, our next five players found ways to either play very good football, or at least show the ability to be able to do that.
There’s a multi-year starter. One of the team’s most impressive breakout defenders. A preseason All-American and a defender who—if healthy—has the same ceiling. And oh yeah, the team’s returning MVP.
2015 IRISH TOP 25 RANKINGS
25. Jerry Tillery, DL 24. Greg Bryant, RB 23. Durham Smythe, TE 22. Matthias Farley, DB 21. Quenton Nelson, LG
20. Nyles Morgan, LB 19. Chris Brown, WR 18. Elijah Shumate, S 17. Corey Robinson, WR 16. Mike McGlinchey, OT
15. Steve Elmer (RG, Junior): Elmer started last season at right tackle, a tough fit for a young player who had just learned how to play guard on the fly. While he’s certainly got the size to play on the edge, Elmer’s body control sometimes let him down, lunging his way out of position and missing—sometimes badly—on blocks.
But after three games, Elmer slid back inside to guard and his play almost immediately improved. And while there were still some high-profile rough patches, by season’s end Elmer had put together an impressive sophomore season, and found a permanent home at guard.
With NFL size and above-average athleticism, Elmer seems primed to have an elite season. He’s a high IQ played and with the chance to play two-straight seasons next to Mike McGlinchey, the right side of the Irish offensive line has really nice upside.
Highest Ranking: 8th. Lowest Ranking: 18th.
14. Isaac Rochell (DE, Junior): It looked like Notre Dame was going to have a huge question mark at defensive end last season when Rochell stepped into the starting lineup. While Brian Kelly sounded confident with his praise during preseason that Rochell could capably replace Ishaq Williams, it was hard to project greatness for Rochell after a mostly anonymous freshman season where he filled in sparingly.
But Rochell’s play up front was probably the best surprise on the defense. He held up well against the run. He made plays behind the line of scrimmage—with 7.5 TFLs and 10 quarterback hurries. But most important? He stayed healthy. On a defense that seemed to lose a body every game down the stretch, Rochell started all 13.
Where’s the pass rush going to come from in 2015? Why not Rochell? A three-down player who can kick inside on third down if Brian VanGorder wants to put some speed on the edge, Rochell has already shown the productivity of his more heralded teammate Sheldon Day, and he’s still just scratching the surface.
Highest Ranking: 8th. Lowest Ranking: 22nd.
13. Max Redfield (S, Junior): As you can see from the variance in ballots, the jury is still out on Redfield. When Notre Dame’s junior safety was named to Phil Steele’s All-American team, a few Irish fans chuckled. That certainly wasn’t the safety who got benched for a one-armed Austin Collinsworth and true freshman Drue Tranquill.
But Redfield salvaged last season against LSU. After hurting his ribs against USC, Redfield came back and played a productive football game, notching 14 tackles for a defense that badly needed support from its safeties.
One of the best athletes on the team, we heard this spring that the lightbulb turned on for the former five-star recruit. Checking in at No. 13, it’s pretty clear that this is still very much a wait-and-see proposition for this group, though it shouldn’t be a huge surprise if Redfield takes a big leap forward in his second season playing in VanGorder’s system. For the sake of the defense, they need Redfield to do it.
12. Joe Schmidt (LB, Grad Student): Again, our panel had a big difference of opinion on Notre Dame’s returning Team MVP. Some (me included) had him among the team’s top players. That was based on both above-average productivity as well as the mental part of Schmidt’s game that kept the defense on the same page.
Yet others see Schmidt for what he is: An undersized veteran who is surrounded by athletes at his position that look and fit the role of a middle linebacker better. Add in a more-serious-than-discussed ankle and leg injury, and Schmidt’s road back to the starting lineup may not be as difficult as the one that got him there to begin with, but it’s no easy stroll.
Ultimately, Schmidt’s production tipped the scales to allow him to sneak into the top half of our 25-man list. But as the personnel on this roster continues to improve, Schmidt’s ceiling may not match with the best players on this team, so he’ll have to continue to find a way to maximize his performance.
Highest Ranking: 5th. Lowest Ranking: 25th.
11. Jarron Jones (DL, Senior): If Jones wasn’t coming off a late-season foot injury, you could probably expect him to be closer to top-five than just outside the top ten. But then again, we’re still at a point in Jones’ career where the sample size is still relatively small.
For as dominant as Jones was against Florida State, Notre Dame’s senior defensive tackle is still learning the tricks of the trade. That stems from a slow start after a redshirt season spent at defensive end and a sophomore season only saved by an emergency Senior Day performance at nose tackle after Louis Nix and Kona Schwenke went down.
By nature, Jones is a productive player. While his body is sometimes doing the wrong thing, he has a knack for making plays. He’s dangerous as a kick blocker (it helps to be nearly 6-foot-6). He’s also shown an ability to wreak havoc in the backfield. But at No. 11, it feels like there’s still some worry about his healthy before our panel is assured that Jones is the type of talent who could emerge on the national stage.
Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: 17th.
Our 2015 Irish Top 25 panel Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish Bryan Driskell, Blue & Gold Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily Nick Ironside, Irish 247 Tyler James, South Bend Tribune Michael Bryan, One Foot Down Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated Jude Seymour, Her Loyal Sons JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago John Vannie, NDNation John Walters, Newsweek