PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 31: Torii Hunter Jr. #16 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass and is tackled by Avery Williams #2 of the Temple Owls on October 31, 2015 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Temple Owls 24-20. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Irish A-to-Z: Torii Hunter Jr.

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Whether by default or not, Notre Dame’s undeniable No. 1 receiver entering fall camp is Torii Hunter Jr. The rising senior, healthy after injuries and primed for a breakout with a depth-chart evacuation, is now centerstage after fighting for snaps the past two seasons.

What that means remains to be seen. Most have Hunter pegged for a monster season. One listen to Brian Kelly or his offensive assistants, and you’ll likely feel the same way. Hunter has the speed to get deep, the moves to play in the slot, and the football IQ and feel for the game that made him an emergency defensive back last season.

But it’s still just a projection. His days of moonlighting are over—not just at defensive back, but on the baseball diamond at Eck Stadium. Because 2016 is about Hunter elevating his profile on the football field. He’s one of the keys to a big Notre Dame season.

 

TORII HUNTER JR.
6’0″, 190 lbs.
Senior, No. 16, WR

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American. The MVP of The Opening. Hunter chose Notre Dame in September, picking the Irish over Arizona, Arkansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

A U.S. Army-All American, Hunter broke his femur during practice the week of the game, costing him an entire season as his rehab suffered a few false starts.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action, recovering from injury suffered at U.S. Army All-American game.

Sophomore Season (2014): Named Notre Dame’s Offensive Newcomer of the Year. Played in 10 games, missing the opening three due to a groin injury. Had seven catches for 65 yards and a touchdown, scoring against Syracuse.

Junior Season (2015): Made 28 catches for 363 yards, scoring two touchdowns. Also carried the ball five times for a total 16 yards. Completed one of three passing attempts.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Seems pretty close, though I undersold him. I still had Prosise as a part-time slot receiver and Corey Robinson as a healthy and productive receiving option.

I’m high on Hunter, though I still put his ceiling at 20 catches. In reality, unless the Irish are an insanely productive offense, I’m just struggling to find the footballs to make Hunter happy, especially when he’s probably the fifth-best option as a pass catcher.

(That’s no insult, Will Fuller, Corey Robinson, Chris Brown and C.J. Prosise are all really good players.)

A redshirt season was a great thing for him. He’s basically a sophomore at this point, meaning there’s plenty of time for him to work his way up a depth chart that is pretty top-heavy right now.

We’ve heard about Hunter’s ability to make plays in space and be a versatile receiver. And he’s got the versatility to play inside and out, something that always helps when you’re looking for ways to get a player noticed.

New offensive coordinator Mike Sanford will likely see some of the same things this August that had Kelly and Mike Denbrock excited. It’d be even better if we saw those things happen on Saturdays this fall, instead of making most of his noise on the practice field.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s nobody in the way of Hunter maximizing his potential now. Combine his experience and knowledge of the offense with a fleet of young and still-learning receivers and every arrow points to a big season.

Still, some of the same challenges confront Hunter that we mentioned for Corey Holmes. Namely size and speed—a lack of size combined with very good (but not elite) speed. Again, Will Fuller can get away with being small because he’s one of the fastest football players on the planet. We’ll see if Hunter has that same ability sooner than later.

I’m not down on Hunter’s ceiling—in fact, I think he’s probably the skill player with the best chance of being named the team’s offensive player of the year (non-QB edition). But it’ll require Hunter’s explosiveness to take a jump forward, because it’s not enough to just be reliable and versatile in this offense.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Hunter is Notre Dame’s best bet at a 1,000 yard receiver this year. But he’ll need to prove that he’s capable of making the big play, because he’s not going to get there averaging just 13 yards a catch (he’d need 77 catches at that pace).

He showed flashes of that ability—especially getting downfield in the Blue-Gold game—this spring. And without Will Fuller to take those deep ball targets, Hunter’s speed and hands are a nice option at the X, especially if Corey Holmes is going to spend some time on the inside.

Hunter’s versatility makes him a key piece of the offensive puzzle. But after listening to Kelly this spring, it sure sounds like this is a coaching staff that wants to find a determined role for Hunter, if only to give him the opportunity to thrive.

Hunter has a fifth year of eligibility available. But Kelly made it seem as if that fifth-year might not be needed before heading to the next level. If that’s the case, expect a big season from the new No. 1.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes

 

Kizer and Zaire both land on Maxwell watch list

DeShone Kizer, Ejuan Price
AP
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Whoever wins Notre Dame’s starting quarterback job will have lofty expectations. Both DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire landed on the Maxwell Award’s preseason watch list, awarded annually to the country’s best college football player.

The preseason release of watch lists has become a season onto itself. While it’s certainly a nice feather in the cap during early July, simply being a name on a list that seemingly expands each year takes away some luster from the acknowledgement. That being said, the inclusion of two Notre Dame quarterbacks among the 90 candidates nationally to be mentioned is noteworthy.

A total of 37 signal-callers earned mention, including Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and former Notre Dame transfer Gunner Kiel. The Irish will face off against Maxwell Award watch-listers including Stanford’s Christian McCaffery, Miami’s Brad Kaaya, as well as Nevada running back James Butler, USC teammates Ronald Jones and JuJu Smith-Schuster, Duke QB Thomas Sirk and Virginia Tech receiver Isaiah Ford.

Kizer completed 211 of his 335 passing attempts last season, throwing for 2,884 yards and 21 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. He also ran for 520 yards and 10 touchdowns. In two starts before an injury, Zaire completed 26 of 40 throws for four touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also ran for 103 yards on 19 carries.

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Senior defensive lineman Isaac Rochell was one of 90 names on the Bednarik Award watch list, awarded annually to the nation’s top defensive player. Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o won the Bednarik Award after the 2012 season.

Kelly (finally) reveals complex play-calling system

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Who called plays last year for Notre Dame? Brian Kelly finally expanded on a subject that he didn’t much want to tackle last season.

Talking with the South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen, Kelly talked about the three-headed system that included not just the head coach’s voice, but Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford.

(There’s plenty more to dig into from the interview, a snippet from the annual preview magazine the Trib releases every summer.)

Here’s Kelly’s explanation on his play-calling system, where he acknowledged that Denbrock is the actual voice calling the plays.

“You have to understand the way I wanted it set up this year. We pretty much had openers, down-and-distance calls that Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford shared during the week.

“In other words, they crafted and scripted the offense together. I would get asked all the time, ‘Who’s calling the plays?’ They’re really talking on every play.

“And I put Mike Sanford in the box, up top, because he could be the eyes for Mike Denbrock on every down. And they shared in that responsibility. But in actuality giving the play out, Mike Denbrock was giving every single play out.

“Yet if you took Sanford out of the mix, it would be a different dynamic. And if you took Denbrock out of the mix, it would be a different dynamic. I couldn’t tell you who would be calling the plays if they weren’t working together.

“There has to be both of those guys working together, but Mike Denbrock was physically calling the plays.”

There’s been reporting all the way back to the bowl victory over LSU that Denbrock had been the team’s play-caller. But as we see in this explanation, it’s a distinction that probably carries more weight among fans and reporters than it does inside the football program.

While most of us aren’t lip-readers, Kelly also seems very involved with the mechanism of signaling in the play call—from head coach to red army to quarterback. With three voices involved in a constant offensive dialogue—Sanford from the press box and Kelly and Denbrock from the sideline—there’s a balance that the Irish staff clearly got right in this process, a credit to the working relationship (and trust) involved in a coaching structure that had many people wondering if there were too many cooks in the kitchen.

Irish A-to-Z: Corey Holmes

Irish Illustrated / Matt Cashore
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Two mostly anonymous seasons gave way to a breakthrough spring for Corey Holmes. Triggering that rise? A blazing 40-yard dash that forced eyes to open on an Irish coaching staff looking to replace speedster Will Fuller and starters Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

Now the key is to carry that momentum into the fall. With positional versatility helpful, Holmes now needs to find a niche in the system—a home for him to utilize a skill-set that never seemed to be in question.

With young receivers surrounding him and no true experience to be found at the position, Homes is in perfect position to break loose in 2016.

 

COREY HOLMES
6′.5″, 190 lbs.
Junior, No. 15, WR

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Injuries slowed Holmes during his career at St. Thomas Aquinas, the powerhouse Florida program. But it didn’t stop colleges from chasing him.

The four-star prospect had offers from Florida, Florida State, Michigan, Oklahoma and many more. He was also an Under Armour All-American.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Saw action against Rice and Michigan before spending the majority of the season on the scout team.

Sophomore Season (2015): Did not play, preserving a year of eligibility.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Feel pretty good about this, considering nobody saw a redshirt coming. The idea of Holmes in the slot seems to be something being explored right now—as well as the deep-ball specialist.

Too many receivers, not enough footballs. I’m putting Holmes into the group that might be able to serve as the “designated deep threat,” and pretty much think 10 catches on the season would make a productive year.

That number could go up if he’s capable of serving as a Z receiver. The slot seems to be the only place—unless injuries strike—where Holmes could carve out a niche, but that would mean that CJ Prosise made a full transition to running back and Carlisle lets injuries get in the way of his final season in South Bend.

While no player wants to hear it, last season’s redshirt was the best thing to happen to Holmes, especially considering the logjam. Because if both Will Fuller and Corey Robinson stick around, it might be 2016 until Holmes has a chance to step forward.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

At his best, Holmes could turn into a TJ Jones type—an undersized, smooth receiver who can also get behind a secondary. But that’ll necessitate taking a big step forward in 2016, the year where he’ll have his best chance to stand out before a group of young and talented receivers find their footing.

Holmes’ lack of size and physicality has to be a limiting factor. You can work around that when you have speed like Will Fuller. But even if Holmes ran a 4.39 this spring, Fuller ran faster than that before you considered the fact that played even faster in cleats.

To be clear, a Jones-like ceiling would be a great career for a receiver who enters his third season in the program without a catch. The sophomore redshirt was crucial to preserving his development timeline. Now a big third season is equally important.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Can Holmes be the breakout star in this offense? He has as good of a chance as anybody. But I’m hesitant to buy in completely to Holmes taking his big spring and bringing that onto the field. I think Holmes is destined to be a specialty guy, the type of over-the-top deep threat that he’s uniquely qualified to be.

Opportunity is there, especially in the slot if CJ Sanders‘ recovery takes more time than the staff wants. But I don’t see Holmes skills playing best inside, but rather on the wide side of the field. That means he’ll need to beat out a talented young player like Equanimeous St. Brown for reps, not necessarily an easy thing.

Maybe a Jones comparison here makes sense. In his second season of eligibility, Jones had 38 catches for 366 yards and three touchdowns. I don’t think Holmes will get 40 targets, let alone catches. But if he averages 15 yards a catch (a big number that would mean he’d be getting mostly downfield targets), he could be an impact player if he made 20 catches. I think that’d qualify as an excellent season.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge

 

Irish A-to-Z: Tristen Hoge

Tristen Hoge 247
Tom Loy, Irish 247
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Notre Dame’s center of the future is fighting to be the right guard of today. Tristen Hoge was one of the few offensive linemen that Harry Hiestand and Brian Kelly have recruited with positional specificity. A multi-year high school center, that still didn’t stop him from cross-training, with his best chance at a starting job in 2016 coming at right guard.

Hoge spent spring trying his best to make a name for himself at the position. While it might not have been enough to earn a starting job, he came out of his redshirt freshman season in the thick of it as a key reserve at two interior positions, poised to be a contributor in the near future.

 

TRISTEN HOGE
6’4.5″, 300 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 66, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

U.S. Army All-American. First-team Parade All-American. Two-time state player of the year for Idaho and 247Sports’ No. 1 center in the country. Hoge committed early to Notre Dame, turning down offers from Cal, Florida, Stanford, LSU and UCLA (among others) to come to South Bend. He was an early enrollee.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action, preserved year of eligibility.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

We were right about the redshirt. Now we’ll see how Hoge does with Mustipher entrenched at center.

Hoge isn’t playing in 2015. Not unless something goes terribly wrong. So anything written or assumed about Hoge’s future at Notre Dame won’t need to be decided until after he’s established himself in the system, giving the coaches a very good look at his capabilities to take over the center job as a first-year contributor.

Right now, that seems like the most likely scenario, especially after seeing Sam Mustipher struggle with the consistency of his snaps. But in a depth chart that’s as competitive as the one that currently exists in South Bend, nobody is handed a job. And next spring is critical for Hoge, a 15-practice try-out for a starting job that many assume is his if he’s capable of taking it.

Hoge is in perfect position to take over come 2016, but he’ll have to earn it.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Hoge has the makings of a multi-year starter on the interior of the offensive line, no small feat in this depth chart. He caught his head coach’s eye last fall—so much so that there was at least talk of potentially taking off his redshirt.

That didn’t happen, and it’s a good thing. Because unless Hoge makes a big rally during camp, he’ll be a key reserve at two positions, with Mustipher able to play a fifth-year at center and other returners slated at both guard positions (depending on who wins the right guard job and how long Quenton Nelson sticks around in South Bend).

Calling a 300-pound guard who’s taller than 6-foot-4 undersized doesn’t make much sense. But Hoge’s work in the weight room is what’s allowing him the chance to play, and he’ll need to keep adding mass before he’s confused for someone like Quenton Nelson and has the ideal bulk for a guard job.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I see Hoge as the key backup at center and guard, called into action only if there’s injury at center or if Hunter Bivin fails to lock down the starting job at guard. There were some in the program who thought Hoge had a chance to win the right guard job outright this spring, so don’t be surprised if he’s one of the young players making noise come camp this August.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes