Just like spring marks the end of winter, it also begins another unofficial season on the gridiron. The emergence of spring stars. These breakout stars sometimes burn out before fall rolls around, but it doesn’t make their emergence any less interesting.
It may be a linebacker freed by a graduating veteran. Or a lineman who had a monster offseason in the weight room. Perhaps it’s a freshman, more than ready to take off that redshirt.
Every spring, a handful of players emerge. Some turn out to be mirages. Some, like Joe Schmidt last spring, give all the clues they’ll be ready to be frontline players when fall comes around, and when they do it’s all the more fulfilling.
While Notre Dame’s quarterback situation ruled the headlines, there was still plenty of room for some spring stars to emerge. So let’s take a look at three standouts and see where they’ll be come fall camp.
Overview: With only two scholarship running backs on the roster, Prosise spent the spring cross-training in the backfield. What may have started as an emergency provision turned into a legitimate running option, with Prosise using his game-breaking speed and impressive size to throw a wild card into the running back rotation.
Money Quote: “He’s a guy you are going to fear,” Brian Kelly said after the spring game.
Legit or Mirage? This is looking very legit, with both Kelly and associate head coach Mike Denbrock calling Prosise one of the team’s best offensive players. And with Everett Golson’s transfer, adding a versatile piece to a running game that’ll likely now be accentuated, Prosise’s stock is definitely on the rise.
With Malik Zaire getting another option in the zone-read game, either off the edge or from the backfield, the idea of getting Prosise ten touches on the ground—in addition to his potential as a deep threat—has to have Mike Sanford sketching plays like John Nash.
Outlook for the Fall: Full-time starter, part-time running back.
While Amir Carlisle took the majority of reps as slot receiver this spring, it’s difficult to understand taking Prosise off the field, unless he’s going to spend the majority of his time at running back.
But with Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant a more than capable two-deep, keeping Prosise in the slot allows Kelly to get his best 11 on the field, something he’s talked about doing. With Will Fuller on the outside and Prosise in the slot, that could leave some very appealing match-ups, especially for Chris Brown and Corey Robinson.
Overview: The early-enrollee freshman looked like a great left tackle prospect. But after deciding to start his career on defense, Tillery was the defensive lineman that stood out this spring the most, taking advantage of Jarron Jones’ recovery from surgery and limited reps by Sheldon Day. With length, size and (maybe even better) athleticism that reminds people of Stephon Tuitt, Tillery was the talk of spring on the defensive side of the ball.
Money Quote: “He’s just a unique player. One that I can’t remember I’ve coached,” Brian Kelly said. “I don’t want to put him in the Hall of Fame yet, but he’s a unique talent.”
Legit or Mirage? Most likely legit, though we may need to temper our expectations for a first-year defensive lineman. Tillery isn’t necessarily a pass rushing threat, though the Irish will use all the help they can get on the edge. But reaching a half-dozen TFLs during his first season would be an incredible debut for Tillery, especially playing on a defensive line that features Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day as senior starters.
Outlook for the fall: First defensive tackle off the bench.
While it was Jay Hayes that was activated last November when he took his redshirt off, I tend to think that Tillery is the first guy off the bench for the Irish defensive front, playing a slightly larger role than Day played in 2012 when he was the third-man in the defensive end rotation, joining Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore.
Tillery’s versatility will be critical, especially as Brian VanGorder mixes and matches up front with multiple looks. The Irish don’t seem to have a true pass-rushing defensive end, so putting Tillery across from Isaac Rochell would allow the Irish to line up four 300-pounders, an imposing front four.
Putting a lot on the shoulders of a first-year defensive lineman is a risky move. But not many early-enrollee freshmen set off for South Africa on three-week classes, choosing to see the world instead of return home for a brief break.
Just about everybody inside the program expects Tillery to become a star. How soon remains to be seen.
Overview: Most thought Redfield’s strong spring last year would lead to a big season. It didn’t, with Redfield spending a large portion in the dog house before being freed when the position became a MASH unit.
A five-star talent as an athlete, Redfield’s jumped between two different systems when Brian VanGorder took over for Bob Diaco, neutralizing his natural talent with a brain that required too much processing. But a strong Bowl Game and a nice spring have Redfield on track for a big junior season, at a position with absolutely zero margin for error in 2015.
Money Quote: “So much different than where we were at any time during the season,” Kelly said, talking about the improvements Redfield and fellow safety Elijah Shumate made.
Legit or Mirage? With Nicky Baratti and Drue Tranquill each coming off of major surgery, there’s nobody at the position to push Redfield. That said, even if there was, it’s Redfield’s third season in the program and it’s time for the former blue-chip prospect to turn into the type of player everybody expected him to be.
Kelly credited a lightbulb going on for Redfield in his preparations for the Music City Bowl. After a strong spring and an entire summer to continue to learn his role on the defense, Redfield should be ready to be a standout.
I’m not buying in totally just yet, but Redfield has all the tools needed.
Outlook for the Fall: Full-time safety and a Top-Five Defender.
If Redfield is playing as well as he can, he’ll have a chance to be one of the Irish’s top five defensive players. That doesn’t sound like resounding praise, until you consider some of the personnel. All-American Jaylon Smith. Team MVP Joe Schmidt. Returning star cornerback KeiVarae Russell. Captain Sheldon Day. Throw in a ball-hawking centerfielder and the Irish defense could be a very, very good unit.