When Notre Dame kicks off spring practice on Wednesday, a handful of rising sophomores will step into the depth chart for the first time. After a redshirt season (not the preferred nomenclature in South Bend, but still), 11 sophomores will start competing for playing time as their eligibility clocks begin ticking this fall.
Their circumstances will all be vastly different. A season after serving as practice players only (or sitting out injured), some will step into the starting lineup, while others will fight for special teams duty.
Let’s handicap their race to the field as the Irish begin a month of football activities.
Shaun Crawford: Assuming Crawford’s healthy and fully recovered after an August ACL injury, we expect him to step immediately into the starting nickel role. A job he was expected to take on last season, Crawford’s August knee injury short-circuited the defensive plans for the Irish from basically Day One.
Roughly seven months after the injury, Crawford might not be full-go for spring ball, but he’ll likely be moving around and in the mix. A year after the Irish played without a nickel, Crawford should provide a missing link there, putting the undersized but physically-talented DB in the mix to be the third cornerback on the field.
Tristen Hoge: With multiple vacanies along the offensive line, Hoge could fight his way onto the field at either center or guard. While he spent most of his high school career snapping the football, Hoge’s offseason work and development might allow him to play guard next to Sam Mustipher.
To do that, Hoge will need to prove he’s better than some veteran members along the offensive line. He’ll also need to show that he’s physical ready to step in and fight with defensive tackles. Brian Kelly has praised his work in the weight room in the past, but his offseason gains will be worth watching.
Miles Boykin: With the team’s three top receivers gone, Boykin has a huge opportunity in front of him. Now he needs to establish himself this spring, fighting his way into a rotation that’ll be long on talent but short on experience and production.
Boykin could battle Corey Robinson for playing time on the boundary. Or he could line up with Equanimous St. Brown in Will Fuller‘s spot on the wide side. At nearly 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds last year, size and physicality is on his side, wherever he lines up.
With Mike Denbrock on the look out for guys who can step in and fill the gap, Boykin has a great opportunity this spring to open some eyes.
Mykelti Williams: Few spots on Notre Dame’s roster are as thin as the safety depth chart. And after sitting out 2015, Mykelti Williams has a chance to seize a starting job next to Max Redfield with a good spring.
Drue Tranquill continues to recover from his second torn ACL. Avery Sebastian is healthy, but mostly an unknown. A year after learning from the sideline, Williams needs to show that he’s taken great strides, especially as Todd Lyght looks to solidify the back end of the defense.
Little is known about Williams after a redshirt season. But there’s an opportunity there for the taking if Williams is a quick study this spring, so keep an eye out for the Indiana native.
Josh Barajas: After struggling to stay healthy and in shape for much of his freshman season, Barajas has health going for him at a time when the rest of his position group seems to be recovering from injuries. That should allow him to get in the mix this spring, taking key reps as the defensive staff looks for a place to play one of the more highly-touted recruits in the class.
Barajas projects to be a SAM linebacker, but with injuries impacting guys like Greer Martini and Te’von Coney, he could easily see time at Will or Mike as well. Mostly the spring will be utilized to see if Barajas can take some of his unique traits and add something to a defense that’s desperate to replace some of the playmaking Jaylon Smith made in 2015.
Asmar Bilal: Another linebacker who infuses athleticism into a defense looking to replace the ultimate athlete, Bilal will spend the spring proving he’s not a tweener. At 215 pounds last season, that might be too small to be an in-the-box linebacker.
Of course, Brian VanGorder built a reputation around utilizing sub-packages and finding ways to turn players of all shapes and sizes into weapons. Bilal certainly has a great toolkit, and with a shortened depth chart, Mike Elston will get a good look at the Indianapolis product this spring.
Ashton White: Another athletic defensive back given a chance to fight at a position that’s far from settled. While Nick Coleman had a chance to learn on the field as a freshman, White took things in while saving a year of eligibility, retaining a fifth year and joining a very large group of first-year contributors in a reloaded secondary.
White has good size and length for a cornerback, where he’ll likely compete this spring. With Nick Watkins, Crawford, Coleman and senior Devin Butler all trying to find time opposite Cole Luke, White’s got a chance to either get in the mix in nickel and dime packages of find a home on special teams in 2016.
Elijah Taylor: After spending last season learning, Taylor enters an interior defensive line mix that’s got some talent but not necessarily the depth Keith Gilmore wants. The closest thing to a run-stuffing nose guard in this group of defensive linemen, Taylor’s brute strength might be what helps him see the field, especially if he’s able to impress this spring as the defense keeps Jarron Jones’ snap count down.
It’s hard to be a imposing player in the trenches if you don’t put the time in off the field, and we’ll see if Taylor’s year with Paul Longo helped prepare him for a depth chart that’ll likely see him behind Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah as well. But the Cincinnati prospect was an early target by this defensive staff and he could begin grinding his way up the depth chart this spring.
Trevor Ruhland: What to expect at guard this season is anybody’s guess. If it’s not Hoge, it could be senior Colin McGovern. But Ruhland is another guy who could emerge—especially with news that the coaching staff is potentially cross-training John Montelus with the defensive linemen.
Ruhland doesn’t profile as a tackle, which seems like the position with less depth and flexibility. But if Alex Bars (still working his way to full health) isn’t the guy there, then there’s a chance some of the other shuffling could benefit Ruhland on the inside.
Another guy worth watching when the spring roster comes out, mostly to see how much heft he put on after weighing 292 on the fall roster.
Micah Dew-Treadway & Brandon Tiassum: At this point, I need the spring to differentiate between Dew-Treadway and Tiassum. Both are stout defensive linemen who were listed last year at either 6-4 or 6-3.5. One weighed 300 pounds, the other weighed 302. Neither was a quintessential blue-chipper, with each guy a three-star prospect, though an early offer and commit to Notre Dame.
The road to the field doesn’t look open for either, unless they’re able to provide some pass rush. The interior of the defensive line is one of the underrated strengths on this roster. The strong side defensive end is manned by Isaac Rochell, perhaps Notre Dame’s best front seven player.
Dew-Treadway was on campus last spring, able to get a jump start on his college career along with Hoge, Jerry Tillery and Te’von Coney. Tiassum is another Indianapolis product who’ll bring some athleticism to the field along with his 300-pound frame.
Both guys came to campus as need-based recruits. We’ll see how close they are to being able to fill that need this spring.