Notre Dame Football: Who Is Replacing Every Former Irish Taken in 2014 NFL Draft
Notre Dame football just finished its best NFL draft weekend in 20 years. Now it needs to figure out how to replace the eight players that were drafted.
No area of Notre Dame's roster went unscathed. On the offensive line, it's not just replacing Zack Martin, Notre Dame's highest-drafted offensive lineman since Andy Heck was taken 15th in 1989. But Chris Watt was taken in the third round by the Chargers, proof that Watt was one of college football's most underrated competitors.
Troy Niklas and TJ Jones are two keys in the passing game that need replacing. Without them, Everett Golson only recognizes the soon-to-be returning DaVaris Daniels while breaking in a slew of new young receivers.
Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, even with draft-day slides, were one of the most intimidating defensive line pairings in college football. And the back two levels of the Irish defense also lose key contributors, with captain Bennett Jackson gone from the secondary and pass-rusher Prince Shembo gone at outside linebacker.
Let's take a look at who will replace the Irish draftees.
Ronnie Stanley Replaces Zack Martin
Departed: Zack Martin, 1st Round (16th overall) to Dallas Cowboys
Replacement: Ronnie Stanley, RS Sophomore
After starting at right tackle in 2013, Stanley slid into Martin's left tackle spot this spring, answering one of the bigger questions on the roster with little intrigue.
On paper, the 6'5.5", 318-pound redshirt sophomore looks the part. And he's said all the right things as he transitioned positions this spring. But if Harry Hiestand is going to take the talented young depth chart he's built and turn it into a dominant offensive line, the key to all of it is Stanley thriving.
Ishaq Williams Replaces Stephon Tuitt
Departed: Stephon Tuitt, 2nd Round (46th overall) to Pittsburgh Steelers
Replacement: Ishaq Williams, Senior
Tuitt's replacement is his classmate Ishaq Williams. After three seasons of trying to find a home in Bob Diaco's defense, new coordinator Brian VanGorder has turned Williams into a 4-3 defensive end, hoping to help the former blue-chip recruit fulfill some of the promise he brought with him to South Bend.
Williams has everything you'd want physically for the position. Now he just needs to produce.
Ben Koyack Replaces Troy Niklas
Departed: Troy Niklas, 2nd Round (52nd overall) to Arizona Cardinals
Replacement: Ben Koyack, Senior
It wasn't too long ago that Koyack was the tight end with sky-high expectations. That was when Niklas was still a defensive player, finding a home at outside linebacker. But Niklas' transition to offense interrupted Koyack's development, and now it's Niklas' early departure that'll allow Koyack the opportunity to be the Irish's featured tight end as a senior.
The Oil City, Pennsylvania native worked through a case of the drops and some inconsistent blocking earlier in his career. With no other tight end on the roster ever taking a snap, Koyack looks ready to break out in his final season at Notre Dame.
Steve Elmer Replaces Chris Watt
Departed: Chris Watt, 3rd Round (89th overall) to San Diego Chargers
Replacement: Steve Elmer, Sophomore
Elmer got a jump-start at guard after filling in for an injured Christian Lombard last season. Now he'll step into Watt's position on the left side, hoping to team with Ronnie Stanley to create another seamless tackle-guard duo for Harry Hiestand.
Elmer has better size, strength and athleticism than Watt already. He just needs to harness his abilities and learn his position after bouncing inside and out as a true freshman.
Elmer's fate at guard isn't in just his own hands. It'll depend on redshirt freshman Mike McGlinchey making a smooth transition into the lineup at right tackle, as well. If McGlinchey doesn't, Elmer could be Notre Dame's right tackle by midseason.
Jarron Jones Replaces Louis Nix
Departed: Louis Nix, 3rd Round (83rd overall) to Houston Texans
Replacement: Jarron Jones, RS Sophomore
Jones got his first taste of playing nose tackle after Louis Nix went down late last season. Even learning on the fly, Jones played productive football, holding his own against BYU, Stanford and Rutgers and continuing that work through spring practice.
With VanGorder transitioning to a four-man front, Jones won't be asked to play the traditional, two-gap nose guard that Nix played. But Jones is a key cog on the interior of the Irish defensive line, as the 6'5.25", 310-pounder is the type of healthy big body that the Irish badly need to hold up against the run.
Romeo Okwara Replaces Prince Shembo
Departed: Prince Shembo (139th overall) to Atlanta Falcons
Replacement: Romeo Okwara, Junior
Nobody will replace Shembo as Notre Dame's Cat linebacker, mostly because Brian VanGorder's system doesn't utilize one. But Shembo was essentially a defensive end for most of last season, playing with his hand on the ground whenever the Irish went to a four-man front.
That job falls to Okwara now, who'll exclusively play defensive end after mostly subbing in at outside linebacker for the past two seasons. Physically, the position fits Okwara much better than Shembo, with the 6'3.75", 258-pound junior bigger, longer and more athletic than Shembo.
But Okwara is still learning how to rush the passer, something Shembo knew how to do from the moment he stepped on campus. Learning that job on the fly is one of the big risks being taken by Brian Kelly and VanGorder.
Cole Luke Replaces Bennett Jackson
Departed: Bennett Jackson, 6th Round (187th overall) to New York Giants
Replacement: Cole Luke, Sophomore
After spending two seasons in the starting lineup, Bennett Jackson turns over his cornerback job to Cole Luke. The talented sophomore gets the first shot at lining up opposite KeiVarae Russell before Florida transfer Cody Riggs arrives on campus this summer, though Riggs profiles more as an inside cover man.
Luke played well as a true freshman, with natural cover skills better than Jackson's, a converted wide receiver. But Luke will be asked to play a different version of the position, with Brian VanGorder demanding man-to-man coverage from his corners while the Irish played mostly zone under Bob Diaco.
Jackson had a subpar senior season after bursting onto the scene in 2012. Luke is expected to help make the Irish secondary one of the most talented units on the roster.
Will Fuller Replaces TJ Jones
Departed: TJ Jones, 6th Round (189th overall) to Detroit Lions
Replacement: Will Fuller, Sophomore
While his draft slot may not be the best indicator, there's no tougher job to fill on the Irish roster than the one Jones held last season. The team's MVP was the engine that drove the Irish offense, big shoes for sophomore Will Fuller to fill.
While the No. 1 receiver job should go to DaVaris Daniels, Fuller will likely be asked to replace Jones, capable of playing inside or out, while showing the type of versatility to get behind a defense as well as getting the tough yards on quick throws or underneath patterns.
Fuller was featured almost exclusively as a deep threat his freshman year, and he's still learning the art of being a receiver, something Jones had mastered. But if Notre Dame's passing game is going to be as explosive as everybody thinks, Fuller will need to be featured prominently.