Notre Dame Football: Insider's Preview of the 2014 Freshman Class
Recruiting is in full swing for the class of 2015 for Notre Dame and football programs around the country. But before we completely zero in on that next cycle of prospects, the summer months afford us the opportunity to check in on the incoming freshmen set to enroll at school in the coming weeks.
Today we’ll break down each of the soon-to-be freshmen. We’ll recall Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s laudatory thoughts on each player from national signing day and consider what may lie ahead for each signee in 2014.
Let’s get to it.
QB DeShone Kizer
Four-star signee DeShone Kizer is the No. 12 pro-style quarterback in the country and checks in at 6’5”, 207 pounds.
While Kelly certainly admitted the appeal of Kizer’s size, the head coach also noted the benefit of having similar quarterbacks fit for the same offensive scheme, a topic we touched on last week.
“Now we've got three quarterbacks on campus that all do the same things,” Kelly said on national signing day. “You don't have to adjust your offense.”
Kelly praised Kizer’s competitiveness on the field:
The one thing that I loved about him—and it's similar to the other two guys that we have: This kid loves to have the ball in his hands when the game is on the line...If you come to Notre Dame as the quarterback, you'd better be really confident in your ability because they are going to knock you down five pegs every day, so you'd better be above that.
For now, Kizer will step in as the No. 3 quarterback on the roster behind Everett Golson and Malik Zaire—Notre Dame’s only three scholarship signal-callers.
WR Justin Brent
Justin Brent, an Indiana native, was one of two early enrollees (along with defensive lineman Andrew Trumbetti) during the spring semester.
Brent, who was ranked as the No. 15 wide receiver and the No. 94 overall player in the country, drew praise from Notre Dame’s coaches and defensive backs for his college-ready body and stature. Brent was listed this spring at 6’1”, 204 pounds.
Toward the end of spring practice, Irish offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock discussed Brent’s transition to the collegiate level.
“It’s a big world for him right now,” Denbrock said. “You’ve heard the phrase before 'drinking through a fire hose.' He is literally drowning at times with information and really overload.
“I’ve done as much as I can to continue to put him against [junior cornerback] KeiVarae Russell, to put him against the best we have to offer on defense and just continue to challenge him. There’s no challenge that he’s not backing down from, which is a positive sign.”
Brent’s extra semester can only help his chances of cracking the wide receiver rotation, which appears to be somewhat open behind senior DaVaris Daniels.
WR Corey Holmes
Wide receiver Corey Holmes joined Brent as a fellow top-30 wide receiver in the country.
Kelly praised Holmes for his precise route-running and overall maturity, on and off the field. The head coach also pointed out similarities to a recent Irish standout wide receiver.
“I don't like to make the comparisons, but he has a lot of the same feelings in terms of where TJ Jones developed, but he's 6'2",” Kelly said. “This kid is longer. He's a bigger kid than TJ. But he's got a lot of those mannerisms and characteristics.”
There are a host of other wide receivers vying for playing time who have been in Notre Dame’s system for at least a year. But, again, the position is apparently unsettled and could feature a deep rotation.
TE Tyler Luatua
Tyler Luatua earned the No. 9 ranking among tight ends nationwide, and the La Mirada, California native chose Notre Dame over Alabama, UCLA and USC, among others.
At 6’4”, Luatua isn’t as long as some recent Irish tight ends, but that didn’t concern Kelly on national signing day.
“He can catch the football. He can block for us,” Kelly said. “He's going to be able to do all the jobs that we have at the tight end position for us.”
With senior Ben Koyack and sophomores Durham Smythe and Mike Heuerman already in the mix, it could be difficult for Luatua to log meaningful snaps as a true freshman.
TE Nic Weishar
Nic Weishar, at 6’5”, does have the height of recent Notre Dame tight ends like Troy Niklas (6’6.5”) and Tyler Eifert (6’6”).
Weishar, who hails from Chicago, was the No. 39 tight end in the nation yet still ranked inside 247Sports’ Top 247.
Kelly noted Weishar may not have the strength and weight of Luatua, but the head coach lauded Weishar's natural receiving ability.
“He's the finest pass-catching tight end that we saw,” Kelly said. “You could argue about who it is, but we think he is. We love his ball skills. We love his ability to use his body to control defenders, has a knack of catching the football in the air and taking it away from people.”
While there could be a place for that talent in the red zone, it could be tough for a 215-pounder (according to Kelly) to see the field.
OL Alex Bars
Alex Bars was Notre Dame’s second-highest rated offensive lineman in the class, claiming the No. 107 overall spot in the country.
Bars is the No. 10 tackle, and Kelly affirmed Bars’ ability to play tackle, as opposed to the interior of the Irish line.
While Kelly has left open the possibility of a freshman competing for the starting left guard spot, it doesn’t seem like the fit for Bars as much as, say, Quenton Nelson. Notre Dame is deep along the offensive line, which would give Bars time to develop behind the scenes.
OL Jimmy Byrne
Jimmy Byrne was the lowest-rated lineman in Notre Dame’s four-player haul, but the Cleveland product still ranked among the top 300 players in the country.
The 6’4”, 290-pounder is listed as the No. 14 guard, and Kelly lauded his agility on national signing day.
“I think what you'll see with all of our offensive linemen, they all can get out and move their feet,” Kelly said. “They all have the ability to run block, pass pro. We like our guys to move, whether we're running zone schemes or gap schemes, screens, all those things. You're going to see that there's an athletic component to all of these guys, and Jimmy certainly fits that.”
Byrne should add depth to the program in his rookie campaign.
OL Sam Mustipher
Sam Mustipher was the 216th-best player in the class of 2014 and likely profiles on the interior of the offensive line.
“Here's a powerful guy inside, and again, I think what stood out for us with Sam was his ability to move his feet again,” Kelly said. “All these guys can be big and strong and physical, but if they can't move their feet, if they can't bend, if they can't get out of their stance and do a good job and moving and bending, then we're moving on.”
247Sports listed Mustipher as both a defensive tackle and an offensive guard, but Kelly insisted on national signing day that Mustipher is an offensive lineman.
OL Quenton Nelson
As the No. 65 player in the country, Quenton Nelson is Notre Dame’s top incoming lineman and its No. 2 recruit overall.
The 6’5”, 295-pounder has recently drawn attention for his bench-pressing prowess and taekwondo ability. Kelly obviously praised Nelson’s size (“physically one of the stronger kids we’ve got) but also highlighted his on-field mentality.
“The one thing that stands out about Q is that here's a guy that just is relentless,” Kelly said. “He's going to come after you play after play after play. And again, his desire to want to be great is what always stood out about Quenton is that he's always pushing himself.”
During the spring, Kelly alluded to the possibility of a “ready” freshman competing for the left guard spot. While Nelson is listed as a tackle by 247Sports, his quickest path to the field could be at guard, as it has been for rising sophomore Steve Elmer.
DL Grant Blankenship
Grant Blankenship was the No. 12 strong-side defensive end in the country and cracked the top 300 overall.
On signing day, Kelly described Blankenship as a player who “blossomed” over the past few years, not just in terms of his 6’6” frame.
“[He] had a great senior year and, again, a guy that continued to just grow,” Kelly said. “I think he's just starting to hit his potential level, and it's only going to get better and better.”
Kelly said Blankenship looks like he could play immediately in terms of his physical tools. But Kelly again stressed the mental component.
DL Jonathan Bonner
Jonathon Bonner committed to Notre Dame last June after catching the eye of Kelly and his staff, the head coach explained on signing day.
Bonner is ranked 27th among strong-side defensive ends and is the No. 599 player in the nation.
“We really project him to be an outside player for us, an edge player, rush player, a guy that gets after the quarterback, and really was impressed with Jonathan, his personality, his character,” Kelly said.
That pass-rushing ability could thrust Bonner into some sub packages in 2014 in a sort of best-case scenario.
DL Andrew Trumbetti
Andrew Trumbetti was the No. 8 strong-side defensive end in the country and a top-150 recruit.
Yet on national signing day, Kelly pointed to his work at a different position.
“The thing that really put him over the top for us is when we were watching his film, he was returning kickoffs in high school, and not many times do you see a defensive lineman returning kickoffs,” Kelly said. “We knew about his athletic ability right away.”
The early enrollee garnered attention this spring after earning occasional reps as one of the first-team defensive ends.
“He’s got a great motor and he’s got pretty good football instincts,” Kelly said in March. “And he’s got opportunity. If we had a little bit more depth at that position, we probably wouldn’t be talking about him.
“I’d probably tap the brakes on the Andrew Trumbetti deal because he’s a young kid and generally what happens is it catches up with them a little bit. He’s done really well, but it’s a lot for him.”
Still, Trumbetti could earn playing time within a unit that has unproven players as well as upperclassmen (Tony Springmann and Chase Hounshell) returning from injuries.
DL Jhonny Williams
Three-star strong-side defensive end Jhonny Williams was one of the three lowest-rated recruits in Notre Dame’s class and ranks 46th at his position.
The late-blooming prospect committed to and decommitted from Missouri in a span of two months before flipping to Notre Dame.
As Kelly explained, the Irish are excited about Williams’ development process, considering he’s athletic, 6’6”, 237 pounds and still new to football. According to Blue and Gold Illustrated’s Dan Murphy, Williams hadn’t played football before his sophomore season at nearby Berrien Springs High School.
“Who knows what his future is going to be,” Kelly said. “There's no ceiling on Jhonny Williams' future.”
Given his rawness, the Michigan native’s biggest impact will likely come down the road.
DL Daniel Cage
The 6’3”, 295-pounder ranked as the No. 25 defensive tackle in the country and the No. 300 player overall.
“This guy is a ferocious player,” Kelly said. “He's an inside player, and we love the way he got off the ball. His strength, lower-body strength … he's a guy that's very disruptive inside.”
Juniors Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day earned the bulk of the first-team reps at defensive tackle this spring, but Cage could push for snaps as a reserve.
DL Jay Hayes
Kelly, who praised the Brooklyn, New York product’s recruiting ability with other prospects, said Hayes can play inside or outside along the defensive line. Hayes checked in as the No. 22 defensive tackle in the country and landed at the back of the Top 247.
“[I] really like the way he plays the game, ferocious, attacking player,” Kelly said.
The long-armed lineman could work his way into contention for immediate playing time off the bench, like Cage.
DL Pete Mokwuah
At 6’5”, 305 pounds, Mokwuah has enough size, but the 3-star prospect was the lowest-rated commitment in Notre Dame’s class other than kicker/punter Tyler Newsome. Mokwuah is listed as the 71st-best defensive tackle in the country. While he may have a lengthy road onto the field, Kelly liked Mokwuah’s fit within the program.
“We wanted to find the right profile young man,” Kelly said. “He's Nigerian. We've had a great Nigerian connection here, Romeo Okwara, Prince Shembo, just to name a few. And then Pete was able to connect—Catholic institution, goes to a Catholic school. That profile fit very well for us—a kid that's serious about his academics here at Notre Dame.”
LB Kolin Hill
Though 247Sports lists Kolin Hill as a weak-side defensive end, Kelly introduced the Schertz, Texas native as a linebacker on national signing day.
The Irish offered Hill a scholarship Nov. 14, the first major recruiting moment on his timeline.
“Kolin was a young man that we offered when he didn't have a lot of action, but we saw a young man that we thought we could develop into just an outstanding football player,” Kelly said.
Hill is a 3-star prospect and landed at No. 658 nationally, but Kelly says the 6’2”, 220-pounder has plenty of development left.
LB Greer Martini
Three-star linebacker Greer Martini was Notre Dame’s first commitment in its class of 2014. Kelly said the Virginia native will play inside linebacker for the Irish.
“Greer Martini is one of the smarter defensive players we signed,” Kelly said. “We got a chance to spend some time with him here on campus. … He's a really good player, and he's a really good leader, and he'll be a very good linebacker for us here at Notre Dame and will also be a guy that makes others around him better.”
While that mental aptitude could position Martini for immediate playing time, he is only listed at 6’3”, 232 pounds.
“He's only going to get bigger and stronger while he's here,” Kelly said.
The physical growth likely has to come first before Martini sees meaningful snaps.
LB Nyles Morgan
As the No. 3 inside linebacker in the country, Morgan could challenge for significant playing time as a true freshman, especially with injury-related uncertainty at the linebacker position for the Irish.
Kelly said on national signing day that Morgan “has all the tools” to help right away.
“The issue he's got is he's got some guys working out that have been here a year that are going to try to keep him from getting on the field, too,” Kelly said. “I think there's still some competition there that he's got to get through, but his skill set, it's pretty easy to see. That's what a ‘Mike’ linebacker looks like.”
Kelly praised the Illinois product’s “thirst for knowledge of the game,” something that aids Morgan’s case for playing time given Kelly’s emphasis on freshmen being mentally ready.
LB Nile Sykes
Three-star Oak Park, Illinois linebacker Nile Sykes can play inside or outside, according to Kelly.
“He is a physical player,” Kelly said. “He's got very good ball skills, instincts, and again, another versatile player in our front seven that's going to add to the depth of our football team.”
Sykes ranked at No. 459 overall as the 36th-best outside linebacker in the country. Originally listed at 6’2”, 223 pounds, Sykes has added roughly 10 to 15 pounds in preparation for summer workouts, according to Blue and Gold Illustrated’s Andrew Owens.
As Kelly said, Sykes should mainly add depth in 2014.
S/LB Drue Tranquill
“I offered him a scholarship, and we really didn't have a position for him because we just loved the way he played the game,” Kelly said.
“I don't know where he plays, but he's going to play somewhere here at Notre Dame because he's a darned good football player,” Kelly added on signing day. ‘He's athletic. He's competitive. And we'll find a place for him somewhere.”
With summer workouts looming, it appears Tranquill will begin his career as a “Sam” linebacker, according to Blue and Gold Illustrated’s Dan Murphy.
The Irish opted for smaller “Sam” linebackers in the spring with former safety John Turner and converted wide receiver James Onwualu earning the majority of the reps. Tranquill could follow a similar path.
CB Nick Watkins
The lone cornerback commitment in Notre Dame’s class, Nick Watkins ranked 16th nationally at his position and drew high praise from Kelly.
“This is a long corner. This is draft day, you're getting a No. 1 draft pick,” Kelly said. “This kid is an exceptional football player. We think we got one of the best corners around—long, athletic, can really do a lot of things for us.”
Watkins could be in a position to contribute in 2014. The Irish figure to have KeiVarae Russell, Cole Luke, Cody Riggs and Matthias Farley squarely in the cornerback rotation, but Watkins and sophomore Devin Butler could push their way into contention.
P/K Tyler Newsome
According to 247Sports, Tyler Newsome is the No. 5 punter in the country. On signing day, Kelly described him as a “punter-kicker,” at least leaving open the option of him kicking.
“We loved the pop that he had as a kicker, but we were most intrigued by his punting, and that's an area that he's going to continue to work on and continue to develop,” Kelly said. “But he was such an intriguing young man in all the kids that we saw that when we saw him punting, there was nobody that was even close to with the potential upside that he has.”
Unless otherwise noted, all recruiting stats and information courtesy of 247Sports.com and all quotes obtained firsthand. Star ratings reflect 247Sports Composite Rankings.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.
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