SOUTH BEND, Ind. — With a crop of seniors out of time and another horde of talent off to the NFL, Notre Dame football will have some holes to plug in 2016.
Offensively, the Irish must replace their leading rusher, top three receivers and two best offensive linemen. On the other side, there are two new openings at each level of the defense.
Which underclassmen have the best chances to grab starting spots in 2016? Let’s look ahead at the young talent that could make an impact next season.
Notre Dame averaged 34.2 points per game in 2015, good for 34th in the country. But there’s still a quarterback decision to be made between redshirt junior Malik Zaire, who’s coming off an ankle injury, and redshirt sophomore DeShone Kizer, who accounted for 31 touchdowns after taking over for Zaire in 2015.
Kelly on QB situation. “Let those two kids go compete, DeShone and Malik. … It’s wide open. Let the best man win." https://t.co/HXQkJ4p4Qq— Mike Monaco (@MikeMonaco_) February 3, 2016
At running back, C.J. Prosise and his 1,032 rushing yards left early for the NFL. Prosise, of course, was banged up down the stretch, which produced more opportunities for true freshman Josh Adams (835 rushing yards, six scores and 7.1 yards per carry).
Now a sophomore, Adams could get the first crack at the starting spot as Tarean Folston recovers from a torn ACL he suffered in the first quarter of the season opener against Texas.
Notre Dame’s top three pass catchers—Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle—have left. Expect fourth-year players Torii Hunter Jr. and Corey Robinson to lead the group, but sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown could be a good bet to step toward the front of the rotation. Irish head coach Brian Kelly lauded St. Brown in 2015 and said he could be starting for a slew of Power Five teams.
Second-year players C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin will vie for time too.
Veteran tight end Durham Smythe should be the starter, but sophomore Alize Jones brings elite athleticism and playmaking skills to the position and is in line to produce more after a 13-catch rookie campaign.
Redshirt sophomore Quenton Nelson returns to start along the offensive line. Classmate Alex Bars seems a safe bet to snatch one of the open starting spots. Fellow redshirt sophomore Sam Mustipher served as Nick Martin’s backup at center in 2015.
Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara were stout along the defensive line in 2015 and leave voids for the Irish. Sophomore Jerry Tillery, junior Daniel Cage and fifth-year senior Jarron Jones should rotate through the defensive tackle slots, with senior Isaac Rochell handling one end. Junior Andrew Trumbetti, coming off a productive Fiesta Bowl, could start opposite Rochell.
Expect upperclassmen to headline the linebacking corps, as well, with senior James Onwualu returning, along with versatile junior Greer Martini. Junior Nyles Morgan is next up at middle linebacker in place of captain Joe Schmidt.
Jaylon Smith’s early departure opens the “Will” linebacker position. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder could shuffle Onwualu, Martini and Morgan among the three spots or turn to sophomore Te’von Coney, who backed up Smith as a true freshman.
In the secondary, safety Elijah Shumate and cornerback KeiVarae Russell leave starting jobs. Safety could be open as both Drue Tranquill and Avery Sebastian were injured in 2015. Second-year safety Mykelti Williams and early enrollees Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill will compete for time.
Senior cornerback Devin Butler, who broke his foot before the Fiesta Bowl, is still in a protective boot. Might sophomores Nick Coleman and Shaun Crawford challenge junior Nick Watkins—who started the Fiesta Bowl—for the role opposite senior Cole Luke? Crawford was expected to be the stating nickelback in 2015 before he suffered a torn ACL in August.
All quotes were obtained firsthand and all stats courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.
Mike Monaco is the lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.