Blue and Gold Illustrated

June/July 2017

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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18 JUNE/JULY 2017 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY BRYAN DRISKELL N otre Dame's 2016 recruiting class was head coach Brian Kelly's lowest-rated haul since 2012. The average ranking of the four major recruiting services (Rivals, 247Sports, Scout and ESPN) was No. 14 nationally, but the class is poised to have a far greater impact than that number would suggest. Five players from the 2016 class started at least three games last sea- son, and five enter this summer atop the depth chart at their respective po- sitions. Interestingly, four of the play- ers who started at least three games last season are not among the five starters heading into the 2017 season. There will be plenty of opportuni- ties for the sophomore class to litter the two-deep and provide a signifi- cant impact on offense, defense and special teams. If Notre Dame is going to rebound from last year 's 4-8 season — and perhaps even make a College Foot- ball Playoff run — it needs its sec- ond-year players to provide a major contribution. We list the areas and discuss the players that will be counted on most for Notre Dame in 2017: 1. SAFETY VALVES Safety play is vitally important to success in defensive coordinator Mike Elko's scheme. A major concern for Notre Dame is that its safeties struggled throughout the 2016 sea- son. If the Irish are going to play well enough on defense to win double- digit games in 2017, they must get much improved safety play. Devin Studstill started nine games as a true freshman in 2016, but class- mate Jalen Elliott overtook him in the starting lineup during the spring. Elliott slid into the free safety role, which resulted in junior Nick Cole- man moving to strong safety while Studstill dropped to the second team. Elliott's spring game performance was a bit up and down. He was late getting over on a vertical route to junior wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, and a missed tackle led to junior running back Josh Adams scoring the game's first touchdown. Elliott also picked off a pass and tied for the team lead with seven tackles. Elko needs athletic and rangy safe- ties that can tackle in space, come down in the box to defend the run and make plays in the pass game. Elliott has the potential to do all of that at a high level, but the former high school quarterback is still relatively new to the safety position and consistency can escape him at times. Should El- liott become a more consistent player in the fall, he could prove to be one of Notre Dame's best defenders. Studstill isn't going to take his sec- ond-team status lying down. He's a physical tackler that is at his best coming into the box against the run. What keeps him from being a starter at this point is undisciplined play and his struggles in the pass game. He makes too many assignment mis- takes, and the result can be too fre- quent explosive plays allowed. If Studstill can clean that up he'll force his way onto the field, either as a rotation player with Coleman or as a potential starter. 2. PERIMETER IMPACT ON DEFENSE Notre Dame was gashed through the air in the first four games of the 2016 season. Opponents averaged 253.0 passing yards per game and quarterbacks posted an enormous passer rating of 173.89. Former coordinator Brian Van- Gorder was fired after that bru- tal start, and Notre Dame's three rookie cornerbacks were thrust into the lineup. In the next eight games, the Irish defensive backs held op- ponents to only 168.1 yards passing per contest — aided by playing two triple-option teams — and yielded just seven touchdown throws. A hurricane during the game at North Carolina State also helped keep the passing numbers down, but its 123.8 pass efficiency rating was a marked improvement. The return of senior Nick Watkins has provided a huge boost, but soph- omores Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr. will again be tasked with shoring up the cornerback spot. Love is projected as the starter at the field side, and his sure tackling and football intelligence is ideally suited for the position. Handling faster players could be an issue, but Love's ability to limit mistakes has him in the starting lineup. Vaughn showed flashes of bril- liance during the spring, but assign- ment mistakes and back spasms kept him from putting together a good enough spring to jump into the start- ing lineup. Vaughn is currently back- ing up Watkins at the boundary po- sition, but a good offseason and a strong fall camp could result in him pushing for a starting spot, either replacing Love at the field position or shifting Watkins to that spot. Regardless of who starts, both Love and Vaughn will be counted on for serious minutes. Pride is the team's fastest player but needs to translate that to functional football speed. He's still learning the finer points of cornerback play, but his development there could lead to a rise to the top of the depth chart. 3. EDGE RUSHERS Getting after the quarterback has been a consistent problem during Kelly's tenure. Only once has the de- fense ranked in the top 50 nationally for team sacks, and it's not a coinci- dence that it came in 2012 when the Notre Dame defense carried the team to the BCS national title game. This increasingly worsened under VanGorder, with the Irish ranking 74th, 75th and 117th in team sacks during his tenure. SURGING SOPHOMORES The Irish are counting on strong performances from several second-year players in 2017 Cornerback Donte Vaughn contributed 22 tackles and one interception while playing in 10 games and making four starts as a rookie in 2016. PHOTO BY JOE RAYMOND

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