Blue and Gold Illustrated

June-July 2017

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

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20 JUNE/JULY 2017 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED Part of the issue should be resolved by Elko's defensive system, which helped Wake Forest rank 11th in the country in sacks last season. Scheme, however, will take the defense only so far. Notre Dame will need individ- ual pass rushers to not just blossom but flourish, and the sophomore class could provide two of the best. Sophomore Daelin Hayes was Notre Dame's first five-star defen- sive recruit since former Irish All- American linebacker Jaylon Smith signed in the 2013 class. He played just 155 snaps as a true freshman, and his minutes came most often in run looks. Under Elko, Hayes is being put in position to be more of a playmaker. Hayes had an up-and-down spring, mixing in tremendous individual plays with missed assignments. Dur- ing the Blue-Gold Game, he limited the mistakes, and the result was a dominant performance. He recorded four tackles for loss — three of them sacks — during the game and had several other strong edge rushes that negatively affected the quarterback. Hayes has the one-on-one pass rush- ing ability that Notre Dame has lacked on the edge in recent seasons. His speed and power combination is partly what made him a Rivals five-star re- cruit, and if he can harness those traits in the fall the breakout season Sporting News projects for him will happen. Classmates Julian Okwara and Ad- etokunbo Ogundeji are the next two drop ends. Okwara has an impressive burst off the edge, but he currently lacks Hayes' size and strength, which makes him more of a situational player at this point. However, his abil- ity to provide pass rushing produc- tion could prove vital in Notre Dame's third-down defensive packages. The rangy but raw Ogundeji might still be a year away, but he demon- strated a knack for getting after the quarterback this spring. 4. FINAL OFFENSIVE LINE PIECE Notre Dame returns four starters along the offensive line, and the ex- perience and talent of that unit is one of the brightest spots for the Irish heading into next season. The right tackle slot is the lone open position now that 2016 starter, senior Alex Bars, has slid inside to guard. A pair of sophomores will carry their spring battle into the fall. Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichen- erg were two of the top-ranked re- cruits in the 2016 class. Kraemer ranked as the team's top signee according to 247Sports and Scout, while Eichenberg was graded out as the top player in the class by ESPN. Kraemer enters the offseason in the pole position, but Eichenberg is hot on his heels. Throughout the spring, Kraemer was the more consistent player in the run game while using his size (6-5½, 313) and power to get good movement. Eichenberg is the more athletic player, and he's a more natural pass blocker. Neither was able to sepa- rate significantly from the other, and their combination of skills could result in line coach Harry Hiestand deciding to play both players next season. Eichenberg has to become more de- pendable as a run blocker if he wants to pass up Kraemer and earn the start- ing role. Kraemer wasn't overly com- fortable on an island in pass protection, and Hayes dominated him in the Blue- Gold Game. The player who improves the most in the areas just discussed will likely emerge as the starter. Whoever starts will need to settle in quickly. Nothing can hurt a vet- eran line more than a young player who makes too many mistakes. Notre Dame's front should be able to carry the offense next season, but it will be harder if the right tackle doesn't handle himself well. Fortunately for Notre Dame, both of the players in contention for the spot possess immensely high ceilings. 5. OFFENSIVE PLAYMAKERS Notre Dame's skill players on of- fense were largely young and inex- perienced in 2016, but the 2015 class thrived perhaps earlier than antici- pated. St. Brown emerged as the team's top pass catcher with 58 receptions for 961 yards and nine scores. Adams took over as the top ball carrier, and paced the offense with 933 yards on the ground and five rushing touchdowns. If the 2016 class can see its skill players make a similar leap in year two, the Irish offense could be ex- tremely dangerous. There is a lot of raw talent in the class, but there are also significant questions. Wide receiver Kevin Stepherson burst onto the scene as a true fresh- man in 2016, hauling in 25 passes for 462 yards. He led the team with an average of 18.5 yards per catch and finished second with five receiving touchdowns. Inconsistent focus led to Stepherson spending much of the spring on the third team, and maturity is needed for Notre Dame's most explosive re- ceiver. If that doesn't happen, Step- herson will find himself passed up by other players. If he does in fact focus on and off the field, Stepherson could provide a pass catcher that has the speed and dynamic after-the-catch ability that offensive coordinator Chip Long seeks in his up-tempo attack. Fellow 2016 signee Chase Claypool took advantage of the opening in the lineup and put himself in position to receive serious minutes in 2017. He has a special blend of size (6-4½, 224) and athleticism. He is built like a tight end, but he is fast, agile and a strong leaper. He can stretch the field with his speed, but what makes him a potential impact player is that he can also do serious damage after the catch. Claypool grew up playing football in Canada, so he is still learning the ins and outs of the position. At times, he will put forth less than optimum effort after the snap because he is thinking about what he has to do. When he comes off the line confident in his task, he is an extremely diffi- cult matchup for opponents. The more he can play with confi- dence and the less he has to think, the more effective he will be, and a breakout season will follow. During his freshman campaign, wide receiver Kevin Stepherson led the Irish in yards per recep- tion (18.5) and was second on the team in receiv- ing touchdowns (five). PHOTO BY JOE RAYMOND

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