There were plenty of changes at Notre Dame following a 4-8 campaign in 2016. There are six new assistants, a new strength program and a desire from all to make sure something like last year never happens again.
Of course, that all starts with better play. So here are five Fighting Irish players who need to emerge in 2017 to spark a massive turnaround and get Notre Dame back on its feet and competing for a New Year’s Six bowl game.
1. Brandon Wimbush, QB
Surprise, surprise: The new starting quarterback is pretty important. Wimbush enters his redshirt sophomore year as the unquestioned guy under center, and he is filling some big shoes after the early NFL Draft departure of DeShone Kizer, who could be a first-round pick. New offensive coordinator Chip Long will likely speed things up offensively, and new QBs coach Tommy Rees figures to add a familiar voice to the room and help ease the transition for Wimbush from the background to the spotlight. The former four-star prospect has drawn rave reviews behind closed doors so far, but all eyes will be on him come opening day 2017.
2. Jay Hayes, DL
The redshirt junior defensive lineman saw much more time last season after Greg Hudson took over for Brian VanGorder in-season as defensive coordinator, but now he’ll be tasked with a much bigger role on what is still a pretty green defensive line. The returning Irish players up front return a grand total of zero sacks among them from 2016, and that absolutely has to change. Hayes, a former four-star prospect, will look to take the next step this season under new coordinator Mike Elko.
3. Kevin Stepherson, WR
Irish fans were alarmed to hear that Stepherson was running with the third team during the program’s first padded practice of the spring, but what would spring football be without a little overreaction? Stepherson enrolled early a year ago and made an impact as a true freshman, starting three games and finishing third on the team in catches (25) and receiving yards (462), and second in receiving touchdowns (five). Equanimeous St. Brown is back to lead the receiving corps, but Stepherson will be expected to grow into a bigger role as a sophomore, especially with Torii Hunter Jr. and Corey Holmes both gone.
4. Alize Jones, TE/WR
On the subject of receivers, Jones missed all of last season after being ruled academically ineligible. And while head coach Brian Kelly has expressed cautious optimism publicly when speaking about Jones, the tight end’s potential impact cannot be overlooked, especially with how many bodies the Irish return at the position. Jones is probably better suited as an outside receiver anyway, and if the former four-star prospect’s 13-catch, 190-yard rookie campaign on a loaded 2015 team is any indication, the Las Vegas native could be primed for big things in /17 if he stays on the right path.
5. Offensive line
It would be unfair to single out one person here, but the offensive line returns four starters from a 2016 group that was, well, sub-par. Position coach Harry Hiestand has churned out strong line after strong line, but for whatever reason, last year’s didn’t live up to its standard, which was all the more surprising given the expected NFL talent the Irish started up front. Notre Dame ranked 71st nationally in allowing 28 sacks last season, and 80th in rushing yards per game (163.33). The line needs to get better, especially with a new starting quarterback to protect. Luckily for the Irish, this group is capable of doing it, and it is all too aware of its shortcomings from 2016.
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.