Anyone that paid attention to this year’s NFL Draft realizes that Notre Dame lost a bunch of talented players. Seven players were selected by teams while were another five were signed on as undrafted free agents.
That leaves a lot of holes for the coaching staff to fill before this coming fall. But such is the life of a top-level college football program. With those vacancies come opportunities for the next wave of players that can make contributions for the Irish, which are ranked No. 8 in Athlon Sports' preseason Top 25.
The development of these five players will go a long way in determining the success level of the 2016 Irish.
Sam Mustipher, Center (6-0, 305)
The left side of the offensive line should be dominant with Mike McGlinchey moving over from right tackle and Quenton Nelson returning at left guard. The starters on the right side have yet to be determined with four guys battling for the two openings. The bridge in between is Mustipher. Many expected a fierce position battle between the junior from Good Olney, Md., and Tristen Hoge. But it became apparent shortly after the end of last season that Mustipher would be given first crack at the spot and he locked it down with a strong spring. Despite being the backup to Nick Martin in 2015, Mustipher’s potential is evident and has led to his inclusion on the Rimington Award Watch list.
Alize Jones, Tight End (6-5, 240)
Jones came to Notre Dame with great fanfare and he undoubtedly expected more than the 13 catches he had as a freshman. But with Will Fuller, Amir Carlisle, Chris Brown, and probably Corey Robinson moving on, there will be plenty of passes to haul in this fall and Jones’ talent is undeniable. The Las Vegas native can provide versatility by spreading out to a receiver position or lining up as a true in-line tight end. Notre Dame would love to get back to establishing the tight end as a dangerous weapon and Jones has the capability of being a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.
Jerry Tillery, Defensive Tackle (6-7, 310)
It’s been quite a ride for Tillery since arriving at Notre Dame. Most recruiting experts projected him as an offensive tackle, but the coaching staff started him out on defense. His performance last spring gave the Irish faithful hope that he could contribute right away, something he did to start the season. But he appeared to hit the freshman wall and his production tailed off. He was then suspended for the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State for violating team rules. Through it all, the freshman became a television star of sorts for his role on the Showtime series chronicling Notre Dame football. This spring his performance was a bit uneven and the Irish staff is looking for more consistency as he moves to the 3-technique position that was occupied by Sheldon Day.
Nyles Morgan, Middle Linebacker (6-1, 245)
Morgan is another player that came to Notre Dame with considerable hype. After filling in at the end of the 2014 season due to injuries at middle linebacker, the hope was that he would earn more playing time as a sophomore. But that didn’t happen. Now, with Joe Schmidt gone and thin numbers at linebacker, Morgan must sink or swim. The early signs have been positive and defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder raved about Morgan’s efforts this spring. With defense being a big concern going into 2016 and middle linebacker being such a vital position on the unit, Morgan needs to play well if the Irish hope to contend for a Playoff spot this fall.
Shaun Crawford, Cornerback (5-9, 180)
The Lakewood, Ohio, product impressed everyone last August at least until a torn ACL ended his freshman season before it even began. His rehab went well and this spring he was back at it with some limitations. He wore a no-contact jersey for the spring game, but he was still around the ball making plays. It will be interesting to see how he is used by Van Gorder and head coach Brian Kelly. The corner spot opposite Cole Luke is open but Crawford’s small stature may make him a better fit covering slot receivers as the nickel back. Either way, Crawford will be on the field a ton for Fighting Irish this year.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.