Though the Fighting Irish suffered through a disappointing 4-8 record in 2016, there were some bright spots that shone through during the trying times. DeShone Kizer performed reasonably well despite the record, leading to being selected 52nd overall by the Cleveland Browns.
Running backs Josh Adams and Dexter Williams combined for a dynamic ground attack last year and enter their junior and sophomore seasons, respectively, looking to increase production and take some pressure off newly-minted starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
But with players like Kizer, Adams and Williams coming to the forefront in 2016, a new group will have to take the reins if Notre Dame is to make a run at the postseason. Here's a look at five such players who will need to steer the Irish toward success in 2017:
5 Players that Need to Step Up for Notre Dame in 2017
5. CB Shaun Crawford
While injuries have kept Crawford from being the productive and dynamic player that Irish coaches anticipated after his high school career at St. Edward (OH), 2017 is a crucial year for the junior cornerback. Crawford spent the 2015 season on the sideline as he recovered from a torn ACL in the preseason, and missed most of 2016 after tearing his Achilles in Notre Dame’s Week 2 game against Nevada.
New defensive coordinator Mike Elko would love to involve Crawford — who recorded 91 tackles (8 TFL) and seven interceptions in his senior year at St. Ed’s — in his defensive scheme, as he is a versatile component in the Irish defense. We’ve seen the talent and skill level in high school and in limited capacity in South Bend, but the biggest key for Crawford to shine in 2017 will undoubtedly be his health.
4. WR Equanimeous St. Brown (pronounced eck-wuh-NIM-ee-us)
After recording a single catch for eight yards in his freshman season of 2015, St. Brown was the most reliable pass-catching weapon for the Irish offense in 2016. His 58 receptions, 961 yards and nine touchdowns were all tops on the team last season, ranking in the top 10 nationally among freshmen/sophomores in receiving yards (sixth), touchdowns (tied for sixth) and receptions (ninth).
While last year he was able to grow under the experience of now-departed quarterbacks DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire, the 6-4 junior wideout will be called upon to provide a security blanket for classmate and new starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush. Named on July 18 to the 2017 Biletnikoff Award Watch List, St. Brown will once again need to be a big target — literally and figuratively — on offense for the Irish to have success in 2017.
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3. DE/LB Daelin Hayes
A former five-star and top-ranked recruit from Michigan, Hayes played in all 12 games last season as a freshman but recorded only 11 tackles. The pure athleticism was most definitely on display, as his speed on the outside provided the defensive coaching staff with a plethora of options. Hayes did force a fumble in the Irish’s 10-3 rain-soaked loss at NC State last season, but he will have to do much more as part of a young — but extremely talented — defensive unit for Notre Dame.
2. QB Brandon Wimbush
Notre Dame has not started the same quarterback in Week 1 of consecutive seasons since 2011 when Dayne Crist started his second straight season at the helm of the Irish offense. While the success of the offense will not depend entirely on the redshirt sophomore Wimbush (see: St. Brown), his play early on should be an indicator of his readiness to handle the starting job.
With only two games of playing experience in 2015 (no starts), redshirting last season and home showdowns against Temple and Georgia to open the 2017 season, Wimbush will face two formidable tests to open his starting career. If he and the Irish offense can string together a pair of season-opening wins, there will be reason to hope that the quarterback of the future might be starting in the present.
1. Offensive Line
We all know about the unstoppable force and the immovable object. Well, the latter is exactly what Notre Dame’s offensive line has to be to give the Irish any reasonable hope for success in 2017. Entering last season, the unit was predicted by some to be the best in the nation. However, the offensive line took a step back from its performance in 2015, as the offense fell from eighth nationally in rushing yards per carry in 2015 to 62nd in 2016. Sure, part of that can be attributed to the loss of two spectacular linemen, Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin, who were selected in the first 55 picks in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Left tackle Mike McGlinchey (47th in Sports Illustrated’s Top 100 Players for 2017) and left guard Quenton Nelson (27th) both return for their final season of eligibility. They join two more seniors — right guard Alex Bars and center Sam Mustipher — on the offensive line, so the Irish certainly have the pieces to return to dominance in the trenches. Head coach Brian Kelly is relying on an improvement, while Wimbush and his rushing attack would greatly appreciate a rebound as well.
Feature photo of Notre Dame WR Equanimeous St. Brown courtesy of UND.com.