Notre Dame has plenty of familiar faces back from last season. But if the Fighting Irish hope to bounce back from a disappointing 4-8 campaign, they will need key contributions from a number of unfamiliar faces.
We all know the Mike McGlincheys and Nyles Morgans of the Irish, but who are some of the less-heralded players who may decide the program’s fate?
Here are Notre Dame’s wild card players for the 2017 season.
Brandon Wimbush, QB
Rarely has a quarterback transition been so smooth at Notre Dame, but Wimbush, a redshirt sophomore, has checked all of the boxes after assuming the starting role this offseason. He impressed in the spring and looks ready to lead the new-look Irish offense. Still, there is the not insignificant matter of Wimbush having five total pass attempts and zero career starts to his name, so the untested signal-caller fits the bill of a “wild card” until the lights come on.
Alize Mack, TE
This was what Brian Kelly said about Mack — formerly Alize Jones — at the beginning of the spring: “He's got to stay focused. He can't lose focus on the most important things, and he can't get distracted, and that is graduate and win a championship. Social media, other things that pop up in life can distract you from that end.” So yeah, that’s a textbook wild card, especially since Mack missed all of last season due to academic shortcomings. Mack, a former four-star prospect from Las Vegas’ Bishop Gorman, had 13 catches for 190 yards in 2015 as a true freshman.
Tommy Kraemer, RT
Kraemer could be the new starting right tackle for an Irish offensive line that failed to live up to expectations last season. Still, there are multiple high-end future NFL draft picks on this line, and four starters are back on it, too. With a talented, deep backfield and a dual-threat quarterback, the line must deliver this season. Plenty of eyes will be on the new guy, whether it’s Kraemer or Liam Eichenberg.
Daelin Hayes, DE
The Irish absolutely have to generate more of a threat from their defensive line, as they don’t return a single sack among returning defensive linemen from last season. The youngsters will be counted on more than ever, and that means a former five-star prospect like Hayes, who saw action in every game last season as a true freshman, tallying 11 tackles and a forced fumble.
Drue Tranquill, S
Everyone is familiar with Tranquill, who has overcome ACL tears in each of his knees to become one of the leaders of the Irish defense, earning captaincy entering 2017. But the hire of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko means the best might be yet to come for Tranquill, as he is seemingly an ideal fit for Elko’s rover position, allowing the 6-foot-2, 230-pounder to utilize his strengths and make big plays in the opposing backfield.
— 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.
(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)