The offseason feels like forever - long enough to go over the entire roster and two-deep, examine redshirts, incoming freshmen, breakout candidates, and potential All-Americans. So long that the question "Should Notre Dame be eligible for the College Football Playoff" has been manufactured into a "legitimate" debate and two-week story.
Even with all this time to dissect position battles and players, there are a few players that slip under the radar or somehow (usually irrationally) develop a reputation that doesn't match their ability or potential in reality. With that in mind, here are the top Irish "All-Underrated" candidates for 2015.
Steve Elmer: Somehow over the course of two seasons - where by the way, he became the rare offensive lineman to start as a true freshman - Elmer's stock seems to have dropped among Irish fans. This... does not make sense. Did he shrink? Is he no longer athletic?
Elmer enrolled early but didn't have the usual O-Line benefit of a season redshirting with Harry Hiestand and Paul Longo, and experienced some of the usual growing pains adjusting to bigger, faster, and stronger competition. Still, Elmer filled in admirably in his first year, and while the 2014 offensive line may have disappointed, communication issues and shifting from right tackle to right guard are very reasonable explanations for Elmer not progressing as fast as many hoped.
The skills that allowed his to play straight out of high school haven't left - Elmer is still a physical presence at right guard, now has a stable position and experience under his belt, and two years of eligibility remaining. He's also managed to hold down a starting job in the deepest and most talented position group on the roster - it should be time to maul in 2015 and 2016.
Go back and watch the Michigan game from last year - you know you want to. Or just a long highlight here:
Among my thoughts looking back at the game:
- Amir Carlisle looked really good. Not just the two touchdowns, but lots of challenge catches near the sidelines and just within reach that he hauled in.
- Without knowing the future, after that game I would have projected Amir to be the second most productive receiver over Chris Brown and Prosise.
- Dan Hicks says Amir Carlisle's name strangely (maybe correctly?) - aMIR carLISLE
- Has Michigan scored yet?
The wide receiver position is loaded, but the opportunity could be there for Carlisle as the domino effect of Greg Bryant's suspension shifts CJ Prosise to running back more often and opens up snaps at slot receiver. The glimpses of what I've seen Carlisle do at receiver are making me hold onto the hope that he can still be an important weapon on offense...finally.
Matthias Farley: It's been a crazy ride for Farley, who seems to have his position changed every offseason. First he was an athletic wide receiver without much football experience, then cornerback, then safety that suddenly was starting in 2012 for the best Notre Dame defense in a long time. Then with the rest of the defense a step back in 2013 (and a lot of fan criticism), before a pretty dynamic stat line in 2014 for a player not involved in many defensive packages - 53 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, and 4 interceptions.
And now no one knows what his role will really be on defense - Farley is training at both safety spots, but Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate are presumably the starters, and is the incumbent at nickel back - where many are already looking for a new young corner to compete. Does anyone reasonably think an incoming freshman or underclassman could put up a state line like Farley's last year?
No, he's not perfect in coverage - otherwise he's be a starting corner, and a damn good one - but at nickel Farley is a fantastic fit and disruptive asset.
Isaac Rochell: Edge rushers are exciting, run stoppers (unless it's a gigantic nose tackle or freak who is also an interior pass rusher) are typically not. Early in 2014, Rochell was a huge part of Notre Dame's defense shutting down the run and anchoring a strong start - through seven games, opponents had averaged just 3.08 yards per carry. That included holding Florida State to 50 yards rushing on 26 carriers, and holding Stanford to 47 yards on 32 carries.
Everyone knows the story from there - injury devastation, a terrible November, and playing Navy and Leonard Fournette all combined to transform that same defense into one that gave up an average of 242 yards per game rushing on 5.08 yards per carry over the last six games of the season (including the Music City Bowl). Two hundred and forty-two yards per game rushing. It is ugly typing that in numbers and words.
Rochell was there for the good and bad, and had to attempt to anchor the defensive line alongside true freshmen after Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones went down. He's been praised as one of the strongest players Brian Kelly has ever coached, and will be key to 2015's defense looking much more like the first half of last season. The progress from sophomore to junior and potentially a bigger leadership role make me really optimistic for what Rochell can bring to the table.