The 2018 recruiting class that the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team signed today is loaded with highly-rated players. Still, most freshmen do not come to major FBS programs ready to step in and play from day one.
So, in looking at this incoming freshman class, let’s have a look at the guys who come in both physically ready to compete for playing time and also in positions that do not have a backlog of talent waiting to see the field.
Allen comes in as one of the highest-rated players in the class, an elite safety from Georgia with fantastic size (6’2”, 211 pounds) and athleticism. Watching his high school highlights or any clips of him at offseason camps or in 7-on-7 competition, it’s clear just by watching him move and compete with other elite athletes that he’s already got what it takes physically to make it out there.
But the other aspect that falls in Allen’s favor for getting early playing time is the lack of quality depth at safety on the Irish roster. Last year, Notre Dame shuffled through guys like Nick Coleman, Jalen Elliott, and Devin Studstill in the back of the defense. None of them particularly stood out as a guy who couldn’t have someone behind him push for playing time.
Beyond those guys, the Irish have rising sophomore Isaiah Robertson, who is still young and a great athlete who could see an increased role this coming year. Additionally, Navy transfer Alohi Gilman is expected to potentially earn one of the starting safety spots heading into next season, so that could put a bit of a wall between Derrik Allen and early playing time.
Despite that and despite the other guys obviously having more experience in Mike Elko’s defense than Allen, he comes into the program with elite abilities that can’t be kept off the field, in my opinion, and I firmly believe he will be in the two-deep at safety come Labor Day weekend, and could become a starter by the time the season is over.
In the case of most incoming freshman receivers with size, I’d say Notre Dame is pretty set right now and they will need to redshirt or focus on special teams for a year or two. The two-deep already has Chase Claypool, Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin, and all the tight ends as big, mobile targets.
But in the case of Kevin Austin, I think he’s going to be too good to keep off the field. The Irish haven’t recruited a receiver that so resembles Michael Floyd in a long time — the length, the power, the speed, the size — he’s got it all going for him. And, he’s pretty polished, so he will certainly be less of a project than someone like Claypool, who came in with tons of raw athleticism but major opportunity for improvement with his hands and route running.
Austin is an exceptional receiver, and I think he’ll also start out the season in the two-deep. And, if St. Brown continues to struggle or Claypool continues to have some issues with catching the ball, I think Austin will get his chance to break out and absolutely throttle some DBs this year.
The Fighting Irish are losing a couple stalwarts in the middle of the defense with Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan leaving via graduation. So, with minimal depth at linebacker (especially with the size and power and range to play middle linebacker), there’s an excellent opportunity for Jack Lamb to come in and start contributing at that spot immediately.
At 6’4” and with a surprising combination of mobility and power, Lamb is the #1 inside linebacker coming out of the state of California, and he hits extremely hard. If he can pick up some of the intricacies of Elko’s defensive scheme and show he can read offenses well enough, he could be asked to spell the starters and play a decent amount of reps in the middle.
This could partially depend on if Jerry Tillery bolts for the NFL, but even if he doesn’t, the Irish only have so many interior defensive linemen worthy of playing. Tillery, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, and Kurt Hinish are the guys who proved themselves at least at times last season, and Darnell Ewell is a highly-rated guy who should be ready to help out. But after that, there’s really nothing else, as the 2016 class had no one at the position, and the 2015 class featured, besides Tillery, a few projects who just never blossomed into rotation players.
Ademilola is a big, agile defensive lineman who knows how to use his hands and can really wreak havoc quickly. He had offers from essentially every big-time program in the country, and if he comes to ND in good shape and ready to compete, he could easily find himself in the two-deep and potentially earning some significant playing time, just as Tagovailoa-Amosa and Hinish did this past season.
Bracy is a fantastic athlete and could either end up as a DB for Mike Elko or as a RB/WR for Chip Long. Either way, I don’t think he would see the field at those positions next season.
What Bracy could do immediately, though, is improve the kick and punt return game for Notre Dame. Last season left a lot to be desired in both arenas, and Bracy is a fast, shifty guy who has a ton of experience with the ball in his hands and could really be a big playmaker out there.
The Maybes, Depending on How Things Play Out
After the above guys, there are plenty of players who are super-talented, but who just have a logjam of talent ahead of them. Houston Griffith, for instance, is a long, athletic, shut-down corner who probably won’t see much time just because there’s an All-American at one of the cornerback spots and the Irish will have a 5th-year senior (Nick Watkins), a nickelback guy who could also earn a starting corner role (Shaun Crawford), and a couple juniors-to-be with plenty of talent of their own and more experience than Griffith (Troy Pride Jr., Donte Vaughn).
Could Griffith beat some of those guys out, or could people get hurt, or could he even slide to safety and compete for time there? Definitely. But I think he sticks at cornerback for now and learns behind some experienced guys before breaking through in his sophomore season.
Phil Jurkovec is an elite QB recruit and there are plenty of people who think he will come in ready to take over the offense as a true freshman. I don’t think anyone except Brandon Wimbush will be the starter to start next season, and am even skeptical that Brian Kelly and Chip Long will put Jurkovec higher than Ian Book or even Avery Davis on the depth chart, just due to his lack of experience.
I think Jurkovec is the future of Notre Dame football and will probably end up being the best QB of those four guys, but unless shit hits the fan (it certainly could if Wimbush and Book keep playing as they have, and Davis doesn’t earn a shot), I think Phil Jurkovec redshirts next season.
Shayne Simon could easily see the field at Rover if Drue Tranquill goes down, considering Asmar Bilal is the only other option, and although he’s more developed and experienced than Simon, he hasn’t shown enough to earn more than that backup role himself. I could also see Bo Bauer potentially earning time at linebacker if something goes wrong, and think special teams will get some great starters in guys like Joe Wilkins Jr. and Paul Moala, who could be defensive contributors/starters down the road but for now will be great athletes making plays on kickoffs, punts, etc.