One of the most exciting things to look at on National Signing Day is what incoming recruits could make an instant impact in the upcoming Notre Dame football season. Last year we saw freshmen like Kevin Stepherson, Devin Studstill, and Julian Love contribute immediately, and in years prior we saw players like Josh Adams, Justin Yoon, Tarean Folston, Jaylon Smith, KeiVarae Russell, and Sheldon Day make big plays as true freshmen.
So, in looking at this 2017 class, which prospects could we see in major action come this fall?
The answer is likely “not many.” Although not a terrible class, this 2017 group is on the small side and many of its best players come in at positions with decent-to-fantastic depth.
3 of the top 9 players in the class, according to 247 composite rankings, are offensive linemen. No matter how talented these guys are, it’s unlikely they’ll see the field this season, as ND‘s offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has been stockpiling talented offensive lineman recruits for the past 5 or 6 years now.
Avery Davis is another of those top 9 players in the class, and as a true freshman QB he will likely not see the field next season considering Brandon Wimbush will start and Ian Book, having spent a year with the program, will absolutely be 2nd string. Obviously injuries or other unforeseeable catastrophes could change this, but for now Davis will likely not see action in 2017.
Two players I believe could earn some early playing time are Brock Wright and Cole Kmet, two of the best three tight ends in the entire 2017 class nationally. Both of them are skilled, hardworking blockers who also possess the quickness and hands to be legitimate receiving threats. Talent at tight end has been lacking some for a couple years now — last year the Irish only got 12 catches for 159 yards out of the position.
Part of the problem could be solved by the return of super-talented Alizé Jones, who missed all of last season with academic struggles. However, he’s certainly more of a split-out tight end than an in-line one, and a year spent away from the gridiron definitely won’t do him any favors this season.
Incumbents from last season, Durham Smythe and Nic Weishar, are not productive enough to assume they’ll continue earning time, and so there is absolutely an opportunity for Wright and Kmet to get on the field if they perform well enough in practice. Wright especially could seize a contributing role on the offense considering his early enrollment in January.
On the defensive side of the ball, DT signee Darnell Ewell should have every chance to earn major playing time. The defensive line will be replacing Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones and could use a big, talented defensive tackle to wreak havoc. Jerry Tillery, Daniel Cage, and others have shown a few flashes of potential, but none of them have been overly impressive on the defensive front, and so if Ewell is everything he’s chalked up to be, he could earn a lot of time next season.
Elsewhere on defense, there’s always a chance for young defensive backs to earn playing time, especially at safety. Drue Tranquill and Devin Studstill will almost certainly start there in the fall, but besides those two and Jalen Elliott, there is no one with much experience, and there isn’t much depth there anyway. Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark Heath are a couple safety prospects with all of the physical tools to contribute there right away, if necessary, especially considering Mike Elko’s defense will likely not require the knowledge and experience that Brian VanGorder’s scheme did. However, with the starting roles locked down, don’t expect Robertson or Genmark Heath to play a ton - even if there may be some playing time to grab considering injuries, ND’s poor safety play last season, etc.
Wide receiver could be an interesting position next season, as the likely starters (Equanimeous St. Brown, Kevin Stepherson, and CJ Sanders) are mostly locked in but the depth behind them is very fluid and unproven. Former walk-on Chris Finke showed he can play at the end of the 2016 season, and Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin both had a few moments as big, athletic receivers on the outside. Javon McKinley broke his leg during the season, so it’s largely unknown what the Irish have in the sophomore-to-be former Army All-American. For smaller, quicker receivers like signees Jafar Armstrong and Michael Young, though, along with all-purpose back CJ Holmes, there could be playing time to be had in the slot considering the depth chart is basically Sanders and Finke at that position. Injuries could easily deplete the depth chart at receiver and force those guys into action.
Finally, there’s always the chance that freshman kicker Jonathan Doerer will have to be the guy handling kicking duties, considering rumors Justin Yoon might not be healthy in time for the start of the season or that he could injure himself during the season, forcing Doerer into action. Hopefully it won’t come to that, but Doerer appears to be a good one and could help out if necessary, especially on kickoffs.
Overall, I don’t see many of these freshmen earning playing time, but there will be some chances for true freshmen to show their stuff next season, especially on defense and at the receiver positions.