As July slowly turns into August, we college football fanatics grow more and more anxious with every passing minute. College football season withing the colloquial “spitting distance”. Fall camp is nearly here, and after that, it’s all systems go. With that in mind, here are the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football players you should be watching as we close in on the beginning of the 2017 season.
Much of the hype regarding the Irish’s defensive line over the spring and summer has been focused around Daelin Hayes, and rightfully so. Hayes is an exceptionally talented player with a ton of potential. However, we can not lose sight of his equally exciting classmate, Khalid Kareem.
Kareem was nearly just as heralded recruit as his fellow defensive end in the aforementioned Hayes. Kareem is also merely one play away from having to step in for the presumed starter, Jay Hayes. Now, the reason there’s been minimal hype around Kareem over the past couple seasons is because he experienced some typical freshman struggles throughout his first season. This is apropos for defensive lineman; rarely have freshmen stepped in on the defensive line and immediately made an impact. Kareem presents potential for success moving forward, though, and that is exciting. Barring injury in front of Kareem on the depth chart, expect him to work his way into a fair amount of snaps giving breathers to Jay Hayes, and expect some plays that show what he can be capable of for the Irish moving forward.
The recent talk around freshman tight ends has revolved around Cole Kmet. He has reportedly shown “freakish” ability in 7-on-7’s, only furthering the hype around this kid as a receiver. Brock Wright is the one to keep your eye on for the 2017 season, though.
Cole Kmet and Brock Wright formed the most talented pair of tight ends in any 2017 recruiting class. With Kmet, you had the equivalent to an oversized receiver. But with Wright, you have a more complete player for the position. Wright was often lauded for his advanced blocking abilities for a tight end throughout his recruitment. As a receiver, he’s not quite Alizé Mack - or even Kmet for that matter - but he can still pose a threat to opposing defenses. All of that in tandem with his college-ready has to have Chip Long drooling. With his well rounded skill set, he should be the one to watch if any freshman tight end will see the field in 2017.
Last season it was all Julian Love. The 2016 recruiting class’s defensive backs were led heavily by Love, but they’re all very good players in their own right. And how can we look over the kid who made such an impressive interception in only his second game played? Check it out:
Young guys stepping up.— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) September 24, 2016
Freshman cornerback Donte Vaughn gets his first career interception in the 3rd quarter. pic.twitter.com/1lwkJDzEie
We can’t forget about rangy corner Donte Vaughn. Vaughn - a sizable 6’2 209 lb corner - may have the highest ceiling of all the defensive backs. He sits behind a talented albeit oft injured Nick Watkins, and could be called upon to step up at any given moment. He also presents length that many of Notre Dame’s other corners can not. This is partly what’s so exciting about him, as the Irish have lacked that size in the defensive backfield for some time. Vaughn will likely be an integral piece to this defensive back unit, and his progression is worth monitoring. At the very least, with his length and athleticism, you can expect him to turn some heads with a play or two in fall camp.
Notre Dame very well may have its deepest position group at receiver. For example, working from the top down it goes as so: Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool, CJ Sanders, Kevin Stepherson, Chris Finke, and maybe then Javon McKinley? That’s six people in front of arguably the most prolific high school receiver in California’s history. Speaking of that “arguably the most prolific high school receiver in California’s history” guy, how in the world have we overlooked him?
Javon McKinley is often forgotten about due to big headlines surrounding players like St. Brown, Boykin, Claypool, and even Stepherson. Forgetting about McKinley is absurd, though, and here’s why. Over his last two seasons in high school alone, McKinley racked up 3,079 yards and 33 touchdowns, averaging a ridiculous 20.9 yards per reception over both seasons. He has exceptional size at 6’2 220 lbs, has shown to be strong and physical, but also fast enough to get behind defenses (see: 20.9 yards per catch). McKinley looked solid in the spring game. He didn’t put up crazy numbers, but looked fast and fluid, which is all you can ask for from somebody coming off of a broken leg. Once this extremely talented receiver gets his opportunity, I have no doubt he’ll make the most of it.
Notre Dame’s class of 2015 haul included four defensive lineman. The only one that had generated any sort of excitement prior to last season was former offensive lineman
Terry Jillery Jerry Tillery. Late last season, though, Notre Dame fans got a glimpse of what could be from Elijah Taylor.
Taylor had not been an overly talked about player leading into and during most of the 2016-17 football season. Keith Arnold wrote “If Taylor can work his way into the rotation, it’s a successful season,” prior to last season. Before he suffered a LisFranc fracture, that was exactly what he was doing. Taylor was proving to be both forceful and disruptive in his short playing time. He was finally beginning to put it all together against USC, with three tackles and a tackle for loss in his brief playing time that day. Those numbers don’t scream “great player”, but he was consistently around the ball and was doing relatively well as compared to the rest of the defensive line. How he develops moving forward should be noteworthy, as he could play a significant role for the Irish moving forward as he matures.
Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg
The two most nationally heralded recruits of the Irish’s 2016 recruiting class have been competing for the starting right tackle spot since the end of the 2016-17 season. Both are gifted players who should excel when given the opportunity, and whichever player ends up prevailing in this competition is one to keep your eye on moving forward into the season.
Both Kraemer and Eichenberg were considered huge gets - both figuratively and literally - for the Irish. They both represented the best of the best at their position, and could arguably have formed the top tackle duo of any program’s recruiting class that year. While virtually anything I could say about one would apply to the other, there is a minor difference between the two. Kraemer is viewed as the more polished, technically sound player; Eichenberg on the other hand is viewed as the more athletic player with a higher potential ceiling. Other than that, they may as well be the same. They’re both extremely talented players who will undoubtedly contribute sooner rather than later, and they’re both players who will assuredly help this team while they are on the field. But for 2017 alone, keep an eye on the one who comes out on top.