These Five Players Could Be ‘Wild Cards’ For Notre Dame
Notre Dame benefits yearly from unexpectedly productive players, whether they’re total unknowns who become mainstays, players in line for a bigger role who exceeded expectations or younger guys who force their way into the lineup with a strong camp.
The 2019 season had a few. Linebackers Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Drew White were stars despite entering the spring season as barely there presences. Asmar Bilal’s transition from rover to Buck linebacker produced a 7.0 tackle-for-loss increase. Defensive end Ade Ogundeji shined when his snap count jumped later in the year, with 4.5 sacks in the final four games. Tony Jones Jr. became a reliable lead back after two years as a rotational player.
This year’s team has a few candidates to deliver performances that could surprise due to skill set and/or opportunity, and would qualify as breakouts if there is a season. Athlon Sports listed a few possibilities, starting with wide receiver Kevin Austin.
No returning Notre Dame wide receiver has more than 13 career catches. To add some experience, the Irish staff brought in Northwestern graduate transfer Bennett Skowronek (110 catches from 2018-19). Austin, though, had the first crack at replacing second-round pick Chase Claypool at the “W” boundary receiver position in the lone spring practice.
The former top-100 recruit was suspended all of last season, but has a ceiling as high as anyone vying for the job. Irish defensive backs consistently praised the 6-2, 210-pound Austin’s athletic ability during practice last year, and at times had trouble keeping up with him in coverage.
“Back in the good graces of the team, the ultra-talented receiver is expected to be a major contributor despite only catching five passes,” Athlon’s Jon Kinne wrote.
Defensive end Isaiah Foskey preserved a redshirt year in 2019, but is in line for more snaps at vyper or strong-side end as a primary backup to starters Ogundeji and Daelin Hayes. He had five tackles, a quarterback hurry and a blocked punt in four games.
“Because defensive coordinator Clark Lea likes to rotate defensive line personnel, Foskey will see considerable action,” Kinne wrote.
One of Lea’s bigger questions is the Buck linebacker spot, where Bilal had 79 tackles and 10.0 tackles for loss last year. The primary contenders are juniors Shayne Simon and Jack Lamb, each a one-time top-200 recruit coming off a season-ending injury. Lamb, who as the No. 77 overall recruit in 2018, was the middle linebacker in dime packages before his injury and posted seven tackles (2.0 for loss).
“Lamb … was beginning an ascension of the depth chart as a redshirt freshman when a hip injury ended his season after eight games,” Kinne wrote. “His frame and athletic skills make him a player to watch going into 2020.”
Behind him, one safety spot next to Kyle Hamilton is up for grabs, with former top-50 player Houston Griffith and Ohio State graduate transfer Isaiah Pryor as two names to watch. Pryor was a top-150 player in the 2017 cycle and started seven games for the Buckeyes in 2018, but fell out of the rotation in 2019. He transferred during the season to preserve a redshirt and enrolled at Notre Dame for the spring semester.
Pro Football Focus gave Pryor a below-average 58.9 coverage grade in 2019 and credited him with three touchdown passes and a 116.7 opponent NFL passer rating allowed. He had 47 tackles and one interception from 2017-19. A new setting could serve him well.
“He never really lived up to his hype with the Buckeyes, but many thought that his fit in OSU’s scheme was a problem,” Kinne wrote.
Running back, once again, is an unsettled position entering the season. Senior Jafar Armstrong is the most experienced option, with 515 career yards in two injury-hampered seasons. But the most exciting name is a freshman, Chris Tyree. The No. 78 overall player in the 2020 class was running backs coach Lance Taylor’s first big catch. If he needs little time to prove he can handle the college game, Notre Dame will be hard-pressed to keep him off the field.
‘In Tyree, a true freshman, the Irish staff has someone with game-breaking potential,” Kinne wrote. “One of the fastest players on the high school level, the Virginia native battled injuries as a senior at Thomas Dale High School. If he remains healthy, expect Tyree to be a weapon in some way, shape, or form.”
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