Many have called this year’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish team the deepest as a whole in the entire Brian Kelly tenure, maybe even going further back than that. One main contributing part to this is the potential impact the incoming freshman class may have this year.
When Kelly released the team’s depth chart for their opener against the Texas Longhorns, eight total true freshman were listed throughout. While just because they may be listed on the team’s two-deep, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will make a noticeable impact for their team, but where these particular players are placed, the Irish may some big help from their freshman as early as week one.
Here are five true freshmen who going to get their first taste of college football action, and could make an impact against the Longhorns.
Notre Dame Freshman Set To Make Impact Against Texas
Justin Yoon, Kicker
Out of necessity, Yoon will be the most important freshman on the entire roster – not just for week one – but for the entire season. If the Irish are going to make it to the College Football Playoff, like some have predicted, Yoon will have to be everything that Kelly thinks he is.
After making 75% of his kicks his first two years as the team’s kicker, Kyle Brindza struggled last season, making only 58.3% of the field goals he attempted. With Brindza now in the NFL, the Irish decided to hand off the reigns to the true freshman Yoon, who was the top ranked kicker in the nation according to 247Sports, and the second best by ESPN.
Early camp reviews have been impressive, with the young kicker being everything that the team had hoped for – reportedly connecting in the upper 70s on field goals from 40-49 yards.
Still practice is one thing, under the bright lights at Notre Dame Stadium for the season opener is another. We saw what happened when last year when the team had uneasy play from the kicker position, Yoon will be counted on early, often and all season.
C.J. Sanders, WR/Returner
Sanders, by the depth chart, will get first grabs at returning punts and could get a look at some kick returns as well. One look at his highlight reel, and you can just imagine what he could bring to the table as a returner. The young receiver isn’t listed on the offensive side, and may not see as much time there as he does on special teams, but that doesn’t mean he can’t make an impact.
Combined, Sanders had 1,051 rushing and receiving yards on 79 touches (13.3 yards per touch) his senior season. He scored touchdowns four different ways (8 receiving, 9 rushing, 2 punt return, 2 kick return), and could bring that same game breaking ability to the table solely as a special teamers this year.
Jerry Tillery, Defensive Line
Currently only behind Daniel Cage at the nose tackle position, Tillery is one of the more anticipated freshman to hit campus this year. Enrolling in January, Tillery was able to take part in all spring drills and will look to use that to make an immediate impact.
Standing at 6’6” and over 300 pounds, the Shreveport, Louisiana made 93 tackles, 15 for loss and seven sacks as a senior a year ago. With two freshman starting offensive linemen playing for the Longhorns, expect the Irish to bring a lot of pressure, as well as rotate out their players up front, including Tillery.
Tillery is an amazing talent, but this opportunity to make such a quick impact may not have been there without the unfortunate injury to Jarron Jones. The expectations are high, but everything that Tillery has done since arriving on campus has done nothing to make anyone doubt him living up to them.
Aliz’e Jones, Tight End
Notre Dame has done quite the job recruiting Bishop Gorman HS in Las Vegas, getting two recruits in this class, as well as Ronnie Stanley – perhaps the best tackle in college football – from the school.
Jones and Notre Dame make a perfect match, the former the top tight end in the country and the latter known for repeatedly churning out NFL talent at that position.
Currently mixed in with a hodge-podge of others on the depth chart, Jones’ elite talent could quickly elevate him above the rest. Durham Smythe currently sets at the top of the depth chart, and being mixed in with so many others as the backup could hurt Jones’ chance to make an impact against the Longhorns – but his talent could dictate otherwise.
Equanimeous St. Brown, Wide Receiver
An unique talent to go-along with an unique person, St. Brown will be a special person to watch during his time at South Bend. Listed behind Will Fuller – who emerged as one of the most dangerous receivers in the nation last year – as the team’s ‘X’ wide out spot, St. Brown has to shown an innate ability to go up and get the ball.
With such a deep group of wide receivers, it has to be also as tempting to sit him for a year – and get an extra year of him in the spotlight – as it is to imagine putting him in the game just to go-deep and have quarterback Malik Zaire chuck it up to him – the fact that he is currently the backup behind Fuller means Kelly is leaning towards the latter.
The Irish did a great job recruiting their most recent freshman class, getting five true freshman to make an impact is usually an accomplishment but Notre Dame have even more that could help later on during the season. These five though, thanks to their situation on the depth chart, have the best chance to showcase their skills week one.