Blue and Gold Illustrated

Preseason 2016

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 38 of 99 PRESEASON 2016 39 chell has been the team's best run defender along the front line. Now a senior, Rochell is in posi- tion to do more than just provide steady play. At least that is what Notre Dame needs from him during his final season. Rochell checked into fall camp at 290 pounds, which is as big as he has ever been in college. Despite the weight, Rochell is in arguably the best shape of his career, which is evidenced by the improved quickness and agility he has shown during camp. Rochell has been dis- ruptive throughout the practices, and he's the lone Irish end that can re- motely hold up against McGlinchey. Rochell wore down late in the 2015 season, so the hope is that his reps can be limited, allowing him to be fresher and stronger during the second half of games. His ability to hold the edge and make more plays would have a significant impact on the Notre Dame run defense. 9. WR/KR/PR C.J. SANDERS During his freshman season, C.J. Sanders became the first Irish player since 2002 to return both a kick and a punt for a touchdown. Not only that, Sanders displayed a knack for rip- ping off big returns in key moments. A hip flexor injury cost him the en- tire spring, and created some doubt about his health for the 2016 season. Sanders recovered quickly and is back to full speed, which puts him in position to become a top playmaker. With a year of experience in the system, Sanders looks far more com- fortable on offense. Dramatic im- provements with his route-running technique have resulted in him be- ing a matchup nightmare in practice. Notre Dame's safeties and lineback- ers have not been able to run with Sanders, who receivers coach Mike Denbrock cited as the most likely next option to Hunter Jr. Just as impressive is how well Sand- ers has caught the ball. He shows a bet- ter catching radius than one would ex- pect from a 5-8 receiver, which makes him a legitimate downfield threat. Sanders will continue to get op- portunities in the return game, but he should now add at least 40-50 more touches on the offensive side of the ball. Notre Dame did not have a game changer in the slot last season, but Sanders is set to be just that. 10. CB SHAUN CRAWFORD Starting at the nickel position was always the plan for sophomore cor- nerback Shaun Crawford. He was set to play there a season ago before a knee injury ended his season in the middle of fall camp. His knee has healed, and Crawford has regained his speed and quickness, creating a smooth transition back into the start- ing nickel spot. Crawford has a knack for making plays from this position. He is ag- gressive coming downhill against the perimeter run game, he attacks the perimeter screen game effectively and he provides a man coverage abil- ity Notre Dame lacked at the position the last two seasons. Having Crawford healthy and ac- tive in the slot gives VanGorder far greater personnel flexibility than he had a season ago. The result should be more aggressive coverages and pres- sures out of the nickel alignments. The loss of junior Nick Watkins has also opened up a potential starting position for Crawford at left corner- back. Regardless of where he plays, he should have an appreciable impact on the Notre Dame defense. ✦ Breakout Candidates A number of other potential breakout candidates could have a significant impact on Notre Dame's 2016 season. 1. WR Equanimeous St. Brown Throughout fall camp, St. Brown has steadily improved, making more and more plays. Notre Dame needs a downfield weapon to emerge, and St. Brown possesses the skills sets to be that player. St. Brown has excellent size at 6-4, he has vertical speed and his ball skills continue to improve. Big things could be ahead this fall. 2. SS Drue Tranquill Now fully recovered from the second ACL injury of his Notre Dame career, Tranquill has entrenched himself as the starting strong safety. At 6-1½ and 225 pounds, Tranquill is built like a linebacker, but he runs like a safety. Tranquill has been praised for his playmaking ability, and the Irish secondary desperately needs more of that. 3. RT Alex Bars While left tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson rightfully get most of the publicity, Bars has quietly put together a strong fall camp. Throughout his career, he has been praised for his potential. Bars is finally tapping into that ability, and doing so on a consistent basis could be the key to Notre Dame's line being a truly dominant unit. 4. TE Nic Weishar Losing Alizé Jones for the season to an academic suspension sapped the Irish of a poten- tial top playmaker. It created a major hole in the offense, but one Weishar has spent fall camp trying to fill. Weishar is a savvy pass catcher and put together a strong camp performance. If that car- ries over into the regular season, he could help elevate the overall passing game. 5. LB Asmar Bilal It is likely that three players spend time at the Will linebacker position, but the one player with the athleticism to become the most dynamic is Bilal. He is still learning the position and adding strength to his thin frame is a must, but his speed and range are borderline elite. The faster Bilal becomes more comfortable with the defense, the more plays he will make. After sitting out his freshman season, linebacker Asmar Bilal will look to become a defensive force. PHOTO BY ANDREW IVINS

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