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Notre Dame Football

Who will be the next Coney, Okwara, or JOK?

January 26, 2021

Aside from winning 10 games or more in each of the last four years, every team Brian Kelly has coached on this run has one thing in common: they’ve had multiple players make a significant leap during their third year in the program.

In 2017 it was Te’von Coney and Jerry Tillery. The next year it was Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem, Troy Pride, and Jalen Elliott. In 2019 it was Cole Kmet, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and Drew White. Last season it was Jarrett Patterson and Tommy Tremble.

Tillery, Elliott, and Patterson were the only full-time starters out of that group before they made the leap. For the most part, each of them was unproven even if they had played a good amount of football. They all became key pieces to Notre Dame’s success.

As we enter this offseason with the Irish coming off of another College Football Playoff appearance, they are again forced to reload. They’re losing three consensus All-Americans and the top blocking tight end in the country. They have six players competing at the Reese’s Senior Bowl this week, including the winningest quarterback in school history. If they’re going to continue to compete for the CFP, they’ll need more players in their third year to step up in a big way.

There are some intriguing candidates from Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting class who should have the right mix of talent and opportunity to make that third year leap for the Irish.

DT Jacob Lacey

Lacey’s 2020 season was forgettable after an impressive debut as the number two nose tackle in ‘19. He should have been pushing Kurt Hinish for equal snaps, but an injury saw Lacey play 98 less plays than the previous year and he wasn’t healthy all season.

With some time to get back to full strength, Lacey can be someone who can go from useful to disruptive at defensive tackle. The talent is there even if the path to playing time isn’t wide open with Hinish returning.

OL Zeke Correll, OL Andrew Kristofic, and OL Quinn Carroll

Correll is the only one of this crew to play outside of garbage time and he only saw the field after Patterson went down for the season with an injury. With four of five starters gone, though, there is a possibility that all three could start in 2021.

Correll seems the most likely to make the leap with what he already showed in his late-season audition. Kristofic could be in the mix for the starting left tackle job and we know how that typically works out during the Kelly era. If he were to win that job, the odds are high that he will be a stud for the Irish.

DE Isaiah Foskey and DE NaNa Osafo-Mensah

Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji are gone. Notre Dame is going to need edge rushers to step up and they have two former blue-chip recruits from the ‘19 class who are in a prime position to play a lot more because of that.

Foskey has shown incredible flashes of brilliance and has the type of physical and athletic traits that will make him an NFL prospect. It feels like he is a sure-thing to have a breakout type of year as long as he develops like he should this offseason.

It’s much more of an unknown with Osafo-Mensah. He was injured for much of the ‘20 season and didn’t even get a chance to crack the defensive line rotation. This is more about the opportunity being there for him to make a splash.

Saying that the strong side end position is an open competition this spring and fall would be an understatement. Justin Ademilola is the only player with experience returning. Osafo-Mensah was an unrefined player, but his raw talent was obvious in high school. We’ll see if that will emerge this season.

LB Jack Kiser and LB Marist Liufau

Liufau is the perfect choice to go from developing to great. He surged late in the season with an eye-catching performance as a blitzer against North Carolina and then outpaced Shayne Simon in snaps at Buck in the final two games by a significant margin. He was on the field for 89 plays. Simon played 27.

He was better in every area of his game as the season progressed. It makes sense that he’ll be ready to make more of an impact in ‘21.

Everyone saw Kiser shine against South Florida early and then come up with an interception against Boston College later in the year. With a new position coach and new scheme, Kiser could be in position for big things this fall.

S KJ Wallace

This may be a bit of a surprise to some, but part of the reason to choose Wallace is having a new position coach (to be determined at safety) and a new scheme that could see Notre Dame play three safeties on the field a lot more than they did in ‘19.

Wallace has the skills to compete as a nickel corner as well. He hasn’t seen the field much in his first two years in South Bend, but he is someone to watch in his third year.

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