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The Journal Gazette

March 08, 2017 2:10 PM

Notre Dame's next wave of impact players

CHRIS GOFF | The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND – For the most part, we have an idea who the top returning players are for Notre Dame.

With the Irish beginning spring practice today, they have nine players back who are more or less proven commodities on offense: running back Josh Adams, tight end Durham Smythe, wide receivers Equanimeous St. Brown, Kevin Stepherson and C.J. Sanders, left tackle Mike McGlinchey, right tackle Alex Bars, center Sam Mustipher and left guard Quenton Nelson.

The established defenders returning are tackles Daniel Cage and Jerry Tillery, end Andrew Trumbetti, linebackers Nyles Morgan and Te'von Coney, cornerbacks Shaun Crawford, Julian Love and Donte Vaughn and safeties Drue Tranquill and Devin Studstill.

Picking the next wave of impact performers can be tricky, so what we've done is gone through and picked the 10 names most likely to emerge as key cogs for Notre Dame in 2017. The caveat is that they can't be an obvious starter, so that rules out quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

Here's our next wave of Irish difference-makers as gleaned from the spring roster, listed alphabetically:

Liam Eichenberg, OL, freshman: He sat out last season as a redshirt but enters 2017 a potential starter at right tackle, which could have Bars moving to right guard. Eichenberg was a big-time recruit.

Jalen Elliott, S, sophomore: If Tranquill moves to the "rover" position for new defensive coordinator Mike Elko, Elliott is in line to be the other starting safety alongside Studstill.

Daelin Hayes, OLB/DE, sophomore: Look out for the 6-foot-3, 255-pound Hayes coming off the edge in some of Notre Dame's new 3-4 alignments. Hayes had one of the team's eight forced fumbles last season and has a chance to be the best pass-rusher the Irish have produced under coach Brian Kelly.

Jay Hayes, DL, junior: The Irish are stocking up on promising linemen, and the 6-3, 281-pound Hayes is right there near the top. The coaching staff just needs to figure out if his home is inside or outside.

Alizé Jones, TE, sophomore: A season-long academic ban in 2016 was the only thing that kept Jones from already being one of Notre Dame's top playmakers. If he can stay eligible, he'll start to put up numbers in 2017.

Tommy Kraemer, OL, freshman: The four-star recruit arrived last season only to redshirt. Now he's ready to show the skill Notre Dame brought him in for.

Julian Okwara, DE, sophomore: The Irish will miss Isaac Rochell and his presence on the edge, but the 6-3, 235-pound Okwara is the next quality body along the defensive front in South Bend.

Nick Watkins, DB, junior: You might have forgotten about Watkins after he missed last season because of injury, but he's healthy again and will be used in several different roles for Notre Dame.

Dexter Williams, RB, junior: Just go back and turn on the tape from Oct. 1, when he ran eight times for 80 yards and a touchdown in a win at Syracuse. He needs to turn into a game-changing runner and is in great shape after what's been a big offseason for him thus far.

Brock Wright, TE, freshman: The top high school player in the country at his position, Wright has the size, hands and athleticism to be dominant at some point in his career.