It is hard to believe with the arctic winter blast residing around the Golden Dome which is refusing to leave but spring football practice actually starts this weekend for Notre Dame. Notre Dame (12-1) will be looking to build off of their 1st playoff appearance under Brian Kelly with a roster full of depth, talent and returning experience. Let's take a look at the top 25 returning players on the Notre Dame football roster going into spring practice.
1. S Alohi Gilman - The safety transfer from Navy who was only a 2-star player coming out of Hawaii could and should be a captain this year after his leadership was on full display on and off the field. Gilman instantly impacted the ND secondary last season by finishing 2nd on the team in tackles with 94 while recording 2 interceptions along with 5 pass breakups and 3 forced fumbles. Alohi clearly has a nose for the football and should be a preseason All-American pick.
You never know how Strong you are until you have to Protect Something— Alohi Gilman (@alohigilman) February 26, 2019
This is who I Protect 💉☘️ pic.twitter.com/CX4NPQw7nF
2. CB Troy Pride - Pride has some big footsteps to fill as the leading field cornerback position with consensus All-American Julian Love leaving early for the NFL. In the 2nd half of the season one could argue Pride was just as valuable if not better as Love. Pride finished the season with 10 pass breakups and 2 interceptions and also forced a fumble. Pride has the prototypical NFL size at cornerback and with a great senior season could make himself an easy 1st round choice.
3. DE Julian Okwara - Okwara is coming off a breakout junior season in which he led the Fighting Irish in tackles for loss (12.5), sacks (8), and quarterback pressures/hits (21). The younger brother of Romeo started off slow last season but in the last 10 games it would be hard to find a better edge rusher in the nation.
4. QB Ian Book - Book stepped in last season for an ineffective Brandon Wimbush in week 4 and all he did was lead Notre Dame to an undefeated regular season along with a playoff berth. Book completed nearly 70% of his passes and also rushed for 4 TD on top of the 19 TD in the air. Despite the poor Cotton Bowl performance Book is the unquestioned QB starter and should be named a captain.
4. DE Khalid Kareem - The biggest recruits ND got this year was the return of defensive ends Okwara and Kareem for their senior seasons. Kareem also had a breakout junior season in which he tied Jerry Tillery for 2nd on the team in tackles for loss (10.5), 2nd in QBH (8) and 3rd in sacks (4.5). Oh yeah he also tied Gilman in passes broken up with 5. It's gonna be fun to watch Kareem and Okwara on the edge all season getting after the QB.
5. OL Robert Hainsey - Hard to believe Hainsey will be just a junior after starting every game his sophomore season and seeing action in every game his freshman season. It remains to be seen if he stays at right tackle or if they decide to move him to left tackle but Hainsey is the leader of what should be an outstanding offensive line with 4 starters returning.
6. OL Liam Eichenberg - Big Liam had 866 snaps last season, just one behind Hainsey, after starting all 12 games at left tackle. Entering his redshirt junior season Eichenberg has the size and arm length to be an elite tackle, he just needs to work on his footwork. Entering spring I kind of hope Eichenberg stays at left tackle and Hainsey at right tackle because if it isn't broke why fix it?
7. OL Tommy Kraemer - Kraemer took a little bit of a step back last season after starting 12 games his sophomore season (2016) but still started 9 games at guard for one of the best offensive lines in the country. Tommy Boy will be counted on to take a step forward this year during his redshirt junior season and right now is penciled in to start at right guard.
8. S Jalen Elliott - What a difference a year makes for ole Jalen! Elliott has started every game the last two seasons at safety but last year he broke out leading the team in interceptions (4) while making 63 tackles and 6 pass break ups. The charismatic Elliott should team up with Gilman to lead one of the best secondaries in the country in 2019.
9. WR Chase Claypool - Claypool returns for his senior season after finishing 2nd on the team in receptions, reception yards, and TD catches the last two seasons. With his size (6'4) and experience (played in every game since enrolling) it's now time for Claypool to step up and play like an All-American. He's got the talent and he's got the chance to make himself a lot of money with a breakout senior season.
10. RB Jafar Armstrong - The converted WR only started two games last season but still ran for 377 yards and 7 TD, including 2 vs Michigan. Armstrong is a threat out of the backfield to catch the ball too. He should be the bell cow rusher with Dexter Williams departure to the NFL. I'm expecting 1000 yards rushing and double digit TD for Armstrong in 2019.
11. OL Aaron Banks - Started the last 5 games for the injured Alex Bars and finished 5th in snap counts for one of the best offensive lines in the nation. Banks was just scratching the surface of his potential last season and entering his redshirt sophomore season you should see a huge jump for him at one of the guard positions. The key for Banks is keeping his weight down.
12. WR Chris Finke - Enrolled at Notre Dame as a walk on who earned a scholarship last fall and a starting position. Finke finished 3rd on the team with 47 catches and 547 yards receiving. Finke is also a valuable punt returner who has solid hands.
13. DE Daelin Hayes - While Daelin has never lived up to his 5-star billing coming out of high school he is still a solid contributor finishing 3rd in quarterback hits last season. Maybe this year it all comes together for him and he finally has that breakout season we all expected when he arrived at Notre Dame.
14. TE Cole Kmet - With Alize Mack's departure it's time for Kmet to finally be getting starting playing time at tight end. The 6'6 freak will be competing with fellow junior classmate Brock Wright and freshmen Tommy Tremble and George Takacs while also hurling off the ND baseball bump as their closer.
15. LB Asmar Bilal - The only returning starting linebacker finished the season 6th on the team in tackles and will most likely move from his rover position to weakside linebacker. The 5th year senior will be counted on to help an inexperienced but very talented group of linebackers.
16. DT Kurt Hinish - Hinish and MTA are both being counted on to step in for departed seniors Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner this spring. Expect a big jump in production for Hinish who I believe can be just as good as Tillery was last season.
17. DT Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa - Lord Myron basically missed all of his sophomore season when he broke his foot vs Michigan in the season opener. This year the reserve will be a starter along with Hinish and should give the Fighting Irish a more powerful push than they had last season.
18. LB Shayne Simon - Simon is expected to be plugged into Clark Lea's Rover position this spring. It's the position he was specifically recruited for by Lea and one in which he should flourish with his natural instincts for the football.
19. RB Tony Jones Jr. - Listen we all know Tony isn't the fastest, quickest or most elusive back on the roster but he's the most reliable. You know he's gonna pick up the blitz and you know he's gonna make a big catch out of the backfield. But he isn't out running somebody that's for sure.
20. WR Kevin Austin - The coaching staff and fan base is expecting big things out of the rising sophomore as a starting WR spot is open for him with leading receiver Miles Boykin electing to skip his 5th year. Can Austin make the sophomore jump in WR production similar to what we've seen in the past with Will Fuller and Golden Tate? I sure as shit hope so.
21. DE Ade Ogundeji - I'll be the first to admit I didn't expect anything from Ade much less be able to pronounce his name but he was a pleasant surprise last season as a reserve. He recorded 20 tackles with 2 tackles for loss and one pass break up. Now an upper classman it wouldn't shock me if he's one of the best defensive linemen on the team.
22. DT Jayson Ademilola - Jayson got thrown in to the fire early last season when Lord Myron broke his foot and played solid for a true freshman. His 19 tackles were only 4 behind starter Bonner and he actually had 1.5 tackles for loss when Bonner had zero. The more you take a look at the roster you realize just how deep and talented the defensive line is when a guy like Jayson A isn't even expected to start. Credit to position coach Mike Elston for crushing it in recruiting.
23. LB Jordan Genmark Heath - JGH will be competing with Bilal for the starting weakside linebacker position and could easily win it with a strong spring. He's got great length and going into his 3rd year in the program he should be comfortable with his assignments.
24. CB Donte Vaughn - Vaughn caught a lot of grief from fans including myself last season for his inability to knock down balls but as we found out later he was playing with a torn labrum all season. Vaughn had shoulder surgery after he was exposed vs Clemson when he filled in for an injured Julian Love in the 2nd quarter. He should be looking at a 6 month recovery time which means he will miss all of spring ball but if he comes back healthy I expect him to make the same jump in production that Jalen Elliott did this year. The talent and size is there for Donte he just needs to get healthy and confident going into his senior season.
25. LB Jonathan Jones - This one is just a total shot in the dark as we haven't seen much of anything from Jones but I think Jones has a great spring and wins a close battle with Bo Bauer for the MLB position. Probably has to do with his high school film. Coming out of Florida he reminded me a lot of Mo Crum. Same size and similar skillset. I hope I'm right.