Insider: Six breakout candidates for Notre Dame football
SOUTH BEND – A year ago at this time, it would have been a significant stretch to forecast the highly productive seasons Dexter Williams and Miles Boykin turned in for Notre Dame.
Heading into 2018, Williams had just 641 career rushing yards (along with eight touchdowns) while Boykin had just 334 career receiving yards and three touchdowns. When opportunity finally knocked, Williams and Boykin answered.
Who are the potential breakout performers for the Fighting Irish in 2019? With fall training camp set to begin Sunday at Culver Academies, here’s a look at six names to watch with intriguing upside:
Asmar Bilal, linebacker
After making 50 tackles last season from the rover position, including three for loss, Bilal will bounce inside as the primary replacement for middle linebacker Te’von Coney.
A graduate student from Ben Davis High School, the soft-spoken Bilal, who added a fumble recovery in the Cotton Bowl, is being counted on for more production and leadership. Due to his versatility, Bilal also could see time at the Buck spot formerly manned by close friend and mentor Drue Tranquill.
“He’s going to be a factor for us,” defensive coordinator Clark Lea said this spring. “He’s a guy that I think physically and in terms of his game experience enhances the unit. When you look at third down, it’s the ability to move guys into positions we think fit them best.”
Shayne Simon, linebacker
Yet another product of St. Peter’s Prep in New Jersey, the same school that sent Brandon Wimbush and the Ademilola twins (Jayson and Justin) to the Irish, Simon got his feet wet as a freshman last fall.
A gifted athlete at 6-3 and 230 pounds, Simon could see time at middle linebacker and the buck position. Army, Boston College and Duke were among his other finalists out of high school, where he played safety.
“As much as we liked what he was doing on the field (in spring ball),” Lea said, the coaching staff was impressed by “his physicality, his body type, just me looking at him physically and how he’s grown.”
Added Lea: “We don’t want to put limitations on where that frame will continue to grow. We see him as a factor in the box right now.”
Temitope Agoro, cornerback
In a wide-open derby for playing time opposite senior leader Troy Pride Jr., Agoro might be the best story of all.
A preferred walk-on from Riverdale, Md., the redshirt junior has steadily improved while earning trust on special teams. He also had three pass breakups in the Blue-Gold Game and tied for fourth with six tackles.
“Temi has done a really nice job,” coach Brian Kelly said after the spring game. “Sometimes he doesn’t get enough respect among our staff. Our players respect him. I remind our guys, even though he’s a walk-on, he’s earned every rep that he takes. He’s a physical player. He can do some really good things for us.”
Brock Wright, tight end
While Cole Kmet figures to get the bulk of the action in the passing game, Wright has slimmed down in hopes of becoming more than just a devastating short-yardage blocker.
Like the 6-5 Kmet, the Houston-area product offers a big target at 6-4½ and 250 pounds. Now that seventh-rounder Alize Mack is in New Orleans Saints camp after a disappointing college career, Wright will get a chance to show what he can do as an able running mate for Kmet.
“You can see a confidence in him after three years, getting his body right and just being in the offense and knowing how to execute at a high level,” offensive coordinator Chip Long said of Wright during the spring. “Brock’s always been a great worker, but you can see him having so much success out there. It has been a lot of fun for me to see.”
Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Tommy Tremble as well. Tremble, the son of a former All-SEC defensive back at Georgia in the early 1990s, emerged during spring practice while Kmet moonlighted on the mound with the Irish baseball team.
Jarrett Patterson, center
Three-year starter and co-captain Sam Mustipher now toils as an undrafted free agent with the Chicago Bears, where he and former Irish guard Alex Bars have been reunited with former Irish assistant Harry Hiestand.
Into the void steps a talented redshirt freshman from Laguna Hills, Calif., a former four-star recruit who spurned fellow finalists Michigan and UCLA. Patterson moved inside from left tackle with zero experience at center before spring practice, but that didn’t stop the 6-4½, 300-pounder from impressing with his quick adjustments, consistent snapping and ability to make calls at the line.
Offensive line coach Jeff Quinn was so confident in Patterson’s ability to make the move, he had team managers place a football in Patterson’s locker immediately after the Cotton Bowl loss to Clemson. The unspoken suggestion: It was up to Patterson to work on his new position from that moment forward.
Jacob Lacey, defensive tackle
Of the 10 early enrollees last spring, Lacey was the one who seemed to move the meter the most. Athletic and skilled beyond his years, the four-star recruit from Bowling Green, Ky., made fans throughout the coaching staff and won the respect of older players with his work ethic and production.
“I’m pretty high on Lacey,” Kelly said. “We think he’s an outstanding player that can give us immediate depth.”
Junior Kurt Hinish is slated to take over for Jonathan Bonner at nose tackle, but Lacey should push for playing time if he keeps progressing.
Follow Notre Dame Insider Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.