NOTRE DAME — When the Notre Dame defense takes the field for the first time against Rice, it will field just three seniors.
Of those three seniors, only one will come into the game with starting experience at the university — safety Austin Collinsworth.
“This is the smallest senior class that I've had in a number of years, but that doesn't mean you can't have great leadership,” head coach Brian Kelly said during Media Day on Tuesday, Aug. 19. “I think we have solid leadership within our football team.”
Notre Dame has not released an official depth chart, but an educated prediction can be gleaned from a collection of Kelly’s previous comments and observations during fall camp practices.
Despite the inexperience, Kelly maintains that Notre Dame’s “expectations haven’t changed.” He still expects his team to compete for a spot in the college football playoff this season.
Kelly and his assistants were high on a variety of younger players during Media Day, assessing what each brings to his position.
“We have a lot of inexperienced players playing for us this year, and they'll get that opportunity playing the toughest schedule in the country,” Kelly said. “We will grow up quickly.”
Kelly and his assistants broke down some of his key athletes on defense:
Isaac Rochell, defensive end
“He's so physically strong. I mean, he is as strong a player as we have,” Kelly said. “He's going to make some mistakes, no question, but he's got a little experience from last year, and he can make up some of those bits of inexperience with his strength.”
“(He is) playing more physical,” defensive line assistant coach Mike Elston said. “He is playing with better pad level. We are still continuing to work on the pass rush, which is going to be a critical place for him to grow in. But he is playing faster and more aggressive, which in this scheme is needed.”
Max Redfield, safety
“Max Redfield probably is one of the most talented safeties from an athletic ability standpoint in the country,” Cooks said. “He has awesome range, awesome quickness, awesome speed and he’s a physical player. He’s a little bit more vocal. When he’s on the field, he’s locked in, focused and he really wants to get it right.”
Jaylon Smith, linebacker
“He’s as smart of a kid as I’ve ever coached,” outside linebacker coach Bob Elliott said. “I’m just amazed how he’s taken to it. ... One thing that’s interesting about Jaylon is that he’s so flexible and athletic that he can get his body into a bad position and still get out of it and make a very good play. I’ve never seen a guy be able to recover from a bad position better than Jaylon.”
James Onwualu, linebacker
“I saw him play during his senior year (of high school) and I had never seen him on tape because we had recruited him as an offensive player,” Elliott said. “I saw him play a version of strong safety that had him close to the line of scrimmage. I came back from that trip thinking he might be able to play defense for us as a safety. I had that in the back of my mind and expressed that from time to time. ... He was physical, played hard and had good footwork and speed so he was a natural.”
Nick Watkins, cornerback
“The volume is a lot right now for a young guy and he’s probably not used to the amount of coverages and the things we’re asking our corners to do, but he’s shown toughness and really good speed,” defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks said. “He’s a longer corner who’s able to open up his hips and run. For him, he just has to learn everything from square one.”