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Don't Sleep on These Players - Talent Flying Under the Radar in 2024

Written by Clayton Stohler ⏐ Writer ⏐

Photo by The Irish Tribune


They came out of nowhere. Body of work, inconsistent. Unproven, but with all the tools. They were overlooked, overshadowed, and counted out. A forgotten relic, and cast aside as mere numbers on a jersey. Only to emerge from the grip of being "just another player". They were doubted. Accepted by the masses that their time had passed, or their ceiling was reached. But they didn't get the memo.


Every team has them, and every season yearns for their unexpected thrust into relevance. The athlete you didn't know you needed. The players that you slept on, but that gave you no choice but to open your eyes, and wake up.


Who are these players? What is their path?


Defense


Jaylen Sneed


The 5-star prospect hailing from South Carolina was recruited personally by Marcus Freeman when he was a defensive coordinator. Sneed had it all. Speed, length, and a GPA to match. He was, and is, a Notre Dame fit. A prospect that fans weren't used to stepping into South Bend, and better yet, staying, did just that. Casting off a trend of Notre Dame "shopping down a different aisle". Sneed marked a welcomed shift in recruiting strategy.


Sneed's athleticism continues to stand out when he has had a good understanding of the scheme. Unfortunately, that has been a rarity thus far. It is a phenomenon that has kept him off the field more than he'd probably like. And even then, when Sneed got his legs under him, number 3 was impossible to ignore.


Sneed is a versatile athlete that can play any linebacker position the staff wants him to, should he reach his ceiling. Although that probably won't be, nor should it be, asked of him. He offers a unique ability to bring pressure at every level of the field. In the box, from the edge, from the frickin' sideline. A Jaylen Sneed that reaches his ceiling, means mayhem on every play.


The growing anticipation for the likes of Jaiden Ausberry, KVA, and even Drayk Bowen have perhaps stolen some of the spotlight from Sneed. But make no mistake, Sneed had an impressive spring that somehow gets forgotten about. Watching in person, the way he tackled was menacing. If Sneed becomes what he can truly be, this defense takes another leap into title-worthiness.


Adon Shuler


As is well known, Notre Dame returns perhaps the best safety in the country in Xavier Watts, another ball-hawking missile in the secondary that offenses have to account for. In addition to Benjamin Morrison, Christian Gray, and Jaden Mickey, the secondary is certified elite. Only a handful of teams in the country are deserving of being in the conversation. Even then, there's room for improvement.


Opposite of Watts last year was a choice. Average, or below average. DJ Brown, or Ramon Henderson. Missed run fits, dropped interceptions, open field follies, or big plays allowed. You pick. The safety position opposite of Watts was hard to ignore, and difficult to justify. Every play that went wrong was usually followed by a replay showing Brown or Henderson behind the ball, diving at the ground, looking like they don't belong.


That ends in 2024. And it will end in large part to Adon Shuler. Potentially overlooked because of the transfer addition of Rod Heard II from Northwestern, Shuler showed himself to be an intimidating figure if nothing else during spring ball. Now that fall approaches, the battle between him and Heard II will be on full display. Shuler may very well win that battle. Quelling the worries, and silencing the echoes of Peyton Bowen faxing his commitment from Oregon, to Oklahoma, and back to Notre Dame (Just joking- I'll never know what happened that night, but would it shock you?)


Shuler taking the step means Notre Dame has almost zero holes on defense, with almost no way to attack the field on offense. A scary proposition for the entire country. Who was once one of the lowest ranked prospects in the class of 2023, could very well end up being Notre Dame's missing link in the secondary.


Rylie Mills


However much you're talking about Rylie Mills, you're not talking about him enough. The talented 3 technique with all the tools has had significant playing time now for 3 seasons. Next to Howard Cross, it's easy to blend in. But make no mistake - the light has only flickered, it has not been fully switched to the "on" position just yet.


An anonymous coach stated something to the effect, "I like Howard Cross. He's got a little Aaron Donald in him. It sounds crazy to say, but I think it's true." Could you imagine what Notre Dame's defensive line looks like if Mills takes the same step Cross took in 2023? With the tools he has at his disposal, it's hard to deny that Mills came back for a host of reasons. But one of the biggest being that he has potential first or second round talent in the NFL draft. If that potential delivers itself on film, there's no limit to the disruption Notre Dame can provide from it's front 7. It could very well make this defense generational.


Offense


KK Smith


Watching practice clips of KK Smith won't fully do justice to what he can bring to Notre Dame's wide receiver room. Being at the blue and gold game wasn't enough either. In person, Smith is easy to look past. He's slight in nature, looking like a true sophomore that simply hasn't put on weight in any significant way.


With Kris Mitchell being brought in from FIU as the team's self-proclaimed "burner" with "4.3 speed", it wasn't difficult to cast aside Smith as a depth piece. Even when the room was relegated to ruins last year prior to Oregon State, Smith's number was rarely in view of the TV screen.


But word is getting out. Teammates have raved about Smith's speed - being unanimously praised as the fastest player on the roster. There are some years where that wouldn't have carried as much weight. But on this roster, praise like that means everything.


Think back to a time when Mike Denbrock had play calling authority and access to elite speed at the receiver position. Perhaps Will Fuller rings a bell. And while it's unfair to heap expectations like that on Smith, the moments the ball finds him could be during Notre Dame's most explosive plays of the year.


For relevance sake, week 1 offers a keen opportunity to put his explosivity on full display. With Elko sure to be dead set on stopping Mitchell Evans, and not allowing a repeat of last year's performance versus Duke, the Aggies secondary will be bracketed on Evans. Leaving a window for Jaden Greathouse to up his volume tremendously. What could possibly happen if all eyes become fixated on Greathouse?


Rocco Spindler


Perhaps the most tired discussion coming out of spring camp is the lack of experience across Notre Dame's offensive line. Justified as it may be, an unsung anchor to said offensive line is Rocco Spindler. Emerging last year as a physical force in the run game, Spindler is poised to improve dramatically.


He preformed incredibly well during the spring game, and while there was a battle at the left guard position, that battle is all but over now. Ronnie Stanley, Sam Mustipher and Mike McGlinchey are just a couple examples of offensive linemen at Notre Dame that struggled early on their tenure to go on and pave exceptional NFL careers for themselves.


The offensive line is going to be better than most people think in week 1. The left guard position will be a major reason why.


Riley Leonard


Yes, really. The most hyped portal acquisition all year is being forgotten about. And for a host of reasons. CJ Carr and Kenny Minchey performing well in the spring game didn't help his cause. The ankle injury, and the history that comes with it hurt Leonard even more. Almost zero real time reps in the spring, a surging quarterback room waiting ever-so-close in the distance, and the fact that Notre Dame's fan base has been "burnt" in the recent past by portal acquisitions at quarterback have levied insurmountable standards onto what success looks like for Leonard.


But look back at the teams that came close to either making the playoffs, and even making a run. At Notre Dame, or otherwise, a lot of those teams were a Riley Leonard away from winning it all. With a roster this talented, Leonard doesn't have to win a Heisman, or come close to it, for this gamble to pay off.


NFL arm-talent, formidable size, elite athleticism- Riley Leonard looks like he was churned out of a quarterback factory. And yet he is oft forgotten, rarely mentioned when talking about reasons 2024 could be special. Fall camp will be the first step in silencing the worries, and illuminating hope once more.


A Word -


Ironically, the players on this list that have been slept on, could be the very reasons that Notre Dame takes the massive step from being the perennial 6th best team in College Football, to being the best. But there's not time for sleep now. We must all open our eyes, and watch.








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