Counting down the Irish: the Top 25 players

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As I mentioned last week, ESPN’s top five Notre Dame players got me thinking of a fun summer project that could help us get to preseason training camp. So, without further ado, here’s the official kick-off of said summer project: The Top-25 players on the Irish roster.

A little background:

Lists like this are by definition subjective. But the goal was to try and list the top players on this season’s roster, in order of their ability. (Consider this the training wheels version of the list Peter King made a few years back when he ranked the top 500 players in the NFL.) Who do you think is the best player on the Irish roster? Is he the most important for the team’s success? The one most likely to get picked in the first round of the NFL Draft? There are plenty of variables when trying to come up with a list like this.

Since even I’m getting sick of my own opinion, I enlisted some help from other Notre Dame voices around the blogosphere. You’ve probably seen many of their websites or read something from them on a message board. I kept the directions as minimal as possible, mostly to let them determine what they thought was important when doing their rankings, and hopefully get some better diversity in their lists.

Here’s our roster of judges:

Frank Vitovitch of UHND.com
Anthony Pilcher of ClashmoreMike.com
Matt Quirion of HerLoyalSons.com
Chris Wilson and Matt Barcus of RakesofMallow.com
Pat Rigney, Man of the people, non-blogger. 

Today, we’ll roll out rankings 25-21, with a brief rationale behind the decision. Complaints, comments, rankings, and just about everything else (except those pesky spam comments) are welcome below.

IRISH TOP 25: 25-21

Frank:

25. Shaquelle Evans, WR: Didn’t see much action down the stretch in 2009, but could be the heir apparent to Michael Floyd.
24. Jamoris Slaughter, DB: Showed some flashes at strong safety last year and has the potential to be a very good defensive back.
23. Nick Tausch, K: I really hope this is too low of a ranking for Tausch.
22. Robert Blanton, CB: Looked great as a freshman in 2008, but took a step back in 2009. Will have to fight off Walls and Gray for one of the starting spots at CB.
21. John Goodman, WR: With so little experience behind Michael Floyd at wide receiver it’s tough project where the other receivers rank at this point.

Anthony:

25. Nick Tausch, K: Rising sophomore should build off a strong freshman campaign.
24. Braxston Cave, C: Incredible strength to go with a mean streak.
23. Jonas Gray, RB: Fumbling problems limit a back with great size, speed, and quickness.
22. Mike Ragone, TE: Back-up TE with good speed is also a good fit for the spread offense.
21. Kerry Neal, OLB: Better equipped for the outside of a 3-4, should provide good pass rushing ability.

Matt:

25. Duval Kamara, WR: The senior is only on the list at all because of what he did his freshman year.
24. Kerry Neal, OLB: Looked like a spark of hope in 2007’s 3-9 campaign, and then he disappeared.
23. Dayne Crist, QB: This is low because he hasn’t done anything — yet — and we enjoy meteoric rises.
22. Mike Ragone, TE: Tiiiime is no longer on your side…
21. Robert Hughes, RB: Had one of the very few 100+ yard rushing games on this roster — three years ago.

Matt and Chris:

25. Louis Nix, DT: The kind of DT prospect ND rarely sees. All we have to go on is his recruiting film, but to quote Aaron Neville: “I don’t know much, but I know I love you.”
24. Nick Tausch, K: Showed great potential last year hitting 14 consecutive field goals to set a new ND record. Did we mention that he’s got three more years of eligibility left?
23. John Goodman, WR: Watch this
22. Duval Kamara, WR: It’s been a roller coaster career for Kamara (mostly lows recently), but you gotta believe a fresh start in Kelly’s offense will help him go out on a high-note.
21. Zack Martin, OT: One of the more consistent spring performers, the redshirt freshman may be the LT starter for years to come.

Pat:

25. Harrison Smith, DB: Hopefully the position changes ending will allow Harrison to perform well next season.
24. Duval Kamara, WR: Another receiver that should get a lot of balls thrown his way in Kelly’s offense.
23. Robert Blanton, CB: Passed on the depth chart by Gary Gray, he was second on the team last season in INTs and should see time next season.
22. Mike Ragone, TE: Now or never. He showed he has speed after chasing down the WSU defensive back. If he can stay healthy, he has a good shot at being very productive.
21. Jamoris Slaughter, DB: As Kyle McCarthy’s replacement, he has big shoes to fill.

Keith:

25. Nick Tausch, K: As much as people talk about Tausch’s streak, I can’t stop thinking about the two field goals he missed against Navy, and the early-game jitters he displayed.
24. T.J. Jones, WR: I’m hesitant to rank him too high after a big spring, but he could easily become one of the Irish’s better playmakers.
23. Taylor Dever, RT: I’ve got a feeling Dever will stay off most lists, but I’m pretty high on the projected starter at right tackle, and think Ed Warinner will turn Dever into a solid player.
22. Gary Gray, CB: Cautiously optimistic about Gray’s ability to make “the leap” this season after showing some promise last year.
21. Theo Riddick, WR: Another guy who could flourish in the spread, I also expect him to make some noise in the return game.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.