Counting down the Irish: the Top 25 players


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
Anthony Pilcher of
Matt Quirion of
Chris Wilson and Matt Barcus of
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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.