Counting down the Irish: 10-6

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This is the fourth installment of “Counting down the Irish,” our annual ranking of the Top 25 players on Notre Dame’s roster. Click here for our ratings of players 25-2120-16, and 15-11.

We’re into our top ten. It’s time to start looking at the players that are going to drive the Irish either into the thick of the BCS race, or come up short of expectations in a season where hopes are growing by the day.

Three seniors and two juniors grace our list of five. All three seniors are playing their final season for the Irish, with two playing out their eligibility in four consecutive seasons and the other finding his way onto a scholarship for the first time in his career. This may be the group of guys that could shape the season — if these five plays to the peak of their potential, the Irish have a handful of All-American candidates ready to step onto the field.

Here’s our Top 25 as it stands:

25. Taylor Dever (OT, Sr.)
24. Chris Watt (OG, Jr.)
23. Zeke Motta (S, Jr.)
22. Aaron Lynch (DE, Fr.)
21. Carlo Calabrese (LB, Jr.)
20. TJ Jones (WR, Soph.)
19. Louis Nix (NT, Soph.)
18. Braxston Cave (C, Sr.)
17. Tommy Rees (QB, Soph.)
16. Prince Shembo (OLB, Soph.)
15. Trevor Robinson (OG, Sr.)
14. Ethan Johnson (DE, Sr.)
13. Dayne Crist (QB, Sr.)
12. Tyler Eifert (TE, Jr.)
11. Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE, Sr.)

Of the 15 players listed, there are six seniors (three in their final year of eligibility), four juniors, four sophomores, and a freshman. Four offensive linemen, two quarterbacks, four defensive linemen, two linebackers and a safety, wide receiver, and tight end each.

Once again, here’s our esteemed voting panel:

Frank Vitovitch of UHND.com
DomerMQ of HerLoyalSons.com
Eric Murtaugh of OneFootDown.com
Matt Mattare of WeNeverGradute.com
Matt & CW of RakesofMallow.com

RANKINGS

10. Robert Blanton (CB, Sr.): Starting only one game, the least in his three years in uniform for the Irish, 2010 could have been a lost season for Blanton. Instead, it was his best in an Irish uniform. Blanton played just about every position in the Irish secondary, and his seven TFLs were the most by an Irish DB in over a decade. At 6-foot-1, Blanton has prototypical size for Bob Diaco’s defense, and his athleticism was on full displayed when he blocked and returned a Utah punt for a touchdown, the biggest play of the season.

Highest ranking: 7th. Lowest ranking: 16th.

9. David Ruffer (K, Sr.): Ruffer started the season as an afterthought and ended it in the Irish record books. The former walk-on who had never played a game of football in his life before college went from unknown to a finalist for the Lou Groza Award after kicking 18 field goals to start the year, only missing his final attempt in the bowl game victory against Miami. Ruffer set a Notre Dame record making the first 23 field goal attempts of his career. Back as a fifth-year senior and finally on a scholarship, Ruffer will continue to kick field goals and compete with Nick Tausch and freshman Kyle Brindza for kickoff duties.

Highest ranking: 1st. Lowest ranking: 21st.

8. Theo Riddick (WR, Jr.): After struggling out of the gate, Riddick exploded against Michigan State, catching 10 balls for 128 yards and a touchdown against Michigan State. He caught 33 balls over four games before getting injured early against Western Michigan, essentially ending his productivity in the middle of October. Riddick has always been dangerous with the ball in his hands and he’ll likely see the ball early and often in 2011, fully recovered from a severe ankle sprain and ready to make an impact on special teams as well.

Highest ranking: 4th. Lowest ranking: 11.

7. Cierre Wood (RB, Jr.): After sitting out his freshman year, Wood burst onto the scene in Brian Kelly’s first spring game, breaking multiple long touchdowns and showing Irish fans they finally had another home run threat in the backfield. That explosiveness carried over to 2010, and every game Wood had over 10 carries he broke a run for at least 15 yards. With the rushing game likely leaning more on Wood in his second year in the backfield, there’s every reason to believe Cierre will build on the 603 yards and 5.1 per carry he averaged in 2010. Even in split duty, Wood lead the Irish in all-purpose yards with 1,073.

Highest ranking: 6th. Lowest ranking: 10th.

6. Darius Fleming (OLB, Sr.): It says a lot for Darius Fleming’s athleticism that the team leader in sacks and TFLs spent most of last season trying to learn on the job. Converting back to an outside linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 system, Fleming struggled regaining his instincts, and came on late in the season. One of the most effective pass rushers on the team, there’s reason to believe the immensely talented Chicago native will turn in a complete season now that he’s absorbed the defense.

Highest ranking: 3rd. Lowest ranking 11th.

ANALYSIS

After looking at the bottom-half of our top ten, I posed a few questions to our group. Because day jobs tend to get busy, I only heard from two guys. Consider this a showdown with MQ and Eric, with me lending some thoughts at the end.

In many ways Robert Blanton is a better fit in Bob Diaco’s scheme at cornerback than Darrin Walls was. What do you expect out of the cornerbacks this season?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — One of the really sneaky things about Blanton is that he’s not just good against the pass. He’s good at making plays on the ground too, be it in the form of sacks, regular tackles for loss against components of the ground game, or blowing up those long, lateral passes to the flanks that Weis used to swear were part of the running game. In fact, Blanton not only finished 5th in tackles, but 3rd in tackles-for-loss among Irish defenders. And he’s largely considered to be the 2nd best cornerback on the team. So long as the starters remain healthy, this should be a position of power for the 2011 Irish.

Eric @OneFootDown — I expect big things out of the corners this year mainly because I believe guys like Blanton are very talented and we saw this group take a big step forward last year. After another year in the system and being coached by this staff, I don’t see why we shouldn’t expect our starters to be among the best in the country.

David Ruffer was one of the best stories in all of college football last year, but even with his excellent year, the Irish special teams were fairly ordinary. Who’s the guy that’s going to be the biggest difference maker for the Irish special teams in 2011?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — It was Ruffer last year, and I see no reason to expect otherwise this year. That’s not to say I don’t look for big improvement among the rest of the Irish special teams in 2011.  It’s just to say that I’ve got that much faith in Ruffer.  I suspect watching Ruffer prepare to kick is a lot like what it used to be like to watch Jack Nicklaus prepare to putt. Eventually, seeing him nail it in a big situation just gets so common-place, it’s more of a shock when he misses.  Ruffer delivered on 18 of 19 attempts last year, and I’ll be pretty surprised if Kelly doesn’t trust him to take a few more long shots this year.

Eric @OneFootDown — It has to be the guy who returns punts and it looks like it will be Theo Riddick. The team desperately needs a jolt from this aspect of special teams, the blocking should improve, so now is the time to go out and make some plays. Punt returns last year were pretty much awful and this has to be a huge focus for the coaches this year.

Injuries robbed us of a true evaluation of Theo Riddick as a wide receiver. Will he be a pure No. 2 opposite Michael Floyd?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — There was an awful lot of hinting at the end of 2010 that Riddick might be made into more of a multi-position player than a pure slot receiver.  And while we’ve yet to see that come to fruition, I’ll be keeping an eye out for a lot of wrinkles to show up in the play-book that involve moving Riddick where the defense can’t match up, particularly by the mid-point of the season, just in time for Southern Cal.

Eric @OneFootDown — Without a doubt, I think Riddick will be a tremendous No. 2 receiver. In fact, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that he leads the team in some major receiving categories. That may seem shocking to some, but it was obvious that Theo was improving quickly last year before he was injured, and even still his numbers were pretty darn good.

What do you expect out of Cierre Wood in 2011. Will a lack of depth at running back cost the Irish?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — This ties in nicely with my expectations that Riddick will be moved around a lot – Wood’s set up for a big year, but even in the college game, surviving an entire season as an “every down back” is tough going. (Insert jokes about Kelly not running the ball enough here.)  Wood’s got all the capability in the world, and it’s his turn to step up, but it’ll take quite a confluence of factors for him to reach any hallmarks like a 1000 yard rushing season.

Eric @OneFootDown — I full expect Cierre Wood to prove why he’s the best running back Notre Dame has had in years. I’ve said from day one that I think he is a special runner and a special player, and Brian Kelly’s confidence in him just makes me believe he is ready to break out in a big way in 2011. However, I’m not sure a lack of depth is going to cost the Irish mainly because I think Kelly can win without a dominant run game if need be, and there are plenty of other guys in the offense who can pick up the slack.

Darius Fleming manages to lead the Irish in plays behind the line of scrimmage, all while looking like he’s learning on the job. What happens this year?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — “Looking like he’s learning on the job” is an interesting way to put it, considering a fun fact we managed to dig up in early November of 2010: By that point in the season, Manti Te’o was out-pacing Fleming in total tackles by 66.  Granted, trying to keep pace with Te’o is a tall order, but, at the same point in the season, 66 was equal to the total number of tackles recorded by the Irish’s #2 tackler, Harrison Smith. Despite that quirk, Fleming was 8th on the team in tackles by the finish of 2010, only 85 behind Te’o. Fleming’s ability to make big plays is certainly valuable, but he risks losing the opportunity to make those plays if the Irish coaching staff somehow identify a steadier player at the position.

Eric @OneFootDown — Fleming seemed to have the best year for a linebacker that no one even noticed in 2010. This year I think he’s ready to be a big force in games and everyone is going to notice how good he is. I don’t think that means he’ll be an All-American, but I’m banking on him being one of the top two or three defenders on the Irish squad.

MY THOUGHTS

Robert Blanton is a very good football player. He’s got good size, is always around the football, and loves to come up and tackle. He’s your perfect Cover 2 cornerback, and he’s got a chance to put together a nice career in the NFL if he can run a 4.5. With or without elite speed, Blanton has a nose for the football, great versatility, and solid football instincts. He’s a perfect program player, and has a chance to be a standout during his senior year.

Let’s get this out of the way now: It was DomerMQ that called David Ruffer the best player on the Irish and while I think it’s a preposterous statement, it’s not grounded in ridiculousness. Nobody else on the roster was a finalist for player of the year at their position. Now it’s up to Ruffer to convert all his extra points and for Brian Kelly to use Ruffer as an offensive weapon. Sticking with special teams, the Irish need to get more from Mike Elston’s troops. The Irish lost the field position battle too often last year. First things first, ND needs a punt return game, and we’ll likely see Theo Riddick back there, or potentially freshman running back Cam McDaniel. Anything to strengthen a pretty mediocre unit.

I’m not as sold on Theo Riddick as everybody else seems to be. I’ve got him just outside my top ten, which was lower than any of our panelists see him. To me, the numbers Riddick put up in the slot are more a credit to the system and the position, and while Theo’s got the athleticism in space to make an impact, I’m going to wait and see him make a few big plays before deciding he’s a legit No. 2 wide receiver. There’s reason to believe that Brian Kelly might use Theo as a Percy Harvin-type guy in his offense. If he’s able to do it, and put up even 70-percent of the numbers Harvin did in Gainesville, Irish fans should be thrilled.

This is the year where Cierre Wood decides whether or not he’s a top-flight running back. There’s a shocking lack of depth behind Wood, who was learning on the job last year and some Saturdays doing better than others. I expect Cierre to get 1,000 yards this year, and do it averaging more than five-yards a carry.

Lastly, call me crazy — but I’m expecting a monster year out of Darius Fleming. Everybody that plays the ‘cat’ linebacker in Bob Diaco’s system puts up big numbers, and Fleming looks like an All-American in his uniform, he just needs to get out of his own way and play like one. Food for thought, but at 6-foot-2, 250-pounds, Fleming is hardly a perfect fit for Kelly’s rush linebacker spot, but if Darius can learn how to balance pinning back his ears and chasing a quarterback with dropping into the flats and covering running backs, then he’s got every chance to get noticed by more than a few NFL teams.

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.

Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25

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Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, 25, reportedly died in his sleep Sunday morning. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

Schwenke spent four seasons along the Irish defensive front, culminating in a 23-tackle senior season, in 2013. Attrition along the defensive line in his first two seasons forced Schwenke into playing time, costing him a likely fifth-year with much greater production. He played in 31 games total, making 30 tackles.

Part of a Hawaiian surge in Notre Dame recruiting, Schwenke joined the likes of receiver Robby Toma and linebacker Manti Te’o in coming from the island in 2009 and 2010. The first two committed during Charlie Weis’ tenure, but Schwenke made the leap at the very beginning of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s career, one of the first recruits to commit to Kelly at Notre Dame. Since then, sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has renewed the trend.

Schwenke graduated in 2014 with a degree in anthropology. He then signed with the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs, moving around four different NFL franchises chasing his dream. Earlier this month he took part in a scouting event, The Spring League, gaining some notice when he forced Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel into a fumble.

Former Irish teammates took to social media Sunday afternoon celebrating Schwenke’s life and friendship.