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.

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover