Counting down the Irish: Analyzing the top five

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This is the sixth 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, 15-11, 10-6, and 5-1.

The list is out. And thanks to our team of panelists, here’s the Top 25 players on the Notre Dame roster as they head into 2011 camp. Again, we reserve the right to be completely wrong.

If you’ve got complaints, direct them here:

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

2011 IRISH RANKINGS

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.)
10. Robert Blanton (CB, Sr.)
9. David Ruffer (K, Sr.)
8. Theo Riddick (WR, Jr.)
7. Cierre Wood (RB, Jr.)
6. Darius Fleming (OLB, Sr.)
5. Gary Gray (CB, Sr.)
4. Zack Martin (LT, Jr.)
3. Harrison Smith (S, Sr.)
2. Manti Te’o (ILB, Jr.)
1. Michael Floyd (WR, Sr.)

Only two points separated Michael Floyd (147) from Manti Te’o (145). After that, there was a significant drop-off to Harrison Smith, and Zack Martin, Gary Gray, and Darius Fleming were separated by a collective three voting points. If you’re looking for the guys that the group found really polarizing, the widest variances were Trevor Robinson (Matt had him rated 3rd, DMQ had him unranked), Dayne Crist (Matt had him rated 4th, DMQ had him unranked), and obviously David Ruffer (DMQ put him at No. 1, while Matt had him at 21.)

After looking over the list, I posed some questions to the group. Here are some of their answers, one set only in haiku form. (Ed. Note: Frank was traveling and unable to participate. I didn’t want you guys to think I thought his answers stunk.)

ANALYSIS

Gary Gray really elevated his play under Chuck Martin and Kerry Cooks. While Robert Blanton and Gray will anchor the cornerback spots, in 2012 it’ll be an almost entirely new secondary. What young cornerbacks do you see stepping up?

Eric @OneFootDown —I think Lo Wood will be a serviceable backup, in that he will play better than most believe he will. After that, I think three freshman will fight hard with Bennett Jackson and try to see some time. If Eilar Hardy doesn’t start out at safety he should be pushing hard for playing time. Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson will also be in the mix. Ideally, all of these players would get experience in 2011, although it might not be feasible.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — I’m a huge Eliar Hardy fan. He pledged to Notre Dame early in last year’s cycle and got lost in the shuffle thanks to the roller coaster recruitments of Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, and Ishaq Williams, but this kid is a stud with the versatility to play corner or safety. The lack of depth will mean he’ll be thrown into the fire right away and those reps will go a long way in getting him the necessary experience for when he’s locking down one side of the field in 2012.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow
There’s no substitute
For a sure-tacklin’ fifth-year
Well, maybe Darby

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — Um… pass?  It’s not that I don’t think someone will step up, it’s just that I don’t like the prospects. Or, really, I don’t like the waiting. Gray and Blanton already play at a very high level. It’ll be a damned miracle if whatever comes next isn’t a serious downgrade for at least a season.

Zack Martin came out of nowhere to anchor the offensive line. Who is the lineman that comes out of nowhere in 2011?

Eric @OneFootDown —I think it has to be Chris Watt just because he hasn’t seen a lot of playing time but he played really well last year when he did. Likely to be anchored next to another great linemen in Zack Martin at left tackle, Watt should really thrive in his first full season as a starter.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate— Well the easiest and clearest candidate to me is Andrew Nuss. No, he’s not new, but at the end of spring he was listed ahead of Chris Watt at the guard spot opposite Trevor Robinson which was a huge eyebrow raiser. It’s not as if Watt had  a poor spring–by most accounts he actually had a very good one–Nuss just played that well.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow
Ten was Martin’s year
Almost all back for ‘leven
Heggie twenty-twelve?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — [Insert joke here about offensive linemen sneaking around on tip-toes. ] Despite the loss of Chris Stewart, 2011 should really serve as an “establishment year” for the OL. Everyone on the line knows their job and should know it well, within Kelly’s system. I think there’s less opportunity for surprise this year.  That said, I missed the questions about Trevor Robinson last week, so let me say this: I sure hope he comes back to being the Trevor Robinson we knew and loved before last year. Either he was completely confused in 2010 or/and he had one hell of a nagging injury. Trust me on this: go look back at games where ND had a successful running game, marvel at how little Robinson participated in that success.

Harrison Smith has seen his reputation elevate significantly in one calendar year. Let’s say the Irish season ended with Ronald Johnson catching the long pass against Smith and Harrison didn’t have a career day against Miami. Would he be the third best player on the roster?

Eric @OneFootDown —Highly doubtful, although we’d probably be talking about Harrison as a very solid safety coming into 2011 which, when you think about it, is still a significant jump in performance from his rather awful sophomore season.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate— I’m not a fan of this sort of hypothetical simply because there’s no reason to put a negative spin on situations. What if Southern Cal would’ve converted all those opportunities when Tommy Rees turned it over in Irish territory? What if Manti Te’o’s knee injury against Miami would’ve been serious? What if Harrison was actually playing receiver for the Canes like Jacory Harris thought he was?

Would Smith be considered the third best player on the roster with these stipulations? Probably not. But Johnson did drop that pass and he did have that career day against The U. Those two instances didn’t define Smith in my eyes; what defined him and landed him his high ranking was the fact that he bounced back after a Clifford Jefferson-esque disaster of a 2009 campaign and became the defensive leader many pegged him to be.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow
With a RoJo catch
And a warmer El Paso
We’d be ’bout Motta

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — No, but that’s what happened, and so he is. Maybe in some alternate universe Harrison Smith is a 3rd string DB at Vanderbilt, I’m richer than Bill Gates, and Notre Dame has a reputation as a party school, but that’s just not the case.  Harrison’s rise may have been slightly less meteoric if, say, Miami’s passing game weren’t reminiscent of playing catch with my 8 month old, but even before that moment (and even before the Souther Cal game), Harrison was already making big strides. His play improved steadily as the season went on, and even if you took away his 13 credited tackles in the final 2 games of the season, he’d rank among the top 3 tacklers on the squad.

We’ve all seen Manti Te’o’s athleticism on display. We’ve all seen him miss a few tackles. What’s a realistic projection for his junior season?

Eric @OneFootDown —The realistic projection is for Te’o to be the best linebacker in the country. He will have a very good set of linemen in front of him, he’s very experienced for a true junior, and his defensive coordinator was one heck of a linebacker in college. What’s more, the linebackers and specifically the middle linebackers are a key focal point in this 3-4 defense and Te’o has all the ability in the world to be the best at his position in the nation.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — Te’o’s on the way to superstardom. Right now, he’s the best Notre Dame linebacker since Courtney Watson and by the end of the year you’ll be able to mention him in the same breathe as Stonebreaker, Bolcar, and Lynch. He’s that good.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow
The sky, the heavens
The moon, the stars, Ray Lewis
Not to oversell

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons— I wont project, but I do hope for wisdom. And Te’o’s certainly talked a good game when it comes to appreciating the need for wisdom. More than a few times last year he saw the opportunity for the big hit, wiffed, and gave up a big play (or, at least, big enough to suffer another set of downs for the opposition). I hope Te’o’s gained the wisdom to see more opportunities in big plays, rather than big hits, and applies all that natural ability to excellent technique in 2011. If he does, there may not be a lot of tackles left for the rest of the Irish.

Obviously, Michael Floyd’s inclusion on this list means we’re all confident he’ll be playing for the Irish this season. Assuming he gets through this year without any off-the-field incidents, what should Michael Floyd’s legacy at Notre Dame be?

Eric @OneFootDown — With another productive season I think Floyd will be in the discussion for the best receiver in school history. We’ll always talk about his injuries and the fact that he played with Clausen and in pass happy offenses, but if he keeps ups the same productivity we’ve seen in the past it will be tough to argue with four years of more or less dominance when he’s on the field. If Floyd has a couple more games where he plays outstanding in big wins, his case will be even stronger.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — That’s tough because it’s so dependent on what happens this year. Through three years I’d call it one of the biggest teases in ND history. He’s never made it through an entire year getting hurt and missing time–which makes his career statistics even more mind-boggling. The entire receiving record book is going to be rewritten if he can stay on the field for even just a handful of games. Floyd is capable of delivering a year for the ages in a pass happy offense in 2011. If that happens his legacy will be that he was the most prolific and probably the greatest receiver in ND history. If not, then the way I’ll think of him down the road is “man, what could have been.”

MB&CW @RakesofMallow
Lest we all forget
Moppin’ floors to catchin’ scores
He’s come a long way

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons— Understated. Assuming, just for a moment, as much as it pains me, that the Irish wont win the BCS Championship this season, then Floyd’s legacy will be that of opportunity missed. He wasn’t part of the 2007 campaign, but, despite being one of the most gifted athletes in all of college football, he has been part of some rather underwhelming efforts. Statistics are impressive, but wins are glorious, and while his overall compilation may prove that he’s got all the talent in the world, he’s not achieved much glory.

MY THOUGHTS

In retrospect, I’d really have liked to ask what cornerbacking duo in recent Irish history has athleticism that rivals the Gray/Blanton partnership, but one of the biggest questions moving forward — and a question that very well could define the Kelly era — is how well did they identify, develop, and recruit in the secondary. Harrison Smith, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton are in their final years. After that… it’s pretty scary for depth, and 2011 is going to be a massively important year for a lot of young defenders in the secondary. If you’re wondering why Kerry Cooks shifted back to work with cornerbacks, this is probably the biggest reason.

Maybe I’m being optimistic, but this Irish team has a chance to really run the ball with conviction. If it does, it’ll be because Zack Martin makes another large leap forward, and the unit will be a much more physically developed unit. Trevor Robinson will play better. Braxston Cave will play better. Taylor Dever will play better. While there isn’t room for him in the lineup yet, one guy I’m surprised nobody mentioned was Christian Lombard. I’ve heard that he was so impressive throughout the season that it made the decision to let Matt Romine go much easier.

Harrison Smith’s 2010 season was watching a breakthrough happen in thirteen week increments. He was a much better player at the end of the season than he was at the beginning, and the Ronald Johnson drop was almost something Smith had earned after taking such flack for so long. For those that think Smith is overrated, Pete Sampson of IrishIllustrated.com had a great interview with Mike Mayock, who called Smith one of the most underrated football players in the country.

I want Manti Te’o to be the best linebacker in the country. I can’t argue that he isn’t one of the most talented, but I want him putting up monster statistics, something Luke Kuechly does at Boston College. (No I’m not discounting 133 tackles. I just think Te’o has the ability to do more.) Walking into his junior season, I think Te’o can do more than just amaze with his athleticism, he needs to be the tackling machine that Bob Diaco’s defense allows him to be, and that means cutting down on his misses. To use a baseball analogy, right now Te’o is a devastating power hitter. Call him Ryan Howard. He needs to become a devastatingly complete hitter, more like Albert Pujols.

Trying to project Michael Floyd’s legacy before 2011 is more than difficult, it’s almost impossible. If Kelly’s offense turns into the vertically attacking scheme he used in Cincinnati, look out. If Floyd can stay healthy for a full 13 games, start rewriting the record books in stone. Of course, all of that is depending on the internal struggles Floyd has faced in the last six months. For those that feel like No. 3 got star treatment because of his lofty status on the football team, nobody will convince you otherwise. But Floyd has taken his lumps with humility, he’s seen his name erased from the team’s roster, from the media guides, even from the team’s website. He spent four months away from his teammates and coaches, and only was allowed to participate in unofficial team workouts because no coaching staff in the NCAA can dictate who can and cannot participate in those workouts. If the path to recovery leads to Notre Dame Stadium on September 3, I expect Irish fans to rally around their best player. What will cement his legacy is how he behaves from this day forward. (His behavior in the NFL will matter just as much.) He may have lost all the goodwill he gained when he made the difficult decision to return for his degree. But if the Irish win more than ten games this year, Floyd’s story will be one of redemption.

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Claypool injured & out; Kelly on Wimbush’s mechanics & mental makeup

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Notre Dame will be without sophomore receiver Chase Claypool in its Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl matchup with No. 17 LSU. Irish coach Brian Kelly announced Saturday that Claypool will have shoulder surgery this week to repair a joint injured in practice last week. Claypool should be fully recovered before spring practices commence.

“One of those unintended injuries in a one-on-one drill where he goes up for a ball and lands on his shoulder the wrong way,” Kelly said. “… If this happens in the middle of the season, he misses five, six, seven games. On the positive side, he misses one game and he’s back full strength going into the spring.”

For stretches of the regular season, Claypool was Notre Dame’s most-consistent receiver. He finishes 2017 with 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns, highlighted by his nine-catch, 180-yard, one-score performance against Wake Forest.

RELATED READING: Claypool’s drops perhaps a harbinger of Notre Dame success to come

Without Claypool, Kelly expects to move junior Equanimeous St. Brown into the field receiver role and utilize junior Miles Boykin more in St. Brown’s usual spot, the boundary receiver position. Sophomore Kevin Stepherson will certainly factor in more than Boykin in any two-receiver sets.

Fifth-year receiver Cam Smith is also back to full health after a hamstring issue hindered the end of his season.

On Wimbush, mechanics and mental makeup
Whoever the receiver(s), junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush will be the one looking for them. Wimbush struggled through most of 2017, but the final three games emphasized those difficulties. As the Irish finished the season 1-2, Wimbush completed 30-of-67 passes (44.78 percent) for 532 yards (177.33 yards per game) and five touchdowns with four interceptions.

Those struggles led Kelly to declare Wimbush his bowl game starter immediately after the season finale, a loss at Stanford. Kelly doubled down and then some on that sentiment Saturday.

“He struggled in the last couple of games throwing the football, but he has not struggled mentally at all,” Kelly said. “… His issues are mechanical issues. They’re not mental issues. He doesn’t have this weakness that is not allowing him to be the player that he can be.

“We need to fix some things in the offseason, mechanically, that will allow him to the throw the ball more consistently.”

Irish coach Brian Kelly insisted junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s struggles derive from mechanical issues, not any version of a mental block. “His traits, in terms of all the things a quarterback needs in terms of his makeup, he has those,” Kelly said. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Kelly credited Wimbush for trying to “fight” through these mechanical issues, but at times that may have led to overcompensating a la a golfer attempting to avoid a slice or a baseball batter trying to get ahead of a fastball.

Wimbush may be a junior, but this was his first year in the spotlight. That spotlight did not bring with it undue and mishandled pressure. Rather, it highlighted his deficiencies that are not as closely monitored when a third-string freshman or a scout team passer.

“We’re really talking about him being a first-time starter,” Kelly said. “Under that scrutiny, we’ve seen that there needs to be some corrections.

“Having said that, he found a way to get us to nine wins and put us in a position to get to 10.”

Avery & Alohi Ascending
Two reserves have caught Notre Dame’s attention in the earliest parts of bowl preparation, though one was drawing notice all season, as well. Through four practices, the Irish have knocked off the rust of a few weeks’ layoff and given the lower parts of the depth chart extended run. Freshman quarterback Avery Davis has stood out in those sessions.

“He’s efficient with the football, very strong runner,” Kelly said. “He’s an athlete that can impact each and every time he has the football in his hands. He’s difficult to defend.”

Sophomore safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman spent the season defending Wimbush, rather than Davis. Bound to the scout team when the NCAA denied his waiver for immediate eligibility, Gilman pushed the boundary as often as possible. Per Kelly, he would have started at safety for the Irish this year, no qualifiers or conditions applied.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

“He has a great combination of coverage skills at the safety position and the ability to come down and be a sure tackler,” Kelly said. “We really know what we’re going to get from him from what we’ve seen on a practice-to-practice basis.”

Syracuse at Yankee Stadium in November, the least of possible evils
Kelly initially offered the party line when asked about Notre Dame moving its mid-November matchup next year against Syracuse out east to Yankee Stadium in New York City. The remote “home” game will add theoretically-unnecessary travel and stress to an already daunting latter half of the schedule.

Kelly then acknowledged it may not be ideal, but made it clear the other options he was presented were distinctly less preferable.

Kelly said this was the only game in the home schedule with the ready ability to be moved, but knowing the Orange’s fast-paced, spread offense, he wanted to be sure the game was played outdoors. Also knowing there would be a trip out to USC just the following weekend, Kelly advocated for avoiding a late game. Indeed, the Syracuse tilt is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. ET.

“We wanted to try to make all these pieces work,” he said. “This seemed to be a good way to come about managing all those things.”

The one option clearly not on the table was not moving a home game at all.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Offensive Line

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Notre Dame’s offensive line was clearly going to be a strength entering the season. Before a single snap, two expected All-Americans were leading the way. Sure enough, senior left guard Quenton Nelson ended up a unanimous All-American while fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey secured consensus honors.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
The only question about the offensive line entering the season was who would take over at right tackle with senior Alex Bars moving inward to right guard. Counting Bars, the line returned four starters.

Presumably, sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg were the two involved in the right tackle competition. Through spring practice, Kraemer appeared to have an edge large enough to be considered the starter but not so large as to eradicate any further discussion in preseason practice.

Neither inspired an excess of confidence, such that offensive line coach Harry Hiestand would even acknowledge the possibility of Bars still being the best right tackle option on the roster. Hiestand was not considering moving Bars, though. The gap between Bars and anyone else at right guard was much greater than the discrepancy between Bars and Kramer (or Eichenberg).

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Freshman Robert Hainsey forced his way into the right tackle competition at some point before the season. He did so to such an extent, Eichenberg was relegated to the nominal duty of backing up McGlinchey. How much work does that job not warrant? Eichenberg saw action in only five games, the streak of Irish routs running from the trip to Boston College through the thrashing of USC.

Kraemer and Hainsey shared the position all season, the latter showing adeptness in pass protection while the Kraemer’s strength came in the running game, although the two usually swapped playing time by the series, not by the situation.

Fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey’s final Irish season will be remembered as a year he established himself as the voice of the team while leading what could still be named the nation’s best offensive line. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The other 80 percent of the line held to summer’s expectations. Senior center Sam Mustipher’s season should be noted. While Nelson and McGlinchey earned the headlines and awards — and deservedly so — Mustipher quietly played nearly as well.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
The offensive line’s dominance this season best shows itself in the running statistics. When looking at sacks allowed, Notre Dame endured only three fewer than last year (25 compared to 28), somewhat a cost of trotting out a quarterback himself so inclined to run the ball.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
It is readily and widely assumed Nelson will head to the NFL while both Mustipher and Bars will return for their final seasons of eligibility. All three would be the logical decisions.

If that all proves true, the Irish essentially return four “starters.” Both Kraemer and Hainsey saw enough action this season to be considered starters for the intent of this and nearly any offseason conversation.

Before deciding on the fifth starter, Hiestand will need to decide what position that newcomer will slot into. One of Kraemer or Hainsey could move to left tackle or left guard. (Kraemer at left guard would make some sense.) Bars could move to left guard, leaving right guard open for, again, Kraemer or Hainsey. (Again, moving Kraemer to guard seems an inevitability in the next three years.) There could be a thought to moving both Kraemer and Hainsey to the left side and finding a new right tackle. (Want to guess who would be projected at left guard in that scenario?)

The only certainty: Mustipher will start at center, presuming he returns. For kicks and giggles, it could be speculated how much preseason hype Mustipher will get as the stalwart of a seemingly-unproven line. That s-adjective belies a trick question; this will not be as unproven a unit as it may appear on the surface.

Replacing Nelson’s and McGlinchey’s chemistry, physicality and maturity will not happen, but there is reason to think the drop-off may not be debilitating. Mustipher can provide the steadying force for Bars to reinforce. Another year in a collegiate program should only further Hainsey’s immediate progress. A hypothetical move to guard will fit Kraemer’s skillset more naturally.

That leaves that pesky fifth starter spot. It could go to a number of options, but the frontrunners will be a quartet of youngsters already in the weight room.

Obviously, Eichenberg will get his chance. Freshman Dillan Gibbons earned offensive scout team player of the year honors last week, often a precursor to first-team contributions in the near future. All the way back on National Signing Day, this space saw Gibbons as “a prototypical Harry Hiestand offensive guard.”

If neither Eichenberg nor Gibbons, the focus will turn to freshmen Joshua Lugg and Aaron Banks. The latter enrolled early as a highly-touted tackle, part of why Hainsey’s fall emergence came as such a surprise. If any freshman was to contribute along the line, it was always assumed it would be Banks. Lugg, meanwhile, measures 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds. He is a tackle in the making at some point in his Notre Dame career.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

Friday at 4: Bowl games are fun, but little else, even for Notre Dame vs. LSU

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Bowl games are [insert positive adjective here]. Make no mistake about that. They provide players and fans an excuse to head south in December, even if that destination is El Paso, Texas, or Birmingham, Ala. Warmer temperatures are always preferable. That’s science.

For those not making a trek to Shreveport, La., or Orlando, Fla., the 39 games sprinkled throughout 17 days provide a break from primetime reruns or, in the best of times, from mid-day office minutiae. Football is preferable to “Young Sheldon” or remembering to include the new cover sheet on the TPS report. Again, empirical evidence establishes this as a fact.

And for the grinding gambler, bowl games represent one last chance to exit the college football season with a net gain, furthering the dreams of continuing similar growth annually for two decades in order to secure retirement based off a hobby. On a smaller scale, bowl pools establish a chance for bragging rights, and little is better than holiday season bragging rights. That’s a bit shy of sound logic, but it is a reality, nonetheless.

All that acknowledged, bowl games should still not be factored much into long-term views, forward-looking or retrospective. They are the most uncertain of sporting events, having little attachment to either the season prior or the season eight months away.

When else does a team not play for a month on either side of a competition? There is a reason an answer is lacking. It’s an absurd practice. (Albeit, again, a delightful one. There are five games Saturday and only one of those 10 teams is from a Power Five conference, yet this scribe intends to watch each and every one of the five.) (Is that the first sign of a problem? Maybe, maybe not.)

Notre Dame finished 2017 with a 9-3 record and two losses in its final three games. Beating No. 17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 in the aforementioned Disney-based metropolis should not change the taste of that November letdown. At most, it can support an argument of the Irish simply being worn down by season’s end, but that would not change the fact of them indeed being worn down when it mattered.

When Notre Dame beat LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl, it did not change the tenor of the season, and it did not lead to 2015’s success. Rather, the following year’s breakthroughs came from surprises shown only after injuries. (Getty Images)

Losing to the Tigers is not a greater sign of a program stuck spinning its wheels in the winter’s snow. It is not an indication of failing to win a game when it matters. Notre Dame already went 2-3 in those big games this year. In retrospect, perhaps the victory at Michigan State should raise that record to 3-3, but a big game feels like one as it occurs, and that Saturday evening in September did not hold such weight.

A big game does not come five weeks following the last consequential contest. A big game has some tangible effect on games to come. Outside of the College Football Playoff, no bowl game claims either factor. They are simply enjoyable exhibitions.

Hence, the common practice for coaches with new jobs is to move on, apparently abandoning their team before the season is technically over. It is becomingly increasingly-normal for NFL Draft prospects to sit out bowl games, be it out of precaution or preemptive recovery. They have nothing to gain, no ring, no record, yet much to lose in an injury a la former Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith in the 2015 Fiesta Bowl.

To pull from a comment shortly after Notre Dame fell to Miami, dashing any Playoff hopes, “I truly don’t get how you think wins over Navy and a pedestrian Stanford team carry more weight than a win over an Ohio St or TCU or Clemson in a major bowl game. Agree to disagree, I guess.”

A win at Stanford would have sent the Irish to a bowl game of greater note (likely the Fiesta Bowl, in the end), but that would not have been the reason it held consequence. Winning in-season, week-after-week, day-after-day becomes ingrained. A win Saturday creates momentum for a good practice on Tuesday, begetting a consistent showing Wednesday, which leads to attention to detail on Thursday. Before you know it, another weekend victory is in hand.

Concluding the season by knocking off the Cardinal would have set a standard of the revamped Irish being better than their most-similar foes.

Beating LSU will do little except provide fodder for both sides of the “Brian Kelly must go/stay” argument, an inane debate which will undoubtedly proceed unabated for an entire offseason when it should be recognized as utterly pointless absolutely no later than Jan. 9.

This memory should stick with the Irish throughout 2018’s first eight months, not whatever happens in Orlando. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Losing to LSU will not “fester over the winter,” to use another commenter’s worry. Losing to Stanford should. Getting embarrassed at Miami will.

If (when) Central Florida falls for the first time this year, how vocal will the sideways glances toward Scott Frost be, as the head coach splits his time between his new gig at Nebraska and his loyal charges in Orlando? They won’t be vocal at all. Frost delivered a 13-0 season. That is what will be remembered.

When Oregon blows past Boise State this weekend, will the Ducks take solace in thinking they could have challenged Stanford for the Pac-12 North Division if only their quarterback had stayed healthy? No, they will still look at the 7-5 season as the disappointment it was, not to mention they’ll be led by their newest head coach with Willie Taggart gone already in less than one calendar year.

When Arizona and Purdue combine for more than 65 points, will that be a sign their defenses need vast improvements in the offseason? No, the Wildcats giving up 34.1 yards per game already makes that pretty clear. The Boilermakers, contrarily, shouldn’t panic no matter the Foster Farms Bowl result. Head coach Jeff Brohm clearly has them trending in the right direction on both sides of the ball. In addition to a dynamic offense, Purdue gave up only 19.3 points per game this season.

Notre Dame very well may beat LSU. It certainly wants to. But that result will not reflect the 2017 season, and it will not be a catalyst into 2018. Let’s skip the argument of bowl victories set a foundation for success the following season. The data overwhelmingly says there is no distinct correlation to such thinking.

Rather, the Citrus Bowl will simply be a physical and entertaining game. On a day inevitably spent on the couch, likely horizontally, what more can genuinely be asked for?

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

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Notre Dame’s secondary presents one position of such strength it is continually pondered if raiding that depth could salvage the near-vacuum in the other half of the Irish defensive backfield. That was true before the season, and it remains the case now.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
A bounty of cornerbacks, led by sophomore Julian Love, provided some sense of comfort in the Irish defense’s back line. A finally-healthy junior Shaun Crawford could finally contribute as a nickelback, and senior Nick Watkins, largely thanks to his length, established himself as a starter during spring practice.

That marked three bona fide starters before even acknowledging the depth provided by sophomores Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride.

Then there were the safeties. Such confidence in the depth chart did not exist in the spring or at any point of the preseason. Junior Nick Coleman secured one safety spot in the spring, while sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill failed to separate from each other in the competition to line up alongside Coleman. To be clear, that was not a credit to both showing such great abilities.

When the NCAA denied sophomore Alohi Gilman’s waiver for immediate eligibility following his transfer from Navy, Elliott became the de facto starter.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
On paper, Love’s season was essentially unparalleled. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns and nearly managed a third. Rare can a coaching staff genuinely and reasonably discuss moving a position’s best player, but Love very well may be the best Irish safety, as well. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has admitted as much as a distinct possibility.

Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford did quite a bit of everything for Notre Dame in his first healthy season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

For now, though, Love remains at cornerback. Crawford complemented him excellently in a playmaking sense, forcing his impact upon the game even more than could have been anticipated, though it is logical to think finally seeing a season’s worth of action tired his legs by the end.

Watkins, meanwhile, put together a strong season until knee tendonitis limited him — and created an opportunity for Pride to prematurely insert himself into 2018’s conversations — in November. In the moment, Watkins seemed a weakness against Miami (OH) when RedHawks junior receiver James Gardner caught two touchdowns over Watkins. With time diminishing overreactions, Gardner’s success seems a credit to him (and his 6-foot-4 frame) more than a knock on Watkins.

For that matter, it may not have been a knock on Watkins at all. Let’s pull from the respective “Things We Learned”As much as one may want to see Watkins break each of those passes up, it could also be wondered why there was not a safety helping on the occasion. That latter position remains the biggest Irish concern, offensive or defensive.

That concern remains pressing. Coleman played alright, but did not necessarily excel. Any continuing debate between Elliott and Studstill persists yet out of lack of a strong impression. The rest of the Irish defense’s surge limited the dramatic effect of the positional need, but it cannot be denied, nonetheless.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Opponents passed more often against Notre Dame this season than they did a year ago. It makes sense; the Irish led more often and for much of the year, led by large margins. Thus, the averages offer a better comparison between the autumns as a rough estimate of passing efficiency.

2016: 2,357 yards allowed on 193-of-313 passing; 61.66 percent completion rate; 7.53 yards per attempt; 12.21 yards per completion.
2017: 2,562 yards allowed on 233-of-412 passing; 56.55 percent completion rate; 6.22 yards per attempt; 11.00 yards per completion.

So. Julian Love — 62 tackles; three interceptions; 17 pass breakups.
Jr. Nick Coleman — 42 tackles; three pass breakups.
So. Jalen Elliott — 38 tackles; one pass breakup.
Jr. Shaun Crawford — 32 tackles; two interceptions, five pass breakups; two fumbles recovered; one fumble forced.
Sr. Nick Watkins — 27 tackles; one interception; eight pass breakups.
So. Troy Pride — 22 tackles; one interception; two pass breakups.
So. Devin Studstill — 16 tackles.
Fr. Isaiah Robertson — Eight tackles.
So. Donte Vaughn — Six tackles.

COMING QUESTIONS
Earning a nod as defensive scout team player of the year should speak to Gilman’s potential impact in 2018. By all indications, he was the best safety on the roster in 2017 with the arguable exception of Love. Will Gilman live up to this billing?

As it pertains to Love, the coaching staff should move him to safety only if the gap between him and the otherwise starter there is greater than the gap between Love and the next man up at cornerback, presumably Pride. (In this respect, compare it to senior Alex Bars lining up at right guard this season rather than right tackle, his previous position. He was the best option at right tackle, but the drop from Bars to sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey was minimal. The talent discrepancy between Bars and any other right guard option would have been much more drastic.) Is it in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s best interests to keep Love at cornerback or move the excellent defender to safety?

If it is not Love who provides a minimum of depth at safety, it could be a recruit. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith comes to mind not only due to his commitment this week, but also because he fits right into Notre Dame’s needs.

A similar thought applies to current freshman Isaiah Robertson. He saw special teams action this season. A full year readying in a college system could have him poised to contribute, be it in support of Coleman or in place of him.

OUTSIDE READING
ND Insider’s Eric Hansen put together a worthwhile read on Gilman following last week’s program awards: Full speed ahead? There’s no happy medium for Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs