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Counting down the Irish: Analyzing the top five


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
DomerMQ of
Eric Murtaugh of
Matt Mattare of
Matt & CW of


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.)


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.


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 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.

Swarbrick: Kelly will be back in 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly will be coaching Notre Dame in 2017. That’s according to his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So even with a 2-5 record and a difficult slate still to come, there will be no change atop the Irish football program.

“Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year,” Swarbrick told

Swarbrick’s vote of confidence is nothing new—he’s taken a similar stance in his weekly appearances the past few weeks. But it likely became necessary as the season continues to frustrate, and Notre Dame’s head coaching position becomes part of the hot seat discussion.

But even with plenty to accomplish during this week off, both on the field and in the classroom, Kelly was out front and on the ESPN airwaves, openly shouldering the blame of this season’s failures, while also mentioning this is the youngest team at Notre Dame since 1972.

See the entire segment here:


Bye Week Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.

Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.

How we got here: The Defense

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week. 


Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.

How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?

Let’s look back.



When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.

That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.

That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.

Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.

Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.

But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.



The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.

But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.

[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]



Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.

The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.



Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.

“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”



While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.

Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.

Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.

CB Elijah Hicks commits to Notre Dame

Irish 247

Just hours after one member of Notre Dame’s 2017 class stepped away, another took his place. Southern California defensive back Elijah Hicks committed to the Irish. The four-star prospect, an all-purpose defender who can play safety, cornerback and contribute in special teams, pulled the trigger just days after taking his official visit to South Bend.

He made the news official via Twitter and recorded a commitment video with Irish 247’s Tom Loy. And even as Notre Dame’s season continues in the wrong direction, Hicks bought in to the message being sold by the Irish coaching staff, picking Notre Dame over programs like UCLA, USC, Michigan and Washington.

A year after stocking up the secondary—Hicks gives the Irish a nice piece to pair with Paulson Adebo and all-purpose athlete Isaiah Robertson. And as we watch Troy Pride, Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Devin Studstill might a quick impact on the back end, Hicks compares favorably to that quartet, another prospect with elite offers who will come into South Bend ready to fight for a spot in the two-deep.

Hicks told why he pulled the trigger now:

“I chose Notre Dame because on my official visit I felt comfortable and it felt like home,” said Hicks. “One of my favorite quotes about Notre Dame is, ‘Other teams play college football, Notre Dame is college football.’ Coach Lyght, I feel like he could give me the tools that’s necessary to make it to the NFL and have a long career. Also, they have a rich tradition and great academic support.”

Hicks plays for La Mirada High School, the same program that produced reserve Irish tight end Tyler Luatua. He returns Notre Dame’s 2017 class to 18, a Top 10 group by any evaluation.