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Counting down the Irish: The top five

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You could do a lot worse than the two players that topped every judges ballot. Both Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert are consensus preseason All-Americans, and both will be the anchor of their respective units this season for the Irish.

In Eifert, new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin has a weapon as versatile as any in the country. At 6-foot-6, 251-pounds, Eifert has the size to attach to the formation, block in the running game or break free down the seam. He’s also got the athleticism to split wide, acting as a super-sized wide receiver that’ll wreak havoc on opposing secondaries.

In Te’o, the Irish have their ultimate tackling machine, especially with a healthy Te’o looked more fit and fast than ever. The heart and soul of a unit that needs to elevate its play even while replacing three key pieces in the secondary, Te’o will be asked to do a lot during his final season in South Bend.

There was a clear-cut divide between Te’o and Eifert and everybody else. Te’o received four first-place votes while Eifert received two. From there, Cierre Wood emerged as the third-best player on the roster. Behind him, three-year starting left tackle Zack Martin. And perhaps the most surprising vote-receiver of all, sophomore Stephon Tuitt, who absolutely looks the part of an All-American defensive end, but still needs to prove it on the football field.

Once again, here’s our voting panel:

Eric Hansen, South Bend Tribune @HansenSouthBend
John Walters, The Daily @jdubs88
John Vannie, NDNation.com
Eric Murtaugh, representing OneFootDown.com  @OneFootDown
Ryan Ritter, representing HerLoyalSons.com @HLS_NDtex
Keith Arnold, NBCSports.com’s Inside the Irish @KeithArnoldNBC

Here’s the list as it stands:

IRISH 2012 Top 25
25. Zeke Motta (S, Sr.)
24. Tommy Rees (QB, Jr.)
23. Andrew Hendrix (QB, Jr.)
22. Davonte Neal (WR, Fr.)
21. TJ Jones (WR, Jr.)
20. Robby Toma (WR, Sr.)
19. Christian Lombard (OL, Jr.)
18. Davaris Daniels (WR, So.)
17. Troy Niklas (TE, So.)
16. Bennett Jackson (CB, Jr.)
15. Ishaq Williams (OLB, So.)
14. Everett Golson (QB, So.)
13. Chris Watt (LG, Sr.)
12. Prince Shembo (OLB, Jr.)
11. George Atkinson (RB, So.)
10. Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE, Grad.)
9. Theo Riddick (RB, Sr.)
8. Jamoris Slaughter (DB, Grad.)
7. Braxston Cave (C, Grad.)
6. Louis Nix III (DT, Jr.)

RANKINGS

5. Stephon Tuitt (DE, Soph.) That Tuitt finds himself at No. 5 is largely a product of what’s expected of the hulking sophomore, not necessarily anything that happened during his freshman season. While the 6-foot-6, 295-pound second-year player put up solid numbers during his freshman season (30 tackles, 3 TFL, and 2 sacks), it was a season that was hampered by a bout with mono, and a disciplinary blip that cost Tuitt the chance to play at Purdue.

While Aaron Lynch was the headline grabber last season, many inside the program view Tuitt as the future star, and his imposing frame and impressive athleticism make this sophomore a star in the making. Anchoring the spot across from Kapron-Lewis-Moore, and able to slide inside on pass-rushing downs, Tuitt is the type of athlete Notre Dame hasn’t often had on the defensive line. Expect a big jump in production from Tuitt, who will line up everywhere across the defensive front.

(Highest ranking: 3rd. Lowest ranking: 11th)

4. Zack Martin (LT, Sr.) After winning Notre Dame’s lineman of the year award in his first two seasons playing, Martin has the left tackle position locked down for the Irish. At 6-foot-4, 304 pounds, Martin may lack the dominant size you’d expect from a bookend left tackle, but after sitting out his freshman season, all Martin’s done is produce, anchoring the offensive line in both of Brian Kelly’s first two seasons.

Martin has received the proper national notice this offseason, finding himself on a variety of watch lists. Whether Martin propels himself into one of the elite linemen in the country will largely depend on how well Harry Hiestand’s troops perform during a daunting 2012 schedule. With a fifth-year of eligibility still available, Martin could be a rare four-year starter at left tackle.

(Highest ranking: 3rd. Lowest ranking: 9th)

3. Cierre Wood (RB, Sr.) Jonas Gray’s breakthrough senior season may have diminished the year that Wood put together last year. Averaging over five yards a carry, Wood ran for 1,102 yards and 9 touchdowns, only the 16th 1,000 yard season in Irish history. At 6-foot, 215-pounds, Wood has shown impressive durability running inside while also showing plenty of speed and breakaway skill, providing a surprising amount of big-yardage runs throughout the year.

There’s no doubting the struggles Wood and the Irish running game had against USC last year, with Wood’s five carries for five yards putting a large statistical hole in his season. But over the two years he’s been featured in the Irish offense, big plays have come rather easily for the Oxnard, California native. In games that he’s received 10 carries or more, only once (2011’s 16-14 win over Boston College) has Wood failed to break a 10-yard run.

Wood has a fifth year of eligibility available to him, but it’s unclear whether he plans to use it. In an offensive backfield now filled with weapons, it’s also unclear how many touches the Irish plan to give Wood. But with surprisingly good hands and versatility, it’d be wise to get the ball early and often to the offense’s most reliable runner.

(Highest ranking: 3rd. Lowest ranking: 9th)

2. Tyler Eifert (TE, Sr.) In the golden era of Irish tight ends, Eifert has shown himself the best of the group, putting together a first-team All-American junior season as Eifert lead the country in catches among tight ends. At 6-foot-6, 251-pounds, Eifert is a walking match-up problem, and without Michael Floyd split wide, expect the football to go to the big Fort Wayne product even more often this season.

Eifert’s ascent is a pretty impressive one, with the senior not all that long ago being a forgotten name. Injured early in his freshman season, there was little expected of Eifert during his sophomore season until tight end Kyle Rudolph went down with a hamstring injury. From there, Eifert put together an impressive run, making all but one of his 27 catches down the stretch for the Irish as they rallied and ended 2010 with four straight victories.

Eifert was the only tight end on the Maxwell Award’s watch list and has been a preseason first-team All-American on multiple lists. He’ll likely be the first tight end taken in next year’s NFL Draft, even though he has a final season of eligibility remaining.

(Highest ranking: 1st. Lowest ranking: 2nd)

1. Manti Te’o (LB, Sr.) Rarely does a highly touted recruit come in and do exactly what is hoped for, but Manti Te’o has absolutely delivered the goods during his three seasons in South Bend. After an All-American campaign with 128 tackles during his junior season, Te’o shocked the college football world when he announced he was returning for his senior season.

At 6-foot-2, 255-pounds, Te’o is a prototype inside linebacker, with terrific instincts and speed that takes him sideline to sideline. He also showed himself to be a threat in the pass rush, contributing five sacks last season after logging onto two combined in his first two seasons. After an ankle injury plagued him throughout his junior season, Te’o cut weight during spring workouts, looking leaner and quicker (and finally healthy) through spring drills. Entering camp, Te’o is the unquestionable leader of the Irish, was a first-team preseason All-American, and will be one of the first middle linebackers selected in the NFL Draft.

(Highest ranking: 1st. Lowest ranking 2nd)

Path to the draft: Ronnie Stanley

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Your name didn’t have to be Mel Kiper or Mike Mayock to understand that from the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus at Notre Dame he was destined to be an early-round NFL draft pick. But as the dust settles on the Irish’s impressive 2016 draft haul, a look back at the developmental process of the team’s seven draft picks serves as a wonderful testament to Brian Kelly and the program he has built.

Notre Dame’s draftees come in all shapes and sizes. Fifth-year seniors like Nick Martin. Three-and-out stars like Jaylon Smith and Will Fuller. Consistent four-year performers like Sheldon Day and one-year wonders like C.J. Prosise.

But each followed a unique path to the NFL, one that was fostered by a coaching staff that allowed each athlete to develop at their own pace and ascend into a role where an NFL team thought highly enough to select each player in the first 103 picks of the draft.

Let’s take a trip down (recent) memory lane, as we connect the dots from recruitment, development and playing career as we look at Notre Dame’s seven success stories.

 

Ronnie Stanley
No. 6 overall to Baltimore Ravens

The first offensive lineman selected in the 2016 draft, Stanley’s recruitment saw the Irish find their first bit of success at Bishop Gorman High School, leading the way to Nicco Fertitta and Alizé Jones. A four-star prospect who hovered between a Top 100 and Top 250 player depending on the evaluation, Stanley was invited to the Semper Fidelis All-Star game, a second-tier game that all but signified his status outside of the elite, at least on the recruiting circuit.

That’s not how Notre Dame’s coaching staff felt about him, though.

“He’s probably as gifted of an offensive linemen that we have seen in many years,” Kelly said on Signing Day in 2012.

Stanley proved early that Kelly wasn’t blowing smoke. He saw the field in 2012’s first two games, earning reps against Navy and Michigan before he suffered an elbow injury that allowed him to save a year of eligibility.

But even offseason surgery didn’t prevent Stanley from stepping into the starting lineup, flipping to right tackle and playing 13 games in a very successful sophomore campaign across from first rounder Zack Martin.

Even though Stanley was blossoming into one of college football’s best players, we still openly wondered who would slide to fill Martin’s left tackle spot. (That’s how it goes with offensive linemen, their work only truly appreciated by those with either inside information or a coach’s eye of evaluation.)

In his opening comments before spring practice in 2014, Kelly named Steve Elmer, Christian Lombard and Mike McGlinchey as candidates along with Stanley, so it wasn’t necessarily a lock for the staff yet either. But it took just a few practices for the Las Vegas native to solidify his spot on the left side.

Stanley’s first season at left tackle was so solid that some wondered if there’d be two. While some of the online analysts saw Stanley as a potentially elite draft pick, the NFL Advisory Board came back with a second-round grade, perhaps all Stanley needed as he made his decision to stick around for his senior season. Still, Notre Dame took no chance. Kelly, Harry Hiestand and Jack Swarbrick traveled to Las Vegas to sell Stanley on the virtues of a final season in South Bend.

It worked. With a healthy offseason and weight-room gains needed, Stanley stuck to the script and played a mostly anonymous 2015 season. That was a very good thing—only along the offensive line can All-American honors and being named Offensive Player of the Year be considered ho-hum.

Add in the vanilla off-the-field life, and an elite academic profile that’s a comfort to teams investing millions in a potential cornerstone, Stanley’s placement as a Top 10 pick should have never been in doubt. While he lacked the dominance at Notre Dame that we saw from Zack Martin, he possesses athleticism and a body that Martin wasn’t given—a big reason the Cowboys shifted him inside to guard from day one.

Picked instead of Laremy Tunsil amidst a bizarre scenario that’ll go down as one of the draft’s cautionary tales, John Harbaugh talked openly about his relationship with Harry Hiestand and the comfort that came from Notre Dame’s offensive line coach as they pulled the trigger on Stanley. And Stanley, almost epitomizing that faith that the Ravens showed, all but embodied that when he told Joe Flacco in his first visit to Baltimore that he celebrated his selection by heading back to his hotel room and going to sleep.

Counted on by Baltimore to be a key piece of the puzzle as the Ravens look to rebuild an offensive line tasked with protecting a franchise quarterback in his prime, now it’s up to Notre Dame’s highest draft pick since Rick Mirer to continue his ascent.

Five Irish players sign UFA contracts

Matthias Farley
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Notre Dame had seven players selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, trailing only Ohio State, Clemson and UCLA on the weekend tally. But after the draft finished, the Irish had five more players get their shot at playing on Sundays.

Chris Brown signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Romeo Okwara will begin his career with the New York Giants. Matthias Farley and Amir Carlisle signed contracts with the Arizona Cardinal. Elijah Shumate agreed to a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After missing two seasons, Ishaq Williams will be at Giants rookie camp next weekend as well, working as a tryout player. Expect Jarrett Grace to receive similar opportunities.

Count me among those that thought both Brown and Okwara would hear their names called. Brown’s senior season, not to mention his intriguing measureables, had some projecting him as early as the fifth round.

Okwara, still 20 years old and fresh off leading Notre Dame in sacks in back-to-back seasons, intrigued a lot of teams with his ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. He’ll get a chance to make the Giants—the team didn’t draft a defensive end after selecting just one last year, and they’re in desperate need of pass rushers.

Both Shumate and Farley feel like contenders to earn a spot on rosters, both because of their versatility and special teams skills. Shumate played nickel back as a freshman and improved greatly at safety during 2015. Farley bounced around everywhere and was Notre Dame’s special teams captain.

Carlisle might fit a similar mold. He played running back, receiver and returned kicks and punts throughout his college career. With a 4.4 during Notre Dame’s Pro Day, he likely showed the Cardinals enough to take a shot, and now he’ll join an offense with Michael Floyd and Troy Niklas.

 

Robertson picks Cal over Notre Dame, UGA

Demetris Robertson
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Demetris Robertson‘s decision wasn’t trending in Notre Dame’s direction. But those that expected the Savannah star athlete to pick the in-state Bulldogs were in for a surprise when Robertson chose Cal on Sunday afternoon.

Notre Dame’s pursuit of the five-star athlete, recruited to play outside receiver and hopefully replace Will Fuller, likely ended Sunday afternoon with Robertson making the surprise decision to take his substantial talents to Berkeley. And give credit to Robertson for doing what he said all along—picking a school that’ll give him the chance to earn an exceptional education and likely contribute from Day One.

“I am excited to take my talents to the University of California, Berkeley. The first reason is that the education was a big part of my decision. I wanted to keep that foundation,” Robertson said, per CFT. “When I went there, it felt like home. Me and the coaching staff have a great relationship. That’s where I felt were the best of all things for me.”

Adding one final twist in all of this is that Robertson has no letter-of-intent to sign. Because he’s blown three months through Signing Day, Robertson merely enrolls at a college when the time comes. That means until then, Kirby Smart and the Georgia staff will continue to sell Robertson on staying home and helping the Dawgs rebuild. Smart visited with Robertson Saturday night and had multiple assistant coaches at his track meet this weekend.

Summer school begins in June for Notre Dame. Their freshman receiving class looks complete with early enrollee Kevin Stepherson and soon-to-arrive pass-catchers Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.