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Counting down the Irish: 25-21

Jul 15, 2013, 10:07 AM EDT

Matt Cashore Matt Cashore

As we look at the first installment of our annual Top 25 list, it’s a reminder that Brian Kelly knows how to recruit.

While we’ve trudged through this topic more than once, one of the biggest concerns after Kelly’s hiring was his ability to recruit against the power programs in college football. Succeeding only at lower-profile schools, there was a strong narrative established by those that weren”t enthusiastic about the hire that Kelly and his hand-picked staff lacked the ability to battle the big boys of college football.

Nothing obliterates that fallacy like the first five names on our list. Each of these players was a blue-chip recruit, one of the top players at not just their respective position, but in the country. While the group is high on promise, these players haven’t yet made an impact, though three can be excused — they haven’t seen the field yet.

Let’s walk through the first five entries in our rankings:

RANKINGS

25. Max Redfield (S, Fr.) At a position that’s seen a ton of promising young talent infused into the depth chart, Redfield might be the best prospect to hit campus at his position since Tommy Zbikowski. (To be fair, Redfield is probably a better prospect than Tommy Z.)

The Southern California native comes to campus with high expectations, though how he’ll work into a fairly crowded depth chart at safety is anyone’s guess. News that the Irish coaching staff was looking at Redfield spending some time on the offensive side of the ball as well made some waves, but reminds you of the safety’s explosive athleticism and great size.

Last year, KeiVarae Russell became a true freshman starter in the secondary. While the move was more out of necessity, Redfield has the potential and ability, though playing safety in Bob Diaco’s defense requires a good mix of athleticism and mastery of defensive concepts.

Highest Ranking: 14th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (four ballots)

24. Elijah Shumate (S, Soph.) One player likely standing in the way of Redfield seeing significant playing time is Shumate. A season after shifting and playing well at cornerback and defending slot receivers, Shumate is moving back to his natural safety position, where the Irish think they have a standout athlete that’s ready to make an impact.

This spring Shumate started opposite Farley, manning the field side of the defense. While that was partially a product of Nicky Baratti recovering from surgery, Shumate is the prototype athlete the Irish want at the back of their defense, with the six-foot, 213-pounder an impressive specimen.

After appearing in all thirteen games during his freshman season, Shumate showed plenty of cover skills, breaking up three passes on the year. Brian Kelly all but stated that Shumate is the guy expected to start this fall. After playing a bit role in the Irish defense as a freshman, he’ll be expected to do much more in his second season.

Highest Ranking: 16th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (one ballot).

23. Jaylon Smith (OLB, Fr.) By just about every measure, Smith was one of the top five recruits in the country, the highest profile defensive player signed by Notre Dame in the modern recruiting era. Projected to play outside linebacker, the biggest question mark isn’t necessarily if Smith will help the Irish, but how.

Among the few off-the-record reports coming from voluntary summer workouts is Smith’s impressive work, where the slightly undersized linebacker has reportedly pushed his weight to the 230-pound range. That’s plenty big enough for a traditional 4-3 outside linebacker, but still a little slight in the Irish’s defensive structure.

That said, Smith’s arrival in South Bend gives Bob Diaco a Ferrari that he’ll all but need to take out of the garage. Whether that means finding snaps for the freshman in place of Danny Spond at the field-side linebacker position, as a pass rush specialist with his hand on the ground, or as a cover-man, right now, we’ve heard that Smith can do it all. Now, living up to the considerable hype will be Smith’s biggest task.

Highest Ranking: 12th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (one ballot).

22. Ishaq Williams (OLB/DE, Jr.) Like the rest of this group, Williams was a five-star recruit with elite skills. Yet in his third year in the program, the Irish coaching staff (not to mention the fanbase) is still waiting for the lightbulb to go on for the talented edge player.

At a shade over 6-foot-5 and 261-pounds, Williams is the prototype Cat linebacker for Bob Diaco’s defense. Yet finding his way onto the field has been a challenge, mostly because he’s been stuck behind Prince Shembo, but also because it’s been a fairly steep learning curve for Williams.

There’s no doubt that Williams is one of the team’s most talented players, though he hasn’t been able to unleash those skills and become the dominant pass rusher and edge player that we’re still waiting to see. After a sophomore season that saw Williams see mostly situational work in all 13 games, the future is now for one of the front seven’s most versatile athletes.

Highest Ranking: 18th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (one ballot).

21. Greg Bryant (RB, Fr.) Of all the talented newcomers on our list, Bryant is the highest rated true freshman. That’s likely a product not just of his touted recruiting ranking or his college-ready physique, but also the realities of the running back depth chart.

Bryant is the Irish’s most highly sought after offensive recruit since Jimmy Clausen, giving you an idea of the expectations heaped on the freshman back. And at a position that’s as close to plug and play as can be, if the recruiting services are correct with their evaluations, Bryant could very quickly make himself a key part of the Irish’s ground game.

Not the biggest, fastest, or strongest running back, Bryant is expected to be a super-charged Theo Riddick. That’d make Irish fans plenty happy, with Bryant’s versatility making him the most utilized weapon in last season’s offensive attack. Still, freshmen haven’t walked onto campus and made a huge impact under Kelly, so keeping expectations in check might be important.

Highest Ranking: 11th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (two ballots).

***

Just Missing the Cut: K/P Kyle Brindza, OT Ronnie Stanley, OLB Romeo Okwara, OT Steve Elmer.

  1. NotreDan - Jul 15, 2013 at 10:29 AM

    I’m imagining Jaylon Smith turning into a HUGE headache for opposing teams off the edge.

    That was one element missing from last year’s D. If we could throw an unpredictable, FAST and aggressive edge rusher on top of the D Line… wow.

    The other thing that strikes me right at this point is ALL of the possibilities and varying directions for both offense and defense. I hope BK locks into an “identity” early and gives the team focus.

    • NotreDan - Jul 15, 2013 at 10:30 AM

      oh, and GO IRISH!

  2. nudeman - Jul 15, 2013 at 10:34 AM

    What exactly is the criteria? Or maybe I should ask what exactly is this a list of?

    Is it the 25 most talented players? The 25 with the most potential? The 25 most valuable?

    Only guy I have a problem with here, regardless of what the criteria are, is Ishaq. I know he’s only a jr and a breakout season might well lie ahead. But from everything I’ve read about his talent, from his 5 star Rivals ranking, and from his physical attributes, by any measurement he has underperformed.

    I don’t cover ND for a living like the writers here, don’t attend practices and don’t talk to the coaches, so maybe I’m missing something. But if someone can show me a clip of just one big hit or big play he’s made in two years maybe I’ll change my opinion. Playing behind Shembo doesn’t help, but at some point it’s up to him to crash through and make an impact.

    • andy44teg - Jul 15, 2013 at 10:53 AM

      Exactly what I was thinking, nudie….I can’t recall one single play he’s made in 2 years. I can however think of a couple plays he just totally whiffed or effed up. I really wanna stay optimistic on this guy, but if he doesn’t improve by leaps and bounds this year, I think it’s safe to say he gets the dreaded “bust” label.

      • nudeman - Jul 15, 2013 at 11:32 AM

        andy
        The thing that bugs me most about his has been in the past, the coaches talking about how they have got to get “his motor” running at a faster pace.

        Translation: Doesn’t give max effort.

        Those guys frequently don’t pan out. Maybe he’s seen the light and this year is different.

      • andy44teg - Jul 15, 2013 at 11:49 AM

        My translation on that would be: lazy, coasting on natural ability to get by, never been pushed a day in his life.

    • onward2victory - Jul 15, 2013 at 12:08 PM

      In this short video of nearly all offensive highlights, Ishaq makes big plays at the 1:00 and 2:26 mark (the second of which was the fumble that led to Tuitt’s TD return).

      Look, I know this is just Navy, but they aren’t the easiest team to defend by any means. I remember after watching that opening game last year that Ishaq looked awesome, so it was disappointing to see him not make that much of an impact last year. But he was only a softmore, I think you guys are being way to hard on the guy.

      Time will tell.

      • andy44teg - Jul 15, 2013 at 12:35 PM

        Yeah, and how old is Tuitt, K Russel, Shumate, and even Lynch as a frosh????

      • nudeman - Jul 15, 2013 at 2:31 PM

        With all due respect on this Ishaq highlight reel, the first play was ordinary; the second play he was unblocked.

        I give him credit for not screwing them up and actually making the plays.
        But ya’ gotta do better than that to sway me on the Ish-ster.

      • onward2victory - Jul 15, 2013 at 3:07 PM

        Andy44teg,
        The reason those 4 guys you mentioned saw the field early is because there wasn’t NFL talent in front of them, although Tuitt and Lynch probably would have played regardless of the depth chart.

        If your expectation of Ishaq is to be a future lottery pick like Tuitt and Lynch will be, then you’ll probably be disappointed. But I think he’ll be a really solid player the next couple of years.

      • andy44teg - Jul 15, 2013 at 3:40 PM

        onward,

        I’m not mentioning those guys b/c they just saw the field early, they played exceptional as true freshman, and in Tuitt’s case, his sophomore season as well. I haven’t done a lick of research on the subject, but I’d bet 5 star recruits have an exponentially higher percentage of being drafted in the first round than anyone else. So all I meant before was that if we don’t see marked improvement from Ishaq this year, he’s a bust if we’re comparing him to other 5 star players.

      • mtflsmitty - Jul 15, 2013 at 9:58 PM

        NUUDDDEEEE. Come on now buddy.

        “But if someone can show me a clip of just one big hit or big play he’s made in two years maybe I’ll change my opinion.”

        Onward does all the research to find your big play (little known fact he researched highlight tapes working backward from the NCG), and then you change the terms of your offer? Come on, man! And I guess you’re going to say Tuitt’s part in the play was no big deal cause he picked up the ball and ran the correct way?

    • bernhtp - Jul 15, 2013 at 9:52 PM

      I’m fine with Ishaq at #22. Discounting ST, that puts him at the back of the starting pack. He clearly had adjustment problems his freshman year. He played a competent backup to a great Shembo his sophomore year. I expect further progression this year where he not only continues to back Shembo at the cat, but his versatility gets him more time with his hand on the ground. While not yet living up to the five-star hype, he is far from a bust; he’s an important contributor to this team.

      • nudeman - Jul 15, 2013 at 10:50 PM

        I don’t disagree with that assessment. And I mentioned there’s a chance this might be his breakout year. But the knock on him so far – from the coaches – has been his motor. I just don’t like the sound of that.

        Will he suddenly start practicing and playing hard this year?
        Why? Why now?

        I think once you’re a dog (and not in the ND LB sense) you’re always a dog. He’ll probably have a better year this year, and next year slightly better, but this sounds like a guy who’s not getting the most out of his immense ability.

  3. irishaggie - Jul 15, 2013 at 10:55 AM

    4 of the first 5 are on the defensive side of the ball, and we haven’t even gotten to the stud starters. I predict 17 defensive players on this list, and it would be well deserved.

  4. goirishgo - Jul 15, 2013 at 11:09 AM

    Wow. The safety position is stacked. I’m a big Shumate fan but even I can see limited playing time for him if his development slows the least bit. Fierce competition among several awesome athletes.

  5. fnc111 - Jul 15, 2013 at 12:48 PM

    Andy 44 is really negative … Not all players develop at the same pace genius.

    • nudeman - Jul 15, 2013 at 1:12 PM

      You continue to distinguish yourself as the village idiot here. And probably wherever you go.
      You add no value except that you’re a master of the obvious negative take on everything
      Predictable, not funny, no insight, same old crap day after day
      How empty must your life be that this is your daily thing?
      Come up with something new or just go away

  6. irishaggie - Jul 15, 2013 at 1:10 PM

    If you judged roby toma, jimmy clausen, Brady Quinn, roby parris, or Jonas gray on their sophomore seasons they would all be a bunch of good for nothing scrubs based on some comments here. Even Louis Nix developed slowly. Some develop early and some don’t. Ishaq will be fine.

    • nudeman - Jul 15, 2013 at 1:14 PM

      That’s true about Quinn, Clausen, et al but I don’t ever recall the coaches questioning their desire like they have continually done with Ishaq.

      • Keith Arnold - Jul 16, 2013 at 7:23 AM

        Jonas Gray’s desire was openly questioned by Brian Kelly. You can just search the archives here for evidence.

        As for Ishaq — it isn’t a matter of desire. But developmentally, he was WAY behind other guys, and that’s a product of playing high school football in NYC, which is pretty raw, and the fact that he’s learning one of the more complicated positions in this defense — for example, look at how ordinary a guy like Darius Fleming was in his first season.

        The narrative that it feels like you are pushing is one that’s pretty familiar to ND fans. He was ranked high as a recruit and he looks like he should be awesome, but because he isn’t, he’s not trying hard enough. Two seasons is enough to make an impact, and I think people are hopeful that when all is said and done, Ishaq will make a big impact this season.

        Lastly — The criteria for this list? There was none. Rankings like this are subjective by nature, so I wanted people who pay super close to this team to make their own parameters.

    • irishaggie - Jul 15, 2013 at 2:01 PM

      You have a good point about desire, and Kendell Moore has had the same problem although its evident that Ishaq has much more talent. I believe that once he realizes he’s a junior and his time at Notre Dame is reaching the finish line the light switch will come on.

  7. 25kgold - Jul 15, 2013 at 1:52 PM

    Within the next couple of seasons that Irish secondary will have 1st round (Redfield/Shumate) through 2nd/3rd round NFL talent on it.

  8. 25kgold - Jul 15, 2013 at 1:59 PM

    The more I look at this season, I’m thinking that we’re going to be just fine without Golson! Our defense will NOT be easy to score against, and should keep every game honest enough for Tommy to “manage” a win every week. BIG D did it last year, BIG D will do again this year!

    • mtflsmitty - Jul 15, 2013 at 10:15 PM

      Gold Digger,

      I don’t gather you’re using the “manage” verb in a derogatory way, and I’m glad. Some of the best golfers I know are the ones who know how to “manage” the course.

      And this is part of CBK’s genius as a coach. Being able to win lots of different ways is one of the marks of a great coach. He “manages” his own ego, and builds a game plan that gives him the best chance to win with the talent he has.

  9. irishfbfan1 - Jul 15, 2013 at 9:11 PM

    Both Greg Bryant and Jaylon Smith will play early and often as the Irish look for somebody to step from that group of talented RB recruits that as a group might be the best in the nation.

    Jaylon Smith is flat out a beast! His biggest asset is that he can be called upon to man cover against oppositions skilled receivers and do so step by step as he showed down in Florida at one of the camps that featured many of the nations top recruits. Smith stayed step for step against the nations top WR’s and this very thing is something that had all the scouts raving. I don’t think he is ready physically to take on the pounding of power football quite yet, but as a cover man, as a defender that can bring outside heat yes, he can be very productive. This kid will be a standout in 2 years, like I said, he is an absolute stud.

  10. irishfbfan1 - Jul 15, 2013 at 10:00 PM

    Bryant gives the Irish that back who can pound between the tackles, a back they can feel confident going to when either in the gun or under center during those 2nd and short as well as 3rd and short situations.

    Also, he is a back you can finish games with during the 4:00 drill.

    He is one of many outstanding talented running backs that Brian Kelly and his staff have recruited.

  11. irishfbfan1 - Jul 15, 2013 at 10:00 PM

    Bryant gives the Irish that back who can pound between the tackles, a back they can feel confident going to when either in the gun or under center during those 2nd and short as well as 3rd and short situations.

    Also, he is a back you can finish games with during the 4:00 drill.

    He is one of many outstanding talented running backs that Brian Kelly and his staff have recruited.

  12. bamajs - Jul 16, 2013 at 1:59 PM

    Who CARES about Notre Dame? Sincerely, bamajs (Roll Tide!)

    • papadec - Jul 16, 2013 at 2:50 PM

      bamajs – apparently you care enough about ND to come here & post. Welcome to the site. There’s plenty of room for you, under the bridge with the other trolls. GO IRISH!!!!!!!!

      • papadec - Jul 16, 2013 at 11:45 PM

        Also, according to Steve Spurrier, so do ALL the SEC coaches who think ND should join the ACC for football. Bama is still part of the SEC, aren’t they? But then again, according to Steve, they ALL want to pay their players to play. At least pay them openly. I guess they’re getting tired of hiding the payments.

  13. onward2victory - Jul 16, 2013 at 3:58 PM

    Answer: Rick Reilly cares along with every 8th-grade-graduate writer at Bleacher Report because they know if they include ND in their article they’ll get twice as many clicks.

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