Counting down the Irish: 20-16

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After the first five slots of our Top 25 included three talented freshmen that could play supporting roles, our next five spots are dedicated to upperclassmen that will be major contributors this season, all expected to be members of the starting lineup.

If the inclusion of Jaylon Smith, Max Redfield and Greg Bryant represented the idea of bottled promise, the inclusion of numbers 20-16 on this list have mostly all demonstrated their abilities to the coaching staff.

If you’re looking for a sign that the depth of this team is improving, these five spots are a great data-point supporting that conclusion. Last season’s 20-16 included Robby Toma, Christian Lombard, Davaris Daniels, Troy Niklas and Bennett Jackson. The combined starts for that group heading into the season? Zero. Only two members of this group haven’t started any games, and the staff has evaluated both players and expects them to be key contributors this season.

Let’s continue the rollout of our annual rankings.

2013 Irish Top 25
25. Max Redfield (S, Fr.)
24. Elijah Shumate (S, Soph.)
23. Jaylon Smith (OLB, Fr.)
22. Ishaq Williams (OLB, Jr.)
21. Greg Bryant (RB, Fr.)

RANKINGS

20. Christian Lombard (RT, Sr.) That Lombard, a year after starting the entire season at right tackle, falls a spot in this rankings from 2012 should give you an idea of how much better the personnel is getting in South Bend. Because there’s no reason to think Lombard is going to be a lesser player in 2013 than he was in his first season in the starting lineup.

Lombard’s career trajectory is right on schedule, with the one-time Army All-American redshirting his freshman season, contributing on special teams and in mop-up duty as a sophomore, before winning the right tackle job as a junior. With a fifth-year available, Lombard should end up being a three-year starter on the offensive line.

At what position remains the one interesting question. While there isn’t necessarily the depth along the line yet that the coaching staff would like, Lombard has the positional flexibility to slide inside to guard if needed. That could be because Ronnie Stanley presents himself to be one of the five best offensive linemen on the roster or because Conor Hanratty isn’t ready to start at guard. But Lombard is a solid technician who will likely be a whole lot better in his second season than his first.

Highest Ranking: 8th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (three ballots)

19. Amir Carlisle (RB, Jr.) Carlisle is the sole wildcard of this group. The USC transfer sat out last season with a nagging ankle injury, when a nerve issue extended a broken ankle from spring practice well into the regular season. (Getting Carlisle immediate eligibility was an impressive task by the Irish’s compliance department, though they couldn’t handle any medical maladies.)

Carlisle bad luck on the injury front extended to this spring, when he broke his collarbone in full-contact drills. While he returned to practice less than a week later, the very real questions about his durability were cemented.

At his best, Carlisle could be the most explosive offensive weapon the Irish have. He’s capable of being a threat in the return game, he’s dangerous as a running back or receiver, and he’s got top end speed and moves that nobody on last season’s roster can match. Of course, he’s yet to take a snap wearing an Irish uniform, so any practice All-American awards need to be transferable to the gridiron on Saturday.

Brian Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said that the coaching staff had seen all that they needed from Carlisle in the spring’s first handful of practices. That might just mean they too expect Carlisle to be one of the team’s most dangerous weapons, playing both running back and slot receiver. All he has to do is prove he can stay on the field.

Highest Ranking: 9th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (two ballots).

18. Carlo Calabrese (LB, Grad.) At this point in his career, we know what Calabrese is. And that’s a productive player at inside linebacker that still sometimes struggles in space and on passing downs. But sharing time with fellow fifth-year player Dan Fox, the duo played productive football next to Manti Te’o last season, anchoring one of the toughest run defenses in the country.

Calabrese was suspended for the season opener, but proceeded to put up strong numbers, playing key roles each week while starting five games. He may occasionally get exploited as a cover man, but the 245-pound sledgehammer will only improve in his final season for the Irish.

With Te’o gone and first-year starter Jarrett Grace stepping into his place, the pressure to be productive will be heaped on all three inside linebackers. While they won’t be able to replace the interceptions that Te’o miraculously made last season, they have every chance to be as productive making tackles and playing assignment correct football.

Highest Ranking: 13th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (two ballots).

17. Jarrett Grace (LB, Jr.) That our panel voted Grace above Calabrese shows the respect afforded to the heir to Manti Te’o’s starting job. Anchoring multiple special teams units last season, Grace is now stepping into the starting lineup, all but being handed the starting job while Calabrese and Fox will continue their platoon.

That alone shows you the belief this coaching staff has in Grace. The 6-foot-3, 248-pounder is a sideline-to-sideline player that many believe is faster and more athletic than Te’o. A highly touted recruit who turned down Nick Saban to come to South Bend, Grace will now anchor a front seven filled with talent, but desperately needs production out of the first year starter.

There’s every reason to believe that Grace will deliver it, though holding him to the standard Te’o delivered last season would be unreasonable. That said, he’s already established himself as one of the team’s leaders and will likely carve out a place in Irish fans’ hearts with his energy and athleticism.

Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (two ballots).

16. Matthias Farley (S, Jr.) Probably one of the best surprises on a 2012 team that was filled with many. After a freshman season spent playing wide receiver on the scout team, Farley transitioned to safety in what was likely a depth chart precaution, then proceeded to play his way into the starting lineup through an excellent spring practice and fall camp.

A cerebral and physical player, Farley moved quickly ahead of fifth-year senior Dan McCarthy, seeing surprise duty as a starter against Navy at outside linebacker before proceeding to start ten more games after Jamoris Slaughter’s season-ending injury. Learning on the job, Farley avoided giving up the big play, was tough and physical down in the box, and battled through a broken hand to keep the secondary intact.

There’s every reason to believe that Farley’s game will only move forward this season. After spending spring ball implanted in the starting lineup as the boundary-side safety, Farley will likely play a role similar to Slaughter’s, a tough guy that can deliver a blow in the box, but run with receivers as well. Farley is one of the true great developmental recruits that Kelly and company pulled out of the blue, a little known three-star recruit with no national or state ranking to his name. A student of the game, his experience last season coupled with a year learning the job with Bob Elliott, should have him set for a breakout season.

Highest Ranking: 9th. Lowest Ranking: 23rd.

***

Our voting panel:

Brian Hamilton, Chicago Tribune
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago
John Vannie, ND Nation
John Walters, MediumHappy.com
Ryan Ritter, HerLoyalSons.com
4pointshooter, OneFootDown.com
Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
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