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Counting down the Irish: 20-16

Jul 16, 2013, 8:57 AM EDT

Matthias Farley

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

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