Michigan v Notre Dame

Counting down the Irish: 15-11


If the first five members of this list represented talented newcomers and untapped potential, the next five members of this group is filled with veterans ready to step into the spotlight.

To take a snapshot of the first ten names on our Top 25 list gives you a nice look at how this team’s roster is being built. A mix of talented recruits and newcomers will push to be included in the team’s top 22 (the starters), though every freshman ranks behind a veteran at their position. That’s healthy competition — the life blood of an elite program — something the Irish hope to cement themselves as this season after a surprising twelve-win campaign in 2012.

The next five members of this list all are expected to end up in the starting lineup. They’ve each taken a different route to get there, and all played important roles in last season’s success. They are equal parts highly touted recruits and developmental successes, but all have expectations to be heavy contributors if the Irish hope to make a BCS appearance.

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.)
20. Christian Lombard (RT, Sr.)
19. Amir Carlisle (RB, Jr.)
18. Carlo Calabrese (LB, Grad.)
17. Jarrett Grace (LB, Jr.)
16. Matthias Farley (S, Jr.)


15. George Atkinson III (RB, Jr.) If there was a guy on this list that didn’t improve last season, it was Atkinson. Stuck in a battle for carries with Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, Atkinson struggled to find his stride, even taking a step back as a kick returner after returning two for touchdowns as a freshman.

Of course, calling Atkinson’s sophomore season a slump doesn’t really take into consideration the fact that he still managed to average 7.1 yards per carry. That gives you an idea of the big play potential he has every time he touches the football, with big runs against Navy, Michigan State and Miami among the most explosive plays of the season.

At a shade over 6-foot-1 and almost 220 pounds, Atkinson has a power physique and world class sprinter speed. He was listed among the top “freaks” in college football, by CBS Sports’ Bruce Feldman. But to be the running back this team needs, he’ll have to continue to get better at the basics. Making the right read, getting his pad level down, salvaging something out of nothing. That’s what Brian Kelly and his staff value and that’s why Atkinson is still battling Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel for the starting job.

A strong spring practice has many inside the program believing that any immature streak in Atkinson’s past is gone and he’s ready to become the alpha dog. If he can continue to develop as a back, he’s got the upside to be absolutely frightening to opposing defenses.

Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: 21st.

14. Dan Fox (LB, Grad.) Nobody got the fresh start they needed when Brian Kelly and his staff took over more than Fox. Stuck as a bit of a tweener, many raised an eyebrow when Kelly and Bob Diaco shifted Fox to the inside of the 3-4 defense, asking a guy many thought could’ve been a safety to play in the trenches for this defense.

Fox latched onto Diaco’s tutelage and stepped into the starting lineup in 2011, sharing time with Carlo Calabrese but immediately helping to upgrade the athleticism in the front seven. Last year was his best season for the Irish, still ceding time to Calabrese in goal line situations, but playing more than just a complimentary role to Manti Te’o.

Entering his final year of college football, Fox is the type of guy that has become a very productive BCS player. Built from the ground up after being a hurdler and safety in high school, the 240-plus pound linebacker has infused athleticism into a position that for far too long was one of the detriments of the Irish defense.

Highest Ranking: 8th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (one ballot).

13. Sheldon Day (DE, Soph.) Day makes an impressive leap onto this list after a promising freshman season spent backing up Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore. That Day’s ascent into the starting lineup and impact on the defense is all but assumed gives you an idea that the Indianapolis native is set for big things.

It’s hard to read too much into a debut season that featured only included two sacks and less than two dozen tackles, but Brian Kelly has raved about Day’s abilities. While he’s undersized for a defensive end in this system, he’s already being called one of the team’s best block destructors and is expected to be a disruptive force up front, especially when Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt demand the attention of opposing offenses.

If there’s a flier on this list, it might be Day. But there’s every reason to believe the hunch this group takes on him is well worth it. Stepping into one of the best front sevens in the country as a true freshman and making a significant contribution shows you how talented Day is. There’s every reason to believe that another year in the weight room and another season developing will lead to big things for the talented sophomore.

Highest Ranking: 10th. Lowest Ranking: 19th.

12. Danny Spond (OLB, Sr.) After hearing from Brian Kelly since day one how talented Danny Spond was, last season finally proved the Irish head coach right. Spond, one of Kelly’s first targets after taking the head job late in the recruiting cycle, became one of the key members of the Irish defense, sliding into the ‘Dog’ outside linebacker job, and allowing Prince Shembo to shift to the boundary side of the field, where he thrived.

Spond started eleven games for the Irish, playing a critical role not just against the run, but as an excellent drop and cover linebacker that was so talented he ended up playing cornerback in some nickel situations. Making that all the more impressive was the fact that many worried Spond would never play football again after a horrifying injury during training camp had many worried that his career was over. But after weeks of exploration by doctors, Spond’s severe migraine headaches cleared up and he became one of the glue guys in the Irish defense.

With the back-end of the Irish defense in much better shape than it was last season, Spond won’t likely be asked to do everything like he did at times in the coverage scheme. And after a successful first season in the starting lineup, Spond’s already cerebral nature will help take his experience playing and apply it quickly. Making things interesting for the Irish defensive staff is how to use all the talented outside linebackers on this roster. Ishaq Williams, Jaylon Smith, Spond and returning starter Prince Shembo all need to see the field, and keeping Spond on the field to help against the pass while the other three are among the team’s best edge rushers gives the Irish a true champagne problem heading into 2013.

Highest Ranking: 5th. Lowest Ranking: 25th.

11. Tommy Rees (QB, Sr.) For all the vitriol that Rees tends to feel from some Irish fans still angry about 2011’s turnover problems, the voting panel was just as divided about the senior quarterback. The school’s most accurate passer entering his final season in South Bend, Rees has gone from unheralded, surprise freshman starter to one of the team’s veteran leaders, called upon in a pinch to rescue a team with high hopes even with Everett Golson gone for the year.

For as much as people focus on what Rees can’t do, there’s plenty that make him one of the most valued members of this roster. The school’s most accurate passer in the program’s history, Rees knows the offense inside and out, completes the throws that need to be made, and has had success moving the offense, primarily in 2011.

Of course, no dissection of Rees can come without mentioning the turnover problems that plagued him during his sophomore season. When the Irish cleaned them up in 2012, they went from an eight-win team to the BCS National Championship game.

It won’t be hard for the Irish offense to take a step forward this season, especially when you look back at the growing pains the team went through as it developed Golson. In Rees’ final season, he’ll need to improve on the accuracy of his deep throws as well as his decision making. He’ll never be the running threat the Irish had with Golson, but there’s every reason to believe he can improve on the turnovers, with four years in the offense and continuity with Chuck Martin.

Highest Ranking: 3rd. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (one ballot).


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

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”