Michigan v Notre Dame

Counting down the Irish: 15-11

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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.)

RANKINGS

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

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
rivals.com
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)