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Counting down the Irish: 10-6

Jul 18, 2013, 2:20 PM EDT

Purdue v Notre Dame Getty Images

Looking at the first fifteen names we’ve revealed, one pretty clear trend seemed to be emerging. The strength of this team’s depth was on defense. Ten of the players we’ve already rolled out will be defensive contributors. That includes highly touted freshmen Max Redfield and Jaylon Smith, who will have to find a way onto the field for Bob Diaco’s defense.

Of the offensive players listed, only Christian Lombard is a proven commodity. While we’ve talked about the positional flexibility Lombard has, he started 13 games at right tackle, where he’ll open fall camp as the returning starter.

The next five names all but even out our proceedings. They include a nice mix of talented youth and veteran experience, with all five players seemingly on track to be front-line college starters with NFL potential.

Let’s take a look at where where we stand before rolling out our penultimate grouping:

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.)
14. Dan Fox (LB, Grad.)
13. Sheldon Day (DE, Soph.)
12. Danny Spond (OLB, Sr.)
11. Tommy Rees (QB, Sr.)

RANKINGS

10. Davaris Daniels (WR, Jr.) Entering his third season in the Irish program, where Daniels goes this season will likely give us a better idea of his career trajectory. After redshirting during his freshman season and watching future first round draft pick Michael Floyd, Daniels spent his debut season battling injuries and inconsistency, not all that surprising for a guy taking his first collegiate snaps and depending on a quarterback doing the same.

Daniels made three starts in his eleven games, with an ankle injury and broken collarbone sidetracking him just as he seemed to get rolling. Daniels returned from the collarbone injury against Alabama to provide one of the lone bright spots for the Irish, catching six balls for 115 yards against a talented Crimson Tide defense. Sure, it was with the game mostly in hand for Saban’s crew, but it gives you a glimpse at the tremendous ability that Daniels has when he puts it all together.

That time is now for Daniels, with the Irish offense without a All-American caliber receiving threat for the first time in Kelly’s three seasons. That’s not to say that Daniels doesn’t have that ability, but he’ll need to become the consistent player that many hope is waiting to breakout.

Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: 15th.

9. Troy Niklas (TE, Jr.) That Niklas checks in this high is a testament to the potential of the hulking tight end that should feel much more comfortable a season after learning on the fly as a sophomore. At 6-foot-6.5 and 260-pounds, Niklas has freakish size and strength, and his hands and speed are much better than you’d expect for a man his size.

A season after taking pleasure in learning the mechanics of blocking by flipping sleds, the Irish will ask Niklas to be a more well rounded threat. The Irish coaching staff thinks they have a player that can resemble Rob Gronkowski, and not just in the eclectic personality category.

Niklas caught a modest five balls for 75 yards and a touchdown last season, but was used almost exclusively as an attached blocker that helped power the running game. There were some ugly moments as he played his first season of tight end, but his improvement was well documented as the season went on. Tommy Rees is a fan of using his tight end and Niklas could be the primary beneficiary this season.

Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: 2oth.

8. KeiVarae Russell (CB, Soph.) Entering fall camp as just another body in the running back depth chart, Russell switched sides of the ball and miraculously started all thirteen games for the Irish, putting together a freshman All-American season at cornerback while racking up 58 tackles and two interceptions.

After getting beat for a touchdown pass against Navy in the opener, Russell played with more and more confidence as the season went on, coming up interceptions against both Michigan and USC, the latter a clutch pick against Max Wittek in Irish territory.

It’s still hard to quantify what Russell’s ceiling is as a football player, even after his impressive freshman season. Russell was in the starting lineup mostly out of necessity, with Lo Wood’s season ending Achilles injury putting the Irish into a training camp bind that also saw the Irish temporarily flip Cam McDaniel to the defensive side of the ball as well.

Russell has good enough speed, nice enough size, and clearly has a great head on his shoulders. Spending any time around him you understand that he also has the confidence to be a great cornerback, which goes plenty far. We’ll see by Bob Diaco’s scheme this season how much they trust the duo of Russell and Bennett Jackson to lock down receivers. Never a man coverage defense, adding some to the defensive scheme might tell you all you need to know about the talented sophomore.

Highest Ranking: 5th. Lowest Ranking: 20th.

7. TJ Jones (WR, Sr.) After being stuck in neutral for two seasons, Jones excelled in 2012, taking a big step forward with 649 yards and showing himself as more than just a complementary part of the offense. Jones matched All-American Tyler Eifert’s numbers for both catches and touchdowns, and had a flair for the dramatic, coming up big against both Stanford and Pitt when the Irish needed him most.

Jones will never be a true No. 1 receiver, but he’s getting national attention if only for his consistent body of work and impressive performance against Alabama, where he made seven tough catches. Jones rarely has a ball come his way that he doesn’t catch and had a great knack for getting the tough yards last season.

Quicker than fast, Jones isn’t all that big at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds. But he’s a smooth operator and has worked his way around the Irish offense, starting in the slot and then succeeding last season on the outside. After learning on the fly last season with a new quarterback, Jones is primed for a big season, and could be one of those guys that does enough right to find a nice niche playing on Sundays.

Highest Ranking: 4th.  Lowest Ranking: 14th.

6. Chris Watt (LG, Grad.) That Watt ranks this far down our list goes to show you how much better this roster has gotten personnel wise. In 2010, both Trevor Robinson and Chris Stewart ranked higher on our lists than Watt, with only Robinson latching on to an NFL team as an undrafted free agent. The Irish staff believes Watt is one of the top guards in college football, and at 6-foot-3, 321-pounds, he’s a rough and tumble guy that’s done a lot of good in the trenches for Notre Dame.

Entering his third season as a starter at left guard, Watt and Zack Martin could be one of the best left sides in all of college football. He’ll be counted on to move an already strong running game forward, and should anchor an offensive line that could be one of the strongest in recent memory for the Irish.

It’s hard to truly evaluate the ceiling of an offensive lineman without evaluating an awful lot of game tape, but Watt is one of the best interior linemen on the Irish roster in recent memory.

Highest Ranking: 5th. Lowest Ranking: 10th.

***

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

  1. ndadvocate - Jul 18, 2013 at 2:30 PM

    I know Troy Niklas is a physical specimen, but what has he done to warrant that high of a ranking? Without his shirt off I have never been too impressed.

    • NotreDan - Jul 18, 2013 at 3:17 PM

      Sounds like KA may have a little inside info on Niklas.

      I’m really optimistic about the kid.

      • ndadvocate - Jul 18, 2013 at 4:46 PM

        I hope he dominates and continues Notre Dame’s pristine TE tradition.

  2. kiopta1 - Jul 18, 2013 at 3:30 PM

    If NCAA14 told me anything it’s that Troy could be a beast with his physical talents and truth be told Tommy needs a big TE.

  3. seadomer - Jul 18, 2013 at 3:40 PM

    Tyler catching A, running after B+
    Troy catching B+ but I think running after could be A given his size, I hope to see him dragging 2 defenders into the in zone.

    • ndrocks2 - Jul 18, 2013 at 3:56 PM

      I hope your right, I did see several speed rushers blowing by him last season.

      Considering the talent in this top 25 #9 seems to be assuming we automatically will have success with whomever is playing TE. Top 25 yes, #9 seems like a bit a stretch.

      • seadomer - Jul 18, 2013 at 5:28 PM

        True, to your first pt, exactly, he will not be out running defenders but hopefully drag another 5 yards.

        Second, yup if we keep feeling like No. 40 or No.45 belongs in the Top 25 , it will mean a we have an elite team with elite backups … we don’t want a case where everybody knows the Top 20 by heart.

  4. nudeman - Jul 18, 2013 at 3:48 PM

    Mixed feelings about Troy. At this point he’s most known for being called Hercules.
    Seems to have soft hands. As a lay person who doesn’t break down tape after games, I’d say the potential is there. Not sure what kind of blocker he will be.

    BTW, the other day on one of these ranking stories I predicted the top 5 as (not in order) Nix, Tuitt, Z. Martin, Jackson and one of Spond, TJ Jones or Shembo, with Shembo being most likely.

    Gotta’ toot my own horn here. Looks like I nailed it.

    • onward2victory - Jul 18, 2013 at 4:10 PM

      Keith, be honest, you totally picked the top 5 based on Nude’s prediction.

    • ndadvocate - Jul 18, 2013 at 4:44 PM

      Nix,Tuitt, Martin and Jackson are all pretty obvious though wouldnt you say? Had you chosen the fifth spot with some conviction than I’d be impressed!

      • nudeman - Jul 18, 2013 at 9:01 PM

        That’s true. Jackson and Shembo could have been 6-10.
        Hey, I didn’t ask for a Pulitzer … just pointing out I got one right. Finally.

  5. jerseyshorendfan1 - Jul 18, 2013 at 3:53 PM

    Arnold, throwing out the SAT words like penultimate. You are among the top 5 sportswriters on the web.

    • rayguy14 - Jul 18, 2013 at 10:04 PM

      Sure beats the heck out of ESPN’s ND guy! I go there pretty much for recruiting news only. I think every time I go to that blog, I leave hoping there’s an update here, that I might read something of substance. Keep up the great work Keith!!

  6. onward2victory - Jul 18, 2013 at 4:12 PM

    Is it just me, or is TJ Jones the ideal slot receiver? (A bit undersized, great hands, very good in space and after the catch, ability to find the open spots, good route-runner, etc)

    Do you guys think he’ll project as a slot or WR in the NFL?

    • NotreDan - Jul 18, 2013 at 4:25 PM

      Slot, too small to be effective at WR

    • nudeman - Jul 18, 2013 at 4:25 PM

      I love TJ.
      Other than the head shot Rees fired off his helmet 2 years ago, he’s caught everything.
      Can’t see him as a WR in the NFL; just not big enough. Slot makes more sense.
      Could be a really good one

    • onward2victory - Jul 18, 2013 at 7:21 PM

      Yah Nude I agree. That catch he had in OT against Stanford where Tommy threw it way behind TJ is so under-rated. To be able to adjust his body and make that catch, in that situation, in the rain! Unbelievable.

  7. NotreDan - Jul 18, 2013 at 4:29 PM

    Speaking of slot men….

    http://www.detroitlions.com/news/article-1/Theo-Riddick-has-already-begun-to-show-the-value-of-his-versatility/52c1ea1e-9f12-4069-b380-1c3d99f5bd85

    I actually have a reason to go to a Lion’s game this year!

    • jmfinsd - Jul 18, 2013 at 7:12 PM

      The link story states, “As a freshman, Riddick was primarily used as a kick returner, finishing with 37 returns for 849 yards.” 849 yards? 849 return yards? 849 f’in return yards? In one season? That’s more than 20 yards per return (understanding it’s mixed punt and KO). I don’t doubt the stat. Just flabbergasts me that we averaged .5 yards per return last year (and maybe the year before). I knew the return game has been bad, but I refused to join those harping on it. Please, oh please, let us do better this year!!

      • papadec - Jul 18, 2013 at 8:40 PM

        jm – 1.0 yd/return would be better. Twice as good. I’d like to see a significant improvement – 2.0 yds/return would be 4X better. Seriously, I think we’d all like to see something more like those you mentioned by Theo, especially if the defense is the shut down unit we all expect.

      • papadec - Jul 18, 2013 at 8:44 PM

        jm – Onwualo maybe?

      • nudeman - Jul 18, 2013 at 9:08 PM

        Amir.
        Quickest guy on the offense

      • jmfinsd - Jul 18, 2013 at 10:14 PM

        papadec – Maybe Redfield. Don’t know whether he’ll crack starting defensive backfield, although wouldn’t surprise me if he does. If not, 4.4. speed, good hands, apparently knows how to run with the ball. Plus it may prevent a starter (i.e., Carlisle, GA3) from being hurt on special teams. IF GA3 is he starting RB, not crazy about him returning, too. However, I do believe the return game problems are not with the returner, but the blocking or just the overall scheme. Just my .02.

    • goirishgo - Jul 18, 2013 at 8:58 PM

      Theo Riddick has heart. Can’t coach that.

  8. papadec - Jul 18, 2013 at 11:49 PM

    jm & nude – Amir & Redfield – those are interesting thoughts. How about throwing the two of them back there? Amir getting busted up concerns me, but speed kills. I’d rather see Redfield & Onwualo. It will be interesting to see who the coaches go with vs Temple & then UM.

  9. irishaggie - Jul 19, 2013 at 1:01 AM

    Davaris is a legitimate endzone threat and his length and skills to locate the football in midair are extraordinary.Troy might be ranked too high. In 2011 Tyler Eifert was ranked #12 after having 27 rec, 352 yds, and 2 TD’s in 2010. I cant see how Troy Niklas is ranked higher than Tyler was in 2011. I hope he lives up to it though. Keivarae Russell was the best corner on the team last year as a true freshmen. No disrespect to Bennett. Many are projecting Keivarae and Ronald Darby to be the first two corners off the board in 2015.TJ Jones will be the reliable receiver of the team this year. Chris Watt will definitely make some kind of All-American team. The guy is a monster and very fundamentally sound. Dont remember him getting very many penalties.

    • onward2victory - Jul 19, 2013 at 1:28 AM

      That’s a really early projection for Russell and Darby, but I hope you mean in the 2016 draft (after the 2015 season).

  10. 1historian - Jul 19, 2013 at 11:32 AM

    We’re gonna be fine

  11. shaunodame - Jul 19, 2013 at 12:29 PM

    Did I just see a Rob Gronkowski comparison in the Troy Niklas section?!

    Thats mighty high praise Keith, as many (myself included, sorry Kyle Rudolph) believe that Gronk is the Best TE in the entire NFL. Safe to say, I would very much be behind a projection comparison like that. Also, I think your point about Tommy Rees and his admiration of Pass Catchin TE’s, definitely something to keep in mind when considering Niklas potential this coming season.

  12. nchdomer - Jul 20, 2013 at 7:31 AM

    Good analysis by Keith and posters. Enjoyed the absence of the trolls – thought I was at the wrong site for a moment. :-) Maybe they’re at the SEC conference listening to Spurrier trying to get some attention by tweaking ND. Nice to see that in the slow Summer news days of college football, even the mighty SEC has to reference ND to get some national publicity. They must have been tired of the hungover Johnny Football being the major story (and face) of their conference. Looking forward to the season. With August just around the corner, their is a hint of excitement for the coming Autumn. Go Irish!

  13. tsombanj - Jul 20, 2013 at 11:20 AM

    Let me finish this list for you:

    5. Bennett Jackson – Holding down top flight receivers is a must.
    4. Prince Shembo – Applying pressure off the edge is necessary to make sure the secondary isn’t left out in the cold.
    3. Zachary Martin – Protecting the blind side of the less than mobile Rees will determine how well Tommy performs.
    2. Stephon Tuitt – ND’s best defensive end since Bryant Young and Justin Tuck (enough said).
    1. Louis Nix – It all starts and ends here. As he big man goes, so do the Irish.

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