Counting down the Irish: The top five

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For the past few years, the Irish haven’t been shy on leading men. Since we began this exercise before the 2010 season, there has always been a dynamic duo at the top of the Irish roster.

Last season the choice was who to rank first among the returning All-American candidates, Manti Te’o on defense or Tyler Eifert on offense? The season before it was a two-man race between Te’o and Michael Floyd, with Harrison Smith coming in third. In 2010, it was Kyle Rudolph who battled Floyd for the top spot, with the Irish receiver beating out Rudolph, who struggled and missed a large portion of his final season in blue and gold because of a balky hamstring.

This year, it was pretty easy to slot in the top three players on the Irish roster. Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt received first and second place votes by all but one of our panelists, where senior All-American candidate Zack Martin stole a 2nd place ballot. Martin, as steady of a player as the Irish have had in the last decade, wasn’t ranked lower than fourth on any ballot. 

With the opening of training camp two weeks away, Brian Kelly has begun to make the rounds with a few obligatory radio and print interviews. His early comments will likely be echoed many times in the next few weeks, with the Irish depth being as strong as its ever been.

The top five players on this list might not have the Q-rating that Te’o, Eifert or Floyd had, but they are all legitimate All-American candidates. Working down our list, you see a group of players that will surely be highly productive players this year, with many high ceiling guys projecting an upside that puts them on the national stage as well.

There’s no doubt that this team has lost a few proven commodities, with anchor players like Kapron Lewis-Moore, Te’o, Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter all leaving the defense. Offensively, the Irish will need to replace their four most productive skill players, with Eifert, Theo Riddick, Everett Golson and Cierre Wood gone as well.

But this team has the personnel to make that happen. Sure, it’s only a small percentage of the equation — as we’ve seen far too often the past two decades. Still, after a mostly disruptive offseason for the Irish since their appearance in the BCS National Championship game, this Top 25 list stands as a reminder that the strength and health of this football team is only getting better.

Here is the final list:

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.)
10. Davaris Daniels (WR, Jr.)
9. Troy Niklas (TE, Jr.)
8. KeiVarae Russell (CB, Soph.)
7. TJ Jones (WR, Sr.)
6. Chris Watt (LG, Grad.)

RANKINGS

5. Prince Shembo (OLB, Sr.) After a sophomore season where Shembo got washed away with a position switch to the weak side, the junior reemerged as one of the Irish’s most dangerous weapons in 2012 when he moved back to the Cat linebacker position, racking up 7.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss in a very nice junior season.

At 6-foot-2, 250-pounds, Shembo doesn’t have the prototype size you’d expect for his position, but set the edge well, playing excellent against the run with a physical presence nonetheless. While his sacks came in bunches, there were times when Shembo was unblockable off the edge, playing an excellent game against Michigan State while absolutely dominating Boston College with three sacks and a fumble recovery. 

Shembo could be poised for a breakout season. He’s on the Bednarik watch list for the defensive player of the year and has been listed by some as one of the top linebackers in the country. There’s no doubt that Shembo has explosive ability, and if he continues to develop could see his pass rush numbers easily get into double digits while also being a great run stopper.

Highest Ranking: 3rd. Lowest Ranking: 15th.

4. Bennett Jackson (CB, Sr.) There was a reason why the coaching staff wasn’t worried about Jackson sliding into the starting lineup last season, even though he had yet to start a game for the Irish. Jackson had a terrific junior season, starting all thirteen games, even with a shoulder that needed surgery (and was repaired this offseason).

A physical corner that can play at the line of scrimmage as well as run with any receiver, Jackson tallied 65 tackles, ranking third on the roster, while also snatching four interceptions. For a guy that started his career as a wide receiver, the transition to defense looks like a brilliant one, especially considering the team’s needs in the back end when the switch occurred.

Jackson has sprinter speed and seems to enjoys the physicality that comes with playing on the short side of the field. He’s proven himself to be a playmaker, and the national stage views him accordingly. He’s also on the Bednarik watch list and if he puts up similar statistics, should be in the hunt for All-America honors.

Highest Ranking: 4th. Lowest Ranking: 11th.

3. Zack Martin (LT, Grad.) A rare four-year starter at left tackle for the Irish, Martin was another one of Kelly’s six-star recruits, returning for his final year of eligibility and bypassing the NFL, where he’d likely have been a second or third round draft pick.

Put simply, no starter on the offensive side of the ball means more to the unit than Martin. If you’re a fan of advanced baseball statistics, consider Martin’s VORP out of this league, with true freshman Steve Elmer or untested second year player Ronnie Stanley the alternatives if Martin didn’t return.

He won’t wow you with his physical attributes, but the Irish staff views Martin among the best offensive linemen in the country. A three-time offensive lineman of the year for the Irish, he was a second team Walter Camp All-American last season, has made 39 consecutive starts and will be an Outland Trophy candidate.

Highest Ranking: 2nd. Lowest Ranking: 4th.

2. Stephon Tuitt (DE, Jr.) If Martin dominates while looking less than incredible, Tuitt is among the most impressive looking athletes in all of college football. While South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney is viewed as the most dominating defensive end in the country, Tuitt isn’t all that far behind him. The Irish junior’s game is more power rather than Clowney’s speed attack, though his 77-yard touchdown scamper against Navy showed a rather ridiculous burst for a 300-plus pound man.

After seeing action in just nine games during his freshman season, that Tuitt notched 12 sacks, forced three fumbles and tallied 47 tackles was a breakthrough. On pace to smash the Irish single-season sack record when he had 8.5 sacks through the season’s first seven games, Tuitt’s output slowed late in the season, notching only 12 tackles and two sacks in the season’s final four games.

An offseason hernia surgery helped explain the late season regression, and Tuitt enters the 2013 season on just about every preseason All-American team, joining Clowney as bookend defensive ends. A monster of a man that can slide inside on obvious passing downs and pressure the quarterback from both inside and out, Tuitt is the prototype 3-4 defensive end, and could be a first round draft pick if he decides to leave for the NFL after his third season in South Bend. Tuitt is on both the Bednarik and Maxwell Award watch lists.

Highest Ranking: 1st. Lowest Ranking: 3rd.

1. Louis Nix (DT, Sr.) That Nix finds himself the top rated player on the Irish roster is a credit to the work the rising senior has put in. Arriving on campus as an overweight, out of shape, raw but talented defensive tackle, the Florida native sat out his freshman season as he worked his way into shape. In between bouts of homesickness and ongoing battles with his fitness levels, Nix has managed to work his way into one of the premiere defensive linemen in all of college football.

Nix made 50 tackles last season, leading the Irish’s defensive linemen. He had 7.5 tackles for loss and broke up five passes. As a true 3-4 nose guard, Nix was the tip of the spear of one of college football’s most stout units, and showed an athleticism and strength that made him one of the country’s most fearsome interior linemen. He’s an immoveable force on the inside of the Irish defense and is among the most important players in the country.

For all that Nix does on the field, he’s just as dynamic of a character off of it. Never shy to engage on social media or in the local community, Nix has become an ambassador for the school, a jolly, funny, irreverent character that’s among the most beloved players of recent memory, almost a joyous counterpoint to the spiritual leader that Te’o was last season. While he still has a season of eligibility remaining, Nix will graduate this spring and likely be selected in the NFL Draft’s first round.

Highest Ranking: 1st. Lowest Ranking: 2nd.

***

Once again, a mighty thanks to the panelists that helped with the vote. Do yourself a favor and check out their websites and learn more about Notre Dame football almost by default.

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 Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Associated Press
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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

rivals.com
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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

Associated Press
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A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills