Notre Dame defensive players Tuitt, Nix III, and Te'O celebrate after breaking up a play in the fourth quarter during their win over USC in their NCAA college football game at the Coliseum in Los Angeles

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.

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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

Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller taken in first round of NFL Draft

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller were taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. Both came off the board on night one, with Stanley the first offensive tackle taken and Fuller the second receiver selected.

Stanley joins the Baltimore Ravens, a key addition to a franchise needed help along the offensive line. He’s Notre Dame’s first Top 10 pick since 1994, ending a draught that’s spanned since Bryant Young was taken by San Francisco.

Fuller will join a Houston Texans offense that just spent major money on quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller. To back up that investment, the Texans added college football’s most dangerous deep threat, trading up to spot No. 21 to pair Fuller with DeAndre Hopkins on the outside.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith was not selected in the first round. Both he and Myles Jack, widely considered to be Top 10 talents, slid down the board because of knee injuries. (Both also have loss-of-value insurance policies, cushioning that blow.)

The draft continues tomorrow with rounds two and three. Smith should be selected then, along with Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, and potentially C.J. Prosise.

Demetris Robertson set for Sunday decision (finally!)

Demetris Robertson
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Five-star recruit Demetris Robertson is ready to make a college decision. Finally.

Months after National Signing Day, the last recruit on the board for Notre Dame is ready to pick the place he plans to go to college. And after setting an announcement date for Monday, Robertson is even pushing things forward, with a Sunday decision now in the books.

For Irish fans still paying attention to the twists and turns of this recruitment, Robertson will announce his decision from the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta. (An homage to Jimmy Clausen, anyone?)

Here’s Rivals.com with the news after talking with Robertson’s brother and guardian.

“We were going to have it on Monday, but things got mixed up so we moved it up a day,” Carlos Robertson said. “It will be at 1 p.m., right there in that 1-2 time frame, somewhere in there.”

But it’s happening.

“His mind’s made up,” Carlos Robertson said. “Everything’s locked, but he wanted to have it, have a little public deal, but I think he knows where he wants to be.”

Robertson also cleared up why the decision is being held in Atlanta.

“We’re not from Savannah, we’re actually from right below the Atlanta area, so it will give everybody, the aunts, the uncles, everybody a chance to come,” he said. “It only made sense.”

While this recruitment has felt like a soap opera, it’s worth pointing out that there’s absolutely no reason to fault Robertson for making this decision on a timeline that he decides. National Signing Day may feel like a holiday to college football fans, but it’s really just the earliest date a letter-of-intent can be signed.

With hopes of gaining admittance into Stanford, Robertson reportedly retook his ACT multiple times, trying to make a better score. Usually that’s cause for applause, not derision. He’s also spent time further evaluating his other options, some closer to home—Georgia, Alabama—others with a significant academic profile—Cal and Notre Dame among them.

The Irish’s pursuit of Robertson has been well documented, including a visit from the team semi-truck. It’s also a recruitment where most are still in the dark. While Notre Dame is certainly still in the running, there’s no gut feeling on this one way or the other, even among those inside the program.

After averaging 15 points a game as a guard for the Savannah Christian basketball team, Robertson is preparing to compete in the state track meet, running multiple sprint events and the long jump. That type of athleticism is what has the Irish coaching staff sold on Robertson as a wide receiver, a potential replacement for Will Fuller (and two other starters) as Notre Dame restocks a depth chart that’ll also feature spring star Kevin Stepherson and incoming freshmen Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley.

With some feeling home state Georgia has moved ahead in the race, Robertson’s brother Carlos says his younger brother did what was best for him, taking his time and making a decision for himself.

“It was totally his decision, lock himself in the room, however he had to do it. This was something he had to decide on his own,” the elder Robertson told Rivals.com.

 

 

For Irish, best work will be behind closed doors

BUFFALO, NY - SEPTEMBER 12:  Head Coach Jeff Quinn of the Buffalo Bulls looks on during the game against the Baylor Bears at UB Stadium on September 12, 2014 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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With spring practice finished and the end of the school year in sight, Brian Kelly’s team enters the all-important offseason—a time when the best work goes unseen by the coaching staff. On a squad where the lion’s share of leaders and starters need to be replaced, Kelly’s talked about the identity of this team forming when he and his assistants get out of the mix.

“We need to get the heck out of the way, in a sense, and allow those guys to step up and be leaders within their units,” Kelly said after the spring game. “And that naturally happens when the coaches get out of the way. Especially in May. They go home, they recharge, they kind of assess where they are and they hear it from us and they come back in June and they are focused on physical development and then the leadership element and they go to work on it.”

One of the storylines that’s gone mostly ignored are the changes to the group in charge of the team while the staff is getting out of the way. While Director of strength and conditioning Paul Longo has long held a premier role atop the ever-evolving org chart under Brian Kelly, the players beneath him have changed. That creates an interesting dynamic this offseason—and possibly one that could actually benefit the Irish in the months to come.

Entering his seventh season at Notre Dame along side Kelly, Longo has worked hand in hand with Kelly since his time at Central Michigan. That relationship is likely why Longo’s been more out front than any strength coach at Notre Dame in the modern era.

 

Treated as a coordinator—and actually listed above Mike Denbrock, Brian VanGorder and Mike Sanford on the team’s online roster—we’re heard plenty in seven years of Longo, riding the greatest hits through the “Coat of Armor” era all the way into today’s injury prevention mode.

But Longo’s work this offseason will be aided by an evolving group of assistants in the strength department. Aaron Wellman is gone, the former Michigan strength coach now running the New York Giants’ program. That led to an unorthodox hire by Kelly to fill his shoes, though a telling decision as a young team prepares to ascend into new jobs.

New assistant strength coach Jeff Quinn was an unlikely hire, especially considering his 30 years of coaching experience at the college level. After spending last season as an offensive analyst, Quinn transitions to the strength staff seems like a bizarre new role for a man many viewed as Kelly’s most important assistant in his pre-Notre Dame days.

Quinn last roamed the sidelines at Buffalo, a head coaching position he took over in 2010, a move he made instead of joining Kelly at Notre Dame after serving as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator. Even though he signed a five-year extension at the close of the 2012 season, Quinn was fired early in the 2014 season after a disappointing start to the year. (An open-records request revealed that Buffalo is still paying Quinn, likely supplementing his decreased earnings as an off-field staffer in South Bend.)

Kelly provided a soft landing for Quinn last year, even if he didn’t fill one of the on-staff openings that reshuffled after Tony Alford, Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott left the ranks. And while many expected that keeping Quinn in a supporting role wasn’t as likely through another hiring cycle, the move of the trusted lieutenant to the strength staff keeps another asset under Kelly’s control, even if it begs questions about long-term sustainability.

But adding Quinn to a football-specific strength staff makes sense. It’s a role that already has David Grimes, a former Irish captain and wide receiver and continues to  feature assistant director of strength Jake Flint, who played under Kelly at Central Michigan, earning a scholarship after walking on. That’s a lot of practical football knowledge under one roof, certainly helpful as the offseason focus becomes less and less about leg press and bench press, but more and more about enhancing the knowledge base and athletic skill-set for a young team with plenty of ambition.

So as the Irish coaching staff finally finds time to step away from the 24/7 grind, they’ll be turning over their young team to Longo and his department. And as we’ve seen as Kelly and Jack Swarbrick continue to outfit the Irish program to compete in today’s landscape, these under-the-radar moves should likely pay dividends.

 

 

Draft Day is near: Final projections for talented Irish class

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 27: Wide receiver Will Fuller of Notre Dame participates in a drill during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Draft week is finally (almost) here. A football holiday that both college and NFL fans can love equally, it also marks the end of nearly four months of talking heads and manufactured debate, the end of the virtual rise and fall of player stocks with the evaluation and prognosticating industry turning everybody into an expert capable of evaluating their favorite team’s haul.

With Notre Dame poised to send their largest class to the NFL since the heyday of Lou Holtz, it’ll be a busy weekend for Irish fans. Let’s kick off draft week with a look at some of the potential homes for this group of talented former Irish athletes.

 

First Rounders:

Both Cris Collinsworth and Peter King expect Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller to go in the first round. Stanley is a consensus first-rounder, with King seeing the Cleveland Browns pulling the trigger on Stanley at No. 8 and Collinsworth having Stanley staying close to school with the Bears at No. 11. While some speculate that the Chargers could be willing to jump at Stanley at No. 3 (picking him before top-of-the-board tackle Laremy Tunsil), most see Stanley off the board somewhere between eight and 16. Not shabby—back-to-back first round left tackles with Mike McGlinchey trending in the right direction as well.

But the inclusion of Fuller on both these lists is interesting, though maybe not for Collinsworth, who has seen three seasons of Fuller (and heard from his sons quite a bit as well). Collinsworth has Fuller going to the Cincinnati Bengals, a team he knows plenty about. King has the Houston Texans taking a swing at Fuller, pairing him with standout DeAndre Hopkins. It’d certainly be a nice addition for Bill O’Brien and new zillion-dollar quarterback Brock Osweiler.

While quite a few thing Fuller will slide into round two or three, it’s interesting that NFL.com’s experts Daniel Jeremiah, Charley Casserly, Charles Davis and Lance Zierlein all have Fuller picked in the first round.

(Can’t teach 4.32 or 29 touchdowns.)

 

Top 100 prospects

Perhaps the most impressive thing out there involving Notre Dame’s talent is Mike Mayock’s Top 100. No stranger to Brian Kelly’s program, Mayock has six players in his top 100:

4. Ronnie Stanley
34. Will Fuller
38. Nick Martin
61. Sheldon Day
81. KeiVarae Russell
97. Jaylon Smith

If Smith is around that close to No. 100 he’ll be $5 million richer (thanks to his insurance policy) and he’ll also have many a teams ready to gamble on a talent who was among the five best players in college football but is currently just 3.5 months into a grueling recovery process.

Sheldon Day has found his way into first rounds in some mock drafts, mostly thanks to his incredibly productive senior season. That Russell is at 81 speaks to the talent some think he has, though last year’s game tape doesn’t necessarily match. Mostly I just can’t get over Smith at 97. What devastatingly terrible timing for the Irish All-American—who I’m convinced will have a Pro Bowl career at the next level.

 

Can Notre Dame get to 10 players drafted? 

A look back at Notre Dame’s history in the NFL Draft tells you one thing for certain: Lou Holtz developed a ton of NFL talent. But Brian Kelly has a chance to put a really impressive class on the board with the 2016 draft, and if the Irish are lucky they could match the double-digits Holtz hit in 1994.

How does that happen? It likely comes down to not just the six listed above, but rather the depth that seems to be the strength of this group.

While Mayock didn’t have C.J. Prosise in his Top 100, there are plenty of evaluators who see something special in Prosise’s game. While returns on him vary, I think it’s safe to say he’ll be drafted—likely by the middle rounds.

From there, getting Chris Brown drafted will be key. His physical traits are another positive, even if his production on the field only blossomed as a senior as the No. 2 option. Then it’s sack-leader Romeo Okwara. The combo defensive end-outside linebacker has a lot going for him in the eyes of talent evaluators—youth (he’s still not 21), not to mention a wide range of skills. He doesn’t flash as an edge rusher, but those years stuck playing as a Dog linebacker for Bob Diaco will do him well now.

Ultimately, to get to ten something good needs to happen near the bottom of the draft. Will a team find safety Elijah Shumate worthy of a draft pick? Perhaps Matthias Farley, fresh off a very impressive Pro Day. Perhaps there’s a team that fell in love with Ishaq Williams, hoping to get a jump on free agency by spending a late round pick on a physical freak who hasn’t played football in two seasons. Jarrett Grace and Amir Carlisle will certainly get their chance to sign with a team before training camp comes around, but it’s a long shot either hears their name called.

It looks like the Irish will probably fall just short of 10 draftees. Unless someone takes a run at quarterback Everett Golson, opening up an asterisk situation if there ever was one.

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John Walters and I discussed Notre Dame’s draft prospects—and a lot, lot more—in our Blown Coverage podcast. Feel free to enjoy.