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

Nick Watkins announces transfer from Notre Dame

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With the announcement from fifth-year cornerback Nick Watkins he will seek a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, it may seem the Irish cornerback depth is taking a massive hit. It was actually that depth that likely spurred Watkins’ decision.

The Texas native announced his decision to transfer Thursday afternoon on Twitter.

“When I decided to attend Notre Dame, my primary goal was to earn a degree from this prestigious University,” Watkins wrote, “and I’m proud to say that I’ll achieve that goal.”

Watkins started nine games in 2017 before knee tendonitis slowed him, giving now-junior Troy Pride an opening to take the lead role opposite junior Julian Love. Pride played well and has continued that progress this spring, knocking Watkins from a starting role. Furthermore, senior Shaun Crawford saw some time at cornerback this spring, rather than focusing solely on nickelback, creating even more viable competition at cornerback.

Thus, Watkins will head elsewhere after making 37 career tackles in 35 games with the Irish, including 29 tackles last season with eight pass breakups and one interception. Watkins missed all of his junior season with a broken arm. Since he will graduate before transferring, Watkins will be immediately eligible wherever he ends up.

Notre Dame will also have four more cornerbacks joining the fray this summer when incoming freshmen D.J. Brown, Noah Boykin, Joe Wilkins and Tariq Bracy arrive.

The Irish roster still sits at a projected 87 scholarships for the coming fall, two over the maximum allowed by the NCAA.

Avery Davis’ move bumps Notre Dame’s RB depth from dire to versatile

Associated Press
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It may not be what Avery Davis always imagined, but his move to running back at least gets him on the field in a Notre Dame jersey. From a practical standpoint, Davis offers more than just running back depth amid a depleted Irish backfield. His move from quarterback to running back/receiver creates a new possibility of playmaking. That concept was the primary reason the sophomore welcomes the position switch rather than dreads it.

Davis’ motivations are that pure and simple. After spending the 2017 season preserving a year of eligibility and watching quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book both prove more than capable, Davis could see his chances at quarterbacking for Notre Dame dwindling. The prospect of another year with a similar view was not one to which he looked forward.

“I love the quarterback position, I’ve played it my whole life,” Davis said following the Blue-Gold Game. “But that redshirt season, to be standing on the sidelines knowing you could make an impact, knowing you could make plays, that pushed me into this.

“… What I’m really trying to do is help the team however I can.”

The Irish coaching staff’s motivations are undoubtedly as pure, regarding helping the team however Davis can, but one may wonder if the move would have happened if not for the dismissal of half the running back depth chart following the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU. Regardless, Notre Dame had a need, and Davis’ natural skills can now help fill it.

“It was a mutual understanding,” Davis said. “… I knew they were serious, because I was serious, too. Week two [of spring practices] I got my chance and that’s when it started clicking.”

By the end of spring practice, Davis had pushed his way firmly into the running back rotation, with a few cameos at receiver, as well. He finished the Blue-Gold Game with 30 rushing yards on 11 carries and 24 receiving yards on two catches, to go along with 2-for-2 passing for 26 yards in the closing moments.

The presence of a viable rushing and receiving threat plays right into the hands of Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long’s preferences. The mere presence of Davis on the field will put defenses into compromising positions. At least, that will be the theory.

It will likely not be long into the season when Davis first lines up in the backfield before motioning into the slot position, thus exposing more of the defense’s blitz and coverage intentions, if not outright forcing adjustments to them. Not long after that, Davis will at some point line up wide only to take a jet sweep a la Cam Smith in 2017’s first month and Kevin Stepherson in the latter half of the year.

These are the dilemmas created by a multi-dimensional threat such as Davis appears to be. Sure, it was just the spring game, but it showed the wrinkles he can create. No one else currently among Notre Dame’s running backs or receivers offers such a variety. Sophomore receiver Michael Young may come the closest, but his frame is not designed for the beating of a running back’s workload.

Nor is Davis’ at this point, necessarily, but he knows as much.

“It’s just more of a physical toll on your body,” he said when asked of the greatest difference from the quarterback position. “You take more hits. That’s something that comes with being in the weight room.”

Atop Davis’ offseason to-do list is add more muscle across the chest and in the shoulders. Next will be to work on his routes and pass-catching skills. As far as reading the defense’s approach, quarterback prepared him for that. His focus is now slightly different, looking for gaps at the line rather than gauging coverage holes, but the underlying skills are the same.

Along with the potential poised by Davis’ position switch and the inherent disclaimers attached to any spring successes, two more aspects of the sophomore’s future should be explicitly noted. First of all, he does not let slip even the slightest misgiving about the move from football’s glamor position. Davis knew what the Irish depth chart looked like when he arrived at Notre Dame, and he knew who had already committed in the following class in consensus four-star Phil Jurkovec.

“When it comes down to it, I love playing the game,” Davis said. “Wasn’t too hard for me. It was a personal decision.

“It was a decision to come here, and I’m living with it. I’m really happy with it, to be honest.”

Secondly, this is a move the Irish coaching staff is committed to, but it retains the right to work Davis in at quarterback. Even Jurkovec’s arrival is unlikely to knock Davis from the spot of No. 3 quarterback to be deployed in emergency situations, lest Jurkovec burn a year of eligibility to offer a quarter’s worth of work.

“The conversation we had with Avery is, what do you want to do?” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “If you want to stay [at quarterback], right now it looks like it’s 1A, 1B, and you’re 3. You can stay in that position, or we think you’ve got some talents to help our offense. He wanted to do this.

“He doesn’t want to give up his ability to play quarterback down the road, but in the meantime, you need to play this year. This gives him that opportunity.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS/IS AT RUNNING BACK:
Without Davis and the move of sophomore Jafar Armstrong from receiver, the Irish had two upperclassmen and an early-enrolled freshman at running back this spring. Each of senior Dexter Williams (pictured above) and junior Tony Jones have shown the physical ability to be a loadbearing ballcarrier in the past, but neither has stayed healthy enough to grant peace of mind if in that role. Depth was needed.

Specifically in reference to Williams, Kelly acknowledged past restrictions due to Williams’ durability, or lack thereof.

“How long can you stay on the field?” Kelly said Saturday. “He seemed to be a guy that we couldn’t keep on the field very long. He had a really good spring. He wasn’t a guy that we had to pull out or wasn’t conditioned well enough.”

Much like Davis, Armstrong’s emergence this spring soothes some of those concerns. In the Blue-Gold Game, he finished with 48 yards on five carries along with one catch for 21 yards, showing decent quickness with a burst that will become only more decisive with more experience.

Armstrong should be more than capable of replacing Deon McIntosh as the No. 3 or 4 running back who can offer some modicum of production. In time, he could certainly become more than that.

Early-enrollee Jahmir Smith did about what one would expect from a high school senior taking part in collegiate practices, and that is meant as a compliment, but by no means did he lay the groundwork to force his way into the rotation by September.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE:
The Irish will welcome C’Bo Flemister as a sixth running back in the fall. Presuming health of the top four (Williams, Jones, Davis and Armstrong), Flemister should join Smith in spending a year in strength and conditioning, perhaps adding some special teams work. More likely, though, at least one of that initial quartet will suffer a plaguing injury, if not something worse, and the freshmen duo could be a sprained ankle away from being activated, just as C.J. Holmes was halfway through 2017.

ONE MORE NOTE, NFL DRAFT-WISE:
The NFL draft begins tonight (Thursday). Former Notre Dame running back Josh Adams will not hear his name called in the first round, but it is likely his name comes up Saturday, somewhere between late in the fourth round and the end of the sixth round.

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

rivals.com
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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

Associated Press
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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.