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.

***

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

Swarbrick talks improvements to Shamrock Series opponents

Shamrock Fenway
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Notre Dame is taking 2017 off from the Shamrock Series. When it comes back, expect to see an improvement in opponents.

With the remodeled Notre Dame Stadium set to be finished in 2017, playing seven home games is a natural fit. But with the neutral-site series set to return in 2018, athletic director Jack Swarbrick has grand plans for improving the series that’s taken the Irish to some iconic venues, but has lacked much punch when it comes to high-profile opponents.

Speaking exclusively with Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated, Swarbrick laid out some grand plans for the revitalization of the game.

“When the opponent and the venue and the place all contribute to the story, that’s when it works the best,” Swarbrick told Irish Illustrated. “I still want to maintain that. The difference will be that many more of them now will be led by the opponent.

“Now it can be, ‘I got this opponent.’ Now where can we go with them that works with what we’re trying to do?”

With Notre Dame returning to San Antonio for the second time in the Shamrock Series and repeating an opponent with Army as well, it’s clear that this year’s game checked off some other boxes when it got decided. Swarbrick acknowledged some of the restrictions that have held him back, with the reboot of Notre Dame’s schedule with five ACC games and other television considerations really limiting the team’s options.

“What we’ve been able to do in the Shamrock Series to this point is limit ourselves to games we already had scheduled that we would move,” Swarbrick told Sampson. “It was a very small range of people that we could do these deals without getting into television conflicts. With more lead time we have the runway we need to make these games, the three pieces of it – geography, venue and opponent – come together a little bit more.”

Rumors of new venues aren’t new. Brian Kelly has discussed Lambeau Field before. There’s been talk of a game in Rome. And rumblings of Michigan’s return to the schedule won’t go away.

Just recently Kelly tweeted out a picture from another venue that wouldn’t be too shabby.

But there’s an opening for another step forward for the program and Swarbrick is the right man to lead the change. He’s already led the Irish athletic department through a move to the ACC and helped navigate the “seismic changes” that resulted in the College Football Playoff. With the ambitious Campus Crossroads project near complete this seems like a perfect next project for the head of Irish athletics to take on.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
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Notre Dame’s incoming freshman steps into one of the most harrowing depth charts in college football. But he also comes to South Bend prepared, a freshman season where anything is possible.

Book may be No. 4 in a four-deep that includes three of the most intriguing quarterbacks in college football. But he’s also a play away from being the team’s backup. That’s the plan heading into freshman year, with Brandon Wimbush hoping to keep a redshirt on this season after being forced into action in 2015.

A highly productive high school quarterback, Book didn’t wow any of the recruiting evaluators. But Mike Sanford took dead aim at Book and landed a quarterback he thinks can step in and be ready if needed.

 

IAN BOOK
6’0″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, No. 4, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Three-star prospect who had offers from Boise State and Washington State before Notre Dame jumped in and landed him. His previous relationship with Mike Sanford from his time in Boise made the difference.

Undersized but cerebral player who was highly prolific in high school. Named conference MVP in senior season at Oak Ridge high school and was the No. 14 overall pro-style QB according to Rivals.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

If Book is going to be a big-time college quarterback, it’ll be because he’s got a knack for the game that you don’t see from his physical skill-set. He’s undersized and a little bit slight. He’s got good wheels, but doesn’t play like a speed demon.

You don’t need an elite set of tools to be successful in Brian Kelly’s system. And while a comparison to Tommy Rees will come off as a slight, it’s a compliment—especially after hearing the staff speak confidently about Book’s ability to come in and know the system well enough to be ready to play as a freshman, if necessary.

(Book is also faster than Rees, so relax everybody.)

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Unless the sky is falling, Book is wearing a redshirt. And that’s the best thing for him—even if he’ll prepare as the emergency No. 3, a duty Wimbush was pushed into last year.

A look at Notre Dame’s depth chart and the war chest of talent accumulated at the position makes these next five years look like an uphill climb to get onto the field. But until Book steps foot on campus, all bets are off.

Remember, Tommy Rees entered Notre Dame with two other quarterbacks at his position, both rated better than him by recruiting analysts. But it was Rees that pushed past the five-star recruit already on campus for two seasons and his two classmates.

Of course, DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush aren’t Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa. But until we see Book at the college level, it’s a wait and see proposition.

But the freshman has a key role on the 2016 team. Even if everybody hopes he won’t have to do it.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.