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Counting down the Irish: 25-21

Aug 5, 2014, 12:30 PM EDT

Malik Zaire Malik Zaire

It’s time for the first installment of this year’s Top 25. As we count by five from the top of the list to the bottom, we’ll get our first peek at some of the young talent that’s going to be tasked with carrying the Irish forward this season.

Of the five players we’re covering today, only one seems to be a lock in the Irish’s opening day lineup. And his route there is perhaps the most unlikely of any on the roster. From a recruiting profile perspective, none of the five were seen as “elite” recruits, after last year’s 25-21 were all blue-chippers with sky-high expectations.

Let’s start the festivities by rolling out our 2014 rankings.




source: Getty Images

Will Fuller against Air Force

25. Will Fuller (WR, Soph.): After serving as Notre Dame’s designated deep threat in 2013, Fuller should see some diversity in his offensive role this season, a big reason why I think he’s primed to be one of the team’s breakout stars in 2014.

Fuller has perhaps the best top-end speed on the roster, as his 26.7 yards per catch average made evident. But he’s also got a great set of hands, is a better than you’d expect route runner, and is capable of playing in the TJ Jones mold, a versatile receiver who can do a lot more than we’ve seen.

While the depth chart at receiver is deep, Fuller is the type of player that can move inside and out, a situational weapon that Brian Kelly could use to break open the passing game, especially in one-on-one coverage. That’s why I predicted a 1,000 season out of Fuller, and rated him higher than any of the other panelists.

Highest Ranking: 14th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Six ballots).


source:  24. Joe Schmidt (LB, Sr.): While truly great players can transcend scheme, senior linebacker Joe Schmidt was perhaps the largest beneficiary of the defensive change from Bob Diaco to Brian VanGorder.

Schmidt, who at a shade above 6-foot and 235 pounds, didn’t have the bulk or length to play on the inside of a 3-4 defense. But he’s the starting middle linebacker for the Irish in VanGorder’s scheme, a tremendous rise after starting his career as a recruited walk-on and part-time special teams performer.

Of course, Schmidt’s opportunity came because of an injury to Jarrett Grace and depth chart issues. But after an impressive spring, Schmidt looks poised to be a very productive part of the Irish defense. A good athlete with solid sideline-to-sideline speed, Schmidt’s instincts and ability in space were apparent last season against USC, when the unsung linebacker made a huge play to break up a critical pass late in the game to seal a victory against the Trojans.

The walk-on tag will likely hang on Schmidt, an easy narrative for an undersized player who turned down other opportunities to chase a scholarship at Notre Dame. And entering his senior season, he’s likely to be one of the Irish’s most productive players. It might not be Rudy, but Schmidt’s story is mighty good, too.

Highest Ranking: 12th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Two ballots).


23. Chris Brown (WR, Jr.): Brown disappeared for most of his sophomore season until playing his best football in the Pinstripe Bowl, a breakthrough for a receiver who shows flashes of big play potential, but struggled to find productivity in his first two seasons.


New York Post

Brown produced one of the biggest plays of 2012, when he connected with Everett Golson for a 50-yard bomb against Oklahoma. But after the deep threat role went to Will Fuller in 2013, Brown’s four starts and 13 appearances only produced 15 catches, with five coming in the bowl game, after putting up nine catches in the season’s first three games.

But if there was a receiver who consistently earned praise this spring it was Brown, with the junior taking on a leadership role with DaVaris Daniels exiled for the semester after academic deficiencies. Brian Kelly continued that praise for Brown last week after seeing his progress this summer.

At his best, Brown’s an explosive athlete who was an elite track star at the high school level and a junior national team member in 2011. He’s long at almost 6-foot-2, and has great leaping ability. Past the midpoint of his college career, the time is now for Brown to make his move, especially with talented young players surrounding him.

Highest Ranking: 16th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (One ballot).


Jarrett Grace

22. Jarrett Grace (LB, Sr.): That Grace finds himself on this list is a product of a few panelists believing that the senior linebacker can put the crippling leg injury he suffered last season behind him. If he can, there’s no reason to believe Grace can’t be a defensive leader for the Irish. But even with positive updates coming from Brian Kelly as camp opened, Grace is still weeks away from being ready to play football, and he barely participating in any drill work on Monday.

While a long-term prognosis on Grace’s recovery sounds better than it’s ever been, the reality of the situation is that Grace still isn’t a year removed from breaking his fibula in multiple places, an injury so destructive that he stayed behind in Dallas for several days and had multiple surgical procedures, including one this spring, to help the healing.

Grace was once believed to be the heir apparent to Manti Te’o, given the first opportunity to step into Te’o’s spot at the Mike linebacker last season. But some rookie moments early in the season quickly tampered those expectations. Yet Grace was rounding into form at the time of his injury, the Irish’s leading tackler at the time of his injury.

Getting anything out of Grace in 2014 would be a bonus. But his placement in this list shows you the respect he’s earned from those that have watched him during his career in South Bend.

Highest Ranking: 12th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Six ballots).


21. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.): After sitting through a difficult redshirt season, Zaire burst out of the gates during spring practice, making headlines when he said he fully expected to be the starter when Notre Dame played Rice on August 30th. That Zaire still has a chance to make that happen says quite a bit about the abilities (not to mention the confidence) that the exciting sophomore possesses.

After arriving relatively late on the recruiting scene, Zaire made waves at the Elite 11 camp, where he was one of the more impressive quarterbacks in attendance. As an option trigger man for most of his high school career, Zaire’s development as a passer has been recent, but he’s done a very good job in the limited reps we’ve seen from him.

Zaire out-played Golson in the spring game (though he faced a more basic defensive attack), and Brian Kelly says he plays his best football when the stage is biggest. That’s easy to say when it’s a Blue-Gold game, and quite another thing when it’s an opponent wearing a different jersey.

At his best, Zaire is a more dynamic running threat than Golson and his sturdier build makes him more capable as an option quarterback who will keep defenses guessing. While the reality of the situation will likely keep Zaire playing behind Golson for two more seasons, expect to see the young quarterback on the field early and often this season, with specialty packages designed to get the next man in a little experience.

Highest Ranking: 16th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Three ballots).


The selection committee for the 2014 ND Top 25:

Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals)
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune (@TJamesNDI)
Chris Hine, Chicago Tribune (@ChristopherHine)
Team OFD, One Foot Down (@OneFootDown)
Ryan Ritter, Her Loyal Sons (@HLS_NDTex)
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago (@JJStankevitz)
John Walters, Medium Happy (@JDubs88)
John Vannie, ND Nation
Keith Arnold, NBC Sports (@KeithArnold)

  1. blackirish23 - Aug 5, 2014 at 1:00 PM

    As far as the ND QB’s go, I’m in the Golson camp. However I’m a bit surprised at the low ranking for Zaire. I guess the selection committee knows something that we don’t. In any regard I’m now very interested to see where Golson gets ranked and how wide the gap is (according to the committee) between the two QB’s.

    Nice job as always Keith!!

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Aug 5, 2014 at 11:35 PM

      I’ll be shocked if Ev isn’t in the top three

  2. bernhtp - Aug 5, 2014 at 2:23 PM

    I would not have had Grace or Zaire on my ballot.

    I am rooting for Grace, but he’s still not even engaging in no-pad drills. He won’t be ready by Rice and likely not in football shape for a few months. I hope that he ultimately finds his pre-injury form, but even that may be wishful thinking. It would be a truly inspirational miracle for Jarrett to have a 12th-ranked year on the team. I hope so, but am not predicting it.

    To vote for Zaire is to bet on Golson’s demise. If Golson doesn’t benefit from his extra weight/armor and repeats his 1+ game off due to injury, it doesn’t seem to warrant a top-25 prediction. Given the similar styles of the two QBs, I don’t see situational/package use of Zaire. He will play when Golson’s hurt and in garbage time.

    • blackirish23 - Aug 5, 2014 at 3:29 PM

      Good point on Zaire, Bern. I think your perspective of these rankings is more accurate than my initial comment, as it’s meant to be a ranking of the players most likely to contribute to our success this season.

      In that regard, I’m hoping Golson is in the top 5, and no offense to Zaire (whom I believe to be a gifted player), he should be ranked right where he is due to his amazing performance in garbage time this season after the Irish have the games well in hand.

  3. Laughing Tulkas - Aug 5, 2014 at 4:00 PM

    The thing about Grace is that a broken bone can definitely heal 100%, and will do so almost all the time. It’s not like blowing out a knee or other ligament injuries, it’s a bone injury, and that means he should be able to get back to 100%. Even if he’s not totally in game shape by Rice, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t have a good impact on the season.

    • nudeman - Aug 5, 2014 at 5:28 PM

      If I’m correct, he broke his leg in 4 places, right? Two points:

      1) He might never be the same. He definitely won’t be the same this year, that is certain.

      2) How good was he before the injury? I remember talk at the beginning of last year that he would add some speed and athletic ability that Teo didn’t have. Yet … I have absolutely zero recall of any big Grace moments or games before being hurt. Leading tackler? Yes, with a terrible DL a LB will get a lot of opportunities. In general I’d say he was a somewhat anonymous guy on a very poor D. So if he’s a top 25 less than 12 months after that injury … not a good sign.

      • idratherbeinsouthbend - Aug 5, 2014 at 11:38 PM

        I couldn’t agree with you more on #2 nudey and while he may physically heal from his injury, anyone who has had a major injury to a lower extremity knows that the mental part is the biggest hurdle.

        These guys all know how to rehab physically, it’s the mental part that can be a challenge.

  4. schuey73 - Aug 5, 2014 at 4:05 PM

    I thought Will Fuller tied for 25th but lost in a tiebreaker.

  5. fnc111 - Aug 5, 2014 at 6:02 PM

    Yea, this is a little scary when you have back-ups listed at 21-22.

    • mtflsmitty - Aug 5, 2014 at 7:45 PM

      Dude, you do realize there are 11 offensive starters, 11 defensive starters, and one special teams guy who will be in the top 25. That makes 23. And you do realize panelist voting and KA’s spreadsheet calculations are ummm, not exactly statistically meaningful, right?

      • idratherbeinsouthbend - Aug 5, 2014 at 11:40 PM

        …and to add on to your point smitty, that’s assuming that only 11 guys get regular time on O or D….but we’ve got 3 RB’s that will be in the top 25 and how many receivers?

  6. johngaltisspeaking - Aug 5, 2014 at 8:02 PM

    Lots of SEC Potential

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Aug 5, 2014 at 11:43 PM

      We’ll see who fills out the rest of the list, but none of the first five listed here even has a criminal record and by virtue of being enrolled at Notre Dame, we can assume that they have mastered the three R’s Reading, Riting and Rithmatic.

      So, no SEC potential yet…but maybe Mahone will crack the top 20?

      • jerseyshorendfan1 - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:33 PM

        This is off topic but with regard to Mahone, I thought I heard in the video from Day 1 at camp that Kelly said Mahone was “going to pursue other opportunities.” So, I guess it’s sayonara to him.

  7. shaunodame - Aug 5, 2014 at 8:33 PM

    I like the whole Joe Schmidt/Rudy story as much as the next guy, believe me. I don’t however believe that he is the best man for the job.

    • mtflsmitty - Aug 5, 2014 at 9:56 PM

      I hope you’re right. Like you, I’d love to see the underdog get his day in the sun. But it’s hard to believe an “elite” program’s very best option for MLB is a walk on. I wish him luck, for all our sakes.

      Also, the panelist who rated Grace the 12th best player should be banished to never darken the www’s doorstep again. Guessing that guy has never rehabbed a twisted ankle much less a shattered femur. Agree with KA, he started pretty slow in 2013. MLB better lead a 3-4 team in tackles.

      MZ is, in my opinion, well placed on this list.

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Aug 5, 2014 at 11:56 PM

      Sure, the kid was a walk on, but it’s not like he was Rudy…always wanted to play football at Notre Dame, so he sacrificed everything to put on a jersey.

      He was recruited by ND, just not offered a scholarship. He did have other D1 offers…not from any big money programs (Cinncy and Air Force I think), but if Denbrock recruited him, can’t we assume that they thought he could fit a role?

      Rudy played 3 total PLAYS in his career…amassing one sack
      Schmidt has played in more than 20 GAMES in just 2 seasons

      The comparison doesn’t fit and don’t you think that if there was a better option, ND would USE that option? Certainly the coaches see SOMETHING in the kid, right?

      Of course, maybe when it all shakes out on Game day he won’t be the number one.

  8. yaketyyacc - Aug 6, 2014 at 6:53 AM

    getting close to the Rice kickoff. for those of us who posted and will be proven right by the actual season, satisfaction. for those of us who did not, the hope that what we posted will fade into the neverland of forgetfulness.
    in my opinion our offense will be much better, our defense will surprise, our play calling will be our weakness. while I favor Zaire, Golson will start. we will lose three games.
    I think coach Kelly reached his zenith with the 12-0 season.
    so there it is. love to see my neck chopped off. come on Irish, show me why I shouldn’t bet on the horses.

    • ndgoldandblue - Aug 6, 2014 at 10:45 AM

      There’s no reason for you to see your neck chopped off for providing a reasoned and objective opinion on the Irish. As a fan, I always want to see the Irish win all their games, which would result in them winning a national championship. But that’s just not practical. There too many uncertainties on this team for me to “expect” them to finish the season undefeated. Plus, while they have had solid recruiting classes lately, it’s not like they’ve had four consecutive number-one recruiting classes, i.e. Alabama. The Tide have proven it on the field and in recruiting so it’s hard to bet against them.

      I think, with this schedule, a realistic expectation for the Irish would be to win 10 games and get a berth in one of the four other rotating bowls that aren’t included in the playoff this season. But a record worse than that wouldn’t constitute the removal of the head coach. Again, it’s just not practical. Besides, it’s not like Notre Dame is pulling an OSU or Oregon and loading up on patsies for the first four weeks of the season. The schedule is brutal, and 10 wins would be a tremendous success in my opinion.

  9. knuterocknesghost - Aug 6, 2014 at 10:13 AM

    Walk-ons can be contributors to the Irish. ND has a fairly remarkable history for these players.

    Mike Oriard – Center. Was walk on who ended up Captain of the ’69 Irish Football team. Played in the pros for KC Chiefs.

    Ed Gulyas – Running back. A walk on who earned a scholarship and led the ’70 Irish in rushing in Theismann’s last season when the team went 10-1, beating Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Also instigator of one of the biggest food fights in the South Dinning Hall.

    Tim Rudnick – Corner back. Walked in ’70 as a frosh & ended up starting in ’72 and for the ’73 National Champs.

    Bob Thomas – Kicker for ’73 National Champs and later had a career with the Bears.

    Bob Burger – Guard. started for 1980 Irish.

    Reggie Ho – Kicker for the ’88 National Champs and author of THE field goal against Michigan.

    Mike Brennan – Tackle. Started out as a Lacrosse player and walked on to the football team(initially at TE) in ’89 he started at OT and played 3 seasons in the NFL.

    Shane Walton – Corner back. A soccer player at ND who ended up an All American in FB in 2002.

    David Ruffer – most recent walk on kicker.

  10. jerseyshorendfan1 - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:40 PM

    Keith, I’m nitpicking again but aren’t you counting backward from the bottom of the list to the top?

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