Counting down the Irish: 25-21

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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.

 

2014 IRISH TOP 25 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.

source:
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).

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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).

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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)

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

— Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
— So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
— Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
— So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
— Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands second cornerback commitment

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Hardly a week shy of the early signing period, Notre Dame doubled its cornerback haul in the class of 2018 with Tariq Bracy’s commitment Sunday night.

A rivals.com three-star recruit, Bracy (Milpitas High School, Calif.) had long said the Irish led in his recruitment, having visited campus for Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Oct. 21. Rivals rates Bracy as the No. 65 overall prospect in California.

“The coaches, they made me feel welcome,” Bracy said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They really wanted me to go down there. They like my skillset. The players, they were welcoming, too. It’s really the whole atmosphere about Notre Dame, and the academics, too.”

Bracy opted for the Irish over a number of schools on the west coast, including Utah, Cal and Washington State.

Notre Dame now has 18 commitments in the class, including consensus-three star cornerback Joseph Wilkins (North Fort Myers H.S., Fla.). All 18 are expected to sign National Letters of Intent during the inaugural early signing period Dec. 20-22. For that matter, it remains possible an additional commitment or two could join those ranks either before the three-day stretch or in the midst of it.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said he would evaluate any commitment not signing during the December dates as not being genuinely committed to Notre Dame, still needing further recruitment.

— Bracy’s, and Wilkins’, commitment holds more value for the Irish than many of the other 16 in the class thus far. In the last recruiting cycle, Notre Dame failed to sign so much as one cornerback.

Neither Bracy nor Wilkins may start in 2018. They, in fact, almost certainly will not, but they will provide both depth and a possibility of a future at the position.

— Just as another reminder — it is listed twice on the legal pad providing today’s outline, after all — the early signing period runs from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22. There will still be a nationwide focus on National Signing Day, Feb. 7, as any recruits not yet signed will have even more of a share of the spotlight.

— Bowl games have little long-term evaluatory value. They do, however, provide a delightful stretch of mid-day and/or mid-week December distractions. As an example, consider the game-a-day outlook on the horizon …

Sat., Dec. 16: Middle Tennessee St. v. Arkansas State; 8 p.m. ET; a high-scoring affair, if nothing else.
Tues., Dec. 19: Akron vs. FAU; 7 p.m. ET; Lane Kiffin with a nation’s lonely eyes turned to him.
Wed., Dec. 20: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist; 8 p.m. ET.
Thurs., Dec. 21: Temple vs. Florida International; 8 p.m. ET; Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent is favored by seven.
Fri., Dec. 22: Central Michigan vs. Wyoming; 4 p.m. ET; Josh Allen’s farewell to college football.
Sat., Dec. 23: Texas Tech vs. South Florida; 12 p.m. ET; This very well may end up being the most-dramatic bowl game.
Sun., Dec. 24: Houston vs. Fresno St.; 8:30 p.m. ET.
Tues., Dec. 26: Kansas State vs. UCLA; 9 p.m. ET.
Wed., Dec. 27: Boston College vs. Iowa; 5:15 p.m. ET; Of the 10 Irish foes in bowl games, six are like the Eagles, underdogs.
Thurs., Dec. 28: Stanford vs. TCU; 9 p.m. ET; A healthy Bryce Love could erase the 2.5-point spread in the Horned Frogs favor.
Fri., Dec. 29: USC vs. Ohio State; 8:30 p.m. ET; As strongly as the Trojans finished the season, they are still touchdown underdogs in the Cotton Bowl.
Sat., Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Miami, 8 p.m. ET; Despite playing at home, literally so, the Hurricanes are nearly touchdown underdogs.
Mon., Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Oklahoma; 5 p.m. ET; Frankly, Notre Dame vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl will be but an appetizer for an evening of outstanding college football.