Counting down the Irish: 10-6

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One thing that’s been very clear since taking part in this annual ranking is that it’s a much more difficult exercise than in years past. That much should be obvious when you look at our list.

Starter Joe Schmidt is listed behind Jarrett Grace, who might not contribute much this season as he works his way back from a badly broken fibula. Sophomore Corey Robinson is ranked well ahead of Chris Brown, who appears to be the starter opposite DaVaris Daniels. And for every high ranking one panelist gives a player, someone else has likely left him off their list all together.

But as we get inside the Top 10, we’re finally starting to see some consensus. Of the five players rolling out today, only one was left off a single ballot. Four of the five are multi-year starters, and the fifth is a redshirt freshman with the greatest expectations heaped on his shoulders.

We’ll save our Top Five for Monday, but in the comments below, feel free to share your rankings, as I suspect you’ll have the same difficulties this group did making things work.

 

2014 IRISH TOP 25 RANKINGS

25. Will Fuller (WR, Soph.)
24. Joe Schmidt (LB, Sr.)
23. Chris Brown (WR, Jr.)
22. Jarrett Grace (LB, Sr.)
21. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.)
20. Ishaq Williams (DE, Sr.)
19. Cole Luke (CB, Soph.)
18. Cam McDaniel (RB, Sr.)
17. Jarron Jones (DT, Jr.)
16. Corey Robinson (WR, Soph.)
15. Christian Lombard (RG, GS)
14. Cody Riggs (DB, GS)
13. Kyle Brindza (K/P, Sr.)
12. Max Redfield (S, Soph.)
11. Steve Elmer, (OL, Soph.)

 

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Koyack in the Pinstripe Bowl

10. Ben Koyack (TE, Sr.): If there was one winner in Troy Niklas’ decision to head to the NFL early, it was Koyack. After getting lost in the shuffle for the better part of three seasons, Koyack has found his role in the football program this summer, ready to take charge as one of the unit’s leaders.

Koyack has elite pedigree as a recruit. After battling a case of the drops in 2012, he came on strong late in the 2013 season, productive as the No. 2 tight end behind Niklas. With youth everywhere else on the offense, the passing game could come to rely on Koyack, a big body who might not have the nickname Hercules, but presents matchup problems of his own.

It feels like the base level of expectations for Koyack is a Mackey Award semi-finalist season. With the opportunity to get plenty of favorable matchups down the field, Koyack is primed for a big final season in South Bend.

Highest Ranking: 8th. Lowest Ranking: 12th.

 

9. Greg Bryant (RB, Soph.): In retrospect, maybe the knee injury was the best thing to happen to Greg Bryant. Sure, it robbed him of playing time after seeing the field sparingly to open the season, but sitting out the 2013 season rebooted Bryant, turning him back into a young football player, no longer the five-star recruit with sky high expectations.

Rumors and whispers flew around message boards that Bryant was unhappy in South Bend. But he stayed put, quietly going about his work, rehabilitating his knee and preparing for spring practice, when the redshirt freshman would essentially hit the restart button on his college career and make his presence noticed.

Healthy, powerful and part of a three-headed depth chart at running back, Bryant is expected to be the breakout player of the Irish offense. That he’ll need to share carries with Tarean Folston and Cam McDaniel isn’t a worry for August.

Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: 12th.

8. Nick Martin (C, Sr.): No longer in his brother’s shadow, Nick Martin has emerged as the leader of the offensive line. The returning starter at center, we’ll see if Martin is the elite prospect his brother was, now that he’s healthy after an MCL repair and minor patella injury.

Judging a center is tricky business, but at his best Martin can anchor the offensive line, both at the point of attack and making the presnap reads for his fellow linemates. At almost 6-foot-5, Martin has similar size to Zack, making him the perfect size for an NFL prospect on the interior of the offensive line.

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USC v Notre Dame

If the Irish ground game takes the leap we expect, Martin will be a big part of that success, and likely will reap the rewards as well. Another below-the-radar recruit from Indianapolis, the Martin brothers look to have the potential to both be multi-year captains, quite a legacy to leave behind at Notre Dame.

Highest Ranking: 4th. Lowest Ranking: 22nd.

 

7. DaVaris Daniels (WR, Sr.): At his best, Daniels has all the skill and talent needed to play on Sundays. But after three seasons of being coached hard by Brian Kelly, we’ll have to wait until August 30 to see if the light has finally come on for Notre Dame’s top receiver.

Daniels put up respectable numbers in 2013, all while battling nagging injuries. But Daniels fails the eyeball test too often, a solid player who puts a lot of bad habits on tape. For every dominant game, there’s something inexplicable — like losing a one-on-one battle with a Navy DB for an interception or running an incorrect route.

There was talk that Daniels contemplated heading the NFL after being temporarily booted from the university for academic issues. That would’ve been a huge mistake, especially for a talent that should work his way into a solid draft pick after the season, or decide to play his way up draft boards by returning for a fifth year.

Talent is not the issue. Maturity might be. And while we’ve heard Daniels say all the right things since returning from academic exile, the proof will be divied up across thirteen Saturdays.

Highest Ranking: 4th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (One ballot).

 

6. Ronnie Stanley (OT, Jr.): The fact that Stanley slid seamlessly into Zack Martin’s left tackle spot had some taken by surprise. But very quietly, Stanley is turning himself into an elite offensive tackle, and his ranking at No. 6 shows that this panel noticed.

At just shy of 6-foot-6 and 315-pounds, Stanley has the size and length you covet at left tackle. He’s also coming off a really impressive debut season (Stanley received a medical redshirt in 2012, even though he briefly saw the field). But still, most expected Steve Elmer to have the first shot at the blind side, forgetting that Stanley was no slouch of a recruit when he chose Notre Dame out of Las Vegas powerhouse Bishop Gorman.

2014 will be a very interesting season for Stanley. A strong season at left tackle and he’ll be the type of lineman that’s in consideration for postseason awards — the perfect hybrid of pro potential and productivity that earns that type of respect.

After four seasons of Martin at left tackle, the Irish could have three more with Stanley. That’s quite a seven-year run.

Highest Ranking: 4th. Lowest Ranking: 13th.

 

***

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)

 

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.