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Counting down the Irish: The Top Five

Aug 11, 2014, 10:34 AM EDT

Tyler Boyd, Jaylon Smith Tyler Boyd, Jaylon Smith

Our annual exercise is over and the result is a Top Five that was as close to consensus as possible. On a roster with unproven talent and unprecedented depth, part of what makes this list interesting and fun is that I put zero qualifications on the logic used to rank players. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder.

But this Top Five has something for everyone. Veteran experience. Young, rising stars. And probably the best part: Every player has a year of eligibility remaining.

If you’re looking for a promising sign, consider that of the top dozen players on this list, only Ben Koyack is out of eligibility after this season. Of course, that’s not to say that everyone is returning to school, but it puts to a very bright future just ahead for Notre Dame.



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.)
10. Ben Koyack (TE, Sr.)
9. Greg Bryant (RB, Soph.)
8. Nick Martin (C, Sr.)
7. DaVaris Daniels (WR, Sr.)
6. Ronnie Stanley (OT, Jr.)


5. Tarean Folston (RB, Soph.): The future is bright at running back, and it looks like the panel sees potential greatness from both Folston and Greg Bryant. A quick run through our voters, and Folston ranks higher on all but two ballots — likely a product of a freshman season that saw Folston emerge as the team’s best runner by season’s end.

As prep stars, Bryant was the five-star prospect. But Folston was coveted by the Irish staff, who held off a late push by Auburn to ink Folston, a little later on Signing Day than anyone wanted.

Folston showed an ability to break long runs during his freshman season — a 36-yarder against Oklahoma opened things up, and a 43-yard scamper against a tough BYU defense showed that skill. But most impressive was his productivity, an ability to make something out of nothing and show a terrific blend of toughness and quickness. source: AP

The return to the spread offense should showcase Folston’s abilities to catch the ball out of the backfield and make plays in space. Very quietly, Folston had five grabs in the first half of the Blue-Gold game.

How productive he is in 2014 will also likely be determined by how the staff trusts the most at a three-headed position. But right now, the young back is taking the most reps with the No. 1 offense and he and Bryant have the ability to do some special things in South Bend before it’s all finished.

Highest Ranking: 1st. Lowest Ranking: 12th.


4. Everett Golson (QB, Sr.): That Golson ranks fourth on this roster feels either much too high or far too low.

But that’s what happens after reading thousands of words on the missing face of Notre Dame football. After a season away and months of speculation as to the type of quarterback that returns to campus, Golson’s placement is a mixture of past performance and future expectations.

At his best, Golson is the dynamic quarterback that’s a perfect fit for Brian Kelly’s offense. His ability to make plays with his feet, have the arm strength to complete any throw in the playbook, and show the special intangible to improvise when the play break down gives Kelly his best quarterbacking option in his five seasons in South Bend.

Now it’s up to Golson to live up to the expectations. The prodigal son returning to Notre Dame is a storyline that’s already keyed up on laptops around the country. No pressure, kid.

Highest Ranking: 1st. Lowest Ranking: 7th.


3. Sheldon Day (DT, Jr.): If there’s a candidate that’s got an opportunity to surprise people nationally it’s Sheldon Day. On paper, Day’s modest production the last two seasons isn’t enough to warrant placement in the Top 5. But it’s pretty clear this panel knows the promise Day’s shown, and after a sophomore season hampered by an early season ankle injury, Day’s ready to make an impact in 2014.


Sheldon Day

Sliding inside in Brian VanGorder’s system is a key predictor. No longer needing to hold up at the point of attack, Day’s free to wreak havoc on the inside, defeating a block and owning a gap, while using his elite quickness and strength to making more plays behind the line of scrimmage.

A quiet leader, Day’s taken strides this summer to lead a young defensive line that’s counting on him to pace the group. On a defense with very few givens, that the three top players on this list are all defenders certainly is promising.

Highest Ranking: 3rd. Lowest Ranking: 5th.


2. KeiVarae Russell (CB, Jr.): After coming on strong at the end of last season, Russell is expected to be a lockdown corner in a system that demands one. That we’ve all bought into his ability to be that player — and the coaching staff seems to agree — bodes well for a coverage scheme that’s seen the cornerbacks play more man coverage in one week of preseason training camp than they have in the past four seasons.

Of course, it’s hard to forget the game against Michigan, a tough outing for Russell against Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon. Considering the murder’s row of receivers that Russell has on the upcoming slate, if Russell holds up and plays to his reputation, Notre Dame has an All-American cornerback on its hands for the first time since Shane Walton. source: AP

Highest Ranking: 2nd. Lowest Ranking: 6th.


1. Jaylon Smith (LB, Soph.): It didn’t take long for Smith to ascend to a spot that was almost predestined from the moment he signed his letter of intent. After an impressive freshman campaign that was even better than his stat sheet indicated, Smith has an opportunity to see his production explode from the Will linebacker spot.

As a cover man, Smith has the ability to erase running backs and tight ends, capable of mauling a slot receiver as well. I had considered him the team’s best cover corner last season,  but Smith’s capability to cover and chase down anybody gives VanGorder a Ferrari in the garage.

It’s hard to call it a question mark, but sliding Smith inside is a change that puts more pressure on the young linebacker. Forced to battle through some traffic and make plays inside out, an opponent won’t be able to run away from Smith, but Smith will need to see the game from a new perspective, an edge player his whole life.

Smith was the top vote on seven ballots, giving away a first place spot to Folston and Golson. He’ll likely stay in this slot as long as he’s playing football in South Bend.

Highest Ranking: 1st. Lowest Ranking: 3rd.



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. johngaltisspeaking - Aug 11, 2014 at 10:59 AM

    All Great Players !

    • dickasman - Aug 11, 2014 at 11:09 AM

      Don’t mean jack in real world. I’d rather be #1 playa in da real world.

      I think golson has to be, to put it in Obama lingo, número uno. If he plays like #4, we be in trouble.

    • dickasman - Aug 11, 2014 at 11:10 AM

      When is the first game this pre season crap is beginning to drag.

      • papadec - Aug 11, 2014 at 1:49 PM

        AUGUST 30th – RICE. Less than 3 weeks.

      • dickasman - Aug 11, 2014 at 10:26 PM

        Thanks papa I also cannot wait til the first rams game where Sam will make a$$ pounding tackle!!!

  2. johngaltisspeaking - Aug 11, 2014 at 10:59 AM

    All Great Players !

  3. nudeman - Aug 11, 2014 at 11:58 AM

    Interesting comment there about Day being instructed to “hold the point of attack” with Diaco. I also just read an article on Redfield and how frustrated he was last year at not being able to get on the field because he was being given DB “quarterback” duties and wasn’t ready for that.

    Sort of renews the debate about Diaco (how good was he?); and BVG (how good will he be?)

    It’s easy to assume that because BVG is more aggressive that automatically makes him better than Diaco. Sacks all over the place, DLs running around in the backfield like deer through a meadow and tackling RBs for huge losses, LBs blitzing every play and contributing to the mayhem, etc.

    Not so fast my friend. They are still thin at DL and BVG doesn’t have a lot to work with there.
    Day strikes me as good-very good/not great; Jones has had about 2 good games; Ishaq is an underachiever and whoever else I’m forgetting is forgettable I guess.

    BTW, this is the right top 5. And it might be the best top 5 since Kelly began.

    • fish95 - Aug 11, 2014 at 1:00 PM

      I like the change with BVG, but it’s difficult to get too excited after experiencing the train wreck Tenuta created as an “aggressive” coordinator

      For me, what we got with Diaco was a good recruiter and a guy that brought ND back to sound fundamental football. From day 1 tackling improved immensely and big plays diminished … A refreshing change after watching the prior regime.

      His weakness seemed to be that he depended VERY heavily on our guys to simply be better than their guys – as we were mostly confined to playing base defense. In 2012 this worked beautifully during the regular season as our front seven was superior to every other offense it faced … until the final game.

      As we saw in the NCG and, to some extent, against Navy … our defense could be “out-schemed”. I suspect BVG’s mind will be equal to any opposing coordinator … but that’s only half the equation – Hopefully, he can organize the team to execute effectively – that’s the question for me … how many negative yardage plays & turnovers we create vs. the big plays we give up relative to last year.

      • Laughing Tulkas - Aug 14, 2014 at 8:24 AM

        I think one of the strengths of BVG vs. Diaco might end up being the ability to put players in the best position for them to succeed, *regardless* of their own strengths and abilities. With Diaco, I very much got the feeling that he wanted to run his scheme a certain way, and if you wanted to play you’d have to be able to do exactly what he wanted (which also limited the targets he would recruit). With BVG, I get the feeling that he will tweak his scheme so as to tailor it to the specific strengths of the players as individuals.

        Both methods can obviously create a good defense, I just feel like BVG’s approach may be more sustainable and will lead to less swings from year to year based on recruiting. Not only can you be more free to just take the best athletes even if they don’t exactly fit your “profile,” but you also can’t be as hamstrung by missing a few targets who may be the only kids in the class who fit what you want to do.

        I still think our front 7 may be our biggest weakness, but I think BVG can probably do a better job masking this and compensating for it than Diaco could have.

  4. blackirish23 - Aug 11, 2014 at 12:16 PM

    Hard to argue with the top 5. Personally I wish Golson had ended up in the top 3, but finishing top 5 is what we all expected and he can still play his way up to being our best player when it’s all said and done.

    Now if only these young men can take Notre Dame to the playoffs this season…….I guess we can all dream big.

    Go Irish!!

  5. johngaltisspeaking - Aug 11, 2014 at 1:11 PM

    Can someone please explain to me how missouri can be so good with the recruiting class they pull each and every year. Missouri might be more impressive than Oregon with ex Chip Kelly.

    • nudeman - Aug 11, 2014 at 1:37 PM

      Well, they allow clowns in like that WR who just got booted for some sort of felony. Now at OK.
      That’s a start.

      • johngaltisspeaking - Aug 11, 2014 at 1:44 PM

        Interesting so Criminals play better football than non criminals.

      • idratherbeinsouthbend - Aug 11, 2014 at 2:55 PM

        Is that the Galt Slant? Fuzzy math…

        Nudey was being a bit sarcastic, but his point shouldn’t be lost…if you lower the standard of human being that you recruit, the pool becomes bigger. That’s not opinion, that’s MATH…

        …and sometimes criminals DO play better football. Ever see The Longest Yard (Bert Reynolds version, not Sandlers redux)

      • dickasman - Aug 11, 2014 at 10:24 PM

        $$$$$$$ and let’s not forget about the rainbow unicorn lover. Who da hell wants to be tackled by gay guy? Not I!!!

    • jommy995 - Aug 12, 2014 at 2:13 AM

      It’s because they play in an obscenely overrated conference. And it’s because all the good players on the few good teams in that conference become so overrated that they jump early to the NFL. So Missouri gets to play seniors against sophomores.

  6. irishlad19 - Aug 11, 2014 at 2:34 PM

    Let’s not forget that ND’s defense under Diaco got the job done ; not flashy, but we didn’t get blown out of many games other than Alabama.
    After Weis it was a huge improvement!

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Aug 11, 2014 at 2:56 PM

      Diaco probably had a decided schematic advantage

  7. johngaltisspeaking - Aug 11, 2014 at 2:38 PM

    At this point this season could go either way. As bad as 7 wins as good as 10 wins… I dont see how USC is so favored. Florida State is an automatic loss….

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Aug 11, 2014 at 2:59 PM

      Automatic loss…SMH…

      NOTHING is as good the second time around…not snatch, not Diaco Defenses, not Heisman Trophy Winners, Not movie sequels.

      Don’t get me wrong, FSU will be strong…Top 25 all year. But this is a game played by kids and coached by human beings that make mistakes. There has to be a GIANT talent level discrepancy to make ANY win automatic….like App State vs. Michigan :)

      • jerseyshorendfan1 - Aug 11, 2014 at 4:17 PM

        Great point and it proves the old cliche: That’s why they play the games.

    • papadec - Aug 11, 2014 at 3:16 PM

      There are no automatic Wins OR Losses. ND has a long history of knocking off top ranked teams. Unfortunately, also being knocked off, as a top ranked team. That goes for usc & those powerhouse sec teams you love so much. Let’s just play the games, and see what happens.

    • 1notredamefan - Aug 11, 2014 at 4:15 PM

      Bookmark It! Game of the Century II! Part 2 because we were apart of the real 1st GOTC with them and If we can go 6-0 with a significant win over Stanford we should be in the top 5! With FSU still holding #1 after 2 cupcakes the previous weeks (WF and Syr) they’ll be healthy and ready but I’ll take our chances in this situation and we should be primed to move into a great 2nd half of our season! GO IRISH!!!!!

      • jmfinsd - Aug 11, 2014 at 5:16 PM

        Careful with that “cupcake” talk. You wanna list FCS schools or Lamar or come of the clearly lowest tier FBS schools cupcakes, go right ahead. WF and Syracuse may be weaker teams, or viewed as weaker teams, but that doesn’t mean they’re cupcake games. Also, karma’s a bitch. ND, too, plays Syracuse. If it’s a cupcake game for FSU, it should be considered a cupcake game for ND. However, I seem to recall a Syracuse team steamrolling a heavily favored ND team not too long ago. Wish ND had earned the right over the past 10, 5 or even 3 years to be that confident, but unfortunately it has not.

    • liv4nd - Aug 12, 2014 at 4:05 PM

      Automatic? I guess that would have been the attitude in 2012 when looking at OK in OK…Stanford as well? I’ll be at that game and so will ND Nation. Will it be a tough win, of course. Have we won there before…Yes! If TW can beat the Criminoles in Tally I would think a BK squad can as well!

  8. ajw21 - Aug 11, 2014 at 2:55 PM

    Interesting takes on BVG and I agree, I don’t see us being a top 5 D leading the country in turnovers but if our O can score 35+ a games then the D won’t have to do much, A few turnovers or big plays should be enough.
    I have no knowledge of BVG when he coached in the NFL or at Georgia but I think of the Saints D when they won the SB(yes I know BVG wasn’t coach) but the O carried the team and the D made some big plays.
    I would be happy with double digit wins this season and wins vs Michigan and USC. Anything else would be gravy.
    Go Irish!

    • papadec - Aug 11, 2014 at 3:21 PM

      Nahhhh – I want it all. 12-0 regular season, invite to the NC with the title at the end. Reasonable, or not, that’s what I want & expect.

      • johngaltisspeaking - Aug 11, 2014 at 4:06 PM

        I hate to give you bad news but that simply will not happen this year or ten years from now. If we had 5 straight top ten recruiting years I would say yes but our depth is filled with 2 and 3 star wanna be players.

      • jerseyshorendfan1 - Aug 11, 2014 at 4:20 PM

        Spoken like a true ND fan, papa. I’m right there with you.

  9. irishlad19 - Aug 11, 2014 at 4:04 PM

    I’ll second that motion!

  10. simmel65 - Aug 11, 2014 at 4:16 PM


    Could you do an article on previous years top 5 (or top 25) compared to this year? Or just post a link to all of them? It would be interesting to compare over the years.

    • dickasman - Aug 11, 2014 at 10:28 PM

      Jesus that’s a lotta work mang! We got a one man gang here, google it

      • johngaltisspeaking - Aug 11, 2014 at 11:02 PM

        Google what. Coke and easy girls..

      • papadec - Aug 12, 2014 at 12:52 AM

        Watch your manners johnnie boy – dick is often repulsive, but he’s family. Your just a troll.

      • papadec - Aug 12, 2014 at 12:54 AM

        oops again – bad spelling day – “you’re”.

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