Nyles Morgan

Counting down the Irish: Final rankings for 2014

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With a little over a week to go until the Irish take on LSU in the Music City Bowl, it’s time to take a look back at the regular season. After a start that had Notre Dame in the early College Football Playoff conversation, the season took a turn for the worse.

Perhaps that’s understating it.

The Irish went from a team that went into Tallahassee and lost on a controversial penalty to the defending national champs to a group that gave away victory to Northwestern just two games later.

In between, the Irish played the Debacle in the Desert, and then lost their first Senior Day under Brian Kelly. That’s before a weary and wounded team went to Southern Cal and got steamrolled.

It was a tale of two seasons for Brian Kelly’s fifth team. And as we look back at the individual performances of the players on this list, you can begin to get a picture of how that happened.

Our nine-man selection committee put together the preseason rankings. The rerank is all me, so serve up your criticism in the comments below or on Twitter.

As a reminder, here’s how we had things going into the season:

 

2014 IRISH TOP 25 PRESEASON 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.)
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.)
4. Everett Golson (QB, Sr.)
3. Sheldon Day (DT, Jr.)
2. KeiVarae Russell (CB, Jr.)
1. Jaylon Smith (LB, Soph.)

 

While a big bowl game performance can likely move some of these players one or two spots, if the Heisman and year-end awards go out before the bowl season these can, too.

 

2014 IRISH TOP 25 FINAL RANKINGS

 

Stanford v Notre Dame
Stanford v Notre DameJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

 

25. Christian Lombard (RT, GS): Lombard won the team’s Father Cross Iron Cross Award, given to him by strength coach Paul Longo, who praised Lombard’s hard work in both the weight room and the trainer’s room. He started 11 games this season, playing both guard and tackle, flipping with Steve Elmer after three games.

While we didn’t hear much about it, Lombard wasn’t 100 percent this year. In fact, he hasn’t been 100 percent since playing every game for the Irish in 2012 at right tackle.

A back injury ended his 2013 season early. He suffered a freak wrist injury during spring drills. And when he was pulled for Mike McGlinchey at USC, it might have been as much about getting a wounded Lombard off the field as much as it was about letting a young tackle earn some reps.

Notre Dame’s offensive line underperformed this season. It’s tough to pin much of that on Lombard, who did everything that was asked of him, and gutted out a season through an injury that could end his football playing days.

Preseason: 15th. Final: 25th.

 

Notre Dame v USC
Notre Dame v USCHarry How/Getty Images

 

24. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.): If there’s one guy who can play himself up or down this list in Nashville, it’s Zaire. The sophomore quarterback gave the Irish a spark against USC, moving the offense both through the air and on the ground against the Trojans. Sure, it came after the Irish spotted USC 35 points, but that’s not the sophomore’s fault.

Zaire has the charisma of a starting quarterback and brings a different skill-set to the huddle than Everett Golson. He and Greg Bryant ran the read option game with some success, both breaking off big runs. That will be a bigger challenge against LSU, though the Tigers have shown less success against the run than in other segments of the game.

In a situation similar to the end of 2011, Zaire showing some life off the bench during a season finale puts the quarterback depth chart into murky waters heading into the offseason. The only difference? DeShone Kizer isn’t expected to be the disruption that Golson was after taking his redshirt off.

After a frustrating wait, Zaire took advantage of his opportunities. His performance against the Trojans earned him playing time in the Music City Bowl and an open battle heading into 2015. While I wasn’t sure that Zaire had the chops to be the Irish’s next starting quarterback, he showed that he has both the disposition and skills to be a true contender. And maybe before Golson’s time on campus is over.

Preseason: 21st. Final: 24th. 

 

Michigan v Notre Dame
Michigan v Notre DameJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

 

23. Romeo Okwara (DE, Jr.): Pop quiz: Who lead the Irish in sacks in 2014? That’s right, it was Romeo Okwara. The converted outside linebacker all but lost his starting job to freshman Andrew Trumbetti during fall camp. But as bodies started dropping and Trumbetti hit an understandable freshman wall, Okwara seemed to be the only weakside defensive end that could keep up with the demands of the position.

That’s not to say that Okwara played great in 2014. He might not have necessarily even played good football. Looking for a blown zone-read play during the late season defensive collapse? You’ll probably see Okwara will his eyes in the backfield and the ball carrier breaking contain.

Okwara threw up multiple goose eggs on the stat sheet, not a good thing for one of your “veterans.” But that’s what you get from a first-year defensive end still retraining himself after two seasons barely seeing the field at outside linebacker.

But we saw flashes. Against Purdue, Okwara led the Irish with 11 tackles, while forcing a fumble and getting a half sack. Okwara’s still really young. And while he’ll be a senior next season, he’s an intriguing athlete who’ll be counted on to play important snaps in 2015.

Preseason: Unranked (26th). Final: 23rd.

 

Matthias Farley, Drue Tranquill, Kyle Prater
Matthias Farley, Drue Tranquill, Kyle PraterAP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

 

22. Drue Tranquill (S, Fr.): Notre Dame’s Defensive Newcomer of the Year, Tranquill’s surprising freshman season ended after he had just worked his way into the starting lineup. And the torn ACL Tranquill suffered against Louisville throws into question the impressive trajectory he was on.

As a specialty piece of Brian VanGorder’s defense, Tranquill was productive as both an in-the-box tackler and blitzer. His natural football IQ even had him ascend into the starting lineup for two November games, though that might be a referendum on Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate as much as it’s praise for Tranquill.

In the freshman’s late-season starts at strong safety he looked like… a freshman. He was exposed multiple times in coverage, understandably struggling to make the transition from specific piece of the puzzle to half-field safety. But as a 225-pounder with the ability to run, taking Tranquill to task for struggling in a position he shouldn’t be playing really isn’t fair.

Right now, getting healthy is the biggest challenge. Tranquill will likely miss spring practice but return for summer workouts looking to win the strong safety job from Elijah Shumate.

At the very least he’ll be plugged right back into specialty packages. Not bad for a kid most Irish fans saw as a safety net in recruiting.

Preseason: Unranked (no votes). Final: 22nd. 

 

Notre Dame v Arizona State
Notre Dame v Arizona StateChristian Petersen/Getty Images

 

21. Nyles Morgan (LB, Fr.): Thrown into the fire after Joe Schmidt went down with a season-ending injury, Morgan showed the best and worst of a true freshman playing middle linebacker. The best? The highly-touted recruit was a tackling machine. The worst? Morgan’s mental mistakes often left a running back breaking loose into the secondary or a tight end wide open.

Forced to sometimes be the lone linebacker left in the box, Morgan’s inability to play gap-sound football put the Irish in crisis situations. (Then again, so did a scheme that isolated a freshman as the only in-the-box linebacker.) But Morgan continued to get better, and racked up tackles at a prolific rate.

Morgan closed the season on a three-game, double-digit tackle streak. That’s made even more impressive by the fact that he was ejected from the Louisville game for a targeting foul that cost him the first half of the USC game.

While his growing pains have been part of the Irish defense’s struggles, Kelly has praised Morgan on multiple occasions. He’s also hinted at the linebacker’s versatility, an interesting development to watch as the Irish move towards 2015 and an opportunity to put Morgan on the field next to Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith.

Named a Freshman All-American by multiple publications, Morgan showed moments of playing like both a freshman and an All-American. Schmidt’s injury may have sunk the 2014 season, but primed the defense for 2015.

Preseason: Unranked (30th). Final: 21st. 

Report: Justin Brent to transfer

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Justin Brent has not seen the playing field since Notre Dame faced LSU in the Music City Bowl back in December of 2014. That now looks like it will be the last time Irish fans see him in a Notre Dame uniform, as well. Reports indicate the rising senior running back will transfer.

Irish 247’s Tom Loy broke the news, soon confirmed by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.

A consensus top-100 pick out of Indianapolis (Ind.) Speedway High School, Brent arrived in South Bend with high expectations, but will depart without an official statistic aside from snaps in nine games his freshman season. He recorded no catches, carries or tackles.

 

Thanks Keith, Now Dear Readers…

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 19: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish takes a hand off from DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on November 19, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Virginia Tech defeated Notre Dame 34-31.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Dear “Inside the Irish” fans, “Inside the Irish” foes and, of course, my parents –
Dear curious purveyors, my stand-alone predecessor and Tim Raines –
Mostly, dear Notre Dame fans, Notre Dame spectators and college students enjoying any and all hallowed traditions –

Yes, unfortunately for you and fortunately for me, Keith tossed me the keys to this 1971 Volkswagen Beetle known as NBC Sports’ “Inside the Irish” blog. Don’t worry, I know how to drive stick shift.

If I were feeling corny, I would tell you I first reported on Notre Dame football in the fall of 1996, shouting out the garage window to my father as Allen Rossum returned Purdue’s opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. If we are ignoring sentimental childhood stories, however, then it would be more accurate to call 2009’s home-opener against Colin Kaepernick’s Nevada my beginning on the beat.

Over the last few days I reached out to a few of you readers whom I know, asking why you enjoyed Keith Arnold’s coverage. So as to keep them honest, I neglected to tell them I would be stepping into this spotlight today.

Repeatedly, I heard buzz words such as readable, reasonable and realistic. Those will be my goals, as well. My predecessor at The Observer no longer dabbles in journalism, but I still trust his view on most things. His response strikes me as an admirable objective.

“We are smart, informed sports fans with an irrational passion for ND football, and appreciate writers who share those traits but are professional enough to step back from the irrationality and put things in perspective… We like a realistic take, not a knee-jerk reaction.”

On that note, you will not see me give a recruiting update with my every breath. You will also not see me dispense as much cinema advice as Keith did. I am simply not the film-nik he is, though I am listening to the “La La Land” soundtrack as I write this. You will find jazz increases your words per minute rate.

I will often speak of gambling terms, but not to encourage the vice. Rather, I find those odds to be a thought-provoking and informing means of evaluating things. Today, various books strongly expected President Trump’s inauguration speech to last longer than 15 minutes. Thus, I figured it would last longer than 15, but not by all that much since such was the over/under mark set. I could step away from the computer and watch it without losing too much of my day. It lasted 16:18.

I will try to be conversational, especially in these Friday letters/news-dumps/updates/recaps, should they become a recurring piece.

I intend to keep many, but not all, of Keith’s recurring features, as daunting as many of them seem. If I am to make this place my own, some will have to change. It’s okay, we’ll get through that together.

So ask questions, state your wonderings and pitch story ideas. This very format was a seed watered by one of you early this morning. Admittedly, prior to suggesting this he referred to me in terms I refuse to post publicly, but old drinking buddies have earned that right.

It’s late Friday afternoon. Grab a drink, and don’t you dare leave it unfinished.

– Douglas.

And in that corner… Introducing Douglas Farmer

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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It’s time to turn over the keys. On a day where our great nation makes a peaceful transition, so does our humble blog.

I’d love to say I was smart enough to time my departure for the same day as inauguration, but as they say, it’s better to be lucky than good. And I was lucky to get the gig, and happy to turn it over to someone who I believe is a better-than-good writer: Douglas Farmer.

Douglas was Editor-in-Chief of The Observer when he was a student at Notre Dame. He’s worked for old media—earning a byline at the Los Angeles Times and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He’s worked the ND beat, not just at the school paper, but at Blue & Gold. And now, I’m very happy to say, he’s taking over Inside the Irish, a transition that I think will go wonderfully.

To give you an idea of who Douglas is, I milked one last column gave him the And in this Corner treatment.

Hope you enjoy. And, one last request—Be Nice.

 

Douglas, you graduated from Notre Dame in 2012, and last covered the Irish on a day-to-day basis in the 2014 season. What has you excited to come back to the beat?

Douglas Farmer: Given Notre Dame’s past season, I would say I am most excited to take an in-depth look at how the Irish respond — and perhaps rebound — in 2017. It has been awhile (nearly a decade, more accurately) since Notre Dame has needed to do that, so it is one area of football there is not much institutional knowledge to rely upon.

Aside from that, the general engagement with a fan base so devotedly-interested in its topic is always something to look forward to. Even during a 4-8 season, that fan base does not waver in its curiosity and thirst for information.

 

A nice perk is also getting paid for the addiction that is Notre Dame Football, no?

DF: I prefer to subscribe to Hurricane Carter’s opinion on addictions: Do not be addicted to anything “they” can take away from you.

 

Well put. As I thought about the decision to move on, I came to the conclusion that there’s no perfect time to ever do so. That said, other than the head coach, this is as close to a reboot as you can ask for. Do these next few months get you excited, especially as an almost entirely new staff take charge?

DF: Just had to slip in a reference to removing the head coach, didn’t you?

Bouncing back from a rough season is the most appealing story line in sports, in anything really. Take a look at any movie you have ever watched (or, in your case, perhaps even been involved in). The hero experiences conflict just before redemption. Now, I am not saying Notre Dame is the hero. I am saying watching the team, the program, try to rebound has me very interested.

The staff turnover is an added wrinkle, and will only increase the work ahead for the program. Before the players can learn the plays, they have to learn the staff. Before that, the staff has to learn about each other.

 

So what’s the plan with the blog? You plan on getting to know the characters below the fold in the comments? Keep the A-to-Z series rolling? Do a better job proof-reading?

DF: I do not intend to outright abandon any institution or established series you have devoted years to. Thus, I would expect A-to-Z to continue in some form. But we will see. That is an easy thing to say when I have not yet reached the misery that must be “Q, R, S, …”

I would like to engage with the readers, but only so far as logic and rational conversation will allow. I have no interest in devolving to who knows what depths. Proof-reading, well, I want to say I will excel at that, but that just sets me up to eat a lot of crow when I miss a letter in April.

 

Smart. Will tell you about the A-to-Z… This roster is a front-loaded one, alphabetically, at least.

DF: All of high school I had a locker next to a Favre. (Not really related.) I understand the luxuries the alphabet can provide.

 

Let’s go rapid fire for a second: Favorite game you saw in person at Notre Dame?

DF: Either the 2012 Stanford game or the 2011 South Florida game. I realize how absurd that latter answer sounds, but that is part of why it stands the test of time. It was such a unique experience. Plus, being allowed to go back to the dorm for an hour at halftime made the whole day more entertaining.

 

Best road game experience?

DF: 2010 Army in Yankee Stadium jumps to the top of the heap, though I suppose technically not a road game. Go ahead and score against me for this, but I am a lifelong Yankees fan. That was a big one for me.

(KA note: The Observer must not have had the $$ to send the editor to Dublin…)

(DF note to KA’s note: I graduated in May 2012. The Observer did manage to send four staffers to Dublin the following September. Sometimes I wonder if I would not have been better off if I had taken two years to get through fifth grade.)

 

Favorite player to watch during your time as a student?

DF: Golden Tate could have walked around the football field as Maximus, for all I’m concerned, given how entertaining he often was. Though Lou Nix also holds a lofty place in my regard.
I lived a door down from Lou for two years, part of the reasoning there.

 

Favorite villain of the Irish from your time watching/following Notre Dame football?

DF: Pete Carroll runs away with the award. His candidacy is enhanced by my Wisconsin-bred Packer fandom.I do not like disliking Pete Carroll. I very much wish I could be indifferent toward him. The Falcons granted me that luxury for nine months.

 

Part of what has me excited about this transition is that I actually thought you’d be a good person to turn the keys over to, as I enjoyed reading your stuff when you were at The Observer and covering the Irish in your post-graduation years. What’s the most exciting part for you about taking over the blog? And what do you look forward to doing with it?

DF: I am most excited for the chance to write, and the chance to write about something on which I consider myself relatively knowledgeable. I look forward to seeing where the blog environment takes me. The open-ended aspect of it presents all sorts of possibilities.

Theoretically, I can be more freewheeling than elsewhere, get in-and-out quicker of some pieces, spend more time on others. I know Notre Dame fans of all varieties — the obsessed, the apathetic, pessimistic, optimistic, etc. — including some who have yet to decide how they feel about Tommy Rees. (Feel positively about him. It’s that simple.)

My sample size is certainly representative of the fan base as a whole. That wide swath is what makes covering Notre Dame enjoyable, and very well may provide the blog some direction and material on its own.

Oh, and I appreciate those kind words, Keith. I’ll Venmo you $20 later tonight.

 

Sliding a final question into my lightning round. What’s your handle on NDNation? (Kidding!)

DF: I will take my right to not incriminate myself, otherwise known as the Fifth.

Notre Dame makes Alexander and Balis hires official

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Notre Dame confirmed the news that Del Alexander and Matt Balis are joining Brian Kelly’s staff. As expected, Alexander will coach wide receivers while Balis was named director of football performance.

The program announced both hires on Thursday.

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

Alexander, who’ll lean on his West Coast roots and familiarity with new offensive coordinator Chip Long, said the following:

“I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country. Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

Balis comes to Notre Dame from UConn, with an impressive pedigree that counts jobs at Mississippi State, Florida, Virginia and Utah. He takes over for Paul Longo, who is taking a leave of absence from the football program, per the official release.

“Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh,” Kelly said. “He’s already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn’t be more excited to have him in place moving forward.”