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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.