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. 

Swarbrick discusses the state of Irish football program

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Jack Swarbrick spoke extensively about the state of the Notre Dame football program. Released last Friday and a part of Swarbrick’s weekly podcast, the Irish athletic director covered the laundry list of hot-button issues, including Brian Kelly’s status, the NCAA order to vacate wins that Notre Dame is appealing, and the challenge of winning football games in today’s environment.

The entire 25 minutes are worth a listen, as Swarbrick and Nolan cover just about every question and complaint that’s out there. And in case you don’t have that time, here’s a quick breakdown:

 

Swarbrick on the 2016 season. 

“It was an extremely disappointing year. Every player, every coach, myself, other administrators involved in the program, we all share the same view. There’s no way around that conclusion. It’s not bad breaks, it’s not a play here, a play there. We didn’t do what we need to do. So we do start from that perspective.

“I think there’s a danger in overreacting to any one piece of information that you get in the course of the evaluation of football programs. That begins with, it looks one way from a this-season perspective, but it feels a little different to me from a two-season perspective.”

 

Swarbrick on the evaluation process: 

“I’m looking at the program. Wins and losses are a huge indicia of where the program is, but it’s not the only one. More important to me, frankly, is the experience of our students. My interaction with them and what their interactions with the coaches, and the environment and are we meeting their expectations. Now, we clearly didn’t meet their expectations competitively this year, because they want to win, too. But on many of the other things, the program elements are in good shape.”

 

On the off-field issues, and the challenges that faced the football team this fall. 

“I don’t want to do anything to minimize the disappointments, whether they’re competitive or unacceptable behavior in the last game at USC by one of our players, obviously, which just isn’t acceptable, it isn’t okay. The disciplinary issues we had to deal with at the front of the year, none of those are acceptable, all of those go into the evaluation, but those are the only ones that sort of get the public scrutiny. I’m dealing with the other 120 young men who are for the most part like my co-host James (Onwualu), doing everything right, making every right decision, having a real positive experience. You’ve got to look at it all, not just isolated elements of it.

 

Discussing the disappointment of the NCAA’s ruling to vacate wins and why the university is appealing: 

“If you’d merely expelled the students, you wouldn’t get this penalty. But because you went though an educative process and kept them in school and adjusted credits and made those things, you subjected yourself to this penalty. That seems like a bad message to send, but that’s one that we’re continuing to advocate for down the road.”

 

On the challenges of winning in today’s college football, as opposed to 30 years ago. 

“I think undoubtedly it is harder. Now, people from that era may have a different view. But there are things that make it harder. But it doesn’t make any difference. It’s harder to win basketball games than it was back then. It’s harder to do a number of things.

“We don’t treat any of that as an excuse or a reason to have different goals. I sort of embrace that. Some of those things that you might view as obstacles are ultimately the things that we have to offer young people. It is the eliteness of the institution and the quality of the education. You can’t say it’s an obstacle and then talk about how great it is because it helps you. That’s the way it is. I wouldn’t trade anything for the circumstance we now compete in. I think it is exactly what it should be. We have to do a better job with it, that’s all.”

Report: Corey Holmes set to transfer

Irish Illustrated / Matt Cashore
Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated
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Receiver Corey Holmes is transferring from Notre Dame. The junior, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, will look for a new program after earning his degree this summer, Tom Loy of Irish247 reports.

Holmes told Irish247:

“It’s just the best decision for me. I’m graduating this summer and I’m just going to find the best fit for me to finish things up.”

Even after a strong spring, Holmes saw little action this season, though he played extensively against USC in the season finale. He had four catches against the Trojans, a large part of his 11 on the year, also his career total.

That Holmes wasn’t able to find a consistent spot in the rotation is likely a big reason why he’s looking for a new opportunity. After opening eyes after posting a 4.42 40-yard dash during spring drills, the Irish coaching staff looked for a way to get Holmes onto the field. But after losing reps at the X receiver on the outside, Holmes bounced inside and out, never finding a regular spot in the rotation, playing behind Torii Hunter Jr. and Kevin Stepherson on the outside and CJ Sanders and Chris Finke in the slot.

Holmes has two seasons of eligibility remaining, redshirting his sophomore season. Because he’ll earn his degree this summer, he’ll be able to play immediately next year. Irish 247 reports that Holmes is looking at Miami, UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona and North Carolina, though he’ll have a semester to find other fits.

 

Mailbag: All about BK

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17:  (L-R) Sam Kohler #29, head coach Brian Kelly, Grace Kelly and Hunter Bivin #70 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 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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Welcome to a fairly action-packed Mailbag. Why didn’t one of you guys remind me to do these more often?

This one, as the title suggests, is all about Brian Kelly.

 

@chrise384: Do you think that silence from Swarbrick this week means anything or do you think it’s status quo and BK is back in ’17?

I think Swarbrick’s been silent because there’s nothing else to say. He made his comment to ESPN that Kelly would be back in 2017. Why would it benefit him to say anything else?

Kelly also made comments—10 feet away from his boss—that he’d be back and doesn’t want to go anywhere. So other than releasing a 2:37 a.m. tweet reiterating Kelly’s intentions—and essentially calling B.S. on the reports that BK was looking to get out—there’s no reason to respond to the noise, when there’s a ton of work to do and big decisions still to make.

Speaking of those…

 

Domer521: Keith – The banquet is next Friday evening. Do you expect any announcements regarding recruits or DC/assistant coaches before then?

I don’t. For a variety of reasons, I think Kelly is waiting to make any formal moves on his staff until after that evening. And in reality, any college assistant that’s going to come to Notre Dame is probably coaching in a bowl game, and won’t leave his program until after that game is played.

(That doesn’t mean that BK isn’t lining things up. I expect that he is.)

So while the idea of getting a coordinator on hand now might be ideal, the reality of the situation is that you need someone ready to hit the recruiting trail after the New Year, taking the world by storm for that final month and closing stretch until Signing Day.

 

@GhostAKG: Many are saying Charlie Strong for our new DC. Is that good/realistic? And what are some of the names you’ve been hearing more?

I was one of the people to speculate, but the more you think about it the less it makes sense. Charlie Strong is a head coach. And a good one. Any return to South Bend would feel incredibly temporary, with the circus following every job vacancy that opens up—with fans and media speculating, “Is this the one to get Strong back to the head job?”

That’s not a headache BK and company would want to deal with, especially when you consider how much this collective fanbase sweats out coordinator hires or parallel moves.

(Remember when Tony Alford left after Signing Day and it felt like someone died around here?)

Charlie Strong is a good man and a good coach. But that’s the wrong type of hire for ND. I think he’ll probably take a year off to examine the landscape, continue to cash those fat checks coming from Austin, and then get back into it next year.

 

irishwilliamsport:

Keith, I know this is an exercise in futility but I’ll ask a mailbag question… What would you guess BK’s combined job approval rating is among all fan bases ?

You’ve got me. No clue. Does anybody have a good job approval rating?

At this point, I don’t think anybody’s approval rating is all that high at 4-8, to the point that Jack Swarbrick—a guy who might be the most powerful and intelligent athletic director in the country—has seen fans turn on him as well.

I wasn’t quite sure what you were getting at with your question about “all fan bases,” but maybe you were talking about the perception of Kelly both inside and out of the program? If so, I thought Colin Cowherd’s take on Kelly, at least from a national perspective and a guy who watches a lot of college football, is interesting. (It’s a perspective that’s pretty common, I must say.)

 

codenamegee: 

What has Brian Kelly done to make you think he can win a championship at Notre Dame. Looking at his FBS coaching resume his teams have never beaten a top 5 team. I just don’t get why everyone thinks he’s a good coach. Notre Dame is poorly coached (too many mental breakdowns), offense lacks imagination (Running plays are too predictable, no tail back screens, no delay draws, lack of counters and traps). Yet all I hear how Brian Kelly is this great coach or Brian Kelly is a great offensive mind. If he is, he hasn’t showed it since he’s been in South Bend.

Well, first off—and this is a biggie—he played for one. So let’s not ignore that. And he was maybe one play away from getting invited to playing for another last year, a game-winning, last-second field goal against Stanford knocking the Irish from the playoff.

Now I get that playing for one isn’t the same as winning one. And when it comes to comparing this program to Alabama’s, frankly I don’t think Notre Dame has a chance to get to that level until Nick Saban retires… or the NCAA finds something illegal in his program. So if that’s the bar you’ll set, I’m not sure he can get there. And I’m not sure Notre Dame is willing to do what it takes to get there. And frankly, that’s something I’m okay with—especially as you

Last point for you—have you really heard anybody calling Brian Kelly a good coach lately? Is anybody following Notre Dame saying Kelly’s done a good job this season? Has the coach himself even said that? Have I?

Listen, I get it. Losing seasons are terrible. They are really painful and this one came out of nowhere, making it worse. Then throw on top of that just how close the games were—each week a decision here or there, or a blown assignment or missed opportunity sometimes the singular difference between a win and a loss.

That all adds up. And it certainly will carry into next season, a direct reflection on the coach’s job status, regardless of the length of his remaining contract.

 

irishdog80: Can Brian Kelly truly survive and thrive as head coach at Notre Dame or is his best opportunity a fresh start at a new school or pro team?

I don’t think Kelly would’ve stayed if he didn’t think he could thrive. He could get another job if he wanted one. And I don’t think Swarbrick would’ve let him stick around if he didn’t have comfort that the football program—a team that he spends more time around than anybody outside the players and the coaches—was in good hands, and that this was a bad season, not a bad program.

That’s a really good question though, Irishdog. We’ve seen Bob Stoops rally. We’ve seen David Shaw bounce back, though neither pulled a four-win season. And for now, I think Kelly can, too. But it’s worth pointing out that the rumor everybody seemed to be fired up about, three-win & nine-loss Mark Dantonio, would be a huge coaching upgrade over Kelly is funny, considering Dantonio just took a College Football Playoff team and drove it off a cliff.

 

 

irishcatholic16: With reports that Brian Kelly is seeking job opportunities outside of Notre Dame then shortly after saying that he’s committed to Notre Dame along with him bolting Cincinnati in the same fashion (saying he would stay then leaving), do you think he will lose the trust of his team and could we see more decommits as a result? Will the team trust him knowing that he isn’t fully committed?

I have no belief that those reports are true. And I have no reason to think that Kelly’s team—seven years in—would have their trust of the man leading the program hinging on reports from national media pundits.

Are we still talking about the way he left Cincinnati? Because it sure looked to me an awful lot like every coach leaves their program—Tom Herman just the latest example of a coach left in an unwinnable situation, with the media ready to pounce by asking unanswerable questions.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt that Kelly’s agent was talking to teams. He was. He’s the same guy that reps Herman, and a handful of other top-shelf coaches. But that’s what agents do. They talk about their clients, 99% of the time without the client ever having any idea he’s doing it.

 

 

bjc378:

I’ll ask the obvious question. Sorry, I didn’t listen to the podcast.

Do you (still) think BK should be the Irish coach next year? If so, how long of a leash do you give him next year and what changes would you demand? If not, or if he decides to coach elsewhere, what’s your wish list look like?

No apology necessary, first off, on the podcast. It’s supplemental, but listen for John Walters’ wisdom, it’s basically like telling your friends you subscribe to Newsweek.

As for BK, yes I do think he should be the coach next year. I don’t think Notre Dame is a program that should fire someone for a single bad season—period. I didn’t like it when they did it to Ty (in retrospect it was the right thing to do), and I wouldn’t like it if they did it to Kelly, a year off a ten-win season and a Fiesta Bowl appearance.

(Also worth noting, they don’t do it in hockey, basketball, baseball, soccer, or any other sport.)

As for the leash? That’s hard to say. I think we’ll know quite a bit about this team at the end of next September. They’ll have played Temple (the potential AAC champ coached by one of the nation’s underrated head coaches in Matt Rhule), Georgia, Boston College, Michigan State and—don’t laugh—Miami (Ohio), who has got it going now under Chuck Martin. So if that month goes sideways and the season does too, I won’t have any problem with Swarbrick trying to upgrade and make a change.

As for the wish list? No clue. Not at this point. I’ll take Jon Gruden off of it, so cross him off before anybody asks me. And any other NFL head coach.

But I’d start by looking at someone like Willie Taggart, a young Harbaugh protege who coached at Stanford and has now done good work as a head coach at both Western Kentucky and USF.

Drue Tranquill named first-team Academic All-American

Drue Tranquill
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Drue Tranquill was named a first-team Academic All-American. The junior safety, who returned from his second major knee injury during his three-year career, earned the honors after posting a 3.74 GPA in mechanical engineering.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s first academic All-American since Corey Robinson earned the honor after the 2014 season. He finished second on the team in tackles with 79 and lead the team in solo stops with 52. He also had two TFLs and an interception.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s 60th Academic All-American, the third-most of any school behind Nebraska and Penn State. He’s active in the university community, serving as a mentor for the Core Leadership Team for Lifeworks Ministry, and is a member of Notre Dame Christian Athletes. He is a also member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) and Rosenthal Leadership Academy.