Notre Dame v Syracuse

Counting down the Irish: Final grades, 15-11

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To read the rationale for our final rankings, see 25-21, and 20-16. To see our preseason rankings, check out the Top 25

With ten players down, we get to the meat of our rankings. Looking back at the preseason projections, this group consisted of a mix of veterans and emerging talent.

In August, our nine-man panel viewed Christian Lombard, Cody Riggs, and Kyle Brindza as fourth-year performers expected to do some heavy lifting. In Max Redfield and Steve Elmer, there were two rising sophomores expected to take on starting (and maybe starring) roles.

The composition of this fivesome is a bit more unlikely. Riggs is a part of the group, his final ranking lower than it would’ve been had he stayed healthy. But two others came from nowhere, unranked this preseason, including a defensive lineman who didn’t even receive a vote. (To put that into context, freshman Quenton Nelson received two.)

Each of these five played key roles for the Irish. One quietly became one of the team’s most explosive playmakers. Another the team’s most reliable defensive lineman. Three others battled injuries, likely negating some of the impact they could’ve had on the season.

Let’s get to 15-11 on our final grades.

 

2014 IRISH TOP 25 FINAL GRADES

25. Christian Lombard (RT, GS)
24. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.)
23. Romeo Okwara (DE, Jr.)
22. Drue Tranquill (S, Fr.)
21. Nyles Morgan (LB, Fr.)
20. Max Redfield (S, Soph.)
19. Steve Elmer (RG, Soph.)
18. Ben Koyack (TE, Sr.)
17. Elijah Shumate (S, Jr.)
16. Greg Bryant (RB, Soph.)

 

C.J. Prosise, George Jamison
C.J. Prosise, George JamisonAP Photo/Nick Wass

 

15. C.J. Prosise (WR, Jr.): After struggling to find a suitable slot wide receiver in his five seasons coaching the Irish, Brian Kelly found an unlikely one in C.J. Prosise. No where in the prototype does it include a 220-pounder who started his career as a jumbo safety.

But Prosise, who was still very rough around the edges this season, made plays. Big ones. His 18.5 yards per catch was the highest average on the team. Even though Chris Brown gained more yardage and caught more passes, and Amir Carlisle started more games in the slot, Prosise finds his way on this list for his ability to turn the Z receiver position into something more explosive than it’s been at any time in the Kelly era.

Prosise’s eight games with a catch longer than 20 yards is second only to Will Fuller’s nine. (It’s also a remarkable step forward for a player who heading into 2014 had a career best game of two catches for 25 yards against Rutgers.) He also showed himself to be dynamic on the jet sweep, his 7.3 yards per carry second to only Malik Zaire.

Prosise was the team’s Special Team’s Player of the Year, notching a team-best 10 tackles on special teams. While still learning on the job the best is yet to come from this dynamic athlete.

Preseason: Unranked (32nd) Final: 15th.

 

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

 

14. Isaac Rochell (DL, Soph.): With Stephon Tuitt opting for the NFL instead of his senior season and Ishaq Williams suspended for two semesters, the Irish had no choice but to turn to Isaac Rochell. After playing minimal snaps as a true freshman (10 total tackles in 11 games), defensive line coach Mike Elston pushed Rochell into the starting lineup as his strongside defensive end, no other logical option in sight.

Rochell delivered. He played in all 12 games. He made 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks among his 37 stops. And he provided some much needed length and bulk, showing the versatility to shift inside and out when the Irish badly needed bodies to hold the line in the trenches.

Rochell trailed only Jaylon Smith in tackles behind the line of scrimmage this season. And he proved that Brian Kelly wasn’t just blowing smoke when he sung Rochell’s praises during preseason camp.

At just shy of 6’4″ and nearly 290 pounds, Rochell’s going to be asked to play one of his best games against LSU in the Music City Bowl if the Irish have a chance to win. It’ll be a great test before moving into a leadership role in 2015 as an upperclassman.

Preseason: Unranked (zero votes). Final: 14th.

 

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

 

13. Nick Martin (C/LG, Sr.): Martin was named one of four team captains heading into 2014, likely considered a bridge between the past and the present after seeing his brother Zack provide such incredible stability over four seasons. Coming off a late-season knee injury in 2014, Martin spent much of spring practice watching, with Matt Hegarty taking reps at center while Martin stayed away from contact.

The plans of Martin spending his second season starting at center were thrown out after just three games. Martin shifted to guard while Hegarty played center. Finding the Hegarty who played well in the spring and in relief in 2013 was a big part of that, but so was helping Martin out, as he battled a thumb and hand injury that made snapping difficult.

Evaluating offensive line play is tricky for those of us not in the coaching rooms. But Martin isn’t the player his brother is, a measuring stick that’s looking less and less fair as the older sibling makes his first Pro Bowl appearance as an NFL rookie.

But Martin is no slouch, either. While a few missed assignments in crunch time likely stick in the craw of Irish fans, Martin still is a frontline player who will likely carve out a career on Sundays. He’s asked for an NFL evaluation — Rotoworld’s Josh Norris had him as one of his Top 10 interior offensive linemen in his early December evaluations — but also pledged a return for a fifth year, all but a formality.

Preseason: 8th. Final: 13th.

 

Cody Riggs
Cody RiggsAP Photo/Joe Raymond, File

 

12. Cody Riggs (CB, GS): There was no better free agent pickup in college football than Florida transfer Cody Riggs. Counted on to play opposite KeiVarae Russell and also spend time in the slot, Riggs ended up leading the position, giving away some of his versatility because the Irish couldn’t afford to take him off the field.

Riggs served as the team’s primary punt returner, showing some ability there when he wasn’t turning the job into a tight rope walk. He played solid football in man coverage, a top-flight athlete whose only weakness is that he’s three inches shy of six feet.

A “stress reaction” (sounds better than fracture) was the undoing of Riggs’ season, and the ultimate demise of the Irish secondary. Without him at full strength, the Irish put the bulk of the coverage responsibilities on Cole Luke, an assignment Luke passed with honors against Louisville, but struggled mightily with against USC.

Riggs came to Notre Dame to play out his eligibility after it looked like he wouldn’t have the ability to play cornerback at Florida. In South Bend, he was locked in to a cornerback job, with depth issues taking away from Riggs’ versatility, something that’ll be key to his career extending to Sundays.

Proclaiming himself healthy for LSU, Riggs will take the field one last time for the Irish. That says quite a bit about a player who needs to get his foot healthy for his next most important rep — testing in Indianapolis at the NFL scouting combine.

Preseason: 14th. Final 12th.

 

North Carolina v Notre Dame
North Carolina v Notre DameJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

 

11. Jarron Jones (DT, Jr.): After finding a home on the inside after Louis Nix and Kona Schwenke went down with injuries in 2013, Jones took another big step forward in 2014. The junior defensive tackle looked the part of an elite, big-bodied defensive tackle, dominating the interior of Florida State’s offensive line in Tallahassee.

Before going down with a season-ending Lisfranc injury, Jones had 40 tackles, 7.5 TFLs and 1.5 sacks. He blocked two more kicks, showcasing the length and athleticism the 6’5.5″ defensive tackle possesses.

There were whispers that Jones wasn’t fully healthy even before his season-ending injury. He limped off the field against Navy, struggling with the cut blocks that the Midshipmen employ.

Jones is a physically gifted football player. He’s naturally productive. And lined up next to Sheldon Day in 2015, there are few duos more productive in the trenches. But that requires a big offseason for Jones, who has the chance to be an elite player on the college level if he puts in the work.

Preseason: 17th. Final: 11th.

 

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
rivals.com
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)