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.

 

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?