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 Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Associated Press
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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

rivals.com
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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

Associated Press
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A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills