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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.