With an unexpected eighth win in the Music City Bowl, we can officially close the book on 2014. While injuries and the Irish’s November spiral cost them the opportunity to be a great team, the victory pushes Brian Kelly’s team into 2015 on a high note, with even bigger expectations ahead.
Before shifting our focus, let’s finish off our final grades for the 2014 season.
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.)
14. Isaac Rochell (DL, Soph.)
13. Nick Martin (C/LG, Sr.)
12. Cody Riggs (CB, GS)
11. Jarron Jones (DT, Jr.)
10. Matthias Farley (DB, Sr.)
9. Corey Robinson (WR, Soph.)
8. Sheldon Day (DT, Jr.)
7. Everett Golson (QB, Sr.)
6. Cole Luke (CB, Soph.)
5. Ronnie Stanley (LT, Jr.): Perhaps the toughest grade I had to give, slotting Stanley at fifth almost feels like a disappointment, especially considering his flavor of the month status by NFL draftniks everywhere who have decided that Stanley deserves to be perhaps the first offensive tackle in the 2015 NFL Draft. And to think, this spring we wondered if he was good enough to start at left tackle.
But for as good as Stanley could be, it’s hard to say he’s there yet. While he’s a natural in pass protection and put together an excellent final two games with his work against USC and LSU, there’s a strength component that’s not there in his game. And while his athleticism is spectacular and will be catnip for NFL evaluators, just two seasons into his playing career, the body of work isn’t.
After seeing how Harry Hiestand whipped the Irish offensive line into shape during their month off, Irish fans have to hope Stanley returns, if only to see how good this front five could be with him anchoring the left side. An unexpected leadership role that Stanley took before the bowl game surprised Kelly. Maybe that’s a sign he expects to lead the team in 2015.
But if this is it for Stanley, he had a nice, emerging 2014. While he didn’t receive a first-round grade, an impressive testing season could push him up draft boards before beginning what should be rock solid professional career ahead.
Preseason: 6th. Final: 5th.
4. Joe Schmidt (MLB, Sr.): We know the story. We love the story. But it still completely detracts from the football player that Joe Schmidt is. Notre Dame’s MVP was exactly that this season, the heart, nerve center and soul of the Irish roster.
Schmidt is an undersized middle linebacker, but has the athleticism and instincts needed to play the game at a high level. That he’s no longer buried behind players like Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox is a bright spot to Brian VanGorder’s debut season in South Bend, giving us a good first look at what this team can be with a healthy middle of the defense.
While Jaylon Smith (deservedly) earned All-American honors, he has Schmidt to thank for them. And it’s not unrealistic to see a monster 2015 season from Schmidt, who has the skills to be ridiculously productive in this system, especially if he’s properly protected by his defensive line.
Assuredly back for a fifth year, Schmidt’s recovery time is the only question left in his game. But what the Irish linebacking corps looks like with everybody healthy is a fun scenario to ponder. Does Nyles Morgan shift positions? Can the Irish get anything from Jarrett Grace? Is Smith going to play inside again in 2015?
All of these scenarios are made possible by Schmidt as the defense’s unequivocal leader.
Preseason: 24th. Final: 4th.
3. Tarean Folston (RB, Soph.): There’s no smoother operator on the Irish football team than Tarean Folston. The sophomore led the Irish in rushing, running for 889 yards and six touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Folston also gave the Irish an option in the passing game, catching 18 balls for 190 yards and one more touchdown.
While his statistical impact doesn’t knock you over, that’s hardly on Folston. His 175 rushing attempts check in at 70th in the country and his 68.4 yards per game is just as pedestrian, coming in at 84th. If there’s a referendum to be held on the offensive distribution, Folston’s underuse might be the leading vote-getter.
When given the opportunity, Folston took games over. He broke 100 yards in four out of five games, nearly missing a fifth when he ran for 98 yards on 18 carries against North Carolina. Only against LSU did Folston run for less than 5.3 yards per carry when he got more than a dozen attempts.
A natural talent who seized control of the team’s starting job, Folston also started to show the leadership needed to become an alpha dog. With Cam McDaniel graduated and right now only three scholarship running backs slated for next season (expect the Irish to pick up at least one more before Signing Day), Folston will be given every chance to lead this team in 2015.
Preseason: 5th. Final: 3rd.
2. Jaylon Smith (LB, Soph.): In his first season playing on the inside, Smith was the defensive bell cow of the Irish. He led the team with 112 tackles, his nine tackles for loss were also a team best. His 3.5 sacks were just a half sack behind Romeo Okwara. And he did all of this while still learning what he’s doing.
Named a second-team All-American by the AP, Smith’s sophomore season was a indisputable success, though it was still one that featured some growing pains. For every play Smith showcased his incredible athleticism, he took another snap where he exposed his youth. In the games after Joe Schmidt was injured, Smith’s play suffered, a step slow mentally more so than physically.
The good news? Smith was still Notre Dame’s best defensive player, with a close second lost for the season after a broken ankle suffered against Navy. And while Brian Kelly has joked about Smith’s baby steps towards handling the presnap responsibilities of diagnosing opposing offense’s schemes, Smith has another nine months of learning in VanGorder’s laboratory before he takes another snap.
This spring, it’ll be interesting to watch where Smith goes. He very easily could be the team’s best edge rusher if the Irish staff desires, with a combination of Joe Schmidt and Nyles Morgan playing the interior allowing Smith screaming off the edge if the Irish need to get to the passer. That’s likely his NFL destination, though surviving on the inside will only help his skillset.
Preseason: 1st. Final: 2nd.
1. Will Fuller (WR, Soph.): Fuller’s season was a historic one at Notre Dame. He set records for catches, yards and touchdowns for a sophomore, emerging as one of the most electric pass-catchers in college football. Fuller’s touchdown against LSU on the opening drive tied Golden Tate and Jeff Samardzija’s single-season record with 15.
After winning a tiebreaker in voting to even crack our Top 25 in the preseason, Fuller took advantage of his opportunities when DaVaris Daniels was suspended, emerging as a clear-cut No. 1 receiver for the Irish. He more than doubled Corey Robinson’s yardage output, while tripling Robinson’s touchdown catches, with Fuller emerging as a bonafide scorer and playmaker.
The best part of Fuller’s game is that he’s only scratching the surface. Similar to Jaylon Smith, for every mesmerizing play Fuller made in 2014, he provided a dozen more opportunities where mental lapses and youthful mistakes left you scratching your head. The drops and bobbles of easy passes show just how much higher Fuller’s ceiling is, especially when you see the sophomore attack a deep ball or come down with a tremendous catch.
Among the biggest home run threats in the country, Fuller also provided an electric option in the quick game, capable of taking a screen pass to the house. With the entire receiving corps set to return in 2015, Fuller will likely be the frontman to the best Irish receiving corps in history. Expect to see Fuller on most preseason All-American teams come the summer, with the opportunity to rewrite Michael Floyd’s records if he stays on campus long enough.
Preseason: 25th. Final: 1st.