Counting down the Irish: Final grades, Top 5

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To read the rationale for our final rankings, see 25-2120-16, 15-11 and 10-6.  To see our preseason rankings, check out the Top 25

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.)

 

Notre Dame v Syracuse
Notre Dame v SyracuseChris Chambers/Getty Images

 

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.

 

Purdue v Notre Dame
Purdue v Notre DameMichael Hickey/Getty Images

 

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.

 

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Franklin American Mortgage Music City BowlAndy Lyons/Getty Images

 

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.

 

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

 

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.

 

William Fuller, Kendell Beckwith
William Fuller, Kendell BeckwithAP Photo/Mark Humphrey

 

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.

Notre Dame’s 2018 defense bolstered with Coney & Tillery returns

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Notre Dame’s defense found some stability last week with the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston to associate head coach following Mike Elko’s abrupt departure, but only some stability.

That foundation is much more solid now after the Irish announced the returns of both junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery on Monday.

Both Coney and Tillery enjoyed noticeable developmental progress in one year under Elko.  Coney totaled a whopping 116 tackles to lead Notre Dame, far and away his best season. Among those takedowns, he managed 13 for loss, including three sacks. Tillery, meanwhile, led the Irish with 4.5 sacks this season, adding another 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Notre Dame’s defensive tackle situation may have bordered on dire if not for the return of junior Jerry Tillery. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With Lea and Elston sticking around, Coney and Tillery are well-positioned for even further growth. If nothing else, they will step into starring roles in a rather complete front seven.

Notre Dame loses senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, as well as senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner and senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. If Coney and Tillery had joined that group, the front seven would have been rife with unproven commodities and little depth. Instead, Coney will fill in at linebacker, meaning only one youngster will need to step forward, and Tillery will headline a defensive line surging under Elston.

After amassing 17 tackles in the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, Coney insisted he had not yet put much consideration into his future.

“I’m just right now still focused on the win,” he said. “We just got this 10th win. I’m just trying to soak up the moment. This is a great moment. … Focusing on that and the win and enjoying it with my brothers.”

Those words combined with Elko’s sudden departure for Texas A&M made Coney’s return seem unlikely. His breakout season at least placed him into NFL draft conversations and capitalizing on that chance would have made a good amount of logical sense.

With Lea in his ear for another season, Coney will have a chance to become more than a physical player excelling in run defense and develop his coverage skills. Coney and senior Drue Tranquill will lead an otherwise lacking linebacker corps.

Sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) made 10 and four tackles, respectively, this year. Jonathan saw more playing time on defense, occasionally spelling senior Nyles Morgan, but has not yet looked the part of an every-down contributor. Irish coach Brian Kelly has previously admitted to considering a move to defensive line for Jamir, but that unit’s progression made that position shift less of a necessity.

If any of the incoming four linebackers or the two current freshmen, David Adams or Drew White, were to emerge, however, such a move may become an available luxury. Only Tillery’s return makes it a genuine luxury, though.

Tillery’s 56 tackles this year showed a level of consistency not seen in his first two seasons. His length alone makes Tillery an intriguing draft prospect. Logically speaking, a second season of such production, if not even increased output, should further his professional hopes. By returning along with Elston, the player/coach combination will provide experience to a position group otherwise devoid of it. With Bonner having said he will not return, Tillery and current freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are the only returning defensive tackles of contributory note.

Freshman Darnell Ewell will also certainly enter the rotation after spending 2017 preserving a year of eligibility. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will be in the mix, as well. Incoming freshmen consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademiloloa (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) and consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin (North Caroline High School; Ridgely, Md.) will complete the fray.

Reports on Monday indicate junior Elijah Taylor will leave Notre Dame after missing 2017 with a LisFranc fracture suffered in spring practice. He appeared in four games in 2016, making four tackles including one for loss. More than anything else, his departure is a step toward reaching the NCAA maximum of 85 rostered players. With Coney and Tillery returning but Taylor departing, the Irish roster currently stands at 86 players, though a few more recruits may be added. (This does not count sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, indefinitely suspended and presumed not likely to play for Notre Dame in 2018.)

Monday’s Leftovers: Coney & Tillery once enrolled early at Notre Dame, now to the NFL or not?

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Today marks two occasions. It is the day before Notre Dame begins its spring semester. In other words, it is the day before this year’s seven early enrollees begin classes. It is also the deadline for early entrants to file for the NFL draft.

There are two common threads to the separate events. Junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery both enrolled early in 2015, and they have both delayed their stay-or-go decisions to today.

With the early signing period’s implementation, the former date holds less import. These players have already signed with the Irish. Gone are the days of putting down a drink and racing to a computer after finding a source to confirm a consensus five-star quarterback’s early arrival. With an early signing period, Gunner Kiel likely would have been bound to at least begin his career at LSU in the spring of 2012, rather than show up on Notre Dame’s campus at the 11th hour.

The tangible value of arriving early can still hold legitimacy, but that theoretical does not become much of a reality until spring practice commences, anyway.

Junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) will need to decide today if he will head to the NFL Draft or return for his senior year. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

So an early enrollee summary can wait until tomorrow’s first day of classes. In the meantime, breathes remain baited waiting for the decisions from Coney and Tillery. Will they return for a year under first-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea, or follow the lead of running back Josh Adams and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and head for the NFL?

As has been discussed and seems rather obvious, both Coney and Tillery would greatly boost the 2018 Irish defense. They would also both likely hear their names called in the NFL draft, so there is merit to whatever option each chooses.

— As it pertains to the early enrollees, the measureable benefit of the semester’s head start can be debated. In looking at the last three classes, it has appeared to have great effect with a few of the freshmen, but not for most.

2015: Tillery, Coney, defensive lineman Micah Dew-Treadway, offensive lineman Tristen Hoge.
2016: Safety Devin Studstill, receiver Kevin Stepherson, defensive end Daelin Hayes, defensive end Khalid Kareem, safety Spencer Perry.
2017: Offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, tight end Brock Wright, running back C.J. Holmes, safety Isaiah Robertson, offensive lineman Aaron Banks.

Of those 14, Tillery, Studstill, Stepherson and Hainsey offered genuine contributions in their debut seasons.

Tillery started three games in 2015, appearing in all 12, making 12 tackles with one sack. More than the counting statistics, the depth Tillery provided at defensive tackle was an absolute necessity.

As injuries and suspensions purged the Irish secondary just before the 2016 season’s start, Studstill was forced into a starting role. He finished the year with 38 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. He was not yet ready to be a collegiate starting safety, but he was needed to be, and the time spent going through the paces in the spring provided Studstill enough of a base to be somewhat serviceable from the outset.

Stepherson broke out as a deep threat right away — a likelihood with or without an early enrollment simply due to his speed. In his only complete season with the Irish, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Hainsey’s impact was far and away the most distinct. He went from the second most-heralded early-enrolled offensive lineman to a starter at right tackle. That surge puts Hainsey in pole position to start at left tackle in 2018. He may have ended up there, anyway, but the freshman first played a pivotal role on the best offensive line in the country.

— It would not be a site dedicated to football if it did not include some mention of the Minnesota Vikings’ victory Sunday evening. Some adjective should precede victory in the previous sentence, but no quick combination encapsulates just how absurd, dramatic and, per the quickly-adhered catchphrase, miraculous the conclusion was.

Stefon Diggs’ game-winning touchdown may not have been as excellent as Irish receiver Miles Boykin’s was in the Citrus Bowl if compared in a vacuum, but Diggs’ score came with no time remaining on the clock, while Boykin’s was merely an excellent play that if failed, other chances would have followed.

Of course, being the Vikings, the Notre Dame connection is thorough.

— A thought experiment sparked by that Minneapolis tangent … The Minnesota Timberwolves played their first game in franchise history Nov. 3, 1989, meaning it has endured a title drought the exact same length as the Irish have.

Which wins its respective championship first?

9-win, 30-TD quarterbacks like Wimbush are rare; Links to read

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It is not easy to win nine or 10 games in one season. It is not easy for Notre Dame, for any team, and it is not easy for a quarterback.

If granting the premise the Irish would have won at North Carolina if junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush had not sprained his foot the weekend beforehand, then Wimbush indeed notched nine wins this season. That does not credit him with the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, though it is certainly possible he would have found a way to win that game, too.

In doing so, Wimbush accounted for 30 touchdowns, 16 through the air and 14 through the ground.

Those two facts alone will guarantee Wimbush a chance to start at quarterback for Notre Dame on Sept. 1, as they should. After all, how many nine-win quarterbacks were there in 2017? How many players scored 30 combined touchdowns? Not many.

Obviously there will always be a Baker Mayfield or a Lamar Jackson, but consistent and frequent production is not as easy as the two Heisman winners make it seem. If narrowing the focus to Power Five teams, only 21 quarterbacks won nine games this season. That should probably bump to 22 out of deference to McKenzie Milton leading Central Florida to an undefeated season.

It bears noting the Irish faced six of those quarterbacks: Georgia’s Jake Fromm (13 wins) USC’s Sam Darnold (11), Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke (10), Miami’s Malik Rosier (10), North Carolina State and Ryan Finley (9), and LSU with Danny Etling (9).

Again keeping the field to the Power Five conferences with an exemption for the 13-0 Knights, only 14 players managed 30 total touchdowns, including Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford (29 passing, 10 rushing).

Between the two lists, just nine quarterbacks can claim both:
McKenzie Milton, Central Florida: 13 wins; 37 passing touchdowns, eight rushing.
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma: 12 wins; 43 passing, five rushing.
J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: 12 wins; 35 passing, 12 rushing.
Trace McSorley, Penn State: 11 wins; 28 passing, 11 rushing.
Sam Darnold, USC: 11 wins; 26 passing, five rushing.
Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State: 10 wins; 37 passing, 10 rushing.
Malik Rosier, Miami (FL): 10 wins; 26 passing, five rushing.
Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame: 9 wins; 16 passing, 14 rushing.
Luke Falk, Washington State: 9 wins; 30 passing.

This is not to say Wimbush should have an easy path to the starting gig for 2018. Before a long offseason of quarterback headlines and interminable debates, this is to say Wimbush has produced enough he will and should get his chance, despite any late-season struggles and obviously-needed improvements. Underselling Wimbush’s 2017 serves no point but to offer an exceptionally-flawed argument.

A FUN BIT OF TRIVIA:
No NFL team has both hosted the Super Bowl and played a divisional playoff game at home in the same year. The Minnesota Vikings will do just that Sunday (4:40 p.m. ET; v. New Orleans; FOX), as the Super Bowl will be at U.S. Bank Stadium in a few weeks. Some might deem the Vikings as “Notre Dame North” thanks to their reliance on former Irish safety Harrison Smith, tight end Kyle Rudolph and — less of a reliance, to be accurate — receiver Michael Floyd.

That is not the piece of trivia, though.

Stanford Stadium hosted the 1985 Super Bowl, with the San Francisco 49ers beating the Miami Dolphins.

Anyone who has been to a Notre Dame game at Stanford can use that fact to realize in a tangible manner just how much the NFL has grown in the last three decades. The idea of the world’s largest entertainment event being held at The Farm is genuinely beyond fathoming for those of a certain generation, this scribe included.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Monday’s Leftovers: On Notre Dame’s dual needs at defensive coordinator and those effects
Notre Dame promoting Lea & Elston bodes well for at least the short term
Harry Hiestand leaves Notre Dame on good terms and in good shape
A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s offensive roster

OUTSIDE READING:
Jack Lamb on Clark Lea: “best possible choice” for Notre Dame
Clark Lea’s promotion was a win for continuity, and one Notre Dame sorely needed
Optimism for Notre Dame football in 2018 starts with the Irish defense
Irish ‘feel really good’ about O-line in ‘18
In Harry Hiestand, Matt Nagy hits a home run on his first swing at Bears’ coaching staff
Notre Dame’s Moore Award personal for Taylor
What happens if the Vikings reach Super Bowl LII? Expect plenty of logistical challenges

Editor’s Note: Yes, the above quarterback bit was originally intended to run a bit longer in the weekly “Friday at 4” slot, but the timing did not fit last week with the defensive coordinator shift and the time was not at hand this week to get the piece put together as “Friday at 4” dictates.

Then again, stalling for a day creates another day of halfway-worthwhile content in a time of year that is devoid of much substance, aside from coaching changes, transfers, NFL declarations, et al.

And in the spirit of “Friday at 4,” how great would it be to have Dr. Stephen Strange as a weekend partner in figurative crime?

A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s offensive roster

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While Notre Dame awaits stay-or-go decisions from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, its offensive side of the roster is set … for now. As was briefly discussed in the most-recent “Monday’s Leftovers,” the Irish roster is currently at 87 players. That could rise as high as 90 if the incoming recruiting class rounds up to 25 signees and both Coney and Tillery return for the 2018 season.

A quick, even terse, look at the offense can provide reference for conversations and debates at both the virtual and real-world bar as the roster sheds a handful of players.

A couple quick notes: The order of this listing is not intended to stake a stance on positional competitions (cough quarterback cough). This is simply presenting the options available moving forward.

The designations following each of the 10 receivers are inherently speculative. With junior Equanimeous St. Brown declaring for the NFL and sophomore Kevin Stepherson not expected to be around next season, Notre Dame will need to tinker and experiment with receiver alignments throughout the offseason.

To a degree, the same goes for the offensive linemen, particularly among the backups. Rarely is there a genuine second-unit. Rather, one or two utility options will serve as backups for the whole line.

Quarterback (4):
Jr. Brandon Wimbush
So. Ian Book
Fr. Avery Davis
Incoming fr. Phil Jurkovec

Running back (5):
Jr. Dexter Williams
So. Tony Jones
So. Deon McIntosh
Fr. C.J. Holmes
Inc. fr. Jahmir Smith

Receiver (10):
Jr. Miles Boykin (field)
So. Chase Claypool (boundary)
Fr. Michael Young (slot)
Sr. Freddy Canteen (slot)
So. Jafar Armstrong (field)
So. Javon McKinley (boundary)
Jr. Chris Finke (slot)
Inc. fr. Braden Lenzy (slot)
Inc. fr. Kevin Austin (boundary)
Inc. fr. Micah Jones (field)

Tight end (6):
Jr. Alizé Mack
Sr. Nic Weishar
Fr. Cole Kmet
Fr. Brock Wright
Inc. fr. George Takacs
Inc. fr. Tommy Tremble

Offensive line (12):
Fr. Robert Hainsey (LT)
Fr. Josh Lugg (LG)
Sr. Sam Mustipher (C)
Sr. Alex Bars (RG)
So. Tommy Kraemer (RT)
So. Liam Eichenberg (T)
Fr. Aaron Banks (G)
Jr. Trevor Ruhland (G, C)
Fr. Dillan Gibbons (G)
Inc. fr. Cole Mabry (G)
Inc. fr. John Dirksen (G)
Inc. fr. Luke Jones (T, committed, not signed)

Specialists (4):
Jr. Justin Yoon (PK)
Sr. Tyler Newsome (P)
So. John Shannon (LS)
Fr. Jonathan Doerer (KO)