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.

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
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