Counting down the Irish: 20-16

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For those getting caught up, start here. Then, check out the players who just missed the cut. Our rankings start with No. 25-21

 

We kicked off our list with five candidates for a breakout season. Our next installment seems to be doing one better: All five players have already started football games (or in one case, a game), now the goal is to become dominant performers.

For some, it’s still a learning process. We saw that with Nyles Morgan in 2014, a young linebacker prone to mistakes but still capable of making the big play. For others like Chris Brown and Elijah Shumate, 2015 constitutes a final season to perform, with the hope that three seasons of experience will result in a breakthrough.

We saw game-breaking moments from a player like Corey Robinson. We also saw Mike McGlinchey step into the starting lineup and thrive, surviving a mid-game relief appearance against USC’s Leonard Williams before performing more-than-admirably against LSU.

The depth on Notre Dame’s roster begins to show itself in this installment, with all five players capable of putting together very big seasons.

 

2015 IRISH TOP 25 RANKINGS

25. Jerry Tillery, DL
24. Greg Bryant, RB
23. Durham Smythe, TE
22. Matthias Farley, DB
21. Quenton Nelson, LG

 

Notre Dame v Arizona State
Notre Dame v Arizona StateChristian Petersen/Getty Images

20. Nyles Morgan (LB, Sophomore): No, it wasn’t always pretty. But Morgan’s baptism by fire should help as he moves into his sophomore season. In limited playing time subbing in for an injured Joe Schmidt, Morgan managed to make 47 tackles, the eighth most of any freshman at Notre Dame in the program’s history.

Morgan’s big play potential is obvious. He managed 3.5 TFLs in his four starts, three more than Joe Schmidt managed during his MVP (as voted by peers and coaches) campaign.

A big, fast and mean linebacker, Morgan will compete with Schmidt and Jarrett Grace for time in the middle of the defense. And if he’s able to take the next step from a mental prospective, there’s a chance that Morgan can see the field at the same time as Schmidt and Jaylon Smith, giving the Irish a linebacking corps that should be incredibly productive.

Highest Ranking: 17th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (three ballots).

 

Chris Brown, Adoree Jackson
Chris Brown, Adoree JacksonAP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

19. Chris Brown (WR, Senior): For two seasons, Brown’s 50-yard catch against Oklahoma served as the singular highlight on the receiver’s resume. But in 2014, he showed shades of becoming a complete player, serving as a capable No. 2, even if it still only happened in spurts .

But as a senior, inconsistency won’t cut it. And playing across from Will Fuller, that type of productive should be a given. So if you’re looking for a candidate to step forward in a receiving group that doesn’t lose a body, Brown is an odds-on-favorite.

He’s big (nearly 6-foot-2) and fast (a high-school sprinter and national record-setter in the triple jump). He’s also finally understanding what it takes to be a consistent performer in Brian Kelly’s offense, though 39 catches and 548 yards is just a start. Somebody has to help take the attention off of Fuller. And Brown is the type of veteran leader who should get one of the first chances to do it.

Highest Ranking: 16th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (three ballots).

 

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

18. Elijah Shumate (S, Senior): After an impressive freshman season where Shumate helped the 2012 defense as a slot cornerback, the veteran safety battled injuries during a mostly lost sophomore season and then struggled with the transition into Brian VanGorder’s defense in 2014. Still, he started 11 games and played in all 13, finishing third on the team in tackles with 66, chipping in a game-ending interception against Michigan to score a touchdown that counted everywhere but the scoreboard.

But that’s not the type of productivity that’ll get things done at the back end, and Shumate spent too much of last season not fully grasping his role in the Irish defense. But Shumate had a strong spring and is expected to put together a much more impressive final season in South Bend.

Capable of playing near the line of scrimmage and one of the team’s toughest hitters, the 213-pounder will be armed with another season of knowledge in VanGorder’s system.  Hopefully that unlocks a smashmouth playmaker who’ll cause trouble for quarterbacks and strike fear into receivers.

Highest Ranking: 11th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (two ballots).

 

Ronald Darby,Corey Robinson
Ronald Darby,Corey RobinsonAP Photo/Mark Wallheiser

17. Corey Robinson (WR, Junior): Robinson played the game of his career against Florida State, nearly completing the touchdown hat trick and pulling out a historic win if it weren’t for a dubious offensive pass interference call. And while he had a few other clutch moments in 2014, there’s a consistency that still needs to be added to Robinson’s game if he’s going to take the next step as a receiver.

There’s reason to believe that he can. Robinson put together an impressive sophomore season even after playing most of the year with a fractured thumb. That neutralized one of Robinson’s best traits, a pair of velcro hands, as he continued to evolve as a route runner and grow comfortable with a body that seems to have sprouted well past his listed 6-foot-4.5 height.

A year after being named a first-team Academic All-American and Notre Dame’s Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year, it’s time for Robinson to emerge as a true red zone weapon—not to mention a complete receiver—as he looks to round out his game.

Highest Ranking: 17th. Lowest Ranking: 22nd.

 

16. Mike McGlinchey (RT, Junior): The jump Notre Dame’s starting right tackle made in the rankings from 2014 gives you an idea of his upside. And for all the talk about Ronnie Stanley and his chances to be the potential top pick in 2016, some think McGlinchey could offer much of the same thing at offensive tackle, a scary proposition if true.

At a shade under 6-foot-8, McGlinchey has the mass and length needed to be a prototype tackle. And we’ve heard more than enough from Brian Kelly to understand that McGlinchey’s best asset might be his athleticism.

While Christian Lombard did his best to gut out a tough final season in South Bend as he battled back injuries, McGlinchey sat on the bench. He was the odd-man out after spending last spring as Notre Dame’s projected right tackle, only to see Steve Elmer slide outside during fall camp. Even after that experiment failed, Harry Hiestand and Kelly decided to stick with a veteran like Lombard, though after seeing McGlinchey play when Lombard’s back finally gave out, he seemed more than ready for action.

Entering his third season in the program, McGlinchey is getting his chance. And the physical roadgrader should have a very good season.

Highest Ranking: 10th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (one ballot).

 

***

Our 2015 Irish Top 25 panel
Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish
Bryan DriskellBlue & Gold
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Nick Ironside, Irish 247
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Michael Bryan, One Foot Down
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
Jude Seymour, Her Loyal Sons
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago
John Vannie, NDNation
John Walters, Newsweek 

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)