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Counting Down the Irish: The Top Five

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This top-five should show where Notre Dame’s strength will be this season: the running game. More specifically, the running game to the left side of the line.

It probably did not take this polling to reveal as much considering the Irish offensive line features two sure-fire first-round NFL Draft picks on the left side, but it is worth noting how the two will be viewed this year. They finished a point apart at the top of these rankings. Brace yourselves for a few months’ worth of wondering if fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey legally changed his name to “McGlinchey and Nelson.”

Unlike Nos. 6-10, these five have proven themselves on the field. Also unlike Thursday’s five, all five of these players could be gone come 2018. Three will have eligibility remaining, but it is nearly certain the top vote-getter heads to the NFL with a season of collegiate time left on the table while either or both of the skill position players could showcase themselves this year to the point it would be foolish not to head to the pros.

All in all, Notre Dame has a consensus top-five this year. To that end, this annual ranking served its purpose of highlighting the roster’s top-end. Consider this one last nod of appreciation to the dozen panelists for taking the time to partake.

25: Donte Vaughn, sophomore cornerback, 30 points
24: Justin Yoon, junior kicker, 34
23: Te’von Coney, junior linebacker, 50
22: Durham Smythe, fifth-year senior tight end, 50
21: C.J. Sanders, junior receiver and returner, 52
20: Jay Hayes, senior defensive end, 58
19: Kevin Stepherson, sophomore receiver, 78
18: Chase Claypool, sophomore receiver, 91
17: Alex Bars, senior right guard, 92
16: Nick Watkins, senior cornerback, 106
15: Dexter Williams, junior running back, 109
14: Sam Mustipher, senior center, 116
13: Greer Martini, senior linebacker, 129
12: Julian Love, sophomore cornerback, 159
11: Jerry Tillery, junior defensive tackle, 162
10: Shaun Crawford, junior cornerback, 165
9: Daelin Hayes, sophomore defensive end, 191
8: Alizé Mack, junior tight end, 194
7: Drue Tranquill, senior rover, 200
6: Brandon Wimbush, junior quarterback, 231

5: Equanimeous St. Brown, junior receiver, 257 points

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High ranking: No. 1
Low ranking: No. 9
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

To give an idea how stark St. Brown’s breakout sophomore season was, realize a year ago he finished No. 25 in this ranking. This year, even when one ballot mistakenly left him off entirely (later corrected), St. Brown still finished No. 5.

Some Irish fans may read the above reference to St. Brown playing himself into position to enter the NFL Draft and panic. That would be a mistake. It should be read as a positive sign. For St. Brown to genuinely consider that leap this spring, he will need to excel in the fall.

With junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush now the starter, St. Brown will have plenty of opportunities to star even further. It is not that St. Brown did not mesh with DeShone Kizer. Rather, it is that St. Brown has worked with Wimbush for three years, including their freshman season when neither was seeing much action.

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4: Josh Adams, junior running back, 259
High ranking: No. 1
Low ranking: No. 7
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

Unlike St. Brown, Adams’ rise in this ranking is only from No. 8 a year ago. His ceiling may be capped by the talent in Notre Dame’s running back stable. The flipside of that luxury is Adams should still be fresh come November this year. That could be an intimidating concept for opponents considering Adams averaged 7.42 yards per carry last November, closing the season with back-to-back 100-yard games, including 180 yards on only 17 carries against USC.

Adams at his peak may be the Irish at their best this season. But he cannot do it on his own, as illustrated by the top-two finishers yet to come. His impact is easily measured in yards, yards per carry and touchdowns. Nonetheless, their contributions will lead to his production.

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3: Nyles Morgan, senior linebacker, 269
High ranking: No. 2, by two separate voters
Low ranking: No. 6
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

Of the top six, only Morgan did not receive a No. 1 vote. Those all went to offensive players. Maybe that is a symptom of college football as a whole. More likely, that is a symptom of the Notre Dame defense struggling so immensely a year ago.

If the defense reverses that trend this year, it will be under the Irish captain’s direction. Frankly, Morgan may not match last year’s 94 tackles, not with senior rover Drue Tranquill in position to build on his 79 and senior linebacker Greer Martini expected to see more time this season alongside Morgan. He also may not match his four sacks, not with an added emphasis on defensive ends chasing down the passer, led by senior Jay Hayes and sophomore Daelin Hayes (no relation), not to mention Tranquill again.

Thus, view Morgan’s impact on a macro scale. Limiting opponents to three touchdowns per game would be an undeniable triumph, and it would have everything to do with Morgan, no matter how many tackles he tallies and where they are on the field. (Why three touchdowns per game? The low mark of Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame is obviously 2012’s 12.8 points per game. Since then, the Irish defense’s highpoint came in 2013, holding opponents to 22.4 points per game. That is, three touchdowns and a field goal some weekends, a missed field goal other weekends.)

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2: Mike McGlinchey, fifth-year senior left tackle, 284
High ranking: No. 1, by three separate voters
Low ranking: No. 5
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

Partly out of laziness, partly out of a desire to break in the habit mentioned up top, there is a distinct desire to lump McGlinchey’s entry in with the next one. They are separated by one point, about the equivalent of how much space will be between them on the field.

Fans may flinch at this ranking, citing McGlinchey’s penchant for pre-snap penalties a year ago. They have a point, but that is also the peril of judging any offensive lineman off the times his name is mentioned by an announcer. The other thing to keep in mind is how much praise has been heaped on McGlinchey this offseason. Rarely does a likely first-round draft pick return to college and receive credit for drastic improvements. That has been the case with McGlinchey to date, though obviously seeing it against Temple on Sept. 2 will mean more.

As has been the case with each of the captains, McGlinchey’s impact will extend beyond his thankless duties as a left tackle. Media members, including some of these panelists, noted McGlinchey addressing the Irish following the opening session of preseason practice. For a player who has typically led by example, the outspoken moment was notably out of character.

What has not been out of character is another Notre Dame left tackle excelling. Simply as a thought experiment, it is curious to wonder where the starting left tackle, whomever that may be, will finish in this polling in 2018.

1: Quenton Nelson, senior left guard, 285
High ranking: No. 1, by six separate voters
Low ranking: No. 7
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

What else needs to be said? The left guard plays physical and sound football. He has shown expertise in both passing and running situations. Not only did six panelists place Nelson atop their ballots, but three more slotted him second.

On the inside of the line, Nelson will also assist Wimbush and senior center Sam Mustipher in diagnosing certain defensive looks. As another captain, he will stand next to McGlinchey — figuratively or literally — whenever the team needs to be addressed.

This top slot should not be a surprise. Gauging a left guard’s contribution may be more subjective than looking at a linebacker’s tackle totals or a running back’s average yards per carry, but it is every bit as vital, if not more so. Not every play will reach the defense’s second-level and not every offensive alignment will include a running back on the field. Meanwhile, every offensive snap will give a defender a chance to blow past Nelson and reach the quarterback.

Don’t expect that defender to succeed much in 2017.

The 2017 Counting Down the Irish panelists
Michael Bryan, 18 Stripes
Bryan Driskell, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Mike Monaco, Notre Dame Broadcaster/Reporter
Ben Padanilam, The Observer
LaMond Pope, Chicago Tribune
Ryan Ritter, Her Loyal Sons
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
Evan Sharpley, Irish 247
John Vannie, ND Nation
Joshua Vowles, One Foot Down

Kevin Stepherson, three others no longer on Notre Dame roster

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Irish head coach Brian Kelly and Notre Dame parted ways with four underclassmen Tuesday, in a move only partially-expected. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, sophomore running back Deon McIntosh, freshman running back C.J. Holmes and junior defensive tackle Brandon Tiassum are no longer part of the team, a University spokesperson confirmed.

Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated first reported the dismissals. The spring semester began Tuesday.

Stepherson’s departure, at least, was widely-expected after a December weekend of bad decisions brought his count of mishaps to four during his brief Irish career and induced an indefinite suspension. The lesser of those transgressions came with Holmes at his side, as the duo was charged with shoplifting from a nearby mall. Stepherson was also charged with possession of marijuana, speeding and driving without a valid license. Back in August of 2016, he was one of five players charged with marijuana possession, though no suspension came from that issue.

Following the shoplifting incident but before the additional Stepherson charges had come to light, Kelly expressed distinct disappointment in the choice made on a Friday night.

“You can’t steal, and they did,” he said. “I can tolerate a lot of things, but I can’t tolerate stealing. That’s why they’re suspended indefinitely and they put themselves in jeopardy.”

Kelly said he did hope to keep the players, specifically Stepherson, eligible so if they were removed from the team a transfer may be in their futures.

“If I wasn’t to have him back in the football program we want him to maintain his eligibility here so he can transfer to another program,” Kelly said.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh provided crucial depth for Notre Dame as ankle sprains limited juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

McIntosh was sent home from Orlando during Citrus Bowl preparations due to a violation of team rules. Tiassum’s exit will be a question for the time being, with no public knowledge of any issues.

While long-presumed, the loss of Stepherson still bears the most notice. When engaged, he was Notre Dame’s most explosive receiver, finishing 2017 with 359 yards and five touchdowns on 19 catches in only eight games, with genuine offensive involvement in only six. He caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five scores in his freshman season.

Cutting ties with both McIntosh and Holmes comes as a bit more of a surprise and will cut deep into the Irish running back depth. As ankle injuries limited the running game mainstays, McIntosh provided a reserve option, finishing the year with 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries, a 5.7 yards per rush average. Holmes was activated to further counteract the injury concerns. If McIntosh were banged up, Notre Dame theoretically had one more option. He finished with eight carries for 32 yards.

Without the two backups, the Irish have only three running backs currently on the roster in junior Dexter Williams, sophomore Tony Jones and early-enrolled Jahmir Smith. Williams and Jones were likely to remain the top two on the depth chart, mitigating McIntosh and Holmes again, but the depth is always crucial at running back, as 2017 certainly proved.

Tiassum was unlikely to see much playing time in the future thanks to the returns of junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner announced Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Tiassum made two tackles in 2017.

Bonner’s decision to return brought the Irish roster up to 87 players with three spots open in the current recruiting cycle. Obviously, this development drops that number to 83. The NCAA maximum allowed come fall is 85.

Notre Dame returns entire defensive line with DT Bonner’s fifth-year decision

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Notre Dame’s defensive line will return intact in 2018. Irish head coach Brian Kelly confirmed senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner has changed his mind and will return for a fifth season Tuesday.

ND Insider’s Eric Hansen first reported Bonner’s shift.

In November, Bonner told Notre Dame’s independent student newspaper, The Observer, he did not intend to take a fifth year. Bonner later announced his mother had been diagnosed with cancer, lending some context to his decision to cut short his football career.

Apparently some combination of the decisions to return from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, the 2018 defense’s potential and whatever other factors led Bonner to make a last-minute return to school. First-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea is certainly grateful.

Bonner provided consistent production in the defensive interior in 2017, finishing the season with 30 tackles, 3.5 for loss with two sacks. In his first three years with the Irish, Bonner hardly broke into the rotation. Suddenly, he was a force at the point of attack and held his own no matter the opponent.

Building upon that moving forward seems likely considering Bonner will not need to shoulder as much of the load. Freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa will have a greater role with another year under his belt, not to mention freshmen Kurt Hinish and Darnell Ewell. An increased rotation will benefit all involved.

At this point, the only contributing defensive lineman lost from 2017 will be end Andrew Trumbetti, out of eligibility. He split time with classmate Jay Hayes, so it can be argued the entire starting defensive line returns. A year ago, that unit was seen as a weakness, but it established itself as a strength as the season went on.

Bonner’s addition brings the running count on Notre Dame’s roster to 87 players, not counting three more possible commits in the incoming freshman class. The NCAA maximum is 85.

Seven early enrollees set a new Notre Dame high, but will they make an impact?

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Notre Dame does not lean on high school seniors to enroll a semester early, yet seven did so this year, a program high. By no means does the head-start guarantee an immediate impact. As discussed in Monday’s Leftovers, only four of the 14 early enrollees in the last three years made notable contributions their freshmen seasons.

Such a return indicates at least one of these seven will make an impact in 2018, and quite possibly two of them. In an attempt to predict that, the seven are listed below in order of likelihood of altering a game this year, dictated by positional need creating opportunities more than anything else.

As will be the case all offseason, when speaking of depth chart holes, one position stands out as the most needing rapid improvement, safety.

Consensus four-star defensive back Houston Griffith
Griffith may end up a cornerback, but the Irish are well-stocked there at the moment. His first chance to contribute will come at safety, something Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly did not rule out when Griffith (and the rest of these) signed in December.

For that matter, coverage duties can lead to a freshman missing a step. Playing the catch-all role of boundary safety may better suit an athlete like Griffith.

And, again, the Irish need safeties.

Consensus four-star linebacker Jack Lamb
Notre Dame also needs linebacker depth, even with junior Te’von Coney opting to return for his senior year. The reserves on the roster in 2017 did not inspire much faith moving forward. That could change, but Lamb seems just as likely to jump into the second-string of the depth chart.

Lamb may not yet be ready for much in the way of coverage duties, but he already has the physique to hold up in a physical matchup, and the early arrival will only further that cause. With a deep recruiting class at the position — including three early enrollees — defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea will have options to test out. Lamb simply seems the most likely to emerge as the leader of the inexperienced majority at linebacker.

Bo Bauer (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star linebacker Matthew “Bo” Bauer
If it is not Lamb who earns playing time spelling Coney, it could be Bauer. Like Lamb, Bauer fits best against the run.

This early emphasis on linebackers is a reflection of the distinct need for depth. Current sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) have not claimed a primary role for themselves, and the recruiting emphasis at the position this cycle points to a general letdown with freshmen David Adams and Drew White.

Someone in the mix will need to step forward. By enrolling early, Lamb and Bauer have given themselves a bit more time to make that impression.

 

Micah Jones (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones
The need at receiver is much less; though unproven, there are options. Nonetheless, that uncertainty creates an opportunity for Jones’ big frame. Offensive coordinator Chip Long has already shown a preference for big bodies at receiver, so that alone should play in the 6-foot-5 Jones’ favor.

This past spring, Long toyed with the idea of Equanimeous St. Brown, Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin as his starting receivers. Those latter two are still around. Even if Jones does not create another towering trio, he could backup either Claypool or, more likely, Boykin without creating much of a change for a quarterback’s reads.

This spring will give Jones time to learn the playbook and develop the needed consistency for that possibility. In a receiving corps proven to be inconsistent this past season, any version of reliability may be enough for Jones to break through.

Consensus three-star running back Jahmir Smith
Irish recruiting director and special teams coordinator Brian Polian raved about Smith in December. Every word Polian said may have been warranted, but it will still be difficult to crack the presumed trio of sophomore Tony Jones, junior Dexter Williams and freshman C.J. Holmes. They will take up the carries, no matter how aggressively Long splits the duties.

Kelly did note he would not hold back a running back simply because he is a freshman. If the back is ready, cut him loose. It is unlikely a productive back would stay for a fifth year, anyway. (See: Adams, Josh.) However, Jones preserved a year of eligibility in 2016 despite generous praise consistently offered his direction, so Kelly’s sentiment may deserve some healthy skepticism.

Consensus three-star linebacker Ovie Oghoufo
Oghoufo does not arrive as heralded as either Lamb or Bauer, or summer enrollee consensus four-star Shayne Simon, but he will have his chance this spring all the same. That is what happens when a spot needs a playmaker. One freshman will almost assuredly be needed for depth.

More likely, Oghoufo will use the added time to get some heft onto his frame. Albeit speedy, his slightness stands out when compared to the other linebacker recruits.

Rivals.com four-star tight end George Takacs
Notre Dame simply does not have a pressing need for a tight end. Recruiting Takacs was a forward-looking decision. He will be the fourth tight end this spring, with freshman Brock Wright presumably limited as he recovers from a shoulder injury. None of the three ahead, or Wright, are anything akin to slouches.

Unless injuries and/or suspensions run rampant, Takacs is a prime candidate for a season spent preserving eligibility.

RELATED READING: Kelly on the offensive signees
Kelly on the defensive signees

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.)