C.J. Sanders

Associated Press

Notre Dame’s turnovers lead to 38-20 loss and 9-3 finish

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STANFORD, Calif. — Notre Dame had a chance to seize every ounce of control at Stanford on Saturday, just like the Irish had an opportunity in November to force their way into the forefront of the national conversation. By failing to deliver a blow to the No. 21 Cardinal, No. 8 Notre Dame completed its fall to a disappointing 9-3 conclusion from a strong 8-1 beginning.

The final ledger will point toward three fourth-quarter Irish turnovers as the catalyst to the 38-20 loss. Head coach Brian Kelly cited them directly and frequently afterward.

“Each game that we’ve lost this year, we’ve turned the football over against quality opposition,” Kelly said. “… We turned a good game into a not-so-good game by turning the football over late.”

That is not an inaccurate telling of the game, but it is incomplete. Notre Dame outgained Stanford 415 yards to 328, but could never establish its running game, averaging only 4.58 yards on 38 rushes (sacks adjusted). The Cardinal sacked Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush six times, keeping him hemmed in for 81 yards on 11 rushes otherwise. Specifically, that was a piece of Stanford coach David Shaw’s game plan.

“I was not subtle this week about containing the quarterback,” Shaw said. “We had to keep him inside. … Get [Wimbush] to a sideline, he’s going to kill us either with his legs or his arm.”

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson (29) and Notre Dame’s offense never found consistency during the 38-20 loss at Stanford on Saturday. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Wimbush added 249 yards and two touchdowns on 11-of-28 passing, though the scores and 158 of those yards came on two plays alone, an 83-yard touchdown to sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson and a 75-yarder to junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown.

Wimbush also threw two interceptions, two-thirds of the crippling dynamic Kelly focused on.

“I thought we were in a good rhythm,” Wimbush said. “I thought we had control of what was going on. I felt good about what we were doing.

“Can’t turn the ball over at that time.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
The turnovers did in Notre Dame. That can hardly be denied. Yet, the Irish were not exactly humming before Wimbush’s first interception.

When junior Shaun Crawford downed a punt at Stanford’s one-yard line, he set up the Notre Dame defense to force the Cardinal’s hand. It quickly led to a three-and-out. Junior Chris Finke returned the ensuing punt all the way to the 19-yard line, breaking a tackle before finding a crease. Suddenly, the Irish were set to take a 24-17 lead late in the third quarter, having held Stanford largely in check all night.

“We’ve been really good all year about taking those possessions and turning them into touchdowns,” Kelly said.

That is not what happened.

To be clear, the Cardinal did not stop Notre Dame; the Irish did themselves in. Two procedure penalties created a first-and-20 from the 29-yard line. Stepherson gained all 10 of those yards back on a jet sweep — one of the few designs offensive coordinator Chip Long could count on this last month — but the momentum was already gone. The following two plays lost another two yards and Notre Dame settled for a field goal and a 20-17 lead.

“I didn’t feel like it was slipping away in that sense, but I felt like we left some points out there,” Kelly said.

Per usual, fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey was even more blunt about the mishap.

“Just dumb penalties,” he said, himself guilty of the second penalty with a false start. “It can’t happen. That’s the only thing you can say about that.”

The Irish took an ideal situation, squandered it entirely on their own and by the time they had another chance to threaten, Stanford had scored three unanswered touchdowns to create the final 38-20 margin.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
The Cardinal took a 31-20 lead with most of the fourth quarter remaining. Notre Dame was very much still in the game, if not for possibly having already checked out mentally. Irish junior C.J. Sanders took the kickoff from the goal line and did not even get the ball to the 20-yard line. Instead, he deposited it on the grass to be recovered by Stanford.

The Cardinal did exactly what Notre Dame did not after Finke’s punt return. It took great field position and turned it into seven points.

Wimbush will get the headlines and the brunt of the criticism for his two turnovers, but he was not alone. The mistakes came in a number of varieties.

“We played really good football teams and turned it over,” Kelly said. “If you’re going to do that, you’re going to put yourself in a bad situation. There’s not that guys were tired, not mentally sharp, [or] they didn’t come ready to play. They came ready to play. They were ready to win today.

“Got to hold onto the football. Can’t turn it over.”

Stanford took two short fields and turned them into touchdowns. Notre Dame took a short field and turned it into a field goal. Remove the former scores and turn the latter into a touchdown, and this game would have been 24-24. Obviously, that isn’t how football works.

“It’s what we thought it would be,” Kelly said. “We thought the game would get into the fourth quarter and we’d have a chance to win it. We didn’t expect to turn the football over a couple of times.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
Wimbush’s first interception created one of those short fields for the Cardinal. After the debacle of a possession off the Finke punt return, Stanford scored a touchdown to take a 24-20 lead. On the very first snap afterward, Wimbush tried to force a pass to fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe for about a 10-yard gain.

He did not see Cardinal sophomore linebacker Curtis Robinson reading the passer’s eyes and jumping the route.

“I just didn’t see the Buck defender drop,” Wimbush said. “Then he got into my window. I thought I could squeeze it in there. He made a great play.”

Down only four points, the Irish were in good position to regain control. Three plays later, Stanford had all the control after sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello found senior tight end Dalton Schultz for a 12-yard touchdown pass.

“Brandon is a competitor,” Kelly said. “He’ll bounce back. He is who he is, he wants to win as bad as anybody.

“He’ll go back to work and work on his craft. He’s our starting quarterback. He’ll be starting in the bowl game.”

PLAYER OF THE GAME
On the Notre Dame-specific side of things, the focus would go to either junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (six tackles, three for loss including one sack) or St. Brown (five catches, 111 yards, one touchdown).

Notre Dame limited Cardinal junior running back Bryce Love’s big plays, but he still found his way to 125 yards on 20 carries. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

For the game, the honor goes to Cardinal junior running back Bryce Love. Playing with a sprained ankle, as he has much of the season, Love took 20 carries for 125 yards. He broke only one run for more than 30 yards (31, to be exact), but he did enough to mandate the Irish defense’s attention all evening.

“It was tough,” Love said. “It’s just part of the Stanford brand of football, though. We enjoy those gritty games where you have to fight for yard after yard. That’s kind of what it was the first two quarters.”

STAT OF THE GAME
Things turned south for the Irish in a hurry, both in the game and in the season. Only 15 days ago, they were No. 3 in the College Football Playoff selection committee poll, 8-1 and looking to make a statement at Miami. Now, Notre Dame is 9-3 and likely headed to a bowl game in Orlando.

To start the fourth quarter Saturday, the Irish led 20-17 and looked to be in position to slug out a physical win at The Farm for the first time since 2007. In just three minutes and 36 seconds, the Cardinal turned that into a 38-20 margin.

QUOTE OF THE EVENING
The outsider’s focus right now may be backward, a retrospective of the season. Inside the locker room, however, the bowl game looms.

“Like any other game, we got to learn from this one and move forward,” junior running back Josh Adams said. “Got to really get back to that grind, finish this [season] out strong. We want to do it the right way, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
3:40 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Stepherson 83-yard reception from Brandon Wimbush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Stanford 0. (3 plays, 86 yards, 0:39)
0:43 — Stanford touchdown. Trent Irwin 29-yard reception from K.J. Costello. Jet Toner PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Stanford 7. (5 plays, 72 yards, 2:49)

Second Quarter
11:29 — Stanford touchdown. JJ Arcega-Whiteside four-yard reception from Costello. Toner PAT good. Stanford 14, Notre Dame 7. (6 plays, 55 yards, 2:40)
2:36 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 38 yards. Stanford 14, Notre Dame 10. (15 plays, 69 yards, 4:34)

Third Quarter
14:48 — Notre Dame touchdown. Equanimeous St. Brown 75-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Stanford 14. (1 play, 75 yards, 0:12)
10:23 — Stanford field goal. Toner 24 yards. Notre Dame 17, Stanford 17. (9 plays, 64 yards, 4:19)
1:23 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 38 yards. Notre Dame 20, Stanford 17. (4 plays, -2 yards, 2:43)

Fourth Quarter
13:46 — Stanford touchdown. Kaden Smith 19-yard reception from Costello. Toner PAT good. Stanford 24, Notre Dame 20. (7 plays, 70 yards, 2:31)
12:21 — Stanford touchdown. Dalton Schultz 12-yard reception from Costello. Toner PAT good. Stanford 31, Notre Dame 20. (3 plays, 29 yards, 1:22)
10:10 — Stanford touchdown. Cameron Scarlett three-yard rush. Toner PAT good. Stanford 38, Notre Dame 20. (4 plays, 18 yards, 2:06)

Gilman denied immediate eligibility; Alizé Mack healthy; Depth chart notes

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Sophomore safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman will not play in Notre Dame’s opener against Temple this Saturday. Irish coach Brian Kelly announced Tuesday the NCAA denied Gilman’s request for a waiver to be immediately eligible after his transfer. Notre Dame may yet appeal the ruling, Kelly said during his weekly press conference.

“We obviously feel as though we’ve got some information that we would like the NCAA to see,” Kelly said. “I don’t make that decision … but I think we have some information that we probably would like to share.”

Gilman’s appeal was based around the military changing its stance on how professional athletic aspirations would conflict with one’s service. Gilman made 76 tackles in his one season with the Midshipmen, good for second on the team, while also adding five tackles for loss and five pass breakups. Whether eligible this season or not, he has three years of eligibility remaining at the moment.

Without Gilman on the depth chart, the two-deep roster released by Notre Dame on Tuesday morning has junior cornerback-turned-safety Nick Coleman starting at field safety with sophomore Jalen Elliott getting the nod at boundary safety ahead of classmate Devin Studstill. Freshman Isaiah Robertson fills in behind Coleman on the depth chart, though it is conceivable sophomore cornerback Julian Love sees time on the backline, as well.

Mack at 100 percent
Junior tight end Alizé Mack has battled a nagging hamstring injury for the last couple weeks, but Kelly said he is fully healthy at this point.

“He’s looked really good and has been very active,” Kelly said.

Perhaps a nagging hamstring injury before the season does not usually warrant second-billing in a press conference notebook like this, but after he missed last season due to an academic suspension, Mack’s return has been long-heralded. Especially in new offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system and its preference for using multiple tight ends, having Mack around from the outset could be crucial for the Irish offense.

Seven freshmen in the two-deep, including two DTs
Including Robertson, five freshmen have positioned themselves well to see playing time Saturday. Receiver Michael Young is listed as one of the two backup options behind graduate student and Arizona State transfer Cam Smith, along with junior C.J. Sanders.

Josh Lugg will back up Quenton Nelson at left guard while Robert Hainsey handles that duty at right tackle. Kicker Jonathan Doerer will handle kickoff duties, allowing junior Justin Yoon to focus on placekicking.

Most notably, Notre Dame’s second set of defensive tackles is composed entirely of freshmen, beating out players years their elder. Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa will back up senior Jonathan Bonner and Kurt Hinish will back up junior Jerry Tillery.

“They have the physical ability to go in there and compete,” Kelly said of the young duo. “They’re strong, they possess the mental capability to handle what we’re throwing at them in terms of picking up the coaching techniques.”

Despite that praise, Kelly did try to temper expectations for Tagovaiola-Amosa and Hinish. The starters remain Bonner and Tillery. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum could still see some playing time. At some point, junior Elijah Taylor could return from the LisFranc fracture he suffered in the spring.

“We’re talking about a role that we believe [the freshmen] can fulfill for us,” Kelly said. “… We’re not asking them to play 40-50 snaps. These are small roles that we’re going to ask them to play, and we think that they can handle that type of role that we’re prescribing them.”

Along with the freshmen, the Irish defense should routinely incorporate a number of backups this weekend. Senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti is listed as a co-starter on both ends of the line, along with sophomore Daelin Hayes and senior Jay Hayes. Junior Te’von Coney is listed as an “OR” starter with senior captain Greer Martini. Whether or not Trumbetti or Coney actually starts, each will see plenty of playing time.

“Eleven guys playing 85 snaps is not the kind of defense that we’re about,” Kelly said. “Trumbetti is a guy who can play either end position for us, so right away he’s a guy that comes to mind as somebody that’s going to be sharing both sides of that. Te’von Coney, obviously, with Greer immediately. We can talk about more than two corners being on the field. We mentioned the two freshmen are going to have to play a role in the defensive line rotation.

“Just right there, you’re talking about 15-16 defensive players immediately having to be in a rotation.”

With the expectation of Long running an up-tempo offense and thus creating more possessions and plays, it will be even more vital for Notre Dame to have fresh options on defense.

Only Rees and Elko up in the box
Quarterbacks coach Tom Rees and defensive coordinator Mike Elko will be the sole coaches in the press box for the Irish this weekend, with the rest of the staff patrolling the sidelines. This is a bit more drastic split than has been seen in recent years.

Kelly said he makes those decisions based on what the coordinators prefer. Long, for example, wants to be immersed in the game as he makes play calls.

“He wants to get a feel and a comfort level,” Kelly said. “… He’ll start the first game on the sideline and see how that rolls.”

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

Counting Down the Irish: 20 to 16

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The next set of five Notre Dame players a media panel predicted as 2017’s most impactful contributors does not yet include a unanimous vote-getter. Oddly enough, the lowest-ranked of Nos. 16-20 actually received the most votes of the grouping, but is apparently not seen to have as high of a ceiling.

The highest ceiling is seen at No. 19, but that comes along with the fewest votes of this range, foreshadowing a much-speculated low floor, as well. Yes, that would belong to junior receiver Kevin Stepherson.

As always, a thank you to the 12 panelists (listed at the end) …

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 points.
High ranking: No. 15
Low ranking: No. 25
Eleven votes total.

With senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti seeing some time on the opposite side of the line, ranking Hayes high enough to be one of three defensive linemen in the top-25 makes sense. (It should not take much thought to predict the higher duo.) The Irish will certainly need the 6-foot-3½, 290-pounder to play up to that size, lacking many other options along the defensive line.

It may have been that size which prompted some of those higher rankings, if not Hayes’ overall inclusion. Some ballots came in before preseason practice commenced and some came in after, but all were submitted at a point where Hayes moving to defensive tackle, leaving Trumbetti on the strongside edge, seemed logical, if not likely. The odds of that may have diminished in the subsequent week, but given the youth and inexperience filling the Notre Dame depth chart at tackle, Hayes moving inward remains a viable possibility.

In that instance, Hayes’ impact would certainly be of note, possibly meriting even a bump up these rankings come season’s end.

19: Kevin Stepherson, sophomore receiver, 78.
High ranking: No. 8
Low ranking: No. 19
Seven votes total.

One thing seems to be clear: Stepherson is not doing everything right as far as the Irish coaching staff is concerned.

Another thing can be quickly deduced: If Stepherson can right his personal ship, his talent was obvious enough last season to create expectations this year despite his intangible difficulties to date.

That dichotomy explains Stepherson finishing here in this polling despite receiving an average ranking closer to No. 15. Not much more thought needs to be put into it: If the speedster is not on the field, his impact will certainly be minimal.

(Editor’s Note: One panelist noticed a mistake in his submitted ballot, moving Stepherson from his No. 7 to his No. 19, altering the points total from when this was first published, though, as it happens, not changing where Stepherson lands in the pecking order.)

18: Chase Claypool, sophomore receiver, 91.
High ranking: No. 9
Low ranking: No. 24
Nine votes total.

Contrary to Stepherson, Claypool’s chances at consistent playing time have remained steady since he appeared in the slot, or the Z, during spring’s practices. As long as he projects as a starting receiver, Claypool should be one of junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s preferred targets.

There could be some surprise here, though, in Claypool finishing as high as No. 18 while junior receiver Miles Boykin — the likely headliner at the boundary receiver position — finished the equivalent of No. 36. Claypool may have broken out more drastically a year ago, but he is also the current starter at a position which could be minimized by offensive coordinator Chip Long’s preference for two tight ends. If and when both fifth-year senior Durham Smythe and junior Alizé Mack are on the field, the slot receiver will often not be.

It seems Claypool may do more with his chances than Boykin will while also getting more chances than Stepherson.

RELATED READING: Others Receiving Votes

Of course, this is all an interpretation of the wisdom of a dozen within the crowd. Sept. 2 will be more revealing.

17: Alex Bars, senior right guard, 92.
High ranking: No. 8
Low ranking: No. 20
Eight votes total.

If Bars were lined up at right tackle again this season, he may finish higher. If he was lined up next to a future early first-round NFL Draft pick, that could also rise the magnitude and bluntness of his impact. But no, Bars is intended for the right guard this season alongside a first-time starting sophomore.

With those disclaimers diminishing some of Bars’ hype, it is impressive Notre Dame’s fourth offensive lineman finishes not far from the top-15. The offensive line will be a strength for the Irish this season — and that is not based solely on these rankings. This polling only confirms that expectation.

16: Nick Watkins, senior cornerback, 106.
High ranking: No. 8
Low ranking: No. 24
Ten votes total.

If healthy, Watkins has shown an ability to handle man coverage, something Notre Dame needed last season. His 2017 ceiling, in fact, matches the upper-level of possibilities of the two cornerbacks yet to come in this countdown.

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

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4, 225 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Junior with three seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season
Depth chart: Following spring practice, Boykin appears to lead the charge for the starting position at the W, or boundary, receiver position. Sophomore Javon McKinley provides motivation for Boykin to stay on top of his game on the outside, with incoming freshman Jafar Armstrong likely to take practice reps there, as well.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, Boykin chose Notre Dame over a number of prestigious offers, including Ohio State, Michigan and Oregon.

CAREER TO DATE
Boykin preserved a year of eligibility in 2015 before catching six passes last season for 81 yards and a touchdown. He saw action in all 12 games, with the score coming against Virginia Tech.

QUOTE(S)
Boykin’s springtime emergence may have caught the Irish coaches a bit by surprise. If nothing else, his steady development in the weight room and on the practice field gives Notre Dame the option of moving junior Equanimeous St. Brown to the X, or field, position, giving the dynamic breakout star from a year ago even more space to work with.

“[Boykin is] tracking the ball very well and catching it consistently,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said in March. “Last year it was about consistency for him. He’s starting to show the consistency that will allow him — he’s very sneaky. He eats up a lot of ground with those long strides. Before you know it, he’s running past people.”

A week later, Kelly trotted out that buzzword of consistency a few more times in relation to Boykin, praising the receiver’s fit into new offensive coordinator Chip Long’s offense and particular preferred routes.

“Miles is starting to build some ‘bank,’ if you will, as it relates to consistency,” Kelly said. “I’m using the word ‘bank,’ he’s putting a lot in the bank of trust. That we can trust he’s going to give us the kind of performance that’s going to lend itself toward playing time.

“He’s been very consistent as a ball-catcher. He’s been very consistent in terms of assignments. His traits have been very evident in terms of attention to detail. His focus has been great. His attitude, he’s been gritty.

“He gets a lot of those back-shoulder throws where he has to go up and get it, and he lands, physically, he gets beat up a little bit. I see him in there getting treatment and he comes back out and makes good decisions.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
I’ve got Boykin pegged for the 10 to 15 catch range, with outliers on either side being possible. The optimist in me sees the depth chart and his physical traits. The pessimist in me sees the other guys who have been given shots in front of him and the challenge of leaping someone like [now-junior tight end Alizé Mack] or [former Irish receiver Corey] Robinson if he’s healthy and playing.

“Ultimately, someone is going to step in and be a surprise at the position next year. We’ve assumed Torii Hunter, Jr., will be the leading man. Kevin Stepherson was the freshman spring sensation. And [Mack] feels like the answer if Robinson isn’t going to be able to play after a series of concussions.

“It’s easy to be a fan of Boykin if you watched him as a high schooler and saw his recruiting profile. Now it’ll be up to him to fight for a role at a position that’s one of the most unsettled on the roster.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Boykin’s rise to the top of the depth chart this spring was always a possibility, if not necessarily a likely one following the 2016 season. As Keith pointed out, Boykin’s pedigree kept this result in play despite his minimal role. The question now is, will he maintain this consistency and thus create more opportunities for himself?

If he does, 20-plus catches and a couple touchdowns seems entirely reasonable. If St. Brown and Mack are the top-two targets in the 2017 offense, Boykin will likely be competing with sophomore slot receiver Chase Claypool to be the third. The difference between third and fourth is not all that much. A year ago Stepherson pulled in 25 catches for 462 yards and five scores while now-junior C.J. Sanders caught 24 passes for 293 yards and two touchdowns. The two drew similar attention in the system — Stepherson was simply more of a down-field threat.

If Boykin returns to the ways of his past, McKinley certainly has all the tools to take his spot in the lineup, or St. Brown could move back to the boundary position, presenting more of an opportunity in the field for Stepherson.

Such back-and-forth among the receivers needs to be remembered. In Long’s up-tempo system, Boykin is expected to know the duties at all three positions so as to minimize the time spent racing back-and-forth across the field to reach proper alignment. For that matter, St. Brown is expected to, as well. If Boykin stumbles, there will be options to fill in for him.

DOWN THE ROAD
Boykin’s size alone makes him a piece of intrigue in Long’s offense. Whether 2017 is the season that leads to production or not, Boykin will have chances each offseason to make it happen. His ceiling may not be as high as St. Brown’s after last season’s outburst, but Boykin should fit well as a complement to his classmate.

It is not inconceivable St. Brown could excel again this year and then head to the NFL. If that were to occur, it would probably be partly due to Boykin preventing teams from focusing all their coverage energies on St. Brown. In this scenario, Boykin would have a chance to headline in 2018.

If St. Brown is still around in 2018, that should simply lead to a strong one-two punch among the receiving corps, even if it reduces Boykins’ claim to top-dog status.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84 (theoretically): Michael Young, receiver
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end