TJ Jones

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Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

Five early-enrollees set for spring semester

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Notre Dame’s recruiting class will get a jump start as five early enrollees will be on campus and beginning classes when school returns in mid-January. Offensive linemen Aaron Banks and Robert Hainsey, running back C.J. Holmes, defensive back Isaiah Robertson and tight end Brock Wright have all signed paperwork and are officially cleared to be the first to join the 2017 recruiting class.

The five early-enrollees match last year’s total and are the high-water mark for Notre Dame, who began early admission for recruits back in 2006. All five will take part in spring practice, each hoping to get a jump start on a 2017 football team that’ll likely go through a hard reset of sorts with a reshuffled coaching staff and new leaders on both sides of the football.

Banks and Hainsey enter an offensive line room that may welcome back five starters, but needs to infuse depth. Holmes will step in and challenge a talented group of runners, but at a position group that was stuck in neutral in 2016. He also has the ability to play receiver. Wright is a highly sought-after talent at tight end, a position that’ll welcome their entire depth chart back, and also Alizé Jones, who missed last season after academic issues.

Robertson is a multi-dimensional player with some positional flexibility, though he’s believed to start his career at safety. With Drue Tranquill entering his final season of eligibility and Devin Studstill having an up and down freshman season, there’s room for someone to come in and compete for a job, especially with new coordinator Mike Elko.

The connection between early enrollment and early success isn’t necessarily there. Some, like Tommy Rees, TJ Jones and Steve Elmer, have seen the benefits. Others have not. Still, as Brian Kelly looks to turn around his program after a massively disappointing 2016 season, getting five freshman on campus before National Signing Day is a boost.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Navy

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In a game decided by a single point, when the two team’s offensive totals nearly duplicate themselves, the outcome is expected to hinge on one or two plays. And down the stretch, with the game on the line, it was Navy that made the plays, and Notre Dame that did not.

Because the afternoon played out to the script that Ken Niumatalolo needed. Quarterback Will Worth executed the offense flawlessly. The Midshipmen’s defense got the red zone field goals they needed. And the Irish—even if the letter of the law shouldn’t have allowed it—made a critical mistake with their 12-men on the field penalty, allowing Navy’s offense back onto the field and eventually into the end zone.

With another painful one-score loss in the books, let’s get on with the good, the bad and the ugly.

THE GOOD

Greer Martini. Back after a concussion last weekend, Martini led the Irish in tackles with 11, adding a TFL as well. It’s the type of production you come to expect from Martini, a highly intelligent football player who has become a bit of an option specialist for the Irish.

In his four games against option teams (three against Navy, one against Georgia Tech), Martini is now averaging more than nine tackles a game. That’s the type of play that’ll come in handy next weekend against Army and likely against Virginia Tech and USC as well.

 

Torii Hunter Jr. Notre Dame’s senior captain had a career high in catches (8) and yards (104) to go along with a touchdown in a losing effort. It was the first 100-yard game of his career and maybe more important than the statistical output was the fact that he bounced back after what looked like it could’ve been a serious knee injury.

Hunter hasn’t become the breakout performer we expected this season. A TJ Jones senior season has actually been more like Jones as a junior—steady, not spectacular, but usually reliable. That’s not enough. But you’ve got to give him credit for taking advantage of the matchup against Navy’s undermanned secondary.

 

Sam Mustipher. After putting up some ugly statistical games, Sam Mustipher was tied for the team’s highest grade along the offensive line with a +2.8. That’s a rebound after a tough few weeks for the Irish center, and his shotgun snaps all found their correct home as well.

 

Third Down Conversions. You wouldn’t know it, but the Irish actually out-converted Navy on third down, making nine of their 13 chances while the Mids only managed eight. And while there are still the third downs that got away, there was plenty of good on this crucial snap, like Equanimeous St. Brown‘s gritty catch and run along with DeShone Kizer’s shoulder-lowering scramble.

Good job, good effort.

 

THE BAD

The Safety Play. Drue Tranquill had built a reputation as one of the team’s top option defenders. But Tranquill had a poor game tackling in space, missing a handful of big tackle before he was taken out of the game for what looks to be a concussion.

Tranquill had been building on some strong play of late, so this step backwards was a surprise. Certainly more so than the challenges Devin Studstill had, the freshman safety struggling to react to the counter option and get quickly into his run responsibilities.

Put simply, Tranquill was a guy the Irish defense desperately needed to play well if they were going to get the stops they needed on defense. He didn’t and the entire Irish defense paid dearly.

 

Learning on the job. The play won’t hold a spot in the history of this rivalry like Ram Vela’s flying game-winning stop, but Troy Pride being flattened with a bone-crushing block as the Midshipmen converted a 3rd-and-long for a game-changing touchdown certainly is the lasting image from the game.

The freshman cornerback was knocked to eternity on a gigantic block right after fellow freshman Julian Love was also caught on a crack block. The two hits opened the sideline to Navy’s Calvin Cass who rumbled in for a gigantic, game-changing 37-yard touchdown.

The youth movement didn’t stop this week just because of the triple-option. And in a game that hinges on the Irish defense reading and reacting as quickly as possible, the freshmen seeing and doing things for the first time came up just a bit short, though did gain valuable in-game experience.

Donte Vaughn played 46 snaps, Studstill 39, Julian Love 36 (before he went into concussion protocol), Jalen Elliott 30, Pride 19, and redshirt freshman Asmar Bilal 12. All will hopefully carry that knowledge into the Army game next weekend.

 

Jarron Jones. A week after playing the game of his career, Jones played just 12 snaps. It’s a decision that made little sense on Saturday and not much more after Kelly explained the rationale on Sunday afternoon during his conference call.

“It really is a whole different animal relative to option. He’s got a job to do, and you know, he can’t be the kind of force he was in a traditional offensive set because, you know, he’s got to play gap and he has a responsibility,” Kelly explained. “If they choose to run triple option, even if he’s a force and he’s destroying his guy and he’s getting upfield, they are going to pull the ball and work the ball out to the perimeter. So you could take a Jarron Jones out of the game, even if he’s being disruptive, and so it really neutralizes players like him and when you play a team like Navy.”

 

Nick Coleman. I was a fan of utilizing Coleman more against the option, the aggressive sophomore cornerback capable of playing run support better than coverage. But with the game on the line and a critical third-down passing play dialed up, Coleman ran through the back of the Navy receiver and handed the Midshipmen a free first down.

Coleman was expected to be the team’s third cornerback, a key piece of the puzzle especially after Devin Butler went down and then was suspended. His season has been a disaster.

 

A Misinterpreted Replay Ruling. 

Brian Kelly expanded on what he said postgame, namely that the replay officials shouldn’t have gotten involved in the call for 12-men, nor should they have made it.

A photo of the snap shows Devin Studstill within a step of the sideline, close enough that Kelly believes a flag shouldn’t have been thrown—let alone replay called in to reverse things.

“The rule clearly states that if he is one step from the sideline, then it is not a reviewable play,” Kelly said Sunday. “Very similar to when I had asked earlier in the game for a review on a Tarean Folston run, I was told by the official on the field that it was not reviewable because his forward progress was deemed stopped, so it could not be reviewed. This would be a similar situation where the play could not have been reviewed if he was within one step of the sideline after the ball being snapped.”

With an American Athletic Conference on-field crew and an ACC replay crew, there was obviously some miscommunication. And Kelly hopes that there can be a national standard set so this type of thing doesn’t happen moving forward.

“[There’s] really a need for uniform and nationalized replay when you have different conferences with different ways of looking at specific plays,” Kelly said. “We’re the only sport that doesn’t have that, so I hope that affect the some form of conversation that we can get to a nationalized replay situation.”

 

Having too many players on the field. Mechanics and blown calls aside, that this is even an issue is ridiculous. As I mentioned in the Pregame Six Pack, a special teams blunder would be catastrophic. Especially against Navy.

And sure enough, this time it was because the Irish didn’t have enough time to go from their regular defense to their punt safe team.

“They are a team that obviously goes for it quite a bit on fourth down. So we had our base defense. We were in a safe punt situation,” Kelly explained. “So you’re keeping your defense out there till the very last second and they raced their team out there quickly and we should have obviously not cut it as close as we did.”

 

THE UGLY

Never getting the ball back. Kelly better explained his rationale for taking the three points off of Justin Yoon’s foot rather than attempting to get the first down on 4th-and-4.

“Look, here is my way of thinking. I kicked into the wind in the third quarter for a reason, and that was to take the wind in the fourth quarter with a thought that the field goal would win the game in the fourth quarter.

“We had many chances to get off the field. We had 3rd-and-9s, 3rd-and-7s, 4th-and 6. We had our own chance to pick up a first down on the offensive side of the ball. They are easily disputed, but I think it was the right call to make it 28-27 with a field goal and the wind to your back to win the game in the kind of game that we played.”

The defense didn’t get off the field, with all those conversions—and all three of Notre Dame’s timeouts—still not getting the ball back with 7:30 of game remaining. So even if you can understandably argue Kelly’s point of view, it doesn’t make it any better.

Two games this season, Kelly has bet on his defense getting a stop and lost. And at this point, it’s hard not to notice the trend of the head coach’s 50-50 decisions going against him and the Irish. That’s likely to happen when you see a team find so many different ways to lose close games, but if this team is going to learn how to win their head coach needs to coach to win, too.

 

Talking Irish: What comes next?

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Another week, another chat with CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz. Let’s jump in.

KA: So JJ – Last we chatted, we weren’t all that comfortable speculating on the dismissal of Brian VanGorder. 12 hours after the game ended, he’s out of a job.
Any final thoughts — that you haven’t already covered over at CSN Chicago — on the move and the timing?

JJ: I thought it was interesting that Brian Kelly came out Saturday and said he was pleased with Notre Dame’s defensive coaching, then fired BVG on Sunday.
The tape of that game was awful, of course, and maybe he didn’t realize Jay Hayes didn’t play a single snap right after the game. But that seemed like an interesting 180. Kelly said he doesn’t like criticizing individual coaches publicly, which he didn’t do with VanGorder up until the release that he fired him. What were your thoughts on that whole process?

KA: I talked about this with John Walters, but I actually completely follow BK’s logic. I think after he watched the tape, and he saw his defense do the same things wrong — he had to pull the trigger. I just don’t think a coordinator can survive that Duke offensive explosion. And there’s absolutely no explanation for the way he allocated snaps and game planed 400 levels deep, when that game could’ve been won with vanilla.

JJ: Oh man, you’re just TEEING me up for the Bob Diaco reference.

KA: GO FOR IT!

JJ: Here’s something I can picture him saying: “Say you’re tasked with baking a cake. You need the cake to taste good. But you decide to get fancy and start throwing all these different ingredients in there and try to make a seven-layer cake. Maybe you accidentally grab the green chilis and throw them in there, and all of a sudden, people you don’t like your cake. And if you just went with the simple vanilla cake with regular chocolate frosting, people might’ve liked your cake.”

…Is that what you expected? Bobby D loves his cake analogies.

KA: Bob literally went with a cake reference on Jim Rome the week before the season.

JJ: He gave us the cake/green chilis reference after Manti left too!

KA: And man — I thought Tim Prister hit it right when he was talking to BK this week — he essentially asked him, “aren’t you describing (when talking about what he wants in a defense) a Bob Diaco defense?”

JJ:  Pretty much. And Diaco played Syracuse last week (and lost). I gotta imagine when Kelly says he’s going to draw from certain parts of the inventory, it’s the simplest, least complex elements of it. So maybe you won’t see D-linemen dropping into coverage as frequently on Saturday?

KA: I hope I never see another defensive lineman drop into coverage. I mean, it stops being a surprise when it happens every game.

So let’s go to a question…

What do you expect to see from Greg Hudson. Because when BK described what he needed from him, he essentially said, “Enthusiasm.” And “love of Notre Dame.” That sounds like, “I don’t want to move my entire defensive staff, I want someone who can implement my ideas and organize them.”

JJ: Pretty much. I think Mike Elston will be relied upon heavily for planning the scheme along with Kelly, given Elston’s pre-BVG experience.

KA: Agree.

JJ: I don’t think Kelly wanted to throw DC duties onto Elston given he’s already the recruiting coordinator (and doing a good job at that).

KA: Yeah, and I also don’t think Elston wants to earn a DC job by doing it through an interim tag.

JJ: So to answer your question, if Hudson is the guy that can effectively communicate the defense, that’s a positive.

KA: Let’s finish this coordinator talk with this question: Do you think there’s an internal promotion possible — do you think it’s Hudson, or Elston? Or are you fairly certain ND is going national to bring someone in?

JJ: I think they gotta look nationally to a current college coordinator.

KA: Me, too. More Mike Sanford hire, less BVG hire.

JJ: So with Les Miles out, and that whole situation in flux, you gotta make your first call to Dave Aranda.

KA: I’m guessing they probably already did. And if they were paying BVG a reported 900k, Aranda’s $1.2 isn’t that hard to swallow.

JJ: BVG made over a million in 2014, per ESPN, so yeah.

KA: Good gig if you can get it.

JJ: The offense is in such a good place right now, even if Sanford were to leave for a coaching job, that you expect it to be pretty good to great next year.
But if the defense doesn’t get fixed, BK’s tenure will be defined by almosts instead of successes.

KA: So what do you think the personnel changes are? Playing more depth? Kicking Trumbetti from the starting lineup? Any other bold predictions?

JJ: If I can shill for a second, I wrote about seven players who could see more time going forward on CSN. But yeah, Jay Hayes is near the top of the list. I’m guessing you’ll see some Asmar Bilal, too, along with Jalen Elliott. And they gotta get Daelin Hayes on the field.

KA: We’ll pause this chat momentarily for you guys to read…

JJ: [plays jeopardy music]

KA: And we’re back. I agree with Elliott, Hayes and Hayes.

JJ:  You got anyone you want to see?

KA: I do — on both sides of the ball. I’m 100% on board with the youth movement. For me, that means Donte Vaughn at CB, Daelin Hayes at DE, and then seeing if KJ Stepherson can ascend at the X. I know it’s probably an unpopular opinion, but I’m still waiting to see if Torii Hunter can do anything beyond ordinary. Us expecting a TJ Jones senior season out of him might have been setting the bar WAY too high. He doesn’t challenge anybody down the field.

JJ: Perhaps, but he’s the most reliable guy out there when you need a first down.  Though I’ll say this, the TD catch Stepherson made vs. Duke…he doesn’t catch that ball five months ago. (Literally, he doesn’t. He dropped an over the shoulder pass in the spring game from Kizer.)

KA: Agree. That’s why I like sliding him inside as opposed to being way out wide. Don’t want him off the field, just want him off the island. Stephenson’s TD catch felt like an embodiment of BK’s early comments on him — how well he tracks the ball.

JJChase Claypool deserves an extended look, too.

KA: I was disappointed that Claypool didn’t make more noise, especially after flashing against Michigan State.

***

KA: So you had a chance to talk to the players made available on Wednesday.
Play psychiatrist for me. How did they respond? Did they look like a group ready to play better football? Or a team that’s still in a funk?

JJ: They kept saying how much fun practice was Tuesday and Wednesday.
Which, for a team that’s 1-3, maybe is good?

KA: Was that burned into their brain or do you think it was legit?

JJ: I’m very skeptical of a fun practice equaling better play. But maybe a little of both. Maybe players having fun = better tackling? I’m really just grasping at straws, though. It’s one of those for sure.

KA: Okay – so I’ll defend our picks last week by saying that we both were scared to death of the defense. But ND is a double-digit favorite against Syracuse. I don’t know if I even think they should be favored. How are you feeling about this one?

JJ: I’m like one of the 10 undecided voters in this country, just slipping back and forth on my prediction. But I came to Notre Dame 45, Syracuse 42.
I do think Syracuse is the worst defense Notre Dame will have faced this year, which is enough to overcome this offense.

KA: I actually think the scoring is going to be slightly lower, but I was thinking ND 41, Cuse 38. But my confidence in ANY OF THIS is zero. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the offense bottoms out and only scores like 28, too.

JJ: Oh yeah, if this were a confidence pick’em, I’d put about 2 points on this one.

KA: I’ll leave you with this one: Are there moral victories for this team now?
As in, what would you see this week that’d make you happy — or is it only a win?

JJ:  How emphatic can I say no?

KA: (With ALL CAPS)

JJ: They’re 1-3 and I don’t see an easy path to bowl eligibility. FINE THEN NO (shouts into computer)!

KA: It’s an ALL OUT WAR for Bowl Eligibility. Because those 15 practices are critical to the mission and to salvaging next season, too.

JJ: Especially for a young roster. And Brandon Wimbush. Plus, it’d be a massive, smoldering crater to not make a bowl game this year. That just can’t happen at Notre Dame. And if it does, it puts the coach squarely on the hot seat.

KA: I’m looking at the schedule and it’s pretty much razor-thin margin of error right now. So when I used to think back on the bear hug I watched between coaches from the Yankee Stadium press box in 2010, when they beat Army to clinch a bowl bid, I thought we’d never be back there.

Yet… Here we are.

JJ: S&P+ gives Notre Dame a 32% chance of being bowl eligible this year. Donald Trump has a better chance at becoming president than Notre Dame does at reaching a bowl at this exact moment.

(braces for the STICK TO SPORTS yelling)

KA: How appropriate that the Irish are in New York* this weekend then. But hey — I’m actually excited about a 1-3 team and what they can do, something I thought I’d never type.

JJ: There’s the positivity!

KA: So there you go. Leave it on a high note. Once again, we’re both picking a shootout victory for the Irish — one last leap of faith, at least for me.

JJ: Same here.

KA: Thanks buddy. Enjoy the game. Catch you next week.

JJ: Have a good one.

***

If you want more state of the program talk, John Walters and I dove into the state of the Irish on our Blown Coverage podcast. 

Counting Down the Irish: 2016’s Top Five

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We’ve reached the top of the roster on Brian Kelly’s seventh team. And while it is no match for last season’s star-studded top five, this group has a chance to put together a tremendous season—and all but one of them have a season (or more) of eligibility remaining.

That’s the rub with this football team. As Brian Kelly explained in his introductory remarks heading into training camp, there’s no shortage of talent on this roster, but they’ll need to grow up quickly and prove that they can do the ordinary things right.

While the top of the heap had some consensus, there were still some wildly different evaluations out there. And you can validate any opinion at this point, just because the top three players on this list all have just one year of starting experience.

Young teams can certainly win football games. But they’ll need to come together quickly. As we move beyond prognosticating, it’ll be interesting to see if this roster—and the panel’s selections— plays to our expectation or if they can exceed it.

 

2016 Irish Top 25 Rankings
25. Equanimeous St. Brown (WR, Soph.)
24. Durham Smythe (TE, Sr.
23. Justin Yoon, (K, Soph.)
22. Tyler Newsome (P, Jr.)
21. Daniel Cage (DT, Jr.)
20. Sam Mustipher (C, Jr.)
19. Jerry Tillery (DT, Soph.)
18. Max Redfield (S, Sr.)
17. CJ Sanders (WR, Soph.)
16. Drue Tranquill (S, Jr.)
15. James Onwualu (OLB, Sr.)

14. Alex Bars (RT, Jr.)
13. Alizé Jones (TE, Soph.)
12. Shaun Crawford (DB, Soph.)
11. Nyles Morgan (LB, Jr.)
10. Tarean Folston (RB, Sr.)
9. Jarron Jones (DT, GS)
8. Josh Adams (RB, Soph.)
7. Cole Luke (CB, Sr.)
6. Malik Zaire (QB, Sr.)

 

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 31: Torii Hunter Jr. #16 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass and is tackled by Avery Williams #2 of the Temple Owls on October 31, 2015 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Temple Owls 24-20. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

5. Torii Hunter Jr. (WR, Senior): The only regular returning to the receiving corps, Hunter will be the primary target for Notre Dame’s still-to-be-determined starting quarterback. A smooth athlete with better than advertised speed, Hunter has taken his time developing in the program, with injuries setting him back in two different seasons.

With his baseball career on hold for the time being, Hunter is all about football. And he’ll have every chance to be force-fed the ball this season, with the receiving corps as top heavy as we’ve seen it, especially when it comes to experience.

Hunter isn’t Michael Floyd, Will Fuller or Golden Tate. But he could be senior-season TJ Jones, a versatile playmaker who can bounce around the field and do a little bit of everything. That seems to be the bar we’ve set with Hunter in the top five, mostly based on reputation and a strong spring.

Highest Rank: 3rd. Lowest Rank: 10th.

 

Keenan Reynolds, Isaac Rochell

4. Isaac Rochell (DE, Senior): One of the ironmen of the roster, Rochell led the defensive line in snaps and put together a rock-solid junior season at strong side defensive end. Entering his final year of eligibility, Rochell is healthy and capable of playing just about anywhere, a candidate to move both inside and out.

Rochell has ascended into Sheldon Day’s leadership role, a likely captain as the 2016 squad evolves. If he’s able to turn in Day’s performance wreaking havoc behind the line of scrimmage, the Irish have an intriguing NFL prospect who could have a long football career ahead of him.

A stout run defender who will be difficult to move off the point of attack, Rochell needs to improve as a pass rusher, finding a way to impact the game by getting to the quarterback. If he can add that element to his repertoire, he could have a special season.

Highest Rank: 2nd. Lowest Rank: 11th.

 

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

3. Quenton Nelson (LG, Junior): In just 11 starters, Quenton Nelson has established himself as one of college football’s top guards. A big, strong and long player, Nelson’s got the physical gifts of a tackle and the nasty demeanor of a lineman built for the inside of the trenches.

One of the most powerful run blockers in the country, Nelson will only improve in all facets of the game as he enters his second season in the starting lineup. Lined up next to Mike McGlinchey, the duo might be one of the most physically imposing in all of college football—650 pounds of granite that should protect quarterbacks and power the ground game.

Highest Rank: 2nd. Lowest Rank: 7th.

 

DeShoneKizer

2. DeShone Kizer (QB, Junior): It’s staggering to think that at this time last season, not a single vote was cast for DeShone Kizer. (A sampling of those that received votes: Incoming transfer Avery Sebastian, Nick Watkins, true freshman Justin Yoon and redshirt Jay Hayes.)

What a difference a year makes. Kizer very nearly topped our list, the smallest variance of any player in the eyes of the panel.

Kizer does everything a quarterback should do in a Brian Kelly offense—and has a few other traits that feel like the cherry on top. With the size of a prototype NFL player and the skills of a zone-read runner, Kizer’s offseason was likely spent preparing for a camp competition with Malik Zaire that both players think they’ll win.

At his best, Kizer has the upside of an NFL starter. And with another season under his belt, there’s only room for improvement after seeing and doing things for the very first time in 2015. Two of Notre Dame’s best players are quarterbacks. It’s a tough problem to have, but one every coach would kill for.

Highest Rank: 1st. Lowest Rank: 4th.

 

McGlinchey

1. Mike McGlinchey (LT, Senior): After producing two-straight first round left tackles, the Irish have a third in McGlinchey. While he’s only a second-year starter, McGlinchey came into the preseason viewed as one of college football’s premier talents, understandable when you dig deeper into his performance last season—not to mention just look at him.

McGlinchey was born to be an offensive tackle, and physically he might be the most gifted we’ve seen in recent years. While he’ll be seeing and doing things for the first time, he’s talented enough to use his extraordinary physical gifts to dominate— long arms, quick feet, and great strength, all in a body that could dominate on the basketball court.

Passed the leadership baton from Martin to Martin, McGlinchey is a near lock to be a team captain. And he has a fifth year of eligibility remaining.

Highest Rank: 1st. Lowest Rank: 13th.

 

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Our 2016 Irish Top 25 panel:
Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish
Bryan Driskell, Blue & Gold
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Nick Ironside, Irish 247
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Eric Murtaugh, 18 Stripes
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
Jude Seymour, Her Loyal Sons
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago
John VannieNDNation
Joshua Vowles, One Foot Down
John Walters, Newsweek