Keith Arnold

Durham Smythe

Irish A-to-Z: Durham Smythe

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After two seasons waiting his turn, junior tight end Durham Smythe is ready for his opportunity to be the next great Notre Dame tight end. The Texas native, who’ll open up his junior season against the in-state team he was long committed to as a recruit, has the inside track on a starting job with no incumbent, the first time in a long time that’s happened.

After a few years of diversifying the talent pool at the position, Smythe still looks like the prototype for the position. And while there’s an emerging crew of talented options for Scott Booker’s position group, the smart money says this is Smythe’s job to lose.

With Mike Heuerman no longer on the roster, let’s take a look at the Irish’s most tenured tight end.

 

DURHAM SMYTHE
6’4.5″, 245 lbs.
Junior, No. 80, TE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A long-time Texas commitment, Smythe flipped pretty late in the process, taking an official visit to South Bend in January. An early target and commitment with the Longhorns, Smythe looked at Stanford before finalizing things with Notre Dame.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Played in all 13 games for the Irish. Made one catch, a seven-yarder against Arizona State.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

I was right to say we should keep our expectations for Smythe’s breakout season in check. But I thought he’d have more than one catch.

It’s important to keep our expectations in line with what Smythe is right now: A young No. 2 tight end in an offense that’s going to be primarily using one tight end. That’s not to say that Smythe won’t do big things in his career at Notre Dame, but making 10 catches this year seems to be on the high side of expectations.

Of course, offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock has a soft spot for tight ends, and formationally, Smythe could be used to create mismatches or give a different look to the offense. But after looking back at the past few seasons of stats, it’s not fair to expect Smythe to work his way onto the Mackey Watch List just yet.

Still, when Koyack graduates and moves on to the next level, Smythe looks like the heir apparent. That means he’ll likely get the same national attention afforded to the Irish’s starting tight end, continuing an impressive run of Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert and Troy Niklas, all at a position many didn’t expect to produce much under Kelly.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Not every tight end Notre Dame brings in can be Kyle Rudolph or Tyler Eifert. But with three seasons of eligibility remaining, I think the upside for Smythe is somewhere between that duo and Ben Koyack.

I think the days of an every-down tight end are finished in South Bend. And I think it’s because there’s too much talent at the position, and nobody has already cemented their place in the rotation.

Smythe appears to be the best do-everything player on the roster. But with intriguing options like Alizé Jones, Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua, there could be some specialization going on a year after Notre Dame didn’t seem to get the best out of Koyack when he was an every-down player.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

If Koyack caught 30 balls last season, I think we should put the ceiling around 20 for Smythe, especially considering the variety the Irish have at the position, not to mention the other weapons that exist in the passing game.

But maybe calibrating Smythe’s season by catches isn’t exactly the fairest way to look at things. Especially when he’ll need to prove he can be a competent blocker at the point-of-attack if he’s going to be the starter at the position.

Everything we’ve heard through spring ball and the early days of fall camp have the staff believing Smythe can handle that role. But with so many new variables in the Irish offensive attack, it’ll be up to Smythe to prove he can stay on the field, and then anything else that comes of it should be gravy.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB
Jimmy Byrne, OL
Daniel Cage, DL
Amir Carlisle, RB
Nick Coleman, DB
Te’von Coney, LB
Shaun Crawford, DB
Scott Daly, LS
Sheldon Day, DL
Michael Deeb, LB
Micah Dew-Treadway, DL
Steve Elmer, RG
Matthias Farley, DB
Nicco Fertitta, DB
Tarean Folston, RB
Will Fuller, WR
Jarrett Grace, LB
Jalen Guyton, WR
Mark Harrell, OL
Jay Hayes, DL
Mike Heuerman, TE
Kolin Hill, DE
Tristen Hoge, C
Corey Holmes, WR
Chase Hounshell, TE
Torii Hunter, Jr. WR
Alizé Jones, TE
Jarron Jones, DL
DeShone Kizer, QB
Tyler Luatua, TE
Cole Luke, CB
Nick Martin, C
Greer Martini, LB
Jacob Matuska, DL
Mike McGlinchey, OT
Colin McGovern, OL
Peter Mokwuah, DL
John Montelus, OL
Nyles Morgan, LB
Sam Mustipher, OL
Quenton Nelson, OL
Tyler Newsome, P
Romeo Okwara, DE
James Onwualu, LB
C.J. Prosise, WR/RB
Doug Randolph, LB/DE
Max Redfield, S
Corey Robinson, WR
Trevor Ruhland, OL
CJ Sanders, WR
Joe Schmidt, LB
Avery Sebastian, S
Elijah Shumate, S
Jaylon Smith, LB

Irish A-to-Z: Avery Sebastian

Mike Jensen, Avery Sebastian
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Following in the footsteps of graduate transfer Cody Riggs, Avery Sebastian comes to Notre Dame for a single season, hoping to finish off his eligibility in style. A former Cal safety, Sebastian might not find a place in the starting lineup like Riggs did, but he’ll certainly help buoy a position that lacks ideal depth.

Hailing from the same high school program that brought the Irish Isaac Rochell, Sebastian may be slightly undersized, but he’s a big hitter who’ll also immediately bring value to special teams. Let’s take a look at how he’ll fit into Notre Dame’s secondary.

 

AVERY SEBASTIAN
5’10”, 200 lbs.
Grad Student, No. 8, S

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit according to Rivals, listed as the No. 6 safety in the country by ESPN. An All-State player in the state of Georgia, he was listed at No. 8 on the Rivals national list of “top 10 headhunters,” pointing to his physicality as a player.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2011): Played in 12 games off the bench for Cal, a key special teams cog. Made nine total tackles, with a season-high four against Arizona State.

Sophomore Season (2012): Played in 11 games, making four starts at safety. Honorable Mention All-Pac 12 for his special teams work. Made 56 tackles, fifth on the team, adding 1.5 TFLs.

Junior Season (2013): Started the season opener at safety, making 10 tackles and an interception before a season-ending injury.

Senior Season (2014): Played in seven games with a start. Made 21 tackles on the season, including seven against Stanford.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

If you’re paying attention, the addition of Sebastian is another key piece of roster management for Notre Dame’s coaching staff, able to sell the value of an advanced degree at Notre Dame, making a single season a worthy adventure for someone who clearly cares about getting the most out of their college experience.

No, it doesn’t look like the Irish will need Sebastian the same way that they needed Cody Riggs. But if you’re looking for a position that needed veteran depth, bringing Sebastian in to compete against a slew of backups that include Nicky Baratti (another major shoulder surgery) and Drue Tranquill (coming off a late-season ACL repair), the addition makes perfect sense.

Without watching three-plus seasons of Cal football, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect out of Sebastian. But he quickly fit in this summer, and will likely make his way into the two-deep from the start.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Consider Sebastian an insurance policy, and I’m guessing he’ll be a fixture on every run team on special teams. Don’t be surprised if he also finds a role in some third down packages, or perhaps as a in-the-box safety against run-heavy opponents.

Sebastian feels like the logical backup to Elijah Shumate, though Tranquill will certainly have something to say about that. But with a gap between the young freshmen who just hit campus and veterans like Shumate and Max Redfield, Sebastian is a perfect plug-in, earning his way to Notre Dame after handling his business at Cal.

Regardless of what happens at the next level, a degree from Berkeley and a masters from Notre Dame? Sebastian will be just fine in the future.

 

*Five-yard penalty for going out of order. 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB
Jimmy Byrne, OL
Daniel Cage, DL
Amir Carlisle, RB
Nick Coleman, DB
Te’von Coney, LB
Shaun Crawford, DB
Scott Daly, LS
Sheldon Day, DL
Michael Deeb, LB
Micah Dew-Treadway, DL
Steve Elmer, RG
Matthias Farley, DB
Nicco Fertitta, DB
Tarean Folston, RB
Will Fuller, WR
Jarrett Grace, LB
Jalen Guyton, WR
Mark Harrell, OL
Jay Hayes, DL
Mike Heuerman, TE
Kolin Hill, DE
Tristen Hoge, C
Corey Holmes, WR
Chase Hounshell, TE
Torii Hunter, Jr. WR
Alizé Jones, TE
Jarron Jones, DL
DeShone Kizer, QB
Tyler Luatua, TE
Cole Luke, CB
Nick Martin, C
Greer Martini, LB
Jacob Matuska, DL
Mike McGlinchey, OT
Colin McGovern, OL
Peter Mokwuah, DL
John Montelus, OL
Nyles Morgan, LB
Sam Mustipher, OL
Quenton Nelson, OL
Tyler Newsome, P
Romeo Okwara, DE
James Onwualu, LB
C.J. Prosise, WR/RB
Doug Randolph, LB/DE
Max Redfield, S
Corey Robinson, WR
Trevor Ruhland, OL
CJ Sanders, WR
Joe Schmidt, LB
Elijah Shumate, S
Jaylon Smith, LB

Irish A-to-Z: Jaylon Smith

Jaylon Smith
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Coming off of a 100-tackle sophomore season that earned him mention on the AP’s All-American second team, Jaylon Smith returns for his third season in South Bend with the expectations for greatness even higher. After spending 2014 learning how to play linebacker from the inside out, Smith now will be asked to do something he did in spurts last season: Dominate.

Notre Dame’s finest defensive athlete in a very long time, Smith is a fixture on preseason All-Star teams and magazine covers. But if he’s going to be the star that many expect, he’ll need to do more than just show himself to be an sporadically great player.

Undoubtedly talented, Smith’s career likely continues in the NFL come 2016. But before that time comes, one truly great season would help cement Notre Dame’s chances as a national title contender.

 

JAYLON SMITH
6’2.5″, 235 lbs.
Junior, No. 9, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A five-star, all-everything recruit, Smith was Notre Dame’s highest ranking defensive player of the recruiting era and second to only Jimmy Clausen, depending on the service.

A US Army All-American, Smith was the Butkus Award winner for best high school linebacker and chose Notre Dame over just about every college in the country. Most impressively, over Ohio State and Urban Meyer, where Smith’s brother was a member of the team.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Played and started in all 13 games, the first freshman linebacker to start an opener since Kory Minor. Smith finished third on the team in tackles and second on the team with 6.5 TFLs. The team’s defensive newcomer of the year.

Sophomore Season (2014): Second team All-American and the team’s defensive player of the year. Led the Irish in tackles (total and solo) as well as TFLs with nine, including 3.5 sacks. Made 112 tackles—including 14 against USC—in a season that saw him become a Bednarik Award semifinalist and Butkus Award finalist.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Smith filled the stat-sheet, but he was no Luke Kuechly. He reached triple-digit tackles but the defense didn’t play to its potential down the stretch.

With no ceiling on Smith’s talents, a stat-line like former Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly’s could be in order. The former Eagles tackling machine has continued that type of insane production at the next level, and might be the standard for what Smith’s capable of doing as well.

When I asked Smith about his personal goals for the season, I specifically wanted to know if he planned on making 100 tackles this season. He smiled, unwilling to take the bait. But as we saw during flashes of fall camp, Smith is no longer playing outside on the far side of the field, and it’ll be difficult for him to not make big plays.

Count on seeing him as a blitzer. Ask Tarean Folston how blocking him went. He’ll meet running backs in the hole, just like he did at practice last week when he almost sent Cam McDaniel into orbit. He’ll also occasionally be asked to drop into coverage, and even with KeiVarae Russell on the team, I still think Smith is Notre Dame’s best cover corner.

Staying healthy is all that stands in the way of a monster season. With the Irish young and inexperienced along the front seven, Smith’s going to have as much on his shoulders as he can handle.

That’s a very good thing for Notre Dame.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Everything you could ever ask. Smith has made grown men on Twitter drool, breaking down his insane athletic ability and skill-set as they look back on the 2014 season and project him at the next level.

Smith did his best learning on the fly, far from a natural Will linebacker. But for as impressive as last season was, there’s still a feeling that Smith can do more with his talent once he harnesses the mental side of the battle.

It’s hard to say a guy that already projects to be an early first-rounder isn’t all that close to reaching his potential. But that’s what many see in Smith, especially when he’s utilized properly.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

In an era of football where playmakers are king, Smith fits in perfectly at the top of the monarchy. But if I have a complaint about the supremely talented linebacker, it’s that he didn’t do the grunt-work, bare-bones fundamentals that other less-talented players do. As a second-year rising star, it was okay to freelance sometimes. That’s what sophomores do. But being a high-ceiling playmaker and being a rock solid, assignment-correct linebacker? That’s the type of work that’ll differentiate Smith from a guy who could be a great one and a guy who already is a great one.

After Joe Schmidt went down with an injury, Smith’s productivity was a different animal. While his tackle numbers certainly didn’t suffer that badly, the defense did, and Smith’s inability to focus on doing his job well before trying to make the big play sometimes got inverted.

Part of that is learning a new position while also learning a new system. But a year into Brian VanGorder’s system, Smith’s knowledge base should be restocked, allowing him to take his world-class athleticism and turn it into top-shelf production.

We saw Manti Te’o at his best. We referenced Luke Kuechly. Smith’s a better athlete than both of them, and he’ll be used in a variety of different ways that’ll showcase those talents.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB
Jimmy Byrne, OL
Daniel Cage, DL
Amir Carlisle, RB
Nick Coleman, DB
Te’von Coney, LB
Shaun Crawford, DB
Scott Daly, LS
Sheldon Day, DL
Michael Deeb, LB
Micah Dew-Treadway, DL
Steve Elmer, RG
Matthias Farley, DB
Nicco Fertitta, DB
Tarean Folston, RB
Will Fuller, WR
Jarrett Grace, LB
Jalen Guyton, WR
Mark Harrell, OL
Jay Hayes, DL
Mike Heuerman, TE
Kolin Hill, DE
Tristen Hoge, C
Corey Holmes, WR
Chase Hounshell, TE
Torii Hunter, Jr. WR
Alizé Jones, TE
Jarron Jones, DL
DeShone Kizer, QB
Tyler Luatua, TE
Cole Luke, CB
Nick Martin, C
Greer Martini, LB
Jacob Matuska, DL
Mike McGlinchey, OT
Colin McGovern, OL
Peter Mokwuah, DL
John Montelus, OL
Nyles Morgan, LB
Sam Mustipher, OL
Quenton Nelson, OL
Tyler Newsome, P
Romeo Okwara, DE
James Onwualu, LB
C.J. Prosise, WR/RB
Doug Randolph, LB/DE
Max Redfield, S
Corey Robinson, WR
Trevor Ruhland, OL
CJ Sanders, WR
Joe Schmidt, LB
Elijah Shumate, S

Recap (Tweetcap?): Day One roundup from Irish training camp

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It’s Friday evening. The Irish have practice one in the books. So let’s try something different.

While I’m not joining you from the Culver Academies, a bunch of great reporters are. And they’re throwing a bunch of good stuff on Twitter, so let’s give you a (semi-curated) look until we can dig into the video and get into it.

First, let’s set the scene at Culver, not a bad looking spot to open training camp:

 

 

And sticking with the official team coverage from Fighting Irish (drop the digital!) Media, The Jac(k) PoundJack Nolan and Jac Collinsworth—kick off the proceedings with their first Notre Dame Countdown videos.

Watch closely and you’ll get a greatest hits of offseason topics: The new running back depth chart, some impressive plays by the wide receivers.  We get a nice look at a healthy Joe Schmidt and the return of KeiVarae Russell.  We also get our first look at Malik Zaire, starting quarterback.

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Sticking with Zaire, a few tweets that add some context to his afternoon.

 

Zaire, the passing quarterback (especially against air), wasn’t as accurate as Everett Golson. But this from star receiver Will Fuller, was more than telling.

 

 

Here’s Kelly on his first-year starter at quarterback, comments that Crash Davis would approve of, no doubt.

“It’s the first day for him,” explained Kelly. “He has got really good management skills. He communicates effectively. You can see for a first day, there was not a whole lot of sloppiness from an offensive standpoint in terms of false starts and things of that nature. He has a good command, a good presence. It was probably what I thought it would be on the first day.”

 

If we’re sticking with the quarterbacks, Tom Loy of Irish 247 shot some great practice video, including some extended looks at Zaire and also a nice collection of young players, including quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

(You also get an early look at Justin Yoon‘s leg. Sure, it’s just the practice range, but he doesn’t seem short on leg.)

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This might encapsulate the many, many words of KeiVarae Russell into one tweet:

 

 

Here’s BK on Russell, his skill set and his return to the field.

 

“He is obviously a talented player and you could see that in one-on-ones,” Kelly. “In and out of his transitions, you can see why he is one of the better players in the country at his position.

“You’re so happy that he’s able to get past all of the things that were in front of him. He had to work hard to get back here. All of the credit goes to him, he has really had to sacrifice a lot to get back to Notre Dame, and that’s why it’s great to see him out here.”

 

 

Finally, some quick comments from Brian Kelly as he praised some of the young skill players today , interestingly mentioning one of my below-the-radar picks to click in Miles Boykin. (He also mentioned CJ Sanders, who more than a few people are understandably high on. And Jalen Guyton, who scored approximately a jillion touchdowns last year for the best high school football program in Texas.)

“I really liked a number of the receivers from Miles Boykin to CJ to Jalen Guyton, Kelly said. “I thought all of the receivers did a very nice job today. Defensive backs, I liked all of the young kids out there. They just all showed up in one-on-one today, for me, the way they competed. Breaking on the ball, it was fast, it was active and it was deep.”

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And finally, here’s your play of the day, per the interwebs:

Counting down the Irish: The Top Five

Rice v Notre Dame
19 Comments

This ends our annual exercise. To check out past results,  start here. For this season, check out the players who just missed the cut. Our rankings also include No. 25-21, 20-16, and 15-11 and 10-6

 

It’s official. Brian Kelly won yesterday’s press conference. Now we’ll find out the five players who’ll have the largest say in whether the Irish perform up to the lofty standards their head coach set yesterday.

If there’s been anything that’s glaringly stood out about this list, it’s the incredible depth Notre Dame has built up in Kelly’s six years in South Bend. And while most of the focus the past few weeks has been on the players departing—reserve defensive ends and third-string running backs somehow making their way onto the ESPN bottom line—it was pretty clear that those deletions won’t do much to derail Notre Dame’s intentions.

While most agree that this team is Notre Dame’s “best shot” in quite some time, it’s also worth pointing out the balance in this list.

Players in their final season of eligibility: Six.
Players with two years remaining: 12*
Players with three years remaining: Five.
Players with four years remaining: Two.

*This group includes Jaylon Smith, Ronnie Stanley and KeiVarae Russell, all likely candidates to turn professional after this season.

Of course, those stay-or-go decisions will be worries for another day. But even if nine players return from this talented group, it’ll form a core that’ll be more than supplemented by young and emerging personnel.

The message? The future is bright. But today, none of that means more than the present. Here are the final rankings for our annual Top 25.

 

 

2015 IRISH TOP 25 RANKINGS

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

19. Chris Brown, WR
18. Elijah Shumate, S
17. Corey Robinson, WR
16. Mike McGlinchey, OT
15. Steve Elmer, RG
14. Isaac Rochell, DE
13. Max Redfield, S
12. Joe Schmidt, LB
11. Jarron Jones, DT
10. Malik Zaire, QB
9. C.J. Prosise, WR/RB
8. Nick Martin, C
7. Cole Luke, CB
6. Tarean Folston, RB

 

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

5. Sheldon Day (DL, Senior): We’ve spent years hearing Notre Dame’s coaches rave about Day’s abilities. Now it’s finally time to see him put together a season up to the standard set for him. Yesterday, Brian Kelly talked about different ways the Irish can utilize Day, perhaps shifting him outside on passing downs while moving someone else (Isaac Rochell, maybe?) to the three-technique. But Day’s pass rushing clout is more theoretical than anything we’ve actually seen proven. His career total is 3.5, just a shade more than a single sack a season.

That’s not to say that Day hasn’t been productive. But an elite player’s stat-line can’t include near-misses and almost disruptions.

Health has been a major barrier for Day. Only as a part-time freshman did he play every game. Entering his final season is South Bend, Day is healthy and ready to play to his potential. If he does, Notre Dame believes they have one of the country’s best and most versatile defensive linemen. Now Day needs to go out and prove it.

Highest Ranking: 3rd. Lowest Ranking: 7th.

 

Oklahoma v Notre Dame
Oklahoma v Notre DameJackson Laizure/Getty Images

4. KeiVarae Russell (CB, Senior): The long road back to the playing field is almost complete for Russell. And once he steps on the field, we’ll be done getting our updates on Notre Dame’s most impressive defensive back from his Instagram account, and instead we will see if Russell is able to pick up where he left off in the Pinstripe Bowl, dominating the game as a cover corner.

Russell has elite athletic traits. He’s fast, explosive, long-enough to cover tall receivers and quick enough to hang with the smaller ones. Perhaps best of all is his self-belief, a non-stop ball of energy and positivity who will infect this defense, unwilling to allow a swoon to hit like the one that ruined the 2014 season.

Heading into fall camp last year, the coaching staff expected Russell to emerge as one of the nation’s best cornerbacks. Paired with Cole Luke, Notre Dame should—and should is the operative word—have one of the best tandems in the country. But it’ll depend not just on Luke making the leap as an upperclassmen, but Russell shaking off the rust that comes with spending a year working against pylons and boxes, not wide receivers.

Highest Ranking: 3rd. Lowest Ranking: 6th.

 

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Franklin American Mortgage Music City BowlAndy Lyons/Getty Images

3. Will Fuller (WR, Junior): No player gets less credit for a record-setting season than Will Fuller. While Irish fans—and usually the national media—jump at the chance to talk about Notre Dame’s next great playmaker, Fuller managed to stay mostly anonymous on the national level after putting together the finest sophomore season of any wide receiver in school history.

Fuller’s versatility belies his modest measurables. He’s a deep threat who can get behind any defense. But he’s also one of the elite screen-game receivers in football, a dynamic threat who can break a quick throw into a touchdown.

There’s probably not much of an argument to push Fuller any higher up this list. But for all the complaints about Fuller’s mental lapses—he had too many drops and disappeared at times—the second-year receiver had a better overall season than Jaylon Smith, who currently graces the cover of Sports Illustrated and sits atop this list.

We’ll find out what turning the offense over to Malik Zaire does to Fuller’s productivity. A more prolific running game could take touches away from the Irish’s top receiver. But even if defenses turn their attention to slowing down Notre Dame’s next great receiver, that doesn’t mean Fuller needs to let them.

Highest Ranking: 2nd. Lowest Ranking: 8th.

 

Notre Dame v Syracuse
Notre Dame v SyracuseChris Chambers/Getty Images

2. Ronnie Stanley (LT, Senior): Getting Ronnie Stanley to stick around South Bend for another season was the biggest recruiting win of the offseason. As draftnik’s broke down 2014 film, Stanley’s outstanding play kept jumping off the screen, with many believing that Notre Dame’s left tackle was the best prospect at his position in the draft class.

Stanley took a big step during bowl preparations, stepping forward as a leader and marking his territory against an LSU defense that was among the best statistical units in the SEC. Now the charge will be to do it every game, anchoring the edge of the Irish offensive line and making sure that both pass protection and run blocking are dominant parts of his portfolio.

There is little chance that Stanley plays out his eligibility. But if he has a good season in 2015 he’s a candidate to be the draft’s first-overall selection… and that likely means the Irish offense was the most dynamic of the Kelly era.

Highest Ranking: 1st. Lowest Ranking: 3rd.

 

Jaylon Smith
Jaylon SmithAP Photo/Michael Conroy, File

1. Jaylon Smith (LB, Junior): There’s no doubting Smith’s elite athletic traits. Nor that he’s still learning how to properly utilize them. A superhero in training, Smith’s sophomore season was filled with impressive moments, but not without a few humbling ones as well. But ultimately this group couldn’t get beyond the talent and versatility of Notre Dame’s third-year standout, almost a perfect linebacker in today’s game.

This is Smith’s second season atop our rankings. That’s lofty territory, and makes sense when you see Smith’s name on multiple preseason All-American lists. But as a junior who also has high first-round evaluations floating around, it’s up to Smith to prove he can do more than just the exceptional, but rather that he can do what’s expected of him, and do it at a level of mastery.

The stage is set for Smith to absolutely fill the stat-sheet. With proper depth at the inside linebacker positions, Smith can utilize his speed as a pass rusher, playing on the edge if needed. He’ll be able to help in coverage, erasing all but the most talented of tight ends, backs and receivers. But he’ll need to lose the freelancing from his game, somewhere he lapsed later in the season, especially after Joe Schmidt went down.

Put simply, Notre Dame’s most talented player wasn’t always its best and most responsible. But that should change in 2015.

Highest Ranking: 1st. Lowest Ranking: 2nd.

 

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