Dallas Cowboys rookie Zack Martin was named to the Pro Bowl on Tuesday, the only offensive rookie selected to the game and one of six Cowboys. Martin has started all season at right guard for one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks.
Notre Dame’s four-time Offensive Lineman of the Year was the fourth offensive lineman taken in last year’s draft, behind Greg Robinson (2nd), Jake Matthews (6th) and Taylor Lewan (12th). None of those three have made close to the impact that Martin has made for the Cowboys, who had three starters on the offensive line named to the Pro Bowl.
Took some grief for suggesting Zack Martin was more deserving of Off Rookie of the Year than Mike Evans. Martin…in the Pro Bowl.
Two other rookies will be joining Martin in the Pro Bowl. Former Pitt star Aaron Donald will be representing the Rams along with linebacker C.J. Mosely, taken by the Ravens in the first round out of Alabama.
Martin’s success at the next level continues to prove that Irish fans may well have been watching the best offensive lineman to ever play at Notre Dame. The ironman reputation Martin built in South Bend continues in Dallas, with Martin able to answer the bell on Sunday even after badly spraining his ankle.
Martin has also earned a reputation as one of the Cowboys’ most valuable players, with Pro Football Focus grading him out as the team’s best offensive lineman.
“I couldn’t ask for better teammates, better coaches,” Martin said. “I really feel like I hit the lottery coming down here and being a part of this.”
Jason Garrett described Zack Martin as tough and mature after injuring his ankle early in the game and fighting through it all night.
Tommy Rees will begin his coaching career close to where his football career began. Rees, who played in all four of his seasons at Notre Dame from 2010-13, will be an offensive graduate assistant at Northwestern.
Multiple media sources are reporting the news, including Football Scoop and SI.com. A source close to Rees also confirmed the news, with Rees set to begin work in January.
Before coming to Notre Dame, Rees played high school football in Lake Forest, just 30 miles north of the Northwestern campus. He’ll work under Wildcats offensive coordinator Mick McCall and head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
Rees’ father, an accomplished football coach and executive who spent time with UCLA and the Chicago Bears among his many stops, also spent time at Northwestern. There were rumors that Rees was also considering a GA opportunity at UCLA, where his brother also played football.
Brian Kelly left the door open after Rees’ graduation of the cerebral quarterback’s return to campus as a GA. Rees will instead start his coaching career at Northwestern.
Report: Irish add former UCLA great Johnathan Franklin to staff
It appears that Brian Kelly has added another key piece to his football program. The Los Angeles Times reports Notre Dame has hired former Green Bay Packer and UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin to join the staff in an administrative role, focusing on student welfare and development.
Franklin ran for nearly 4,400 yards during his UCLA career, leaving the school in 2012 as the university’s all-time leading rusher. He finished second in Doak Walker voting before being drafted in the fourth round by the Green Bay Packers. A neck injury ended his football career prematurely after just one season in the NFL.
But life after football looks as if it’ll still include football. This from the Times’ report:
Franklin created a LinkedIn account and was contacted by Mike Harrity, a senior associate athletic director for Notre Dame.
“They had me come out to Notre Dame for a weekend,” Franklin said. “I met a few people and by the time I left, they had offered me a job. I didn’t ask for an interview or even ask about a job. God always has a plan.”
While the hire doesn’t bring Franklin to Notre Dame in a coaching capacity, it’s an interesting move for a lot of football reasons. First, Franklin was an elite running back at the college level. He earned All-American honors after a 1,700-yard senior season and ran a 4.46 at the NFL Scouting Combine just two years ago. That can’t hurt the Irish backfield.
Secondly, Franklin seems to be a wonderful outside-the-box in as the Irish coaching staff continues to recruit Los Angeles amidst UCLA and USC programs on the rise. A graduate of Dorsey High, one of the more talent-rich programs in Los Angeles, Franklin’s presence inside the Notre Dame program certainly won’t hurt with high schoolers who still likely remember Franklin’s dominance in Westwood.
Player development and welfare has been a critical part of Kelly’s program from the moment he arrived. Former Alcorn State head coach Ernest Jones filled that role for Kelly before briefly joining Bob Diaco’s UConn staff. Duke Preston, another former NFLer, currently fills a similar role.
There’s no official word out of South Bend on the hire, though Franklin sounds excited to get started.
“I’m really excited, and blessed how it came out,” Franklin told the Times.
As we continue our final rankings of the 2014 season, it’s an interesting look at the youth of the Irish roster. Remove fifth-year senior Christian Lombard from the group and our first five players had a collective zero starts heading into the season.
That helps explain some of the issues that came along with this team. As complementary parts, Malik Zaire, Romeo Okwara, Drue Tranquill and Nyles Morgan have the talent to be key contributors. But as starters asked to carry the load? That’s when we saw some of the ugly parts of this season.
That theme continues with our next five players. Outside of a key veteran, this group also had a steep learning curve. At times, that meant some difficulties — and those struggles weighed into a 7-5 season.
That’s not to say this group isn’t talented. You’d be hard pressed to find five better recruits. Two from this group were five-star prospects. Per Rivals’ evaluations, all five were Top 10 players at their position and all within the Top 120 players in the country.
The best part? All four return, with key roles on the 2015 roster pretty much assured.
Let’s get on to the rankings.
2014 IRISH TOP 25 FINAL GRADES
25. Christian Lombard (RT, GS) 24. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.) 23. Romeo Okwara (DE, Jr.) 22. Drue Tranquill (S, Fr.) 21. Nyles Morgan (LB, Fr.)
20. Max Redfield (S, Soph.): After sitting out most of his freshman season, Max Redfield was pushed into the starting lineup for the Pinstripe Bowl by head coach Brian Kelly. He stayed there after spring and fall camp, a key cog in the starting lineup for 2014.
But Redfield’s season seemed to go as the Irish’s went. When things were going well, Redfield was a featured part. When they weren’t, Redfield was in the spotlight. Success has a funny way of hiding weaknesses.
Redfield’s season had some unquestionable bright spots. A key interception during the shutout of Michigan. He also contributed 54 tackles, good enough for fourth on the team. But Redfield lost his starting job after a disappointing game against Arizona State, with color commentator Chris Spielman blasting Redfield for missing a key tackle on the sideline.
The Irish coaching staff made a change after the game in Tempe, bad timing for Redfield as the two unrelated moves seemed interconnected. And while he wasn’t overly explanatory about the move, Brian Kelly cited a lack of production from Redfield.
The demotion hurt the Irish, with Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder suffering through some mediocre safety play with Austin Collinsworth and Drue Tranquill in the starting lineup before injuries forced Redfield and Shumate back onto the field. Redfield then suffered a rib injury early against the Trojans, momentarily putting the position down to Shumate and recently returned Eilar Hardy.
At his best, Redfield has all the tools it takes to be an elite safety. But after being forced to learn two systems in two seasons, it still feels like Redfield is a beat slow diagnosing what he sees, neutralizing the physical gifts that he has.
After two years, Irish fans would’ve gladly returned Harrison Smith for an open scholarship. So it’s far too early to call Redfield a disappointment. But it’s an important offseason for Redfield, who needs to take a big step forward before his junior year.
Preseason: 12th. Final: 20th.
19. Steve Elmer (RG, Soph.): The question wasn’t whether Steve Elmer would start. It was where. But after spending spring at guard, Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s gamble to move Elmer to right tackle backfired, necessitating a four-position shuffle after three games that ended with Nick Martin at guard, Matt Hegarty at center and Christian Lombard outside at right tackle.
Pinning all of that on Elmer is unfair. The reality of the situation always had Elmer among the best five offensive linemen on the roster, with Matt Hegarty chosen to start over a first-timer in Mike McGlinchey. But while Elmer looks the part of a college tackle, he struggled moving outside to the edge before finding a rhythm at guard as the season wore on.
A few bad snaps likely color fans opinion of Elmer’s season. And after finding his footing, Elmer showed the physical skills that still make him a very impressive prospect as he enters the final two seasons of his college career.
The offseason allows Elmer the opportunity to settle into a position and develop there. With his time at tackle likely over, Elmer can work on becoming a steady and physical force on the inside.
Preseason: 11th. Final: 19th.
18. Ben Koyack (TE, Sr.): Koyack played more snaps than any skill player on the offensive depth chart. And after being thrust into an every-down role after Troy Niklas bolted for the NFL, Koyack performed admirably in his only season as a starter.
His 4th-and-long touchdown catch against Stanford was the play of the year. His 29 catches were fourth most on the team. But Koyack’s inconsistency was a microcosm of the offense’s play, and his struggles as a blocker hurt the Irish multiple times. On a depth chart with zero experience behind him, Koyack picked up the slack in 2014, with Durham Smythe, Mike Heuerman and Tyler Luatua brought on slowly.
But after enjoying an impressive run of tight ends with Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert and Troy Niklas, Koyack’s senior season checks in a notch below — hardly an indictment for a senior who should have a chance to play on Sundays as well.
Preseason: 10th. Final: 18th.
17. Elijah Shumate (S, Jr.): After injuries plagued Shumate during his sophomore season, a transition to a new defensive system took longer to take hold than many expected. Athletically superior to senior captain Austin Collinsworth, Shumate was the fan’s choice for a strong safety, even if he wasn’t the coaching staff’s. But injuries forced Shumate into the lineup from the opening game. And some struggles showcased why Collinsworth got the initial nod.
Again, Shumate’s season wasn’t all bad. He finished third on the team with 64 tackles, and his interception to end the Michigan game was one of the season’s best highlights. But Shumate found his way into the staff’s doghouse, missing a key snap against Northwestern that cost the Irish big time, a mistake that just can’t happen to a player that’s got more experience than just about anybody else on the field with him.
Entering his senior season, Shumate’s review could basically mirror the one written for Redfield. His physical talent can’t take off until his mental aptitude catches up. Another offseason learning VanGorder’s defense can only help.
Preseason: Unranked (27th). Final: 17th.
16. Greg Bryant (RB, Soph.): No, Bryant wasn’t the breakout star many expected. But upon final inspection, his numbers weren’t too shabby either. The sophomore (who took a medical redshirt last season) led the Irish in yards per carry at 5.5. He also provided a spark in the return game.
That’s about what people expected, though they didn’t see the midseason lull that plagued Bryant’s overall productivity. Yet that feels almost predictable looking back at things, with Bryant pressing to do too much, the propensity to chase the big play when making the ordinary one would’ve been just fine.
That’s a byproduct of sharing carries with Tarean Folston and Cam McDaniel. It’s also comes from the weight of great expectations, with Bryant’s high school ranking still framing early playing career. But against USC Bryant created the big plays that had long been expected of him by playing within the framework of the offense, merely letting his talent do the work.
With little depth behind him, Bryant will team with Tarean Folston in 2015 to create a two-deep that’s the envy of just about every program in college football. It may have taken a little bit longer than some expected, but Bryant is on track to be a prolific offensive player.
With a little over a week to go until the Irish take on LSU in the Music City Bowl, it’s time to take a look back at the regular season. After a start that had Notre Dame in the early College Football Playoff conversation, the season took a turn for the worse.
Perhaps that’s understating it.
The Irish went from a team that went into Tallahassee and lost on a controversial penalty to the defending national champs to a group that gave away victory to Northwestern just two games later.
In between, the Irish played the Debacle in the Desert, and then lost their first Senior Day under Brian Kelly. That’s before a weary and wounded team went to Southern Cal and got steamrolled.
It was a tale of two seasons for Brian Kelly’s fifth team. And as we look back at the individual performances of the players on this list, you can begin to get a picture of how that happened.
Our nine-man selection committee put together the preseason rankings. The rerank is all me, so serve up your criticism in the comments below or on Twitter.
As a reminder, here’s how we had things going into the season:
2014 IRISH TOP 25 PRESEASON RANKINGS
25. Will Fuller (WR, Soph.) 24. Joe Schmidt (LB, Sr.) 23. Chris Brown (WR, Jr.) 22. Jarrett Grace (LB, Sr.) 21. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.) 20.Ishaq Williams (DE, Sr.) 19. Cole Luke (CB, Soph.) 18. Cam McDaniel (RB, Sr.) 17. Jarron Jones (DT, Jr.) 16. Corey Robinson (WR, Soph.) 15.Christian Lombard (RG, GS) 14.Cody Riggs (DB, GS) 13. Kyle Brindza (K/P, Sr.) 12.Max Redfield (S, Soph.) 11. Steve Elmer, (OL, Soph.) 10. Ben Koyack (TE, Sr.) 9. Greg Bryant (RB, Soph.) 8. Nick Martin (C, Sr.) 7. DaVaris Daniels (WR, Sr.) 6. Ronnie Stanley (OT, Jr.) 5. Tarean Folston (RB, Soph.) 4. Everett Golson (QB, Sr.) 3. Sheldon Day (DT, Jr.) 2. KeiVarae Russell (CB, Jr.) 1. Jaylon Smith (LB, Soph.)
While a big bowl game performance can likely move some of these players one or two spots, if the Heisman and year-end awards go out before the bowl season these can, too.
2014 IRISH TOP 25 FINAL RANKINGS
25. Christian Lombard (RT, GS): Lombard won the team’s Father Cross Iron Cross Award, given to him by strength coach Paul Longo, who praised Lombard’s hard work in both the weight room and the trainer’s room. He started 11 games this season, playing both guard and tackle, flipping with Steve Elmer after three games.
While we didn’t hear much about it, Lombard wasn’t 100 percent this year. In fact, he hasn’t been 100 percent since playing every game for the Irish in 2012 at right tackle.
A back injury ended his 2013 season early. He suffered a freak wrist injury during spring drills. And when he was pulled for Mike McGlinchey at USC, it might have been as much about getting a wounded Lombard off the field as much as it was about letting a young tackle earn some reps.
Notre Dame’s offensive line underperformed this season. It’s tough to pin much of that on Lombard, who did everything that was asked of him, and gutted out a season through an injury that could end his football playing days.
Preseason: 15th. Final: 25th.
24. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.): If there’s one guy who can play himself up or down this list in Nashville, it’s Zaire. The sophomore quarterback gave the Irish a spark against USC, moving the offense both through the air and on the ground against the Trojans. Sure, it came after the Irish spotted USC 35 points, but that’s not the sophomore’s fault.
Zaire has the charisma of a starting quarterback and brings a different skill-set to the huddle than Everett Golson. He and Greg Bryant ran the read option game with some success, both breaking off big runs. That will be a bigger challenge against LSU, though the Tigers have shown less success against the run than in other segments of the game.
In a situation similar to the end of 2011, Zaire showing some life off the bench during a season finale puts the quarterback depth chart into murky waters heading into the offseason. The only difference? DeShone Kizer isn’t expected to be the disruption that Golson was after taking his redshirt off.
After a frustrating wait, Zaire took advantage of his opportunities. His performance against the Trojans earned him playing time in the Music City Bowl and an open battle heading into 2015. While I wasn’t sure that Zaire had the chops to be the Irish’s next starting quarterback, he showed that he has both the disposition and skills to be a true contender. And maybe before Golson’s time on campus is over.
Preseason: 21st. Final: 24th.
23. Romeo Okwara (DE, Jr.): Pop quiz: Who lead the Irish in sacks in 2014? That’s right, it was Romeo Okwara. The converted outside linebacker all but lost his starting job to freshman Andrew Trumbetti during fall camp. But as bodies started dropping and Trumbetti hit an understandable freshman wall, Okwara seemed to be the only weakside defensive end that could keep up with the demands of the position.
That’s not to say that Okwara played great in 2014. He might not have necessarily even played good football. Looking for a blown zone-read play during the late season defensive collapse? You’ll probably see Okwara will his eyes in the backfield and the ball carrier breaking contain.
Okwara threw up multiple goose eggs on the stat sheet, not a good thing for one of your “veterans.” But that’s what you get from a first-year defensive end still retraining himself after two seasons barely seeing the field at outside linebacker.
But we saw flashes. Against Purdue, Okwara led the Irish with 11 tackles, while forcing a fumble and getting a half sack. Okwara’s still really young. And while he’ll be a senior next season, he’s an intriguing athlete who’ll be counted on to play important snaps in 2015.
Preseason: Unranked (26th). Final: 23rd.
22. Drue Tranquill (S, Fr.): Notre Dame’s Defensive Newcomer of the Year, Tranquill’s surprising freshman season ended after he had just worked his way into the starting lineup. And the torn ACL Tranquill suffered against Louisville throws into question the impressive trajectory he was on.
As a specialty piece of Brian VanGorder’s defense, Tranquill was productive as both an in-the-box tackler and blitzer. His natural football IQ even had him ascend into the starting lineup for two November games, though that might be a referendum on Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate as much as it’s praise for Tranquill.
In the freshman’s late-season starts at strong safety he looked like… a freshman. He was exposed multiple times in coverage, understandably struggling to make the transition from specific piece of the puzzle to half-field safety. But as a 225-pounder with the ability to run, taking Tranquill to task for struggling in a position he shouldn’t be playing really isn’t fair.
Right now, getting healthy is the biggest challenge. Tranquill will likely miss spring practice but return for summer workouts looking to win the strong safety job from Elijah Shumate.
At the very least he’ll be plugged right back into specialty packages. Not bad for a kid most Irish fans saw as a safety net in recruiting.
Preseason: Unranked (no votes). Final: 22nd.
21. Nyles Morgan (LB, Fr.): Thrown into the fire after Joe Schmidt went down with a season-ending injury, Morgan showed the best and worst of a true freshman playing middle linebacker. The best? The highly-touted recruit was a tackling machine. The worst? Morgan’s mental mistakes often left a running back breaking loose into the secondary or a tight end wide open.
Forced to sometimes be the lone linebacker left in the box, Morgan’s inability to play gap-sound football put the Irish in crisis situations. (Then again, so did a scheme that isolated a freshman as the only in-the-box linebacker.) But Morgan continued to get better, and racked up tackles at a prolific rate.
Morgan closed the season on a three-game, double-digit tackle streak. That’s made even more impressive by the fact that he was ejected from the Louisville game for a targeting foul that cost him the first half of the USC game.
While his growing pains have been part of the Irish defense’s struggles, Kelly has praised Morgan on multiple occasions. He’s also hinted at the linebacker’s versatility, an interesting development to watch as the Irish move towards 2015 and an opportunity to put Morgan on the field next to Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith.
Named a Freshman All-American by multiple publications, Morgan showed moments of playing like both a freshman and an All-American. Schmidt’s injury may have sunk the 2014 season, but primed the defense for 2015.