Getty Images

Counting Down the Irish: 10 to 6

5 Comments

Perhaps No. 10 will come as a surprise in this ranking projecting Notre Dame’s 10 most-impactful players this season. His lack of contribution a year ago, though, fits him right in with most of these five.

The combined statistical impact of the below Nos. 10, 9, 8 and 6 from a year ago equals one interception and 17 tackles. That’s it. For two of those players, it was a season spent wondering just how much they could have helped the Irish avoid the 4-8 disaster, but injury and suspension stopped them from finding out. For the other two, youth and positional depth prevented them from altering the downward trajectory.

The possible leap awaiting those four somewhat summarizes the entire 2017 Notre Dame roster. Talent is abundantly present, but most of it has yet to produce on the field. With that in mind, it should be noted all of Nos. 6-10 are eligible to return for at least one more season following 2017.

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 points
High ranking: No. 8
Low ranking: No. 19
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

Naming Crawford as a starter depends on your definition of the term. He will not likely appear listed as one on any Irish depth chart. With a performance in a game equal to his performances in practice, sophomore Donte Vaughn could move ahead of Crawford as the primary backup on both sides of the field. Yet Crawford will handle any nickel back duties presented the defense, and it should not be ignored he is the highest-rated recruit among the deep cornerback positional group.

In only the nickel back role, Crawford could prove a dynamic enough playmaker to warrant this rating. That is essentially what defensive coordinator Mike Elko was referencing when he vaguely mentioned Crawford as a possibility at rover in the spring. The 5-foot-9, 176-pound Crawford is nowhere near the physical presence of senior rover Drue Tranquill (6-foot-2, 231), but when the Irish face a pass-happy team, perhaps North Carolina State, USC or Miami (FL), coverage of a slot receiver could be needed on such a high percentage of plays, Crawford may become those games’ pseudo-rover.

In less than two games last season, Crawford managed an interception and six tackles. Extrapolate that kind of production across a season, and this ranking would be surprising only in that it is not higher. Until that hypothetical then, Crawford will fall short of a bump in points received by each player, indicating a more-precise second tier on the top-end of Notre Dame’s roster. Sets of five are an arbitrary, finger-driven device, anyway.

9: Daelin Hayes, sophomore defensive end, 191
High ranking: No. 5
Low ranking: No. 14
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

Hayes’ shining performance in the Blue-Gold Game — seven tackles including four for loss with three sacks — undoubtedly increased the expectations for his 2017 effect. After all, this is by far the highest a defender with only 11 career tackles has finished in this annual poll.

The Irish need Hayes to continue that kind of production this season (if not in actual quantity, then in the adjusted quality after factoring in the spring was a practice). The move of senior Andrew Trumbetti to back up Hayes may indicate Notre Dame has another option at the position, but no one else on the Irish roster, including Trumbetti, can threaten a passer like Hayes should be able to.

Last year Notre Dame managed a total of 14 sacks. Elko’s Wake Forest squad tallied 41. Hayes will not be able to make up that difference entirely on his own, but he is where it will start.

8: Alizé Mack, junior tight end, 194
High ranking: No. 6
Low ranking: No. 20
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

What was said about Hayes and his 11 tackles creating a surprising top-10 roster player can also be mentioned regarding Mack and his 13 career receptions. Such is an effect of missing a season due to academic mishaps.

One might wonder if the mistakes that led to an absent 2016 may have tempered panelists’ projections of Mack. Considering the seven names ahead of him on this list, that would be unfair speculation.

If anything will lower his production this season, it will be the excess of talent at tight end. None of those other options — including fifth-year senior Durham Smythe, No. 22 in this polling — offers the big-play threat of Mack. It very well could be his statistical impact pales in comparison to his actual contribution. If defenses have to account for, if not even alter their game plans for, the 6-foot-4 ¾, 251-pounder, that could open up the field a bit more for other weapons such as junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and whoever separates himself as the second primary receiver.

 (Getty Images)

7: Drue Tranquill, senior rover, 200
High ranking: No. 5, by two separate voters
Low ranking: No. 17
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

Elko had never coached Tranquill when he developed his preferred defensive wrinkle of a rover. He may not have ever heard of the former safety at that point. Nonetheless, Elko may as well have designed the position with Tranquill in mind.

If Tranquill were still at safety, he probably would have landed closer to his 2016 ranking of No. 16. (For thoroughness’ sake: Crawford was No. 12 a year ago while Mack finished No. 13 before his semester apart was announced.) Instead, Tranquill will now find himself in the middle of the defense. Already a vocal leader as a captain, this will give him a chance to also lead in action.

6: Brandon Wimbush, junior quarterback, 231
High ranking: No. 1
Low ranking: No. 9
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

(Getty Images)

The range of votes is not an attempt to diminish his talent. Rather, the five voters who placed him No. 6 or No. 7 were more likely factoring in what could be a mild role in the offense, at least to open the season. Three of the players ahead of Wimbush in this ranking are pivotal running game pieces. (If you spent anytime pondering it, they would have been easy to figure, anyway. So that reveal hardly qualifies as a spoiler.)

Whether the Irish focus on the run or not, Wimbush will clearly be a major piece of the offense. For an unproven team, rating the inexperienced quarterback the projected No. 6 most impactful player does seem appropriate.

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: 15 to 11

Getty Images
51 Comments

One way of reading the results of this annual poll is with an eye toward the future. If a player is expected to be one of Notre Dame’s primary contributors in 2017 and he has eligibility remaining, it seems logical to think he should be an even more crucial piece of the team in 2018. Of the five players constituting the lower-third of the top 15, all but one could be back next season, and it would take something of a surprise for any of those four not to be.

That is not to simply look past this fall. These votes were still cast with Sept. 2 in mind (24 days away, if counting). It is simply an acknowledgement of the nature of college football. Now then, entering the top 15 of counting down the Irish …

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 points.
High ranking: No. 7
Low ranking: No. 21
Ten votes total.

From the outset with sophomore Donte Vaughn at No. 25, emphasis has been drawn to any backups appearing in this listing. Only a few, at most, will. When they do, it points to a wealth of potential at a particular position. That may not be truer of any offensive position than it is at running back. Not only does Williams join junior Josh Adams in the top-15, but sophomore Tony Jones finished fifth among the others receiving votes, essentially making it three backs in Notre Dame’s top-30 impact players. (Sorry, spoiler alert: Adams made the top 10. You’re not surprised? Good, you shouldn’t be.)

If Williams does not finish the season in this high of esteem, it will likely be because Jones climbs the ladder, limiting the junior’s chances.

Until then, though, Williams’ speed should complement Adams’ durability. Running behind an experienced offensive line, using the two backs to ease an inexperienced quarterback’s workload early in the year makes plenty of sense. Speaking of that offensive line …

14: Sam Mustipher, senior center, 116.
High ranking: No. 11, by three separate voters
Low ranking: No. 19
Ten votes total.

A year ago, Mustipher finished No. 20 in this polling. While it may have been a publicly-trying 2016 for the center, his play overall was solid and an encouraging sign for the two seasons to come. Such a dichotomy is the peril of a center. He will be noticed most often for his mishaps.

This year Mustipher will need to bridge the gap between an All-American caliber duo on the left side of the line and an inexperienced and yet-to-be-determined combination on the right side. If Mustipher can supplement the left side, suddenly it becomes that much more difficult for defense’s to overload on obvious running downs. Not only would the middle of the line be an option, but senior left guard Quenton Nelson or fifth-year senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey can pull to create a blocking force to the right of the line, trusting Mustipher to seal the impromptu edge.

It is these aspects which make the exact definition of this polling so hard to nail down, and what makes it so intriguing. Mustipher will be a pivotal cog of Notre Dame’s offense in 2017, but he may not be noticed much, nonetheless.

13: Greer Martini, senior linebacker, 129.
High ranking: No. 5
Low ranking: No. 23
Eleven votes total.

It may sometimes be hard to remember, but Martini finished third among the Irish defenders last year in tackles for loss with seven. The two ahead of him — linebacker James Onwualu with 11.5 and defensive tackle Jarron Jones with 11 — are now trying their trade at the next level. Martini racked up those stops despite splitting time with now-junior Te’von Coney.

Coney will still see time this year, but Martini is about to see a distinct increase in both opportunities and responsibilities in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system. His nose for the ball could lead to a number along the lines of Onwualu’s. That would certainly qualify as an impactful contribution, and it does not even consider the intangible value of Martini as a senior captain looking to finish his collegiate career on a high note.

12: Julian Love, sophomore cornerback, 159.
High ranking: No. 8, by three separate voters
Low ranking: No. 22
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

The first unanimous vote-getter (yes, each of the top-12 managed that feat), Love is surprisingly not the top cornerback on this listing. Then again, he may not stay at cornerback for much longer.

If Elko and Irish coach Brian Kelly do decide to take advantage of the depth at cornerback by moving Love to safety, where he may be desperately needed, this No. 12 ranking will probably seem far too low at the end of the year.

In some respects, that qualification is a good sign for Notre Dame. Of the remaining 11 players, it is hard to see Love playing better than at least eight of them, no matter how well he fares at any position in 2017.

11: Jerry Tillery, junior defensive tackle, 162.
High ranking: No. 3
Low ranking: No. 22
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

Tillery is one of the few Love could conceivably move ahead of. The junior defensive tackle is entering a boom-or-bust season, and given the state of the Irish defensive tackle position, Tillery will be given plenty of chance to boom. Undoubtedly, that played into voters’ minds in placing him this high on the list.

A 37-tackle, zero-sacks 2016 would not otherwise have moved Tillery up eight spots in this polling. The fact of the matter is he will need to improve upon those numbers drastically for players like Love not to be stranded in coverage and for Martini not to be overwhelmed by unoccupied offensive linemen.

Is Tillery capable of such? Physically the answer has always appeared to be yes.

A continued thank you to the panelists.

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

Getty Images
36 Comments

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

Counting Down the Irish: 25 to 21

59 Comments

With 48 players receiving at least one vote among 12 ballots creating 2017’s Counting Down the Irish, marking the top 25 is an arbitrary cutoff, but one has to exist at some level, and that is a typical sporting convention.

That dividing line leaves out sophomore right tackle Tommy Kraemer (see: Others Receiving Votes), starting this annual countdown with sophomore cornerback Donte Vaughn.

25: Donte Vaughn, sophomore cornerback, 30 points
High ranking: No. 15
Low ranking: No. 22
Four votes total.

Vaughn’s ranking here underscores his talent, but that is the side effect of actually having talented depth at a position. At this point, Vaughn projects as the fourth of Notre Dame’s cornerbacks, behind sophomore Julian Love, senior Nick Watkins and junior Shaun Crawford. That bevy of options may lead Love to spend more time at safety, thus increasing Vaughn’s playing time, as well.

His interception last season against Duke showed what Vaughn is capable of. A lengthy, physical cornerback who can locate the ball in the air would usually slot higher than No. 25. In this instance — perhaps the only defensive case this year — the second-unit earns this recognition, and will likely see enough playing time to merit it.

Any time a reserve lands in the top 25, it should be noted. With 22 offensive and defensive starters total, one could reasonably expect those to fill the glut of this polling. Add in a specialist (see the next entry), and suddenly there are only two spots for Notre Dame’s backups. Only a position or two will be represented by that logic.

24: Justin Yoon, junior kicker, 34
High ranking: No. 16
Low ranking: No. 24
Six votes total.

A cynic would see Yoon’s placement as an indication of a dearth of more-noticeable contributors, but that would be an unfair assessment. Just because Yoon’s on-field input will be somewhat predictable and usually undramatic, that should not diminish the value of his role this season. It will, in fact, be vital, and knowing the nature of college football, he could very well determine a game or two.

In that regard, if this is a ranking of the most impactful contributors, one could quickly argue Yoon should be higher than No. 24. It is hard to impact more than being the determining factor between a win and a loss.

23: Te’von Coney, junior linebacker, 50
High ranking: No. 9
Low ranking: No. 25
Six votes total.

Just like Vaughn, Coney’s inclusion, though a backup, shows where Notre Dame’s strength is. Despite providing the second option to a senior captain, Coney will see enough competitive action to validate this nod.

In defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme, Coney will likely be asked to focus on the running game. As another stout body — 6-foot-1, 240 pounds — Coney’s impact should come alongside, as much as in place of, seniors Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini.

22: Durham Smythe, fifth-year senior tight end, 50
High ranking: No. 15
Low ranking: No. 22
Seven votes total.

Smythe’s return as a fifth-year senior was no sure thing. If offensive coordinator Chip Long had not arrived with his emphasis on using tight ends in the passing game, Smythe may have moved on. Instead, he recognized the opportunity presented this season.

Smythe may not be Notre Dame’s most-productive tight end based on statistics, but he will likely see the most snaps. His ability to aid the running game as much as the passing attack will earn him that right.

21: C.J. Sanders, junior receiver and returner, 52
High ranking: No. 10
Low ranking: No. 23
Seven votes total.

A depth chart would place Sanders at receiver, but his greatest impact will come in the return game. If not for that, it is unlikely the panelists would have placed him in this mix.

As the kickoff and punt returner, Sanders will get about four chances each week to change a game’s dynamic all on his own. (Sanders has averaged 3.68 returns per game in the past two seasons.) If he notches another two return touchdowns this season, matching each of the last two season’s totals, Sanders will have swung two games.

Obviously, the game situations will determine just how noticeable those return touchdowns may be, but the mere threat of his scoring will keep opponents on edge. That alone qualifies as an impact.

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

Saturday morning reading: TEs, WRs & a Belgian painting

Getty Images
68 Comments

At the risk of sticking a finger in the eye of corporate powers, it is a Saturday in August. College football does not begin for another three weeks. Notre Dame will not take the field for four weeks. Why toil here?

Then again, it is a Saturday in August. You don’t want to mow the lawn just yet. There is nothing wrong with a bit of procrastination. It is encouraged, in fact.

Let Blue & Gold Illustrated’s Lou Somogyi, the Indianapolis Star’s Laken Litman and the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel aid in that accomplished delay.

The below pieces from Somogyi and Litman go hand-in-hand, hence their link availability here, while Vorel’s column is simply well done. It is not often a football column uses a Belgian surrealist painting as its hook.

Checks dictionary. “Definition of OFTEN: many times; frequently.”

More precisely, it is exceptionally rare a football column uses a Belgian surrealist painting as its hook.

Before getting to those links, one Ara Parseghian-related note: His funeral Mass will be Sunday at 2 p.m. ET in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame, followed by a memorial celebration at 3:30 in the Joyce Center. Former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz and former Irish basketball coach Digger Phelps, among others, will both speak at the memorial celebration, hosted by NBC News correspondent and Notre Dame alumna Anne Thompson. Both events will be streamed live on UND.com, per the University.

Blend of Old and New Highlight Deep Notre Dame Tight End Corps: Somogyi works through Notre Dame’s plethora of tight ends one-by-one, noting just how much of a role the position should have in the Irish offense this year thanks to coordinator Chip Long’s preference for two-tight end formations. Tuesday’s opening preseason practice showed nothing to dissuade those expectations.

Position primer: Experience, depth makes wide receiver a strength for Notre Dame: The aforementioned tight ends will serve to complement a stocked receiving corps. With up to 12 pass-catchers, Litman points out the possibility it is “the deepest position group on Notre Dame’s depth chart” which will present junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush “unlimited tools in the passing game.”

How Notre Dame’s ‘Traits of Excellence’ might translate into wins: Irish coach Brian Kelly might have embraced certain catchphrases and buzzwords this offseason, but they will not matter unless they translate into wins. Yes, Vorel makes that point while talking about this painting: