Notre Dame's Justin Yoon, right,  celebrates with his teammates after Yoon kicked a 32-yard field goal during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Southern California, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, in South Bend, Ind. Notre Dame won the game 41-31. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
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Counting down the Irish: 25-21

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Maximizing the roster has been a key part of building Brian Kelly’s program. And as we reveal the first five names on our annual Top 25, we see two significant pieces to that puzzle that nobody saw coming last year—specialists Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome.

Heading into last season, Notre Dame’s special teams were a huge question mark. Replacing record-setter Kyle Brinda, the Irish went with two rookies, redshirt Newsome and true freshman Yoon, neither having set foot on a college football field. Both rookies flourished in 2015, the special teams operation improving after a shaky 2014 season. It’s a big reason why both Irish specialist made our list, the first time that’s ever happened.

Other hunches begin to reveal themselves as Equanimeous St. Brown slides into the Top 25. While the sophomore had a quiet spring as newcomer Kevin Stepherson turned heads, it’s St. Brown that looks poised to fill a role as Notre Dame’s staff needs to replace not just last season’s starting three, but recently retired student body president Corey Robinson.

Durham Smythe and Daniel Cage both earn mention here as well, picks to step forward at crowded and unsettled positions during 2016. Smythe’s 2015 season went up in smoke against Virginia, two major injuries suffered by last year’s starter. But he’ll have a shot at returning to the lineup with Alizé Jones shifting outside.  Cage could also be poised for a breakthrough this season, the Irish’s fifth-highest graded contributor by PFF, especially impressive considering it came in just 267 defensive snaps.

Let’s dig deeper into the list.

ESB 247

25. Equanimeous St. Brown (WR, Sophomore): His impact was limited as a freshman stuck behind All-American Will Fuller, but St. Brown made a gigantic play on a punt block returned for a touchdown and earned rave reviews from the Irish coaching staff after turning heads in camp.

His spring was disrupted as he recovered from an injury, so St. Brown could be flying under the radar heading into 2016. But at 6-foot-4 and with great speed—and opportunities aplenty in this receiving corps—don’t expect that to last.

Highest Ranking: 17th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (six ballots)

Durham Smythe

24. Durham Smythe (TE, Senior): Sophomore Alizé Jones spent most of spring supplementing the receiving corps, a possible replacement for Corey Robinson. That should allow Smythe, Notre Dame’s most well-rounded tight end, to slide back into the starting lineup after battling injuries for the majority of last season.

Asking Smythe to be the next great Notre Dame tight end might be a little much. But he’s a veteran, has good size, has shown himself to be competent in every facet of the game and is trusted by the coaching staff. The opportunity to have a nice season is right there for him if he can stay on the field.

Highest Ranking: 11th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (five ballots)

Notre Dame's Justin Yoon, right, celebrates with his teammates after Yoon kicked a 32-yard field goal during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Southern California, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, in South Bend, Ind. Notre Dame won the game 41-31. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

23. Justin Yoon (K, Sophomore): After receiving Freshman All-American honors for his impressive rookie season, Yoon’s expected to do more of the same in 2015. Yoon showed remarkable consistency as a true freshman, making 15 of 17 field goal attempts and 46 of 48 extra points.

Probably more impressive was his ability to work through some mechanical issues early in the season, still making his kicks as he clearly battled to find his kicking stroke. Brian Kelly managed Yoon well, attempting just a fraction of the field goals that Brindza did in any of his three seasons as the placekicker. But expect that to change in 2016, with the staff’s confidence in Yoon allowing him to stretch his range—already impressive as we saw with a 52-yarder against Navy that was just a yard shy of the school record.

Highest Ranking: 12th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (two ballots)

Tyler Newsome Rivals

22. Tyler Newsome (P, Junior): Newsome had just as big of an impact on the Irish as Yoon did, stepping into the starting punter job and adding over three yards a kick to what Brindza did as a senior. Add on top of that kickoff duties and Newsome’s big leg helped get the Irish out of trouble in the rare occasion that the offense struggled.

Newsome is still learning the trade, talking this spring about the benefits of hang time and not out-kicking his coverage. He’ll also be looking to improve his situational work, with special teams analyst Marty Biagi helping Newsome perfect his craft.

Highest Ranking: 9th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (four ballots)

Daniel Cage (UND's photo)

21. Daniel Cage (DL, Junior): While Jerry Tillery stole most of the headlines, it was Cage who provided most of the production. The sophomore started seven games along the defensive line, his 18 tackles and four TFLs the fourth-best total on the Irish defensive line.

Cage was sidelined for a few weeks with a concussion and a nagging ankle injury. But in a specific role he found a way to be very productive, a strong run-defender who played very well against Georgia Tech, USC and Temple before late-season injuries ruined the last quarter of his season. Paired with Jarron Jones at nose guard, the Irish should get great production out of a duo who’ll be very tough to run against.

Highest Ranking: 13th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (four ballots)

***

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 

Counting Down the Irish: Ranking Notre Dame’s 2016 roster

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 12: Chase Hounshell #18 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and teammates celebrate after defeating the Virginia Cavaliers at Scott Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won, 34-27. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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With training camp set to start later this week, it’s time for us to unveil our annual preseason roster rankings. And unlike last season, there’s no shortage of opinions when it comes to Brian Kelly’s seventh roster.

With a young, talented, and inexperienced roster, our panelists had a variety of opinions on how this roster breaks down. That’s to be expected, when the Irish need to replace a starting trio of wide receivers, their best NFL Draft class in over a decade, five captains, the top five players from our list last year and seven of the top ten.

Thirty-seven different players received a vote in your rankings, up from the 33 who found their way onto last year’s list. And while we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the instant impact many freshman could have on this team, it’s interesting to note that no true freshman made our list.

While just about every Irish fan could agree on last year’s 1-2-3 of Jaylon Smith, Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, only one of our 12 panelist came up with the exact top three our rankings system produced. And Notre Dame’s starting quarterback? There seemed to be a consensus (both guys rated quite well), but it wasn’t unanimous.

For those looking to turn back the clock, here’s a look at each season under Brian Kelly and the Top Five players from each group (click the season for the entire list):

2015
5. Sheldon Day, DL
4. KeiVarae Russell, CB
3. Will Fuller, WR
2. Ronnie Stanley, LT
1. Jaylon Smith, LB

2014 
5. Tarean Folston, RB
4. Everett Golson, QB
3. Sheldon Day, DT
2. KeiVarae Russell, CB
1. Jaylon Smith, LB

2013
5. Prince Shembo, LB
4. Bennett Jackson, CB
3. Zack Martin, LT
2. Stephon Tuitt, DE
1. Louis Nix, DT

2012
5. Stephon Tuitt, DE
4. Zack Martin, LT
3. Cierre Wood, RB
2. Tyler Eifert, TE
1. Manti Te’o, LB

2011
5. Gary Gray, CB
4. Zack Martin, LT
3. Harrison Smith, S
2. Manti Te’o, LB
1. Michael Floyd, WR

2010*
5. Trevor Robinson, OT
4. Chris Stewart, OG
3. Manti Te’o, LB
2. Kyle Rudolph, TE
1. Michael Floyd, WR

As usual, this list couldn’t be possible without the help of many people. We surveyed a cross-section of Notre Dame experts, hitting up many of the outlets you turn to on a daily basis to cover your favorite football team.

Hope you enjoy.

Our 2016 Irish Top 25 panel:
Keith ArnoldInside the Irish
Bryan DriskellBlue & Gold
Matt FreemanIrish Sports Daily
Nick IronsideIrish 247
Tyler JamesSouth Bend Tribune
Eric Murtaugh18 Stripes
Pete SampsonIrish Illustrated
Jude SeymourHer Loyal Sons
JJ StankevitzCSN Chicago
John VannieNDNation
Joshua Vowles, One Foot Down
John WaltersNewsweek 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Quenton Nelson

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)
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It didn’t take long for Quenton Nelson to establish himself as one of the nation’s premier guards. From day one in the starting lineup, Nelson helped the Irish become one of the country’s dominant offensive lines, a bruising run blocker who showed incredible toughness as he battled through an ankle injury and returned quickly to the lineup after Alex Bars went down.

This spring, Nelson got enough more monstrous. Brian Kelly quipped that Nelson had grown to 346 pounds, though Harry Hiestand tried his best to downplay that size, pegging the number closer to 330.

But you’ll see a slimmer, quicker Nelson this season, his spring and summer spent putting in the work. That should lead to an even better season as the junior is joined by Mike McGlinchey on the left side of Sam Mustipher, perhaps the best guard-tackle combo in America.

 

QUENTON NELSON
6’5″, 325 lbs.
Junior, No. 56, LG

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

An elite, national recruit, Nelson was a five-star prospect and Top 30 player. Earned an invite to the U.S. Army All-American game. Chose Notre Dame early in the process, picking the Irish over Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Stanford and just about everybody else.

Made waves on the web as he pulled off 26 reps of 225-pounds on the bench press as a high school senior, more than most offensive line prospects at the NFL Scouting Combine.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action, preserving a year of eligibility.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 12 games, starting 11 after suffering an ankle injury against Clemson. Finished as Notre Dame’s third-ranked offensive lineman per PFF College’s grading system, behind only Mike McGlinchey and Nick Martin with a +17.7 ranking.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

He might have outperformed my expectations.

For as good as Nelson can be, he’s still just a redshirt freshman. To that point, I expect a good season, within reason. That means that he’ll likely struggle against elite defenders, with veteran players capable of using Nelson’s aggression against him, and potentially getting the young guard and his body out of position.

Of course, there’s also a good chance that Nelson is as good as advertised. Because he did spend the spring beating out a talented depth chart, and his natural strength and power are absolutely keys to being a great guard in Hiestand’s blocking scheme.

Some guys are born to be offensive linemen. Nelson looks like one of those guys. The chance to be a four-year starter is a rare one. But Nelson seems to be on that trajectory.

No pressure, kid.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

From five-star prospect to first-round draft pick. That’s the trajectory Nelson is on, even if he will be doing it as a guard not as a tackle, as most expected when he was recruited.

For as good as Nelson is expected to be, he’s still just a second-year player. And he’ll be lining up next to another future first-rounder who has just one season under his belt and is already expected to be among the best in the country.

Nelson is big, nasty, and in exceptional shape entering the season. He’s another sky-is-the-limit prospect, an elite talent who matches that with exceptional mental makeup.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Notre Dame could have two All-Americans lined up next to each other. That’s my bold prediction heading into the season, with both Nelson and McGlinchey earning those honors. In season’s past, we saw the Irish become left-handed in the running game, with Chris Watt and Zack Martin the trusted preference of Brian Kelly in critical running situations. It’s hard to think that won’t be the case in 2016.

Nelson’s strength has turned him into an elite run blocker. Expect to see his game round out this season, with his improved fitness helping bring the physical traits of a tackle into play as well. A special season is possible.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuqh
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher

Kelly expects to play two quarterbacks in 2016

Duke Ejiofor, DeShone Kizer
AP
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With Notre Dame opening up camp next week, Brian Kelly seems to be opening up to the idea of playing two quarterbacks.

As DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire get set to begin their battle, Notre Dame’s head coach talked about that high-profile job with Jim Rome, giving us an interesting look at his mindset on the eve of the season, while also adding a new tweak to the old adage of having two quarterbacks.

Namely, you need two.

“I think you need two,” Kelly told Rome. “You’re going to need two quarterbacks in college football. You need two and we’ve got two very good ones. My expectation is that we need both of them to play.”

That attitude makes sense when you look back at Kelly’s time in South Bend. From the moment Dayne Crist’s bell was rung against Michigan in Kelly’s first season, Notre Dame’s offense has seemingly been pushed into Plan B each and every season—giving way to Nate Montana, Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix and eventually Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer.

The Irish certainly wouldn’t have won 10 games in 2015 if Kizer wasn’t capable of thriving when he replaced Zaire against Virginia. And Kelly knows that experience has turned the tables on the depth chart as they enter 2016.

“Both of them are capable of winning, we know that. Malik showed that in the way he played against Texas and he’s been in the program for four years,” Kelly said. “But Kizer obviously has got more experience because of the number of games that he played and big games last year.”

While the plan to continue the competition into fall camp hasn’t changed, Kelly seems to have softened on his stance that only one quarterback will be happy. And while you certainly can’t take this as a declaration that a platoon is coming, Kelly acknowledged the need to have both guys ready and involved. And the best way to do that is by getting them on the field.

“It would be great that whoever took the job over played so well that he’s going to be a Heisman contender,” Kelly said. “If that doesn’t happen, I can see both of them eventually playing.”

The balancing act is nothing new for Kelly. He’s managed it in South Bend, as well as in Cincinnati and his two previous stops. While he’s noted the challenges Ohio State had last season trying to make their offense work while utilizing both Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, it’s worth pointing out that the Irish coaching staff also spent significant time this offseason huddled with the Buckeyes coaching staff, likely a helpful introduction to the quarterback challenges that even Urban Meyer struggled with.

Kelly knows it won’t be easy finding snaps for both quarterbacks. But he also knows it’s likely better to find your balance when you’re the one dictating terms—not a season-ending injury.

“I think it’s so important to have two quarterbacks, be engaged, keep them involved and as much as they can try to get them in the game if you can,” Kelly said. “It’s a lot more difficult if you can do that. But thats the way it is in college football, with the quarterback being so actively involved in the running game.”

Zaire made it only 19 carries last year when his season ended with a broken ankle. Quarterback runs have ended seasons for Dayne Crist and forced Everett Golson to miss multiple games. But Notre Dame’s offense requires a quarterback who can run the football. And Kelly would rather take his chances playing to that identity than recalibrating how they attack opponents.

“You can’t change your identity week to week, you’ve got to be who you are,” Kelly said. “These two quarterbacks are proven winners. The team knows that.

“I’m not going to have a quarterback controversy. I think we can move forward knowing that both of them are going to play in some fashion.”

***

Listen to Kelly’s full interview with Jim Rome from July 29 below. 

Irish A-to-Z: Sam Mustipher

Sam Mustipher 247
Irish247
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Sam Mustipher established himself as the team’s starting center entering spring practice, the lack of competition probably more striking than the junior winning the job. But Mustipher’s work as Nick Martin’s understudy in 2015 likely allowed him to earn Harry Hiestand’s trust, erasing a position battle many expected to be an open audition.

Another top-line recruit and development project, Mustipher’s a third-year player who’ll help form a nucleus for an offensive line that’s expected to be one of the finest in the nation. But that won’t be possible without a big season from the Maryland native.

 

SAM MUSTIPHER
6’2.5″, 305 lbs.
Junior, No. 53, C

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Mustipher was an Under Armour All-American who picked Notre Dame over a field of elite offers. Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Stanford all wanted him. Hiestand had him locked up by April.

Notre Dame projected him as an interior player from the start, though his transition to center didn’t begin immediately.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Made appearances in nine games, earning mop-up snaps against Texas and UMass at center.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

He never had to play any high-leverage snaps, but he certainly proved himself Monday through Friday.

Mustipher might be the most unproven part of Notre Dame’s two-deep, a good sign for the work the Irish have done stocking the depth chart. But if something happens to Martin, we’ll see how ready he is to play, a first-year contributor in the middle of an offensive line that’ll already be starting a first-year player at left guard.

Martin has already battled health issues, a major difference between him and his ironman brother. But Mustipher is likely ready to contribute if he’s the guy tapped to serve as a backup. If not? Expect to see some other bodies shuffle through this fall camp, with candidates including Colin McGovern, Hunter Bivin and John Montelus.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Mustipher’s physical attributes won’t bowl you over, but he very quickly earned respect from Brian Kelly last spring, being treated like an established veteran, not a first-year player being asked to replace a high NFL draft pick. Again, that confidence must come from what the staff sees, not what we’ve seen on the playing field.

What they likely see is a student-athlete making it work at Notre Dame as an engineering major, a testament to his smarts. They also see a center cut from the traditional mold, capable of utilizing leverage, moving his feet and aggressively attacking opponents across from him.

Former Bears Pro Bowler Olin Kreutz has spent some time around the Irish, thanks to his relationship with Hiestand. It’s hard not to note the physical similarities, something that I’m sure has helped ease the transition into the starting lineup.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I don’t think Mustipher will be as solid as Martin was last season (a deep-dig into game tape had Martin surging up draft boards before the Texans took him), but expect a strong season. Perhaps the best version of Mustipher is the one you don’t notice. First-year centers who spend a lot of time in the shotgun need to make sure that every play gets started correctly, and from there he can make sure the Irish win the battle at the point of attack. (It sounds remedial, but let’s not take the snap for granted.)

Mustipher’s strength let him win more than his fair share of battles last spring with Daniel Cage, a physical force on the interior. If Mustipher can anchor, play with solid technique and get to the second level, Notre Dame’s running game should continue to surge.

When Tristen Hoge signed with Notre Dame, most thought the high school center had the inside track to multiple seasons starting. That still could happen, but Mustipher might end up the one with three seasons at center, while Hoge battles to be one of the two linemen playing next to him.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuqh
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan