C.J. Sanders CJ Sanders

Counting Down the Irish: 20-16

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If our first five members of the Top 25 were specialists or breakout candidates, our next five players are critical components. If Notre Dame is going to have a special season, it’s because these five players all lived up to expectations.

All five are expected starters. Four have already played key roles for the Irish, two as true freshmen. The last replaces a team captain, a veteran with high expectations from the staff and our panelists alike.

 

Five projected starters. All with sky-high expectations. The Top 25 is heating up.

 

2016 Irish Top 25 Rankings: 
25. Equanimeous St. Brown (WR, Soph.)
24. Durham Smythe (TE, Sr.
23. Justin Yoon, (K, Soph.)
22. Tyler Newsome (P, Jr.)
21. Daniel Cage (DT, Jr.)

 

Sam Mustipher 247

20. Sam Mustipher (Center, Junior): Replacing second-round draft pick Nick Martin, Mustipher earned praise from Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand this spring, a hard-nosed grinder who comes from the old-school mold at center. Mustipher is powerful, athletic and at home in the trenches.

Strong enough to hold his own against nose guards and quick enough to get to the second level, Mustipher has already earned praise for his Football IQ and quick grasp of the position. He’s also lining up next to All-American candidate Quenton Nelson, who’ll certainly have his back as he breaks into the starting lineup. Mustipher has the chance to be a three-year starter at center.

Some think Mustipher is ready to step in and dominate. Five voters left him off the ballot all together.

Highest Rank: 12th. Lowest Rank: Unranked (five ballots)

 

Jerry Tillery 247

19. Jerry Tillery (DT, Sophomore): Tillery very nearly became the school’s first true-freshman starter at defensive tackle entering 2015, but ended up sharing time with Daniel Cage as the Irish coaching staff looked for a way to replace Jarron Jones after a training camp knee injury.

That Tillery held his own in the trenches was impressive. But he didn’t thrive, just 12 tackles in as many games on the season.

One of the only healthy bodies in the front seven as the Irish prepared for the Fiesta Bowl, Tillery got himself sent home from Scottsdale, a disappointing finish to an otherwise nice freshman season. Perhaps that’s why this group isn’t all that bullish on a player both teammates and staff acknowledge has elite physical traits and skills.

Capable of sliding into Sheldon Day’s job, let’s see if the lightbulb turns on for Tillery this fall, as the defensive line needs him to take a big leap forward as a sophomore.

Highest Rank: 8th. Lowest Rank: 25th

 

Redfield 247

18. Max Redfield (Safety, Senior): Gifted with an NFL set of tools, all Max Redfield needs to do is prove he’s got the right toolbox. Last season was a step in the right direction for Redfield, though there was still too much inconsistency in his game.

Injuries played a part in that. Redfield ended up with a cast on his hand after playing well against Texas. He was held out against Georgia Tech’s option and pulled against Navy’s early after a missed assignment went for six points. Cap off the season with a bowl-week suspension against Ohio State and it was an underwhelming junior year for a safety some projected ready to breakout as an All-American.

True freshman Devin Studstill pushed Redfield this spring and will continue to do so during fall camp. That could be a motivational tactic or it could be a sign that the Irish staff is ready to turn the page. The former is more likely, as Redfield is a critical part of the plans for the Irish secondary.

 

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

 

C.J. Sanders CJ Sanders

17. CJ Sanders (WR, Sophomore): Only the third player in Notre Dame history to return a punt and kickoff for a touchdown in the same season, Sanders is also the Irish’s best option at slot receiver—if he’s healthy.

Sanders missed the majority of spring practice with a hip injury, a significant recovery timeline that kept him rehabbing well into the summer. But the Irish staff was optimistic as Sanders recovered ahead of schedule, giving him a chance to enter fall camp with a green-light and ready to compete for more than just special teams work.

With elite speed and change of direction skills, Sanders will bring an added dimension to the offense while continuing as the team’s primary return man. But he’ll need to prove he’s healthy first.

Highest Rank: 12th. Lowest Rank: Unranked (one ballot)

 

Tranquill

16. Drue Tranquill (Safety, Junior): Tranquill’s breakout game against Georgia Tech ended in misery as he tore his ACL celebrating a pass breakup just before halftime. It was his second major knee injury in a half-dozen games, tearing his other ACL against Louisville the previous November.

A workout warrior, Tranquill once again proved himself to be a recovery master. He was on the field participating in spring practice, two knee braces hardly holding up the jumbo-sized safety who is penciled into the starting lineup at strong safety as Elijah Shumate’s replacement.

A tackling machine who is at his best coming down into the box in run support, Tranquill is a key piece for Brian VanGorder. The versatile defender can play in multiple sub-packages and can blitz, cover and defend the run. He just needs to prove he can stay healthy.

Highest Rank: 8th. Lowest Rank: Unranked (one ballot)

 

***

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 

Irish A-to-Z: Tyler Newsome

Tyler Newsome Rivals
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Punter Tyler Newsome didn’t take long to establish himself. After spending a season behind Kyle Brindza, the sophomore burst onto the scene averaging 44.5 yards per punt, a new weapon in a Notre Dame special teams that was breaking in two rookies specialists.

A big, physical kicker with the type of long body that helps boom punts, Newsome should only get better with experience. That gives Brian Kelly a kickoff specialist who can force opponents to start at the 25-yard line and a punter who is capable of always flipping the field. Newsome is also a character with a unique personality, perfectly hardwired to live up to the reputation of the quirky punter.

 

TYLER NEWSOME
6’2.5″, 210 lbs. 
Junior, No. 85, Punter

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

No specialist earns a lofty star ranking, but Newsome did get three stars from Rivals and an invite to the Semper Fidelis All-American game. He was the No. 4 ranked punter according to Kohl’s Kicking School.

All-State in Georgia, Notre Dame offered him a scholarship after camping in South Bend.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Saw action in all 13 games, handling kickoff duties and punts. Averaged 44.5 yards per kick with a long of 62 yards. Also managed 21 touchbacks on 84 kickoffs.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

I didn’t set the bar that high for Newsome, mostly because I remembered his struggles in the Blue-Gold game. He was more than just average, he was really good.

The best part of this projection? I don’t think Notre Dame’s punter is going to get much work this season. The Irish offense should render Newsome fairly obsolete, though I do hope his ability to directional punt is better than most young kickers.

If you’re looking for something out of Newsome, it’s the hope that he’s consistent. If anything can kill the momentum of a football team, it’s a punter who might send one 45 yards on his first attempt only to mishit one 25 yards a kick later. (Fans might have their suspicions who I’m thinking about here.)

Do I care if Newsome has as strong of a leg as a guy like Brindza? Not really, as long as he catches the snap, kicks the ball consistently, and understands that a punt downed inside the 15 is a lot better than the one that barely rolls into the end zone.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Pegging a punter’s potential is a tricky thing. Especially when he’ll be playing for an offense that isn’t expected to kick the football too often. But Newsome’s impact on the game can come from his ability to flip the field, helping the Irish win the field position battle while giving Brian VanGorder’s defense a little bit of breathing room.

If he builds on his debut season, Newsome could get a look at the next level, especially because his size and length should translate into more power.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

If 2015 was about exceeding expectations, 2016 will be about performing with the bar raised. Newsome’s rookie season was a good one. But there’s room for improvements.

Expect new special teams analyst Marty Biagi to take Newsome under his wing. The former college punter will likely spend time refining Newsome’s craft, looking to add hang time to his punts and kicks, and making sure there are more booming moon shots than side-footed shanks.

Notre Dame doesn’t want to have a celebrated punter—and they won’t as long as the offense performs. But the combo of Newsome and Yoon has the chance to be one of the better special teams batteries in America.

 

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
Quenton Nelson

 

Counting down the Irish: 25-21

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)
AP
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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