New Era Pinstripe Bowl - Rutgers v Notre Dame

Counting down the Irish: 10-6

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For those getting caught up, start here. Then, check out the players who just missed the cut. Our rankings include No. 25-21, 20-16, and 15-11

 

As Brian Kelly prepares to kickoff fall camp this morning, our rankings get down to the ten best players who’ll likely decide whether or not the Irish achieve their lofty goals in 2015.

The first 15 players we’ve profiled each will play a significant role in determining that future. (Or at least 14 of them.) But as we enter the Top 10, each player listed has the ability to be a game-changer. And each is a critical piece of the puzzle in 2015.

Of our next five players, four are key pieces to the Irish offense. The Irish’s leading returning rusher. The spring’s most intriguing offensive weapon. A finally healthy returning captain, and the man in charge of running the whole unit. Joined by a rising junior who put together a really underrated sophomore season, let’s keep the train rolling as we break into the top ten.

 

2015 IRISH TOP 25 RANKINGS

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

19. Chris Brown, WR
18. Elijah Shumate, S
17. Corey Robinson, WR
16. Mike McGlinchey, OT
15. Steve Elmer, RG
14. Isaac Rochell, DE
13. Max Redfield, S
12. Joe Schmidt, LB
11. Jarron Jones, DT

 

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

10. Malik Zaire (QB, Junior): It’s probably an obvious statement, but no player in these rankings is more important to Notre Dame than Zaire. With the weight of the offense on his shoulders and no safety net at backup, Brian Kelly is all-in with a quarterback who has only played six quarters.

Of course, in those six quarters he managed to beat LSU and unseat Everett Golson, with the two-year starter fleeing for Tallahassee. So while the sample size is small, this certainly feels like the right place for a quarterback to slot in, especially one who beat-out (at this point, whatever rationale Golson used, that’s the only way you can really look at it) our No. 4 player on the last season’s list.

We saw Zaire as a dynamic run threat last season. We saw him make a handful of very nice passes, albeit in limited opportunities. But with an offense filled with high-end skill talent and a very good offensive line, it’s on Zaire to make sure the unit is running at optimal levels.

Highest Ranking: 6th. Lowest Ranking: 22nd.

 

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

9. C.J. Prosise (WR/RB, Senior): The loss of Greg Bryant for the season was neutralized this spring when Prosise emerged as an intriguing option at running back. And while we won’t know until the games start counting how well Prosise will do at his third position in South Bend, the coaching staff deserves credit for having the foresight to move Prosise this spring, especially when most thought Amir Carlisle’s return to his original position would’ve been an easy move.

With an updated roster coming sooner than later, we’ll see how much weight Prosise added to his already muscular frame. But even if he’s pushing 230 pounds like his head coach said earlier this summer, Prosise is an explosive player with the football, capable of taking it the distance any time he gets a chance.

In Notre Dame’s never-ending question for a hybrid runner/receiver, Prosise might be the best fit we’ve seen in a long time. After leading the team in yards per carry and catch, we’ll maybe even get to see what he can do if he gets a chance to touch the ball ten times a game in 2015.

Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: 15th.

 

Rice v Notre Dame
Rice v Notre DameJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

8. Nick Martin (C, Grad Student): Martin may have been named a team captain and the undoubted leader of the offensive line last season, but he struggled through an injury plagued 2014, slow to return to full strength after a significant late-season knee injury in 2013.

Martin moved out of the center position after three games, but returned there this spring, leading to the departure of Matt Hegarty. And while Martin may have been surpassed by Ronnie Stanley, who emerged as a national prospect, Martin’s name is still among the elite at the position.

The younger brother will never be the older brother, and putting All-Pro expectations on Nick isn’t fair. But it’s clear he’s no slouch either, and he’ll compete to be one of the top centers in college football. Getting back to that level will be key for the offensive line.

Highest Ranking: 6th. Lowest Ranking: 13th.

 

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

7. Cole Luke (CB, Junior): Forced to face a murderer’s row of wide receivers, Luke moved into the starting lineup after KeiVarae Russell’s suspension and stayed there all season, thriving along the way. While there was a rough game in there at the end (USC), he played wonderful football against a long list of receivers who’ll be playing on Sundays.

Luke started all 13 games, tying for the team lead in interceptions with four. He also broke up an astounding 11 passes, chipping in 15 passes defended as well.  Moving into his third season, Luke will stay in the starting lineup, now opposite Russell. And while he needs to show that his work last season wasn’t a fluke, he’s got the opportunity to form the best 1-2 corner combo in South Bend since Shane Walton was a consensus All-American starting across from Vontez Duff.

Highest Ranking: 5th. Lowest Ranking: 16th.

 

Tarean Folston
Tarean FolstonAP Photo/Alex Brandon

6. Tarean Folston (RB, Junior): While most of the talk this offseason has been about Prosise or the now ineligble Greg Bryant, Notre Dame’s best running back has been hiding in plain sight. Tarean Folston didn’t rush for 1,000 yards last season. But he rebounded after a slow start to become the lead back wanted to see from the season opener.

Versatile, smooth, quick but possessing power, Folston has all the ingredients to be the best running back of the Kelly era. And with little proven depth behind him, he’ll finally have an open pathway to take charge as a feature back, no longer stuck behind someone like Cam McDaniel.

Folston has had dominant games. But he’s also disappeared. Entering his third season, there’s a need for consistency in his game, and if he’s running behind a talented offensive line, it’ll be demanded.

Highest Ranking: 4th. Lowest Ranking: 7th.

 

***

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

Irish A-to-Z: Elijah Shumate

Notre Dame v Arizona State
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Entering his senior season, safety Elijah Shumate has the opportunity to put all the pieces together. After a quick start to his career, Shumate’s struggled with the transition to a full-time starter, failing to build off a scrappy freshman campaign where he blanketed slot receivers in a one-dimensional job.

Since then, even as a prototype strong safety, Shumate has struggled once he ascended into the starting job. He was robbed of a full season as a sophomore when injuries and a late-season suspension short-circuited 2013. Then a quick start in 2014 turned ugly when the back-end of the defense had the same growing pains as the injury-ravaged front seven.

But there’s reason to believe that this year will be better than the last. And with a 215-pound sledgehammer more comfortable in Brian VanGorder’s system, the smart money is on a big senior campaign by a defender who already looks the part.

 

ELIJAH SHUMATE
6’0″, 213 lbs.
Senior, No. 22, S

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

An Army All-American, Shumate was a national prospect and a Top 150 player before he picked Notre Dame in San Antonio.

The Don Bosco Prep product out of New Jersey, Shumate chose Notre Dame after taking official visits to Rutgers and South Carolina and over other offers from Michigan, UCLA, Oklahoma, Miami and Georgia.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2012): Played in all 13 games, serving as a nickel cornerback on Notre Dame’s historic 2012 defense. Made nine total tackles while breaking up three passes.

Sophomore Season (2013): Started four games but saw action in just nine games. Tallied 23 tackles on the season, including one TFL.

Junior Season (2014): Played in all 13 games, starting 11 at safety. He made 66 tackles from the secondary, trailing only Max Redfield. He had 2.5 TFLs including one sack. Had an interception against Michigan and recovered a fumble against North Carolina.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Shumate’s ascent into the starting lineup took place 48 hours before opening kickoff, after Austin Collinsworth went down with an injury. But there were struggles in a new system, not entirely unpredictable.

It’s hard to predict Shumate’s season without knowing how well Collinsworth plays. But in a defense that has multiple packages, you’d be hard pressed to think Shumate doesn’t have a role in there somewhere. A better athlete than Collinsworth, Shumate showed skill in coverage as a freshman, though playing a role the Irish have pushed to Matthias Farley.

That Shumate hasn’t moved to that hybrid spot likely says that he’s still a great option at safety, merely one not quite as reliable as the fifth-year Collinsworth. But with two seasons under his belt and a year away from the nagging injuries that kept him off the field, Shumate is another unproven quantity that needs to play well this season for the Irish to have a chance.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

You want to see an NFL safety? Just look at Shumate. Physically, there’s nothing not to like about a guy who appears chiseled from granite and has all the tangible traits you’d want in a professional secondary.

Now Shumate needs to show the mental aptitude that great safeties possess. There is no room for broken snaps or blown assignments, especially not for one of the veteran players on the Irish defense.

Working with new secondary coach Todd Lyght will help. So will having some urgency added to the situation, there’s no more time to show promise, not as a senior with no eligibility left.

On paper, Notre Dame’s secondary looks elite. But it’ll only be as good as Shumate and fellow safety Max Redfield allow.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I’m bullish on Shumate, who I think will play much more fundamentally sound football in his final season in South Bend. Part of that is maturity, the other part of that is comfort in a system that demands far more than Bob Diaco’s did.

Last season, bodies dropping left and right nearly necessitated Shumate to be on the field and learning from his mistakes. That opportunity won’t be afforded to him—or anybody—this season, especially with Drue Tranquill recovered from ACL surgery and young reinforcements who can learn through their mistakes rather than a guy gone come January.

But I’m betting on Shumate, who’ll likely have his nose around the line of scrimmage, especially with great cover corners in KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke. I’m expecting 80 total tackles and a half-dozen TFLs, with the hopes that Shumate might also force a few turnovers between dropping the hammer and stepping in front of a pass or two.

 

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

 

Report: DE Kolin Hill plans to transfer

Stanford v Notre Dame
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Less than 48 hours before Notre Dame is set to kickoff the season, it appears the Irish will open camp short another player.

Sophomore defensive end Kolin Hill plans to transfer, per a report from Irish Illustrated. The Texas native played limited minutes last season, contributing two sacks on the season, but had an early-season high point against Michigan when he racked up 1.5 sacks.

Hill likely played into the mix at weakside defensive end, a position where the Irish plan to feature Andrew Trumbetti and Romeo Okwara, but are limited in depth behind that duo. Linebacker Doug Randolph has converted to the defensive front. Michael Deeb was likely going to shift there before a medical redshirt ended his playing career.

The defensive end position has been a difficult one in recent years. Recruit Bo Wallace never arrived in South Bend after signing his letter-of-intent. Jhonny Williams decided to transfer this offseason, and Ishaq Williams is still in the middle of an eligibility appeal with the NCAA.

Hill’s reported departure pushes fellow sophomores Grant Blankenship and Jonathan Bonner into the mix. The move will likely be confirmed tomorrow morning when Brian Kelly addresses the media to kickoff fall camp.

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Joe Schmidt

Purdue v Notre Dame
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Notre Dame’s returning MVP, Joe Schmidt is no longer just an underdog story. He’s one of the most important pieces in the Irish defense, the central nervous system for a defense that collapsed without him in the middle.

Coming off a major injury and returning to a depth chart filled with options, Schmidt has another reason for skeptics to doubt him. And that might be the best thing to happen to him since breaking his ankle against Navy.

Let’s take a look at the former Cinderella story, readying for his final season in a Notre Dame career we’ll remember for decades.

 

JOE SCHMIDT
6’0.5″, 235 lbs.
Grad Student, No. 38, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Schmidt was a recruited walk-on (I know, it’s been discussing), joining the Notre Dame program after turning down scholarship offers from smaller programs. Schmidt was a three-year letter winner and starter at Mater Dei High School, a Southern California powerhouse.

You want RKG? You’re not finding a bigger one that Schmidt.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2011): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2012): Played in the season’s final 10 games, making mostly special teams appearances. Credited with six tackles, two coming against USC in the regular season finale.

Junior Season (2013): Played in all 13 games, making 15 tackles while receiving spot duty at inside linebacker. After injuries hit the defense, Schmidt played a key role late in the season, forcing a critical pass break-up against USC that helped cement a defensive victory.

Senior Season (2014): Started the first eight games of the season at middle linebacker before an injury ended his season. Named Notre Dame’s Most Valuable Player, collecting 65 tackles, two forced fumbles and two interceptions. Had a season-high 11 tackles against North Carolina and had eight against Navy before being injured in the second quarter.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

I feel very good about this prediction.

Get ready to see a very productive linebacker. Capable of running down plays and excellent in coverage, Schmidt’s the type of player who may not have a future on Sundays but will certainly be productive on the field.

Talking with Schmidt earlier this week, it’s clear that he’s a born leader with a lot of sway in the locker room. He’s also an unselfish player, talking about the pride he takes in making sure fellow linebacker James Onwualu is lined up correctly or helping to put Jaylon Smith in a position that helps him make plays.

Schmidt will have his hands full, as the Irish implement a system that’s an NFL scheme. But I expect him to finish in the Top 3 in tackles this season, and play very good defense against the pass.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

No, Schmidt’s not going to wow you with his physical traits. (Maybe the linebacker was wearing wedges when he stood in front of the yard-stick when the measured him at over six-foot.) But Schmidt is a high IQ, productive linebacker, capable of making the ordinary play as well as a few that were much better than that.

The MVP Award is perhaps the most telling piece of evidence when you consider the linebacker’s worth. He also made Jaylon Smith a much better football player and teammate, forcing the more talented athlete to play within the framework of the defense, something he didn’t do when Schmidt went down.

If there’s a question in Schmidt’s game, it’s the inability to make more big plays. Through eight games, Schmidt had just .5 TFLs. Lost as he was as a replacement, Nyles Morgan simply talented his way to seven times that amount.

There’s versatility in Schmidt’s game that could allow him to slide to the Will linebacker position if Morgan shows he’s capable of handling the starting job on the inside. But all of this presupposes that Schmidt’s healthy and fully ready to contribute after a fairly serious injury. We’ll know the status of that soon enough, as Schmidt will once again hold the keys to a successful defense.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Barring a health issue, it’s still hard for me to imagine Schmidt coming off the field in 2015. We saw what kind of tire fire this defense looked like without Schmidt helping get people aligned. And while Morgan’s more athletic and Jaylon Smith sure isn’t coming off the field, Schmidt is the key to making sure both guys are positionally sound in a scheme that was exploited at times last season when too many players were freelancing.

(That might be too kind, freelancing usually assumes some level of mastery.)

An undersized linebacker who relies on his speed and athleticism can’t afford a bad foot. So if Schmidt opens camp at less than full speed, it’s certainly worth watching, not to mention worrying about. But outside of health, it’s going to take a brick wall to slow Schmidt down during his final season in South Bend. And as the team’s unquestioned leader on defense, he’ll serve as the heartbeat of a unit that needs to rebound after a miserable stretch of football.

 

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

 

 

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: CJ Sanders

Sanders
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One of the eye-opening performers on last year’s camp circuit, freshman wide receiver CJ Sanders flashed elite speed at The Opening, running one of the fastest 40-yard dashes of any player in attendance. Now on Notre Dame’s campus, it’s up to Sanders to keep running fast, especially if he wants to find his way into the mix of a crowded wide receiver depth chart.

A diminutive bolt of lightning who profiles perfectly as a slot receiver, Sanders is one of the likely beneficiaries of CJ Prosise’s cross-training at running back, competing with Torii Hunter and starter Amir Carlisle for snaps. With return abilities that up his value, Sanders looks to open some eyes at training camp, a true freshman to watch in the coming days.

 

CJ SANDERS
5’10”, 185 lbs.
Freshman, No. 9, WR

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Sanders’ performance at The Opening helped vault him to a national prospect, erasing any worry that his lack of size would make it difficult for him to compete at the highest level. A four-star prospect, Sanders had offers from Georgia, Tennessee, UCLA, USC, Stanford and others before committing to Notre Dame after a spring visit.

An offer from Ohio State—a school Sanders grew up following—never came, though it was reported that Urban Meyer and company were kicking the tires on Sanders, but after it was too late.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s hard not to love what Sanders could bring to this offense. If he’s as electric in space as he appears on his highlight tape, the Irish could have a super-charged Robby Toma on their hands. (And really, that feels like the floor of his abilities.)

That comparison might be underselling what Sanders is capable of doing, especially if you consider his return skills, where he could potentially make an early impact. And Sanders has elite speed—running in the 4.3s in Oregon and setting the 100m record as a junior at Brentwood Academy, running a 10.64. That’s really fast. (For reference, Florida State All-American Jalen Ramsey didn’t beat that time at Brentwood.)

Expect Sanders to come into camp and be among the fastest on the roster from day one. And that kind of speed usually gets you onto the field.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

As much as I like Sanders, it’s hard to find a way where he’ll make a sizable impact on this offense, unless an injury limits Carlisle. (Then again, Greg Bryant’s suspension all but completes C.J. Prosise’s transition to running back.) But it’s too soon to tell if Sanders is advanced enough from a football IQ perspective to jump into the lineup.

But where he could shake things up is on special teams, likely serving as an upgrade in the return game, potentially taking over for Greg Bryant on punt return. (I’d kick the tires on Sanders as kickoff returner as well.)

Sanders shouldn’t be looked at like a normal freshman. He had a successful acting career as a child (stop me if you’ve heard this one, but he played a young Ray Charles in the film Ray…), accelerating his maturity process while also building some bulletproof confidence. That’ll help with the big stage that is Notre Dame Stadium.

Realistically, I’m pegging the return game as Sanders’ likely home. That hasn’t been kind to freshmen (we’re still waiting for Davonte Neal to break a return), but Sanders shows better instincts. He’s also a wonderful candidate for the “designated deep ball receiver,” a role dating back to Golden Tate, then passed along to Chris Brown and Will Fuller that usually means you’re destined for good things.

 

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