Notre Dame’s football team arrived for the Music City Bowl on Friday, jetting in from around the country on 19 different flights after spending Christmas with their families. From there, the Irish had their first practice in Nashville, beginning game week preparations with LSU ahead.
The Irish’s opening practice took place at Father Ryan High School, coincidentally another “Home of the Irish.” The practice facilities included a “Play Like A Champion Today” sign and a Knute Rockne quote. It also included a quarterback position where Brian Kelly has yet to name a starter.
“I haven’t made the decision on who the starter is yet,” Kelly said post-practice. “Both are getting quality reps. I probably have to make it here in the next 24 hours. They’re both going to play, and I’m just going to have to just get a feel for it and the flow of the game.”
As usual, the quarterback position will be critical to the Irish’s chances of winning. In Malik Zaire, they have a quarterback capable of exploiting the lone weak spot in the Tigers’ defense: a running quarterback. But we can’t know if Zaire’s as capable as Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott or Auburn’s Nick Marshall until he plays a truly meaningful snap — the first likely to come when he takes on the SEC’s top-rated defense.
Of course, Everett Golson‘s highs and lows have been well discussed. But Golson also shares the mobility that has given John Chavis’ unit fits. Even the perpetually maligned Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel managed to run for 71 yards against the Tigers, and thinking that Golson running abilities won’t be used to create some offense is foolish.
“We’ve constructed the game plan to take advantage of what we believe their strengths are and what they can contribute to us moving the football and scoring points,” Kelly said.
When it comes to protecting the quarterback, it looks as if Mike McGlinchey will get his first start at right tackle, with Christian Lombard still struggling with back issues. Sheldon Day is also on pace to make an impact, with Kelly hoping to get a solid contribution out of him.
“We’d like him to play every play,” Kelly said. “We don’t think that’s realistic. If we could get between 40 and 50 plays, I think we’d be ecstatic.”
Both teams will be staying at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, with bowl festivities set to begin on Saturday. But with a long layoff and New Years off just around the corner, Kelly’s made it clear that the priority of the week remains a much-needed victory to close out the season.
“They’ll get a chance to see a little bit of Nashville, but really for us it’s about playing the game,” Kelly said. “We’re extremely pleased and excited to be a part of the Franklin Mortgage Music City Bowl, but this is really important for us, this game.”
With a little over a week to go until the Irish take on LSU in the Music City Bowl, it’s time to take a look back at the regular season. After a start that had Notre Dame in the early College Football Playoff conversation, the season took a turn for the worse.
Perhaps that’s understating it.
The Irish went from a team that went into Tallahassee and lost on a controversial penalty to the defending national champs to a group that gave away victory to Northwestern just two games later.
In between, the Irish played the Debacle in the Desert, and then lost their first Senior Day under Brian Kelly. That’s before a weary and wounded team went to Southern Cal and got steamrolled.
It was a tale of two seasons for Brian Kelly’s fifth team. And as we look back at the individual performances of the players on this list, you can begin to get a picture of how that happened.
Our nine-man selection committee put together the preseason rankings. The rerank is all me, so serve up your criticism in the comments below or on Twitter.
As a reminder, here’s how we had things going into the season:
2014 IRISH TOP 25 PRESEASON RANKINGS
25. Will Fuller (WR, Soph.) 24. Joe Schmidt (LB, Sr.) 23. Chris Brown (WR, Jr.) 22. Jarrett Grace (LB, Sr.) 21. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.) 20.Ishaq Williams (DE, Sr.) 19. Cole Luke (CB, Soph.) 18. Cam McDaniel (RB, Sr.) 17. Jarron Jones (DT, Jr.) 16. Corey Robinson (WR, Soph.) 15.Christian Lombard (RG, GS) 14.Cody Riggs (DB, GS) 13. Kyle Brindza (K/P, Sr.) 12.Max Redfield (S, Soph.) 11. Steve Elmer, (OL, Soph.) 10. Ben Koyack (TE, Sr.) 9. Greg Bryant (RB, Soph.) 8. Nick Martin (C, Sr.) 7. DaVaris Daniels (WR, Sr.) 6. Ronnie Stanley (OT, Jr.) 5. Tarean Folston (RB, Soph.) 4. Everett Golson (QB, Sr.) 3. Sheldon Day (DT, Jr.) 2. KeiVarae Russell (CB, Jr.) 1. Jaylon Smith (LB, Soph.)
While a big bowl game performance can likely move some of these players one or two spots, if the Heisman and year-end awards go out before the bowl season these can, too.
2014 IRISH TOP 25 FINAL RANKINGS
25. Christian Lombard (RT, GS): Lombard won the team’s Father Cross Iron Cross Award, given to him by strength coach Paul Longo, who praised Lombard’s hard work in both the weight room and the trainer’s room. He started 11 games this season, playing both guard and tackle, flipping with Steve Elmer after three games.
While we didn’t hear much about it, Lombard wasn’t 100 percent this year. In fact, he hasn’t been 100 percent since playing every game for the Irish in 2012 at right tackle.
A back injury ended his 2013 season early. He suffered a freak wrist injury during spring drills. And when he was pulled for Mike McGlinchey at USC, it might have been as much about getting a wounded Lombard off the field as much as it was about letting a young tackle earn some reps.
Notre Dame’s offensive line underperformed this season. It’s tough to pin much of that on Lombard, who did everything that was asked of him, and gutted out a season through an injury that could end his football playing days.
Preseason: 15th. Final: 25th.
24. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.): If there’s one guy who can play himself up or down this list in Nashville, it’s Zaire. The sophomore quarterback gave the Irish a spark against USC, moving the offense both through the air and on the ground against the Trojans. Sure, it came after the Irish spotted USC 35 points, but that’s not the sophomore’s fault.
Zaire has the charisma of a starting quarterback and brings a different skill-set to the huddle than Everett Golson. He and Greg Bryant ran the read option game with some success, both breaking off big runs. That will be a bigger challenge against LSU, though the Tigers have shown less success against the run than in other segments of the game.
In a situation similar to the end of 2011, Zaire showing some life off the bench during a season finale puts the quarterback depth chart into murky waters heading into the offseason. The only difference? DeShone Kizer isn’t expected to be the disruption that Golson was after taking his redshirt off.
After a frustrating wait, Zaire took advantage of his opportunities. His performance against the Trojans earned him playing time in the Music City Bowl and an open battle heading into 2015. While I wasn’t sure that Zaire had the chops to be the Irish’s next starting quarterback, he showed that he has both the disposition and skills to be a true contender. And maybe before Golson’s time on campus is over.
Preseason: 21st. Final: 24th.
23. Romeo Okwara (DE, Jr.): Pop quiz: Who lead the Irish in sacks in 2014? That’s right, it was Romeo Okwara. The converted outside linebacker all but lost his starting job to freshman Andrew Trumbetti during fall camp. But as bodies started dropping and Trumbetti hit an understandable freshman wall, Okwara seemed to be the only weakside defensive end that could keep up with the demands of the position.
That’s not to say that Okwara played great in 2014. He might not have necessarily even played good football. Looking for a blown zone-read play during the late season defensive collapse? You’ll probably see Okwara will his eyes in the backfield and the ball carrier breaking contain.
Okwara threw up multiple goose eggs on the stat sheet, not a good thing for one of your “veterans.” But that’s what you get from a first-year defensive end still retraining himself after two seasons barely seeing the field at outside linebacker.
But we saw flashes. Against Purdue, Okwara led the Irish with 11 tackles, while forcing a fumble and getting a half sack. Okwara’s still really young. And while he’ll be a senior next season, he’s an intriguing athlete who’ll be counted on to play important snaps in 2015.
Preseason: Unranked (26th). Final: 23rd.
22. Drue Tranquill (S, Fr.): Notre Dame’s Defensive Newcomer of the Year, Tranquill’s surprising freshman season ended after he had just worked his way into the starting lineup. And the torn ACL Tranquill suffered against Louisville throws into question the impressive trajectory he was on.
As a specialty piece of Brian VanGorder’s defense, Tranquill was productive as both an in-the-box tackler and blitzer. His natural football IQ even had him ascend into the starting lineup for two November games, though that might be a referendum on Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate as much as it’s praise for Tranquill.
In the freshman’s late-season starts at strong safety he looked like… a freshman. He was exposed multiple times in coverage, understandably struggling to make the transition from specific piece of the puzzle to half-field safety. But as a 225-pounder with the ability to run, taking Tranquill to task for struggling in a position he shouldn’t be playing really isn’t fair.
Right now, getting healthy is the biggest challenge. Tranquill will likely miss spring practice but return for summer workouts looking to win the strong safety job from Elijah Shumate.
At the very least he’ll be plugged right back into specialty packages. Not bad for a kid most Irish fans saw as a safety net in recruiting.
Preseason: Unranked (no votes). Final: 22nd.
21. Nyles Morgan (LB, Fr.): Thrown into the fire after Joe Schmidt went down with a season-ending injury, Morgan showed the best and worst of a true freshman playing middle linebacker. The best? The highly-touted recruit was a tackling machine. The worst? Morgan’s mental mistakes often left a running back breaking loose into the secondary or a tight end wide open.
Forced to sometimes be the lone linebacker left in the box, Morgan’s inability to play gap-sound football put the Irish in crisis situations. (Then again, so did a scheme that isolated a freshman as the only in-the-box linebacker.) But Morgan continued to get better, and racked up tackles at a prolific rate.
Morgan closed the season on a three-game, double-digit tackle streak. That’s made even more impressive by the fact that he was ejected from the Louisville game for a targeting foul that cost him the first half of the USC game.
While his growing pains have been part of the Irish defense’s struggles, Kelly has praised Morgan on multiple occasions. He’s also hinted at the linebacker’s versatility, an interesting development to watch as the Irish move towards 2015 and an opportunity to put Morgan on the field next to Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith.
Named a Freshman All-American by multiple publications, Morgan showed moments of playing like both a freshman and an All-American. Schmidt’s injury may have sunk the 2014 season, but primed the defense for 2015.
When Brian Kelly was hired to take over Notre Dame’s football program, he developed a reputation not just as an offensive mastermind or spread offense guru, but rather that of a “program builder.” For all the traits Jack Swarbrick was looking for, an architect to tear down and rebuild the university’s most prized asset was a critical find.
Over the past few years, we’ve heard bits and pieces of the methodology Kelly has used. We’ve run through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and developing unconscious competence. We’ve seen Kelly’s recruiting philosophy, trending away from positions, but moving to types: Skill, Power, Big Skill. And we’ve heard him talking about the difference between playing winning football and championship football.
At this point in our rankings, every player on the list needs to be capable of playing Championship Football. (Caps for intent.) And as we roll into Year Five of the Kelly era, the players ranked 15-11 on the list seem to fit that criteria.
Let’s continue our run down the rankings.
2014 IRISH TOP 25 RANKINGS
25. Will Fuller (WR, Soph.) 24. Joe Schmidt (LB, Sr.) 23. Chris Brown (WR, Jr.) 22. Jarrett Grace (LB, Sr.) 21. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.)
20. Ishaq Williams (DE, Sr.)
19. Cole Luke (CB, Soph.)
18. Cam McDaniel (RB, Sr.)
17. Jarron Jones (DT, Jr.)
16. Corey Robinson (WR, Soph.)
15. Christian Lombard (OL, GS): A big reason why Lombard sits at No. 15 was one panelist giving the fifth-year senior an eye-opening vote as the team’s second-best player. While I’ll let him explain that logic, you can make the argument that Lombard — if healthy — is one of the team’s best players.
Entering his third season as a starter, Lombard’s versatility allowed Ronnie Stanley into the lineup in 2013, when Lombard shifted from right tackle to guard to make room for the talented youngster. And if Lombard’s healthy enough to hold down a starting job on the inside, he’s the type of player that provides a talented, veteran safety net who is capable of playing multiple positions.
After making it back from a back injury that ended his season early in 2013 for spring drills, only to suffer a fluke wrist dislocation suffered in March, Lombard needs to shake the injury bug and put together a dominant final season in South Bend.
He’s capable: A big, strong, veteran guy with the talent to play just about anywhere on the line. And while Nick Martin seems to have assumed the leadership role up front, Lombard’s got a lot of experience to pass along, and a future playing on Sundays if this year goes according to plan.
14. Cody Riggs (DB, GS): For all the banter that’s turned “SEC” into an adjective, Riggs gives Notre Dame a football player that’s started 26 games over his three years playing in Gainesville. But beyond the affirmation of being a multi-year starter in the best conference in all the land, Riggs has come into South Bend and meshed incredibly well on a Notre Dame team that’ll only have his services for a few months.
Notre Dame missed out on Riggs as a top-shelf high school prospect. But he’ll have 13 games to play for the Irish, filling a key role in the Irish secondary as a versatile defender that can play as a cover corner or a safety in the box.
Riggs’ ceiling remains to be seen. While challenging himself academically was a big reason he came to Notre Dame, so was an opportunity to prove himself at cornerback, with former five-star talents Vernon Hargreaves and Jalen Tabor projected as starters in Gainesville.
Right now, it looks like Cole Luke is the “starter” at corner. But in Brian VanGorder’s system, Riggs will get all the opportunities he could hope for, earning a graduate degree off the field and utilizing the year in South Bend to prove to NFL talent evaluators he has the ability to play cornerback at the next level.
13. Kyle Brindza (K/P, Sr.): If ever there was a specialist who deserved an elite grade, Kyle Brindza’s the man. Serving as the team’s kickoff man, punter and place-kicker, Brindza has moved well past the role of specialist into being one of the team’s more respected football players.
That comes with his propensity to nail clutch field goals. And his ability to boom long, hanging punts. But entering his final year of eligibility, Brindza needs to refine his skills, upping the consistency to a level where he’s in consideration for postseason awards.
The beauty of Brindza’s value to Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame football program is his singular ability to get the scholarship count back under control. Brian Kelly entered the Gug with a handful of scholarships committed to kickers and punters — and that was before walk-on David Ruffer won the placekicking job and a scholarship of his own. Brindza took over an entire position room, helped stabilize the roster, and leaves Notre Dame in a better place than he found it.
A big senior season will further solidify Brindza’s spot in the Irish record books.
12. Max Redfield (S, Soph.): That Redfield finds himself at No. 12 means a whole lot of panelists are believing the hype when it comes to the former five-star recruit.
And while his freshman season was essentially washed away on special teams as he tried his best to learn Bob Diaco’s system (and more importantly, earn his trust), Kelly pushed his chips behind Redfield before the Pinstripe Bowl, giving him a starting job and a ton of reps in December’s bowl preparations.
That confidence seemed to have paid off this spring, when Redfield earned the ultimate respect by being one of the earliest defenders pulled from the field in the Blue-Gold game. While we’ve only seen bits and pieces of Redfield in our three days of practice footage, he looks every bit the back line centerfielder (with an ability to play enforcer as well) that’s essential in VanGorder’s man scheme.
After missing the play of Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta to solidify the safety position, it looks like Redfield is the next very good one (at least) anchoring the back end of the defense.
Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: 20th.
11. Steve Elmer (OL, Soph.): Elmer played his way into the starting lineup last season as a true freshman, capitalizing on early enrollment and Lombard’s injury. While he was recruited as a player who could be Zack Martin’s heir apparent at left tackle, Elmer spent spring playing left guard, a jumbo-sized Chris Watt next to Ronnie Stanley, a jumbo version of Martin at left tackle.
But Elmer opened up fall camp at right tackle, with Matt Hegarty getting the first opportunity at left guard and Mike McGlinchey the odd man out, for now. That type of versatility, especially in a second-year offensive lineman, is rare, and speaks to the high IQ and top-shelf physical ability that Elmer possesses.
At his best, Elmer projects to be a high draft pick and a versatile lineman with the size and ability to play at either guard or tackle. Right now, he’s a no-brainer starter for Kelly, giving he and Harry Hiestand the ability to mix and match assets around Elmer, Stanley, Nick Martin and Lombard, four really impressive starting pieces.