Nyles Morgan

Counting Down the Irish: 15-11

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As we continue our ascent to the top of Notre Dame’s roster, our next five members of the Top 25 play unique roles—all indicative of the talent on Brian Kelly’s seventh team.

Two young players capable of emerging as stars. Two once-heralded recruits stepping into critical roles. And a likely team captain fully transformed after an early-career position switch.

As has been the case with the list so far, there’s little from an on-field performance perspective to validate what we anticipate. But the talent in this group is undeniable, making these projections less about speculation than finally earning an opportunity.

 

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.)
20. Sam Mustipher (C, Jr.)
19. Jerry Tillery (DT, Soph.)
18. Max Redfield (S, Sr.)
17. CJ Sanders (WR, Soph.)
16. Drue Tranquill (S, Jr.)

 

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Blake Frohnapfel #7 of the Massachusetts Minutemen is sacked by James Onwualu #17 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

15. James Onwualu (OLB, Senior): After spending last season playing the majority of snaps in a platoon with Greer Martini, our panel believes that Onwualu’s final season in South Bend will be his best. The former wide receiver has fully transformed his body into that of a linebacker, but still retains the athleticism that should allow him to be excellent in space and in coverage.

Onwualu was Notre Dame’s fourth-best defensive player according to PFF College, grading out at +7.4. With Martini capable of spending time at Will linebacker, Onwualu’s production could go up along with his snap total.

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

 

South Bend Tribune

14. Alex Bars (RT, Junior): There’s a lot of belief in Bars, who’ll fill left tackle Mike McGlinchey’s shoes on the right side. It’s a move that took more of spring to finalize than some expected, mostly because Bars was still recovering from a broken ankle he suffered against USC.

Brian Kelly has raved about Bars in the past. He certainly looks the part of a high-level offensive tackle, a former elite recruit entering his third season in the program. But this is clearly a projection. He’s played roughly 150 snaps in his college career—all at right guard.

Notre Dame’s depth chart requires Bars to play on the edge. Our panel thinks he’s ready. We’ll see soon enough.

Highest Rank: 9th. Lowest Rank: Unranked (one ballot).

Alize Jones Temple

 

 

     

13. Alizé Jones (TE, Sophomore): Jones led all Irish pass catchers not named Will Fuller in yards per catch, a very nice datapoint for those expecting the former blue-chip recruit to take a giant leap forward in 2016. Add to that his cross-training at receiver as a replacement on the boundary side of the formation, and Jones is poised for a huge breakout.

Jones isn’t the physical mismatch that Tyler Eifert was. But he very well could be used like Eifert was in 2012, strategically moved around and mostly detached to get a mismatch down the field. If that’s the case, expect Jones’ numbers to more than multiply, with some red zone targets also a certainty with Corey Robinson gone as well.

Highest Rank: 4th. Lowest Rank: Unranked (one ballot).

 

Shaun Crawford Josh Adams

12. Shaun Crawford (DB, Sophomore): After an ACL injury ended his freshman season in training camp, Crawford returned this spring dead set on making up for lost time. He looked like the same player who was penciled into the starting nickel job, and might be too good to take off the field, possibly lining up opposite Cole Luke.

Even with a non-contact jersey on in the Blue-Gold game, Crawford was making plays everywhere. He’s undersized, but plays with a physicality that makes you ignore his height. With speed and athleticism to cover slot receivers and the confidence to play on the outside, that our panel pegs him as one of the back-seven’s best playmakers certainly says something.

Highest Rank: 7th. Lowest Rank: Unranked (one ballot).

 

TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 08: Quarterback Taylor Kelly #10 of the Arizona State Sun Devils throws a pass under pressure from linebacker Nyles Morgan #5 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the fourth quarter of the college football game at Sun Devil Stadium on November 8, 2014 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Fighting Irish 55-31. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

11. Nyles Morgan (MLB, Junior): For a linebacker who couldn’t get on the field last year, this panel was certainly bullish when evaluating Nyles Morgan. The Chicagoland product steps into Joe Schmidt’s middle linebacker job ranked no lower than 17th on any ballot, with the expectation being Morgan won’t miss a beat in 2016.

From a productivity standpoint, it feels like a lock that Morgan will be one of the team’s leaders. But after watching Morgan understandably struggle with the mental demands of the position as a true freshman, we’ll find out if last season’s watch-and-learn approach pays dividends.

Highest Rank: 8th. Lowest Rank: 17th.

 

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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 

Spring stock report: Defense

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With tidbits coming out of Saturday’s open-to-the-media scrimmage, the state of the Irish roster is slowly coming into focus with just two practices left before the annual Blue-Gold game. While a two-hour workout will likely lead us on as many wild goose chases as it does clear up questions, that’s what spring is all about—matching up what eyes see and ears hear, all while knowing it could all go up in smoke by the time the pads go back on in August.

Regardless, the reports are mostly favorable after watching the Irish scrimmage in Loftus over the weekend. And our stock report focuses on a few key contributors, most moving from the sideline to the starting lineup.

 

STOCK UP

Nyles Morgan. That Morgan looked like a dominant, dynamic presence in the middle of the Irish defense might be the biggest story of the spring. It certainly is a story Brian Kelly didn’t think was being discussed enough.

“There’s not been a lot of talk about Nyles Morgan, which is kind of interesting,” Kelly said over the weekend. “Here’s a guy who didn’t play much last year and stepped into the middle linebacker role. There’s always a lot of talk about Coach VanGorder’s system and it’s so complicated and you’ve got to communicate, and no one’s really talked about Nyles and it’s because he’s been that good this spring.”

Catching up via social media, you’d be hard-pressed to find a report that didn’t rave about Morgan’s performance on Saturday. Pair that with his media availability last week—Morgan looked and sounded like a guy not short on confidence—and it’s looking like life after Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith won’t be all that bad, especially once Greer Martini returns from injury.

Productivity sounded like the name of Morgan’s game on Saturday. Here’s a quick tidbit on Morgan from Bryan Driskell’s practice report at BlueandGold.com:

Junior linebacker Nyles Morgan was arguably the team’s most impressive performer during practice. There is no doubt he was the top performer on defense. Morgan was dominant during the inside run drills by quickly diagnosing the play, beating blockers to the point of attack and arriving at the ball carrier at or behind the line of scrimmage. Morgan spent the entire practice around the football.

His instincts against the run were impressive, as was his ability to diagnose between run and pass during team periods. On a sprint out during the final team period, quarterback DeShone Kizer was rolling to his right and Morgan read the play perfectly, flew through his gap and blew up running back Justin Brent, who was the secondary contain blocker. Morgan also blew up quarterback Malik Zaire on a speed option play in which he made a decisive read and used his top-notch speed to quickly arrive into the backfield.

Morgan was very good in coverage. He quickly reads crosses and takes good angles to the ball. He had good depth on his zone drops and played the ball well. The only time he got beat was by sophomore tight end Alize Jones on a red zone corner route, but Kizer missed long.

That should be music to the ears of Irish fans, and a huge piece of the 2016 defensive puzzle moving forward.

 

Drue Tranquill. Notre Dame’s bionic man could turn into a Swiss Army Knife next season. Tranquill will be set loose next season, all over the field if reports are a glimpse into the future.

Tranquill’s versatility might overshadow the fact that he’s played his way into an every-down role as a starting safety. But there sounds to be some comfort growing in coverage for Tranquill (not necessarily his strong suit thus far) and an expanded knowledge base can’t hurt as the Irish put him all over the field trying to exploit mismatches.

Still mid-recovery from his second ACL injury in as many seasons, Tranquill needs to keep his speed up, especially if he’s going to be asked to cover receivers in space. But a tackling machine on a defense that definitely needs his consistency, it’s been a great spring for the rising junior.

 

Shaun Crawford. Another ACL recovery that looks to be making great progress, Crawford might be playing his way into a starting cornerback job in addition to serving as the team’s nickel back.

The loss of Nick Watkins to a broken arm opened up reps for Crawford at cornerback across from Cole Luke and he seems like the quickest fit for the job. But that might take him away from the all-important nickel job, an inside-cover slot that allows Crawford to use his surprising physicality and his nose for the football.

It won’t take long for comparisons to Antoine Winfield or perhaps, more currently, the honey badger Tyron Mathieu. But the fact that Crawford’s even out on the field right now making up ground should be good enough.

“I’ve exceeded expectations I had for myself by just being able to play in the (Blue-Gold) game,” Crawford told Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister. “I think I’ve only missed one game my entire time playing football, so it was really hard missing an entire season, even missing practice.”

 

Isaac Rochell. Approaching his second season with defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, Rochell could take a big step forward in 2016, an awards-level caliber player who could wreak havoc from the big defensive end position.

It shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise. Rochell was the defense’s third-ranked player, according to PFF College. But until he steps up his pass rush game, he’ll be a somewhat one-dimensional end, especially on a defense crying out for someone to get to the quarterback.

That improvement was evident, per multiple reports from practice. The physical skills are there—Rochell was spotted out-quicking Sheldon Day during some of UND.com’s practice reports last offseason. But adding some versatility to his pass rush game would be a huge addition to the defense, and a credit to Gilmore.

 

STOCK DOWN

Nick Watkins. After being the beneficiary of some late-season injuries in 2015, it’s Watkins who now has to work from behind entering the upcoming season. A broken arm that should be healed in six weeks cost him the second half of spring practice, a difficult blow dealt to a talented cornerback who looked to have a leg up in the race for KeiVarae Russell’s open job.

Summer workouts—run by a strength staff that now has former Kelly lieutenant (and Buffalo head coach) Jeff Quinn on it—will be critical in Watkins development. The Irish need a cornerback who can hold up in man coverage. Watkins seems like the best option, especially if it allows Crawford to freestyle and serve as the team’s primary nickel back.

 

Jerry Tillery. This might be a harsh assessment, but the days of being a precocious freshman are over. Tillery is coming off a debut season where he spent the final game watching after an off-field rule violation, and needs to add some urgency to a career most have high hopes for.

With great size and ridiculous athleticism, Tillery still looks the part of an All-World defensive lineman. But any comparisons to Stephon Tuitt will be blown away if Tillery doesn’t make a huge leap in 2016. Remember, Tuitt went from a mostly anonymous freshman (who also missed a game because of a rule violation) to an All-American sophomore who challenged for Notre Dame’s sack record.

Fair or not, that’s the bar set for Tillery—especially with Sheldon Day gone and Tillery slotted for the three-technique. It’s not impossible. But that big move hasn’t happened this spring.

 

NEED MORE INFORMATION

Jarron Jones. Another defensive lineman who is absolutely critical to the defensive structure, Jones has had an up-and-down spring practice as he continues his recovery from a knee injury that kept him off the field for all but 14 plays against Ohio State.

While the Irish only need him healthy come the first Sunday of September, Kelly talked about the challenges Jones has faced this spring. He also knows what kind of player he has once the bright lights go one.

That hesitancy is understandable. But a full-strength and fully-motivated Jones is an impact defender. Pair him with a top-of-his game Tillery and the interior of the Irish defense could be one of the more dynamic in the country.

 

Max Redfield. Don’t kick dirt on Redfield just yet. Nor should you read too much into the ascent of early-enrollee freshman Devin Studstill. A freshman making a big move during spring drills is one thing. A true freshman being trusted on the back-end of the defense during game situations is another.

Redfield has all the tools needed to be a productive college football player. He was done no favors by playing in a bowl game as a true freshman. But he’s entering his third season under Brian VanGorder. That means the mental lapses that have plagued his game need to be eliminated.

We’ll see if the timeshare this spring was a motivational tactic or a kickstart of the eventual transition to the Studstill era come August. Until then, I expect Redfield’s final season in South Bend to be a surprising positive.

 

Re-Stocking the roster: Linebackers

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Notre Dame’s spring roster at linebacker is one of the most interesting position groups on the roster. Jaylon Smith is gone, the junior All-American taking his talents—and healing knee—to the NFL. Joe Schmidt is no longer in the middle of the defense, the two-year starter and team captain no longer a coach-on-the-field. Jarrett Grace is gone as well, a player who’ll be missed by more than the 115 snaps he played in 2015.

A new generation awaits, nearly all of them recruited under Brian VanGorder. James Onwualu remains at Sam linebacker, a potential three-year starter who has never been a truly full-time player. Nyles Morgan’s wait is over, the starting middle linebacker job is his to lose. While injuries and youth will impact how the Irish decide to fill Smith’s shoes, there are some intriguing young athletes ready to see if they’re capable of stepping forward.

No group has more to do this spring than Mike Elston’s crew. So before spring practice begins, let’s take a look at the state of the linebacking corps.

 

DEPARTURES
Jaylon Smith
, Jr. (114 tackles, 9 TFLs)
Joe Schmidt, Grad Student (78 tackles, 4 TFLs)
Jarrett Grace, Grad Student (26 tackles, 2.5 TFLs)

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Josh Barajas*
Asmar Bilal*
Te’von Coney
Daelin Hayes
Jonathan Jones
Jamir Jones

*Fifth year of eligibility available

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
James Onwualu, OLB
Nyles Morgan, MLB
Te’von Coney, OLB

Greer Martini
Josh Barajas
Asmar Bilal
Daelin Hayes

 

ANALYSIS
Where’d all the linebackers go? That’s the first thing that jumps out, just how thins the numbers seem to be. It’ll be very interesting to see how spring practice goes, especially considering the injuries that have wreaked havoc on this group. Coney is expected to be out for spring, healing from a shoulder injury that happened just plays after Jaylon Smith went down. Greer Martini also needed work done to fix an injury that all but kept him out against Ohio State, how that impacts his spring remains to be seen as well. Daelin Hayes has everybody excited, but he’s coming off a late-November shoulder surgery, so spring practice isn’t necessarily the best bet for him to be unleashed.

It’s a very big spring for two young redshirts, with Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas looking at nothing but opportunity in front of them. This defense badly needs playmakers and both guys were recruited because of their ability to make an impact. But Barajas was never healthy last season after getting hurt in fall camp, and he also added heft to his frame that the staff didn’t necessarily think he needed. Bilal is a great-looking athlete, though probably could use some of the extra weight Barajas was lugging around to protect him in the trenches.

On paper, it’s easy to see some weakness at the position, especially after attrition took guys like Michael Deeb, Kolin Hill and Bo Wallace out of the program. And while some of that will be shored up come summer when Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones hit campus, this position may also be impacted by how well the secondary’s rebuild goes. A season after not being able to play a nickel or dime package, those may be preferred looks in 2016.

The biggest question that faces this group is knowledge base. Replacing two multiyear starters is difficult. Now add in the challenges of learning position fits and scheme under Brian VanGorder and it’s no wonder some Irish fans are calling for a dumbing down of the playbook.

But before things get too remedial, it’s worth pointing out that this is Morgan’s third year learning under VanGorder and the only defense he’s known at the college level. He should be ready. And whoever slides into Smith’s shoes, they’ve been in the program for at least a full season. The key to all of this is Morgan. If he’s able to take his instincts and athleticism and pair that with a solid grasp of the system, there’s a big year in store. Throw in Onwualu, some intriguing athletes and ascending talent and while it might take some time to learn new jersey numbers, there’s plenty of promise on the horizon as the next wave of linebackers step into battle.

Last looks: Linebackers

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With a strong recruiting surge, some roster shuffling and some good luck (and hard work) in the health department, Notre Dame’s linebacking corps was rebuilt remarkably quickly. A season after question marks were everywhere, the Irish have a linebacking group that is among the fastest and most athletic we’ve seen in a very long time.

With an All-American star and a returning MVP as its heartbeat, new position coach Mike Elston is working with a group of talented and veteran players. They are also the key to the defense’s success against a schedule that features a variety of offenses and two difficult option opponents.

Let’s take our last look at the linebackers before the season opens this weekend.

 

LINEBACKERS
Position Coach: Mike Elston

 

OPENING DEPTH CHART

Mike: Joe Schmidt, Grad Student
Mike: Nyles Morgan, Soph.
or: Jarrett Grace, Grad Student

Will: Jaylon Smith, Jr.
Will: Te’von Coney, Fr.

OLB: James Onwualu, Jr.
OLB: Greer Martini, Soph.

Additional Depth:

Asmar Bilal, Freshman
Josh Barajas, Freshman

 

LEADING MAN

Jaylon Smith. Notre Dame’s most talented defender is ready to take a step forward and play dominant football. After a strong preseason camp and an offseason dedicated to improving key pieces of his game, Smith looks poised to match his world-class athleticism with a better grasp of the Notre Dame defense. Just as important, he’s ready to lead from the front, named a team captain, the only junior of the five wearing the ‘C.’

Capable of being Notre Dame’s best edge rusher and also an elite cover man, Smith can do so many things to help the Irish defense. In what is likely his final season in South Bend, dominance—and a full stat sheet—are just the beginning for him. Willing the defense to a complete performance is another.

 

NEED A BIG SEASON

Joe Schmidt. The team’s returning MVP and the captain who is the alpha of the unit, Schmidt’s Cinderella story is done and told. Now he needs to be an overly productive middle linebacker, building on a great first season in the starting lineup.

Schmidt’s injury was essentially the beginning of the end for Notre Dame’s defense last season. Now that he’s healthy, it’s even more important for him to take the core basics that allowed him to excel last season and use them to play championship-level football.

Schmidt’s limited physically. But no more than 30 or 40 other middle linebackers in the country, including Scooby Wright, Arizona’s all-everything performer. So it’s time to take the focus off of his size and two-star pedigree.

Schmidt runs well, he’s got plenty of heft at 235 well-sculpted pounds and he’s got a brilliant football mind. Now he’s got to learn how to impact a game more, making plays behind the line of scrimmage in addition to anchoring the unit in the huddle.

 

THREE BIGGEST FACTORS…

Where will Jaylon Smith spend most of his time? Yes, Smith is still listed as the starter at the Will linebacker spot. But there’s no doubt that Notre Dame will play Smith everywhere, hoping to get him into positions where he can best impact the game.

If Smith shifts outside, what does that do for James Onwualu? If the Irish need to go bigger against triple-option teams like Georgia Tech or Navy, who slides into the middle? One thing seems clear, Smith isn’t coming off the field. But mixing and matching around him is one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle that’ll only be revealed once the games start.

 

How will Notre Dame’s linebackers adapt to the up-tempo attacks? It’s great to have versatile pieces of depth. But if you can’t run them on and off the field, you’re only as good as the three guys you have on the field.

On paper, the depth chart looks great. Onwualu is the perfect outside linebacker for teams trying to spread the Irish out. Greer Martini has more mass, capable of holding up in the trenches if team’s try to go big against the Irish. Jarrett Grace and Nyles Morgan will each have specific jobs in different packages.

But a versatile collection of weapons doesn’t do you much good if you can’t get them out of the holster.

 

How can this defense optimize their personnel?  I’m not sure how you do it, but I think it starts with Jaylon Smith. From there, it’s hard to see a grouping that doesn’t include Joe Schmidt. After that, Notre Dame’s defense will likely view the third linebacker as a swing piece, deciding if Onwualu is a better fit than Matthias Farley or an additional defensive back.

The loss of freshman Shaun Crawford likely tweaks this formula. So does the move of KeiVarae Russell to the slot and Devin Butler to the outside in nickel. It’s easy to see a Schmidt-Smith pairing, but beyond that, finding how best to use the linebackers is going to be key.

 

THREE RANDOM THOUGHTS

Can this group hold up against the run? A former walk-on, a converted wide receiver and Jaylon Smith walk into a bar…

I’m at a loss for the punch line right now, but with the loss of Jarron Jones in the middle, Notre Dame’s undersized linebacking corps lost a very important protective barrier as this unit looks to be stout against the run.

In 2014, before the rash of injuries the Irish were tough to run against. And while Daniel Cage was praised on Tuesday afternoon by Kelly for his work in the trenches, calling on Cage and true freshman Jerry Tillery to play the nose and stuff the point of attack is a step backwards from a senior like Jones. There’s no questioning this group’s athleticism. But the war in the trenches will be one to watch.

 

Is Te’von Coney ready? A lot of freshmen have been discussed this August. But Te’von Coney has flown under the radar, interesting considering he’s in the two-deep behind Jaylon Smith.

Sure, Smith isn’t coming off the field. But he’s also not a full-time Will linebacker, either. So we’ll have to figure out if Coney’s just a plug-in name on a weekly release or a part of the plans on the inside. The Irish know they have contributors in Grace and Nyles Morgan, but having one in Coney would be impressive, too.

 

Is it crazy to believe that this group can be elite? Nightmares from November continue to run through my head. Watching Jaylon Smith get stuck behind a cavalcade of blockers against USC as the Trojans just ran the ball through Notre Dame’s injury-ravaged defense isn’t forgotten. Even in the Irish’s improbable victory over LSU, Leonard Fournette got his 2016 Heisman campaign started early, averaging 13 yards a carry as the Tigers ran for 285 yards and 7.5 a carry.

Yet the personnel at this position is talented, physical and extremely athletic. They don’t resemble the group that ran around like chickens with their heads cut off late last season. So while it’s tough to forget a terrible run of football that saw Notre Dame give up an average of 39.8 points a game over the final eight games of the year, this group looks really good both on paper and in practice.

Now let’s see what happens when the games start.

 

 

 

Counting down the Irish: 20-16

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For those getting caught up, start here. Then, check out the players who just missed the cut. Our rankings start with No. 25-21

 

We kicked off our list with five candidates for a breakout season. Our next installment seems to be doing one better: All five players have already started football games (or in one case, a game), now the goal is to become dominant performers.

For some, it’s still a learning process. We saw that with Nyles Morgan in 2014, a young linebacker prone to mistakes but still capable of making the big play. For others like Chris Brown and Elijah Shumate, 2015 constitutes a final season to perform, with the hope that three seasons of experience will result in a breakthrough.

We saw game-breaking moments from a player like Corey Robinson. We also saw Mike McGlinchey step into the starting lineup and thrive, surviving a mid-game relief appearance against USC’s Leonard Williams before performing more-than-admirably against LSU.

The depth on Notre Dame’s roster begins to show itself in this installment, with all five players capable of putting together very big seasons.

 

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

 

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

20. Nyles Morgan (LB, Sophomore): No, it wasn’t always pretty. But Morgan’s baptism by fire should help as he moves into his sophomore season. In limited playing time subbing in for an injured Joe Schmidt, Morgan managed to make 47 tackles, the eighth most of any freshman at Notre Dame in the program’s history.

Morgan’s big play potential is obvious. He managed 3.5 TFLs in his four starts, three more than Joe Schmidt managed during his MVP (as voted by peers and coaches) campaign.

A big, fast and mean linebacker, Morgan will compete with Schmidt and Jarrett Grace for time in the middle of the defense. And if he’s able to take the next step from a mental prospective, there’s a chance that Morgan can see the field at the same time as Schmidt and Jaylon Smith, giving the Irish a linebacking corps that should be incredibly productive.

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

 

Chris Brown, Adoree Jackson
Chris Brown, Adoree JacksonAP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

19. Chris Brown (WR, Senior): For two seasons, Brown’s 50-yard catch against Oklahoma served as the singular highlight on the receiver’s resume. But in 2014, he showed shades of becoming a complete player, serving as a capable No. 2, even if it still only happened in spurts .

But as a senior, inconsistency won’t cut it. And playing across from Will Fuller, that type of productive should be a given. So if you’re looking for a candidate to step forward in a receiving group that doesn’t lose a body, Brown is an odds-on-favorite.

He’s big (nearly 6-foot-2) and fast (a high-school sprinter and national record-setter in the triple jump). He’s also finally understanding what it takes to be a consistent performer in Brian Kelly’s offense, though 39 catches and 548 yards is just a start. Somebody has to help take the attention off of Fuller. And Brown is the type of veteran leader who should get one of the first chances to do it.

Highest Ranking: 16th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (three ballots).

 

Purdue v Notre Dame
Purdue v Notre DameMichael Hickey/Getty Images

18. Elijah Shumate (S, Senior): After an impressive freshman season where Shumate helped the 2012 defense as a slot cornerback, the veteran safety battled injuries during a mostly lost sophomore season and then struggled with the transition into Brian VanGorder’s defense in 2014. Still, he started 11 games and played in all 13, finishing third on the team in tackles with 66, chipping in a game-ending interception against Michigan to score a touchdown that counted everywhere but the scoreboard.

But that’s not the type of productivity that’ll get things done at the back end, and Shumate spent too much of last season not fully grasping his role in the Irish defense. But Shumate had a strong spring and is expected to put together a much more impressive final season in South Bend.

Capable of playing near the line of scrimmage and one of the team’s toughest hitters, the 213-pounder will be armed with another season of knowledge in VanGorder’s system.  Hopefully that unlocks a smashmouth playmaker who’ll cause trouble for quarterbacks and strike fear into receivers.

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

 

Ronald Darby,Corey Robinson
Ronald Darby,Corey RobinsonAP Photo/Mark Wallheiser

17. Corey Robinson (WR, Junior): Robinson played the game of his career against Florida State, nearly completing the touchdown hat trick and pulling out a historic win if it weren’t for a dubious offensive pass interference call. And while he had a few other clutch moments in 2014, there’s a consistency that still needs to be added to Robinson’s game if he’s going to take the next step as a receiver.

There’s reason to believe that he can. Robinson put together an impressive sophomore season even after playing most of the year with a fractured thumb. That neutralized one of Robinson’s best traits, a pair of velcro hands, as he continued to evolve as a route runner and grow comfortable with a body that seems to have sprouted well past his listed 6-foot-4.5 height.

A year after being named a first-team Academic All-American and Notre Dame’s Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year, it’s time for Robinson to emerge as a true red zone weapon—not to mention a complete receiver—as he looks to round out his game.

Highest Ranking: 17th. Lowest Ranking: 22nd.

 

16. Mike McGlinchey (RT, Junior): The jump Notre Dame’s starting right tackle made in the rankings from 2014 gives you an idea of his upside. And for all the talk about Ronnie Stanley and his chances to be the potential top pick in 2016, some think McGlinchey could offer much of the same thing at offensive tackle, a scary proposition if true.

At a shade under 6-foot-8, McGlinchey has the mass and length needed to be a prototype tackle. And we’ve heard more than enough from Brian Kelly to understand that McGlinchey’s best asset might be his athleticism.

While Christian Lombard did his best to gut out a tough final season in South Bend as he battled back injuries, McGlinchey sat on the bench. He was the odd-man out after spending last spring as Notre Dame’s projected right tackle, only to see Steve Elmer slide outside during fall camp. Even after that experiment failed, Harry Hiestand and Kelly decided to stick with a veteran like Lombard, though after seeing McGlinchey play when Lombard’s back finally gave out, he seemed more than ready for action.

Entering his third season in the program, McGlinchey is getting his chance. And the physical roadgrader should have a very good season.

Highest Ranking: 10th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (one ballot).

 

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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