Counting down the Irish: 15-11

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If the first five members of this list represented talented newcomers and untapped potential, the next five members of this group is filled with veterans ready to step into the spotlight.

To take a snapshot of the first ten names on our Top 25 list gives you a nice look at how this team’s roster is being built. A mix of talented recruits and newcomers will push to be included in the team’s top 22 (the starters), though every freshman ranks behind a veteran at their position. That’s healthy competition — the life blood of an elite program — something the Irish hope to cement themselves as this season after a surprising twelve-win campaign in 2012.

The next five members of this list all are expected to end up in the starting lineup. They’ve each taken a different route to get there, and all played important roles in last season’s success. They are equal parts highly touted recruits and developmental successes, but all have expectations to be heavy contributors if the Irish hope to make a BCS appearance.

2013 Irish Top 25
25. Max Redfield (S, Fr.)
24. Elijah Shumate (S, Soph.)
23. Jaylon Smith (OLB, Fr.)
22. Ishaq Williams (OLB, Jr.)
21. Greg Bryant (RB, Fr.)
20. Christian Lombard (RT, Sr.)
19. Amir Carlisle (RB, Jr.)
18. Carlo Calabrese (LB, Grad.)
17. Jarrett Grace (LB, Jr.)
16. Matthias Farley (S, Jr.)

RANKINGS

15. George Atkinson III (RB, Jr.) If there was a guy on this list that didn’t improve last season, it was Atkinson. Stuck in a battle for carries with Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, Atkinson struggled to find his stride, even taking a step back as a kick returner after returning two for touchdowns as a freshman.

Of course, calling Atkinson’s sophomore season a slump doesn’t really take into consideration the fact that he still managed to average 7.1 yards per carry. That gives you an idea of the big play potential he has every time he touches the football, with big runs against Navy, Michigan State and Miami among the most explosive plays of the season.

At a shade over 6-foot-1 and almost 220 pounds, Atkinson has a power physique and world class sprinter speed. He was listed among the top “freaks” in college football, by CBS Sports’ Bruce Feldman. But to be the running back this team needs, he’ll have to continue to get better at the basics. Making the right read, getting his pad level down, salvaging something out of nothing. That’s what Brian Kelly and his staff value and that’s why Atkinson is still battling Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel for the starting job.

A strong spring practice has many inside the program believing that any immature streak in Atkinson’s past is gone and he’s ready to become the alpha dog. If he can continue to develop as a back, he’s got the upside to be absolutely frightening to opposing defenses.

Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: 21st.

14. Dan Fox (LB, Grad.) Nobody got the fresh start they needed when Brian Kelly and his staff took over more than Fox. Stuck as a bit of a tweener, many raised an eyebrow when Kelly and Bob Diaco shifted Fox to the inside of the 3-4 defense, asking a guy many thought could’ve been a safety to play in the trenches for this defense.

Fox latched onto Diaco’s tutelage and stepped into the starting lineup in 2011, sharing time with Carlo Calabrese but immediately helping to upgrade the athleticism in the front seven. Last year was his best season for the Irish, still ceding time to Calabrese in goal line situations, but playing more than just a complimentary role to Manti Te’o.

Entering his final year of college football, Fox is the type of guy that has become a very productive BCS player. Built from the ground up after being a hurdler and safety in high school, the 240-plus pound linebacker has infused athleticism into a position that for far too long was one of the detriments of the Irish defense.

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

13. Sheldon Day (DE, Soph.) Day makes an impressive leap onto this list after a promising freshman season spent backing up Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore. That Day’s ascent into the starting lineup and impact on the defense is all but assumed gives you an idea that the Indianapolis native is set for big things.

It’s hard to read too much into a debut season that featured only included two sacks and less than two dozen tackles, but Brian Kelly has raved about Day’s abilities. While he’s undersized for a defensive end in this system, he’s already being called one of the team’s best block destructors and is expected to be a disruptive force up front, especially when Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt demand the attention of opposing offenses.

If there’s a flier on this list, it might be Day. But there’s every reason to believe the hunch this group takes on him is well worth it. Stepping into one of the best front sevens in the country as a true freshman and making a significant contribution shows you how talented Day is. There’s every reason to believe that another year in the weight room and another season developing will lead to big things for the talented sophomore.

Highest Ranking: 10th. Lowest Ranking: 19th.

12. Danny Spond (OLB, Sr.) After hearing from Brian Kelly since day one how talented Danny Spond was, last season finally proved the Irish head coach right. Spond, one of Kelly’s first targets after taking the head job late in the recruiting cycle, became one of the key members of the Irish defense, sliding into the ‘Dog’ outside linebacker job, and allowing Prince Shembo to shift to the boundary side of the field, where he thrived.

Spond started eleven games for the Irish, playing a critical role not just against the run, but as an excellent drop and cover linebacker that was so talented he ended up playing cornerback in some nickel situations. Making that all the more impressive was the fact that many worried Spond would never play football again after a horrifying injury during training camp had many worried that his career was over. But after weeks of exploration by doctors, Spond’s severe migraine headaches cleared up and he became one of the glue guys in the Irish defense.

With the back-end of the Irish defense in much better shape than it was last season, Spond won’t likely be asked to do everything like he did at times in the coverage scheme. And after a successful first season in the starting lineup, Spond’s already cerebral nature will help take his experience playing and apply it quickly. Making things interesting for the Irish defensive staff is how to use all the talented outside linebackers on this roster. Ishaq Williams, Jaylon Smith, Spond and returning starter Prince Shembo all need to see the field, and keeping Spond on the field to help against the pass while the other three are among the team’s best edge rushers gives the Irish a true champagne problem heading into 2013.

Highest Ranking: 5th. Lowest Ranking: 25th.

11. Tommy Rees (QB, Sr.) For all the vitriol that Rees tends to feel from some Irish fans still angry about 2011’s turnover problems, the voting panel was just as divided about the senior quarterback. The school’s most accurate passer entering his final season in South Bend, Rees has gone from unheralded, surprise freshman starter to one of the team’s veteran leaders, called upon in a pinch to rescue a team with high hopes even with Everett Golson gone for the year.

For as much as people focus on what Rees can’t do, there’s plenty that make him one of the most valued members of this roster. The school’s most accurate passer in the program’s history, Rees knows the offense inside and out, completes the throws that need to be made, and has had success moving the offense, primarily in 2011.

Of course, no dissection of Rees can come without mentioning the turnover problems that plagued him during his sophomore season. When the Irish cleaned them up in 2012, they went from an eight-win team to the BCS National Championship game.

It won’t be hard for the Irish offense to take a step forward this season, especially when you look back at the growing pains the team went through as it developed Golson. In Rees’ final season, he’ll need to improve on the accuracy of his deep throws as well as his decision making. He’ll never be the running threat the Irish had with Golson, but there’s every reason to believe he can improve on the turnovers, with four years in the offense and continuity with Chuck Martin.

Highest Ranking: 3rd. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (one ballot).

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Our voting panel:

Brian Hamilton, Chicago Tribune
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago
John Vannie, ND Nation
John Walters, MediumHappy.com
Ryan Ritter, HerLoyalSons.com
4pointshooter, OneFootDown.com
Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish