Counting down the Irish: 10-6

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Looking at the first fifteen names we’ve revealed, one pretty clear trend seemed to be emerging. The strength of this team’s depth was on defense. Ten of the players we’ve already rolled out will be defensive contributors. That includes highly touted freshmen Max Redfield and Jaylon Smith, who will have to find a way onto the field for Bob Diaco’s defense.

Of the offensive players listed, only Christian Lombard is a proven commodity. While we’ve talked about the positional flexibility Lombard has, he started 13 games at right tackle, where he’ll open fall camp as the returning starter.

The next five names all but even out our proceedings. They include a nice mix of talented youth and veteran experience, with all five players seemingly on track to be front-line college starters with NFL potential.

Let’s take a look at where where we stand before rolling out our penultimate grouping:

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.)
15. George Atkinson III (RB, Jr.)
14. Dan Fox (LB, Grad.)
13. Sheldon Day (DE, Soph.)
12. Danny Spond (OLB, Sr.)
11. Tommy Rees (QB, Sr.)

RANKINGS

10. Davaris Daniels (WR, Jr.) Entering his third season in the Irish program, where Daniels goes this season will likely give us a better idea of his career trajectory. After redshirting during his freshman season and watching future first round draft pick Michael Floyd, Daniels spent his debut season battling injuries and inconsistency, not all that surprising for a guy taking his first collegiate snaps and depending on a quarterback doing the same.

Daniels made three starts in his eleven games, with an ankle injury and broken collarbone sidetracking him just as he seemed to get rolling. Daniels returned from the collarbone injury against Alabama to provide one of the lone bright spots for the Irish, catching six balls for 115 yards against a talented Crimson Tide defense. Sure, it was with the game mostly in hand for Saban’s crew, but it gives you a glimpse at the tremendous ability that Daniels has when he puts it all together.

That time is now for Daniels, with the Irish offense without a All-American caliber receiving threat for the first time in Kelly’s three seasons. That’s not to say that Daniels doesn’t have that ability, but he’ll need to become the consistent player that many hope is waiting to breakout.

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

9. Troy Niklas (TE, Jr.) That Niklas checks in this high is a testament to the potential of the hulking tight end that should feel much more comfortable a season after learning on the fly as a sophomore. At 6-foot-6.5 and 260-pounds, Niklas has freakish size and strength, and his hands and speed are much better than you’d expect for a man his size.

A season after taking pleasure in learning the mechanics of blocking by flipping sleds, the Irish will ask Niklas to be a more well rounded threat. The Irish coaching staff thinks they have a player that can resemble Rob Gronkowski, and not just in the eclectic personality category.

Niklas caught a modest five balls for 75 yards and a touchdown last season, but was used almost exclusively as an attached blocker that helped power the running game. There were some ugly moments as he played his first season of tight end, but his improvement was well documented as the season went on. Tommy Rees is a fan of using his tight end and Niklas could be the primary beneficiary this season.

Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: 2oth.

8. KeiVarae Russell (CB, Soph.) Entering fall camp as just another body in the running back depth chart, Russell switched sides of the ball and miraculously started all thirteen games for the Irish, putting together a freshman All-American season at cornerback while racking up 58 tackles and two interceptions.

After getting beat for a touchdown pass against Navy in the opener, Russell played with more and more confidence as the season went on, coming up interceptions against both Michigan and USC, the latter a clutch pick against Max Wittek in Irish territory.

It’s still hard to quantify what Russell’s ceiling is as a football player, even after his impressive freshman season. Russell was in the starting lineup mostly out of necessity, with Lo Wood’s season ending Achilles injury putting the Irish into a training camp bind that also saw the Irish temporarily flip Cam McDaniel to the defensive side of the ball as well.

Russell has good enough speed, nice enough size, and clearly has a great head on his shoulders. Spending any time around him you understand that he also has the confidence to be a great cornerback, which goes plenty far. We’ll see by Bob Diaco’s scheme this season how much they trust the duo of Russell and Bennett Jackson to lock down receivers. Never a man coverage defense, adding some to the defensive scheme might tell you all you need to know about the talented sophomore.

Highest Ranking: 5th. Lowest Ranking: 20th.

7. TJ Jones (WR, Sr.) After being stuck in neutral for two seasons, Jones excelled in 2012, taking a big step forward with 649 yards and showing himself as more than just a complementary part of the offense. Jones matched All-American Tyler Eifert’s numbers for both catches and touchdowns, and had a flair for the dramatic, coming up big against both Stanford and Pitt when the Irish needed him most.

Jones will never be a true No. 1 receiver, but he’s getting national attention if only for his consistent body of work and impressive performance against Alabama, where he made seven tough catches. Jones rarely has a ball come his way that he doesn’t catch and had a great knack for getting the tough yards last season.

Quicker than fast, Jones isn’t all that big at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds. But he’s a smooth operator and has worked his way around the Irish offense, starting in the slot and then succeeding last season on the outside. After learning on the fly last season with a new quarterback, Jones is primed for a big season, and could be one of those guys that does enough right to find a nice niche playing on Sundays.

Highest Ranking: 4th.  Lowest Ranking: 14th.

6. Chris Watt (LG, Grad.) That Watt ranks this far down our list goes to show you how much better this roster has gotten personnel wise. In 2010, both Trevor Robinson and Chris Stewart ranked higher on our lists than Watt, with only Robinson latching on to an NFL team as an undrafted free agent. The Irish staff believes Watt is one of the top guards in college football, and at 6-foot-3, 321-pounds, he’s a rough and tumble guy that’s done a lot of good in the trenches for Notre Dame.

Entering his third season as a starter at left guard, Watt and Zack Martin could be one of the best left sides in all of college football. He’ll be counted on to move an already strong running game forward, and should anchor an offensive line that could be one of the strongest in recent memory for the Irish.

It’s hard to truly evaluate the ceiling of an offensive lineman without evaluating an awful lot of game tape, but Watt is one of the best interior linemen on the Irish roster in recent memory.

Highest Ranking: 5th. Lowest Ranking: 10th.

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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