As we begin our rankings, we find a cross-section of players that represent just about every type of Brian Kelly recruit. There are blue-chippers. There are “RKGs.” And there are position switches and developmental projects.
If there’s been a most impressive part of Brian Kelly’s six years in South Bend, it’s the roster building. And no subset of five players does a better job of checking the boxes than this group.
Interestingly, while our “Just Missed” included starters in Romeo Okwara, Amir Carlisle, Justin Yoon (a kicker, but still) and James Onwualu, this group has only two projected starters. But the impact expected from this group certainly speaks to a higher ceiling, and all five players should be important performers this season.
Without further ado, let’s get things started.
2015 IRISH TOP 25 RANKINGS
25. Jerry Tillery (DL, Freshman): There was no bigger story in spring football than the emergence of freshman defensive lineman Jerry Tillery. With Jarron Jones recovering from foot surgery and Sheldon Day taking only limited reps, Tillery emerged as the next man in, a surprising twist considering most expected him to be an offensive tackle.
Brian Kelly raved about his young defensive lineman, and it didn’t just sound like coachspeak. And while we should exercise caution as we set out expectations for one of the Irish’s youngest contributors, Tillery looks like a future star who could make an impact from the get-go, a rarity along the defensive line.
Highest ranking: 19th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (four ballots)
24. Greg Bryant (RB, Sophomore): News broke in July that Bryant would be suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season. That likely played a role in his drop down our lists, with Bryant the biggest “loser” in our poll, falling 15 places from his No. 9 slot last season. The former five-star running back did lead the Irish running backs in yards-per-carry in 2014, but gave way to Tarean Folston down the stretch as his classmate emerged as the closest thing to a feature back the Irish had.
There’s a chance this could be an over-correction by our voters. But if Bryant is going to miss one-third of the regular season, that’s a massive amount of time for a guy who looked to be on the come after a strong spring. But after arriving in South Bend with great expectations, maybe this is the best thing for Bryant. If he returns with fresh legs in October, he’ll be a great option for a ground game that performed well when he shared the backfield with Malik Zaire against USC.
Highest Ranking: 17th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (five ballots).
23. Durham Smythe (TE, Junior): Notre Dame has produced elite tight ends better than any other program in college football over the past decade. And perhaps that’s why Durham Smythe finds himself on this list, even if he’s only made one catch in his first two seasons in South Bend.
Smythe looks like he’ll be the starter at tight end, the most well-rounded prospect at a position filled with some intriguing pieces. And while there’ll certainly be more mixing and matching at the position after Ben Koyack led the offensive skill players in snaps taken, Smythe has the ability to be just as good as his predecessor (and in all likelihood, better).
At this point, it’s hard to say with certainty what Smythe does well. But he’s got the trust of the Irish coaching staff, and it’s hard to think playing major minutes won’t automatically mean Smythe picks up where Koyack left off.
Highest Ranking: 16th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Six ballots).
22. Matthias Farley (DB, Grad Student): What a difference a season makes. At this time last year, Farley looked like a bench warmer. One season after a very disappointing sophomore campaign featured Farley played erratically at safety, Brian VanGorder and Brian Kelly moved the veteran to slot cornerback, where he looked to be buried at one of the roster’s deepest positions.
But after KeiVarae Russell was suspended and Cody Riggs slid back outside, Farley emerged as Notre Dame’s best playmaker in the secondary. He filled the stat sheet—tying for the team lead in interceptions, while finishing second in sacks, and tied for second in TFLs. Farley finds his way around the football. And while he’s still prone to the occasional mismatch in coverage, he made enough big plays to make up for it.
Highest Ranking: 12th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (five ballots).
21. Quenton Nelson (LG, Sophomore) One year after a redshirt, our panel expects Quenton Nelson to thrive now that he’s in the starting lineup. Penciled in at left guard, Nelson’s emergence ultimately was the reason why Matt Hegarty transferred, with Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand believing that Nelson could plug-in just fine at guard while Nick Martin slides back to center. (Hegarty was told he’d have to compete for the starting job at guard.)
Handing off a job to a young, first-year performer is a risk, especially when it means someone talented like Hegarty is leaving. But after traditionally betting on veterans with time in the program instead of the young player with upside, Nelson must not have given the Irish staff much of a choice.
The physically impressive guard will get his chance to go toe-to-toe with some big-bodied defensive tackles, putting to test the strength and nastiness that has so many excited about his future.
Highest Ranking: 15th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (five ballots).
Our 2015 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
Michael Bryan, One Foot Down
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
Jude Seymour, Her Loyal Sons
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago
John Vannie, NDNation
John Walters, Newsweek