It’s official. Brian Kelly won yesterday’s press conference. Now we’ll find out the five players who’ll have the largest say in whether the Irish perform up to the lofty standards their head coach set yesterday.
If there’s been anything that’s glaringly stood out about this list, it’s the incredible depth Notre Dame has built up in Kelly’s six years in South Bend. And while most of the focus the past few weeks has been on the players departing—reserve defensive ends and third-string running backs somehow making their way onto the ESPN bottom line—it was pretty clear that those deletions won’t do much to derail Notre Dame’s intentions.
While most agree that this team is Notre Dame’s “best shot” in quite some time, it’s also worth pointing out the balance in this list.
Players in their final season of eligibility: Six.
Players with two years remaining: 12*
Players with three years remaining: Five.
Players with four years remaining: Two.
*This group includes Jaylon Smith, Ronnie Stanley and KeiVarae Russell, all likely candidates to turn professional after this season.
Of course, those stay-or-go decisions will be worries for another day. But even if nine players return from this talented group, it’ll form a core that’ll be more than supplemented by young and emerging personnel.
The message? The future is bright. But today, none of that means more than the present. Here are the final rankings for our annual Top 25.
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
20. Nyles Morgan, LB
19. Chris Brown, WR
18. Elijah Shumate, S
17. Corey Robinson, WR
16. Mike McGlinchey, OT
15. Steve Elmer, RG
14. Isaac Rochell, DE
13. Max Redfield, S
12. Joe Schmidt, LB
11. Jarron Jones, DT
10. Malik Zaire, QB
9. C.J. Prosise, WR/RB
8. Nick Martin, C
7. Cole Luke, CB
6. Tarean Folston, RB
5. Sheldon Day (DL, Senior): We’ve spent years hearing Notre Dame’s coaches rave about Day’s abilities. Now it’s finally time to see him put together a season up to the standard set for him. Yesterday, Brian Kelly talked about different ways the Irish can utilize Day, perhaps shifting him outside on passing downs while moving someone else (Isaac Rochell, maybe?) to the three-technique. But Day’s pass rushing clout is more theoretical than anything we’ve actually seen proven. His career total is 3.5, just a shade more than a single sack a season.
That’s not to say that Day hasn’t been productive. But an elite player’s stat-line can’t include near-misses and almost disruptions.
Health has been a major barrier for Day. Only as a part-time freshman did he play every game. Entering his final season is South Bend, Day is healthy and ready to play to his potential. If he does, Notre Dame believes they have one of the country’s best and most versatile defensive linemen. Now Day needs to go out and prove it.
Highest Ranking: 3rd. Lowest Ranking: 7th.
4. KeiVarae Russell (CB, Senior): The long road back to the playing field is almost complete for Russell. And once he steps on the field, we’ll be done getting our updates on Notre Dame’s most impressive defensive back from his Instagram account, and instead we will see if Russell is able to pick up where he left off in the Pinstripe Bowl, dominating the game as a cover corner.
Russell has elite athletic traits. He’s fast, explosive, long-enough to cover tall receivers and quick enough to hang with the smaller ones. Perhaps best of all is his self-belief, a non-stop ball of energy and positivity who will infect this defense, unwilling to allow a swoon to hit like the one that ruined the 2014 season.
Heading into fall camp last year, the coaching staff expected Russell to emerge as one of the nation’s best cornerbacks. Paired with Cole Luke, Notre Dame should—and should is the operative word—have one of the best tandems in the country. But it’ll depend not just on Luke making the leap as an upperclassmen, but Russell shaking off the rust that comes with spending a year working against pylons and boxes, not wide receivers.
Highest Ranking: 3rd. Lowest Ranking: 6th.
3. Will Fuller (WR, Junior): No player gets less credit for a record-setting season than Will Fuller. While Irish fans—and usually the national media—jump at the chance to talk about Notre Dame’s next great playmaker, Fuller managed to stay mostly anonymous on the national level after putting together the finest sophomore season of any wide receiver in school history.
Fuller’s versatility belies his modest measurables. He’s a deep threat who can get behind any defense. But he’s also one of the elite screen-game receivers in football, a dynamic threat who can break a quick throw into a touchdown.
There’s probably not much of an argument to push Fuller any higher up this list. But for all the complaints about Fuller’s mental lapses—he had too many drops and disappeared at times—the second-year receiver had a better overall season than Jaylon Smith, who currently graces the cover of Sports Illustrated and sits atop this list.
We’ll find out what turning the offense over to Malik Zaire does to Fuller’s productivity. A more prolific running game could take touches away from the Irish’s top receiver. But even if defenses turn their attention to slowing down Notre Dame’s next great receiver, that doesn’t mean Fuller needs to let them.
Highest Ranking: 2nd. Lowest Ranking: 8th.
2. Ronnie Stanley (LT, Senior): Getting Ronnie Stanley to stick around South Bend for another season was the biggest recruiting win of the offseason. As draftnik’s broke down 2014 film, Stanley’s outstanding play kept jumping off the screen, with many believing that Notre Dame’s left tackle was the best prospect at his position in the draft class.
Stanley took a big step during bowl preparations, stepping forward as a leader and marking his territory against an LSU defense that was among the best statistical units in the SEC. Now the charge will be to do it every game, anchoring the edge of the Irish offensive line and making sure that both pass protection and run blocking are dominant parts of his portfolio.
There is little chance that Stanley plays out his eligibility. But if he has a good season in 2015 he’s a candidate to be the draft’s first-overall selection… and that likely means the Irish offense was the most dynamic of the Kelly era.
Highest Ranking: 1st. Lowest Ranking: 3rd.
1. Jaylon Smith (LB, Junior): There’s no doubting Smith’s elite athletic traits. Nor that he’s still learning how to properly utilize them. A superhero in training, Smith’s sophomore season was filled with impressive moments, but not without a few humbling ones as well. But ultimately this group couldn’t get beyond the talent and versatility of Notre Dame’s third-year standout, almost a perfect linebacker in today’s game.
This is Smith’s second season atop our rankings. That’s lofty territory, and makes sense when you see Smith’s name on multiple preseason All-American lists. But as a junior who also has high first-round evaluations floating around, it’s up to Smith to prove he can do more than just the exceptional, but rather that he can do what’s expected of him, and do it at a level of mastery.
The stage is set for Smith to absolutely fill the stat-sheet. With proper depth at the inside linebacker positions, Smith can utilize his speed as a pass rusher, playing on the edge if needed. He’ll be able to help in coverage, erasing all but the most talented of tight ends, backs and receivers. But he’ll need to lose the freelancing from his game, somewhere he lapsed later in the season, especially after Joe Schmidt went down.
Put simply, Notre Dame’s most talented player wasn’t always its best and most responsible. But that should change in 2015.
Highest Ranking: 1st. Lowest Ranking: 2nd.
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