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Counting Down the Irish: The Top Five

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This top-five should show where Notre Dame’s strength will be this season: the running game. More specifically, the running game to the left side of the line.

It probably did not take this polling to reveal as much considering the Irish offensive line features two sure-fire first-round NFL Draft picks on the left side, but it is worth noting how the two will be viewed this year. They finished a point apart at the top of these rankings. Brace yourselves for a few months’ worth of wondering if fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey legally changed his name to “McGlinchey and Nelson.”

Unlike Nos. 6-10, these five have proven themselves on the field. Also unlike Thursday’s five, all five of these players could be gone come 2018. Three will have eligibility remaining, but it is nearly certain the top vote-getter heads to the NFL with a season of collegiate time left on the table while either or both of the skill position players could showcase themselves this year to the point it would be foolish not to head to the pros.

All in all, Notre Dame has a consensus top-five this year. To that end, this annual ranking served its purpose of highlighting the roster’s top-end. Consider this one last nod of appreciation to the dozen panelists for taking the time to partake.

25: Donte Vaughn, sophomore cornerback, 30 points
24: Justin Yoon, junior kicker, 34
23: Te’von Coney, junior linebacker, 50
22: Durham Smythe, fifth-year senior tight end, 50
21: C.J. Sanders, junior receiver and returner, 52
20: Jay Hayes, senior defensive end, 58
19: Kevin Stepherson, sophomore receiver, 78
18: Chase Claypool, sophomore receiver, 91
17: Alex Bars, senior right guard, 92
16: Nick Watkins, senior cornerback, 106
15: Dexter Williams, junior running back, 109
14: Sam Mustipher, senior center, 116
13: Greer Martini, senior linebacker, 129
12: Julian Love, sophomore cornerback, 159
11: Jerry Tillery, junior defensive tackle, 162
10: Shaun Crawford, junior cornerback, 165
9: Daelin Hayes, sophomore defensive end, 191
8: Alizé Mack, junior tight end, 194
7: Drue Tranquill, senior rover, 200
6: Brandon Wimbush, junior quarterback, 231

5: Equanimeous St. Brown, junior receiver, 257 points

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High ranking: No. 1
Low ranking: No. 9
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

To give an idea how stark St. Brown’s breakout sophomore season was, realize a year ago he finished No. 25 in this ranking. This year, even when one ballot mistakenly left him off entirely (later corrected), St. Brown still finished No. 5.

Some Irish fans may read the above reference to St. Brown playing himself into position to enter the NFL Draft and panic. That would be a mistake. It should be read as a positive sign. For St. Brown to genuinely consider that leap this spring, he will need to excel in the fall.

With junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush now the starter, St. Brown will have plenty of opportunities to star even further. It is not that St. Brown did not mesh with DeShone Kizer. Rather, it is that St. Brown has worked with Wimbush for three years, including their freshman season when neither was seeing much action.

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4: Josh Adams, junior running back, 259
High ranking: No. 1
Low ranking: No. 7
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

Unlike St. Brown, Adams’ rise in this ranking is only from No. 8 a year ago. His ceiling may be capped by the talent in Notre Dame’s running back stable. The flipside of that luxury is Adams should still be fresh come November this year. That could be an intimidating concept for opponents considering Adams averaged 7.42 yards per carry last November, closing the season with back-to-back 100-yard games, including 180 yards on only 17 carries against USC.

Adams at his peak may be the Irish at their best this season. But he cannot do it on his own, as illustrated by the top-two finishers yet to come. His impact is easily measured in yards, yards per carry and touchdowns. Nonetheless, their contributions will lead to his production.

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3: Nyles Morgan, senior linebacker, 269
High ranking: No. 2, by two separate voters
Low ranking: No. 6
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

Of the top six, only Morgan did not receive a No. 1 vote. Those all went to offensive players. Maybe that is a symptom of college football as a whole. More likely, that is a symptom of the Notre Dame defense struggling so immensely a year ago.

If the defense reverses that trend this year, it will be under the Irish captain’s direction. Frankly, Morgan may not match last year’s 94 tackles, not with senior rover Drue Tranquill in position to build on his 79 and senior linebacker Greer Martini expected to see more time this season alongside Morgan. He also may not match his four sacks, not with an added emphasis on defensive ends chasing down the passer, led by senior Jay Hayes and sophomore Daelin Hayes (no relation), not to mention Tranquill again.

Thus, view Morgan’s impact on a macro scale. Limiting opponents to three touchdowns per game would be an undeniable triumph, and it would have everything to do with Morgan, no matter how many tackles he tallies and where they are on the field. (Why three touchdowns per game? The low mark of Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame is obviously 2012’s 12.8 points per game. Since then, the Irish defense’s highpoint came in 2013, holding opponents to 22.4 points per game. That is, three touchdowns and a field goal some weekends, a missed field goal other weekends.)

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2: Mike McGlinchey, fifth-year senior left tackle, 284
High ranking: No. 1, by three separate voters
Low ranking: No. 5
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

Partly out of laziness, partly out of a desire to break in the habit mentioned up top, there is a distinct desire to lump McGlinchey’s entry in with the next one. They are separated by one point, about the equivalent of how much space will be between them on the field.

Fans may flinch at this ranking, citing McGlinchey’s penchant for pre-snap penalties a year ago. They have a point, but that is also the peril of judging any offensive lineman off the times his name is mentioned by an announcer. The other thing to keep in mind is how much praise has been heaped on McGlinchey this offseason. Rarely does a likely first-round draft pick return to college and receive credit for drastic improvements. That has been the case with McGlinchey to date, though obviously seeing it against Temple on Sept. 2 will mean more.

As has been the case with each of the captains, McGlinchey’s impact will extend beyond his thankless duties as a left tackle. Media members, including some of these panelists, noted McGlinchey addressing the Irish following the opening session of preseason practice. For a player who has typically led by example, the outspoken moment was notably out of character.

What has not been out of character is another Notre Dame left tackle excelling. Simply as a thought experiment, it is curious to wonder where the starting left tackle, whomever that may be, will finish in this polling in 2018.

1: Quenton Nelson, senior left guard, 285
High ranking: No. 1, by six separate voters
Low ranking: No. 7
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

What else needs to be said? The left guard plays physical and sound football. He has shown expertise in both passing and running situations. Not only did six panelists place Nelson atop their ballots, but three more slotted him second.

On the inside of the line, Nelson will also assist Wimbush and senior center Sam Mustipher in diagnosing certain defensive looks. As another captain, he will stand next to McGlinchey — figuratively or literally — whenever the team needs to be addressed.

This top slot should not be a surprise. Gauging a left guard’s contribution may be more subjective than looking at a linebacker’s tackle totals or a running back’s average yards per carry, but it is every bit as vital, if not more so. Not every play will reach the defense’s second-level and not every offensive alignment will include a running back on the field. Meanwhile, every offensive snap will give a defender a chance to blow past Nelson and reach the quarterback.

Don’t expect that defender to succeed much in 2017.

The 2017 Counting Down the Irish panelists
Michael Bryan, 18 Stripes
Bryan Driskell, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Mike Monaco, Notre Dame Broadcaster/Reporter
Ben Padanilam, The Observer
LaMond Pope, Chicago Tribune
Ryan Ritter, Her Loyal Sons
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
Evan Sharpley, Irish 247
John Vannie, ND Nation
Joshua Vowles, One Foot Down