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Counting Down the Irish: 10 to 6

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Brandon Wimbush may have finished last season with a completion percentage less than 50 percent, but he also accounted for 30 touchdowns total. That disparity likely explains his complete lack of movement between this ranking and the one published a year ago. He produced, but not in such a way to push the senior quarterback into the top-five of Notre Dame’s most impactful players amid 2018’s expectations.

25: Jonathan Bonner, fifth-year defensive tackle, 29 points
24: Tyler Newsome, fifth-year punter and captain, 30
23: Liam Eichenberg, junior left tackle, 60
22: Tommy Kraemer, junior right guard, 74
21: Justin Yoon, senior kicker, 79
20: Julian Okwara, junior defensive end, 84
19: Dexter Williams, senior running back, 88
18: Alizé Mack, senior tight end, 89
17: Tony Jones, junior running back, 91
16: Shaun Crawford, senior nickelback, 93
15: Cole Kmet, sophomore tight end, 110
14: Robert Hainsey, sophomore right tackle, 119
13: Troy Pride, junior cornerback, 133
12: Alohi Gilman, junior safety, 135
11: Chase Claypool, junior receiver, 167

10: Khalid Kareem, junior defensive end, 180 points
High ranking: No. 4
Low ranking: No. 15
12 ballots total.

Kareem cracks the top 10 because of two very-related occurrences. For starters, he played well last year (5.5 tackles for loss including three sacks with two coming against USC) and continued that rise in the spring. That development gave fifth-year defensive end Jay Hayes enough pause about his final season of eligibility and subsequent playing time to spark Hayes’ transfer to Georgia. That departure put Kareem into prime position to break out this year as the undisputed starter at strongside defensive end.

In that role, Kareem should match last season’s stats and then some. Back then he was a mere supplement to Hayes and senior Andrew Trumbetti. That duo combined for 55 tackles with 7.5 for loss including 1.5 sacks. Not all of those moments will fall to Kareem — classmate Ade Ogundeji stands to benefit immensely, as well — but the majority of them will.

A defensive end with 40-plus tackles, eight or nine for loss and at least five sacks just might make enough of an impact to warrant a higher ranking than No. 10.

9: Miles Boykin, senior receiver, 185 points
High ranking: No. 2
Low ranking: No. 23
12 ballots total.

Considering how Boykin’s season ended/his 2018 began, it is worth noting he did not make this top 25 at all heading into 2017.

Of course, his production this year will hinge greatly on quarterback play, but the offseason praise Irish head coach Brian Kelly continues to heap on Boykin gives the impression he should excel this fall with or without stellar performances from Wimbush.

“Miles Boykin obviously was a guy that we didn’t see much of during the year, but had a breakout game,” Kelly said a week ago. “He carried that into the offseason, into spring ball, and then into the summer workouts. He’s been outstanding.”

Boykin and Wimbush have apparently developed more of a rapport, leading to some intriguing possibilities for situational connections.

“You can take a Miles Boykin now and work on some specific things in the red zone in terms of back shoulder throws and things of that nature,” Kelly said after the first preseason practice. “We weren’t at that point (a year ago).”

Junior defensive end Daelin Hayes is most-praised for his pass-rush abilities, but his overall game has progressed past that one dimension. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

8: Daelin Hayes, junior defensive end, 193 points
High ranking: No. 6
Low ranking: No. 19
12 ballots total.
Last year: No. 9

A defensive end’s duties extend beyond chasing the ball behind the line of scrimmage. In those regards, Hayes is superior to Kareem to date, but he also excels in racking up sacks, notching three last season. His pass rush has already caused Notre Dame some problems in preseason practice.

“Daelin Hayes was outstanding in what he was doing,” Kelly told WatchND’s Jack Nolan following the second practice. “A lot more confident as a football player. He’s going to be difficult to defend.

“We had to get him off the football field because we had to play with a freshman [offensive tackle] with the second-group and we couldn’t get any plays off.”

Hayes will rarely have such inexperienced players trying to set the edge against him, but his continued development may render that a moot point.

His stats and pending breakout season aside, Hayes moving up one whole spot in these rankings in a year does not give testament to how much better off the Irish defensive line is than in its recent history. Consider this poll a year ago: Hayes was the first defensive lineman listed at No. 9 with tackle Jerry Tillery the second at No. 11. Only when Jay Hayes (no relation) rated at No. 20 did the line reveal its third player of note.

It should hardly be a spoiler to admit Tillery is in the top five this year, meaning three of Notre Dame’s best-10 players are on the defensive line. That is an absolute must in college football.

7: Alex Bars, fifth-year left guard, captain, 228 points
High ranking: No. 4
Low ranking: No. 10
12 ballots total.
Last year: No. 17

Bars is the fourth offensive linemen to show up in this balloting, and his spectrum was nearly as narrow as his blocking partner’s included in tomorrow’s top five. Bars shores up an offensive line interior in the best way possible when losing a unanimous All-American. He will not be as good as Quenton Nelson, but that is hardly a knock. He will fill those shoes as well as anyone could hope.

Bars’ 6-foot-6 frame is massive for the inside, but it will allow him to aid first-year starter junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg in ways escaping most notice. Eichenberg will have the luxury of cheating just a bit toward the outside, knowing Bars’ reach can handle those extra inches. In that regard, Bars’ excellence improves the entire offensive line.

Expecting a Heisman campaign from Irish senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush is to set oneself up for disappointment. Expecting him to improve upon last season should be a bit more realistic, though. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

6: Brandon Wimbush, senior quarterback, 234 points
High ranking: No. 1
Low ranking: No. 14
12 ballots total.
Last year: No. 6

Wimbush’s skewed rankings and overall finish at No. 6 are not inherently a criticism of him, though that is naturally included to some degree. They also point to the strength of the Irish defense. The two ballots that ranked him lowest, at Nos. 13 and 14, each included seven defenders and multiple offensive linemen in front of Wimbush. This iteration of Notre Dame does not necessarily need its quarterback to be outstanding every moment in order to be successful.

It does need him to avoid mistakes, establish consistency and add in a few moments of brilliance. He excelled in two of those regards last year, but a 49.5 percent completion rate is far from reliable consistency. Very far from it, in fact, as is a yards per attempt average of 6.8.

It is genuinely hard to imagine a season in which Wimbush is more than the sixth-most impactful player on the roster. The defense has too many potential stars, and the hype is building for another offensive lineman All-American campaign, if not at least consideration. For the year to end where Kelly & Co. want it to, though, Wimbush will need to fall no lower. The Irish — and Boykin, and Claypool, and Kmet — will need Wimbush to propel such success.

“Brandon is starting to realize who he is as a player and a competitor,” Kelly told Nolan on Sunday. “He’s at his best when he’s playing fast and not thinking about a bunch of stuff.

“He’s got great athletic ability, he’s got great arm strength, he’s got the ability to run. … Play fast, good things will happen.”

The panelists:
Michael Bryan, 18 Stripes
Bryan Driskell, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Elizabeth Greason, The Observer
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Laken Litman, Indianapolis Star
Tim O’Malley, Irish Illustrated
LaMond Pope, Chicago Tribune
Ryan Ritter, Her Loyal Sons
Pete Sampson, The Athletic
John Vannie, ND Nation
Joshua Vowles, One Foot Down