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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

No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 12 Syracuse: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much?

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WHO? No. 3 Notre Dame (10-0) vs. No. 12 Syracuse (8-2).

WHAT? The Irish can burgeon their Playoff claim with a second top-15 win. It will be their third if considering when teams were ranked, but Stanford has plummeted from its No. 7 ranking in September.

The Orange, meanwhile, can come this close to securing a spot in either the Peach Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl. Syracuse will still most likely need to beat No. 20 Boston College next weekend, but even a loss there could have the Orange in consideration after a win this weekend. Suffice it to say, such would be a program high tracing back to at least 1998, which ended with a 31-10 loss in the Orange Bowl to Florida.

WHEN? 2:30 ET with kickoff set for a dozen minutes later. For all the griping about moving this game to Yankee Stadium, at least it gives those in attendance a chance to still enjoy New York City on a Saturday night.

WHERE? Yankee Stadium, The Bronx, New York City. But yes, this is considered a Notre Dame home game because words don’t have meaning.

NBC will have the broadcast, with the game streaming online here or on the NBC Sports app.

Per usual, NBC Sports Gold is available to international fans.

WHY? Obviously, this is the 10-year rematch of the 2008 Irish loss to Syracuse in South Bend.  Despite lacking a head coach — Greg Robinson was fired the week prior, though he coached through the end of the season — the Orange pulled off a 24-23 victory to spoil Notre Dame’s Senior Day.

It was not just a cold day, but a snowy one, with students apocryphally throwing snowballs at the Irish sideline. That dramatic retelling ignores the very obvious truth that the undergrads were proving who could throw the farthest, and only three or four genuinely reached the field. They were poor optics, to be sure, but no worse than the quartet of scrawny shirtless freshmen in the stands.

The day did reap some reward for Notre Dame. A future All-American linebacker spent his official visit bundled up in the snow, wondering why people live anywhere on this mainland. Those snowball-throwing students, though, showed enough passion despite the weather to get Manti Te’o’s attention.

The Irish never played Syracuse during Te’o’s time, but they have won their last two meetings, both technically Orange home games though held in MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands: 31-15 in 2014 and 50-33 in 2016.

A STAT THAT MAY HAVE BEEN MISSED IN THE WEEK’S COVERAGE
Syracuse is No. 70 in rushing yards allowed per game at 169.0 and No. 78 in yards per carry against at 4.40. Those numbers are very similar to Pittsburgh’s: No. 76 in yards per game at 172.0 and No. 79 in yards per carry at 4.41.

Then again, the Panthers held Notre Dame to 112 yards on 35 rushes (sacks adjusted), a 3.2 average.

BY HOW MUCH?
Favored by 10 points with a combined point total over/under of 65.5, the Irish are expected to win 38-28. That would necessitate holding the Orange to 16 points below its season average. That is ambitious, even for Clark Lea’s defense.

It is a cliché to say a game will hinge on the turnover battle, but it is such for a reason. It is true, and perhaps especially true this weekend. Syracuse has forced 25 turnovers this season, 2.5 per game. Notre Dame has coughed it up 12 times. (Even if removing senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s five interceptions, the Irish average 1.17 turnovers per game with junior Ian Book starting, compared to 1.2 turnovers per game all season.)

One turnover may happen; it usually does. Notre Dame may not be able to afford any more than that. The Orange will score, and giving up chances to match that is a recipe to end an unbeaten season.

Here is where it proves worth remembering the Irish running backs have not lost a fumble in 37 games, tracing back to its last in a baseball stadium, a 16-13 victory against Boston College at Fenway Park in 2015. Relying on the ground game again would reduce Notre Dame’s turnover risk. Let’s presume that happens.

Notre Dame 35, Syracuse 27.
(9-1 in pick; 4-6 against the spread, 4-6 point total.)

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s Senior Night special for all, but especially two linebacker captains
Can Notre Dame count on Book’s health?
Conversation around Notre Dame changes, even as the Playoff poll does not
The rise of Pittsburgh, Northwestern and Syracuse
And In That Corner … The No. 12 Syracuse Orange at Yankee Stadium
Brian Kelly on Notre Dame’s 2016 fall and 2018 rise
Notre Dame’s offense needed more than ever
The quarterback Notre Dame needed, Brandon Wimbush

OUTSIDE READING:
Inside the creation of a football field at Yankee Stadium
Why does Notre Dame ever deviate from its ionic uniforms?
Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick talks Brian Kelly, a 10-0 start, moving the Syracuse game and more ($)
Subway alums on board for Notre Dame return to New York City
Who is the third-best team in the country?
Don’t let anyone tell you the Irish are out with one loss.
All the chaos that can still happen in the season’s final three weeks
The highest-graded players in every Week 12 marquee matchup in college football
‘Finally, we got one’: Ball State football upsets Western Michigan in overtime thriller

Friday at 4: The quarterback Notre Dame needed, Brandon Wimbush

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For the better part of two seasons, junior quarterback Ian Book has been compared to his position coach, Tom(my) Rees. Both began their Notre Dame careers as understudies, seemingly physically-limited, clearly not as athletic as particular peers at the position. The Book-led Irish comeback in the Citrus Bowl seemed to cement his standing as super-sub, a la Rees in 2012 behind Everett Golson.

Perhaps the Rees comparisons should have instead featured senior Brandon Wimbush.

Last week, it was Rees who texted Wimbush on Monday, distracting him throughout a class as he tried to figure out what could possibly be so urgent. Once Wimbush got to the football facilities, Rees told him that Book probably would not play against Florida State. It was a role Rees had handled himself in 2012, most notably when Golson suffered a concussion against Stanford and Rees started the next week against BYU.

‘That guy’s been through everything you can imagine at the quarterback position here,” Wimbush said of Rees. “He’s helped me. He’s led the entire quarterback room, being that young figure who was here not too long ago.

“He has the experience and the knowledge and the wisdom to teach us. He’s done a great job of putting us in a position to succeed on and off the field.”

Wimbush threw two interceptions last week, his fifth and sixth of the year. Yet, the 42-13 victory made his spot-start an unqualified success. His demeanor in handling it, the benching back in September that made last weekend just a spot start, and any of the expected turmoil in the interim, all extended the success to off the field, as well.

As the 10-0 Irish continue this regular season unbeaten and set for the Playoff, Wimbush’s contributions warrant more praise. Not becoming a malcontent is a low bar to clear, but one too high just a couple years ago. It has not gone unnoticed in this locker room.

“Brandon is a high character guy, great guy to be around, we love him to death,” junior defensive Daelin Hayes said following the victory against the Seminoles. “It was our job to go out and have his back.

“He came out and obviously with him being the starter, he handled that as well as anybody could possibly handle that situation.”

Notre Dame likely would have beaten Florida State with freshman Phil Jurkovec at the helm. Frankly, given the first-quarter interception return to the three-yard line from senior Nick Coleman and Julian Love’s two-point return, the Irish may have prevailed with you or me at quarterback. Can you successfully hand off to Dexter Williams 20-plus times?

But Wimbush removed most, perhaps all, stress from the situation. That is not as dramatic as Rees leading the winning drive against Purdue or throwing the winning touchdown against Stanford. It may not stand the same test of time in lore. But it should. Wimbush took the back seat maturely, as frustrating as that must have been. Then he stepped forward when needed, threw three touchdowns and enjoyed a victorious Alma Mater.

The Irish needed that stability as much as they once needed Rees’ heroics.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s offense needed more than ever

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When now-No. 3 Notre Dame opened its season against now-No. 4 Michigan, the Irish relied on their quarterback, and senior Brandon Wimbush delivered. In meeting No. 12 Syracuse at Yankee Stadium, Notre Dame once again will presumably need its quarterback in order to keep up with the Orange scoring pace, averaging 44.4 points per game.

And the Irish will have junior Ian Book ready to go, per head coach Brian Kelly on Thursday.

“He’s had a good week,” Kelly said. “Normal rust on Tuesday, Wednesday ran the offense effectively and then [Thursday] settled in as if he had not had a week off.”

Despite a ribs injury that kept him sidelined against Florida State, Book is already back working within the entirety of Notre Dame’s offense.

“We have run game in for him,” Kelly said. “He’s going to get hit. We feel very comfortable — we wouldn’t play him if we had to put him in bubble wrap.”

This should be an occasion for Book to put up some gaudy stats … in part because Syracuse runs its offense at a high pace, creating more plays for both teams; in part because the Orange defense is somewhat susceptible to the passing game; in part because Book’s numbers in his six starts have been relatively absurd on their own.

Syracuse averages 82.2 plays per game, fourth-most in the country and just behind Wake Forest’s 83.9. That distorts giving up 261.3 passing yards per game (No. 107), but the 7.5 yards per pass attempt still shows a struggle to defend the pass. For comparison, Northwestern gives up 6.8 yards per attempt, and Book memorably threw for 343 yards and two touchdowns on 22-of-34 passing against the Wildcats, mostly with the rib injury.

Yet, the Orange may present Book a challenge he has not yet seen. Giving up a 56.0 percent completion rate (No. 32), Syracuse makes opposing quarterbacks work for their gains harder than any of the six defenses Book has faced. If styles make fights, then it is worth remembering Book leads the country with a 74.5 completion rate.

Book can also prove once and for all whether this season or last was the anomaly as it pertains to his turnovers. Book has thrown four interceptions in 2018, just as he did in 2017. This year they have come on 204 attempts, nearly triple last year’s 75. The Orange intercepts the opposition once every 25 attempts (14 picks on 350 attempts), a number that would pose a concern against the more inexperienced version of Book.

“They play good defense,” Kelly said. “I wouldn’t call them a trapping defense in a sense that they’re in a lot of exotic (coverages). They’re a four-down front that plays Cover 1 and they rotate down and play some three-down.

“My first characterization of them wouldn’t be that of a team that takes the ball away. I think they’re fundamentally sound and they put their kids in good position.”

This is all of such concern because Syracuse is going to score. The offense is too high-powered to presume otherwise. Notre Dame behind Wimbush would probably not be able to keep up. With Book back, it becomes more likely, if not outright probable.

Nick Coleman’s interception on Florida State’s second play last week set up an Irish score and Coleman for an increased role at nickel back moving forward. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The Orange will stress the Irish defense in ways not yet seen, particularly its nickel packages and senior Nick Coleman. Notre Dame has struggled to replace senior Shaun Crawford since his preseason ACL tear. With an interception and a pass breakup a week ago, Coleman once again asserted himself as Notre Dame’s presumed nickel back. Freshman Houston Griffith has struggled in coverages, leaving only junior Julian Love as a remaining viable option, which then forces freshman TaRiq Bracy (or, less likely due to his lackluster performance this season, junior Donte Vaughn) into outside coverage.

Thus, Coleman will be counted on against an offense with four receivers averaging 11.17 yards or more per catch with at least 28 receptions, all with multiple scores this season.

“Certainly with their [one running back, no tight end] personnel, the nickel will be a very important piece in terms of what we do,” Kelly said. “I thought [Coleman] was savvy. … I got a chance to see him a lot this week, and I thought he was on top of his game.”

As Eric Dungey goes, so goes Syracuse’s offense and the four-year starting quarterback is having quite a productive season, accounting for 26 total touchdowns. (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Syracuse senior quarterback Eric Dungey further complicates that concern, the best dual-threat the Irish have faced this season. On paper, it was a schedule littered with such concerns, but Virginia Tech’s Josh Jackson was knocked out for the season by injury before Notre Dame arrived, Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson has not been as mobile since tearing his ACL in December, and the same can be said of Florida State’s Deondre Francois regarding his ACL tear to start the 2017 season.

Dungey, meanwhile, has taken 147 carries for 690 yards, not adjusting for sacks, and 12 touchdowns. With Coleman at nickel, the Irish will need to rely on linebackers Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill to keep an eye on Dungey, especially in the red zone.

He is but a piece of an offense ranked No. 28 in rushing yards per game with 216.1, No. 6 in rushing touchdowns with 32 and No. 12 in attempts per game with 46.1.

“The whole change in their ability to sustain their offensive structure is their ability to run the football,” Kelly said. “If they can’t run the football, this team is not 8-2.

“… By being an effective ground team, it sets up everything they can do.”

Everything the Orange does may make it the best offense first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea has faced. In the Notre Dame Stadium press box before last week’s 42-13 victory, it was an easy conversational piece to ponder if Syracuse is the best offense the Irish will play this season. The answer is obviously yes. The follow-up question was tougher to answer, who has been the best thus far?

Michigan’s has come furthest, the best at this point, but it was a shell of this version to open the season. Stanford’s was expected to be much more than it has been, bothered by uncharacteristically poor offensive line play. The consensus settled on Wake Forest, which also scored a season-high 27 points against Notre Dame. If/when the Orange tops that, it will not be an indictment of Lea’s defense, but a challenge to Book’s offense.

Lastly, will freshman defensive end Justin Ademilola play? This is largely a piece of housekeeping, but Ademilola has appeared in three games, meaning he can play in one more before losing a year of eligibility. Given how many games are left — two — and what is at stake — a Playoff berth — burning the year may make sense. Defensive line depth is not something to be taken for granted, and Ademilola has shown he can hold his own for a handful of snaps per game.

The only other freshmen worth monitoring in this regard would be running backs C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith and receiver Joe Wilkins, all having played in two games to date. Barring injury, four games should be the logical limit for each.

Mike Tirico Podcast: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame’s 2016 fall and 2018 rise

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Brian Kelly can very much understand what Dino Babers has done to bring Syracuse to No. 12 in the country. Babers orchestrated that rise along the exact same timetable the Notre Dame head coach made his career on, a timetable that then risked his career, Kelly explained to NBC Sports’ Mike Tirico on his eponymous weekly podcast.

Babers is in his third year leading the Orange, now at 8-2 after back-to-back 4-8 seasons.

“He has stuck with his system and developed his players,” Kelly told Tirico. “These young men are now veterans on the offensive line. He has gone out and brought in some veteran players on the defensive line. He can do some things on the line of scrimmage that he couldn’t before.

“They present a challenge because they can run the football, they can throw it, they’re balanced on offense. … He’s a smart football coach, and he’s developed Syracuse into a winning team.”

While each of Kelly’s first two seasons at Notre Dame matched Babers’ combined wins in his first two with the Orange, it was still Kelly’s third that saw his break through, a la Syracuse currently. That season, as many remember, ended in the BCS national championship game.

This followed a trend for Kelly, going 19-16 in three seasons at Central Michigan before moving to Cincinnati where he went 34-6 before taking over the Irish. That final season with the Bearcats featured the same regular season record Kelly’s third at Notre Dame did, 12-0.

Then, one could say Kelly and the Irish stagnated for three seasons. He had not needed to navigate those years at the FBS-level before.

“Got here and after that third year, really went past that three-year turnaround again and stopped doing the things that I had been doing in the process that I had always stuck with,” Kelly said. “The 4-8 season (in 2016) was a re-awakening of getting back to the things that I had always done and just validates the fact that if I stick with the process and the things that I have always done as a football coach, then we can have success.”

This, along with the general enormity of coaching at Notre Dame and all that comes with it, had Kelly unprepared for the scope of the gig despite being a 19-year head coach when he arrived in South Bend.

“I don’t think I was actually adequately prepared for it,” he said in a moment of candor.

To hear Kelly expound on that list of responsibilities, on recruiting players who fit the University’s culture and on his early career in politics, give Kelly and Tirico a listen via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever else you may get your podcasts.