Associated Press

Counting Down the Irish: 5 to 1

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When considering All-Americans, a player is deemed consensus if he shows up on at least half of the recognized lists. Using that definition, all of Notre Dame’s top-five players are consensus top-five when considering the greatest individual impacts expected from the Irish.

The name leading the way was unanimously in the top-five and rates as a consensus top-pick. At least some of that anticipation traces to the game-changing effect he showed on the very first day of 2018.

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
9: Miles Boykin, senior receiver, 185
8: Daelin Hayes, junior defensive end, 193
7: Alex Bars, fifth-year left guard, captain, 228
6: Brandon Wimbush, senior quarterback, 234

5: Drue Tranquill, fifth-year linebacker, 249 points
High ranking: No. 2 on three ballots.
Low ranking: No. 11
12 ballots total, unanimous.
Last year: No. 7

To use Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s term, Tranquill is a “tackling machine.” He is also a two-year captain and now a three-year starter, albeit at three different positions. It may be Tranquill has finally found the position best-suited to his skillset, certainly to his future.

At Buck (or weakside) linebacker, Tranquill’s duties shift from tracking tight ends as often as running backs to focusing on run keys and dropping into coverage primarily when the offense audibles him into it. These changes will most show themselves with an influx in Tranquill’s tackles, not exactly a low bar to clear considering he made 84 last season.

Playing behind a strong defensive front, Tranquill should not have to worry about too many offensive linemen. He will be able to cut loose and chase after the ball. When handling the myriad duties of the rover last season, Tranquill still managed to recover three fumbles, force another and intercept a pass. He already had a nose for the ball.

Removing other distractions — even with the additions of run/pass keys and keeping a closer eye on blocking backs slipping out for bailout routes — will allow that nose to hone in even stronger.

Julian Love may not return multiple interceptions for touchdowns this fall, but that is far from the only measure of success for the junior cornerback and second-team All-American a year ago. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

4: Julian Love, junior cornerback, 254 points
High ranking: No. 2 on three ballots.
Low ranking: No. 12
12 ballots total, unanimous.
Last year: No. 12

It is hard to believe a sophomore who was named a second-team All-American would then struggle to focus in the ensuing spring practices, but that was the criticism of Love, one he has come to acknowledge as fair. His first week of preseason practice featured a return to preferred and successful ways, per Kelly.

“He’s stopped worrying about making interceptions,” Kelly said Thursday. “You can be a great player without one interception. … Be who you are, and what he was last year was a technician. He was smart. He knew time and place in the game. He’s gotten back to those fundamentals and it’s really paid off for him.”

Love is best-recognized for his two (and five yards from a third) interceptions returned for touchdowns and 20-plus pass breakups, but he also provides solid tackling, hence his isolation on the boundary. He finished last season with 68.

That combination drastically skews the risk :: reward ratio for opposing quarterbacks. Test Love and the worst-case scenario is he jumps the route and returns it for six points the other way. Even if he gets beat, it is quite likely he makes the tackle before too much damage is done to Notre Dame. That is far from a desirable outcome spectrum for any passer.

If not for the rise of junior cornerback Troy Pride, Love could be in for a quiet season. Pride’s emergence this offseason, though, should force quarterbacks to throw a few passes toward Love. Whereas he could be entirely ignored (a la Revis Island in its brief heyday), having two pertinent cornerbacks forces offensive coordinators to factor in the whole field one way or another.

That should boost Love’s impact this season. He may not score twice or even intercept a single pass, as Kelly said, but how he frustrates the opposition will be all the proof needed to justify this ranking.

3: Sam Mustipher, fifth-year center, 257 points
High ranking: No. 1
Low ranking: No. 9
12 ballots total, unanimous.
Last year: No. 14

Less than two years ago, Mustipher was the figurative whipping boy for a disaster of a situation in a literal hurricane. Now he is a captain, a three-year starter and an undisputed leader. If the Irish coaches need someone put in their place, it is likely Mustipher who has the conversation.

That effect is not why he lands so high in this polling.

He lands here because he determines the offensive line’s success or failure. Mustipher makes the protection calls, removing an item from senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s to-do list. Mustipher creates combination blocks to both the left and the right that elicit celebratory chest bumps before tastefully appropriate. Mustipher holds together an offensive line which, though returning four starters, has three players in new positions.

Jerry Tillery’s career has been checkered by moments of immaturity, but returning for his senior season should set up the defensive tackle for a high note of a finish. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

2: Jerry Tillery, senior defensive tackle, 264 points
High ranking: No. 1 on three ballots.
Low ranking: No. 9
12 ballots total, unanimous.
Last year: No. 11

In some ways, it is fitting Tillery and Coney land in these top-two spots, being the two players who most considered heading to the NFL this spring but instead opted for one more year at Notre Dame. Tillery had arguably less to prove than Coney, having contributed for three seasons, but there is much yet to develop in his game, so the return made and makes sense.

If that development takes hold, and there is no reason to think it will not, Tillery could end up with a ball carrier in his hands behind the line of scrimmage more than once per game. He was not far from that mark in 2017, finishing with nine tackles for loss among his 56 total. And that was from the nose tackle position, where a large portion of the responsibilities focus on holding the point of attack, not acting as a disruptor.

Like Tranquill to Buck linebacker, moving Tillery to the three-technique tackle position will set him up to play a bit more instinctively. With a six-foot-seven wingspan (if not longer), those instincts cover a lot more ground than is usually expected from a defensive tackle.

Improving on last season’s 116 tackles would be a tall order for senior linebacker Te’von Coney, but do not put such an effort past him. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

1: Te’von Coney, senior linebacker, 291 points
High ranking: No. 1 on seven ballots.
Low ranking: No. 5
12 ballots total, unanimous.
Last year: No. 23

A conversation during Thursday’s practice open to media viewing included discussion of why Coney ended up in this slot. The answer was simple: “Look at how impactful he was the last time they were on the football field.”

Making 17 tackles against an SEC program does not just happen. Frankly, 17 tackles against anyone does not just happen. Coney was a man on a mission on New Year’s Day, seeing a touch more playing time than he had all season.

Consider, he finished last year with 116 tackles despite splitting time with seniors and captains Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan all season. Rotating with Martini was expected; Morgan’s role needed to be diminished slightly as a shoulder injury hampered him for much of the season. Once Coney got a taste of that amount of playing time, he ensured it would not be taken from him.

There is no longer a timeshare awaiting the Florida native. As impressive as freshman linebacker Bo Bauer looks, he will be no more than the slightest of complements to Coney. This is Coney’s show, his defense, his year.

It would be wildly-unrealistic to think Coney could match Bob Crable’s record of 187 tackles in a season, set in 1979, or even Crable’s third-highest mark of 154 tackles in 1980. (Yes, Crable owns three of the four most-prolific such seasons in Irish history.) Then again, 17 tackles a game would equal … 221. That will absolutely not happen, but could 12? That would push Coney past that latter mark from the leading-tackler in Notre Dame’s century-plus of football.

(Seriously, Crable finished with 521 career tackles, 84 more than Manti Te’o managed in four healthy seasons. Coney has a comparatively meager 191 in his career to date.)

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