Notre Dame will rely on its defense and offensive line this season, so when the “Counting Down The Irish” top 25 includes 11 defenders and all five starting offensive linemen, it makes sense. That logic was confirmed when the top five consisted of solely those such players.
I did not submit a top-25 ranking for the annual exercise. Some philosophical piece of me feels the composite polling presents better without the added ballot. An even dozen votes provides enough of a sample size, and the core of the credit then goes to those 12. They deserve it, they took the time to aid this space. Hopefully doing so at least prompted them to organize their thoughts before preseason practice, serving something of a purpose on their ends, as well.
Before the ballots start coming in, I did try to project groupings. That is not inherently a personal ranking, but rather a prediction of the results. Doing so this year left me with a confident 20 names consisting of a few different subsections:
All five offensive linemen.
Nine defensive starters.
One backup defensive lineman. (The more I think about this in retrospect, knowing my beliefs about the vitality of a deep defensive line in college football today, maybe this should have been doubled.)
A quarterback and his top-two receivers.
The running back most likely to get the season’s first carry.
And a kicker who has the demeanor to win a game if ever given the chance.
Those 20 all made the final listing, then joined by two tight ends, a running back who is unlikely to see action until the end of September, a nickelback and a punter.
Those five were among about 10 names I figured would fill out the polling.
That preemptive brainstorming now frames some opinions of players who finished too high and others who landed too low. It needs to be acknowledged, those opinions are now voiced with the benefits of a practice viewing and Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s comments over the last week-plus in mind, not to mention idle time to reflect upon the wisdom of the crowd.
The dozen panelists had none of those opportunities, turning in their ballots at the start of the month.
TOO HIGH: Senior Dexter Williams (pictured above, No. 2) is the most-explosive running back on the roster. He has the most experience. These cannot be doubted.
He is also expected to miss a third of his season. With his injury history and indifference toward blocking, missing more time would not be a shock.
Expecting him to be the No. 19 most-impactful player this season with those large limiting factors is a generous reach. It is not impossible, but it seems quite improbable.
TOO LOW: That thought process then points to sophomores Avery Davis and Jafar Armstrong. If combining their votes, they would have finished No. 31, where Armstrong finished on his own. This is not to say either should have been in the top 25, but one of their names should have appeared on every ballot, rather than on only half, with two of those six listing both at the very bottom of the ranking.
The praise Thursday featured Davis, both in this space and in Kelly’s words, but the latter made an interesting point about Armstrong that could bear fruit in October and November.
“He can go all day,” Kelly said. “That kid is incredible. Physically, there’s no drop-off. His GPS numbers, we’ve never had them as high as his, and he bounces back the next day. He’s an incredibly-conditioned football player.”
Will anyone be all that surprised if Williams pulls up with a tight hamstring in his second game off the sidelines and Armstrong steps in with a similar one cut-and-go running style?
Davis and Armstrong probably should not have made the top 25 as a whole, but it is surprising to see them receive so little consideration given the utter lack of experience/proven depth/actual running backs at the position.
TOO HIGH: Both tight ends. Sophomore Cole Kmet finished No. 15 and senior Alizé Mack landed at No. 18. Kmet has two catches to his name. Mack has two seasons of inconsistency sandwiching a season of academic purgatory.
If either proves worthy of those rankings, no one will be happier than offensive coordinator Chip Long.
TOO LOW: Junior running back Tony Jones fell between the two tight ends. He may not be a star-in-the-making, though that remains within the realm of possibility, but he will be the bellcow through at least the first four games and conceivably much of the season. Even if he finishes the year with a pedestrian 700 yards and five touchdowns on 150 carries, that would warrant more credit than he seems to have been given.
TOO LOW: If senior kicker Justin Yoon wins so much as one game with a swing of his leg, his impact should qualify as no lower than No. 15, yet he finished at No. 21. Given Kelly’s thoughts about Yoon’s leg strength, it is all that more likely he gets a chance to finally knock in a walk-off field goal.
“Justin Yoon is pounding the ball,” Kelly said. “I mean, pounding it. He’s gone from a guy whose cliff was 45, his cliff is (now) 52-55. He’s pounding the ball. That’s on him. He worked so hard in the weight room to get there.”
TOO HIGH: Junior receiver Chase Claypool (No. 11) returns the best receiving stats on the roster and, if locked-in, will make his mark on the season, but should he really have been ahead of …
TOO LOW: Junior safety Alohi Gilman (No. 12) and junior cornerback Troy Pride (No. 13)? Again, Notre Dame will rely on its defense. A long-pined-for starting safety and a physically-gifted cornerback should not be knocked below Claypool by default. To use the words of junior defensive end Daelin Hayes, No. 8 in the proceedings, …
“I think this defense is the heartbeat of our team. This team lives and dies with us.”
A similar argument can be made for junior defensive end Julian Okwara (No. 21) ending up too low, but to make that a legitimate gripe, someone has to slide below him. The best candidate would be senior nickelback Shaun Crawford (No. 16), more of a part-time defensive starter than Okwara is, so the claim is not a strong one.
Crawford’s role as a nickelback somewhat complements the rover linebacker. He is established in his position, though. It is known he will (at least figuratively) start and, barring injury, presumably stay in that slot on the depth chart.
Senior Asmar Bilal, sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah and freshman Shayne Simon cannot say the same as they compete for rover opportunities. Bilal should start against Michigan, but the beat media’s lack of confidence in him is noteworthy.
In the end, the crowd’s wisdom should be deferred to. Settling on nine defensive starters (missing the rover and a second safety) along with a part-timer in Crawford and a rotational backup in Okwara is an unquestionable conclusion. The five offensive linemen were hardly in doubt. Even acknowledging the reliability of a fifth-year punter is a worthy use of four percent of a ballot.
If curious, the names not yet mentioned in my grouping of 10 to fill five were junior quarterback Ian Book and sophomore defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish. Kelly may agree regarding Tagovailoa-Amosa, although with the obvious benefit of far more insight than any of these voters had.
“Myron has had a really good camp,” Kelly said. “As a three-technique, his athletic ability and his first-step quickness, he gives us two three-techniques (along with senior Jerry Tillery) that can get up the field and cause some havoc.”
This is not to say Tagovailoa-Amosa, Hinish or Book (or Davis or Armstrong) should have finished in the top 25, but it is to point out how strongly they needed to be considered, even if Davis, in particular, was not much.