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Counting Down the Irish: 10 to 6

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Moving forward, every player received unanimous support across the 13 ballots, making for 11 such players total (the top 10 along with No. 14 Daelin Hayes). Nine Notre Dame players received votes to be considered among 2019’s five most-impactful players, including all of the top 8 (along with No. 11 Jafar Armstrong).

Sorting through those groupings and the points allotted reveals delineations of a top 7 and a top 3. What is intriguing about that breakdown is each tier tilts decisively toward the defense. The Irish are expected to have a prolific offense this season with major defensive questions, yet only two offensive players break the top 7. Maybe, just maybe, the high-end defensive talent will indeed compensate for the holes in its middle.

Even in this penultimate set of five, the top two are defenders.

Others Receiving Votes
25: Jayson Ademilola, sophomore defensive tackle, 30 points
24: Ade Ogundeji, senior defensive end, 37
23: Shaun Crawford, fifth-year defensive back, 38
22: Tony Jones, senior running back, 43
21: Michael Young, senior receiver, 74
20: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, junior linebacker, 82
19: Asmar Bilal, fifth-year linebacker, 84
18: Jarrett Patterson, sophomore center, 92
17: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, junior defensive tackle, 99
16: Kurt Hinish, junior defensive tackle, 100
15: Aaron Banks, junior left guard, 134
14: Daelin Hayes, senior defensive end, 145
13: Tommy Kraemer, senior right guard, 154
12: Robert Hainsey, junior right tackle, 189
11: Jafar Armstrong, junior running back, 190

10: Cole Kmet, junior tight end, 199 points
High ranking: No. 6
Low ranking: No. 17
On all 13 ballots
Last year: No. 15

Kmet has the height, speed and hands wanted from any tight end. He was a high-profile recruit for good reason, and he has not given evidence to diminish that pedigree, although a sprained ankle limited him last year. The high ankle sprain came in week two, knocking out Kmet for the next two weeks and bothering him through November. Is that reason to doubt him now? Not necessarily.

What Alizé Mack did, rather did not do, while Kmet had a bum wheel is the reason to doubt Notre Dame’s current top tight end. Let’s turn to one of this polling’s voters …

The “18 Stripes” concerns make sense. Mack did not have Kmet’s strong hands, but he still would have been expected to produce more than 36 catches for 360 yards and three touchdowns last season.

Let’s counter the “18 Stripes” worries by pointing out a fundamental flaw in the anointing. When Ben Koyack signed with the Irish, head coach Brian Kelly said, “If you’re going to compare him to anybody, Tyler Eifert.” That name came up twice in the 2013 National Signing Day article discussing Durham Smythe. A year later, the Nic Weishar rendition went so far as to wonder, “it’s hard not to think of Tyler Eifert when you look at Weishar.” As soon as Mack simply committed, Eifert came up as the wanted point of reference.

Somewhere along the line Eifert became viewed as the standard, not the exception. Leading Notre Dame in all receiving categories was an anomaly, not a precursor. Irish expectations should look past 2012 … all the way to 2013.

Troy Niklas’ 32 catches for 498 yards and five scores is far more reasonable, and still rather exemplary. If Kmet puts together such a stat line, he would presumably justify this top-10 ranking. 

Chris Finke (Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Tied — 8: Chris Finke, fifth-year receiver, 202
High ranking: No. 7
Low ranking: No. 14
On all 13 ballots

This is much simpler, and ties back to those introductory thoughts. If Notre Dame’s offense is going to reach the levels necessary to compete with the country’s top-tier, it is safe to presume its No. 2 receiver will have a strong season, one even building on his 49 catches for 571 yards and two touchdowns last year.

Sure, that No. 2 receiver is a former walk-on, still short of 5-foot-10 and will not be on the field in particular more-than-rarely used packages. But Finke has proven himself by now. After all, his two scores last fall may have been the two most impressive touchdown catches of the Irish season, one a tough, leaping catch against Michigan and the other a deep toe-tapper at USC.

Tied — 8: Liam Eichenberg, senior left tackle, 202 points
High ranking: No. 5
Low ranking: No. 19
On all 13 ballots
Last year: No. 23

Heading into 2018, Kelly had coached 103 games at Notre Dame. A future first-round draft pick had started at left tackle in 101 of them, the only two exceptions both belonging to Matt Romine amid a rash of injuries in Kelly’s debut season. Eichenberg may not continue that run in the 2020 NFL draft, but it is conceivable given his stature, experience and consistently-improving performance across the last 18 months.

Entering last spring, the presumed left tackle starter was Tommy Kraemer. Only when Eichenberg proved ready for the role did Kraemer slide to his more natural fit at guard. Since then, Eichenberg has played well enough to be either 1A or 1B in discussing the best current Irish lineman, along with junior right tackle Robert Hainsey. Eichenberg will protect senior quarterback Ian Book’s proverbial blind side as well as form a devastating left-side duo with junior left guard Aaron Banks.

Jalen Elliott (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

7: Jalen Elliott, senior safety, 247
High ranking: No. 4
Low ranking: No. 13
On all 13 ballots

Not much more need be said about Elliott than already has been. He has developed into one of the most important players on Notre Dame’s defense, one of the reasons losing five starters — including four up the middle — does not spark complete panic. With Elliott patrolling the back line, mistakes should be minimized.

More than mistakes being kept in check, though, Elliott became a play-maker in 2018. His impact is both intangible and obvious, which is not a contradiction, but rather a statement of how broad that impact is.

6: Troy Pride, senior cornerback, 252
High ranking: No. 3
Low ranking: No. 13
On all 13 ballots
Last year: No. 13

Will Pride (pictured at top) rise to the levels of Julian Love? Probably not, but Love should have been a unanimous first-team All-American and Jim Thorpe Award winner. Expecting that moving forward would be akin to the Eifert/tight end conversation above.

Will Pride prove difficult for opposing receivers to beat? Absolutely. That is what happens when a cornerback has 4.32-second 40-yard dash speed and is not afraid to get physical along the sideline.

“We all know about Troy’s experience, his ability to run,” Kelly said Friday. “We feel like his assets for us clearly are experience. He is the most experienced player.”

Kelly was discussing whether Pride will work at the wide side of the field, where he has played in the past, or along the boundary, where that experience would be most valued. At either spot, opposing quarterbacks will not be blamed for looking the other way.

The voters:
Mike Berardino, Indianapolis Star
Michael Bryan, 18 Stripes
Bryan Driskell, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Ellen Geyer, The Observer
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Jack Leniart, Slap the Sign
Marek Mazurek, Fighting Irish Wire
Tim O’Malley, Irish Illustrated
Ryan Ritter, Her Loyal Sons
Pete Sampson, The Athletic
John Vannie, ND Nation
Josh Vowles, One Foot Down