It would be unfair to criticize the preseason’s “Counting Down the Irish” rankings blow-by-blow with 12 games of data in one’s back pocket. The dozen beat writers courteous enough to submit August rankings of Notre Dame’s expected most-impactful players in 2019 were offering their best guesses, well-informed and well-intentioned guesses.
Those guesses included faith in junior receiver Michael Young, who opted to transfer halfway through the Irish season. They praised Notre Dame’s offensive line, which certainly did not have the positive impact anticipated. And they expected junior running back Jafar Armstrong to be a key part of the season, a projection done in by an injury severe enough to inhibit an entire fall.
Those rankings also correctly saw senior receiver Chase Claypool having an outstanding season, senior defensive end Khalid Kareem impacting games beyond mere statistics and senior quarterback Ian Book putting together a season comparable to his 2018.
Who did they include that fell distinctly short? A couple more names stand out.
Who should have been included with the benefits of hindsight? A few playmakers highlight 2019’s surprises.
2019 disappointments, for lack of a better word:
— Before his pending transfer, a broken collarbone sidelined Young the first three weeks of the year. Then the week the Irish headed to Michigan, Young opted to depart the program. Suffice it to say his six catches for 21 yards did not validate a No. 21 preseason ranking.
— Injury did in what could have been a promising year for Armstrong (No. 11). Even when he got back on the field, he clearly was not right, finally flashing his potential anew at Stanford with three rushes for 44 yards.
— Similarly, once senior defensive end Daelin Hayes injured his shoulder after four games, he had no chance at fulfilling the thoughts that put him at No. 14 as a second-unit pass-rush threat.
— Injuries also short-circuited the offensive line possibilities, halting senior right guard Tommy Kraemer’s and junior right tackle Robert Hainsey’s seasons (Nos. 13 and 12, respectively). This is part of football that naturally leads to 20/20 hindsight.
— Lastly, sophomore defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola (No. 25) should have a promising career ahead of him, but he never exploded onto the scene this season as some speculated he would, finishing with 24 tackles including four for loss. A solid season, but to make room for some of the coming names, he must be bumped out of the retrospective top-25.
— Four months later, it is shocking, utterly shocking that freshman safety Kyle Hamilton was listed on only six of 12 ballots. Polling was done before preseason practices, and just one week of those would have likely gotten Hamilton listed a few more times, perhaps enough to crack the top 25. After his first snap in Notre Dame Stadium, he assuredly would have been, considering he returned an interception for a touchdown.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly had tried to downplay Hamilton’s potential all preseason, and he continued to try after that score, but it clearly was in vain at that point.
“The big interception by that kid, No. 14, who is — he’s around the ball,” Kelly said. “He just has a great nose for the football.”
That nose for the football found three more interceptions, his four total coming within one of the rest of the roster combined. Will Hamilton be in next preseason’s top 15 of “Counting Down the Irish”? Top 10? Top 5?
— A similar question can be asked regarding sophomore receiver Braden Lenzy thanks to his strong finish to the year. He ended up with 435 total yards from scrimmage and four scores, stretching defenses both horizontally and vertically, the former often leading to the latter.
To those who wonder why Lenzy was not featured more in September, consider that he was not on a single preseason ballot. He did not flash in practice at any point as a freshman, hence not appearing in a single 2018 contest.
“I couldn’t just be the fast guy,” Lenzy said two weeks ago after scoring on a 61-yard rush against Boston College. “Even though I am the fast guy, there’s a lot of other parts to my game that have vastly improved. I realized you can’t just come to college and do one thing.”
— Thinking ahead nine months to the next rendition of “Counting Down the Irish” is nothing more than an exercise in curiosity. Those results will be influenced by bowl game performances, spring practice impressions and summer insights. In many respects, the curiosity is if this season’s upward trends will continue through all that. As in, will sophomore tight end Tommy Tremble become a key piece of Notre Dame’s offensive plans next summer? His 15 catches for 174 yards and four scores this year should have been just a teaser, those four receiving touchdowns tied for third on the Irish roster.
— Doubt kept junior kicker Jonathan Doerer off the top 25 listings, and understandably so. Converting his only attempt at Georgia, going 3-of-3 in a three-point game against USC and finishing the year 13-of-16 have erased that doubt. If such steadiness had been apparent in the preseason, Doerer would have been in the top 20.
— Last, but not least, junior linebacker Drew White leads the Irish with 75 tackles, including eight for loss and two sacks. He received no votes from the dozen media members in the preseason.
That is not meant as a criticism of their prognostications, but as praise of White’s emergence.