When Brian Kelly was hired to take over Notre Dame’s football program, he developed a reputation not just as an offensive mastermind or spread offense guru, but rather that of a “program builder.” For all the traits Jack Swarbrick was looking for, an architect to tear down and rebuild the university’s most prized asset was a critical find.
Over the past few years, we’ve heard bits and pieces of the methodology Kelly has used. We’ve run through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and developing unconscious competence. We’ve seen Kelly’s recruiting philosophy, trending away from positions, but moving to types: Skill, Power, Big Skill. And we’ve heard him talking about the difference between playing winning football and championship football.
At this point in our rankings, every player on the list needs to be capable of playing Championship Football. (Caps for intent.) And as we roll into Year Five of the Kelly era, the players ranked 15-11 on the list seem to fit that criteria.
Let’s continue our run down the rankings.
2014 IRISH TOP 25 RANKINGS
25. Will Fuller (WR, Soph.)
24. Joe Schmidt (LB, Sr.)
23. Chris Brown (WR, Jr.)
22. Jarrett Grace (LB, Sr.)
21. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.)
20. Ishaq Williams (DE, Sr.)
19. Cole Luke (CB, Soph.)
18. Cam McDaniel (RB, Sr.)
17. Jarron Jones (DT, Jr.)
16. Corey Robinson (WR, Soph.)
15. Christian Lombard (OL, GS): A big reason why Lombard sits at No. 15 was one panelist giving the fifth-year senior an eye-opening vote as the team’s second-best player. While I’ll let him explain that logic, you can make the argument that Lombard -- if healthy -- is one of the team’s best players.
Entering his third season as a starter, Lombard’s versatility allowed Ronnie Stanley into the lineup in 2013, when Lombard shifted from right tackle to guard to make room for the talented youngster. And if Lombard’s healthy enough to hold down a starting job on the inside, he’s the type of player that provides a talented, veteran safety net who is capable of playing multiple positions.
After making it back from a back injury that ended his season early in 2013 for spring drills, only to suffer a fluke wrist dislocation suffered in March, Lombard needs to shake the injury bug and put together a dominant final season in South Bend.
He’s capable: A big, strong, veteran guy with the talent to play just about anywhere on the line. And while Nick Martin seems to have assumed the leadership role up front, Lombard’s got a lot of experience to pass along, and a future playing on Sundays if this year goes according to plan.
Highest Ranking: 2nd. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Three ballots).
14. Cody Riggs (DB, GS): For all the banter that’s turned “SEC” into an adjective, Riggs gives Notre Dame a football player that’s started 26 games over his three years playing in Gainesville. But beyond the affirmation of being a multi-year starter in the best conference in all the land, Riggs has come into South Bend and meshed incredibly well on a Notre Dame team that’ll only have his services for a few months.
Notre Dame missed out on Riggs as a top-shelf high school prospect. But he’ll have 13 games to play for the Irish, filling a key role in the Irish secondary as a versatile defender that can play as a cover corner or a safety in the box.
Riggs’ ceiling remains to be seen. While challenging himself academically was a big reason he came to Notre Dame, so was an opportunity to prove himself at cornerback, with former five-star talents Vernon Hargreaves and Jalen Tabor projected as starters in Gainesville.
Right now, it looks like Cole Luke is the “starter” at corner. But in Brian VanGorder’s system, Riggs will get all the opportunities he could hope for, earning a graduate degree off the field and utilizing the year in South Bend to prove to NFL talent evaluators he has the ability to play cornerback at the next level.
Highest Ranking: 5th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Two ballots).
13. Kyle Brindza (K/P, Sr.): If ever there was a specialist who deserved an elite grade, Kyle Brindza’s the man. Serving as the team’s kickoff man, punter and place-kicker, Brindza has moved well past the role of specialist into being one of the team’s more respected football players.
That comes with his propensity to nail clutch field goals. And his ability to boom long, hanging punts. But entering his final year of eligibility, Brindza needs to refine his skills, upping the consistency to a level where he’s in consideration for postseason awards.
The beauty of Brindza’s value to Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame football program is his singular ability to get the scholarship count back under control. Brian Kelly entered the Gug with a handful of scholarships committed to kickers and punters -- and that was before walk-on David Ruffer won the placekicking job and a scholarship of his own. Brindza took over an entire position room, helped stabilize the roster, and leaves Notre Dame in a better place than he found it.
A big senior season will further solidify Brindza’s spot in the Irish record books.
Highest Ranking: 8th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (One ballot).
12. Max Redfield (S, Soph.): That Redfield finds himself at No. 12 means a whole lot of panelists are believing the hype when it comes to the former five-star recruit.
And while his freshman season was essentially washed away on special teams as he tried his best to learn Bob Diaco’s system (and more importantly, earn his trust), Kelly pushed his chips behind Redfield before the Pinstripe Bowl, giving him a starting job and a ton of reps in December’s bowl preparations.
That confidence seemed to have paid off this spring, when Redfield earned the ultimate respect by being one of the earliest defenders pulled from the field in the Blue-Gold game. While we’ve only seen bits and pieces of Redfield in our three days of practice footage, he looks every bit the back line centerfielder (with an ability to play enforcer as well) that’s essential in VanGorder’s man scheme.
After missing the play of Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta to solidify the safety position, it looks like Redfield is the next very good one (at least) anchoring the back end of the defense.
Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: 20th.
11. Steve Elmer (OL, Soph.): Elmer played his way into the starting lineup last season as a true freshman, capitalizing on early enrollment and Lombard’s injury. While he was recruited as a player who could be Zack Martin’s heir apparent at left tackle, Elmer spent spring playing left guard, a jumbo-sized Chris Watt next to Ronnie Stanley, a jumbo version of Martin at left tackle.
But Elmer opened up fall camp at right tackle, with Matt Hegarty getting the first opportunity at left guard and Mike McGlinchey the odd man out, for now. That type of versatility, especially in a second-year offensive lineman, is rare, and speaks to the high IQ and top-shelf physical ability that Elmer possesses.
At his best, Elmer projects to be a high draft pick and a versatile lineman with the size and ability to play at either guard or tackle. Right now, he’s a no-brainer starter for Kelly, giving he and Harry Hiestand the ability to mix and match assets around Elmer, Stanley, Nick Martin and Lombard, four really impressive starting pieces.
Highest Ranking: 6th. Lowest Ranking: 17th.
The selection committee for the 2014 ND Top 25:
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals)
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune (@TJamesNDI)
Chris Hine, Chicago Tribune (@ChristopherHine)
Team OFD, One Foot Down (@OneFootDown)
Ryan Ritter, Her Loyal Sons (@HLS_NDTex)
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago (@JJStankevitz)
John Walters, Medium Happy (@JDubs88)
John Vannie, ND Nation
Keith Arnold, NBC Sports (@KeithArnold)