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Counting Down the Irish: 15 to 11, featuring Notre Dame’s running game

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 13 Notre Dame Spring Game

SOUTH BEND, IN - APRIL 13: Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver Jafar Armstrong (8) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown in action during the Notre Dame Football Blue and Gold Spring game on April 13, 2019 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This set of five speaks to two Notre Dame strengths. Four of the five players are primary pieces of the Irish running game, a necessary asset for any Playoff-hopeful. The fifth is a defensive reserve. How could a backup possibly be considered a top-15 impactful player on Notre Dame’s season? That is the wrong question to ask. The better question is, how good must the starters be if a backup appeared on all 13 ballots?

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 points
High ranking: No. 11Low ranking: No. 1912 ballots total (out of 13)

Perhaps Banks (No. 69 at top) would have been rated a notch or two higher if he had not undergone offseason foot surgery, but the procedure was considered minor and a full recovery was expected from the outset, so this positioning would have been the likely result either way.

“Any time you talk about a foot with a big fella, you’re nervous at times,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Friday. “But it’s gone very, very well there, and he finished the summer extremely pleased with where he is.”

Jumping to the conclusion that Banks is genuinely 100 percent after a single practice viewing is rash, but at the least, he should be able to play himself into shape by mid-September if necessary.

Some wonder if Banks might have the most talent along Notre Dame’s offensive line. He is years of playing time behind three of the other starters (all ranked ahead of him), but in time his talent could prove out. Frankly, that could begin this year.

Michigan v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 01: Dylan McCaffrey #10 of the Michigan Wolverines tries to outrun the tackle of Daelin Hayes #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the second half at Notre Dame Stadium on September 1, 2018 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame won the game 24-17. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Getty Images

14: Daelin Hayes, senior defensive end, 145
High ranking: No. 9Low ranking: No. 21On all 13 ballotsLast year: No. 8

Hayes appeared on all 13 ballots, even cracking the top 10 on one, yet he fell a decent ways from last year’s lofty ranking. More than a criticism of Hayes, that speaks to the rise of classmate Julian Okwara, who now starts in front of Hayes rather than vice versa.

Hayes and Okwara will rotate plenty, and the former may dabble along the defensive interior in particular situations. The resulting near-constant threat from the Irish pass rush will put all opposing offenses on notice. That does not hold true if Hayes is not around to support Okwara, no disrespect to sophomores Justin Ademilola or Ovie Oghoufo, as they will further the reaches of this rotation.

Hayes managed 31 tackles with five for loss including two sacks last season. Those were notable totals for Notre Dame’s third defensive end. To put that performance in context, consider the three years prior and how the third defensive end fared in each.

2017: Jay Hayes, 27 tackles with 3.5 for loss including one sack.2016: Daelin Hayes, 11 tackles.2015: Andrew Trumbetti, 16 tackles with 2.5 for loss including one sack.

Hayes blew past those numbers in 2018. And it should be mentioned, the 2015 line was not properly appreciated in its time, as three future NFL players started along it in Isaac Rochell, Romeo Okwara and Sheldon Day while future NFL first-round draft pick Jerry Tillery played in 12 games as a depth option.

Now realize Hayes should blow past his 2018 marks, even while the two starting ends rack up stats themselves.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 03 Notre Dame at Northwestern

EVANSTON, IL - NOVEMBER 03: Notre Dame Fighting Irish offensive lineman Tommy Kraemer (78) before a college football game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Northwestern Wildcats on November 03, 2018, at Ryan Field in Evanston, IL. (Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

13: Tommy Kraemer, senior right guard, 154
High ranking: No. 7Low ranking: No. 1812 ballots totalLast year: No. 22

Kraemer has yet to put together a complete season, surprisingly splitting time with the next entry in 2017 and needing to be buttressed by Trevor Ruhland last year, but his good moments have always been impressive.

Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long spent the spring talking about Kraemer’s weight loss/bettered physique. That should allow him to pull more often on some of Long’s preferred running plays. The best part of Kraemer’s game was already his power run blocking. Adding a bit of speed before applying that power could give Kraemer a Quenton Nelson-esque highlight or two. (By no means will he put together a Nelson-esque season. That 2017 performance was once in a generation, if not more rare than that.)

12: Robert Hainsey, junior right tackle, 189
High ranking: No. 6Low ranking: No. 1412 ballots totalLast year: No. 14

Notice the leap in points from Kraemer’s votes to Hainsey’s, despite each showing up on a dozen ballots. None of the polled media members expect Hainsey (No. 72 at top) to have a disappointing season in any regard. Some of that high standard comes from viewing 2018 in retrospect.

Hainsey spent much of September working through a hamstring issue. At times it made him look half-a-step slow. But only at times, and only that half of a step.

With a healthy preseason, Hainsey could play himself into NFL draft consideration. That is not meant to be hyperbolic. He will be a three-year starter on the offensive line of a school producing prodigious talents in the last five years. That pedigree alone would help Hainsey’s draft stock.

11: Jafar Armstrong, junior running back, 190
High ranking: No. 4Low ranking: No. 2012 ballots total

Armstrong (pictured at top, raised above) should start getting ready to thank the aforementioned offensive linemen, including Tuesday’s No. 18 Jarrett Patterson and the one yet to be revealed this week. If Armstrong has the kind of season worthy of finishing just outside the top 10 in these rankings, it will be thanks to the line’s work clearing his way.

Armstrong fits Long’s offense because of his ability in the passing game, a receiver through high school and his freshman season under Long’s tutelage. Nonetheless, it will be Armstrong’s work in the running game that either elevates him or costs him snaps.

To date, he has shown neither the vision nor the form wanted of a running back. These are natural struggles from a converted receiver, especially one who missed three games last year due to a knee infection and struggled to get back to 100 percent upon his return. Yet Armstrong took 54 touches for 352 total yards, a 6.52 yards per touch average, and five touchdowns in the first four games of the season, games in which he served as the primary running back.

For math’s sake, let’s expand those numbers across 13 games … 1,069 total yards and 16 touchdowns. While Armstrong would fall short of the ground game prowess of Dexter Williams (who reached 995 rushing yards in nine games), his combined effect in the rushing and receiving games would create a wrinkle not seen at Notre Dame since C.J. Prosise in 2015, another receiver-turned-running back.

The voters:
Mike Berardino, Indianapolis StarMichael Bryan, 18 StripesBryan Driskell, Blue & Gold IllustratedMatt Freeman, Irish Sports DailyEllen Geyer, The ObserverTyler James, South Bend TribuneJack Leniart, Slap the SignMarek Mazurek, Fighting Irish WireTim O’Malley, Irish IllustratedRyan Ritter, Her Loyal SonsPete Sampson, The AthleticJohn Vannie, ND NationJosh Vowles, One Foot Down