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Counting Down the Irish: 15 to 11

Michigan State v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Chase Claypool #83 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass over Vayante Copeland #13 of the Michigan State Spartans during a game at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

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Of this top 25, 14 players were unanimous selections among the dozen ballots. Notre Dame sophomore right tackle Robert Hainsey was not one of them, yet he rated so highly on seven particular ballots, he snuck past one of those unanimous selections.

25: Jonathan Bonner, fifth-year defensive tackle, 29 points
24: Tyler Newsome, fifth-year punter and captain, 30
23: Liam Eichenberg, junior left tackle, 60
22: Tommy Kraemer, junior right guard, 74
21: Justin Yoon, senior kicker, 79
20: Julian Okwara, junior defensive end, 84
19: Dexter Williams, senior running back, 88
18: Alizé Mack, senior tight end, 89
17: Tony Jones, junior running back, 91
16: Shaun Crawford, senior nickelback, 93

15: Cole Kmet, sophomore tight end, 110 points
High ranking: No. 9
Low ranking: No. 24
12 ballots total.

If Kmet does not build drastically on his 2017 of two catches for 14 yards, this balloting is going to look awfully foolish.

His physical gifts began showing themselves in spring … on the baseball diamond. That half of his double-duty saw him finish the season with a 5.05 ERA in 26 appearances and 46.1 innings. That ERA may seem high, but this is college baseball, and it should also be mentioned he struck out 39 batters in that spot duty. All the while, he impressed the Irish football coaching staff in spring practices.

In theory, offensive coordinator Chip Long prefers to utilize a variety of personnel packages. That includes a nationwide default of three receivers, one tight end and one running back, but if Long can deploy multiple tight ends or running backs, he gladly does. Kmet makes that very possible, in much the same way Durham Smythe did last season. Of course, that hinges on another tight end playing up to par, as well.

Kmet’s spring success indicates he will be a consistent tight end, even if no one else will be. Hence his finishing higher than any other tight end (read: senior Alizé Mack at No. 18) in this polling. A reliable tight end provides senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush a safety blanket of sorts, and that role alone would boost Kmet past last year’s meager freshman season.

14: Robert Hainsey, sophomore right tackle, 119 points
High ranking: No. 10
Low ranking: No. 20
10 ballots total.

Some may object to calling Hainsey a returning starter. Some, in fact, have. His only official start came in the Citrus Bowl, but he played a genuine role in all 13 games, splitting right tackle snaps with Tommy Kraemer, now inside at right guard. If Hainsey is not a returning starter, neither is Kraemer, despite those 12 starts next to his name.

The greatest change for both will come in the added focus of not taking any series off. That is not something to be shirked, but it should be manageable a season after alternating series. The first-time players needed to make adjustments on the sidelines while their counterpart was playing. By now, those coaching points should not take longer than the defensive series naturally provided by the rhythm of the game.

In some respects, Hainsey’s success will still tie to Kraemer. If the two can form a potent blocking combination on the right side of the line, Long’s game plan will begin to feature them, just as it did with Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson on the left side last year. Of course, this would be nowhere near as dramatic.


13: Troy Pride, junior cornerback, 133 points
High ranking: No. 6
Low ranking: No. 22
12 ballots total.

Pride looks more and more like a testament to giving players time to develop. Entering his sophomore season, the most frequent talking point on him focused on Pride splitting time in the spring between football and track, arguably setting back his progress a touch. Perhaps it did, but by now, he has caught up.

“He’s on-body, he’s physically now able to reroute receivers with leverage,” Kelly said after Friday’s practice. “That was a little bit problematic for him at times. He might not have been as strong as he needed to be.”

Pride will have the luxury of usually covering the opponent’s second-best receiver. His leaps and bounds in the last nine months have not moved him past second-team All-American Julian Love. However, the combination of two pseudo-shutdown corners should give each a bit more freedom, something Kelly has alluded to in terms of pressing a bit more in coverage. Both Pride and Love have the ability to recover from a mistake, skewing the risk :: reward ratio toward the defense’s favor.

12: Alohi Gilman, junior safety, 135 points
High ranking: No. 10
Low ranking: No. 20
12 ballots total.

Fact: No safeties made this top 25 last year. Also a fact: Gilman received votes even though he was not eligible and always unlikely to be so. If he had been, he might have been listed here then.

It is not a secret Notre Dame has needed better safety play of late. Gilman’s transfer from Navy at least provides a playmaker at the position, even if a slightly-undersized one. (5-foot-10 ½, 202 pounds) By the looks of it, he is making those plays in preseason practice just as he did with a strip-and-recovery in April’s Blue-Gold Game.

@NDFootball 080718

Safety Alohi Gilman apparently intercepted a pass in Tuesday’s preseason practice, something Notre Dame hasn’t seen from a safety in a game since 2016. (@NDFootball)

Kelly has noticed those improvements at safety.

“I really like what’s happening with our safety position, as well, much more around the ball and closing space,” he said Friday before acknowledging the current rotation includes Gilman, junior Jalen Elliott and freshman Houston Griffith.

11: Chase Claypool, junior receiver, 167 points
High ranking: No. 7
Low ranking: No. 20
12 ballots total.
Last year: No. 18

Not much new ground needs to be trodden here. Claypool has the physical tools to lead the Irish in every receiving category. He knows as much. He also knows his mental ups-and-downs have limited his on-field production.

How that focus fares through the preseason will be quickly revealed in the season-opener. Michigan’s defense will test Claypool and Notre Dame’s passing game. It is one of the country’s best defenses for a reason.

“We think we’ve got a really good player on the outside, a couple of really good players,” Kelly said. “Chase Claypool has continued to mature and grow as a receiver. I liked his focus and his mindset.”

If that continues, Claypool will challenge senior Miles Boykin to become the alpha receiver. That competition would be a great problem to have for Kelly and Long. Nonetheless, if Claypool’s tunnel vision broadens, then this ranking will become nothing but a pipe dream.

The panelists:
Michael Bryan, 18 Stripes
Bryan Driskell, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Elizabeth Greason, The Observer
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Laken Litman, Indianapolis Star
Tim O’Malley, Irish Illustrated
LaMond Pope, Chicago Tribune
Ryan Ritter, Her Loyal Sons
Pete Sampson, The Athletic
John Vannie, ND Nation
Joshua Vowles, One Foot Down

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