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Counting Down the Irish: 20 to 16

Notre Dame v Syracuse

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 01: Dexter Williams #2 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish breaks away and runs the ball in for a touchdown in the second half against the Syracuse Orange at MetLife Stadium on October 1, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Syracuse Orange 50-33. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

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Of the 13 players appearing in both last year’s “Counting Down the Irish” and the present iteration, only three regressed down the rankings. Oddly enough, all three fell into today’s grouping.

No. 25 Jonathan Bonner, fifth-year defensive tackle, 29 points.
No. 24 Tyler Newsome, fifth-year punter and captain, 30 points.
No. 23 Liam Eichenberg, junior left tackle, 60.
No. 22 Tommy Kraemer, junior right guard, 74.
No. 21 Justin Yoon, senior kicker, 79.

20: Julian Okwara, junior defensive end, 84 points
High ranking: No. 9
Low ranking: No. 19
Seven ballots total.

Nominally, Okwara backs up classmate Daelin Hayes, making him the first second-unit player to appear in this polling. While he will play plenty in order to keep both pass-rushers legs’ fresh, Okwara is the truest backup among those yet to be considered. (For example, at least two Notre Dame running backs will see plenty of time, the starting designation contingent on a play call. Neither is a genuine sub.)

That is pointed out as a credit to Okwara. Despite comparatively fewer opportunities, he is expected to make his presence known. A year after making 4.5 tackles for loss with 2.5 sacks, any growth on those numbers will result in that expectation being fulfilled. Lest we forget, he also made quite an acrobatic interception at North Carolina, showing off his athleticism in his homestate.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly praised Okwara for putting in the work to add 12 pounds over the summer, theoretically readying him for the toll exacted by more playing time.

“I think what you’ll see now with this new weight, he’s one of our stronger players,” Kelly said Thursday. “Extremely strong in the weight room. He now has added obviously some power behind that.”

Added durability and power should also make Okwara’s overall abilities applicable in more situations.

19: Dexter Williams, senior running back, 88 points
High ranking: No. 8
Low ranking: No. 23
Eight ballots total.
Last year: No. 15

Williams’ fall four spots absolutely ties to the likelihood of him missing the season’s first four games for unspecified disciplinary issues. A player can make only so much impact in just two-thirds of the season.

When he takes the field, if he remains healthy, Williams is arguably Notre Dame’s most explosive running back. (It is an argument out of deference to the unknown commodity known as sophomore Jafar Armstrong.) If he finds a rhythm on a crucial series, Williams certainly has the tools to single-handedly tilt a game.

Yet, he has not done so to date. He has struggled to remain on the field, both due to injury and inadequacy in passing situations. Now, add to that list repeated transgressions forcing him to the sideline. If the best ability is availability, Williams’ ceiling is lower than his physical gifts suggest, yet those gifts are enough to force him onto this listing, nonetheless.

Notre Dame v North Carolina

CHAPEL HILL, NC - OCTOBER 07: Alize Mack #86 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish makes a catch against the North Carolina Tar Heels during the game at Kenan Stadium on October 7, 2017 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

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18: Alizé Mack, senior tight end, 89 points
High ranking: No. 10
Low ranking: No. 25
Nine ballots total.
Last year: No. 8

Mack is this season’s largest drop in balloting. Returning from a season suspended due to academic missteps created an intriguing allure last year, one beset by dropped passes and a lack of separation. Inconsistent Irish quarterback play exacerbated Mack’s struggles.

Yet, his drop may not tie solely to those struggles. It could also point to the depth chart around Mack. Sophomore tight ends Cole Kmet and Brock Wright both played well last season, and fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar showed a unique red-zone presence. The position as a whole could not be much stronger, but that depth could limit Mack’s ability to finally break out despite the tantalizing mismatches his 6-foot-4 frame and excellent speed could create.

17: Tony Jones, junior running back, 91 points
High ranking: No. 3
Low ranking: No. 25
Eight ballots total.

Barring injury, Jones is likely to end up with the most carries for Notre Dame this fall, and that alone warrants this ranking when considering overall impact. What he does with those carries will determine if that high vote or the low mark was more accurate.

Jones averaged 5.3 yards per carry last season on 44 rushes. He is nowhere near a plodding rusher, though he often prefers to bowl over a defender rather than evade him. Both strategies work.

If he does prove to be deserving of anything resembling that high-water mark (or even the Nos. 7 and 8 rankings he also received), two-back sets will likely play a part in that. Jones gives Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long his best backfield Swiss Army knife, showing excellent ability in pass-blocking and more than competence in receiving and running routes out of the backfield. The difficult situations Jones could put defenses in will not only show themselves in his stats, but also in his backfield counterparts, be that Williams and senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush or another running back altogether.

Shaun Crawford, LJ Scott

Notre Dame’s Shaun Crawford, bottom, recovers a fumble in the end zone for a touchback after stripping the ball from Michigan State’s LJ Scott (3) during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)


16: Shaun Crawford, senior nickelback, 93 points
High ranking: No. 4
Low ranking: No. 24
10 ballots total.
Last year: No. 10

If Crawford finally has all of his fitness back after losing both the 2015 and 2016 seasons to injury, then this mark will likely end up too low. He had his hand directly involved in four turnovers last season, including one of the savviest plays seen in a long time when he stripped Michigan State running back LJ Scott inches from the goal line and recovered the loose ball in the end zone for a touchback rather than a Spartans touchdown. That moment of brilliance has been somewhat forgotten among long Irish touchdown runs, the Citrus Bowl heroics and the sheer weight of time, but it best showed what Crawford is capable of.

Also forgotten, Crawford added 32 tackles in a part-time role, even though the season’s grind gradually slowed him down. It was, after all, his first full season.

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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