As we kick off our 2011 Irish Top 25, let’s get some things out of the way quickly. This is just a list, not some objective evaluation process. Some guys I had ranked much higher than others. (It worked the other way as well.) Still, what you’ll find here is a pretty good composite projected ranking for players on the 2011 Irish roster.
Of course, lists like this are subjective by definition. I kept the qualifications light and let our panel of “experts” use their own methodology.
Once again, here is our esteemed group of panelists:
25. Taylor Dever (OT, Sr.): Dever won the right tackle job last year after seeing limited minutes as a junior and sophomore. The fifth-year senior should anchor the position he started ten games at, missing time with a hamstring injury in the heart of the season. You didn’t hear Dever’s name much last season, a good thing for a right tackle.
Highest ranking: 16th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (3 times)
24. Chris Watt (OG, Jr.): Watt is the presumed replacement for Chris Stewart, and is versatile enough to slide in at center if needed. After redshirting his freshman season, Watt played in all 13 games last season for the Irish, providing depth behind Stewart.
Highest ranking: 12th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (4 times)
23. Zeke Motta (S, Jr.): Thrown into action after an early season injury to Jamoris Slaughter, Motta learned on his feet, playing in all 13 games and starting eight opposite Harrison Smith. His improvement was evident as the season went on, and the rising junior will battle Slaughter for the job across from Smith.
Highest ranking: 19th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (2 times)
22. Aaron Lynch (DE, Fr.): One of the most highly anticipated defensive newcomers in years, Lynch lit the Blue-Gold game on fire with a dynamic performance. While he’ll probably only see the field on passing downs, Lynch has all the potential in the world.
Highest ranking: 16th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (2 times)
21. Carlo Calabrese (LB, Jr.): After sitting out his freshman season, Calabrese won the inside linebacker job opposite Manti Te’o, and started eight games before a hamstring injury took him out. He finished fifth on the team in tackles, sixth in TFLs, and fourth in sacks. He’ll compete for a starting job again this fall.
Highest ranking: 17th. Lowest ranking: 24th.
After looking at the composite list, here are a few questions I had for the panel. I’ll highlight a few answers that I found interesting.
Who did you have sitting at No. 26? Are you reconsidering after looking at everybody else’s lists?
DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons -- Crist. had Crist at #26. Or maybe 40th. Or maybe lower. Wherever I had him, he wasn’t 1-25. And I’m actually feeling pretty good about it, having stolen a look at everyone’s 1-25. It went about the way I thought it would. And I understand the points of view of the other fine members of this council, but, while this team may not be full of 1st-round talent from 1-25, it’s full of a nice bit of depth, and I just couldn’t see clear to move Crist into the top 25 given he was the QB who started in the latest loss to Navy.
Matt @WeNeverGraduate -- I was tempted to stick Robby Toma in there somewhere because I think he’s going to be the guy who emerges as the most productive fourth wideout. Sean Cwynar also got some consideration thanks to his rock solid performance filling in for Ian Williams when the senior went down.
Which one of these guys has the highest upside for the season?
Eric @OneFootDown -- Out of the guys from the 21-25 range it is most obviously Aaron Lynch, who could jump as many as a dozen spots or more if we were to do this ranking system at the end of the 2011 season. I also think Motta is a good bet to move up a decent amount as well.
Matt @WeNeverGraduate -- I’ll tap Zeke Motta for this question. Motta improved by leaps and bounds throughout last season as he logged more and more minutes thanks to Jamoris Slaughter’s injury. He’s a freak athlete and he finally seems to be grasping the position.
Any name you think comes in too low here? Too high?
Frank @UHND -- Definitely think Lynch is too low. I know Kelly tried to downplay Lynch’s Blue-Gold game performance, but it was hard not to be impressed. With the off-season conditioning and fall camp under his belt, I think Lynch is going to make a big impact from day 1. No one here really looks too high. Of the three players here I didn’t have in my rankings - Motta, Watt, and Dever - all of them were right outside of my rankings and I considered all of them right on the cusp so hard to argue with any of them.
CW&MB @RakesofMallow -- I cannot shake the images of Zeka Motta’s miserable tackling angles in the 2010 Blue-Gold Game. Even our walk-on running backs were beating him to the edge because of his lack of basic geometrical knowledge. He played well enough during the season, but he’s the one guy in this group that I’m not sold on.
What do you think a realistic expectation is for someone that’s judged to be between the 21st and 25th best player on the Irish roster?
Frank @UHND -- There are 24 starters on a team (including the kicker and punter) so any player within the top 25 should either be a solid starter or excel at a niche such as kick/punt returning, situational pass rushing, etc. Of these five players, I expect Jones, Motta, Watt, and Calabrese all to be solid starters and in the case of Jones, Watt, and Motta I think they have the potential to be more than solid. A guy like Lynch might not start but I fully expect him to be a pass rush specialist that makes several big plays throughout the season.
I’m really surprised that Sean Cwynar isn’t listed in the Top 25. In fact, I think if there’s anything I’m certain of, Sean Cwynar is one of the best 25 football players on Notre Dame’s roster. It isn’t a coincidence that the defense not only didn’t miss a beat when Ian Williams went down, but it actually improved. I’m not saying Cwynar was the key to the renaissance, but he’s going to be a very good player on the 2011 Irish. I also had Danny Spond at No. 25, and while I can understand why people haven’t started drinking the Kool-Aid yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if Spond turns into a Chad Greenway type of athlete.
Obviously, Aaron Lynch is the guy that could immediately become a top-ten player on this roster or he’ll be a guy that has some growing pains, likely due to the incredible expectations he helped heap on himself. I have a feeling he’ll be slowly eased into the process, but will make his presence felt early and often in pass-rushing downs. But don’t forget Stephon Tuitt, who didn’t enroll early, but is physically ready to play September 3rd.
Lastly, Carlo Calabrese is at an interesting inflection point. His injury derailed expectations after an impressive redshirt freshman campaign. We’ll find out if he’s ready to become an impact linebacker or a guy that makes plays because he’s lined up next to Manti Te’o.