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Counting Down the Irish: 25 to 21

Jonathan Bonner, Jake Fromm

Notre Dame defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner (55) celebrates a sack of Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm (11) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. Georgia defeated Notre Dame 20-19. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)


The arbitrary cutoff line of a top 25 left out Notre Dame freshman safety Houston Griffith, senior defensive back Nick Coleman and sophomore receiver Michael Young, the leaders among those Others Receiving Votes.

The “Counting Down the Irish” top 25 does include 11 defensive players compared to 12 offensive, along with two special teams stalwarts. It begins with …

25: Jonathan Bonner, fifth-year defensive tackle, 29 points High ranking: No. 18 Low ranking: No. 23 Five ballots total.

For a defensive tackle who started 13 games last season, this ranking may seem low. If four other defensive linemen were not ranked ahead of Bonner, one could conceivably argue this ranking is solely a symptom of a talent-rich roster. Instead, it presumably ties to Bonner’s balky wrist.

He played through that injury last season, but it diminished his effectiveness. He began the year with four tackles in each of the first two weeks, but then reached that number only once more, even failing to make a single tackle against either USC or North Carolina State.

His return for a final fall at all came as a surprise after he initially announced he would move on with his future shortly after the Citrus Bowl victory against LSU. A few weeks later he reversed course, though an offseason surgery still kept Bonner out of any contact drills in the spring.

Flipping to nose tackle changes his duties a bit, now more focused on holding the point of attack rather than making plays. That switch also arguably played a role in his showing up so low in this media balloting — it will be a less glamorous role, and one in which he has a capable backup in sophomore Kurt Hinish (No. 34 if continuing these rankings that far, showing up on one ballot at No. 18). The mere existence of Hinish makes Bonner’s return to Notre Dame a low-risk endeavor. If his wrist injury limits Bonner again, whether it be the wrist itself or the lack of conditioning caused by his recovery time, then the Irish know who to turn to. If, however, Bonner builds on his breakout senior year, then this No. 25 spot will almost assuredly be considered too low.

24: Tyler Newsome, fifth-year punter, captain, 30 points High ranking: No. 15 Low ranking: No. 23 Five ballots total.

The dozen media members involved in this voting process focused on events occurring on the field, not inherently in Notre Dame’s locker room. While some of Newsome’s presence off-the-field may have seeped into the thinking of five, this placement is largely a result of his consistency as a punter. Averaging 43.9 yards per punt may not seem like an astronomical number, but it is worth noting less than 45 percent of his punts were even returned last year (27 returns on 63 punts). Those that were carried gained 8.4 yards per return.

His reliability is rather boring. As kickoffs are phased out of football, punts will become the ideal time to stop by the concession stand, and when Newsome is booming for air time, that is even truer. Even in critical moments on the road, he remains steady. Exhibit A: Landing three punts inside the 20-yard line at Michigan State last September.

23: Liam Eichenberg, junior left tackle, 60 points High ranking: No. 12 Low ranking: No. 24 Nine ballots total.

Entering the spring, Eichenberg was far from assured a starting spot. Sophomores Josh Lugg and Aaron Banks both seemed ready to contribute, meaning Eichenberg would genuinely need to earn the nod. Offensive line coach Jeff Quinn had options, too, since junior Tommy Kraemer has shown some aptitude at tackle despite best projecting at guard.

Eichenberg removed those wonders, grabbing the opportunity created by the departure of consensus first-team All-American Mike McGlinchey.

“He’s strong enough, he’s athletic enough, he’s smart enough,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “You’ve got to play the game, and I think he’s just learning every single day. … It’s a really good situation where he can kind of slide in there and continue to grow.”

Kelly pointed to Eichenberg’s greatest development coming in his own confidence. With that in mind, his progress as a starter should pick up momentum later in the season, especially as the offensive line as a whole coalesces. Speaking of that unit …

22: Tommy Kraemer, junior right guard, 74 points High ranking: No. 15 Low ranking: No. 19 Eight ballots total.

Right guard may seem a low-profile position, but the mere act of (finally) moving Kraemer to the inside could result in some noticing the center’s right-hand man. Kraemer has long seemed suited for the interior, where his raw power best complements his 6-foot-5 frame.

He started most of last season at right tackle, all the while splitting time with then-freshman Robert Hainsey. Now the two will line up next to each other. As a duo, they could switch Notre Dame’s run focus from the left to the right.

Montgomery VanGorder, Justin Yoon

Notre Dame’s Justin Yoon (19) kicks a field goal from the hold of Montgomery VanGorder during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Georgia in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)


21: Justin Yoon, senior kicker, 79 points High ranking: No. 6 Low ranking: No. 25 10 ballots total. Last year: No. 24

If this is the season where Yoon hits a game-winning field goal with just seconds left on the clock, then that high ranking will look truly prescient. If it is another ho-hum year of 14-for-18 field goals, only missing early and/or from distance before finding a multi-month rhythm, then Yoon’s impact will likely fly below the general radar.

From a selfish perspective of enjoying competitive football and relishing ledes that write themselves, let’s hope Yoon gets his chance this year. As a four-year kicker, one moment of great pressure should be expected at some point.

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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