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Counting Down the Irish: Notre Dame’s Top Five

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 01 Michigan at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 01: Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver Chase Claypool (83) battles with Michigan Wolverines defensive back Josh Metellus (14) and Michigan Wolverines defensive back Lavert Hill (24) in an attempt to catch the football in game action during the college football game between the Michigan Wolverines and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on September 1, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium, in South Bend, Indiana. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Michigan Wolverines by the score of 24-17. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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In nine years of this exercise, Notre Dame’s starting quarterback has never finished atop the poll. There has been good reason for that. In four of the nine Brian Kelly years, the Irish have relied on first-time starters.

When not a new starter, quarterback uncertainty has clouded the picture (2011, Dayne Crist vs. Tommy Rees; 2019 Brandon Wimbush vs. Ian Book) or a suspension and subsequent return has sparked questions (2013 Rees; 2014 Golson). Frankly, only the 2016 preseason included this much stability at quarterback, and there was still a nominal quarterback competition that August between DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire.

Certainly, a record-setting senior with 10 career starts and only one loss will be projected to be the most-impactful Irish player. Right?

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
14: Daelin Hayes, senior defensive end, 145
13: Tommy Kraemer, senior right guard, 154
12: Robert Hainsey, junior right tackle, 189
11: Jafar Armstrong, junior running back, 190
10: Cole Kmet, junior tight end, 199
8t: Chris Finke, fifth-year receiver, 202
8t: Liam Eichenberg, senior left tackle, 202
7: Jalen Elliott, senior safety, 247
6: Troy Pride, senior cornerback, 252

5: Chase Claypool, senior receiver, 262 points
High ranking: No. 3Low ranking: No. 9On all 13 ballotsLast year: No. 11

This polling was finished before Notre Dame took one practice snap, let alone before Thursday’s padded practice. Claypool’s expected impact was clear long before junior tight end Cole Kmet reportedly broke his collarbone, but suddenly Claypool’s skill set may be an even more rare commodity for the Irish.

With the likes of Miles Boykin, Alizé Mack and Nic Weishar all moved on, only Claypool and Kmet remained as large targets with any experience. Sure, sophomore receiver Kevin Austin made five catches last season, but that was the extent of his production and his current status remains unclear. Junior tight end Brock Wright has appeared in 23 games … and made all of two catches. It was expected to be Claypool and Kmet. Head coach Brian Kelly quickly lumped them together a week ago.

“Chase Claypool is going to be a guy that I think is going to make a huge impact on our football team, Cole Kmet … There’s a number of guys who are poised to really have an impactful season,” Kelly said.

Now Kmet is injured and the focus lands squarely on Claypool. Offseason ankle surgery looks to be a non-issue, as expected. Now the biggest question may be if he can become the fourth 1,000-yard receiver in Kelly’s time and sixth in Notre Dame’s history. If so, he may warrant being higher in this ranking. Consider the names on that list: Samardzija, Tate, Floyd, Jones, Fuller.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 17 Syracuse v Notre Dame

BRONX, NY - NOVEMBER 17: Notre Dame Fighting Irish safety Alohi Gilman (11) returns an interception during the second quarter of the College Football game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Syracuse Orange on November 17, 2018 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, NY. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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4: Alohi Gilman, senior safety, 272
High ranking: No. 2Low ranking: No. 9On all 13 ballotsLast year: No. 12

Anecdotally, this may be the highest a two-star recruit has finished in these rankings. Why not bother combing through the nine previous polls to confirm that? Because two-star recruits are so rare at Notre Dame, aside from the specialists, it is a near-certainty.

At this point, Gilman comes across as anything but a two-star recruit and Navy transfer.

Gilman finished second among Irish defenders with 95 tackles last year. He added two interceptions, five pass breakups and three forced fumbles. Building on that would be tough, simply because his 2018 was so stellar. Yet, Gilman might do just that. 19 of those tackles came against Clemson. While a safety racking up that kind of number is usually indicative of blown coverages and missed tackles by others, when Gilman does it, it simply shows his knack for finding the football.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 01 Michigan at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 01: Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive lineman Khalid Kareem (53) pursues Michigan Wolverines quarterback Shea Patterson (2) during game action between the Michigan Wolverines (14) and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (12) on September 1, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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3: Khalid Kareem, senior defensive end, 301
High ranking: No. 1Low ranking: No. 4On all 13 ballotsLast year: No. 10

A unanimous top-five player, arguably Notre Dame’s best pure pass-rusher, a veteran with very active hands … not much bad can be said about Kareem. Along with his 10.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks last year, his five pass breakups should be appreciated. Any other year, with the exception of 2012, Kareem would be the best Irish defensive end.

His rise has come quickly, though. In the 2018 spring, Kareem’s performance made it clear he would start over Jay Hayes, leading to Hayes’ transfer to Georgia. Until then, Kareem had been a rotation player. Suddenly he was a key starter.

He has lived up to that billing and then some. Despite being overshadowed by senior defensive end Julian Okwara this preseason, do not be outright shocked if Kareem flips that narrative this season. He did receive a No. 1 vote, after all. It is not remembered much at this point, but a bum ankle severely hampered Kareem last year. He repeatedly needed help getting off the field. Full health should lead to increased explosiveness leading to who-knows-what.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 29 CFP Semifinal at the Cotton Bowl Classic - Clemson v Notre Dame

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 29: Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Ian Book (#12) throws a pass during the Goodyear Cotton Bowl College Football Playoff Semifinal game between the Clemson Tigers and Notre Dame Fighting Irish on December 29, 2018 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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2: Ian Book, senior quarterback, 306
High ranking: No. 1, four votesLow ranking: No. 5On all 13 ballots

This makes more sense than fans might think, and they certainly think Book should be the No. 1 finisher.

Book should have a season the likes of which Kelly has not enjoyed, building on his 153.9 pass efficiency rating, already a Kelly era high. Presuming health, Book should blow past last year’s 19 touchdown passes and 23 total scores. His dynamic with Claypool could result in individual dominance.

Then why not atop these rankings? Two reasons.

One, do not overlook how good the final player is and could be in 2019. Two, a quarterback’s success is more dependent on many others than often recognized or acknowledged. As good as Book may be, his chances of coming out of the gate firing on all cylinders already took a hit when he lost his best safety valve in Kmet. With only two starting targets returning, Notre Dame may rely on its running game more often, especially given how the offensive line looks.

Book’s impact will be felt, but it will not be a solitary effort. His best days will come on the backs of others more often than not.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 29 Stanford at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 29: Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive lineman Julian Okwara (42) hits Stanford Cardinal quarterback K.J. Costello (3) as he throws causing a incompletion during the college football game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Stanford Cardinals on September 29, 2018, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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1: Julian Okwara, senior defensive end, 319
High ranking: No. 1, eight votesLow ranking: No. 3On all 13 ballotsLast year: No. 20

One ballot kept Okwara from joining a lofty list. Only three players in these rankings have ever received unanimous top-two status: 2012 Manti Te’o, 2013 Louis Nix and 2015 Jaylon Smith, the latter two each receiving only one second-place vote.

Okwara received a higher percentage of the available points than either Te’von Coney did last year or Quenton Nelson did in 2017. (Point totals are not reliably available from the previous regime.)

He has stated he wants 10 more sacks than last year, meaning at least 18. That would have led the NCAA and would shatter Irish records. It is also not outlandish, considering how many times Okwara blew past a quarterback last season. Eight added pounds on his frame should help him stay on balance despite an offensive tackle’s desperate last jabs, and bettered footwork should allow Okwara to pivot as a quarterback steps up in the pocket.

Okwara is bent on destruction this season and is Notre Dame’s best chance at an All-American and first-round draft pick. His impact will be felt, literally so by opposing passers.

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