Our annual exercise is over and the result is a Top Five that was as close to consensus as possible. On a roster with unproven talent and unprecedented depth, part of what makes this list interesting and fun is that I put zero qualifications on the logic used to rank players. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder.
But this Top Five has something for everyone. Veteran experience. Young, rising stars. And probably the best part: Every player has a year of eligibility remaining.
If you’re looking for a promising sign, consider that of the top dozen players on this list, only Ben Koyack is out of eligibility after this season. Of course, that’s not to say that everyone is returning to school, but it puts to a very bright future just ahead for Notre Dame.
2014 IRISH TOP 25 RANKINGS
25. Will Fuller (WR, Soph.)
24. Joe Schmidt (LB, Sr.)
23. Chris Brown (WR, Jr.)
22. Jarrett Grace (LB, Sr.)
21. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.)
20. Ishaq Williams (DE, Sr.)
19. Cole Luke (CB, Soph.)
18. Cam McDaniel (RB, Sr.)
17. Jarron Jones (DT, Jr.)
16. Corey Robinson (WR, Soph.)
15. Christian Lombard (RG, GS)
14. Cody Riggs (DB, GS)
13. Kyle Brindza (K/P, Sr.)
12. Max Redfield (S, Soph.)
11. Steve Elmer, (OL, Soph.)
10. Ben Koyack (TE, Sr.)
9. Greg Bryant (RB, Soph.)
8. Nick Martin (C, Sr.)
7. DaVaris Daniels (WR, Sr.)
6. Ronnie Stanley (OT, Jr.)
5. Tarean Folston (RB, Soph.): The future is bright at running back, and it looks like the panel sees potential greatness from both Folston and Greg Bryant. A quick run through our voters, and Folston ranks higher on all but two ballots -- likely a product of a freshman season that saw Folston emerge as the team’s best runner by season’s end.
As prep stars, Bryant was the five-star prospect. But Folston was coveted by the Irish staff, who held off a late push by Auburn to ink Folston, a little later on Signing Day than anyone wanted.
Folston showed an ability to break long runs during his freshman season -- a 36-yarder against Oklahoma opened things up, and a 43-yard scamper against a tough BYU defense showed that skill. But most impressive was his productivity, an ability to make something out of nothing and show a terrific blend of toughness and quickness.
The return to the spread offense should showcase Folston’s abilities to catch the ball out of the backfield and make plays in space. Very quietly, Folston had five grabs in the first half of the Blue-Gold game.
How productive he is in 2014 will also likely be determined by how the staff trusts the most at a three-headed position. But right now, the young back is taking the most reps with the No. 1 offense and he and Bryant have the ability to do some special things in South Bend before it’s all finished.
Highest Ranking: 1st. Lowest Ranking: 12th.
4. Everett Golson (QB, Sr.): That Golson ranks fourth on this roster feels either much too high or far too low.
But that’s what happens after reading thousands of words on the missing face of Notre Dame football. After a season away and months of speculation as to the type of quarterback that returns to campus, Golson’s placement is a mixture of past performance and future expectations.
At his best, Golson is the dynamic quarterback that’s a perfect fit for Brian Kelly’s offense. His ability to make plays with his feet, have the arm strength to complete any throw in the playbook, and show the special intangible to improvise when the play break down gives Kelly his best quarterbacking option in his five seasons in South Bend.
Now it’s up to Golson to live up to the expectations. The prodigal son returning to Notre Dame is a storyline that’s already keyed up on laptops around the country. No pressure, kid.
Highest Ranking: 1st. Lowest Ranking: 7th.
3. Sheldon Day (DT, Jr.): If there’s a candidate that’s got an opportunity to surprise people nationally it’s Sheldon Day. On paper, Day’s modest production the last two seasons isn’t enough to warrant placement in the Top 5. But it’s pretty clear this panel knows the promise Day’s shown, and after a sophomore season hampered by an early season ankle injury, Day’s ready to make an impact in 2014.
Sliding inside in Brian VanGorder’s system is a key predictor. No longer needing to hold up at the point of attack, Day’s free to wreak havoc on the inside, defeating a block and owning a gap, while using his elite quickness and strength to making more plays behind the line of scrimmage.
A quiet leader, Day’s taken strides this summer to lead a young defensive line that’s counting on him to pace the group. On a defense with very few givens, that the three top players on this list are all defenders certainly is promising.
Highest Ranking: 3rd. Lowest Ranking: 5th.
2. KeiVarae Russell (CB, Jr.): After coming on strong at the end of last season, Russell is expected to be a lockdown corner in a system that demands one. That we’ve all bought into his ability to be that player -- and the coaching staff seems to agree -- bodes well for a coverage scheme that’s seen the cornerbacks play more man coverage in one week of preseason training camp than they have in the past four seasons.
Of course, it’s hard to forget the game against Michigan, a tough outing for Russell against Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon. Considering the murder’s row of receivers that Russell has on the upcoming slate, if Russell holds up and plays to his reputation, Notre Dame has an All-American cornerback on its hands for the first time since Shane Walton.
Highest Ranking: 2nd. Lowest Ranking: 6th.
1. Jaylon Smith (LB, Soph.): It didn’t take long for Smith to ascend to a spot that was almost predestined from the moment he signed his letter of intent. After an impressive freshman campaign that was even better than his stat sheet indicated, Smith has an opportunity to see his production explode from the Will linebacker spot.
As a cover man, Smith has the ability to erase running backs and tight ends, capable of mauling a slot receiver as well. I had considered him the team’s best cover corner last season, but Smith’s capability to cover and chase down anybody gives VanGorder a Ferrari in the garage.
It’s hard to call it a question mark, but sliding Smith inside is a change that puts more pressure on the young linebacker. Forced to battle through some traffic and make plays inside out, an opponent won’t be able to run away from Smith, but Smith will need to see the game from a new perspective, an edge player his whole life.
Smith was the top vote on seven ballots, giving away a first place spot to Folston and Golson. He’ll likely stay in this slot as long as he’s playing football in South Bend.
Highest Ranking: 1st. Lowest Ranking: 3rd.
The selection committee for the 2014 ND Top 25:
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals)
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune (@TJamesNDI)
Chris Hine, Chicago Tribune (@ChristopherHine)
Team OFD, One Foot Down (@OneFootDown)
Ryan Ritter, Her Loyal Sons (@HLS_NDTex)
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago (@JJStankevitz)
John Walters, Medium Happy (@JDubs88)
John Vannie, ND Nation
Keith Arnold, NBC Sports (@KeithArnold)