An annual tradition unlike any other – ranking Notre Dame’s top 25 players, and then burying the list when we turn out to be very wrong about many things. If you’ve been following along this week over at Inside the Irish, you’ve seen the slow reveal of the poll results from twelve voters including our 18 Stripes ballot. Below is our ranking, with some explanation, and the group composite ranking in parentheses.
But first, because we’re all about accountability and how hard it is to predict these things, a quick recap of last season’s highlights.
- Te’Von Coney was #25, and 23rd in the group ranks. Talented players making significant leaps are both easy to predict and sometimes hard to see coming. Jerry Tillery (#14), Drue Tranquill (#9), and Julian Love (#8) were also underrated and had mini-breakouts.
- On that note, a number of players were ranked that had little impact or were way too high – CJ Sanders (21 on our ballot) was a non-factor on offense and not great in special teams, Alize Mack (7) was up and down along with the passing game as a whole, Kevin Stepherson (13) took a while to emerge from the doghouse, and Equanimeous St. Brown (5) had a drop-off in production as well.
- Of the top ten, Daelin Hayes (10th) and Nyles Morgan (2nd) were both a bit disappointing in their production and impact. The good news was that they were likely passed up by other defenders having strong years.
- Quenton Nelson was #1, and sometimes you have to give yourself credit for getting even the obvious things right (not every ballot agreed!)
2018 18 Stripes Preseason Top 25 Players
#25 Alize Mack (18)
Our 18S panel was lower than other voters on Mack, with two of our three voters taking Cole Kmet over Mack. This rank may be representative of growing fan frustration that Mack may never live up to his potential. Still, Mack was the third most targeted receiver on the Notre Dame roster in 2017, even if he only produced 19 catches and 166 yards with those 39 targets.
#24 Cole Kmet (15)
Kmet’s ranking above Mack is a bit on potential and some healthy spring practice buzz. From coaches comments it seems like Kmet has emerged at least as option 1b to Mack’s 1a, but it’s also easy to envision a more trusted veteran like Nic Weishar (who is likely the best blocker at the position) stealing time from both
#23 Houston Griffith (NR)
Griffith was the second safety on the 18 Stripes ballot, earning the nod over last season’s starters Jalen Elliott and Nick Coleman. From Brian Kelly’s recent comments, Griffith will be one of three safeties competing for a starting job and seeing a significant early role along with Elliott and Alohi Gillman (late edit: as I write this now, Coleman is apparently having a fantastic start to fall camp and back in the mix). Griffith is a fluid athlete with good cover skills, but it remains to be seen how much trust the coaches will place in him as a true freshman.
#22 Liam Eichenberg (23)
Everything is on the table for a composite top-100 recruit in his first year of real action. It was a bit surprising to see Eichenberg seize the job at left tackle, as many expected Robert Hainsey to slide over from right tackle into the role. He’ll have big shoes to fill following Mike McGlinchey, Ronnie Stanley, and Zack Martin at the position, and a tough task to start the year against Michigan.
#21 Justin Yoon (21)
Yoon’s ranking really comes down to how much you value his role as a kicker, because you know what you’re getting from him. He will almost certainly end this season as the most accurate kicker in program history, with many other volume records (most points, field goals, and more) all within his sights.
#20 Dexter Williams (19)
Despite assumptions Williams will miss at least four games, and maybe be in the doghouse even once he comes back, he was the only running back on our ballot. The senior has acceleration and explosiveness unique to the other backs, but has yet to gain the trust of the staff with his blocking and decision-making.
#19 Tommy Kraemer (22)
Kraemer cut his teeth last year on an excellent line, albeit in a part-time role. A move inside to guard may benefit the Ohio native, who last season was stronger run blocking than in pass protection. The offensive line as a whole has a lot of players with strong pedigrees but limited proven production
#18 Jonathan Bonner (25)
Bonner is an underappreciated piece of the Irish defense. His production numbers are low, but don’t reflect the blocks he’s occupied and work he’s done in the bigger picture of the Irish defense. It won’t get any more glamorous in 2018 as he moves to nose tackle, but Bonner figures to again provide a steady force eating up blocks and snaps with a pretty high floor, even if he may have a lower ceiling than some other interior DL options.
#17 Shaun Crawford (16)
Crawford a top-10 player in the first half of last season, picking off passes and forcing an enormous fumble at Michigan State. Then it felt like he disappeared a bit – which is both bad (the Irish missed his playmaking) and still ok (he wasn’t seen getting burned). Wearing down a bit is explainable for a player coming off two seasons of injury recovery, and Crawford could make a big leap with a full season of the performance we saw early in 2017.
#16 Alohi Gillman (12)
Gillman enters 2018 without “backup QB” like status among the Irish fan base – we’ve heard good things, and he hasn’t had the chance to be blamed for anything on the field, so he’s great! The Navy transfer received high praise last year on the scout team and a solid spring. Gillman should be strong against the run, and anything in the way of pass disruption will be an upgrade over five total pass breakups from the position a year ago.
#15 Myron Tagavailoa-Amosa (NR)
We were the highest ballot turned in for the Hawaiin sophomore, and in hindsight we may be drinking the Kool Aid here if he only plays 30ish snaps a game. MTA went from a late addition to his class to quickly contributing to a good run defense in 2017. He flashed impressive strength and penetration as a true freshman and figures to make significant strides as a sophomore. Is this maybe a bit too high? It may depend on how many snaps he can take from Jerry Tillery, who played a DL high 702 last year. A more even timeshare could benefit both players.
#14 Miles Boykin (9)
Only two wide receivers made our top 25 ballot, reflecting maybe the scars of the passing game struggles of last season. In limited time, Boykin actually led the team last year in yards per catch and yards per target, although those were heavily swayed by the heroic Citrus Bowl touchdown and a long score against Miami (OH). How will Boykin perform as a top target going against opponents top corners?
#13 Robert Hainsey (14)
Hainsey gets the edge over Kraemer and others in part because of continuity he should benefit from at right tackle. In his time splitting snaps as a true freshmen, Hainsey was particularly impressive in pass protection, with room for growth run-blocking. There’s a strong chance Hainsey becomes a rare four-year starter, either staying at RT or at some point moving inside.
#12 Chase Claypool (11)
Claypool over Boykin isn’t the boldest prediction, but it’s a bet many other ballots didn’t make on the player with a higher upside and that had a greater role last season. Consistency and effort are much bigger questions than talent and upside for Claypool, who should be a matchup nightmare.
#11 Troy Pride (13)
Pride may have the most “boom or bust” potential of any player ranked this high besides Brandon Wimbush. He has great size and track star speed, and showed strong growth down the stretch in 2017 that led into passing up Nick Watkins in the spring. Still, Pride is a little less proven as an impact player and will be targeted a good deal as opposing QB’s avoid Julian Love. It’s a big opportunity for him to show out or risk getting picked on frequently.
#10 Julian Okwara (20)
This ranking was one of the highest for Okwara of the other Notre Dame voters, and I think we feel pretty good about it. While it’s not a lock that he’ll see as many snaps as Daelin Hayes or some players he’s ahead of, he seems likely to be Notre Dame’s best edge rusher (if he wasn’t already last season) and on the field most third downs. The big questions are if being Notre Dame’s best edge rusher is a “tallest of the midgets” compliment or if he’s truly a force opponents have to plan for, and how well he can hold up against the run.
#9 Khalid Kareem (10)
Kareem is high on the list of breakout candidates from ND beat writers, and beat out Jay Hayes for the starting strong side end job in the spring. Like Okwara, Kareem was one of the more disruptive players on the defensive line despite not starting. He’s certainly a better pass rusher, and may not offer much (if any) of a drop-off against the run.
#8 Daelin Hayes (8)
2018 finds Hayes in an interesting spot after he was hyped last year as a solution to Notre Dame’s pass rushing woes. As a sophomore he underachieved that lofty expectation, with just three sacks, but also held up far better than anticipated versus the run. Is a post-hype breakout possible? Absolutely, but there’s also a chance Okwara (or even a darkhorse, like Ade Ogundeji) supplants Hayes on passing downs if his pass rush production doesn’t improve. Number eight feels a little high to me.
#7 Brandon Wimbush (6)
Depending on how you view this exercise, Wimbush could be extremely overrated or underrated at number seven. He’s the most critical player to the team’s 2018 success, and arguably the player with the highest ceiling. As a runner Wimbush was a stud – basically Lamar Jackson-lite (Wimbush 8.0 yards per carry, 7.3 highlight yards per opportunity, Jackson 8.7 and 7.7 respectively). Progress in accuracy and making reads unlocks Chip Long’s offense in a new way, while a repeat of last season probably dooms the Irish to 3-4 losses. No pressure!
#6 Alex Bars (7)
No ballots in the top 25 had Bars lower than #10 and no one had him higher than #4, which seems right for a very good player but one that may not be dominant. Bars will be expected to take on a leadership role as a veteran presence on the line. Playing next to Eichenberg, Bars won’t be Quenton Nelson but doesn’t have to be to still be a strength for Notre Dame against opposing defenses.
#5 Sam Mustipher (3)
Everything written about Bars above applies to Mustipher, who edged out his fellow captain both on our ballot and the composite. I think this is coming from a sense that Mustipher was maybe just a bit better last season, and also that he may taking up more responsibility than Bars at center, especially with far less experience around him on the line. Both linemen figure to be good and steady, but perceptions of both could fall off in the line as a whole disappoints.
#4 Drue Tranquill (5)
Tranquill finally found a perfect positional fit last year at rover, so naturally he’ll be changing positions against this fall. Still, there’s little reason to doubt Tranquill, whose fantastic instincts and tackling ability were on full display in 2017. Would it be surprisingly if at the end of the season, he has a strong case for the top spot on this list?
#3 Jerry Tillery (2)
Tillery had a phenomenal bounce-back campaign as a junior, completing a turn-around from a sophomore year where many fans began giving up on a talented but inconsistent player with questions about his mindset. He was a workhorse an noseguard in 2017, playing the most snaps of any player on the defensive line and logging 9 TFL and 4.5 sacks. A move to 3-technique will give him even more chances to be disruptive in 2018.
#2 Julian Love (4)
I was a surprised to see Love not receive any first place votes from other Irish top 25 voters, then absolutely shocked to see two ballots with him outside the top 10. He was a second team All-American last year, and set a school record for passes defensed! As a sophomore! I think Love has the fewest holes in his game of any player on the roster, and is the surest bet to be a top 5 player.
#1 Te’von Coney (1)
Coney took #1 on our ballot and also earned the top spot in the composite list. His production and disruption last year, especially in the run game and rushing the quarterback, were outstanding. He’s a great athlete, instinctive blitzer, and will put up gigantic numbers despite a position change inside to MIKE linebacker. The big question is Coney’s ability to hold up in coverage – he had zero pass deflections in 2017, and will need to improve in that area to elevate the defense and his draft stock.