Summer brings four crucial components to a college football season, each essential to the rabid fan's enjoyment:
- 7-on-7 workout news and ridiculous proclamations derived from...
- Pre-season Top 20 rankings sure-to-go-astray...
- Pre-season Player Projections and Ratings, and of course…
- Arrests, Suspensions, and Expulsions
Since Notre Dame fans and media have spent the last five deals dealing with the latter, I figured it was time to examine one more dear to the daily reader's heart: player projections and ratings.
To keep the concept Notre Dame-centric, below is a 2013 college football all-star team, made up entirely of Notre Dame players and their 12 opponents this fall.
If you're a fan of another team and feel your favorite star is missing, its likely because I didn't think he was good enough. No apologies are forthcoming:
Offensive Line (2 from ND)
Irish fans will see two of the nation's top five offensive tackles before some colleges start their school semesters, with 5th-year Notre Dame left tackle Zack Martin and Michigan left-sider Taylor Lewan on display in Game Two in Ann Arbor.
Martin is one of Notre Dame's two best offensive linemen since the turn-of-the-century. Lewan is a returning All-America, widely considered the best at his position, an opinion shared by Notre Dame linebacker, Prince Shembo, who told Irisheyes.com in December that Lewan was the best he faced last fall. (Though Shembo might have changed his mind by January 7th around 11 p.m.)
Joining the pair up front is Stanford star guard David Yankey, moving from left tackle to his natural guard position this fall. Though Yankey's fellow Cardinal guard Kevin Danser could stake his claim to our other guard spot, the vote here goes to Irish 5th-year senior mauler Chris Watt, entering his third season as a starter and per our film reviews, coming off his second straight as Notre Dame's No. 2 overall OL.
The best center Notre Dame will face in 2013 is likely Oklahoma's Gabe Ikard, looking for his third straight All-Big 10 selection at the pivot. Martin, Ikard, Yankey and Lewan have all received consensus pre-season All-America plaudits. Other than possibly Watt, no one can legitimately be argued off this list, and since I've watched more film on Watt than fill-in-the-blank, you'll have to trust me. Watt stays.
Offensive Backfield (0 from ND)
Expelled quarterback Everett Golson would have been in the conversation, but that argument is now moot. I considered Michigan's Devin Gardner, but settled on dual-threat Stanford sophomore Kevin Hogan, 8-0 as as starter with wins over Oregon, UCLA (twice) and Wisconsin. (Stanford didn't lose after leaving South Bend last October, then led under center by Josh Nunes.)
The Irish face a handful of solid 'backs this season but it's a list bereft of sure-fire All-America candidates. My choice for the top dog (including Notre Dame runners) is Arizona State dual-threat Marion Brice, with USC's Silas Redd (love how he runs angrily into the second level), Oklahoma's Damien Williams (don't let him get the corner), Stanford's Tyler Gaffney (the tradition continues), and Michigan's Fitz Toussaint (recovering from a broken leg) other notable candidates.
Notre Dame's bevy of 'backs have much to prove prior to consideration. The sleeper to join is hiccup-quick Amir Carlisle.
Receivers and Tight Ends (0 from ND)
USC true junior Marqise Lee is the nation's best receiver and easily the most talented offensive player Notre Dame will face this fall. A distant second to Lee -- and including Irish targets -- is BYU's Cody Hoffman (8 rec., 86 yards, TD vs. ND in 2012), a senior that uses his 6'4" 215-pound frame expertly vs. both press and zone coverage.
USC's ultra-athletic sophomore Nelson Agholor, Oklahoma's undersized Jalen Saunders (15 catches underneath two-deep zone coverage vs. ND last season), Pittsburgh's rangy senior Devin Street, and 2011 Irish Achilles heel Jeremy Gallon from Michigan are next in line.
So too are the Irish starting pair of T.J. Jones and DaVaris Daniels, the latter based purely on potential, and if he can stay in good health after two injuries truncated his 2012 debut; another his spring 2013 development.
Notre Dame junior tight end Troy Niklas could emerge at the position, but my pre-season pick is proven productive Arizona State senior Chris Coyle. Michigan true sophomore Devin Funchess is also on the short list. USC's Xavier Grimble is no slouch.
Defensive Line (2 from ND)
Louis Nix ranks 1 or 1B as the nation's best nose guard. He'll meet his stiffest competition for that mantle in late September on a trip to Arlington, Texas, when Arizona State's Will Sutton takes the field. Sure they're 3-4 nose guards, but for our purposes, put them both in the middle, run a 4-3, and take away the run -- completely -- for 12 weeks.
Flanking Sutton and Nix are Notre Dame junior and the column's top pro prospect Stephon Tuitt, a no-doubt selection at defensive end. Though Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald is likely the fourth-best player among Irish DL and their 2013 opponents, he's also a defensive tackle -- I need another end and will thus choose Stanford's penetrating Ben Gardner over his teammate and immovable object, Henry Anderson.
Or better put, I think Gardner will again make a major impact vs. the Irish.
Each of the six above rank among the top 15 defensive linemen in the nation. Each is better than Purdue's impressive interior rock, Bruce Gaston, who remarkably is just the fifth-best defensive lineman Notre Dame will see this season. Its likewise sobering that USC's duo of Leonard Williams (DT) and Morgan Breslin (DE/LB, pending his final position slotting) are likely No. 6 and No. 7.
Bottom line: the Irish offensive front will have its hands full on several Saturday's this fall.
Fortunate for Notre Dame fans, so will every foe's offensive front when the Irish take the field, as sophomore defensive end Sheldon Day is next in line had I continued to list top players up front. In fact, consider Day, Michigan State's undersized junior Marcus Rush, and Arizona State sophomore Jaxon Hood your sleepers at the position.
Linebackers (1 from ND)
The best inside linebacker on the schedule and one of the best in the nation is Stanford's massive Shayne Skov. Instinctive run-stopper Max Bullough is my runner-up, but I need to put BYU playmaker Kyle Van Noy (aka, the touchdown maker), Stanford pass-rusher supreme Trent Murphy, and Irish boundary 'backer Prince Shembo on this four-player list, so Bullough bounces to honorable mention.
Take away his disappointing performance vs. Alabama in the national championship game and Irish fans would have spent the off-season espousing the potential greatness Shembo. He's still among the nation's best with his hand on the ground (if not in space), and since Crimson Tide left tackle Cyrus Kouandijio isn't on the 2013 agenda, Shembo's one to be reckoned with.
Arizona State's penetrating tackler Carl Bradford also receives honorable mention honors, while injured Michigan standout Jake Ryan would have likely taken Shembo's spot on my first-team, but Ryan is out for the season with an ACL injury.
USC's Hayes Pullard, Michigan State's Denicos Allen, Temple's Tyler Matakevich, Stanford's A.J. Tarpley, Oklahoma's Corey Nelson, and Notre Dame's Danny Spond help fill out impressive depth.
As with the defensive line, Notre Dame faces a daunting collection of linebacker talent in 2013.
The Secondary (0 from ND, but 2 on the verge)
Notre Dame quarterbacks will be tested before the Autumn leaves begin to fall, with Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin (Game Five) and Michigan State three-year starter Darqueze Dennard (Game Four) both coming to South Bend in September. Backing up the pair as my second string cornerbacks are Purdue's Ricardo Allen and Notre Dame's own Bennett Jackson -- a senior who played all of 2012 with a shoulder injury, yet still ranked among the team's top 12 players in our film reviews.
Another September star on the Irish slate is Arizona State cover man Osahon Irabor. If Brian Kelly's quarterbacks are sloppy, last season's end-year total of seven interceptions could be topped before the University takes its mid-October break.
Stanford's Ed Reynolds is likely the nation's best collegiate safety and his strong safety partner Jordan Richards is no slouch. But my pick next to Reynolds for the all-opponent safety slot is Arizona State senior Alden Darby.
USC's Dion Bailey is in the mix, as is Pittsburgh senior Jason Hendrix. Irish junior Matthias Farley is a dark horse candidate to supplant Darby on the first team.
A few thoughts:
- As a blanket statement, Notre Dame faces more prodigious defensive than offensive talent in 2013
- Despite a spot on the Freshman All-America team in 2012, I couldn't pull the trigger on Irish sophomore cornerback and season-saver, Keivarae Russell.
- For the second straight season, Notre Dame's schedule features far more average than standout signal-callers. Hogan and Gardner at 1-2? Compare that to 2011 when the Irish faced Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley (plus Denard Robinson, Kirk Cousins, and Tim Jefferson)...
- The collection of defensive line talent ready to tee off on the Irish is sobering. I couldn't work in Purdue's Ryan Russell, Michigan's Quinton Washington, or undersized BYU penetrator Spencer Hadley, all viable Saturday playmakers...
- Despite this unfortunate collection of front-line foes on tap, the Irish offensive line won't face a defensive front as good as it sees daily in practice until Thanksgiving Saturday.