Rakes Report #145: The All-BK-at-ND Team, Tiered
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Good morning, folks. Just a heads up that if you were eyeing any TeePublic gear, Rakes store or otherwise, they’re having a 35% off sale sitewide for the next few days. (I think this is what I’m going for.)
That’s all the clerical notes we have today, so consider the optional musical accompaniment and let’s get to it.
While doing rewatches for the pod I realized I hadn’t done a newsletter dedicated solely to the All-BK-at-ND Team since initially rolling it out all the way back in the summer of 2016. There have been sections and podcasts, yes, but no easy written reference point to direct people toward when the topic arose. Considering I didn’t get to do my post-spring practice positional group power rankings now seemed like a fun time to get into some tiers.
The specifics of who is actually on this team is a very minor part of it, as it is really just serves as an excuse to Remember Some Guys and talk about some of the great Notre Dame players of the past decade. Good-natured arguments and getting upset because a poll isn’t going the way you want are very important parts of sports fandom and this is great fuel for those fires.
To keep it somewhat simple, there are only four tiers below, and the order within the tiers is mostly based on narrative or completely arbitrary, so don’t read too much into them except for a couple occasions when I note some potential flexibility in the positioning. These are technically single-season awards, but towards the end I will explain why that could be changing in the future to better capture the Kelly Era.
Factors at play:
Your individual statistics, as well as how the team and specifically your side of the ball performed. If you’re an important part of a team that goes 12-0, that’s worth more than similar stats on an eight-win team. Additionally, bonus points for strong closing stretches.
Similarly, performances in big games matter versus rolling up stats versus the bottom of the schedule.
All-American status, postseason awards and team captaincies are all big pluses.
NFL draft position and professional success are used mainly for tiebreakers, although they’re more important for positions where it’s tougher to evaluate versus skill players who have helpful counting stats. Still: A player with a great college career who never plays in the NFL would make this team while a number one overall pick who didn’t produce in college would not, although that would raise questions about the acumen of the coaching staff.
If there is someone on the roster looming as a potential replacement, you’re in more danger than if the depth chart has more question marks at your position.
This is extremely subjective, but bonus tiebreaker is how important a player feels in telling the story of Kelly’s tenure. Think of it like you were putting together a museum exhibit for someone who knew nothing of the past decade of Irish football and you wanted them to get as full a story as possible via these selections.
One thing in trying to look at recruiting classes and the current roster to project out who might jump onto this team is we can take educated guesses but we don’t really know. Sure, sometimes it’s really easy to mark the path, like when Manti, Jaylon or Quenton go from five-star prospects to college greats. But you also have guys like Julian Love, Nick Martin and Tyler Eifert, three-star recruits who made real real good. This isn’t science.
The most important note to remember is that everyone on this team is awesome and when I’m nitpicking to help distinguish tiers it is not hating but simply trying to explain the tiny differences that might exist between some of these guys. Also, this is assuming some sort of 2020 football season, which isn’t based on anything beyond hope being maybe the best of things and also extremely dangerous.
I think that’s it. Shall we go?
Manti Te’o, LB
Jaylon Smith, LB
Manti is probably the first pick for this list, a unanimous All-American and Heisman runner-up who took home the Maxwell (Player of the Year), Bednarik (Defensive Player of the Year), Nagurski (Defensive Player of the Year), Butkus (Linebacker of the Year), Lombardi (Linebacker/Defensive Lineman of the Year) and Walter Camp (Player of the Year) trophies. He was the first purely defensive player to win the Maxwell or Walter Camp since Pitt’s Hugh Green did it in 1980. His senior year was only the second highest tackle total of his four-year career but he chipped in a silly seven interceptions and two fumble recoveries in addition to sniffing out every draw play or screen the opposition tried.
Jaylon had to do everything to keep the BVG defenses afloat. In 2015, he totaled 114 tackles (nine for loss), six QB hurries, a forced fumble and two recoveries, won the Butkus and would have been a top pick in the NFL Draft if not for the injury he suffered in the Fiesta Bowl. (Smith ended up going in the second round and worked his way back into form and a $64 million contract extension, one of the few recent examples of karma working as it should.) Watching the best athletes on other teams think they could get the edge on Jaylon only to fail miserably is a bottomless spring producing concentrated joy.
Between everything that happened to Manti following his senior year and Jaylon being forced to play in a hare-brained Rube Goldberg scheme it can be easy to forget just how dominant they were, but do a spot rewatch on a game from their career and watch them just go to work. (2012 Oklahoma and 2014 Michigan are great showcases.) The best.
Quenton Nelson, G
Zack Martin, G
One of the biggest missed opportunities of the Kelly tenure is not pushing #QForHeisman. I get it, as Josh Adams was on an incredible run, but it would have been so fun to go all-in on a Heisman campaign for an offensive guard who totally justified the hype. (I detail how it would have looked in Point 10 here.) A unanimous All-American and top-ten NFL Draft pick* who immediately reached All-Pro levels, Nelson immediately justified every ounce of hype.
* If you did a redraft of the 2018 NFL Draft today, there’s a good chance Nelson goes No. 2 overall behind only Lamar Jackson. He’s that good already.
And yet, if I were picking the top guy for the All-BK-at-ND offensive line and maybe the offense as a whole, I might go with Zack Martin. He was incredible as a tackle in college and is a likely Hall of Famer at guard in the NFL, so for the purpose of fitting as many first-rounders onto this team as we can we cheat and push him to guard. A two-time captain who started all 52 games of his career and anchored an offensive line in 2013 that gave up just eight sacks all season long despite protecting on over 400 pass attempts from a guy who wasn’t the most mobile quarterback. Martin also won the 2013 Pinstripe Bowl MVP award, becoming the first offensive lineman to win a bowl MVP award since the inaugural Liberty Bowl in 1959.
(If you don’t approve of cheating and moving Martin, then he knocks out Mike McGlinchey for the other tackle spot opposite Ronnie Stanley and Chris Watt is your other guard. McGlinchey told Friend of the Report Jess Smetana during Super Bowl media days that he considered himself fourth of the first-round quartet, so I’ll just defer to him on sorting out this talent glut.)
Julian Love, DB
The fun thing about Love is that he has two seasons that are no-brainer qualifiers for this list. There is of course 2018, where he was a consensus All-American, Thorpe Award finalist and the best player on a 12-1 team, with the second most pass breakups in a season in school history (16) and a critical fumble return touchdown in Blacksburg. But then there is also 2017, when he set the single-season Notre Dame record for PBUs (20) and had backbreaking pick sixes against good Michigan State and NC State teams*. Allowing the mind to wander and imagining what would have happened if he’d been matched up with Lawrence Cager in Athens...no, we mustn’t. It might not seem like it but he’s basically as untouchable as the legends above him.
* Love has 39 career PBUs, the most in school history. Second place is Clarence Ellis (32 from 1969 to 1971) and third is Harrison Smith (28). Decent bit of cushion and completely insane to think he did almost all of that in just two seasons.
Will Fuller, WR
An almost unparalleled combination of raw numbers, big moments and supporting accolades. His 1,258 receiving yards in 2015 is second only to Golden's silly 1,496 in 2009 and just ahead of Jeff Samardzija's 1,249 in 2005 in the program’s record books. The 14 touchdowns from that season are fifth all-time, behind a four-way tie for 15 from Golden, Samardzija, Rhema McKnight in 2006 and...oh, Will Fuller in 2014. Pretty good two-year stretch!
On the moment front (absurd highlights here), there’s the meme-generating catch against Virginia and the torching of Adoree Jackson but he also pulled in the go-ahead score against undefeated Temple on the road with just over two minutes remaining in the game. He destroyed any Heinz Field curses to the tune of seven catches/152 yards/three scores as Pat Narduzzi insisted on single coverage and closed the campaign strong with a combined 12 catches for 249 yards and two scores against top-tier Stanford and Ohio State teams. (Sneaky good one: In DeShone Kizer’s first career start against a Georgia Tech team we thought was good, Fuller opened the scoring by somehow getting behind the defense on a 3rd and 20.) He was rewarded with consensus All-American status and by going in the first round.
There’s also the way we know he bent an entire defense to his presence, as they either had to account for him or suffer the consequences, something that has continued to the pros as Deshaun Watson’s numbers are noticeably better with Fuller than without. His 2015 is maybe my favorite individual season anywhere on this list and his place is secure even with some exciting prospects on the current depth chart.
Harrison Smith, S
He only played two seasons under Kelly but they were excellent, including four interceptions in the final 61.5 minutes of the 2010 campaign. You could take either that season (91 tackles, seven picks, seven passes defensed) or 2011 when he was the sole season-long captain, collected 90 tackles (three for loss), nine passes defensed, two forced fumbles and a recovery before becoming a first round draft pick. Bonus: Smith is also the only player in Notre Dame history to register at least 200 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 15 pass breakups. Could easily be up a spot but the entire safety position is on watch.
Michael Floyd, WR
By sheer numbers, Floyd should probably be a lock: A school-record 100 catches for 1,147 yards and ten total touchdowns in 2011 along with consummate blocking work. But A) There are a lot of talented guys with multiple remaining years of eligibility (Braden Lenzy, Kevin Austin, incoming five-star Jordan Johnson) who could blow up B) Fuller’s 2015 is more impressive and more important to telling the story of Kelly’s tenure, so Floyd is first on the chopping block, partially because C) Offseason arrests going into your senior year that result in you missing spring practice and probably losing a captaincy factor into this. Floyd his damage with less stellar quarterbacking than Fuller and it would be a surprise if someone eclipsed him, but just playing it safe.
Ronnie Stanley, T
Mike McGlinchey, T
These guys were both consensus All-Americans, top ten picks and left tackles on great rushing teams, with McGlinchey also serving as a captain. They’re awesome and are on this tier for two reasons: 1) They’re a step behind Quenton Nelson and Zack Martin, with the latter’s positional flexibility a danger because: 2) There is a lot of talent in the offensive line pipeline and you never know who might pop. Really, the definition of Probably Safe.
Nick Martin, C
Similar deal as above: A two-time captain and second round pick who helped power the incredible 2015 offense in his final year. Just keeping an eye on him because Jarrett Patterson still has three years of eligibility left (although he might eventually slide elsewhere on the line) and redshirt freshman Zeke Correll, a top 100 recruit, looms. I really just don’t want to lock up the entire offensive line but it’s an extremely difficult group to crack.
Stephon Tuitt, DE
Two seasons in contention here, whether you want 2012 where he had 47 tackles, 12 sacks, three forced fumbles and the 77-yard return against Navy for a 12-1 team or 2013 where he had 49 tackles, 7.5 sacks, the diving pick six against Michigan, 13 additional QB hurries and a couple of passes defensed, highlighted by the 2013 grindhouse victory against the Trojans where he tied career highs with seven tackles and two sacks to clinch the win in the second half. A very large, fast and intimidating human who was a top recruit, dominated for two years and was a second-round draft pick.
Let us pause briefly and look at the roster spots we’ve already filled. On offense, we’ve got all five offensive linemen and two wide receivers, so four spots left - quarterback, and three skill players. On defense, we’ve got a defensive end, two linebackers, a safety and a corner, leaving six holes to fill across all three levels of the defense.
SHOULD BE SAFE BUT WE’LL SEE
Sheldon Day, DT
Louis Nix, DT
Two big personalities who put up big numbers from the interior of the defensive line. In 2012, Irish Chocolate anchored a 12-1 defense that allowed just four rushing touchdowns all season. 50 tackles (7.5 for loss), two sacks, a forced fumble, three QB hurries and five pass break-ups before eventually going in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
Day was a two-time captain who accrued 48 tackles (12.5 for loss) with eight sacks, another 13 quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and four passes defensed before going in the fourth round of the draft. He would have made this team strictly on merit, but the fact we get his mom and their handshake/hug skills is definitely a bonus. Also, during the USC 2015 rewatch, our Trojan Insider Nick referred to Day’s performance as “rowdy” which I cannot get out of my head.
I’m going to contradict myself later when talking about defensive end, but I think the deep well of talent accumulated by Mike Elston in the middle could help backstop this just because snaps for larger gentlemen might have a ceiling. If this duo could hold off Jerry Tillery*, then I like their odds of fending off the current roster, as talented as some of those guys might be.
* Tillery was cruising toward this list in 2018, but he tore his labrum against Stanford and recorded just two tackles for loss over the final seven games, which is still quite good considering he was, you know, secretly playing with a torn labrum. He anchors the second-team line along with Kapron Lewis-Moore.
Josh Adams, RB
Theo Riddick, RB
Two different approaches to making the list here. For Adams, it was raw numbers, as his 1430 yards in 2017 were just 7 shy of breaking Vagas Ferguson's single-season mark from 1979. There was #33Trucking, the exclamation points in the glorious back-to-back blowouts of Top 15 USC and NC State teams, where he logged 46 carries for 393 yards and four touchdowns, plus a season-high 229 yards on just 18 carries (12.7 per rush!) at Boston College.
For Riddick, it was doing the dirty work for a 12-1 team. He was the leading rusher (917), third-leading receiver (36 catches for 370 yards), had the most yards from scrimmage and all-purpose yardage (1,287) and converted 51 first downs. When they needed 143 rushing yards in Tommy's spot start against BYU, he was there, grinding out the 17-14 win. When they needed 176 yards of offense in the Coliseum to clinch the BCS title game bid, he was there. Riddick’s seven total touchdowns that year put him just two behind Adams’ nine*. (Dexter Williams had 13 — 12 rushing, one receiving — in 2018 and would likely be on this list had he not been suspended the first four games.) Skimming the game log and overall numbers don’t blow you away, but watch any highlights from what was the first undefeated regular season in over two decades and you see how critical Riddick was to the operation.
* Brandon Wimbush led the 2017 team with 14 rushing touchdowns, tied for seventh-most in a season in school history. A very fun offense when it was humming.
I have to be honest with you: I kind of lean Riddick as the top option here, which is insane based on raw yardage but the reason Adams doesn’t have the all-time record is because he failed to eclipse 50 yards rushing in four of the final five games as the regular season closed with a whimper. This isn’t all his fault, as quarterback inaccuracy and defensive adjustments started to choke things off, but it’s a contrast to Riddick who dropped the hammer to get to 12-0 and provides so much versatility with his ability as a receiver, a skill he affirmed in the NFL. We are talking really thin margins and I realize I’m probably in the minority but the heart wants what the heart wants.
Regardless: If Chris Tyree (or anyone else) is challenging these two, it’s a great sign for the offense. Worth noting we stick with two running backs despite some pretty exceptional cases to turn to a three wide-receiver set, a charge led by 2013 T.J. Jones (a captain with 70 catches for 1108 yards and 11 total touchdowns) and 2019 Chase Claypool (66 catches for 1037 yards and 15 touchdowns).
Tyler Eifert, TE
This is less about Eifert — who was one of the most important offensive players on a 12-1 team, won the Mackey Award as the country’s best at the position and went in the first round of the draft — and more about the pipeline behind him. If Cole Kmet had come back, we all agree Eifert’s spot was potentially in peril, right? It seems like one NFL decision shouldn’t change the standing, particularly because recruiting people who know more than me love incoming freshman Michael Mayer, who ended up as a five-star, and then you have Tommy Tremble, whose per target numbers were similar to Kmet last year and is about to see his volume go way up. Eifert’s starting spot has already survived a ton of talented challengers (Troy Niklas, Ben Koyack, Alize Mack, Durham Smythe, Kmet) and he may just do it again to remain the top guy at Tight End U, but it’ll be a battle.
KeiVarae Russell, DB
Few players benefited from the rewatches more than Russell, who was making key tackles (nine, to be exact) in Norman in 2012 then locking up JuJu Smith-Schuster three years later. Really three fun seasons to pick from from a pure cover corner who lost his junior season to suspension. (Never self-report!!) There are a few different versions to choose from here:
2012 - Freshman All-American who started all thirteen games for a 12-1 team. Made his two picks count, with one against Michigan and the other against Marqise Lee, a guy who finished fourth (!) in Heisman balloting that year.
2013 - Fifth on the team in tackles with 51 while adding in a pick and eight pass break-ups. Three of those pass break-ups came in a win against the best Michigan State team of the past half-century and three more came in the bowl.
2015 - Game-clinching picks in back-to-back games against USC and Temple before going in the third round of the draft. Fractured his foot at Fenway and likely would have made a difference at the margins in Palo Alto the following week but let’s move on before the soft weeping starts.
There is a lot of good competition for this spot with Robert Blanton, Bennett Jackson, Cole Luke and Troy Pride, Jr. but I think Russell is the guy. If Shaun Crawford can stay healthy he could make a run at it, perhaps TaRiq Bracy continues to improve or one of the youths pops immediately, which is not unheard of as you look at this list.
Drue Tranquill, LB/Rover
I have gone back and forth versus 2018 Tranquill and 2018 Te’von Coney more than maybe any other spot on this list. I have done Twitter polls that literally ended up tied and initially went with Coney, but over the ensuing months have found my ear bent to the case for Tranquill bolstered by his positional flexibility, two-time captainship and NFL Draft position/production as a tiebreaker. (I do think Coney remains underrated in coverage and his numbers in both 2017 and 2018 are unimpeachable - we’ve been really blessed at the second level.)
I'm not going to focus too much on this because Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah looms and if he plays the whole season like he did the Camping World Bowl (3.5 sacks!!) it'll be game over. JOK's season totals from 2019 are impressive on their own, with 80 tackles (13.5 for loss), four passes defensed, two fumbles forced and two recovered. Also: He does have two years of eligibility remaining, although if he earns this spot in 2020 he’ll likely receive a favorable projection in the NFL Draft. There are other talented guys looming as well (Drew White had 80 tackles in 2019) so just keeping this loose.
Alohi Gilman, S
The Navy transfer started 26 games for Notre Dame and the Irish won 23 of them, including the first 12. I am partial to his 2018 season, where his totals were higher and Jalen Elliott wasn’t quite all the way along as a complement. Gilman had the signature game against Syracuse*, the battles with Michigan’s giant tight end in the opener, the forced fumble against Southern Cal in the closer and still holds the record for most tackles in a College Football Playoff game (18).
* Undefeated Notre Dame beat No. 12 Syracuse by 33 in a game at Yankee Stadium to get to 11-0 and then the Orange won out to finish 10-3 and No. 15 in the nation and this doesn't count as any sort of big win because...Cuse’s brand name? The Irish made it look too easy? If Notre Dame lost, it would retroactively 100% be a Big Game Loss, the same as the Michigan and Stanford contests that season. I dunno, I don’t make the rules.
Unfortunately for Gilman, his resume isn’t quite as good as Harrison Smith’s and a five-star wunderkind entering his sophomore season looms. Could we shift to nickel with Jaylon, Manti, Smith, Gilman and Hamilton? Maybe worth a discussion.
DeShone Kizer, QB
It’s a conversation, but I don’t think Book’s 2019 eclipses Kizer’s 2015, even though the latter missed a game and a half prior to taking over. If Book had played the whole season like he did the final five games or even like he did against Georgia, this would be flipped, but we spent the first two months of last season wondering what was up with him before things bottomed out in Ann Arbor.
If Book has another season similar to 2018 and 2019, I think I might have to change the rules and make this a career accolade because he would have left such a giant stamp on the program. Book had 38 total touchdowns in 2019, putting him just one behind Brady Quinn's single-season record. (Kizer had 34 in 2016 and 31 in 2015, meaning he's currently tied for second all-time with Book and Jimmy Clausen - not bad for two seasons of work.) Quinn currently has a 36-total touchdown lead on Book, a number that could be overcome with good health and production.* Book is also 20-3 as a starter overall. If that number were to get to 30-5 or maybe if we’re greedy 31-4 next season, Book would be the defining quarterback of the Kelly tenure and would deserve placement on this list. Let’s just hope he has an exceptional 2020 campaign that eclipses 2015 Kizer, as that would probably mean pretty fun things for us.
* To catch Quinn in career passing yardage and passing touchdowns, Book would need 5600 yards and 38 touchdowns. Turns out when you’re a two-time Heisman finalist you leave some rather tall trees to climb.
Julian Okwara, DE
Okwara’s 2018 season — eight sacks (plus another 4.5 tackles for loss), the interception against Michigan, a forced fumble and an absolutely insane 21 quarterback hurries — was on alert to defend against his 2019 season, but a slow start and early November injury curtailed his run at solidifying this spot. (He still finished with five sacks and two forced fumbles, most of that coming at the expense of Bryce Perkins.) As mentioned above, defensive line recruiting is strong enough that I could see someone hitting a double-digit sack total off the edge and taking this spot, just because defensive ends have more chances to put up gaudy stats versus the interior. The extensive depth chart might help Okwara hold on as I suspect it will the defensive tackles, but with Tuitt pretty much locked up I’m leaving this here.
QB DeShone Kizer
RB Josh Adams
RB/WR Theo Riddick
WR Will Fuller
WR Michael Floyd
OT Ronnie Stanley
OG Quenton Nelson
C Nick Martin
OG Zack Martin
OT Mike McGlinchey
DE Stephon Tuitt
DT Sheldon Day
DT Louis Nix
DE Julian Okwara
LB Manti Te’o
LB Jaylon Smith
LB Drue Tranquill
CB Julian Love
S Harrison Smith
S Alohi Gilman
CB KeiVarae Russell
That’s your starting 22, potentially forever if we never play college football again. A few special teams notes:
Your punter is Tyler Newsome, who was voted a 2018 team captain by his peers and had the 63-yard bomb against Vanderbilt to help mitigate that dicey situation and keep the drive for 12-0 alive when the offense was wobbling early.
Kicker is actually quite tough, as despite the jokes and #CollegeKickers hashtag we’ve been pretty blessed overall. Which one of these do you go with, with the knowledge that Justin Yoon is the school’s all-time leading scorer as a tiebreaker?
2010 David Ruffer - 18 for 19 on field goals (94.7 percent), 37 for 40 on extra points
2013 Kyle Brindza - 20 for 26 on FG (76.9%), all 38 XP and also 12 punts.
2015 Justin Yoon - 15 for 17 on field goals (88.2%) 50 for 52 on XP [includes drilling a 46-yarder in a hurricane to get the Irish on the board in Death Valley]
2017 Justin Yoon - 14 for 18 on FG (77.8%) and 55 for 55 on extra points [two of those misses came against Temple in the opener and another came against Miami (OH), two games the Irish won by a combined 68 points so they didn’t matter. Was four-for-four against Georgia and should have got a shot at five and legend status, dammit.]
2019 Jonathan Doerer - 17 for 20 on field goals (85%) and 57 for 57 on XP [including three-for-three with a 52-yarder against USC in a 30-27 game and a 51-yarder in the bowl]
It might be recency bias, but if we’re going single season, I kind of lean Doerer and take the biggest leg combined with comparable accuracy? Particularly considering how we went into last season assuming special teams would be a disaster from the go and then he was just awesome.
A few people have put forth this suggestion and I love it so for kick return we’re going with the late George Atkinson III, who in 2011 returned one 89 yards against No. 15 Michigan State to help the Irish secure their first win and then went 96 yards to give the Irish life against Southern Cal the following month. The first Notre Dame player since Rocket to have two kick return touchdowns in his freshman season.
If one point of this exercise is to capture Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame in the most accurate way possible then for punt return, just on principle, I think we have to go with John Goodman.
I was going to get into second team options but this has already gone on so long so let’s leave it with a bit of breaking-ish news: On Monday, Notre Dame secured the commitment of NC State graduate transfer corner Nick McCloud. McCloud was a team captain for the Wolfpack in 2019 but lost most of the fall due to injury and redshirted He was productive in the two prior seasons, collecting 85 tackles, 15 passes defensed (including this dandy of a play in Notre Dame Stadium) and three interceptions. Let us hope this is Cody Riggs 2.0 and, as always, much love to Dave Doeren.
Thanks to everybody for reading. Reminder: Merch is 35 percent off the next few days and should it fit your preferred color scheme and budget, the consensus suggestion from previous purchasers is to spend the extra couple bucks on the extra-soft tees.
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