Ranking the top 25 players on Notre Dame’s roster for the 2019 season seems like a simple enough task.
But I already have regrets.
Each year since 2010, the NBC Sports’ “Inside the Irish” blog has rounded up a group of Notre Dame football reporters and bloggers to cast their votes for the top 25 most players on the roster who will have the most impact for the upcoming season.
The annual exercise allows us to gather our thoughts heading into a new season and predict how it will play out for many members of the team.
Because the votes are cast before preseason camp starts, mistakes can be identified pretty quickly. For instance, I foolishly left freshman safety Kyle Hamilton off my list. The uncertainty of how Notre Dame’s coaching staff would find playing time for Hamilton with two quality starters returning at safety made me too cautious.
There’s still no clear answer on the role Hamilton will play this season, but there’s little doubt that he’s going to find a way onto the field after repeatedly impressing early in camp. In the first three practices, reporters have been able to watch, Hamilton has intercepted five passes and forced a fumble. The five-star rating Hamilton that 247Sports gave to Hamilton feels pretty accurate right now.
Where would I rank Hamilton now? Before I consider that, let’s go over my complete list of 25. Below is how I ranked each player when I submitted my ballot July 26. In parentheses, I’ve listed the composite ranking that the Inside the Irish poll produced from the panel of 13 voters.
1. DE Julian Okwara (1)
2. QB Ian Book (2)
3. WR Chase Claypool (5)
4. DE Khalid Kareem (3)
5. S Alohi Gilman (4)
6. S Jalen Elliott (7)
7. WR Chris Finke (T8)
8. TE Cole Kmet (10)
9. CB Troy Pride Jr. (6)
10. OT Liam Eichenberg (T8)
11. RB Jafar Armstrong (11)
12. OT Robert Hainsey (12)
13. OG Aaron Banks (15)
14. DT Kurt Hinish (16)
15. OG Tommy Kraemer (13)
16. LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (20)
17. WR Michael Young (21)
18. LB Asmar Bilal (19)
19. DE Daelin Hayes (14)
20. C Jarrett Patterson (18)
21. DT Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (17)
22. RB Tony Jones Jr. (22)
23. DT Jayson Ademilola (25)
24. CB TaRiq Bracy (NR)
25. DT Jacob Lacey (NR)
After only one week of preseason camp, I’d probably move Hamilton up to No. 21. It’s hard to move him too high yet because of the possibility of limited snaps. But that puts him ahead of every player on my list that’s not a projected starter other than defensive end Daelin Hayes.
I’m not sure there’s anyone else I’d put on my top 25 that I excluded the first time. Two names made the composite ranking that didn’t make my list: cornerback Shaun Crawford at No. 23 and defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji at No. 24.
I stayed away from Crawford simply because of his injury history. After suffering season-ending injuries in three of his four seasons at Notre Dame, a healthy year would be a pleasant surprise. If he can stay healthy and has regained enough of the explosive talent he possessed as a younger player, Crawford can make a significant impact at nickelback or cornerback. The Irish have even deployed him as a backup safety early in camp.
Ogundeji’s exclusion came as a result of uncertainty about his opportunities this season behind Khalid Kareem. Unlike Hayes, Ogundeji might not have as many chances to get on the field in passing down packages. He may just be limited to snaps given to him in relief of Kareem. The way Ogundeji has developed in his first three seasons at Notre Dame, he would likely be a reliable defensive end if needed.
I tend to lean hard on projected starters when I compile my list. Even though I believe Hayes has a lot of talent as a defensive end, I ranked him five spots lower on my list (No. 19) than his composite ranking (No. 14).
Okwara on top
We put Julian Okwara on the cover our 2019 ND Insider Notre Dame Football Preview magazine for a reason. He has the chance to be a dominant force on the defensive line, finish among the nation’s leaders in sacks and become a first-round NFL Draft pick next year.
As crucial as Ian Book’s success will be to the ND season, Okwara had to be at the top of the list.
The rest of the names in the top nine were easy to pick. It just became a matter of how to rank them against each other. But there was never really a doubt that the top nine would include anyone besides Okwara, Book, Claypool, Kareem, Gilman, Elliott, Finke, Kmet and Pride.
My list included two players that did not make the composite top 25: cornerback TaRiq Bracy (No. 24) and nose guard Jacob Lacey (No. 25).
Even though Donte Vaughn started camp as the No. 1 option as field cornerback, I still feel Bracy could be the better option there. Bracy showed glimpses of that in Saturday’s practice, including an interception of Book.
Vaughn will have to prove he’s better than his performance in the Cotton Bowl loss, which included two touchdown passes thrown his way when he replaced an injured Julian Love. It would be quite the story if Vaughn can bounce back and make a difference for the Irish this season. After he missed the spring with a shoulder injury, I’m holding off on a Vaughn verdict.
Lacey was my choice for the freshman most likely to make an impact this season. Right now, he would slide off the list if I were allowed to update it with Hamilton. But I still expect Lacey to play a significant role as the No. 2 nose guard behind Kurt Hinish. He’s quick and physical and has made plays in spring and preseason practices already.
Linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and wide receiver Michael Young both were placed four spots higher on my list than the composite ranking. I expect breakout seasons for both of them and would probably put them even higher on my list given last week’s developments.
Owusu-Koramoah is the only certainty I have at the linebacker position. His rare combination of speed and strength make him an ideal fit at the rover position. We don’t see many linebackers with the ability to cover Finke, but Owusu-Koramoah has proven capable. He’s intercepted two passes in the three practices observed by reporters, including a pass intended for Finke on Saturday.
Young could be one of Notre Dame’s answers to stretching the field more and making big plays in the passing game. Especially with Kmet’s absence due to a broken collarbone, Young will have the opportunity to rack up receptions and become a crucial part of the offense.
Tight end tandem
If I’d known Kmet would go down with an injury during preseason camp, I would have given serious consideration to including Brock Wright in the top 25. He’s not the same kind of player as Kmet, and he certainly wouldn’t have made my top 10 like Kmet did. But Wright should be able to be a consistent producer at tight end with his improved athleticism.
There’s never been a doubt about Wright’s ability to block. He can handle those responsibilities. He’s just not likely going to be as big of a threat in the middle of the field as Kmet. Given that Kmet is expected back anywhere between 4-10 weeks, I’d still keep Wright just outside the top 25.
Lost on linebackers
Clarity at the linebacker position still hasn’t come — at least not from my perspective. As I mentioned, Owusu-Koramoah should be an answer. As my list indicates, I expect Asmar Bilal to be another answer too.
But whether Bilal plays at buck (weakside) or mike (middle) linebacker likely depends on which linebacker proves to be most qualified to play alongside him. If it’s Drew White, Bilal will play buck. If it’s Jack Lamb, Bilal will play mike.
With all the uncertainty remaining, I decided to pass on including a third linebacker on my list. Even when the season starts, I expect defensive coordinator Clark Lea to utilize a few different linebacker combinations.