Welcome to the first of a 10-part series that Irish Illustrated calls First Rate, our annual ranking that attempts to evaluate the talent level from top to bottom of Notre Dame and the 12 teams on its schedule.
We break down each position/area – quarterback, running back, receiver, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, secondary and special teams -- and also factor in coaching staffs and schedule.
We rank Notre Dame and its 12 opponents in each category one through 13, the lower the number the better. As we add a new position to the evaluation, we keep a running tab as to how the teams rank in talent/coaching/schedule.
By the end of the 10-part ranking, we should have a pretty good idea how the teams rate, which generally gives us an accurate projection of their final records.
Last year, our first-rate series showed USC to have the most talent with Notre Dame and Clemson tied for second. After that came Georgia Tech, Stanford, Pittsburgh, Texas, Boston College, UMass, Temple, Virginia, Navy and Wake Forest.
USC, of course, collapsed under the weight of the Steve Sarkisian firing while Clemson overcame massive defensive turnover to play for the national title. Notre Dame’s 10-victory season validated the first-rate numbers. Georgia Tech also collapsed while Stanford played up to its ability and Temple rose above expectations to win 10 times.
At this point, we don’t know what the tally of the talent rankings will produce upon the conclusion of the evaluation of 10 categories. Right now, the focus is on quarterbacks with a significant amount of turnover among Notre Dame’s 12 upcoming opponents. Only Notre Dame, Miami, Syracuse, Nevada and Army return starters at the quarterback position.
In Irish Illustrated’s fifth year of the First Rate series, this is the most difficult to rank because of the tremendous turnover/uncertainty at the quarterback position.
13) Tago Smith (Navy) – Irish fans are familiar with Keenan Reynolds’ success because he flashed command of the Navy offense last year when Reynolds was sidelined briefly in Notre Dame Stadium. Smith started a couple of games for the Midshipmen last year, but played sparingly and has no passing experience. At least for the short-term, the drop-off from Reynolds is precipitous. As is often the case in the Navy offense, the drop-off likely will be short-lived.
12) Ahmad Bradshaw/Chris Carter (Army) – This could prove to be an interesting battle and perhaps an effective one-two punch with Bradshaw (468 yards rushing, 5 TDs) more of a runner while Carter threw for 348 yards against Rutgers and Navy combined to end the ’15 season. Bradshaw can throw it some, but he passed for just 429 yards and 47.9 percent in eight games. Edge to Bradshaw in experience; advantage Carter for long-term potential.
11) Thomas Sirk/Parker Boehme (Duke) – If healthy, Sirk (2,625 yards pass, 58.8 percent, 16 TDs, 8 interceptions; 803 yards rushing, 8 TDs) would qualify the Blue Devils at No. 3 on this list of signalcallers. But Sirk suffered a torn Achilles during February conditioning, and his recovery for the 2016 season is doubtful. That means Boehme, a red-shirt junior who started a game last season, is the likely starter with 43 completions and 579 yards passing. Going under the assumption that Sirk will not be healthy in ’15, Duke falls way down on this list.
10) Jalan McClendon/Ryan Finley/Jakobi Meyers (N.C. State) – It could be a season of trial and error at quarterback in Raleigh following the departure of standout Jacoby Brissett. Sophomore McClendon came out of the spring as the likely heir apparent, but Boise State graduate transfer Finley followed his offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz to N.C. State. If both of those QBs fail to win the job, there’s raw red-shirt freshman Meyers ready to throw his hat into the ring.
9) Jerod Evans/Brenden Motley (Virginia Tech) – The Michael Brewer era is over, and it was interrupted a couple of times during the 2015 season, which allowed Motley to throw for 1,155 yards, 11 TDs and seven interceptions. Now junior college transfer Evans – whom first-year Hokie HC Justin Fuente recruited for Memphis – is in the mix and projects as the starter. Not a bad set-up in Year One of the Fuente era, particularly with a solid ground game in place.
8) Tyler O’Connor/Damion Terry (Michigan State) – You have to be a Michigan State/Big Ten aficionado to know who’s vying for the starting job now that the Connor Cook era is over. O’Connor has the experience/big game qualifications in his favor with credit for the victory as the starter against Ohio State late last year, although he completed just 7-of-12 for 89 yards against the Buckeyes. He’s just 34-of-54 in his career with Terry even less experienced (14-of-26). If both falter, red-shirt freshman Brian Lewerke and early-entry freshman Messiah deWeaver will come into play.
7) Tyler Stewart/Hunter Fralick/Ty Gangi (Nevada) – There’s no doubt that Stewart is the starter entering the season after throwing for more than 2,100 yards with 15 TDs and seven interceptions. He is one of the most experienced QBs on the Irish schedule in ’16. But the Wolf Pack also went 7-6 last year, and HC Brian Polian needs an offensive boost. In addition to a new coordinator (Tim Cramsey from Montana State), he may also look for a new triggerman if the offense staggers out of the gate.
6) Eric Dungey/Zack Mahoney (Syracuse) – Innovative head coach Dino Babers, who came over from Bowling Green, has an exciting, developing quarterback in Dungey, who completed just shy of 60 percent of his passes with a 2-to-1 (11-to-5) TD-to-interception ratio in seven starts. Concussions have been an issue – he missed four games last year, including the last three – for the dual-threat Dungey who rushed for 351 yards and 5 TDs. Mahoney threw for 535 yards, seven TDs and two interceptions in Dungey’s absence, but completed just 46.2 percent of his attempts in ’15. Still, it’s a backup with some playing time.
5) Keller Chryst/Ryan Burns (Stanford) – It’s been a long time since someone other than Andrew Luck and/or Kevin Hogan were running the Cardinal offense. Now the job is in the hands of two inexperienced prospects, both of which were highly-touted coming out of high school. Chryst is the nephew of Wisconsin HC Paul Chryst, and the likely choice to hand off to Christian McCaffrey about 300 times this fall. Stanford, however, opens with Kansas State and then jumps right into Pac 12 play with USC, at UCLA and at Washington. It’s a scenario that easily could lead to a QB controversy, although Chryst warrants patience.
4) Shane Buechele/Tyrone Swoopes/Jerrod Heard (Texas) – The freshman Buechele raised eyebrows in the spring under former Tulsa OC Sterlin Gilbert. Will HC Charlie Strong put his fate in the hands of an untested rookie, or will he go back to the old familiar with Swoopes/Heard, a pair of two-steps-forward, two-steps-back QBs who never did get a handle on consistency in ’15? Untested but talented Buechele vs. Notre Dame in the opener will be enlightening.
3) Max Browne/Sam Darnold (USC) – The Cody Kessler era is finally over, and no one is happier about that than Browne, who has been awaiting his chance for several years. He’ll either nail the job down or leave the door open against Alabama in the season-opener. Darnold is considered the hotshot prospect for the future, although his timetable could be accelerated with conference foe Stanford awaiting the Trojans in the third game of the year. Experience edge – at least in the system – goes to Browne while upside, including better athleticism, favors Darnold.
2) Brad Kaaya (Miami) – Kaaya’s arrow has been pointing up since taking over as Miami’s signalcaller in 2014, and now he has new head coach Mark Richt, who will be calling plays for the first time in 10 years. Kaaya protected the football well in 2014-15 with 42 TD passes to just 17 interceptions (one every 45.1 passes). If the Miami offensive line can protect him, he’ll improve upon his 270 yards passing per game in ’15.
1) DeShone Kizer/Malik Zaire (Notre Dame) – Zaire looked to be on his way to a dynamic 2015 season when he suffered a broken ankle in the second game of the year. Before the game was over, Kizer rose to the occasion with a game-winning pass to Will Fuller, and his performance continued to ascend from there. Kizer finished with 2,880 yards passing, 21 TDs and 10 interceptions while completing 62.9 percent. No team on the Irish schedule boasts the one-two QB punch of the Irish, although there are a host of talented prospects.