Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

All-First Rate (Defense/Special Teams)

Irish Illustrated calls N.C. State’s defensive line the best on the Notre Dame ’16 schedule. There is a ton of defensive talent in the ACC in general.

To see teams such as Notre Dame, USC and Stanford taking most of the all-First Rate spots on offense is no surprise. Those programs, along with Michigan State, tend to dominate the offensive line talent.

In our collection of top defensive players in 2016 among Notre Dame and its 12 opponents, a cross-section of talent is spread out among teams within the Atlantic Coast Conference such as N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Miami while Texas boasts some up-and-coming defensive talent and USC/Michigan State have their fair share of prowess.

The talent balance dictates we go with a 3-4 front as there are an abundance of ends/linebackers and fewer established defensive tackles. We’ve also expanded the defensive list compared to the offensive side of the ball to accommodate what we perceive to be notable defensive talent.

DEFENSIVE END
• Bradley Chubb (N.C. State) – Disruptive force vs. run (69 tackles, 12 TFL) and pass (5½ sacks) leads best DL on 2016 Irish slate.
• Al-Quadin Muhammad (Miami) – Hybrid end/outside linebacker headlines a front with experience but limited production (5.3 ypg., 201 rpg., 26 sacks).
• Ken Ekanem (Virginia Tech) – One of three returning starters up front looks to return to ’14 form when he had 9½ sacks, 19 QBH.
• Isaac Rochell (Notre Dame) – Upon this rock, Notre Dame’s defensive line is built. Still needs to add pass-rushing component to the equation.
• Naashon Hughes (Texas) – Team’s second-leading returning tackler (57) added pass rush (5½ sacks) to ability to make plays against the run.
• Porter Gustin (USC) – For a guy who played fairly sparingly as a true freshman, his 5½ sacks tied veteran full-time player Su’a Cravens for team lead.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE
• Malik McDowell (Michigan State) – Long (6-6, 280) NT emerged as sophomore force to finish first on the team in TFL (13) and second in sacks (4½).
• B.J. Hill (N.C. State) – Disruptive junior (51 tackles, 3½ sacks, 11 TFL) teams with highly-touted Kentavius Street to form best interior DL on Irish slate.
• Gerald Willis (Miami) – Second unveiling of 6-4, 280-pounder who played eight games (14 tackles) in ’14 and then red-shirted in ’15.
• Chris Slayton (Syracuse) – Modest numbers in first year of collegiate competition (22 tackles, 6 TFLs, 1 sack) should give way to significant productivity.

LINEBACKER
• Malik Jefferson (Texas) – Instant-impact player for the Longhorns in ’15 should add considerably to his big-play capabilities (7 TFL, 2½ sacks, 6 QBH as true freshman).
• Cameron Smith (USC) – Pac 12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year and top returning front seven player for the Trojans needs to add more disruptive moments to his game.
• Riley Bullough (Michigan State) – Another in the long line of Bullough boys, this former RB led team in tackles with 106. May be second-best LB on team if Ed Davis is granted sixth year.
• Peter Kalambayi (Stanford) – It’s time for the Cardinal junior to fully blossom after flashing pass-rush skills (11 sacks in 2014-15) as situational player.
• Jermaine Grace (Miami) – First of top four tacklers returning for the Hurricanes. Must set the edge for porous Miami run defense of ’15.
• Zaire Franklin (Syracuse) – Tough run defender (team-leading 81 tackles) will be asked to do more in DC Brian Ward’s Tampa 2 defense.
• Andrew King/Jeremy Timpf (Army) – Black Knight ILB tandem of King (16 TFL, 4½ sacks) and Timpf, both seniors, each collected 92 stops in ’15.

CORNERBACK
• Iman Marshall (USC) – Little doubt about this kid’s star quality with the size (6-2, 200) and playmaking ability (67 tackles, 3 interceptions, 9 PBU) as freshman.
• DeVon Edwards (Duke) – Outstanding two-way player (defense/kick returns) is the hidden gem on the 2016 Notre Dame schedule.
• Adoree Jackson (USC) – ND’s Will Fuller abused him and he has just one pick in two seasons. But there’s no denying upside on both sides of ball.
• Vayante Copeland (Michigan State) – Always talent on back rung of Spartan defense. Neck injury prevented him from showing it in ’15.
• Cole Luke (Notre Dame) – Lots of chatter regarding better sophomore season than junior year. Studious, conscientious, fundamental approach will surface in ’16.
• Brendon Clements (Navy) – If Duke’s Edwards is the most overlooked player to suit up against the Irish in ’16, Clements (4 interceptions, 5 TFL, 6 PBU) is a close second.

SAFETY
• Demetrious Cox/Montae Nicholson (Michigan State) – No sense trying to pick one over the other. Dynamic duo with three picks apiece and combined 162 tackles in ’15.
• Chuck Clark (Virginia Tech) – Listed as a free safety, the 6-1, 205-pound senior finds the football like a strong safety. Team-leading 107 stops with 8 PBU in ’15.
• Dylan Haines (Texas) – Former walk-on had nine interceptions in 2014-15, but still has to battle freshman Brandon Jones for playing time.
• Antwan Cordy (Syracuse) – Ultra-active junior a dual threat against the run (68 tackles, 12 TFLs, 2 sacks) and pass (2 interceptions).
• Dameon Baber (Nevada) – Named second-team all-Mountain West in first year of competition with six interceptions. Only six players in the country had more.
 
KICKER
• Conrad Ukropina (Stanford) – Not only did he drill the game-winning FG vs. the Irish, he converted 18-of-20 on the season.
• Joey Slye (Virginia Tech) – His range is inside of 50 yards, but he nailed 23-of-27 from that distance and is a touchback machine.
• Michael Badgley (Miami) – Over the last two seasons, he’s been very busy, converting 39-of-48 attempts.
• Brent Zuzo (Nevada) – Level of competition doesn’t matter for a kicker when you’ve made 45-of-54 FG over three seasons. He can, however, be erratic on extra points.
• Justin Yoon (Notre Dame) – The youngster in the group debuted with a 15-of-17 performance on FG as a true freshman, including each of the last 12.

PUNTER
• Tyler Newsome (Notre Dame) – The standout among competitors at his position with a sparkling 44.5-yard average, incredible hang time and “coffin corner” skills.
• Alex Boy (Nevada) – Veteran punter was even better as a sophomore (44.4-yard average) than he was as a junior (42.0), although he consistently draws fair catches inside the 20.

KICK RETURNER
• DeVon Edwards (Duke) – One of four players in the country with at least three KRs for scores, Edwards averaged an incredible 29.2 yards per attempt in ’15. Also had return for TD in ’14.
• Christian McCaffrey (Stanford) – Not much McCaffrey doesn’t do for Cardinal. Averaged 28.9 with a score in ’15.
• Nyheim Hines (N.C. State) – Had TD of 100 yards as well as a 90-yarder that didn’t reach the end zone. A 26.3-yard average in ’15.
• Der’Woun Greene (Virginia Tech) – No TDs in ’15, but a 27.4-yard average and a long of 82.

PUNT RETURNER
• Brisly Estime (Syracuse) – One of 11 players with at least two PRs for scores in ’15. An absurd 18.1-yard average.
• Bra’Lon Cherry (N.C. State) – Forms best punt-kick return tandem on Irish schedule with Hines (see above).
• Adoree Jackson (USC) – Take-it-the-distance threat every time he touches the ball on ST. Two KR for scores in ’14 and two PR for TDs in ’15.

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