Three years ago Notre Dame had a stunning run to the national title game. The Irish didn’t start that season ranked in the AP Top 25 but rolled off 12 consecutive wins, beating four top-20 opponents, including notching two wins over top-10 teams — Michigan State and Oklahoma — on the road. AD Jack Swarbrick admitted back then, after his team beat USC in L.A. to secure the BCS slot, that ND’s rise happened a year faster than he thought it would’ve. Brian Kelly’s squad ultimately was overmatched against Alabama in the BCS title game, getting overwhelmed, 42-14.
Truth is, this year’s Fighting Irish team looks a lot more capable — athletically, at least — of being a national title contender than that bunch did in 2012. ND returns 19 starters — 20 if you count the return of its top DB, KeiVarae Russell, who missed all of 2014 for his part in the academic dishonesty case. But it’s more than just the sheer experience the Irish has back; it’s the front-line talent. It has been a couple of decades since Notre Dame has had athleticism like it does this season at some key positions.
In this week’s FOX Sports College Football Playoff draft that Stew Mandel and I conducted, I grabbed two ND players, LB Jaylon Smith and left tackle Ronnie Stanley, among my top four picks (and they were taken in the top seven picks overall), and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if those two ended up as top-10 picks in next spring’s NFL Draft. Here’s a jaw-dropping stat about Notre Dame: It’s been 21 years since a Fighting Irish player was taken among the top-10 picks of the draft (going back to standout DT Bryant Young being picked No. 7 in 1994).
The speedy Smith, a 235-pounder who had a team-high 112 tackles and nine TFLs in 2014, leads what should be a pretty salty defense. As celebrated a talent as Manti Te’o was three years ago, he wasn’t the same kind of player Smith is.
"(Smith) is a legit sideline-to-sideline guy and twice the athlete Te’o was," said one coach who played the Irish last season and was wowed by Smith. "He looks like an SEC linebacker."
Actually, according to one expert, Smith looks a lot like the best linebacker the SEC has produced in the previous decade.
"I don’t know if there’s a better talent in the country," said NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former NFL scout. "The player he reminds me of is Patrick Willis just in terms of sheer explosiveness. I don’t know what he’ll run (in the 40), but it’s really impressive when you watch him in a game against Florida State with Dalvin Cook and all the athletes they have and (Smith) looks like the fastest guy on the field."
Jeremiah is also a big believer in Stanley, saying he thinks the 6-foot-5, 315-pound former high school basketball star would’ve been the top offensive tackle taken in the 2015 NFL Draft had he opted to come out this year. "He has size, quickness, length and can create some movement at the line of scrimmage," said Jeremiah. "He does have some stuff he needs to clean up, but he’s the top offensive tackle from all the (rising) seniors I’ve looked at."
In 2014, Stanley faced six D-linemen who were picked in the NFL Draft, including first-rounder Leonard Williams, and he allowed only one sack all season.
Another dynamic talent at a position the Irish are much better at than they were in 2012 is wideout William Fuller, who led Notre Dame in receptions (76), receiving yards (1,094) and receiving TDs (15) last season. Jeremiah said Fuller reminds him a little of Ohio State game-breaker Devin Smith. "Fuller’s got big-time juice," said Jeremiah. "He runs away from people, but he’s got to be more consistent."
Russell, a starter on the 2012 team, should be high on the NFL’s radar as well. He flashed his eye-catching athleticism a few weeks ago with this big box jump. The 5-11, 190-pounder has the tools to be a true shutdown corner.
The biggest question mark about this team is at quarterback. Malik Zaire was sharp in the bowl win over LSU. The 6-0, 220-pound lefty is a very dangerous runner but still has thrown only 35 career passes. And there is no Tommy Rees behind him if he can’t go, although keep an eye on strong-armed freshman Brandon Wimbush.
I know lots of folks will roll their eyes at the preseason hyping of another Notre Dame team, but athletically, this group is very different. Or as Jeremiah put it, "This isn’t your older brother’s Notre Dame."