6:59 am, August 19, 2012
SOUTH BEND — History would suggest that Notre Dame's exclusion from the Associated Press college football preseason Top 25 might not be such a bad thing after all.
At least in recent history — as in since coach Lou Holtz walked away with a heavy heart following the 1996 season.
In the 15 preseason polls between Holtz's final run and this season, the Irish have found themselves in the preseason rankings nine times. In those same nine seasons, they've been in the postseason AP Top 25 just twice,
Those two occasions occurred in 1998, when the Irish started and finished at No. 22 under coach Bob Davie, and in 2006, when ND ended up at No. 17 after garnering a No. 2 preseason spot.
However, in the six seasons in which ND was snubbed in the preseason rankings (1999, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2010), the Irish ended up in the final top 25 three times.
The 2000 team under Davie finished 15th, Tyrone Willingham's first ND squad (2002) was 17th at season's end, and Charlie Weis' initial ND season in 2005 saw the Irish finish No. 9 — their highest postseason ranking post-Holtz.
Third-year Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly's 2012 squad finished one spot out of the preseason Top 25, with 83 points. One of those points came from me — I voted the Irish No. 25.
Louisville, the team that sits at No. 25, collected 105 points.
So will Notre Dame end up a top 25 team?
With what is expected to be a top 25 defense, at least against the run, the quality of quarterback play coupled with turnover margin figures to be the most important factors. Expected breakout seasons from ascending sophomores Ishaq Williams and Troy Niklas also would give the Irish an upwardly mobile push.
But here are the wild cards — five players who could make a much more significant impact than expected and make the difference between a top 25 finish or being on the outside looking in at season's end.
1. DaVaris Daniels, WR, sophomore: The 6-foot-2, 190-pounder from Vernon Hills, Ill., redshirted last season and was a yo-yo when it came to consistency in practice.
But even in a deep receiver rotation in 2012, with plenty of promise in the freshman class and experience in the 2011 holdovers, Daniels has a skill set that will someday either distinguish him as an elite receiver or brand him as an enigma.
Currently, he's trending toward the former, but he's still a work-in-progress.
“He's been here two years, but he hasn't gotten the reps that he's getting now,” Kelly said. “Now he's fighting through that mental fatigue.
“He's getting banged up a little bit, and he's answered the bell. I thought (last week) he could have very easily begged out of some practice time. He didn't miss a rep.
“So we're really seeing a young man continue to mature. Look, he's far from where we want him to be, but boy, has he made great progress in the last couple of weeks.”
2. Ben Councell, OLB. sophomore: The 6-5, 240-pound Asheville, N.C., product is up 20 pounds from his freshman season, which he spent as a spectator.
He's a projected starter suddenly, and might have been anyway, even if junior Danny Spond hadn't been sidelined and eventually hospitalized with severe migraines.
It wasn't a surprise that Councell could be disruptive in the run game and explosive on the edge as a pass-rusher, but he has also impressed in pass coverage. That's perhaps in part due to the fact he played the drop 'backer position in a very similar scheme in high school, so he's used to rerouting receivers.
3. Nick Martin, OG/OT, sophomore: The 6-foot-4, 304-pounder from Indy, another Irish player who redshirted last season, was pushing fifth-year senior Mike Golic Jr., for the starting berth at right guard in the spring but may end up being more valuable as a utility guy.
The younger brother of starting left tackle Zack Martin could play any of five positions, and, given ND's suddenly thin tackle corps, could be asked to play three with some regularity — left tackle, right tackle and right guard.
If you're going to make a run into the top 25, you need a safety net, and Martin is a talented one at that.
4. KeiVarae Russell, CB, freshman: The 5-11, 182-pound newcomer from Everett, Wash., has been a revelation at cornerback since moving from running back two weeks ago.
It's not that he's pushing for a starting berth — yet — but he is pushing hard, and that's making the corners ahead of him better. He, like Nick Martin, also represents a safety net of sorts — so much so that Kelly felt comfortable enough to move sophomore Cam McDaniel back to running back, at least part time.
Don't count out Russell making an impact on special teams.
5. Kapron Lewis-Moore, DE, fifth-year senior: It might seem strange to see a multi-year starter on this list, but the 6-4, 306-pound Weatherford, Texas, product, has come back from an injury-truncated season a reborn player.
Production has never been an issue with Lewis-Moore. The questions were whether he could be that every-down end, whether he could be a difference-maker as a pass-rusher and whether he could make the players around him better.
Quietly but decidedly, that's been what August training camp has been about for him so far. And summer too, and in the spring as well after Aaron Lynch — who has since transferred to South Florida — had usurped him on he depth chart.
All of which suggests there may be a higher ceiling to Lewis-Moore — and perhaps to this team — than most of us realized.
Full ballot disclosure
Eric Hansen's preseason top 25 ballot for the AP poll:
5. South Carolina
8. Virginia Tech
10. Michigan State
17. Oklahoma State
18. Florida State
20. West Virginia
21. Boise State
22. Ohio State
23. Texas A&M
25. Notre Dame
Kelly said he plans to decide this week whether he'll name season captains or go with the game-captain concept instead.
One benefit of playing Navy in the season opener, rather than in the middle of the season, is that the Irish have more than three days to work on the Mids' cut blocks. The ND defensive linemen were already practicing against that unusual technique last week and with impressive proficiency.