It's been a pleasure taking part in NBC partner Keith Arnold's top 25 Notre Dame player rankings this week, of which Keith released the top five on Friday.
Here's how the eight panelists combined to vote, with my selections in parentheses:
25. Max Redfield (Jaylon Smith)
24. Elijah Shumate (Amir Carlisle)
23. Jaylon Smith (Nick Martin)
22. Ishaq Williams (Christian Lombard)
21. Greg Bryant (Tony Springmann)
20. Christian Lombard (Troy Niklas)
19. Amir Carlisle (Tommy Rees)
18. Carlo Calabrese (Greg Bryant)
17. Jarrett Grace (Lo Wood)
16. Matthias Farley (George Atkinson III)
15. George Atkinson III (Matthias Farley)
14. Dan Fox (T.J. Jones)
13. Sheldon Day (Carlo Calabrese)
12. Danny Spond (Sheldon Day)
11. Tommy Rees (Jarrett Grace)
10. Davaris Daniels (Dan Fox)
9. Troy Niklas (KeiVarae Russell)
8. KeiVarae Russell (DaVaris Daniels)
7. TJ Jones (Chris Watt)
6. Chris Watt (Danny Spond)
And the panel's top five mirrors my picks. Explanations below:
5. Prince Shembo (OLB, senior)
Shembo thrived as a "cat" linebacker for the Irish in 2012, at times looking nearly unblockable on the pass rush. He tallied 7 1/2 sacks and 10 1/2 tackles for a loss, and had big games against Michigan State (9 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack) and Pittsburgh (8 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack). Was named to the watch lists for the Butkus Award (best linebacker) and Bednarik Award (best defensive player).
4. Bennett Jackson (CB, senior)
Excelled in his first year as a starting cornerback, and did so while battling a torn labrum that caused him considerable discomfort on plenty of occasions. Jackson underwent surgery in the offseason to repair his shoulder, and doesn't expect to be limited in the way he was in 2012. And if Jackson -- who intercepted four passes and defended four as well -- was as good as he was last year while playing hurt, Notre Dame fans should be salivating at what he can do when healthy.
3. Zack Martin (LT, graduate student)
Martin, who graded out as a second-round pick, decided to stay in school for an extra year to team up with his roommate (left guard Chris Watt) and younger brother (center Nick Martin) along the Irish offensive line. Martin's return was a huge win for Notre Dame, which again will heavily lean on the left side of its offensive line this fall. The reliable Martin brings stability and consistency to the Irish line, and returns as a 2012 team captain. There's little questioning his precense as the most important piece of Notre Dame's offense in 2013.
2. Stephon Tuitt (DE, junior)
While South Carolina's Javedeon Clowney deservedly generates the most buzz among defensive ends in college football, Tuitt isn't far behind. As a sophomore last fall, Tuitt notched 11 sacks, just 2 1/2 behind Justin Tuck's school record. He's a preseason All-American and is on about every defensive award watch list, and will be a first-round pick if he chooses to leave South Bend after the season.
1. Louis Nix (DT, senior)
While Manti Te'o rocketed up draft boards last December -- before his dramatic dropoff -- a few observers noted the linebacker's statistical success wouldn't have been possible without the gaps carved out by Nix up front. It's a fair point to make -- and Nix may not only be the best player the Irish have, but the most valuable one, too. Without him clogging up the trenches and opening lanes for linebackers to make stops, Notre Dame's defense wouldn't have been as good as it was last year, and won't be good enough to support the offense in 2013. Like Tuitt, it would be a surprise if he's not a first-round pick in next year's NFL Draft.