June 24, 2011 // Notre Dame Football

An Early Look at Notre Dame’s Top 10 for ’11

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Manti Te'o will anchor a Notre Dame defense that could be one of the best the Irish have fielded in years in 2011. (Photo - Icon SMI)

Last year UHND and several other Notre Dame bloggers ranked the top 25 players on the Irish roster and there are plans for such an exercise again this year, but today we have an early look at the top 10 players on the Irish roster courtesy of Matt Fairchild of SportsCrack.com.

Matt may be contributing from time to time this summer as part of our pre-season coverage, so welcome Matt and let him know what you think of his list in the comments.  And if you like this list, we have a series of posts that will launch on Monday that you’ll love.

1. Manti Te’o, Inside Linebacker, Junior – The Hawaiian Hitman has been a fan favorite ever since his 11th hour signing day decision to go to Notre Dame and spurn arch rival USC. Te’o has had a tremendous effect on the defense with his uncanny ability to read offenses, shed blockers, and crush the ball carrier. In 2010 Te’o led the defense in tackles with 133 and his 21 tackles vs. Stanford were the most by a FBS player since 2007.

The thing that separates Te’o from other linebackers in the nation is the passion and the swagger he plays with which is backed up by his performance on Saturdays. No one can ever question whether or not Manti has the heart of a football player. Manti is expected to be 100% from off-season knee surgery and will compete with Boston College’s Luke Kuechly as the premier inside linebacker in the college game.

Michael Floyd - Notre Dame WR

Michael Floyd - WR (Photo - Jim Rider/Zuma Press/Icon SMI)

2. Michael Floyd, Wide Receiver, Senior - Floyd shocked Irish Nation when he decided to come back for his senior season after a tremendous junior season in which he caught 12 touchdowns and had over a 1000 yards receiving. Floyd then put his senior co-captain season in limbo when he was booked for a DUI on the Notre Dame campus. Expected to complete his legal obligations as well as team obligations before the fall coach Brian Kelly has said it is completely up to Floyd to make sure he misses no games in 2011.  Floyd’s captain status, however, is not guaranteed to be returned even if the star receiver is reinstated.  As one of the top 5 receivers in the college game one could argue that Floyd is by far the most important part of the Fighting Irish offense. Ever since his freshman season Floyd has dominated the college game. The only problem has been keeping him healthy and wearing the Blue and Gold every Saturday. This season Floyd should set all-time ND records in catches, yards, and touchdowns. With his size and strength expect Floyd to shatter those records my mid-season.

Harrison Smith - Notre Dame S

Harrison Smith - S (Photo - Icon SMI)

3. Harrison Smith, Free Safety, SeniorA year ago people would have scoffed at the notion of the Knoxville, TN native being a top 20 player on the Fighting Irish let alone a top 5. But last year with the emergence of a new coaching staff Smith excelled and was easily one of the best free safeties in the country. His 7 interceptions were the most for an Irish defender since 2002 (Shane Walton’s All-American season). Harrison’s athleticism has always been through the roof but finally his knowledge of the defensive schemes along with assignments were picked up flawlessly. The fifth-year senior is the only player in Irish football history to record more than 200 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 15 pass breakups in a career. The 6-2, 214 pound free safety is a legit preseason All-American candidate and will serve as an Irish co-captain with senior Michael Floyd in 2011.

Gary Gray - Notre Dame CB

Gary Gray - CB (Photo - Icon SMI)

4. Gary Gray, Cornerback, Senior - While it’s almost impossible to find any true lockdown corners in the collegiate ranks fifth-year senior Gray has proven that he appears to be on the cusp after a very productive senior season. Gray is another player who benefitted from first year defensive back coach Chuck Martin who improved both his coverage and tackling. Gray started all 13 games and had 66 tackles along with 7 passes broken up and 1 INT. Gray is not only a great cover corner but he can also step up against the run and stuff the outside. In fact it would be hard to argue that Gray was one of ND’s best tacklers last year in terms of form and technique. Coming out of high school in Columbia, SC Gray was considered one of the elite corners in the nation and was a tremendous coup for the Irish. He was heavily recruited by all the SEC schools and at one time was committed to his hometown Gamecocks. This year expect Gray to shoot up NFL draft boards when all is said and done and once again establish himself as one of the elite corners in the game.

Darius Fleming - Notre Dame OLB

Darius Fleming - OLB (Photo - Icon SMI)

5. Darius Fleming, Outside Linebacker, Senior - In terms of the upperclassmen it would be hard to find a quicker pass rusher than Fleming. Fleming has steadily seen his sack numbers go up every season and would love to double his output from his junior season (6). The versatile outside linebacker can play with a hand down or in a two-point stance in the 4-3 base defense and with his speed and quickness I expect to see Fleming in the backfield a lot during his senior season. Fleming was a heavily recruited linebacker out of Chicago and since he has arrived in South Bend he leads the Irish in tackles for loss as well as sack yardage. With a trio of highly touted freshmen coming in I expect to see them push Fleming to new heights and have a monster senior season.

Cierre Wood - Notre Dame RB

Cierre Wood - RB (Photo - Icon SMI)

6. Cierre Wood, Tailback, Junior – In order for the Fighting Irish to get back to being a BCS Bowl contender they are going to need a healthy and extremely productive season from Wood. Last season Wood took over full-time starting duties with the injury to senior Armando Allen and shined in his limited carries. Wood was ranked as a top 10 player nationally by The Sporting News coming out of Santa Clara HS (CA) and has the big play ability to break off long touchdown runs that haven’t been seen at Notre Dame since Julius Jones was in the backfield. In terms of importance one could argue that Wood is the most vital part of the Notre Dame offense with the lack of scholarships at the tailback position. Wood has the extra gear and quickness to also be a threat in the passing game. I expect to see Darius Walker-like production out of Wood in 2011.

Trevor Robinson - Notre Dame OG

Trevor Robinson - OG (Photo - Icon SMI)

7. Trevor Robinson, Guard, Senior – The former 1st-team USA Today All-American stepped in almost right away at Notre Dame to become only the 5th freshman to start on the offensive line (Sam Young, Ryan Harris, Brad Williams, Mike Rosenthal) in 2008 and the former Nebraska commit has not given up his offensive guard spot since. He has started 27 of the past 35 games at guard and brings a solid base at 6-5, 300 with an appetite to be as aggressive and nasty as any guard in the nation. He has the ability to pull and trap on an inside running play along with a sweep to the outside. His size along with his mobility separates Robinson and it’s a testament to the amount of talent ND has that he is only ranked 7th on this list.

Zach Martin - Notre Dame OT

Zach Martin - OT (Photo - Icon SMI)

8. Zach Martin, Tackle, Sophomore – The redshirt sophomore from Indianapolis stepped in last year and not only excelled protecting the always important QB’s blindside at left tackle but was also very productive in the run game with a push that opened holes for Cierre Wood. I think Martin is one of the most underrated player on the roster because he committed to the Irish early in the process and the state of Indiana isn’t known for producing top notch FBS players. If you watch his tape you can tell his technique is sound and he carries a chip on his shoulder which he uses to pancake defensive ends and blitzing linebackers with regularity. Martin in 2 years will be a top NFL prospect at left tackle.

Ethan Johnson - Notre Dame DE

Ethan Johnson - DE (Photo - Icon SMI)

9. Ethan Johnson, Defensive End, Senior – The 6-4, 300 lb defensive end enters his senior season as the active leader in sacks (12.5) despite playing both tackle and end for the Irish. After sliding to the outside in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 in 2011 he managed to up his sack total for the 3rd year in a row along with his total tackles. This year expect the senior from Portland, OR to have a productive season in which he will be more of a run stuffer while also batting down passes with his long wing span on the outside. Johnson has been somewhat underrated since he arrived in South Bend. He missed his senior season in high school after spraining his knee in the first game yet he still managed to start 4 of 13 games for the Irish during his freshman season with 5 tackles for loss. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he and fellow defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore feel the pressure from the likes of incoming freshmen Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt by stepping up their games and having huge senior seasons to keep their playing time. Competition is always a good thing and with Johnson expect it to push him to new heights in 2011.

David Ruffer - Notre Dame K

David Ruffer - K (Photo - Icon SMI)

10. David Ruffer, Kicker, Senior - Another modern day Rudy except this walk-on is a legit All-American. Ruffer last year was a finalist for the Lou Groza award after connecting on his first 23 field goals attempts (Notre Dame record) in his career. Ruffer had never even put on football pads till he decided to try out for the Notre Dame kicking job during his sophomore season. The William & Mary transfer student who gained notoriety for kicking for Siegfried Hall in interhall games has gone from walk-on to rock star in less than 2 seasons. His 3 field goals in the Sun Bowl tied an Irish bowl record. He also had 10 touchbacks on kickoffs last season.

Just missed the cut- Tyler Eifert (Tight End), Theo Riddick (Wide Receiver), Aaron Lynch (Defensive End), Kapron Lewis-Moore (Defensive End), Carlo Calabrese (Inside Linebacker)

Comments to this Article

  • Chris commented on June 24th, 2011 at 9:06 am

    I would like to see more than a Darius Walker performance out of Wood. He needs to break away this year. He goes down a bit too easy like Ricky Watters used to until Holtz worked with him. Hopefully BK can do the same w/ Wood. GO IRISH!

    [Reply]

    Sam replied on June 24th, 2011 at 10:12 am

    I like Harrison Smith on this list! He has really become a true playmaker, and a clutch one at that. I think our defensive front is in good shape, but this whole season will come down to the QB and the defensive backfield…I think they will be ready…I can’t wait for the season to start. GO IRISH!!!

    [Reply]

  • Sam commented on June 24th, 2011 at 10:15 am

    Chris: I agree with you on the Darius Walker comparison. I think he is capable of more than that, and would like to see more of a Warrick Dunn type of production.

    [Reply]

    Chris replied on June 24th, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    You do realize a stout defense always led the way in ND’s national championship seasons. If the Irish pick up where they left off last year on D with Manti back at full strength and Lynch playing – man we gonna disrupt a bunch of offenses! Still wanting to enjoy summer but also chompin at the bit for September 3rd.

    GO IRISH!!!

    [Reply]

  • Frankie V commented on June 24th, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    I would have put Riddick in the top 10. I think he is going to be a very dynamic player for Notre Dame this year. A case could be made for Blanton just missing the cut too. Other than that, not too much to argue with.

    [Reply]

  • The Piper commented on June 25th, 2011 at 6:19 am

    The level of talent at ND is the best in a generation. That said, questions abound.
    - Do we have a QB that can really run the offense proficiently?
    - Do we have any game breaking WRs outside Floyd?
    - Where is the other ILB to complement Teo? Calabrese et al made alot of mistakes.
    - Can we get fast pressure on the QB?
    - Who will replace Brian Smith at OLB, who was vital to the success of the defense in the last 5 games?
    - Can our OL get the push needed to really run the football?

    [Reply]

    bleednd82 replied on June 27th, 2011 at 1:13 am

    WR’s
    Theo Riddick was a beast in the slot last year before he got hurt. I expect him to have a good year.

    TJ Jones had a good Fresh Year. I expect him to have a break out year opposite Floyd.

    Davaris Daniels is an elite Fresh Prospect.

    I think we have a lot of talent on offense. We are stacked at TE as well. Mike Ragone, Tyler Eifert will be a beast and have a monster year. Ben Koyack is a stud Freshman.

    [Reply]

    jack replied on June 27th, 2011 at 7:38 am

    Piper,
    Smith was playing inside at the end of the year. Dayne will do a great job and Theo can break one. As far as defense with the front 7 rotation they should get pressure on the QB

    [Reply]

  • bleednd82 commented on June 27th, 2011 at 1:08 am

    I would place M.Floyd #1 over M.Teo. I think Teo should be #2. The rest of the list looks pretty good. I agree that Wood needs to have a HUGE year for us in order for our passing game to be unleashed.
    No QB on this list? Is that a bad thing? I say it is. What do you guys think?

    [Reply]

  • Bill Meehan commented on June 27th, 2011 at 8:25 pm

    I like the list (who doesn’t like lists), but I thought you missed on a few minor things:

    I’m sorry, but Aaron Lynch can’t be on the just missed list. I was expecting to see Nix on the list, but I’m fine with not putting a person on the list who hasn’t played a down on the list. I just also think that has to go for lynch.

    Also, I’d have put Robinson and Martin a bit higher on the list. I think it’s safe to say that both are above Fleming. I think Robinson’s an absolute beast, and frankly the blind-side tackle who stepped up last season is just too huge be behind Fleming (not that I dislike Fleming).

    I think it is telling though that we seem to all recognize the fact that our kicker is probably one of our 10 best players, but a QB is not at the moment. That said, looking at this team, if a QB steps up (I personally think DC will), they could be special. It could be a really really fun season to watch. If not, just based on the sheer depth of the surrounding cast, this team could still be good.

    Finally: Love the Smith and Gray picks. I thought Gray had some huge plays last year in terms of shedding a block on a screen and making plays all by himself. Smith also did a great job of living up to the flashes of potential he showed very early in his career. I just hope both keep up the sound tackling, I think they realize we don’t need big hits from them.

    [Reply]

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