With just over two days remaining until the 2011 season kicks off for Notre Dame, we take a look at our yearly pre-season list of the most indispensable players on the Irish roster.
I started this column last year and unfortunately Notre Dame lost four of the ten players I listed for a substantial amount of time – Theo Riddick, Ian Williams, Dayne Crist, Kyle Rudolph. Those losses, however, allowed a new cast of indispensable players to emerge down the stretch – many of whom you will see listed below as vital to Notre Dame’s bid to return to the BCS in 2011.
10. Tyler Eifert (TE) – Notre Dame has recruited very well at the tight end position, but unfortunately, after Eifert there is very little experienced depth. Mike Ragone is the 2nd tight end right now, but the oft-injured 5th year senior has not been able to stay healthy or provide much of a consistent threat in the passing game thus far in his career. Ragone, once thought to be the next in the line of highly successful tight ends for Notre Dame, has just 10 career catches for 99 and sadly that is the only career statistics any backup tight end on the Irish roster has. Notre Dame proved last year that they can handle an injury at the tight end position even without much experience at the position, but the loss of Eifert would take a very potent weapon out of Brian Kelly’s arsenal.
9. Darius Fleming (OLB) - I actually like Notre Dame’s depth at outside linebacker a lot this year and how can you not with the Irish going three deep at both outside backer spots. Take a second to let that sink in. Nice isn’t it? Ok, back to Fleming. Even with a bevy of talent outside backers providing depth – Steve Filer, Ishaq Williams, Danny Spond, Ben Councell, etc – Fleming is in line for a big, big season this year and having a healthy Fleming all season makes this defense very dangerous. The Notre Dame coaching staff has down right gushed over Fleming’s potential for 2011 all summer long. Considering Fleming led the Irish in tackles for loss the past two seasons, that is a great sign that the Chicago native is ready to elevate his game. Notre Dame could withstand an injury at outside linebacker this season, but because of Fleming’s potential for a huge senior season, he made our list.
8. Theo Riddick (WR) – Ok, I am running out of time to hype Theo Riddick this off-season with only two days until the season kicks off so I figured I would use this as another chance to talk up the converted running back. Roby Toma could certainly provide a solid presence in the slot as he did last year at times with Riddick on the shelf, but Riddick is a truly dynamic player who will make a lot of plays in the open field that no other wide receiver on the Irish at this time can make. He was starting to shine last year before injuries derailed him and I expect him to pick up right where he left off before the injuries starting this weekend. One last time, there isn’t a single player on the Notre Dame roster I am more excited to see in year two of the Kelly offense than #6.
7. Zack Martin (OT) – I originally had Martin ranked higher on this list, but as I looked at the depth at center, I realized Notre Dame was much better off at tackle depth wise making it easier to withstand an injury here. Once Tate Nichols is recovered from his dislocated knee cap, Notre Dame would have three potential tackles to work in should they suffer an injury at one of the bookends with Nichols joining Christain Lombard and Andrew Nuss. Still, for the first week of the season, Martin’s brother, true freshman Nick Martin, is listed as his backup. That’s no knock on the younger Martin, I think he has a very bright future, but anytime I see a freshman on the depth chart along the offensive line, I get pretty nervous.
6. Braxston Cave (C) – I didn’t rank Cave too highly on my list of top 25 Notre Dame players earlier this summer, but the depth behind Cave at center is not very encouraging at this point. Mike Golic is listed as the backup center, but the senior hasn’t seen much playing time up to this point in his career and it’s a safe bet that either Andrew Nuss or Chris Watt could slide over to center if something were to happen to Cave this year. Irish Round Table went so far as to list Cave as the one player Notre Dame could least afford to lose to injury this year and in looking at the depth at center, it’s tough to argue.
5. Michael Floyd (WR) – It may surprise some to see Michael Floyd ranked this low on the list considering most feel he is the lynch pin of the Irish offense this year. His presence on the field opens things up for Eifert and Riddick because of the attention he draws and it opens up the running game because defense have to be concerned with the Irish going over the top of them if they stack the box. That said, Notre Dame has lot of wide receivers on the roster capable of making plays and should Floyd go down with an injury, I have confidence in Brian Kelly to devise a game plan that still moves the ball. Remember, Kelly was able to game plan around losing his starting quarterbacks at both Notre Dame last year and in previous years at Cincinnati and still win games and score points. If he can do that, I’m pretty sure he can game plan around losing a receiver like Floyd.
4. Harrison Smith (S) - Who would have thought Harrison Smith would have made this list a year ago? I have sung the praises of Smith for a while and loved seeing his progress last year into the type of safety everyone thought he had the talent to be coming out of high school. After all the position switches stopped and he focused on one position, he became a force and ended up recording the game sealing interception against USC and then picking off three passes in the Sun Bowl as the Irish cruised to their victory over Miami. As a 5th year senior Smith enters his final college season as a captain and one of the top playmakers on a very talent defense. Again, let that notion sink in for a little. Should something happen to Smith this season, Notre Dame would likely go with a combination of Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta since they cross train safeties, but neither brings Smith’s big play ability – at least not yet.
3. Manti Te’o (MLB) - There is probably more depth at inside linebacker than at safety for Notre Dame to be able to get by should Te’o get hurt, but defensively there just isn’t another player on the Irish roster right now so head and shoulders above of the depth behind him than Te’o. While he isn’t a captain this season, Te’o is the emotional leader of the Irish defense and the intensity he brings to the field is contagious. No other Notre Dame defender has the ability to change the momentum of a game quite like the Hawaiian native. Remember the 3rd quarter of the Stanford game last year? Even with the offense sputtering and stuttering, Te’o almost single handily kept the Irish in the game with a series of bone crushing hits. If he stays healthy all season, I have little doubt that Te’o will be at the Home Depot Awards this December as a finalist for some serious hardware.
2. Cierre Wood (RB) – Offensively, running back is the one position that Notre Dame could be in trouble at if they suffer an injury because of a lack of experience and numbers. Behind Wood, Notre Dame has senior Jonas Gray and a pair of true freshman in George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel. Gray has shown that he has more than enough talent to make plays running out of the backfield, but he hasn’t shown great hands in the passing game and has had a few bouts with fumblitis throughout his career. Wood looks like he could be in for a big season, but should he go down with an injury, the improved running game we saw the end of last season would take a major hit and we could see a lot more passing from the Irish offense. I suspect we’ll see Kelly give Gray every opportunity he can to get some carries to reduce the load on Wood in an effort to keep him fresh and healthy this season because he is so vital to the success of the Notre Dame offense in 2011.
1. Robert Blanton/Gary Gray (CB) – The one position that scares me the most depth wise this year is cornerback. I love the combination of Blanton and Gray as the starting corners, but after them the depth is filled with some question marks. Lo Wood played some last year, but not a whole lot; and Bennett Jackson spent his freshman season playing wide receiver. Outside of those two sophomores, the Irish will have two freshmen in Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson. So the entire depth at corner consists of two true freshman and two true sophomores with one of them being a convert receiver and the other only having played sparingly as a freshman. Kelly had a lot of good things to say about Jackson’s transition to corner this summer, but if Notre Dame has to bank on anyone other than Walls or Blanton at corner this year, things could get a little dicey.