Saturday marks the last home game for a senior class that came to Notre Dame on the heels of the 3-9 season of 2007. Baring a major late season surge in the rankings and a ton of luck, their careers will end without a BCS berth, but the class is not devoid of plenty of compelling story lines.
They came to Notre Dame despite seeing the results of the disastrous 2007 season – one of the worst in Notre Dame history – and have seen mixed results on the field. By the end of their senior seasons though, many have become impact players for Notre Dame who will be sorely missed next season.
Jonas Gray’s meteoric rise. I can’t remember a Notre Dame senior who came out of no where to become an impact player like Gray has this season. Not only has Gray rebounded from a rough start to his career, he has responded from a disastrous start to his senior year by becoming a bona fide playmaker in the Notre Dame offense. Gray always had the talent to be an impact back, but it took him until his final season to put it all together and become the back everyone envisioned him being when the former 4-star recruit signed with Notre Dame.
Gray heads into senior day with 730 yards and 11 touchdowns including scores in each of the last seven games after no scoring a touchdown through the first three years and three games of his career. With three games left (including a bowl game) Gray has a chance to top 1,000 yards – especially with a weak Boston College rush defense on tap this weekend.
Not too bad for a guy who carried the ball just 75 times for 309 yards through his first three seasons in South Bend.
Michael Floyd’s long journey. Michael Floyd has had a tumultuous career at Notre Dame both on and off the field. Off the field, Floyd’s trials and tribulations have been well documented. In fact last spring we didn’t even know if Floyd would be around this season to have a proper senior day. On the field, Floyd has battled through various injuries throughout his career that have kept him from adding to his record breaking totals in each of his first three seasons.
Floyd’s senior season has been a different story both on and off the field for the star wide receiver. Off the field, Floyd has become a model citizen and turned his life around after multiple alcohol related offenses that culminated in his off-season DUI arrest. On the field, Floyd has stayed healthy throughout the season and is on pace to set career records in both receptions and yards.
It could be a long time before Notre Dame fans have another wide receiver to watch each week that will have Floyd’s ability to dominate a game so they better enjoy his final home game this weekend.
Harrison Smith’s development into a team leader. Like Gray, it took Smith a while before he found his comfort zone on the field, but unlike Gray, Smith has been on the field more often than not over the course of his career. Under the Charlie Weis coaching staff, Smith bounced around from safety to linebacker and back to safety before finally settling in at safety last season under Brian Kelly.
When Kelly was hired he told the media that if Smith couldn’t play safety, he couldn’t play in this season. Since then, Smith has developed into the leader of the Notre Dame defense and has positioned himself to be a fairly high draft pick in April. Kelly spoke very glowingly of Smith this week and his presence will be missed next year. For a player who was known more for bonehead instead of big plays through the first couple years of his career his transformation has been a lot of fun to watch.
Ethan Johnson’s tough season. Ethan Johnson’s senior senior hasn’t exactly gone according to plan. Big things were expected from Johnson this year after he increased his sack total each of the past three seasons, but an ankle injury has nagged him most of the season causing him to miss five games and limiting him last week against Maryland.
Johnson came to Notre Dame with sky high expectations and while he didn’t quite live up to the 5-star status he came in with, Johnson has been a mainstay in the Notre Dame defense for four years and who knows what could have been this year for him had he not missed five games. As is, Johnson enters his final home game without a single sack after picking up 5 last season and having 12 in his career.
Johnson has been a team leader and a role model for the young defensive line and it would be great to see Johnson go out on a high note by picking up a couple sacks against a shaky Boston College offensive line.
Robert Blanton and Darius Fleming’s last home games. Blanton and Fleming haven’t had any controversies or major injuries to overcome over the course of their careers, but both have been on the field from the beginning of their careers and have been consistent contributors to the Notre Dame defense over the past four seasons.
This season Blanton has been the most consistent performer on the Notre Dame defense and there might not be another player on the Irish roster that Notre Dame will miss more next season – and that includes Michael Floyd. Blanton has shown excellent coverage skills this season and has been a sound tackler. Think about how many times Robert Blanton has been burnt for big plays in the passing game…. Still thinking? Yup, me too.
Fleming meanwhile has had a similar career path as Harrison Smith in that he bounced around multiple positions under the previous coaching regime before settling in at outside linebacker in Bob Diaco’s defense. Fleming’s negative yardage plays may be down this year, but he is just four tackles away from tying his career record for tackles in a season. Fleming also showed how much of a team player he is last week when he wore #46 for his close friend Steve Filer who suffered a ligament injury against Wake Forest costing him the rest of his senior season.
Is this Dayne Crist’s last game in Notre Dame Stadium? Crist came to Notre Dame as a 5-star quarterback on the heels of Notre Dame signing the #1 quarterback recruit in the country, Jimmy Clausen, the season before. Crist’s career has not lived up to the lofty expectations in part because injuries derailed two seasons for him and this year has definitely not gone according to plan for him, but his contributions to the program shouldn’t be overlooked.
Crist was instrumental in holding together the recruiting class that makes up this year’s senior class – a class that was ranked #2 overall by Rivals.com – and he has been the consummate team player over the last four years. Not many 22 year olds would have handled the way this season as went as well as Crist or would have been as classy in a very tough situation. Crist has another year of eligibility, but whether or not he is invited back for a 5th year or even if he would come back if invited is really anyone’s guess.
It’s a shame that Crist’s career has panned out the way that it has, but if Saturday is indeed his last home game I hope Notre Dame fans are thankful for the contributions he did make during his career.
Several other major contributors over the last four years will be making their last appearances in Notre Dame Stadium this weekend as well. David Ruffer walked on to the team a few years ago and has been the place kicker the past two seasons setting Notre Dame records along the way. Trevor Robinson has been in the starting lineup along the Irish offensive line for almost his entire career. Taylor Dever meanwhile secured a starting spot last year that he’s locked down for the past two seasons.
This class may not have returned Notre Dame all the way to elite status, but there are some signs that this year’s seniors have helped lay a solid foundation for Notre Dame to build future BCS berths off of. They have also showed tremendous resolve throughout their careers and even within this season by rebounding from an 0-2 start to salvage the season by winning 7 of the last 8 games. They also have a very good chance of leaving the program in much better shape than it was in when they got here and for that Notre Dame fans should be very appreciative.