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Counting down the Irish: 10-6

Jul 29, 2011, 2:55 AM EDT

Fleming

This is the fourth installment of “Counting down the Irish,” our annual ranking of the Top 25 players on Notre Dame’s roster. Click here for our ratings of players 25-2120-16, and 15-11.

We’re into our top ten. It’s time to start looking at the players that are going to drive the Irish either into the thick of the BCS race, or come up short of expectations in a season where hopes are growing by the day.

Three seniors and two juniors grace our list of five. All three seniors are playing their final season for the Irish, with two playing out their eligibility in four consecutive seasons and the other finding his way onto a scholarship for the first time in his career. This may be the group of guys that could shape the season — if these five plays to the peak of their potential, the Irish have a handful of All-American candidates ready to step onto the field.

Here’s our Top 25 as it stands:

25. Taylor Dever (OT, Sr.)
24. Chris Watt (OG, Jr.)
23. Zeke Motta (S, Jr.)
22. Aaron Lynch (DE, Fr.)
21. Carlo Calabrese (LB, Jr.)
20. TJ Jones (WR, Soph.)
19. Louis Nix (NT, Soph.)
18. Braxston Cave (C, Sr.)
17. Tommy Rees (QB, Soph.)
16. Prince Shembo (OLB, Soph.)
15. Trevor Robinson (OG, Sr.)
14. Ethan Johnson (DE, Sr.)
13. Dayne Crist (QB, Sr.)
12. Tyler Eifert (TE, Jr.)
11. Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE, Sr.)

Of the 15 players listed, there are six seniors (three in their final year of eligibility), four juniors, four sophomores, and a freshman. Four offensive linemen, two quarterbacks, four defensive linemen, two linebackers and a safety, wide receiver, and tight end each.

Once again, here’s our esteemed voting panel:

Frank Vitovitch of UHND.com
DomerMQ of HerLoyalSons.com
Eric Murtaugh of OneFootDown.com
Matt Mattare of WeNeverGradute.com
Matt & CW of RakesofMallow.com

RANKINGS

10. Robert Blanton (CB, Sr.): Starting only one game, the least in his three years in uniform for the Irish, 2010 could have been a lost season for Blanton. Instead, it was his best in an Irish uniform. Blanton played just about every position in the Irish secondary, and his seven TFLs were the most by an Irish DB in over a decade. At 6-foot-1, Blanton has prototypical size for Bob Diaco’s defense, and his athleticism was on full displayed when he blocked and returned a Utah punt for a touchdown, the biggest play of the season.

Highest ranking: 7th. Lowest ranking: 16th.

9. David Ruffer (K, Sr.): Ruffer started the season as an afterthought and ended it in the Irish record books. The former walk-on who had never played a game of football in his life before college went from unknown to a finalist for the Lou Groza Award after kicking 18 field goals to start the year, only missing his final attempt in the bowl game victory against Miami. Ruffer set a Notre Dame record making the first 23 field goal attempts of his career. Back as a fifth-year senior and finally on a scholarship, Ruffer will continue to kick field goals and compete with Nick Tausch and freshman Kyle Brindza for kickoff duties.

Highest ranking: 1st. Lowest ranking: 21st.

8. Theo Riddick (WR, Jr.): After struggling out of the gate, Riddick exploded against Michigan State, catching 10 balls for 128 yards and a touchdown against Michigan State. He caught 33 balls over four games before getting injured early against Western Michigan, essentially ending his productivity in the middle of October. Riddick has always been dangerous with the ball in his hands and he’ll likely see the ball early and often in 2011, fully recovered from a severe ankle sprain and ready to make an impact on special teams as well.

Highest ranking: 4th. Lowest ranking: 11.

7. Cierre Wood (RB, Jr.): After sitting out his freshman year, Wood burst onto the scene in Brian Kelly’s first spring game, breaking multiple long touchdowns and showing Irish fans they finally had another home run threat in the backfield. That explosiveness carried over to 2010, and every game Wood had over 10 carries he broke a run for at least 15 yards. With the rushing game likely leaning more on Wood in his second year in the backfield, there’s every reason to believe Cierre will build on the 603 yards and 5.1 per carry he averaged in 2010. Even in split duty, Wood lead the Irish in all-purpose yards with 1,073.

Highest ranking: 6th. Lowest ranking: 10th.

6. Darius Fleming (OLB, Sr.): It says a lot for Darius Fleming’s athleticism that the team leader in sacks and TFLs spent most of last season trying to learn on the job. Converting back to an outside linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 system, Fleming struggled regaining his instincts, and came on late in the season. One of the most effective pass rushers on the team, there’s reason to believe the immensely talented Chicago native will turn in a complete season now that he’s absorbed the defense.

Highest ranking: 3rd. Lowest ranking 11th.

ANALYSIS

After looking at the bottom-half of our top ten, I posed a few questions to our group. Because day jobs tend to get busy, I only heard from two guys. Consider this a showdown with MQ and Eric, with me lending some thoughts at the end.

In many ways Robert Blanton is a better fit in Bob Diaco’s scheme at cornerback than Darrin Walls was. What do you expect out of the cornerbacks this season?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — One of the really sneaky things about Blanton is that he’s not just good against the pass. He’s good at making plays on the ground too, be it in the form of sacks, regular tackles for loss against components of the ground game, or blowing up those long, lateral passes to the flanks that Weis used to swear were part of the running game. In fact, Blanton not only finished 5th in tackles, but 3rd in tackles-for-loss among Irish defenders. And he’s largely considered to be the 2nd best cornerback on the team. So long as the starters remain healthy, this should be a position of power for the 2011 Irish.

Eric @OneFootDown — I expect big things out of the corners this year mainly because I believe guys like Blanton are very talented and we saw this group take a big step forward last year. After another year in the system and being coached by this staff, I don’t see why we shouldn’t expect our starters to be among the best in the country.

David Ruffer was one of the best stories in all of college football last year, but even with his excellent year, the Irish special teams were fairly ordinary. Who’s the guy that’s going to be the biggest difference maker for the Irish special teams in 2011?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — It was Ruffer last year, and I see no reason to expect otherwise this year. That’s not to say I don’t look for big improvement among the rest of the Irish special teams in 2011.  It’s just to say that I’ve got that much faith in Ruffer.  I suspect watching Ruffer prepare to kick is a lot like what it used to be like to watch Jack Nicklaus prepare to putt. Eventually, seeing him nail it in a big situation just gets so common-place, it’s more of a shock when he misses.  Ruffer delivered on 18 of 19 attempts last year, and I’ll be pretty surprised if Kelly doesn’t trust him to take a few more long shots this year.

Eric @OneFootDown — It has to be the guy who returns punts and it looks like it will be Theo Riddick. The team desperately needs a jolt from this aspect of special teams, the blocking should improve, so now is the time to go out and make some plays. Punt returns last year were pretty much awful and this has to be a huge focus for the coaches this year.

Injuries robbed us of a true evaluation of Theo Riddick as a wide receiver. Will he be a pure No. 2 opposite Michael Floyd?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — There was an awful lot of hinting at the end of 2010 that Riddick might be made into more of a multi-position player than a pure slot receiver.  And while we’ve yet to see that come to fruition, I’ll be keeping an eye out for a lot of wrinkles to show up in the play-book that involve moving Riddick where the defense can’t match up, particularly by the mid-point of the season, just in time for Southern Cal.

Eric @OneFootDown — Without a doubt, I think Riddick will be a tremendous No. 2 receiver. In fact, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that he leads the team in some major receiving categories. That may seem shocking to some, but it was obvious that Theo was improving quickly last year before he was injured, and even still his numbers were pretty darn good.

What do you expect out of Cierre Wood in 2011. Will a lack of depth at running back cost the Irish?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — This ties in nicely with my expectations that Riddick will be moved around a lot – Wood’s set up for a big year, but even in the college game, surviving an entire season as an “every down back” is tough going. (Insert jokes about Kelly not running the ball enough here.)  Wood’s got all the capability in the world, and it’s his turn to step up, but it’ll take quite a confluence of factors for him to reach any hallmarks like a 1000 yard rushing season.

Eric @OneFootDown — I full expect Cierre Wood to prove why he’s the best running back Notre Dame has had in years. I’ve said from day one that I think he is a special runner and a special player, and Brian Kelly’s confidence in him just makes me believe he is ready to break out in a big way in 2011. However, I’m not sure a lack of depth is going to cost the Irish mainly because I think Kelly can win without a dominant run game if need be, and there are plenty of other guys in the offense who can pick up the slack.

Darius Fleming manages to lead the Irish in plays behind the line of scrimmage, all while looking like he’s learning on the job. What happens this year?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — “Looking like he’s learning on the job” is an interesting way to put it, considering a fun fact we managed to dig up in early November of 2010: By that point in the season, Manti Te’o was out-pacing Fleming in total tackles by 66.  Granted, trying to keep pace with Te’o is a tall order, but, at the same point in the season, 66 was equal to the total number of tackles recorded by the Irish’s #2 tackler, Harrison Smith. Despite that quirk, Fleming was 8th on the team in tackles by the finish of 2010, only 85 behind Te’o. Fleming’s ability to make big plays is certainly valuable, but he risks losing the opportunity to make those plays if the Irish coaching staff somehow identify a steadier player at the position.

Eric @OneFootDown — Fleming seemed to have the best year for a linebacker that no one even noticed in 2010. This year I think he’s ready to be a big force in games and everyone is going to notice how good he is. I don’t think that means he’ll be an All-American, but I’m banking on him being one of the top two or three defenders on the Irish squad.

MY THOUGHTS

Robert Blanton is a very good football player. He’s got good size, is always around the football, and loves to come up and tackle. He’s your perfect Cover 2 cornerback, and he’s got a chance to put together a nice career in the NFL if he can run a 4.5. With or without elite speed, Blanton has a nose for the football, great versatility, and solid football instincts. He’s a perfect program player, and has a chance to be a standout during his senior year.

Let’s get this out of the way now: It was DomerMQ that called David Ruffer the best player on the Irish and while I think it’s a preposterous statement, it’s not grounded in ridiculousness. Nobody else on the roster was a finalist for player of the year at their position. Now it’s up to Ruffer to convert all his extra points and for Brian Kelly to use Ruffer as an offensive weapon. Sticking with special teams, the Irish need to get more from Mike Elston’s troops. The Irish lost the field position battle too often last year. First things first, ND needs a punt return game, and we’ll likely see Theo Riddick back there, or potentially freshman running back Cam McDaniel. Anything to strengthen a pretty mediocre unit.

I’m not as sold on Theo Riddick as everybody else seems to be. I’ve got him just outside my top ten, which was lower than any of our panelists see him. To me, the numbers Riddick put up in the slot are more a credit to the system and the position, and while Theo’s got the athleticism in space to make an impact, I’m going to wait and see him make a few big plays before deciding he’s a legit No. 2 wide receiver. There’s reason to believe that Brian Kelly might use Theo as a Percy Harvin-type guy in his offense. If he’s able to do it, and put up even 70-percent of the numbers Harvin did in Gainesville, Irish fans should be thrilled.

This is the year where Cierre Wood decides whether or not he’s a top-flight running back. There’s a shocking lack of depth behind Wood, who was learning on the job last year and some Saturdays doing better than others. I expect Cierre to get 1,000 yards this year, and do it averaging more than five-yards a carry.

Lastly, call me crazy — but I’m expecting a monster year out of Darius Fleming. Everybody that plays the ‘cat’ linebacker in Bob Diaco’s system puts up big numbers, and Fleming looks like an All-American in his uniform, he just needs to get out of his own way and play like one. Food for thought, but at 6-foot-2, 250-pounds, Fleming is hardly a perfect fit for Kelly’s rush linebacker spot, but if Darius can learn how to balance pinning back his ears and chasing a quarterback with dropping into the flats and covering running backs, then he’s got every chance to get noticed by more than a few NFL teams.

  1. tlndma - Jul 29, 2011 at 10:27 AM

    On special teams the Irish need to improve in both areas of the punt game, more consistancy punting and a better return game. Taush being a year older may help and having Riddick back there recieving could be the solution. Kick off returns also need improvement, Freshman George Atkinson may be the answer there.
    Keith, I agree Darius Fleming could be a suprise. The tools are there and his play at the end of last season was much improved. I also agree on Theo Riddick. Though he is gifted, there were many times it seemed he was not on the same page as his QB in the passing game. This part of his game must improve. Riddick being a dynamic threat would make this offense so much more explosive.
    I think the only things that could hold back Cierre Wood are injury or lack of a reliable back up. Jonas Gray must be effective when used. They both need to improve in ball security, too.
    Finally, wait til the boys at HLS see DMQ’s pick for #1. LOL

  2. irishbuckeye - Jul 29, 2011 at 10:33 AM

    Can you please drop DomerMQ from next year’s ranking panel?

  3. oldestguard - Jul 29, 2011 at 10:58 AM

    These are great reads….thanks to all contributors ! Thought I was pretty jacked for the season a few weeks ago – I’m almost ready to run out of that tunnel myself now !

    Agree on Wood becoming a monster and that will open up everything for us on Offense.

    I’m going to relish the Defense this year as I believe they are going to be something we haven’t seen around these parts for awhile.

    As I said before, I think one of the freshmen will give us something to behold on Special Teams.

    Second year under these coaches, the doubts & hesitations of the past should be greatly diminished, the athleticism, talent and conditioning will own the field.

  4. domer77blowsgoats - Jul 29, 2011 at 12:31 PM

    I’m sorry but there is absolutely no reason for a kicker to be ranked #1 other than to funnel traffic to a certain website. I mean, who picks a kicker #1 other than 9Irish or Domer77? How can someone honestly say that Ruffer is better than Te’o? Better than Michael Floyd? Applying the same arguement, Reggie Ho (as stout as he was) should have then won the Heisman over Tim Brown (I am aware of the years difference, only making a point). But look, it got me to respond so I guess mission accomplished, God Speed DomerMQ and hope the increased traffic really pays well…

    • danno27 - Jul 29, 2011 at 2:07 PM

      He was definitely trying to stir the pot – I don’t really have a problem with the wild picks though, because crazy arguments like that make the whole discussion more interesting. Plus, it’s not like he picked Steve Filer or somebody like that to be #1. He had solid reasons, just not ones that a majority of people accept.

      btw this was a much less troll-y comment than I’m used to from you.

  5. alsatiannd - Jul 29, 2011 at 1:13 PM

    Kicker at #1 might be a little much but a good kicker is vital. 18 field goals is 51 points; about the same as 6 touchdowns. Any running back or receiver who scores six touchdowns is not disposable. Not for nothing, some of those field goals might be tried with :02 left in the game. No pressure.

  6. notredave - Jul 29, 2011 at 2:38 PM

    Hmm…so who does that leave left? Te’o ,Floyd……

    @ oldestguard, I hear ya brother…I wonder if it’s too late for a forty-seven year old never was to try and make it as a walk-on. I’m ready to hit something!!

    • oldestguard - Jul 29, 2011 at 2:58 PM

      @notredave – Let’s go bro’ … I’ll hit ‘em high, you hit ‘em low . Then get me a stretcher !!

  7. clearwall - Jul 29, 2011 at 2:49 PM

    Have all yall who are b*** about mq’s pick of Ruffer at #1 just started watchin ND football or are you completely blind? Two years ago, we were SCREAMING at CW for going for it on 4th down
    All the time from the 30 for the sheer fact that we HAD no kicker. We were a complete embarrassment and lost to freaking SYRACUSE AND NAVY!
    You may not agree with it, but the justification is definitely there for putting ruffer where he did. He completes this team and allows us to have confidence that if we get near the 40 yd line, we’ll come away with
    Some kind of points. Without him, we go 3-9 again and get to
    Be ridiculed by our enemy who lost to Appy St.

    • domer77blowsgoats - Jul 29, 2011 at 3:11 PM

      Clearwall – keep typing – your ignorance only becomes more glaring the more you do:

      1. Clearly my reference to 1987-1988 denotes I have not just started watching ND football
      2. You site a Navy game in which OUR kicker blasted how many field goals just to keep us alive in OT – it wasn’t the lack of a kicker that cost us those games
      3. He really completed us in the Tulsa game (although not his fault)
      4. How many kickers have you seen picked first in the NFL draft? First Round?

      Now I am not bashing Ruffer at all as your emotion filled rant insinuates – quite the contrary – he is a much need relief after years of subpar kicker performance in which years went by where I would turn away even during an extra point, thank you Jim Sanson.

      I was merely stating the obvious – Ruffer is not a better “football player” than Te’o or Floyd and one that makes such claim is only doing so to boost traffic to a site – much like not including a certain QB in their top 25…

      @danno27 – there is your more troll-y comment

      • clearwall - Jul 29, 2011 at 5:07 PM

        D77, since you were so kind to arrange your critique in list form, I will do the same in respect for your now obvious tenure.

        1. I didnt specifically call anyone out on this, so the fact that you took it personally is your own perogative. I was making a general statement about a common mindset on this post and was speaking in a wider sense.

        2. a. You realize Tausch missed both of his FG tries in that game? It was so bad, that Charlie started just GOING for it instead of even trying to kick. And we went 0-fer on 4th down conv.
        b. in your second post you blasted me for saying I was confident in a college K making a 57-yarder…I said “around the 40″, so im not picking that number EXACTLY. And with ruffer, yeah, I really do feel confident he can drain 53. Another piece of justification for MQ placing him at the #1 spot

        3. No comment needed. You pointed it out that Kelly didnt give him the chance to win the game(Iike he SHOULD have. How dare you make that play call, BK!)

        4. That is a ridiculous comment for a number of reasons. First of all, this whole exercise wasnt about “who will be the highest NFL draft pick.” It’s who is the best player on the Notre Dame team. And for what Ruffer brings to the table, he is utterly irreplaceable and therefore, the argument(and I never said I agreed with it) can definitely be made.

      • danno27 - Jul 29, 2011 at 11:29 PM

        there she is

    • domer77blowsgoats - Jul 29, 2011 at 3:49 PM

      I aplologize ahead of time for multiple responses but I couldn’t let this one go –

      “if we get near the near the 40 yd line, we’ll come away with Some kind of points”

      I’m pretty sure that no kicker in the history of the sport has confidence in even himself to knock down 57 yard fieldgoals consistantly. With or without him we will go 3-9 if we are relying on 57+ yarders to win the game…

    • bernhtp - Jul 29, 2011 at 4:20 PM

      Ruffer is a great kid, great story, and nice contributor, but making him #1 is a bit nutty. I’m glad David got his scholarship for a fifth year – he deserves it – but my bet is that Brindza gets the nod for kickoffs and 50+yd field goals (and probably punts too). His leg is huge as demonstrated by the most impressive highlight film I’ve ever seen.

  8. Frank Lake - Jul 29, 2011 at 3:14 PM

    ,,, future linebacker star at ND

    http://weeklyworldnews.com/sports/36172/baby-slice-wants-to-play-for-notre-dame/

    • brendanunderscoreg - Jul 29, 2011 at 10:24 PM

      Really enjoyed the link to this in the top corner of that article:

      http://weeklyworldnews.com/headlines/36196/dolphin-with-arms-prepares-for-battle/

      • danno27 - Jul 29, 2011 at 11:31 PM

        it’s the only news source you can believe

  9. ndgoldandblue - Jul 29, 2011 at 3:15 PM

    I had thought that Wood was the most important player on the Irish roster that needs to stay healthy, but I just watched Cam McDaniel’s senior-year highlights. The more I see him run, the more impressed I am with him. He comes from a spread offense, so he already knows how to play in the system. He also appears to hit the hole really hard. Plus, he appears to be very tough to tackle even though he’s an undersized running back. Almost every highlight has him breaking one or two tackles and gaining quite of bit of extra yardage. What I’m saying is, I think McDaniel can make an impact as a freshman in the running game, not only on special teams. I don’t think we need to do position changes with Atkinson or Riddick. What do you guys think?

    • bernhtp - Jul 30, 2011 at 9:51 AM

      Cam will be interesting to watch. Despite his prodigious output in high school, he was only a three-star recruit. Recruiters obviously see athletic/size limitations that they believe will keep him from performing at the same highest levels with the top D1 talent.

      My bet is that he contributes this year – on special teams and some at RB – and that he becomes a quintessential Kelly RKG that helps the whole team overachieve.

      • ndgoldandblue - Jul 30, 2011 at 12:49 PM

        I agree with you about McDaniel in that he is what I envision an RKG to be. Not highly touted or highly recruited, not a high star ranking. But he’s a hard worker and he wins. Plus, he seems to have a great attitude. I imagine that he will come in, be a great student of the game, and do anything that the coaching staff wants him to do. Now, I really don’t want to make any comments that would come off as racist, but with the types of numbers that he had in high school, did the recruiting databases look at the color of his skin as a detriment to his potential at running back?

  10. smurphdoggy29 - Jul 29, 2011 at 3:45 PM

    I am excited about the upcoming Season as well, and these type of polls are great for discussion and insight, plus the discussions that follow are outstanding !! Let’s focus though, it is year two for Coach Kelly and the Coaching Staff and they have done a commendable job thus far, and in my opinion will continue to do so. Yet lest we forget the Coaching Staff and Football Program overall has to pull itself out of the valley and scale the mountain to get back to the summit. There has been a lack of continuity since January 1st 1996 (FSU 31 ND 26 Orange Bowl) when Lou was forced out by Wadsworth (another topic for discussion entirely) and in swept the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse: Davies (Famine), Willingham (Destruction), Weis (Pestilence), and White (Death). (Sadly NOT Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley, and Layden) All of whom ripped asunder parts of the super structure. Now the new Coaches and Football Administration are tasked with reassembling the pieces and scaling that Mountain. They can do it, the Players are the KEY !! To rank one as most important is wonderful, yet our hope should be they ALL perform well, and collectively lift towards the summit!! Sit back and enjoy 2011 it will be something to remember, something to cherish !!

  11. 10of14 - Jul 30, 2011 at 9:57 AM

    Wood has attitude issues to deal with first and secondly, he needs to be much more physical. He “laid down” dozens of times last year after very suspect first hits…give the Freshman runners a chance to push him…I will wait and see before putting him anywhere in the next star category at ND.

  12. notredave - Jul 30, 2011 at 2:38 PM

    I see Cam being a Tim Dwight type player for the Irish this year. From what i’ve seen of his highlight tapes, the kid knows how to hit the hole.

    College level strength and conditioning is going to help this kid be a special player for the Irish. He will be punishing some defenses before his career is over in South Bend!

  13. massivedick - Jul 31, 2011 at 10:01 AM

    I can’t believe ND Central is still here
    Really really can’t
    It’s been almost 6 months since i last visited
    So much time has elapsed
    How could time fly so fast

    Sucks to be an ND fan
    U guys sure must be miserable having endured the last decade
    Can’t wait to see how ND does this year
    Keep up the good work

    • alsatiannd - Jul 31, 2011 at 5:31 PM

      It’s been hard sometimes, but it’s never sucked. If our players stop graduating or we start cheating and get sanctioned by the NCAA, then it will suck. I don’t know how so many schools live with that constant shame and disappointment.

    • ndgoldandblue - Jul 31, 2011 at 10:19 PM

      Nice name. I’ll bet you use that same username to hit on underage girls in chat rooms, which is evidenced by your lack of punctuation and substitution of full words with letters. Did I see you on To Catch a Predator a couple years ago?

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