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Counting down the Irish: Analyzing the top five

Aug 2, 2011, 12:14 PM EDT

manti-teo getty images

This is the sixth 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, 15-11, 10-6, and 5-1.

The list is out. And thanks to our team of panelists, here’s the Top 25 players on the Notre Dame roster as they head into 2011 camp. Again, we reserve the right to be completely wrong.

If you’ve got complaints, direct them here:

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

2011 IRISH RANKINGS

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.)
10. Robert Blanton (CB, Sr.)
9. David Ruffer (K, Sr.)
8. Theo Riddick (WR, Jr.)
7. Cierre Wood (RB, Jr.)
6. Darius Fleming (OLB, Sr.)
5. Gary Gray (CB, Sr.)
4. Zack Martin (LT, Jr.)
3. Harrison Smith (S, Sr.)
2. Manti Te’o (ILB, Jr.)
1. Michael Floyd (WR, Sr.)

Only two points separated Michael Floyd (147) from Manti Te’o (145). After that, there was a significant drop-off to Harrison Smith, and Zack Martin, Gary Gray, and Darius Fleming were separated by a collective three voting points. If you’re looking for the guys that the group found really polarizing, the widest variances were Trevor Robinson (Matt had him rated 3rd, DMQ had him unranked), Dayne Crist (Matt had him rated 4th, DMQ had him unranked), and obviously David Ruffer (DMQ put him at No. 1, while Matt had him at 21.)

After looking over the list, I posed some questions to the group. Here are some of their answers, one set only in haiku form. (Ed. Note: Frank was traveling and unable to participate. I didn’t want you guys to think I thought his answers stunk.)

ANALYSIS

Gary Gray really elevated his play under Chuck Martin and Kerry Cooks. While Robert Blanton and Gray will anchor the cornerback spots, in 2012 it’ll be an almost entirely new secondary. What young cornerbacks do you see stepping up?

Eric @OneFootDown —I think Lo Wood will be a serviceable backup, in that he will play better than most believe he will. After that, I think three freshman will fight hard with Bennett Jackson and try to see some time. If Eilar Hardy doesn’t start out at safety he should be pushing hard for playing time. Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson will also be in the mix. Ideally, all of these players would get experience in 2011, although it might not be feasible.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — I’m a huge Eliar Hardy fan. He pledged to Notre Dame early in last year’s cycle and got lost in the shuffle thanks to the roller coaster recruitments of Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, and Ishaq Williams, but this kid is a stud with the versatility to play corner or safety. The lack of depth will mean he’ll be thrown into the fire right away and those reps will go a long way in getting him the necessary experience for when he’s locking down one side of the field in 2012.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow
There’s no substitute
For a sure-tacklin’ fifth-year
Well, maybe Darby

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — Um… pass?  It’s not that I don’t think someone will step up, it’s just that I don’t like the prospects. Or, really, I don’t like the waiting. Gray and Blanton already play at a very high level. It’ll be a damned miracle if whatever comes next isn’t a serious downgrade for at least a season.

Zack Martin came out of nowhere to anchor the offensive line. Who is the lineman that comes out of nowhere in 2011?

Eric @OneFootDown —I think it has to be Chris Watt just because he hasn’t seen a lot of playing time but he played really well last year when he did. Likely to be anchored next to another great linemen in Zack Martin at left tackle, Watt should really thrive in his first full season as a starter.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate— Well the easiest and clearest candidate to me is Andrew Nuss. No, he’s not new, but at the end of spring he was listed ahead of Chris Watt at the guard spot opposite Trevor Robinson which was a huge eyebrow raiser. It’s not as if Watt had  a poor spring–by most accounts he actually had a very good one–Nuss just played that well.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow
Ten was Martin’s year
Almost all back for ‘leven
Heggie twenty-twelve?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — [Insert joke here about offensive linemen sneaking around on tip-toes. ] Despite the loss of Chris Stewart, 2011 should really serve as an “establishment year” for the OL. Everyone on the line knows their job and should know it well, within Kelly’s system. I think there’s less opportunity for surprise this year.  That said, I missed the questions about Trevor Robinson last week, so let me say this: I sure hope he comes back to being the Trevor Robinson we knew and loved before last year. Either he was completely confused in 2010 or/and he had one hell of a nagging injury. Trust me on this: go look back at games where ND had a successful running game, marvel at how little Robinson participated in that success.

Harrison Smith has seen his reputation elevate significantly in one calendar year. Let’s say the Irish season ended with Ronald Johnson catching the long pass against Smith and Harrison didn’t have a career day against Miami. Would he be the third best player on the roster?

Eric @OneFootDown —Highly doubtful, although we’d probably be talking about Harrison as a very solid safety coming into 2011 which, when you think about it, is still a significant jump in performance from his rather awful sophomore season.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate— I’m not a fan of this sort of hypothetical simply because there’s no reason to put a negative spin on situations. What if Southern Cal would’ve converted all those opportunities when Tommy Rees turned it over in Irish territory? What if Manti Te’o’s knee injury against Miami would’ve been serious? What if Harrison was actually playing receiver for the Canes like Jacory Harris thought he was?

Would Smith be considered the third best player on the roster with these stipulations? Probably not. But Johnson did drop that pass and he did have that career day against The U. Those two instances didn’t define Smith in my eyes; what defined him and landed him his high ranking was the fact that he bounced back after a Clifford Jefferson-esque disaster of a 2009 campaign and became the defensive leader many pegged him to be.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow
With a RoJo catch
And a warmer El Paso
We’d be ’bout Motta

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — No, but that’s what happened, and so he is. Maybe in some alternate universe Harrison Smith is a 3rd string DB at Vanderbilt, I’m richer than Bill Gates, and Notre Dame has a reputation as a party school, but that’s just not the case.  Harrison’s rise may have been slightly less meteoric if, say, Miami’s passing game weren’t reminiscent of playing catch with my 8 month old, but even before that moment (and even before the Souther Cal game), Harrison was already making big strides. His play improved steadily as the season went on, and even if you took away his 13 credited tackles in the final 2 games of the season, he’d rank among the top 3 tacklers on the squad.

We’ve all seen Manti Te’o’s athleticism on display. We’ve all seen him miss a few tackles. What’s a realistic projection for his junior season?

Eric @OneFootDown —The realistic projection is for Te’o to be the best linebacker in the country. He will have a very good set of linemen in front of him, he’s very experienced for a true junior, and his defensive coordinator was one heck of a linebacker in college. What’s more, the linebackers and specifically the middle linebackers are a key focal point in this 3-4 defense and Te’o has all the ability in the world to be the best at his position in the nation.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — Te’o’s on the way to superstardom. Right now, he’s the best Notre Dame linebacker since Courtney Watson and by the end of the year you’ll be able to mention him in the same breathe as Stonebreaker, Bolcar, and Lynch. He’s that good.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow
The sky, the heavens
The moon, the stars, Ray Lewis
Not to oversell

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons— I wont project, but I do hope for wisdom. And Te’o’s certainly talked a good game when it comes to appreciating the need for wisdom. More than a few times last year he saw the opportunity for the big hit, wiffed, and gave up a big play (or, at least, big enough to suffer another set of downs for the opposition). I hope Te’o’s gained the wisdom to see more opportunities in big plays, rather than big hits, and applies all that natural ability to excellent technique in 2011. If he does, there may not be a lot of tackles left for the rest of the Irish.

Obviously, Michael Floyd’s inclusion on this list means we’re all confident he’ll be playing for the Irish this season. Assuming he gets through this year without any off-the-field incidents, what should Michael Floyd’s legacy at Notre Dame be?

Eric @OneFootDown — With another productive season I think Floyd will be in the discussion for the best receiver in school history. We’ll always talk about his injuries and the fact that he played with Clausen and in pass happy offenses, but if he keeps ups the same productivity we’ve seen in the past it will be tough to argue with four years of more or less dominance when he’s on the field. If Floyd has a couple more games where he plays outstanding in big wins, his case will be even stronger.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — That’s tough because it’s so dependent on what happens this year. Through three years I’d call it one of the biggest teases in ND history. He’s never made it through an entire year getting hurt and missing time–which makes his career statistics even more mind-boggling. The entire receiving record book is going to be rewritten if he can stay on the field for even just a handful of games. Floyd is capable of delivering a year for the ages in a pass happy offense in 2011. If that happens his legacy will be that he was the most prolific and probably the greatest receiver in ND history. If not, then the way I’ll think of him down the road is “man, what could have been.”

MB&CW @RakesofMallow
Lest we all forget
Moppin’ floors to catchin’ scores
He’s come a long way

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons— Understated. Assuming, just for a moment, as much as it pains me, that the Irish wont win the BCS Championship this season, then Floyd’s legacy will be that of opportunity missed. He wasn’t part of the 2007 campaign, but, despite being one of the most gifted athletes in all of college football, he has been part of some rather underwhelming efforts. Statistics are impressive, but wins are glorious, and while his overall compilation may prove that he’s got all the talent in the world, he’s not achieved much glory.

MY THOUGHTS

In retrospect, I’d really have liked to ask what cornerbacking duo in recent Irish history has athleticism that rivals the Gray/Blanton partnership, but one of the biggest questions moving forward — and a question that very well could define the Kelly era — is how well did they identify, develop, and recruit in the secondary. Harrison Smith, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton are in their final years. After that… it’s pretty scary for depth, and 2011 is going to be a massively important year for a lot of young defenders in the secondary. If you’re wondering why Kerry Cooks shifted back to work with cornerbacks, this is probably the biggest reason.

Maybe I’m being optimistic, but this Irish team has a chance to really run the ball with conviction. If it does, it’ll be because Zack Martin makes another large leap forward, and the unit will be a much more physically developed unit. Trevor Robinson will play better. Braxston Cave will play better. Taylor Dever will play better. While there isn’t room for him in the lineup yet, one guy I’m surprised nobody mentioned was Christian Lombard. I’ve heard that he was so impressive throughout the season that it made the decision to let Matt Romine go much easier.

Harrison Smith’s 2010 season was watching a breakthrough happen in thirteen week increments. He was a much better player at the end of the season than he was at the beginning, and the Ronald Johnson drop was almost something Smith had earned after taking such flack for so long. For those that think Smith is overrated, Pete Sampson of IrishIllustrated.com had a great interview with Mike Mayock, who called Smith one of the most underrated football players in the country.

I want Manti Te’o to be the best linebacker in the country. I can’t argue that he isn’t one of the most talented, but I want him putting up monster statistics, something Luke Kuechly does at Boston College. (No I’m not discounting 133 tackles. I just think Te’o has the ability to do more.) Walking into his junior season, I think Te’o can do more than just amaze with his athleticism, he needs to be the tackling machine that Bob Diaco’s defense allows him to be, and that means cutting down on his misses. To use a baseball analogy, right now Te’o is a devastating power hitter. Call him Ryan Howard. He needs to become a devastatingly complete hitter, more like Albert Pujols.

Trying to project Michael Floyd’s legacy before 2011 is more than difficult, it’s almost impossible. If Kelly’s offense turns into the vertically attacking scheme he used in Cincinnati, look out. If Floyd can stay healthy for a full 13 games, start rewriting the record books in stone. Of course, all of that is depending on the internal struggles Floyd has faced in the last six months. For those that feel like No. 3 got star treatment because of his lofty status on the football team, nobody will convince you otherwise. But Floyd has taken his lumps with humility, he’s seen his name erased from the team’s roster, from the media guides, even from the team’s website. He spent four months away from his teammates and coaches, and only was allowed to participate in unofficial team workouts because no coaching staff in the NCAA can dictate who can and cannot participate in those workouts. If the path to recovery leads to Notre Dame Stadium on September 3, I expect Irish fans to rally around their best player. What will cement his legacy is how he behaves from this day forward. (His behavior in the NFL will matter just as much.) He may have lost all the goodwill he gained when he made the difficult decision to return for his degree. But if the Irish win more than ten games this year, Floyd’s story will be one of redemption.

  1. brendanunderscoreg - Aug 2, 2011 at 4:29 PM

    Excellent article. I’m not sure about the athletic side of the equation, but I think the Gray/Blanton tandem is one of the surest tackling pair of corners ND has had in awhile.

  2. scardino - Aug 2, 2011 at 7:21 PM

    Keith, I find your expressed views of Michael Floyd to be practical and well reasoned, not to mention well stated.

    After looking at the completed list, I hope we have a list made in retrospect at the end of the season that includes Michael Floyd, Manti Te’o, and our starting quarterback in the top three. Having a quarterback fill the number three spot could have made the difference between an 8-5 season and an 11-2 season.

  3. ndfanwabashman - Aug 2, 2011 at 10:26 PM

    It is outstanding to see a linebacker the caliber of Te’o on the field. I don’t think I’ve been this excited for a player since Mike Tirico said Bert Berry would be the defensive player of the year. I think the most overlooked aspect of his game is the ability to sniff out the screen pass. Do not throw a screen in this mans vicinity. He finds your lack of faith disturbing.

  4. danno27 - Aug 3, 2011 at 8:17 AM

    Great job by all listmakers – exactly what the doctor ordered to get through the doldrums of summer.

    In terms of athletic cornerback duos, I would say easily Shane Walton and Vontez Duff back in the early 2000′s. Those guys were straight cash, homey.

    • bgnd91 - Aug 5, 2011 at 2:07 PM

      I think that this secondary, not just the corners, may be even better than that 02 team with Walton, Duff, Sapp and Earl. All four of them spent at least some time in the NFL, and I think that this year’s starting four has that kind of potential.

  5. zlpaschal76 - Aug 7, 2011 at 9:23 AM

    ‎1) Manti Te’o – Defense wins championships and he sets the tone
    2) Michael Floyd – I think he goes for 1500+ and 15 TD’s +
    3) Harrison Smith – All American S
    4) Gary Gray – potential all-american
    5) Zack Martin – future all-american
    6) Theo Riddick – people forget how much he was coming on before injuries
    7) Darius Fleming – confident and putting all of his tools together 8) Ethan Johson – wish he would have preserved a year to fully rehab
    9) Cierre Wood – he will have a big season will get 1000 yards
    10) KLM – glad he has 2 years left
    11) Trevor Robinson – Think he bounces back in better shape talent is there
    12) Dayne Crist – Year 2, as long as healthy will make major strides
    12) Tyler Eifert – Very underrated, WR playing TE, will have a big season
    13) David Ruffer – He is an offensive weapon
    14) RJ Blanton – He’s a great replacement for Walls
    15) Louis Nix – Leap of faith based on reports, think will finish Top 10
    16) Braxton Cave – Strongest guy on team, think he improves significantly
    17) Sean Cwynar – was huge in the defense to end the season
    18) Prince Shembo – great complement to Fleming
    19) Danny Spond – he and Prince will battle it out this fall
    20) Chris Watt – I like him better than Nuss and think he’s a future star
    21) TJ Jones – Injuries stalled his excellent start to the season, has competition
    22) Taylor Dever – did a solid job last season
    23) Zeke Motta – did a solid job after Slaughter went down
    24) Jamoris Slaughter – Can play anywhere in the secondary, very talented
    25) Carlo Calabrese – One of my favorite recruits, physical, needs to improve his pass coverage

    Aaron Lynch is going to contribute and have a good season but it’s going to be as a pass rushing specialist early. He, Tuitt, Ishaq, and Councell will be solidly in this list next season. Louis is the only player I felt comfortable putting on there who has not played yet. He is going to be a huge part of setting things up for Lynch to come in on 3rd down. I heard he was the best NT on the team last year just needed to get in better shape. Rumors are he is closer to 320 lbs right now which would be great news. He tore it up in the Blue and Gold game and will be a force this season.

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