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Eleven for ’11: Keys for the Fighting Irish

Sep 2, 2011, 2:34 AM EDT

Dayne Crist

Everybody knows Michael Floyd, Manti Te’o and Harrison Smith. While those three will likely have a large hand in determining Notre Dame’s fate, the Irish’s three All-American candidates can only do so much for a roster that’s finally at a full allotment of 85 scholarship players.

As the No. 16 Irish get ready to kick off the 2011 season against South Florida at Notre Dame Stadium this Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC), let’s take a look at the eleven players and coaches that’ll need to exceed expectations if Notre Dame is going to make it to the BCS, a goal Brian Kelly and the Irish haven’t shied away from.

1. Theo Riddick, WR/KR: Kelly raised a lot of eyebrows last season when he called Riddick one of his most explosive playmakers. It took a while for the converted running back to prove Kelly right, and unfortunately an ankle injury against Western Michigan derailed him, just as he was beginning to hit his stride.

It seems like Kelly’s doubling down on his junior wideout, going all in with Riddick as his return specialist, with Theo handling kicks and punts. He might be the spark special teams coach Mike Elston has been missing from his return units, with the Irish’s only explosive return coming when Armando Allen returned a punt 38 yards against Purdue.

Riddick put up respectable stats during his sophomore season, a year he spent learning how to be a receiver on the fly. With defenses keying on Michael Floyd, Riddick needs to take advantage of the open-field mismatches he’ll receive and make defenses pay.

2. Ben Turk, Punter: Don’t laugh. If the Irish are going to play winning football, they’ll need to get a better season out of Turk, who has been maddeningly inconsistent in his two seasons punting for the Irish. Armed with a big leg, Turk’s struggled to take his practice stroke to the field. If those habits continue, expect to see freshman Kyle Brindza doing the punting.

Flipping the field on punts is one of those hidden statistics that make a huge difference in close football games but rarely show up in the box score. After two seasons of averaging just more than 38 yards per kick, Turk has to take his work to the next level, which will help the Irish in close games.

3. Prince Shembo, OLB: The Irish coaching staff has had nothing but good things to say about Shembo this season, and he’s created significant distance between himself and the rest of the ‘Dog’ linebackers. While many expected a platoon with fellow sophomore Danny Spond, it seems Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco think Shembo is too good of a player to take off the field.

Anyone who’s looked at the stat sheet or watched highlights from last season knows Shembo can get after the passer. But for a guy that played defensive end in high school and was a designated pass-rusher as a freshman, the switch to the field-side linebacker is no small transition.

If the Irish defense is going to be as stout as some think it can be, Shembo is going to need to be a much more versatile player. That means being able to rush the passer, cover a slot receiver, and play well in open space. We know Shembo can chase down a quarterback. He’ll need to do a lot more this season.

4. Ed Warinner, Offensive line coach & run-game coordinator: Warinner added another title to his business card, possibly as a thank you for pulling his name from consideration when the Nebraska offensive coordinator position opened up. A year after doing really impressive work with first year starters Zack Martin, Braxston Cave and Taylor Dever, Kelly offloaded the running game to Warinner, letting offensive coordinator Charley Molnar concentrate strictly on quarterbacks and the passing attack.

After losing both Armando Allen and Robert Hughes from the backfield, Warinner will be tasked with keeping the momentum from the season’s final four games, where the Irish committed to running the ball far more often — and effectively — with Tommy Rees at the helm. With four of five starters back, and both Chris Watt and Andrew Nuss already having plenty of experience, it’s Warinner’s duties to get this offensive line to play dominating football. That’s something the Irish haven’t seen since the late Joe Moore was coaching in the trenches.

5. Louis Nix, DT: For a guy that’s yet to play a down of football, Nix sure comes with some oversized expectations. It could be because the jumbo defensive tackle showed up on campus at 368 pounds, more than 40 pounds heavier than he is today. Nix deserves all the credit in the world for getting himself into shape; now he’ll have to earn the praise he’s garnered by fans and coaches alike by taking that hard work to the field.

We know what to expect from senior Sean Cwynar, who was a disruptive presence on the interior of the defensive line when Ian Williams got hurt. But if the Irish want to have a formidable front three, they’ll need Nix, a guy that hasn’t played a snap of football since his senior season in high school, to be the run stuffing monster befitting of the cult status he’s achieved.

6. John Goodman, WR: Brian Kelly has tried to deliver subtle hint countless times to Goodman, but the Fort Wayne native rumored to have some of the best speed in the receiving corps has yet to have the lightbulb go on. Last season, Goodman worked his way into the receiver rotation but was also tasked with returning punts, and whether or not it was his fault, he was a fair catch machine.

At risk of losing his spot in the receiver rotation, Kelly spent last week delivering one more message to the athletic senior, and it sounds like it hit home. Goodman will rotate between outside receiver positions, and if he and quarterback Dayne Crist are able to recapture some of the magic they had way back against Washington State in 2009, the Irish passing game will finally have another big athletic receiver to target.

7. Jamoris Slaughter, Safety: The Irish had a healthy Slaughter for less than a half of football last year. A high ankle sprain lingered for almost the entire season, robbing the Irish of a guy they thought could’ve been their best cover safety going into the season. While Slaughter’s injury allowed Zeke Motta to jump in, having Slaughter healthy and ready from day one gives the Irish secondary more versatility in coverage and another great athlete that’s showed coverage skills and a knack for making big hits.

As the season opens, Slaughter and Motta will be looked upon to play fundamentally sound football. Not getting beat long is good enough with a front-seven like this and a safety like Smith next to them. But as the senior from Georgia builds confidence, there’s every reason to think that Slaughter can play better than good enough. If he does, the Irish might have two ball hawks roaming over the top of cornerbacks Gary Gray and Robert Blanton.

8. Aaron Lynch, DE: Lynch had Irish fans pining for the one that got away when he dominated at the US Army All-American game after his senior season of high school. Then, when the Florida native shocked the recruiting world when he decommitted from Florida State and enrolled early at Notre Dame, he had Irish fans salivating when he dominated the Blue-Gold game this spring.

While there’s been a ton of hyperbole lobbed Lynch’s way by fans, the coaching staff has downplayed the freshman’s ability to contribute immediately. But make no mistake, the coaching staff knows what they have in Lynch, the Irish’s best pass-rusher from the day he stepped on campus. Gifted with the size and physicality needed to play immediately, if Lynch can be put in enough positions to succeed, the sky is the limit.

9. Bob Diaco, Defensive coordinator: For all the great things Diaco did in his first season as the leader of the Irish defense, he’ll need to solve a Navy option game that almost got him run out of town. Armed with a game plan lacking a second option, the Irish looked even worst against Navy’s option attack than it did under Charlie Weis. Diaco will not only face Navy this season (albeit without quarterback Ricky Dobbs), he’ll have to face an Air Force option offense that was the second best rushing attack in college football.

But let’s set aside the mandatory prerequisite of stopping the option. Diaco has a war chest of weapons unlike any Irish defense in recent memory. It’ll be up to him to find the right combination for personnel, and become more effective with blitzes and getting after the quarterback.

10. Darius Fleming, OLB: The time is now for Fleming, long one of Notre Dame’s best athletes on defense, but only barely scraping the surface of what many believe he can become. Last season, the Chicago native managed to lead the team in sacks and tackles-for-loss, all while learning on the job and playing uncomfortably in a system that caused Fleming to think way too much.

With a base knowledge that finally matches his physical skillset, it’s time for Fleming to take the leap from quality college football player to breakout Irish sackmaster. Playing at 6-4, 255 pounds during his final season in South Bend, Justin Tuck exploded for 13.5 sacks before heading to the NFL. Fleming might not be able to grow two inches this season, but Diaco’s system is built to give the ‘Cat’ linebacker chances to get the quarterback and make plays behind the line of scrimmage, and Fleming seems ready to rise to the occasion.

11. Dayne Crist, QB: It’s a cliche, but the Irish will go wherever Crist can lead them. If the senior quarterback can stay healthy and match his on-field exploits with his off-the-field intangibles, get ready for a season to remember. But Crist’s challenges remain the same as they were last year — playing in a system that doesn’t truly fit his abilities, he still struggles with the short and intermediate accuracy that’s needed to drive Kelly’s offense.

Lots of quarterbacks struggle in their first year on the job. Add in a new system complete with different footwork, a major knee injury to recover from, and an offense that was missing a Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver, and Crist’s up-and-down junior season was understandable.

But with a full year absorbing Kelly’s offense, it’ll be up to Crist to shake off another major knee injury and take a huge step forward. Winning the starting job from Tommy Rees was only the first step. The Irish need Crist to be the triggerman to an offense that’s both efficient through the air and on the ground. If he can do that, Irish fans should be very excited.

  1. hyde - Sep 2, 2011 at 11:24 AM

    Keith, great post. I can’t wait until tomorrow!

  2. scardino - Sep 2, 2011 at 12:48 PM

    My biggest concern is still Dayne Crist. We need that guy to shine. If he opens up this year to be the five star quarterback we know he can be, the Irish will take the fight out of most of the teams on their schedule. If not, I see a lot of opportunities for struggling. His improvement could make the difference between 8-4 and 11-1 (dare I say 12-0?).

    • papadec - Sep 2, 2011 at 4:13 PM

      Dare to say 13-0?

  3. treeplaydomer - Sep 2, 2011 at 12:53 PM

    I’m mostly with you, Keith, but I’m surprised Cierre Wood isn’t in the list. If he ain’t bringing the “A” game, who else will? Jonas Gray? Who to drop from the list then? Lynch would be a luxury, but if Fleming, Shembo, EJ, and others are getting pressure (and I think they will), his is not a make/break season.

  4. rarmitt - Sep 2, 2011 at 1:56 PM

    still trying to figure out how a 5 star recruit in his sr year can still have issues with short-intermediate accuracy………

  5. papadec - Sep 2, 2011 at 4:16 PM

    Keith – nice touch of class on your part to mention Joe Moore in item #4. Thank you.

  6. smurphdoggy29 - Sep 3, 2011 at 12:45 AM

    HI Mr. “Beating a Dead Horse” here….

    Tomorrow from snap one = production.

    The rest will shake out.

    Singling out a few is nice work if you can get it, but……..

    Production, just do what you were recruited/trained/coached to do from the go.

    It will all unfold.

    There is a magic in the sound of their name, HERE COME the IRISH of Notre Dame

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