You could do a lot worse than the two players that topped every judges ballot. Both Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert are consensus preseason All-Americans, and both will be the anchor of their respective units this season for the Irish.
In Eifert, new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin has a weapon as versatile as any in the country. At 6-foot-6, 251-pounds, Eifert has the size to attach to the formation, block in the running game or break free down the seam. He’s also got the athleticism to split wide, acting as a super-sized wide receiver that’ll wreak havoc on opposing secondaries.
In Te’o, the Irish have their ultimate tackling machine, especially with a healthy Te’o looked more fit and fast than ever. The heart and soul of a unit that needs to elevate its play even while replacing three key pieces in the secondary, Te’o will be asked to do a lot during his final season in South Bend.
There was a clear-cut divide between Te’o and Eifert and everybody else. Te’o received four first-place votes while Eifert received two. From there, Cierre Wood emerged as the third-best player on the roster. Behind him, three-year starting left tackle Zack Martin. And perhaps the most surprising vote-receiver of all, sophomore Stephon Tuitt, who absolutely looks the part of an All-American defensive end, but still needs to prove it on the football field.
Once again, here’s our voting panel:
Eric Hansen, South Bend Tribune @HansenSouthBend
John Walters, The Daily @jdubs88
John Vannie, NDNation.com
Eric Murtaugh, representing OneFootDown.com @OneFootDown
Ryan Ritter, representing HerLoyalSons.com @HLS_NDtex
Keith Arnold, NBCSports.com’s Inside the Irish @KeithArnoldNBC
Here’s the list as it stands:
IRISH 2012 Top 25
25. Zeke Motta (S, Sr.)
24. Tommy Rees (QB, Jr.)
23. Andrew Hendrix (QB, Jr.)
22. Davonte Neal (WR, Fr.)
21. TJ Jones (WR, Jr.)
20. Robby Toma (WR, Sr.)
19. Christian Lombard (OL, Jr.)
18. Davaris Daniels (WR, So.)
17. Troy Niklas (TE, So.)
16. Bennett Jackson (CB, Jr.)
15. Ishaq Williams (OLB, So.)
14. Everett Golson (QB, So.)
13. Chris Watt (LG, Sr.)
12. Prince Shembo (OLB, Jr.)
11. George Atkinson (RB, So.)
10. Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE, Grad.)
9. Theo Riddick (RB, Sr.)
8. Jamoris Slaughter (DB, Grad.)
7. Braxston Cave (C, Grad.)
6. Louis Nix III (DT, Jr.)
5. Stephon Tuitt (DE, Soph.) That Tuitt finds himself at No. 5 is largely a product of what’s expected of the hulking sophomore, not necessarily anything that happened during his freshman season. While the 6-foot-6, 295-pound second-year player put up solid numbers during his freshman season (30 tackles, 3 TFL, and 2 sacks), it was a season that was hampered by a bout with mono, and a disciplinary blip that cost Tuitt the chance to play at Purdue.
While Aaron Lynch was the headline grabber last season, many inside the program view Tuitt as the future star, and his imposing frame and impressive athleticism make this sophomore a star in the making. Anchoring the spot across from Kapron-Lewis-Moore, and able to slide inside on pass-rushing downs, Tuitt is the type of athlete Notre Dame hasn’t often had on the defensive line. Expect a big jump in production from Tuitt, who will line up everywhere across the defensive front.
(Highest ranking: 3rd. Lowest ranking: 11th)
4. Zack Martin (LT, Sr.) After winning Notre Dame’s lineman of the year award in his first two seasons playing, Martin has the left tackle position locked down for the Irish. At 6-foot-4, 304 pounds, Martin may lack the dominant size you’d expect from a bookend left tackle, but after sitting out his freshman season, all Martin’s done is produce, anchoring the offensive line in both of Brian Kelly’s first two seasons.
Martin has received the proper national notice this offseason, finding himself on a variety of watch lists. Whether Martin propels himself into one of the elite linemen in the country will largely depend on how well Harry Hiestand’s troops perform during a daunting 2012 schedule. With a fifth-year of eligibility still available, Martin could be a rare four-year starter at left tackle.
(Highest ranking: 3rd. Lowest ranking: 9th)
3. Cierre Wood (RB, Sr.) Jonas Gray’s breakthrough senior season may have diminished the year that Wood put together last year. Averaging over five yards a carry, Wood ran for 1,102 yards and 9 touchdowns, only the 16th 1,000 yard season in Irish history. At 6-foot, 215-pounds, Wood has shown impressive durability running inside while also showing plenty of speed and breakaway skill, providing a surprising amount of big-yardage runs throughout the year.
There’s no doubting the struggles Wood and the Irish running game had against USC last year, with Wood’s five carries for five yards putting a large statistical hole in his season. But over the two years he’s been featured in the Irish offense, big plays have come rather easily for the Oxnard, California native. In games that he’s received 10 carries or more, only once (2011’s 16-14 win over Boston College) has Wood failed to break a 10-yard run.
Wood has a fifth year of eligibility available to him, but it’s unclear whether he plans to use it. In an offensive backfield now filled with weapons, it’s also unclear how many touches the Irish plan to give Wood. But with surprisingly good hands and versatility, it’d be wise to get the ball early and often to the offense’s most reliable runner.
(Highest ranking: 3rd. Lowest ranking: 9th)
2. Tyler Eifert (TE, Sr.) In the golden era of Irish tight ends, Eifert has shown himself the best of the group, putting together a first-team All-American junior season as Eifert lead the country in catches among tight ends. At 6-foot-6, 251-pounds, Eifert is a walking match-up problem, and without Michael Floyd split wide, expect the football to go to the big Fort Wayne product even more often this season.
Eifert’s ascent is a pretty impressive one, with the senior not all that long ago being a forgotten name. Injured early in his freshman season, there was little expected of Eifert during his sophomore season until tight end Kyle Rudolph went down with a hamstring injury. From there, Eifert put together an impressive run, making all but one of his 27 catches down the stretch for the Irish as they rallied and ended 2010 with four straight victories.
Eifert was the only tight end on the Maxwell Award’s watch list and has been a preseason first-team All-American on multiple lists. He’ll likely be the first tight end taken in next year’s NFL Draft, even though he has a final season of eligibility remaining.
(Highest ranking: 1st. Lowest ranking: 2nd)
1. Manti Te’o (LB, Sr.) Rarely does a highly touted recruit come in and do exactly what is hoped for, but Manti Te’o has absolutely delivered the goods during his three seasons in South Bend. After an All-American campaign with 128 tackles during his junior season, Te’o shocked the college football world when he announced he was returning for his senior season.
At 6-foot-2, 255-pounds, Te’o is a prototype inside linebacker, with terrific instincts and speed that takes him sideline to sideline. He also showed himself to be a threat in the pass rush, contributing five sacks last season after logging onto two combined in his first two seasons. After an ankle injury plagued him throughout his junior season, Te’o cut weight during spring workouts, looking leaner and quicker (and finally healthy) through spring drills. Entering camp, Te’o is the unquestionable leader of the Irish, was a first-team preseason All-American, and will be one of the first middle linebackers selected in the NFL Draft.
(Highest ranking: 1st. Lowest ranking 2nd)