Counting down the Irish: The top five

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This is the fifth 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, and 10-6

It’s time to roll out our top five. As always, it’s been a fun exercise filled with different opinions, colorful comments, and our fair share of controversy. I’d like to remind our readers that I only asked people to participate that a) have a track record of providing good content and commentary on the Irish, and b) offer that content for free on the internet. (So be a little nicer to DMQ for his list, will you? He’s doing this out of the goodness of his Irish-obsessed heart.)

With less than a week to go before the Irish open preseason camp, we’re finally concluding our rankings. After looking at the comments, twitter action, and message-board threads, these rankings created quite a stir, and I actually think we’ve done a pretty good job putting this list together.

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.)
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.)

Now that we can put all the pieces together, here’s a look at our projected starting lineups (with player rankings in parenthesis):

DEFENSE

DE: Kapron Lewis-Moore (11)
NT: Louis Nix (19) or Sean Cwynar (NR)
DE: Ethan Johnson (14)
OLB: Darius Fleming (6)
ILB: Carlo Calabrese (21)
ILB: Manti Te’o (2)
OLB: Prince Shembo (16) or Danny Spond (NR)
CB: Robert Blanton (10)
S: Harrison Smith (3)
S: Zeke Motta (23) or Jamoris Slaughter (NR)
CB: Gary Gray (5)

OFFENSE

WR: TJ Jones (20)
WR: Theo Riddick (8)
LT: Zack Martin (4)
LG: Chris Watt (24)
C: Braxston Cave (18)
RG: Trevor Robinson (15)
RT: Taylor Dever (25)
QB: Dayne Crist (13) or Tommy Rees (17)
RB: Cierre Wood (7)
TE: Tyler Eifert (12)
WR: Michael Floyd (1)

Without further ado, here’s our top 25. Later tonight get our analysis together. Here’s the final rankings as selected by our 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

5. Gary Gray (CB, Sr.): Gray was an anchor on the short-side of the field for the Irish, a strong tackler who made a ton of plays in Bob Diaco’s new system. The third leading tackler on the team behind Manti Te’o and Harrison Smith, Gray tied for the team lead in passes broken up as well. Entering his senior season, there’s every reason to believe that another year in the system will only help Gray’s numbers, turning some of those pass breakups into interceptions.

Highest ranking: 3rd. Lowest ranking: 14th.

4. Zack Martin (LT, Jr.): Martin came out of obscurity to win the starting left tackle job and was named offensive lineman of the year at last season’s year-end award show. At 6-foot-4, 300-pounds, Martin isn’t the biggest guy on the offensive line, but Martin showed immediately what he could do on the field, making his first career start against Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan, a 1st round draft pick and All-American. Martin played more snaps than any offensive lineman, starting two games at right tackle when Taylor Dever got injured. As he enters his second season in the starting lineup, Martin has the chance to become a standout offensive tackle, something the Irish haven’t had in a few years.

Highest ranking: 4th. Lowest ranking 9th.

3. Harrison Smith (S, Sr.): The fact that Smith finds himself ranked among the three best players on the roster is a huge credit to the reclamation work Chuck Martin did with the physically gifted, but incredibly inconsistent safety. After bouncing back and forth between safety and linebacker, Brian Kelly made it clear that if Smith were going to play, it’d be at safety. Harrison rewarded the coaching staff with a “lightbulb on” kind of season, as he put together a rock-solid 2010 season at safety, leading the Irish in interceptions, tying with Gray in pass breakups, and finishing second in tackles. It wasn’t a perfect season (and a gift from USC’s Ronald Johnson helped), but Smith is one of the best athletes on the field, and looks to be one of the premiere defensive backs in the country in 2011.

Highest ranking: 3rd. Lowest ranking: 7th.

2. Manti Te’o (ILB, Jr.): The Irish haven’t had this type of athlete at inside linebacker in decades, and Te’o gives the Irish their first chance at an All-American linebacker since Michael Stonebreaker roamed Notre Dame Stadium. Te’o’s 133 tackles led the Irish, his 9.5 TFLs were second, and his highlight reel of big hits gave the Irish one of college football’s best knockout artists. Leading the defense as a sophomore, Te’o still missed too many tackles and ran by more than a few plays, but as he enters his third season starting at inside linebacker, there’s every expectation that Te’o’s experience will allow his football IQ to match up with his tremendous physical gifts.

Highest ranking: 1st. Lowest ranking: 2nd.

1. Michael Floyd (WR, Sr.): For the second season in a row, Michael Floyd tops this list. Only players with the loftiest expectations can consider 12 touchdowns and 1,025 yards a down season, but Floyd’s yards-per-catch were at an all-time low as the Irish transitioned to a new offense and broke in two new quarterbacks. Still, the offense went as No. 3 went, and Floyd was the heart of an Irish attack still learning its way. After making the decision to return to school for his degree and a senior season at Notre Dame, Floyd’s senior season is still in jeopardy after a drunk driving arrest. Settling both the legal and academic repercussions, Floyd seems on pace to rejoin the team during fall camp, but that decision lies in the hands of Brian Kelly.

Highest ranking: 1st. Lowest ranking: 3rd.