Counting down the Irish: 10-6

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We’re heading down the stretch in our annual countdown of the Irish roster. If numbers 15 to 11 were all about bottled promise, 10-6 has a tried and true feel to it. After a youth movement was largely responsible for the upper echelon of this list, this group has a veteran feel to it. How veteran? Consider: Not one of these players was truly a Brian Kelly recruit. (Lewis-Moore, Riddick, Slaughter and Cave were all Weis recruits. Nix committed to Notre Dame when it didn’t have a head coach, a nice piece of recruiting by Tony Alford.)

If the Irish are going to put together a big season, they’ll need to get production out of this group. For guys like Lewis-Moore and Cave, it’ll mean rebounding from seasons decimated by injury. For Riddick, it’ll mean exorcising special teams demons and nicks and dings that kept him from being the electric football player Brian Kelly thought he had. There’s no member of the secondary with more on his shoulders than Slaughter, who will likely be a do-everything type of player in a secondary in desperate need. And Louis Nix will have to prove he’s the player some members of this panel think he is — His No. 3 ranking is the highest of any player we’ve seen so far, but his No. 18 grade shows his inconsistency.

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.)

RANKINGS

10. Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE, 5th year) A knee injury ended Lewis-Moore’s season in late October, forcing the Irish to play without both starting defensive ends, crippling losses a year after Ethan Johnson and KLM anchored a position grouping short on depth. After rehabbing the injury, Lewis-Moore found himself in an unfamiliar spot this spring: A three-year returning starter who no longer had a starting job. That dilemma was solved when Aaron Lynch departed for South Florida, but Lewis-Moore had almost gotten lost in the shuffle, no easy task for a 6-foot-4, 306-pound defensive end. At his best, KLM can be a run-stuffing 3-4 defensive end that has plenty of athleticism. While the sack numbers have yet to come, Lewis-Moore will be counted on to anchor a position group looking to rebound after injuries decimated the group.

(Highest ranking: 8th. Lowest ranking: 19th)

9. Theo Riddick (RB, Sr.) Riddick enters his final season in South Bend at the position he started, joining Cierre Wood, George Atkinson (and Amir Carlisle) at running back, one of the deepest spots on the roster. After two uneven seasons at slot receiver, it’s hard to tell whether the move was a product of Riddick disappointing as a wideout, or his running skills too good to ignore. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle, and with Tony Alford taking over coaching running backs and slot receivers, Riddick finds himself in the rare position of being a perfect fit regardless of where he lines up.

Nobody in the panel was tougher on Riddick than I was, ranking him 13th and the third best running back on the roster. (I still haven’t forgotten the muffed punts and getting caught by a Navy DB.) Yet all reports coming out of South Bend have Riddick looking at home and solid in the backfield, pushing Cierre Wood for carries and being every bit the dynamic presence “Good Theo” can be when he’s playing with confidence. With the Irish in dire need of a dynamic returner in the punt game and an offensive threat capable of making big chunk plays, Riddick putting together a senior season to remember would be perfect timing for the Irish.

(Highest ranking: 8th. Lowest ranking: 13th)

8. Jamoris Slaughter (DB, 5th year) With the graduation of Harrison Smith, fifth-year senior Slaughter will likely take over the reins of the secondary. After struggling to stay healthy in 2010, Slaughter took over a key role in the Irish defense, giving coordinator Bob Diaco the flexibility to slide Slaughter down into the box, where the safety started replacing Prince Shembo in certain defensive sets. At 6-foot, 200-pounds, Slaughter lacks the ideal size for a safety, but his ability to play a multitude of positions, and his penchant to make big hits, has Slaughter looking comfortable down in the box. Early in spring, Slaughter displayed his versatility by taking some snaps at cornerback, a position thin on numbers after Robert Blanton and Gary Gray graduated. Yet Austin Collinsworth’s torn labrum likely ends that experiment, though the Irish have a half-dozen new safeties on the roster, and new coach Bob Elliott’s ability to get a youngster ready to play with help keep Slaughter versatile, part of what makes him so valuable to the defense.

(Highest ranking: 6th. Lowest ranking: 14th)

7. Braxston Cave (C, 5th year) Cave was another key veteran that suffered a season ending injury, when the senior center tore ligaments in his foot early in the Wake Forest game. While Mike Golic filled in admirably, there was a noticeable difference along the offensive line without Cave in the lineup and an offense that looked so promising throughout the early parts of the season sputtered to a disappointing close of the season. At 6-foot-3, 303-pounds, Cave is one of the strongest players on the Irish roster. He started 22 straight games before the injury and after taking precautions during spring football, Cave is completely healthy as the Irish prepare to enter fall camp. At his best, Cave is a powerful run blocker that’s deserving of the preseason watch list kudos being bestowed on him. With new head coach Harry Hiestand bringing in former All-Pro center Olin Kreutz to work with the interior of the line, expect a nice uptick along the offensive front.

(Highest ranking: 4th. Lowest ranking: 14th)

6. Louis Nix III (DT, Jr.) Nix is one of the most colorful personalities on the Irish roster, but the stout run-stuffing defensive tackle is also one of the team’s most enigmatic.  In his first season on the field after a redshirt year was needed to get Nix into shape, production wasn’t a problem — Nix was the most active defensive lineman on the team, making tackles on almost 11-percent of his snaps. Yet Nix’s ability to be consistent in both games and practices has worried the coaching staff, and Nix split reps with Kona Schwenke this spring at tackle, a product of a fitness regime that seemed to take its own offseason. If he’s in shape and on the field, Nix has all the talented needed to be the Irish’s best defensive tackle in recent memory. Yet Nix needs to put in the work to make himself that player. Entering his third season in the program, now is the time.

(Highest ranking: 3rd. Lowest ranking: 18th)