QB: Dayne Crist or Tommy Rees – Crist earned the starting nod over the sophomore Rees but struggled in his debut, hitting 7 of 15 passes for 95 yards with a crippling end zone interception intermixed. Rees entered following a two-hour weather delay and fired 34 passes in the second half, completing 24 with two touchdowns and two interceptions en route to a 294-yard performance in just 30 minutes of football.
One of Rees' interceptions was an egregious error – throwing late over the middle to a well-covered Michael Floyd – but the other was a red zone pass off the shoulder of unwitting target, Tai-ler Jones. Rees entered the game with the Irish trailing 16-0 and rallied the Irish in an effort that ultimately fell short, 23-20.
Expect a heavier emphasis on the running game early as neither Crist nor Rees has enough mobility to consistently damage an opposing defense with his legs in Kelly's read-option attack.
RB: Cierre Wood – Became the first redshirt-freshman in program history to eventually lead an Irish team in rushing, last year totaling 603 yards in seven starts while scoring five (total) touchdowns….Wood ran for a career-best 104 yards in the opening loss to South Florida; the effort marking the first 100-yard game by an Irish player in the 14-game Kelly era.
WR: Michael Floyd – One of the nation's top offensive weapons, Floyd broke the school's touchdown receptions record (formerly held by Jeff Samardzija) in the Sun Bowl last December; then broke Samardzija's career receptions record in the 2011 season opener. With nine more yards, Floyd will break Golden Tate's mark for career receiving yards (2,707).
The senior target was his team's MVP in Saturday's loss to the Bulls, totaling more than 150 yards and two touchdowns on a career-best 12 receptions. Generally aligned to the boundary, Floyd caught 10 of his 12 passes from Rees on Saturday.
WR: T.J. Jones – Kelly's starting X (field side) receiver had a disjointed opening effort – his mental error resulted in a key red zone interception and one quarter previously, Jones failed to come up with a catchable ball (behind him) that would have cut the Bulls lead to 16-7. The ensuing play resulted in an end zone interception and the Irish came away empty heading into halftime.
Jones did grab six passes for 58 yards Saturday, including a leaping sideline catch during the team's desperate comeback effort. Jones scored as a true freshman vs. Michigan last season, famously dropping the football (no call) before crossing the goal line for what was then his second career score in as many games.
Slot: Theo Riddick – Considered the lead breakout candidate by the Irish coaching staff, fans, and media for 2011, Riddick suffered through the worst game of his football career, losing a muffed punt and dropping four passes over the course of the afternoon. The junior is purportedly the team's best open-field weapon but that skill set has yet to consistently translate to Saturdays. Riddick was a non-factor vs. UM last fall but ripped MSU one week later for 10 receptions, 128 yards and a touchdown.
TE: Tyler Eifert – The team's most pleasant surprise of 2010 picked up where he left off, catching six passes for 97 yards including a 37-yard catch-and-run in the second half on a bullet seam pass from Rees. The 6'6" Eifert is as highly regarded by Irish staff and fans as was second-round pick Kyle Rudolph, though Eifert may already be the better downfield weapon.
As a redshirt-freshman last season, Eifert's half-season statistics were nearly identical to Rudolph's, who lost the final seven games to a hamstring injury.
LT: Zack Martin – Sat out his freshman season in 2009 then won the team's Guardian of the Year award as its top offensive lineman in 2010…Excels on the move, a key feature in the read-option attack…Started 11 games at left tackle last season and two on the right side to make up for the absence of bookend Taylor Dever...The team's top offensive lineman played well in Saturday's loss to South Florida and is one the lone member of the front line that Irish fans won't worry about entering Saturday's test in Ann Arbor.
LG: Chris Watt – Sat out 2009 as a true freshman but earned the 7th-most snaps among Irish offensive linemen last fall…The only first-time starter among the front five fared well in his debut last week, grading as Irisheyes.com's second-best offensive linemen over the course of the contest. Watt is an accomplished drive blocker and key member of the short-yardage offense.
C: Braxston Cave – Senior ranks as the team's strongest player and, according to most reports, its most improved offensive linemen after enduring trial-by-fire as a first-time starter in a shotgun offense last fall…Cave struggled mightily vs. Michigan in the first half last season and offered an inconsistent debut Saturday as well, though he did excel as a move-blocker, finding linebackers at the second level to spring Cierre Wood for two long gains.
RG: Trevor Robinson – Enters his fourth season as a regular up front and has already started 28 games for the Irish. His play slipped a bit last year after losing nearly 30 pounds in the 2010 off-season (his choice) but has since bulked back up and greatly reduced his body fat. Graded as our third-best offensive linemen in the season-opening defeat; much is expected of Robinson this fall after he received continually praise from the Irish staff over the off-season and through August camp.
RT: Taylor Dever – First time starter as a senior last season after languishing behind graduated 50-game starter Sam Young under the previous coaching staff…Ranked as Irisheyes.com's second-best offensive linemen prior to a Week Five hamstring injury last fall but was inconsistent in the opener with two major errors leading to a 3rd and 1 stop in the first quarter and a sack of Crist in the second.
Generally a solid player in pass protection and, like Cave, is quite agile when seeking linebackers at the second level. Dever was the team's best offensive linemen in the loss to Michigan last season.
Gray's first-possession fumble and the subsequent 96-yard return touchdown changed the entire tenor of Saturday's defeat. It was his fifth career fumble in 80 career touches. Now a senior, Gray's 3rd Quarter fumble deep in Wolverines territory played a key role in Michigan's 38-34 victory over the Irish in 2009.