Irish OffenseHead coach Brian Kelly's offense ranks 28th nationally but a 110th spot among 120 teams in red zone efficiency has greatly contributed to the team's three defeats to date.
Quarterback #11 Tommy Rees – The sophomore replaced chosen starter Dayne Crist at halftime of Notre Dame's 23-20 season-opening loss to South Florida and after four consecutive wins to resurrect the season, Rees suffered a bit of regression last week, throwing his first pick in three full games to end ND's comeback bid vs. USC. The interception was Rees' seventh of the season, six of which were tossed in his first 115 attempts. Rees has committed 10 turnovers in 12 halves of football, tossing 14 TD in that same span.
Running Back #20 Cierre Wood – Notre Dame's breakout player of 2011 endured his worst outing of the season last week, finishing with just five (net) yards on five carries with a costly lost fumble (on a dropped lateral) that greatly contributed to Notre Dame's fourth quarter defeat. Wood had previously produced the first three 100-yard rushing games of his career, amassing 650 yards and six scores on just 113 carries through the opening six games.
The Oxnard, CA-native has improved greatly in pass protection since last year – his redshirt-freshman season – and remains the team's most elusive runner in space, rarely getting stopped by a tackler one-on-one at the second level.
Wide Receiver #3 Michael Floyd – The All-America candidate has produced four double-digit reception games and (coinciding) efforts with more than 100 receiving yards through seven contests. Floyd is the program record holder in receiving yards, receptions, receiving touchdowns, 100-yard games, and receiving yards per game as a four-year starter.
The 6'3" 220-pound target ranks as the team's best perimeter blocker and the best blocking wide receiver at the program since at least Maurice Stovall in 2005, if not the Lou Holtz era. Floyd has paved a path for three rushing scores for the RB tandem of Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray already this fall. He was surprisingly shut down last Saturday by USC's defensive scheme and the aggressive coverage of 5'8" 175-pound cornerback Nickell Robey, though Notre Dame's own offensive issues contributed to Floyd's season worst, four-reception, 28-yard day.
Wide Receiver #7 T.J. Jones – Ranks fourth on the squad with 23 receptions, matching his total as a true freshman starter (7 starts) last season. Quick after the catch and a true north-south runner, Jones generally aligns to the field side of the offensive formation. Jones led the Irish with five receptions, 53 yards and a touchdown in last year's loss to the Midshipmen.
Slot Receiver #6 Theo Riddick – Had his best game in more than a calendar year in the 59-33 win over Air Force in Week Six, catching a game-high eight passes for 83 yards including a back-breaking 24-yard short catch-and-run to bury the Falcons in a 42-16 hole at the end of the first half.
Riddick has made his wares of late catching short crosses over the middle early in contests and producing yards after the catch thereafter – five of his last six have produced first downs or a touchdown on those tries.
Tight End #80 Tyler Eifert – One of Notre Dame's five best players through seven games, the massive junior (redshirt-sophomore) target already ranks among the nation's best tight ends and is second behind Floyd in receptions (39) and yards (429), and receiving TD (3) through seven games. Eifert was named the John Mackey Tight End of the Week for his 8-reception, 75-yard, game-winning TD effort at Pittsburgh in late September, during which the Fort Wayne, IN-product secured four passes on the game-winning drive, not including a two-point conversion catch following his score.
Much improved as in-line blocker in his second season, Eifert is often detached from the formation where his 6'6" 250-pound frame adds an imposing figure in front of screen passes or on the team's stretch runs to the boundary side.
His receptions/yardage total marks the best seven-game stretch for a tight end at the school in nearly 35 years, unmatched by former first and second-round draft picks Mark Bavaro, Derek Brown, Irv Smith, Anthony Fasano, John Carlson, and Kyle Rudolph.
Left Tackle #70 Zack Martin – The team's best offensive lineman earned a starting nod in the spring of 2010 as a redshirt-freshman and never looked back, winning the program's Guardian of the Year award as a first time starter – an honor for which he's a lock this fall as well. Martin excels in space, performing second-level and downfield blocks of which no other Irish player – and few nationally – are capable. At 6'4" 310 pounds, Martin can hold up at the point as well and is the only lineman to appear on the Irisheyes.com post-game honor roll each week through seven games.
Left Guard #66 Chris Watt – The line's only first-time starter excels at the point of attack and along with Floyd, is the offense's most physical player at his given position from snap-to-snap. Watt's best two games of the season were recent matchups with Purdue and Air Force against which he excelled as both a pulling guard through the hole and at the second level vs. linebackers in space. At 6'3" 310 pounds, Watt has been described as a "bowling ball with legs" by classmate and Irish LB, Dan Fox.
An apparent weakness in the early stages of his career remains his pass blocking acumen facing opposing D-Line stunts.
Center #52 Braxston Cave – The 6'3" 303-pounder remains the team's strongest player and is in line to be a three-year starter as an expected 5th-year returnee next season. Cave is at his best in one-on-one situations, is also adept at blocking on the move, but as head coach Brian Kelly offered last season: "He doesn't always block the right guy…"
Cave seems to have corrected that weakness this season, his second as a starter. A key aspect of the team's running attack is his ability to perform "combo blocks," something the staff noted was a weakness for the nearby Mishawaka, IN-product last season.
Right Guard #78 Trevor Robinson – A senior and four-year contributor (Robinson has started the last three years and at the tail end of his freshman season), the 6'5" 311-pounder has played the best ball of his career over the last month, this after a curious 2010 season in which he struggled to adapt to both off-season weight loss and the new offensive scheme.
Kelly noted three weeks ago that Robinson was the line's most improved player. In wins vs. Pittsburgh, Purdue, and Air Force, his ability to pull through the hole has helped the Irish to a combined 553 rushing yards and staggering 8.0 yards per carry vs. the latter pair and solid 182 (5.6) vs. the Panthers.
Right Tackle #75 Taylor Dever – Solid backside protector and blocker at the second level, Dever is the least publicized of the team's suddenly strong front five but the 5th-year senior has played winning football since winning his first starting job as a true senior last August. Though far less talented than his predecessor at the position, four-year starter Sam Young, the 6'5" 301-pound Dever has arguably been a more consistent player, rarely giving up the big sack. His recent penchant for ill-timed false starts is troubling.
Key Reserves: Notre Dame's offensive line remains largely intact through the game, though 5th-year senior guard Andrew Nuss will see occasional time.
Running Back #25 Jonas Gray – The senior is the team's most improved player to date and one of the team's 10 best players through seven games. Gray bounced back from an opening drive fumble (returned 96 yards for a score) in the first game loss to USF to average an astounding 8.49 yards per carry (51 rushes), while scoring the first five touchdowns of his Irish career. His 79-yard sprint-and-score at Pittsburgh was the longest touchdown run for an Irish player in 10 years.
Slot Receiver #9 Robby Toma – Diminutive junior target scored the first touchdown of his career in Week Six vs. Air Force. Toma's 5'9" 175-pound frame has a knack for finding a hole in zone coverage and rarely does the first tackler stop him from gaining additional yardage. Manti Te'o's high school teammate executed the block of the season for the Irish, taking out three Michigan players (one in a solo block on the perimeter, then crashing into two others in pursuit) to free teammate T.J. Jones for touchdown catch and run.
Tight Ends #82 Alex Welch and #18 Ben Koyack – Neither the 6'4" 245-pound redshirt-freshman (Welch) nor the 6'5" 253-pound true frosh (Koyack) have been involved in the team's passing attack; both are key members of the jumbo package in short-yardage situations. Both entered the season better regarded for their pass-catching skills, but only Koyack has a reception this season.