Top 5 to DateNone is without flaw or a singular outing in which he struggled, but these are my picks for Notre Dame's Top 5 players through four games. A bump in the rankings occurred for players trending upward:
- Manti Te'o: – A force of nature in the second half vs. Stanford, Te'o will be an All-American next season. Short-term: the sophomore needs to shore up his coverage (markedly improved from last season), shed/slip a few more blocks in space, and find a way to clone himself when Dion Lewis comes to town in two weeks.
Te'o was better in Game 2 than 1; Game 3 than 2; and Game 4 than 3...that's what this team needs.
- Kyle Rudolph: – Far-and-away No. 1 prior to his injury-influenced no-show vs. Stanford. You put on the pads, you come to play…Rudolph produced what would have been one of the most memorable plays in program history had the Irish held on three weeks ago vs. the Wolverines. He took a major step back as a blocker on Saturday and had obvious issues on the move. No player on the roster is more reliable than a healthy Rudolph.
- Ian Williams: – Rendered ineffective Saturday vs. the Cardinal after three standout performances in his previous contests. Williams wasn't overwhelmed by Stanford's interior…but for the first time this season, the opponent "won" over the senior nose guard.
Kept the Irish run defense afloat vs. Michigan State and played a tremendous game vs. Michigan's talented center David Molk. Treated Purdue's interior like a rented mule for four quarters. Notre Dame would have little chance to stop the run without Williams as its rock in the middle.
- Gary Gray: – Save for one play in coverage he left on the table vs. Michigan on the final drive, I can't think of a costly error Gray has made this season. Was dominant vs. Purdue and solid since. The Irish could use eight games of something in between from here through Thanksgiving. Outside of Manti Te'o, Gray's the team's best tackler...and perhaps the best overall in the open field.
- Armando Allen: – I can't imagine the Notre Dame running attack – or health of its quarterbacks – without him. Armando Allen isn't and won't be a star at season's end, but as a senior, he personifies what Brian Kelly is looking for in the new "Fighting Irish." If there were two Armando Allen's, Notre Dame would be 3-1 rather than 1-3.
Also Considered: David Ruffer: 7-7 field goals; 3 touchbacks for a kick coverage defense limiting foes to just over 18 yards per return. Notre Dame's kickers had two touchbacks last season (one by Ruffer) and just one in 2008.
Michael Floyd: Played his best game of the season as both a pass-catcher and downfield blocker vs. Stanford. The result was a 37-14 loss in which the Irish scored their first touchdown when the game had been decided…that hurts your candidacy for a top 5 list. I expect Floyd to finish around No. 3 on this list at season's end…if he finishes No. 1-2 (with Crist in tow), it could still be a successful season in South Bend.
Dayne Crist: First solid (Purdue), then a revelation (Michigan until the final pass) and thereafter productive (MSU) then overwhelmed (Stanford). That's the resume of a first-year player developing rather than top 5 breakout star (to date).
Top UnitsNot exactly how we pictured it entering the season:
- Field Goal Unit: They've (Ruffer) been perfect. Again. What more do you want? Only Missouri's field goal unit has been more accurate than Notre Dame's since the beginning of the 2009 season (26 for 29).
- Kick and Punt Coverage: Ben Turk has been inconsistent, but the Irish have yet to have a punt returned against them, so his 32.3-yard average has been controlled. The Irish have allowed just 18.59 per kick return, a number that if maintained, would likely place them in the top 10 nationally at season's end. As mentioned, Ruffer has drilled three touchbacks and both Bennett Jackson and Steve Filer have performed consistently covering his kick-offs.
- Tight Ends: Largely because of the three-game heroics of Kyle Rudolph, but Tyler Eifert has performed well as an in-line blocker and the sophomore made a fantastic, hard-nosed catch of the only pass thrown his way (vs. Michigan). Incidentally, Eifert broke free vs. man coverage off the line (right sideline) on Saturday's first play vs. Stanford, but Crist threw (complete) to the left. Bobby Burger has played almost exclusively on special teams and Mike Ragone has just begun to see the field after a series of August health issues.
- Defensive Line: Notre Dame's edge issues against the run are a result of the poor play at outside linebacker and, as Brian Kelly pointed out Sunday, a few cases of poor run fits by the team's safeties. Has the defensive line played at a championship level? Not even close, but it's been good enough to win with while receiving little help from the rest of the unit.
Also Considered: The Irish offensive line would have appeared as well had it not been completely outplayed in Game Four. The team's wide receivers have had their intermittent moments but are still inconsistent and have yet to play a complete game as a unit (Jones solid in Game #1 and arguably in #2; Riddick in #3; Floyd in #4…)
I considered the inside linebackers, but the position's coverage vs. opposing tight ends and the short zones has hampered the overall performance. Te'o and Carlo Calabrese have performed well vs. the run.
Positions in need of improvement (In order): Kickoff return, outside linebackers, backup running back(s), the safeties, backup quarterbacks.