Ten on Top

I've waited patiently for the opportunity (this is what happens when you qualify for a bowl game) to rank Notre Dame's 10 best performers over the course of the season. But first, a look at those that missed the cut, and for a variety of reasons.

I have to confess, this is my favorite type of column, I wait all season to write it and the bulk of the summer to publish the preview edition.

I've always loved reading (informed) ranking columns – players, coaches, teams, historical, you name it. I've generally disagreed with what I've read, and have always had my own, hardened opinion; but occasionally I'd encounter an opinion or nugget of interest that swayed my thoughts on a given player or subject.

In the ultimate team sport (especially when covering college kids) these columns that seemingly assign worth are frowned upon. But no offense is intended – after all, it's not a bottom ten column, and it's just one man's opinion.

Differing viewpoints, however off-base, are always welcomed.

Missed the Cut – the Walking Wounded

Four early-season starters were easy to omit – they're followed in the section below by their capable replacements:

QB Dayne Crist: The first-time starter got the job done in two games (Purdue and Pittsburgh); played well in four others (Michigan, Michigan State, Boston College and Western Michigan) and fared poorly vs. Stanford, despite garbage-time induced statistics to the contrary. He then hit rock bottom vs. Navy before missing the season's final five contests due to a knee injury.

Final thought on Crist: The circumstances were much different, but it's tough to include a QB that finished with a 4-4 record on a team's Top 10 list over one that finished 4-0 (and should have been 5-0).

Theo Riddick: One of the team's best players for a four-week span (Michigan State in Week Three through Pittsburgh in Week Six), Riddick struggled for the first two games and missed the bulk of the final six before returning for the Sun Bowl. He's the team's next offensive star…but not Top 10 from 2010.

RB Armando Allen: Nearly led the team in rushing despite missing the final five games, the bowl game, and another vs. Western Michigan. He was a lock for a Top 10 listing prior to season-truncating hip surgery. Allen improved immensely as a college player over four seasons. He'll be missed in the locker room…and interview room.

TE Kyle Rudolph: Who's your September MVP? Because I can't think of another over the soon-to-be NFL tight end, finishing the first month with 22 catches for 245 yards and three touchdowns including the should-have-been game-winner from 95 out vs. Michigan in Game Two. Rudolph was relatively healthy through three games (Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State): he posted 21 catches for 244 yards and three TD in that span before struggling through the next three games with a bad hamstring injury that finally snapped vs. Pittsburgh, ending his season in Week Six.

LB Carlo Calabrese: He'd have graced the list if the season ended prior to Week Eight – the Navy debacle in which he played poorly but more important – suffered a season-altering hamstring injury. Calabrese played nary a meaningful down in the season's final month and then appeared in a backup role in the Sun Bowl. His seven-game surge leading into Navy ranks among the pleasant personnel surprises of the season.

Final Thought on Calabrese: Provided the thump necessary next to Manti Te'o inside – if the redshirt-sophomore cleans up his coverage fits and begins to believe what he sees, the Irish will enjoy an ILB due among the nation's best next fall. He can't qualify for the Top 10 because Brian Smith's 5-game run inside was even more impressive than Calabrese's first seven at the same position.

Considered but the season included 13 games, not 5

Five key players were lost due to injury prior to or during the team's Week Nine loss to Tulsa. Each of the players below shined in his predecessor's absence…but there's more to a team's season than the November stretch run.

QB Tommy Rees: I initially had spot No. 10 reserved for Rees, who led the Irish to a 4-0 finish as a starter and 4-1 mark as the lead quarterback. (The "1" was hardly his fault, and should have been game-winning comeback drive No. 1 of his collegiate career, but that's a story for another day.)

Rees' recovery from a disastrous debut vs. Michigan was one of the best story lines of the season, but ask yourself this when ranking players: could Dayne Crist have won four consecutive games in November with the benefit of a solid running game and a defense that allowed one meaningful touchdown?

(Plus I figure if we just keep doubting the freshman over the next three years he'll never lose...)

Tyler Eifert: I almost pulled the trigger, but Eifert had little impact vs. Purdue, Michigan State and Stanford, then missed the Boston College and Pittsburgh games due to a shoulder injury. He excelled over the final six, shooting to the top of the receiving charts with 22 catches for 304 yards and two TD in the final six regular season games and concluding the season with a solid bowl game (4-31 plus a called back catch on the first drive).

He's ahead of Kyle Rudolph's pace as an in-line blocker, whether you consider him a sophomore (his class) or a first-year player (his playing status).

LB Brian Smith: You could argue he was the team's defensive MVP in November – a month in which he switched from backup DROP OLB to starting WILL next to Te'o. You could argue he had little positive on-field impact prior to the Tulsa game, too. Smith made the most of his five starts to conclude the season through the Sun Bowl, but he was sub par prior.

RB Robert Hughes: Played the best football of his career over the final two games of his career. Hughes finished with 300 rushing yards on 68 carries and two touchdowns…he was also a complete non-factor for the first eight games (though I'm still not sure who to blame for that lack of playing time: Hughes or the staff). Regardless: two big games don't afford you a spot onto this exclusive list and production trumps speculation.

Left off, but notable

Consider the players below No. 13-16 if the list were to be extended. These weren't the two toughest cuts, as a pair of players remain before the Top 10 countdown commences.
  • CB Darrin Walls: I have him as the third most important cornerback and fourth most important defensive back…a tough omission considering his overall improvement in both coverage and run support as a senior. Walls was great vs. Purdue and in November/El Paso.
  • C Braxston Cave: I have a feeling this is the guy I'll wish I had included when my summer tape review session commences. Handled the toughest job along the front wall for the full 13 weeks and likely ranks as the team's second best offensive linemen – though that unit ranked low on our final list (No. 9 of 12).
  • RT Taylor Dever: Tremendous in September; missed (two games) or was recovering from a hamstring injury and not at a peak level of condition (two more) for the bulk of October; again solid in November. That's honorable mention in my book. Dever's likely return for a 5th season next year would solidify the offensive line.
  • RG Trevor Robinson: Season was far too inconsistent to make the Top 10 list – and his level of expectation was that of a Top 5 player, to boot. Robinson looked the part when the Irish went to the power game in November and could be considered the most improved player on either side of the line from Week One through Week 13…the problem, of course, is he was supposed to be the team's best offensive linemen for 13 games and four months. Loss of 30 pounds (his choice) prior to the season had an adverse impact on his game.

To follow: The two toughest omissions and players rated No. 7-10 on our season-end list.

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