Honorable Mention – Let the debate beginBoth would have made the list had they A.) received more playing time (Wood) or B.) been an on-field influence in the team's run of November excellence (Williams).
- Senior NG Ian Williams – Williams was one of the team's 10 best players, but the key is consistent production. On field, college production, not NFL potential or who you'd rather have on your team, one player vs. the other. And Williams missed four games – it's the sole reason for his omission (more on that below).
Williams played solid, sometimes dominant football in his first seven games, then struggled, along with the bulk of the team, vs. Navy before injuring his knee in the third quarter. He returned to chip into a dominant three-quarter defensive effort vs. Miami.
Intermixed were sacks vs. Purdue, Michigan State, and Western Michigan; QB hits and hurries vs. Pitt and Miami. He added tackles after gains of two yards or less – none which resulted in a first down – vs. Michigan (3), Michigan State (6 – his best game), Stanford (1), Pittsburgh (1), and WMU (2).
But the four games he missed were among the top five defensive efforts of the season, as the defense allowed 1, 0, 0, and 1 touchdown in his absence – it's thus hard to argue "MVP" status for the rock-solid nose tackle. Without question, Williams would start if he walked through the LaBar Practice Complex gates for a 5th season next fall (he's not eligible). He just didn't play enough – or at the right time of the season – to qualify for my list below.
Which leads us to...
- Sophomore RB Cierre Wood – In retrospect, I'm surprised he didn't end up in my Top 10. But reasonable arguments can be made for both his inclusion or omission…for instance:
Pro: Wood was the team's leading rusher, its most dangerous open-field runner, versatile receiver, and he improved in pass protection over the course of the season. He gave the offense its first take-it-to-the-house presence in several seasons (you could argue 2003) and was the only player not named Michael Floyd to score more than four touchdowns (5, including two via the pass).
Con: Wood was a non-factor in four games (five if you include a backup effort vs. Pittsburgh) games, and then ran tentatively when the offense desperately needed him vs. Navy, a game in which a wounded Armando Allen ran like a warrior despite two shredded hips. To be absent from five/six games – depending on the harsh severity of your rating – makes it challenging to crack the list, especially since the Irish fared poorly in those contests (losing four). In short, he served half of the season as a player with a minor role.
The Irish turned their season around thanks to the defense and the running game. Wood was a major part of the latter and he probably deserves a spot among the Top 10 – but for every inclusion there has to be an omission…and in this case, defense wins (November and Sun Bowl) championships. There's little doubt he'll find a top tier ranking there next fall.
#10 – Junior Outside Linebacker Darius Fleming2010 was a season of adjustment for the team's most explosive pass-rusher. He at first seemed out of place in coverage; spotty as a pass-rusher – below the level forecasted for him by Irish Eyes over the summer months.
And there he sits at season's end: first in sacks (6); first in tackles-for-loss (11 – resulting in losses of 50 yards, easily outdistancing Te'o's 9.5 TFL for an aggregate loss of 34 yards); tied for first in additional QB hits (5) with Johnson and KLM. He added five pass breakups and an interception when asked to drop into coverage. None of it came easy
It was an uneven opening month for the self-aware Fleming. New to his CAT linebacker position and its coverage requirements, the junior struggled mightily vs. Michigan, the notably on the Wolverines game-winning TD drive. He bounced back with a stout second half against the Spartans included a fated third-down overtime sack of QB Kirk Cousins setting up a 4th Down and the infamous "Little Giants" fake field goal touchdown.
He showed signs vs. Stanford (lauded here and by his position coach for continually taking on double team blocks on the edge) but looked lost later vs. Navy – a veteran playing the option as would a rookie.
Despite solid numbers vs. Tulsa (two sacks, four tackles), Fleming felt he had let the team down. That he was "playing the defense on the board, not playing football." His Bye Week talk with defensive coordinator Bob Diaco buoyed him through the remainder of the season and bowl game; a span in which he played at an all-star level.
By the numbers, Fleming was the front seven's best playmaker…but the listed in front of him on our Top 10 list (below) had a bit more of an influence on the defense's overall success.
#9 – Junior Defensive End Ethan JohnsonAs an Irish fan, you probably didn't hear Ethan Johnson's name enough this season. Or at least not as much as you expected for the third-year contributor that's now started 28 collegiate games.
There were no high tackle total outings (never more than 5 in a game) – then again, when teams stop finding success over your side of the line by early October, opportunity enters the equation.
Johnson finished second on the team in sacks (5.5) and fourth in tackles-for-loss (6); both numbers matched or exceeded those of his fellow defensive linemen – Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ian Williams, combined.
A defensive lineman's impact is rarely measured by his tackle total (the excellence and solo mission of Trevor Laws, and his obscene 112 tackles in 2007 notwithstanding). For the first time in his college career, Johnson began to meet – and consistently beat – opposing double teams. He allowed Darius Fleming, Manti Te'o, Brian Smith and Carlo Calabrese more free lanes at ball carriers. He, like Ian Williams at full strength, held the point in short yardage; on 1st and 10; at the goal line.
Of Johnson's 34 total tackles, 31 limited opponents (runners or QBs) to gains of three yards or less. He made six stops on 3rd and 1 or 3rd and goal; he added seven QB hurries – three on 3rd Down, and two of those were in goal-to-go situations.
More important, Johnson was a rock when Williams was lost to knee injury, recording two hurries and 1.5 sacks vs. Tulsa including one on third-down; of his four tackles vs. Utah, three limited runners to two or zero yards as did both of his two stops vs. USC, the latter for no gain on 3rd and 1 that forced a Trojans punt.
Johnson wasn't all over the field like the player ranked just below him – he just ensured opponents weren't, either.
#8 – Junior Defensive End Kapron Lewis-MooreTwo seasons as a starter; twice the defensive line leader in tackles, and in 2010, a final finish of fourth in total stops (behind Manti Te'o, Harrison Smith and Gary Gray) and second only to Te'o in assisted tackles. In short, Lewis-Moore flows to the ball: up field, downfield, sideline-to-sideline.
Though his impact numbers (sacks, TFL) were both down significantly from 2009, Lewis-Moore made a significant impact near scrimmage, recording 38 stops in which runners gained 3 yards or fewer – 27 of those for 0, 1 or 2 yards. In other words, his paltry total of 2.5 tackles-for-loss is an illusion as the bulk of his plays were made at or just after the line of scrimmage (12 for no gain).
Like his bookend Johnson, Lewis-Moore played his best when the line needed him most, finishing with 25 tackles in Williams' four-game absence. Three of his tackles at USC resulted in no gain; two others for gains of 1 or 2 yards; another was 13 yards downfield on a passing play. That's hustle, and that's been Lewis-Moore since he entered the lineup vs. Nevada in 2009, still adjusting to his new weight, strength and the college game.
While the rest of the defense struggled vs. Navy, Lewis-Moore held his own, recording stops of after 2, 11, 4, 4, 3, 2, 3, 1, 4, and 5 yards vs. the vexing triple-option. He improved that effort in the domination of Army, stopping Cadets after gains of 2, 3, 3, 3, 2, 4, and 0 yards. Two games vs. the option 17 tackles at defensive end…only Te'o totaled more.
While Johnson (above) was likely more difficult to move, Lewis-Moore was more difficult to contain – a run-to-the ball DE, capable of backfield penetration to disrupt short-yardage plays before the blocking scheme develops.
I flip-flopped Johnson and Lewis-Moore on this list – twice. The final edge goes to KLM because of his consistent weekly production. Both return next season to form one of the ten best DE tandems in college football.
Head coach Brian Kelly noted that the OLB and DE must be judged in tandem; that an OLB's stats are dependent on the DE to whom he's attached on a particular play. Each of the three above improved as the season progressed...when in doubt, the tie favors the defensive lineman – the toughest job in the sport.
Next: Players ranked No. 4 through No. 7 in our countdown to No. 1.