#7 – Junior Cornerback/Nickel Defender Robert BlantonThe team's unofficial 12th defensive starter as its 7th best player? You bet – remember, it's not who starts the contest or the season, but who finishes it. And more important than starting or logging starter's minutes, Blanton finished plays, from his insertion in Week Three through season's end. S
statistically he's among the team's three best defensive players behind Manti Te'o and Harrison Smith. Consider:
- Sixth in tackles (52) including a combined 14 vs. USC and Miami to end the season.
- Third in tackles-for-loss (7) with only scrimmage mavens Fleming and Te'o in front of him in the category.
- Third in passes defended (7) with two of those breakups resulting in interceptions for teammates (Zeke Motta vs. MSU in the end zone; Jamoris Slaughter vs. Stanford near the end zone)
- One of three players on the 2010 team with multiple interceptions (2), officially third behind Smith and Darrin Walls
- A sack (BC); and a blocked punt, scoop, and score for a touchdown (Utah)
- He added nine special teams tackles (4th on the team) including eight on kickoffs
The final ledger shows 13 games played with just one start – at outside linebacker vs. the triple-option of Army. That assignment (along with the regular insertion of Jamoris Slaughter on the other side) helped the Irish stifle the nation's 8th-ranked ground attack as the Irish D limited the Cadets to 3.1 yards per carry and no touchdowns – the only game of the season in which Army didn't hit pay dirt at least twice.
He created five turnovers in total, played his five best games against Michigan State, Stanford, BC, Pittsburgh, and Utah (five of the seven best teams the Irish faced), and provided the versatility at nickel back that helped transform Notre Dame's struggling September defense into a top-notch unit by season's end.
Blanton beyond the numbers: Lost in the volume of tackles and PD is the actual game-related value of each. It varies greatly by player but in Blanton's case, considering his cornerback/nickel role, his impact on the defense goes beyond the objective numbers:
- In addition to 7.5 tackles-for-loss, Blanton recorded five run support stops limiting foes to 0, 1 or 2 yards. Two of his stops behind the line were following pass receptions – bubble screens Blanton blew up despite the presence of a blocker in front of him.
- He denied 11 3rd down conversions/goal line pass attempts with tackles short of the marker, a sack (Pittsburgh), passes defended, passes defended that resulted in a teammate's interception, or by playing perfect position defense on a fade pattern to the goal line.
- Through the first 12 games, Blanton was beaten on 3rd down for a first down just once (Utah) before yielding two such plays late vs. Miami.
If you're scoring big plays per snap, it's hard to imagine anyone getting more for his money than the junior cornerback.
Navy and Stanford losses aside, the 2010 Irish defense consistently found a way to get off the field on third down, holding their remaining 11 foes to just 53 conversions in 174 3rd Down opportunities.
The consistent and versatile presence of Blanton was a big reason for the improvement – a fitting conclusion for one of the team's two most improved defensive players from a season ago.
#6 – Senior Kicker David RufferI'll answer your obvious (and valid) question, first: Why not higher?
- Ruffer simply didn't find the field enough to rank higher than the remaining candidates: those that toil and take punishment on every play. While nearly perfect, Ruffer didn't influence the game as much as some of the team's key position players. Remember, he only attempted 15 regular season field goals. Which leads us to…
- Aside from (arguably) the Purdue contest, Ruffer was never was asked to kick a game-clinching or winning kick (insert your own obvious comment here).
His resume, of course, needs nor warrants further deconstruction. Ruffer is the best single-season kicker in program history...but the purpose of this column is to rank individual excellence, so we'll give it a shot:
- Ruffer was an incredible 7 for 7 on field goals longer than 40 yards, including two boots from 50, and concluded a oh-so-close to perfect field goal campaign with a 36-yard miss – due partly to a calf injury he suffered on his previous successful attempt.
- His three missed PAT (two blocked, one of which was his fault on a low boot) proved prior he wasn't perfect, though a 23 for 23 start to his career (18 for 18 in 2010) before his first miss suggested otherwise.
- Key to his #6 ranking: 10 touchbacks – seven more than Irish kickers compiled over the previous three seasons. His consistent boots (64.9 yard average on 61 kickoffs) was the starting point for Notre Dame's 16th ranked kick coverage unit, one that allowed just 19.69 yards per return with no runbacks in excess of 38 yards.
- Finally, Ruffer scored more or nearly half of his team's points in wins over Purdue (three field goals: 22, 46, 37) and Pittsburgh (32, 50, 31) then drilled three more in the Sun Bowl prior to his first errant offering.
Said Ruffer of the streak-snapping miss: "It had to end some time. Tommy (Rees) said at least (the miss) didn't matter."
Could Ruffer rate behind such stalwarts as Blanton, Ethan Johnson or Darius Fleming? Sure...but at some point the undervalued position of kicker deserves respect, too. Especially a guy that answered a bell whenever called upon, regardless of the circumstances.
Following last Friday's incredible sighting of Haley's Comet, that is, a David Ruffer miss: the "perfect" kicker will carry an 0 for 1 streak into the off-season. Here's to a scholarship for the world's most valuable walk-on, a 5th year of eligibility, and another run to the record books in 2011.
Forthcoming: Players rated No. 4, 5 and 6 at season's end.