Ten on Top: two vets and a rookie

Our Top 10 post-season player ranking column continues with the team's best offensive lineman and two star seniors – both of whom are expected back in an Irish uniform next fall.

Click here for Part I and a look at those that just missed the cut; here for Part II and a review of two honorable mention nominations as well as players ranked #8-#10; and Click here for Part III for a review of a pair of players that surprised everyone, finishing #6 and #7, respectively.

#5 – Freshman Left Tackle Zack Martin

After watching every game twice (other than Navy) and then breaking each game tape down by position group, I'm confident in two truths regarding the 2010 Irish offensive line:
  1. I could be wrong or slightly off base about any number of observations – those that I'll share all off-season – because I never played offensive or defensive line and only Ed Warinner, Charley Molnar, Tim Hinton, and Brian Kelly know each of the five players' assignments in congress with the skill position players' assignments, on a given play. I am, however, certain, that…
  2. Zack Martin was the team's best offensive lineman, from beginning to end, this season.

He was the team's best second level blocker; he was the team's best pass protector; he was the team's best in-line blocker on the move (the key element to the spread rushing attack); and he was the single offensive player (there were no others, trust me on this) that debuted strong, remained strong, and finished strong over the 13-game slate.

And he was the new guy, in his first season as a field competitor. The sophomore (redshirt-freshman) was part of a line that allowed just 20 sacks in 12 regular season games, the lowest per pass attempt ratio (4.2) since 1998 (Irish QBs were sacked just 9 times in that 9-3 campaign) and tied the lowest total since the 2000 season (20 in 12 games). They followed that with a zero sacks allowed performance vs. Miami in the Sun Bowl – a game in which the ‘Canes entered sixth nationally in total sacks.

After seven seasons without breaching the 4.0-yard per carry mark, Martin and his line mates achieved the goal thanks to a minimum average of 4.8 yards per rush by the team's quartet of tailbacks and – as a group – posting more than 145 rushing yards in six separate contests (the most since 2005).

The team's 14 rushes from scrimmage in excess of 20 yards was more than the aggregate total of the previous three seasons – a feat made possible by successful second level blocks – Martin's area of expertise, one displayed early in the first quarter of the first game this season.

Martin was co-winner of Irish Eyes' September linemen of the month award (with RT Taylor Dever), took home the honor again (solo) in October and shared it again in November, this time with the vastly improved Trevor Robinson.

To finish the season-long task, I cast my vote for Martin as the lineman of the game in the Sun Bowl win over Miami – Martin took home the official post-game trophy as well and was sarcastically greeted with chants of "Three More Years!" by his surrounding teammates (potential early draft entrant Michael Floyd had previously been serenaded with the requisite "One More Year" chant seconds prior).

Martin has three more seasons of eligibility – which means Irish QBs can once again feel comfortable after each shotgun snap.

#4 – Senior Safety Harrison Smith

As I finished typing the words, "most improved defender from last season" while finishing the Robert Blanton breakdown (published Wednesday morning) I paused, re-worded, and realized the obvious error of my ways.

Blanton was tremendous in 2008; poor in 2009; then a top, clutch playmaker in 2010.

Smith, on the other hand, went from deposed 2009 safety and fan outcast to team strength – its best defensive back over the season's final six weeks, in 2010. Often billed as the team's best defensive athlete, Smith's production finally matched – then exceeded – expectations.

He was unimpressive early in 2010, playing passably vs. Purdue and Michigan State while struggling vs. Michigan and Stanford. But it appeared a second half interception at Boston College in Game Five kick-started his senior season, one in which – save for an all-encompassing Navy debacle – he improved with each passing week.

The final numbers, are staggering:

  • Five games with at least nine tackles, finishing second on the squad with a career-best 93 and four games with 10 or more stops – second only to Manti Te'o.
  • A team high (matching the decade's high at the program) of 7 interceptions. Those picks began in Game #5 (BC) and concluded with a trio in the Sun Bowl – notable in that Smith had failed to secure an interception in the first 29 games of his career.
  • A team best and *decade-high 14 passes defended. Smith managed just four last season as a struggling safety then intermittently impact OLB.
  • Smith, an assumed (and announced, though the final decision is not his) 5th year returnee, would enter 2011 as the only defender in program history to record better than 200 tackles, 15 tackles-for-loss, and 15 pass breakups in his college career.
  • Smith's 7 picks place him fourth overall in the FBS; he is one of only two players to record three in a game this season. Only 17 players broke up more passes – just nine of those performed in a BCS conference.

(*ND appears to have changed its method of scoring passes defended vs. pass break-ups midway through the last decade – though that's a research project for another time).

Subjectively, Smith would hold a (significant) edge in "touchdowns saved" over his nearest competitor with two of his saving stops as the final tackler with a chance at lightning-quick Wolverines QB Denard Robinson (runs of 36 and 19 yards) and another vs. Pittsburgh's Dion Lewis down the sidelines following a 30-yard scamper.

Likewise, he broke up a deep ball to midfield intended for Pittsburgh's Jonathan Baldwin near the conclusion of the contest; produced the highlight reel interception of the season vs. Utah – a full field sprint and stab of an opposite sideline pass; then closed the regular season by securing the game-ending pick in the Coliseum.

Smith, famously taken out by fallen teammates on both Denard Robinson's 87-yard touchdown run and the infamous "Little Giants" fake field goal crippler in East Lansing, rebounded in Los Angeles from what would have been his greatest backfield error (they're inevitable as a safety) of 2010.

On the third-to-last defensive snap of the regular season, Smith slipped in the open field to allow USC receiver Ronald Johnson nothing but green grass and a (dropped) game-winning touchdown.

He bounced back with a diving pass break-up near the line on the ensuing snap, and then a game-ending end zone interception one play later. Next: his three-interception performance in the Sun Bowl.

If only everyone made the most of such second chances.

#3 – Junior Cornerback Gary Gray

He started the season with a backside stop at the line of scrimmage; then another just three yards downfield. Two snaps and one punt later, Gray did it again, holding up on the boundary vs. an outside rushing attack targeting the 5'11" 190-pound cornerback.

What followed was nearly four more quarters – then 12 more games – of sure tackles vs. any ball carrier in his vicinity, a trait first noted by Brian Kelly following his first scrimmage with the team.

"Well, we can tackle," Kelly offered of his initial team impression in early April. "I was very impressed with our corners and their ability to tackle. Gary Gray, in one instance, had a great one-on-one tackle…"

That singular scrimmage observation became the lead storyline for a secondary unit that struggled to tackle for the season's final 11 weeks one season prior. Five months later, Kelly's notation became relevant on the field of play, kicking off Gary Gray's breakout 2010 campaign.

Gray finished third on the team in total tackles (66) and solo stops (48) including five for lost yardage (tied for 5th). He forced a fumble and intercepted a pass – one of two Irish defenders to accomplish both (Kerry Neal). He was second only to Harrison Smith in passes defended (8) and, subjectively, was the runaway game MVP vs. Purdue and up for defensive MVP honors vs. Pittsburgh, and Western Michigan.

He was beaten just once for a regular season score (Boston College on a pretty out-and-up in which he admittedly gambled/lost concentration) while making the most of his interception and eight passes defended, for example:

  • Game 1 (Purdue): Gray's goal line deflection results in an interception at the 5-yard line by NG Ian Williams
  • Game 3 (MSU): Two Passes defended – both on third-down conversion attempts to force Spartans punts
  • Game 6 (Pitt): Pass defended was a 4th down out route to Jonathan Baldwin to end the contest.
  • Game 7 (WMU): 3rd Down interception at midfield with the Irish leading just 20-10 in the 3rd Quarter – the theft set up an Irish touchdown four plays later.

In addition to Gray's five tackles for loss, the rugged cornerback logged nine stops after just gains of just two or three yards; five more to limit foes to a single yard; and three others for no gain. He drilled pass catchers for third-down stops short of the chains on five occasions and two other times (Utah and USC) stopped runners short of the goal line to contribute to defensive stands.

The days of the cover corner are over at Notre Dame: Gary Gray – a sure-tackler in run support who challenges receivers on every route and after every catch – is the program's prototype and in 2010, one of its three best players.

Next: The conclusion of our Top 10 includes two names that will surprise no one.

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