Click here for Part I for 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 and a pair of players that surprised everyone by finishing #6 and #7, respectively.
And finally, the beginning of our Top 5, a group that includes Two Vets and a Rookie.
#2 Manti Te'oManti Te'o's outstanding sophomore campaign began much like his promising freshman season unfolded: plenty of flash but not enough focus or finish.
In an opening week win over Purdue, one fueled by solid defense and a sound running game, Te'o was the singular fish out of water among the Irish 11 defensively.
His instincts were on point – often the first to arrive for a potential tackle in space. His fundamentals, namely maintaining a good base, breaking down, and completing the tackle, were noticeably absent.
Always aware of the whole rather a simple part, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco noted of Te'o's opening effort: "I thought he put himself in position to make a lot of plays."
Growth was sporadic for both Te'o and the Irish defense over the next two weeks – neither played exceptionally well or poorly vs. Michigan and Michigan State. But by the time Te'o and his mates took the field vs. 2010 juggernaut Stanford, something in the process – to borrow a phrase from Diaco – had taken root.
Te'o was a force vs. the Cardinal, helping to limit the nation's No. 17 rush offense and 9th ranked scoring offense to one rushing score (after the game had been decided), just two offensive touchdowns, and no carries in excess of 11 yards.
Stanford won handily, but Te'o announced his long-awaited presence with authority, racking up an obscene 16 second half tackles en route to 21 at contest's end.
Of the effort, head coach Brian Kelly noted, "He was clearly a presence on the football field. He's moving in the direction that we expected and he's expected of himself. I thought he played with a lot more grit, too…an emerging, top-flight player for us on defense."
Just the factsHis 133 total tackles are the highest official total at the program since Tony Furjanic racked up 147 (in 11 games) in 1985. Te'o posted seven separate games with double digit stops; two more with either eight or nine total tackles.
His 9.5 tackles-for-loss ranked behind only returning title-holder Darius Fleming (11) and his 14.5 aggregate Big Plays (on our scale, a sack, TFL, pass defended, fumble recovery, forced fumble and interception are counted as big plays), placed him in a fourth-place tie (with Harrison Smith) for the team lead behind Fleming (23), Robert Blanton (18), and Gary Gray (15).
Of his 133 tackles, 48 resulted in gains of two yards or fewer (including his 9.5 TFL). On 15 occasions, Te'o forced a punt (or field goal in the red zone) with a tackle or pass defended.
More important than numbers, Te'o nearly eradicated the modern play du jour, the "tunnel screen" from opposing playbooks due to his uncanny ability to read and destroy the play at, or prior to the receiver's initial move.
That skill set more than any other defines Te'o's season – he diagnosed the play call in the season opener but didn't consistently finish the play. Tunnels, bubbles and standard screens ruined the Irish defense last season, the latter burned them again at a crucial time in East Lansing this year. Once again Te'o was in position; just one finished tackle away from a game-changing big play.
By the season's second month he was in complete control of the short zones of scrimmage; a one-man wrecking crew of the inside passing game. He finished with 12 tackles that limited completed passes to four yards or less. None of those resulted in a first down.
He led on the field by example; in the huddle with a calming strength, and over one or both of the next two seasons, expect Manti Te'o – team captain – to lead in the locker room as well.
Note: Up next, the conclusion of our Ten on Top series and a review of Irish Eyes team MVP, Michael Floyd.