Another influx of talented first-and second-year players and a promising recruiting class has Irish fandom buzzing this off-season – I'm excited to see the development of prospects such as Aaron Lynch and George Atkinson, and the first meaningful pass from Andrew Hendrix or goal-line stand forged by the push of Louis Nix.
But it's a good bet that those developments won't define the 2011 Irish season. Removing standout junior Michael Floyd from the equation, I'd argue three seniors – each previously left for dead by Internet message boards fans and media – ranked as the team's most important players during Notre Dame's four-game winning streak last season: Brian Smith and Harrison Smith on defense; Robert Hughes on offense.
Augmenting the late-season effort was a surprise contribution from the trio's classmate, Duval Kamara, whose three November touchdowns were more than former freshmen record-setter had contributed over his previous 35 games. Four years of development, however stunted for each, was realized.
Head coach Brian Kelly has begun to mold the Irish program in his image, and developing its young talent base is paramount to success next fall and in 2012. But freshmen and sophomores don't consistently win football games.
Yes, a team's outgoing senior class generally determines its fate, and the 2010 Irish seniors, warts and all, were instrumental in transforming a sub-.500 squad on October 31 into a Top 25-level unit at season's end.
For the Irish to carry their four-game winning streak (the longest to end a season in South Bend since 1992) through next September, a new crop of Irish seniors must repeat their predecessor's feat and elevate their collective level of play.
Below is the first of three looks at that group. The team's six-pack of potential fifth-year seniors will be reviewed separately.
Swan songSeven seniors will exhaust their eligibility at season's end: Robert Blanton, Steve Filer, Darius Fleming, Michael Floyd, Jonas Gray, Ethan Johnson, and Trevor Robinson.
Floyd is the group's given: one of the nation's best players who, if in good health, will again lead the team in most or every relevant receiving category next fall. He'll again deliver superb perimeter blocking and earn countless double coverage to spring open teammates over a 13-game slate.
Blanton (#7), Johnson (#9) and Fleming (#10) joined Floyd (#1) among Irish Eyes' Top 10 players of 2010. Fleming was on our 2009 list as well, and though his play at a new position – his third in as many seasons – slipped early last season, he later developed into the force Irish fans expected over the closing contests.
Johnson (and bookend Kapron Lewis-Moore) began to round into form during the 4th Quarter of a Week Three loss at Michigan State. Thereafter, and save for the Navy contest, the Irish front wall played its best ball at the program since at least 2006. Both Johnson and Fleming (as well as Lewis-Moore, who'll be previewed later) will challenge for consensus pre-season Top 15 honors at their respective positions in the annual forthcoming summer magazines.
Under-the-radar nationally but not among those close to the program is the resurgent Blanton who, despite just one official start (at OLB), finished third behind Harrison Smith and Manti Te'o in total "Big Plays" (Sacks, INT, passes defended, tackles for loss, forced and recovered fumbles) in 2010.
Though his nickel role last fall will be a bit different than a starting spot in 2011 (likely the "Field" cornerback with Gary Gray entrenched in the Boundary role), Blanton ranks with classmates Johnson and Fleming as relative sure things on defense entering their senior seasons.
Ready for launch?Last October, I asked Brian Kelly if junior right guard Trevor Robinson was a potential candidate to slide over and replace injured right tackle Taylor Dever vs. incoming foes Pittsburgh and Western Michigan. (Robinson had been evaluated at tackle the previous spring.)
The head coach's terse reply: "Trevor has his hands full at guard right now."
Robinson's surprise early-season scuffles were in part due to a 30-pound weight loss endured in the off-season. (It was his decision: to quote the Nebraska native – "I was overweight.") Like most of his teammates, Robinson's performance bottomed out at Navy, in particular when he was bull-rushed for a definitive 3rd Quarter/4th-down sack by Midshipmen defensive linemen Shane Bothel (32 pounds his junior).
Along with most of his teammate's, Robinson's play improved significantly thereafter – gaining weight and strength as the season progressed and for the first time, showing signs of the potential that ranked him among the nation's top offensive line recruits when he entered the program in January 2008.
Promising as a freshman, solid but oft-injured as a sophomore, and from pedestrian early to impressive late last season, Robinson shined when the Irish offensive line began to play with its hand on the ground in the power offense last November – the Elkhorn, NE native ranks as the offense's most likely "Breakout Senior" next fall.
Steve Filer and Jonas Gray…Finally?Both were bestowed four stars by Scout.com on national signing day. Between them they've accounted for one starting assignment (Gray at Purdue in 2009), 1.5 tackles-for-loss (Filer in a three-game span vs. USC and Washington State, '09), and no touchdowns.
Filer has starred for the Irish special teams for three seasons and appeared on his way to a key role from scrimmage twice: in August of 2009 and '10. Gray has shown flashes (Nevada and Purdue '09, Utah '10), but has yet to earn more than 10 carries in a contest or establish a modicum of consistency through 28 games played to date.
The 2010 resurgent trio of Brian Smith, Robert Hughes, and Duval Kamara had a track record of success on which to lean – Filer and Gray have only three-year-old message board fodder and self-assessment to call upon for belief and strength.
The former received a vote of confidence, albeit six months ago, from his head coach.
"We have two seniors in (Kerry) Neal and (Brian) Smith; they're both going to play," Kelly said when asked about Filer prior to 2010 season opener. "I'm not trying to look ahead to next year, but Steven Filer's going to be a heck of a player for us and he has to be ready to go, because he's going to take over that Drop position when those guys graduate."
Gray's physical tools aren't in question, nor is his spot on the depth chart – likely No. 2 with a chance to move up, or down, heading into the 15-session Spring. He can run, he can catch, and though he saw only intermittent action, he didn't fumble in 21 touches last season after dropping the pigskin in four of his first 60 during Seasons 1 and 2.
Gray like Filer received ample praise from the man in charge just prior to the time the bullets went live. You've heard it (and likely proclaimed it) before, but I believe Filer is tailor-made for the DROP linebacker position. But fool my twice, shame on me – I'll spare us all further off-season rhetoric on the subject.
Both Filer and Gray have a final chance to make a major impact next season. This time, the senior duo's ability to capitalize on untapped talent will likely mean the difference between a late-December trip to Orlando for the Capital One bowl, or a more appealing three-letter Bowl destination for the Irish next January.
Next in the series: A look at seven experienced seniors, each of whom has two seasons of eligibility remaining.