Perceived top players, then and nowApril 2010: Michael Floyd, Manti Te'o, Kyle Rudolph, Trevor Robinson, Ian Williams, Dayne Crist, Armando Allen, Darius Fleming, Theo Riddick, Brian Smith, Darrin Walls, Cierre Wood
(There's a "six-star" recruit waiting to join the ranks in August.)
In need of redemption, then/nowLast spring's list was voluminous, but three players owned most of the fan base's collective angst at this point last spring.
- Safety Harrison Smith: Benched in mid-October 2009 and moved back to linebacker because of glaring deficiencies at safety. Smith had zero career interceptions entering 2010; he finished with seven, and now ranks as the only player in program history with more than 200 tackles, 15 passes defended, and 15 tackles for losses.
- Robert Blanton: Lost in a faulty scheme in 2009, Blanton earned a No. 7 ranking in Irish Eyes post-season Top 10 last fall and ranked behind only Smith as our choice as the team's most improved player (from the previous year).
- Duval Kamara: Had scored just one touchdown over his last 23 contests entering the 2010 season – then notched a memorable pair in the second half in a November upset of Utah.
Redeem Team, now: The Irish will play in a BCS Bowl game if three of the five listed below put forth the best seasons of their collegiate careers (especially if I can pick the trio).
- Trevor Robinson: Entered 2010 as the accepted top offensive lineman – finished no better than fourth last fall.
- Dayne Crist: Myriad factors resulted in the team's sub par first two months and sterling performance thereafter, but Crist is 4-4 as a starter (not including the Tulsa loss) and played the worst game of his career in a 35-17 loss to Navy one week before his season ended with a torn patellar tendon.
- Jonas Gray: Has yet to reach pay dirt in his college career.
- Carlo Calabrese: Shined early but the overall level of play at the WILL linebacker position was more impressive (especially in pass coverage) when manned by departed senior Brian Smith over the season's final five games.
- John Goodman: Managed just 9.7 yards per catch on 15 receptions last fall and was the only skill position starter not to find the end zone in 2010.
Irreplaceable, then and nowThe first choice last spring had no rival…or viable backup…
- Dayne Crist
- Michael Floyd
- Manti Te'o
- Kyle Rudolph
- Ian Williams
- Manti Te'o: His loss would drop the Irish defense from top 15 level to also-ran status.
- Either Starting Cornerback: Lo Wood will be a player, but the defense would suffer greatly without Robert Blanton or Gary Gray on the outside.
- Cierre Wood: Behind him? Jonas Gray, incoming freshmen, walk-ons…
- Michael Floyd: They won't win more than eight games without Floyd…but the offense would find a way to move the ball and score even without its best player.
- Zack Martin: Backed up by a pair of redshirt-freshmen, though 5th-year senior Andrew Nuss could slide back outside…Nuss is better at guard.
- Tyler Eifert: I don't care about the team's perceived depth at the position, the drop-off is drastic between the blossoming Eifert and the rest of the crew.
Depth then; depth nowExiting spring 2010, running back was the widely accepted position of strength:
"I would say that the running back position is one that I feel really good after this game about the depth and the ability of that position," Kelly stated last April.
Assistant Kerry Cooks, then the outside linebackers coach, had a unit featuring three long-time starters in Brian Smith, Kerry Neal, and Darius Fleming along with the Blue Gold Game's leading tackler (12) Steve Filer.
And though Kelly was critical of the position, especially its collective ability to handle their early work volume, the 2010 spring receiver corps was a solid six deep with three others fighting for time (Michael Floyd, Duval Kamara, Theo Riddick, T.J. Jones, John Goodman, and Shaquelle Evans with Robby Toma, Bennett Jackson, and Deion Walker seemingly capable after solid spring game efforts.)
Today, the participating wide receivers number just five: sans Floyd, Evans, Kamara and Jackson, replaced by only former quarterback prospect Luke Massa. The running back situation is more dire, with two healthy scholarship runners (and Gray is banged up as well). Outside linebacker remains strong in theory, though only Darius Fleming has started a college game among its four chief competitors.
Spring's 2011 depth, on the other hand, resides in far more important position units, notably the team's defensive line, where (at least) four defensive ends and three nose guards will battle for playing time next fall. A complete four-deep depth chart will form with the addition of freshmen ends and injured junior nose guard Tyler Stockton returning to the fold.
Serving as a polar opposite to April 2010 is a well-stocked 2011 quarterback quartet. Two former starters (Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees) and two intriguing prospects (Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson) give the Irish a versatile group, though no clear-cut top dog. They'll again throw to a bevy of talented tight ends led by Eifert and Ragone, backed by Welch, junior Jake Golic, and incoming frosh Ben Koyack.
Safety, a question mark with no proven players at this point last year, ranks among the team's best with captain Harrison Smith the star and returning starters Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter forming a 1-2 punch opposite.
Finally, the 2011 Irish have the best place-kicking situation in program history, with record-setting David Ruffer beating out former record-setter Nick Tausch last August. The pair has combined to boot 37 of their last 41 field goal attempts between the pipes. They're joined by prospect Kyle Brindza, who could rest the kickoff duties from Ruffer with a great August camp.
Note: Part II will be published shortly.