Indispensable: 2011

Our summer publishing series kicks off with the annual early-May ranking of the players Notre Dame cannot (consistently) win without next fall.

The players and rankings listed below and in the three-part series will differ from a forthcoming summer column that details the team's 10 best players entering 2011. In fact, just six of the players listed below appeared on our Top 10 post-season player list in January.

Rather, the list of Indispensables considers quality (not perceived) depth, game experience, the importance of the given position, leadership, talent, and various other factors (described within). Each element played a role in the 10 players that made the final cut as well as their slotting on the list.

Last summer's list of 10 offered a mixed bag: it was prescient, if you only look at my comment regarding the upcoming season; yet misguided, if you look at the players chosen and game results thereafter:

"Brian Kelly's resourceful approach lessens the necessity of any individual player for 2010, but the W/L column could see too many marks on the right side of its ledger if one of these players goes down for an extended period."

2010 List/Games missed:
10.) Armando Allen – missed six games, of which ND won five
9.) Corner Trio (Darrin Walls/Robert Blanton/Gary Gray – did not miss a game
8.) Jamoris Slaughter – hampered for (at least) nine of 12 regular season games due to a season-opening ankle injury. ND lost five of the nine.
7.) Ethan Johnson – did not miss a game
6.) Trevor Robinson – did not miss a game
5.) Michael Floyd – missed a game, ND lost by 18
4.) Ian Williams – missed four games of which ND won three
3.) Manti Te'o – did not miss a game
2.) Kyle Rudolph – missed seven games of which ND won five
1.) Dayne Crist – missed all/part of six games of which ND won four

In addition to Rudolph and Allen operating at half strength (or worse) for the bulk of the contests in which they appeared, it was the team's cumulative injury effect that took the greatest toll.

In 2011, there's but one – arguably two players – that could derail the Irish season – players I don't believe the Irish could win consistently without. But the 10 that populate our 2011 indispensable list are necessary ingredients for the Irish to reach their goal of a BCS contest in January.

Just missed the cut – 2011

Players Irish Eyes ranked #8-#10 at the conclusion of 2010 each missed the cut, including:

Ethan Johnson and/or Kapron Lewis-Moore – Honestly, they were the only other players considered, and I believe that a tandem of Kona Schwenke and Aaron Lynch, in conjunction with help from incoming frosh Stephon Tuitt and a swing-option of Hafis Williams (who is needed at nose guard as well) could mitigate the damage at defensive end if (one of) Johnson or Lewis-Moore were to succumb to injury.

Significant time missed by backup RB Jonas Gray could hamper starter Cierre Wood's late-season impact, but Gray has yet to broach the conversation of an indispensable level.

No quarterbacks were close to making my summer list. Brian Kelly's 2011 squad would finish a minimum of 8-5 with any of the quartet under center. Not even the loss of the nation's best kicker, David Ruffer (#6 in my post-season rankings in January), would cause significant damage to the kicking game, as former record-setter Nick Tausch and prospect Kyle Brindza wait in the wings.

The remainder of the team's top players (Darius Fleming, the offensive linemen and linebackers not mentioned) all have quality, developed depth behind them, and thus missed the cut.

#10 Indispensable – TE Tyler Eifert

Speaking of quality depth…it's not-yet-developed behind the program's next great tight end. And if you think the Irish offense wouldn't suffer greatly with Eifert sidelined, consider the following:

  1. Mike Ragone's 2007 star rating is as relevant to the 2011 season as Pete Rose is to the Hall of Fame. Entering his final season, the 5th-year senior has caught ten passes for 99 yards. That's 2.5 receptions for every recruiting star bestowed upon him. One of those grabs was a 30-yard burst with the Irish trailing by two touchdowns, two years ago, vs. Navy…in other words, his remaining nine grabs resulted in a mere 69 yards. Ragone the 5th-year senior could have a storybook finish to his injury-plagued career, but the Irish offense is unlikely to approach its potential with him as the lead tight end.
  2. Untested redshirt-freshman Alex Welch is on the rise, but Eifert the redshirt-freshman sensation of 2010 was the exception, not the rule. Eifert stepped in for injured All-America candidate Kyle Rudolph last fall and the offense barely missed a beat – in fact it improved (though not directly related to Eifert). The staff likes Welch's potential; I like Welch's potential…but the first-year competitor, like most of his ilk, is better-suited for a backup role in Year One between the lines.
  3. Incoming freshman Ben Koyack is about 20 pounds away from withstanding a season of pounding. He's an ideal situational tight end as a detached weapon in his first season, but if you're preparing for a breakout 2011 from the true freshman, it's relevant to note that most first-year players – especially those aligned at scrimmage – need time to develop collegiate frames. Koyack is likely no exception.

As a quartet, the Irish tight ends could dominate in 2011. Without their ring leader, Eifert, well, I'd prefer we don't have that test case to study at season's end.

#9 Indispensable – WR Theo Riddick

Most were higher on Riddick than I last fall, as I felt part of his four-game ascension (Week 3 through 6) included "empty statistics" – the type receivers tend to pile up in this pass-first era (and in this case, during two losses). And that outside of his breakout, outstanding performance at Michigan State, his 7-9-7 reception totals vs. Stanford, BC, and Pittsburgh thereafter, were more a function of the defenses taking away the Irish running game and then top target Michael Floyd with a preponderance of double coverage.

But I've since seen the light.

While I still think empty statistics highlighted his surge (if you think Stanford cared about his 7-reception performance, or mentioned his name on the flight home, you're kidding yourself), I don't doubt the junior has two years of collegiate excellence awaiting him.

  • When pressed in early April, wide receivers coach Tony Alford offered Riddick's name (behind that of tight end Tyler Eifert) as the player with the best hands on the squad.
  • I'm positive Riddick has the best feet, and possesses (at least) the second best dose of open-field vision among the team's offensive weapons.
  • He's the team's best punt return option; its second-best running back; and its second-best wide receiver.
  • He's the only viable, threatening Wildcat candidate unless the Irish plan to play with two quarterbacks near an opponent's goal.

The Irish dropped consecutive games in his absence last fall (to Navy and Tulsa after Riddick injured his ankle vs. Western Michigan)…there aren't enough (any?) breaks on this schedule to suggest a different outcome in '11.

#8 Indispensable – NG Sean Cwynar

It's the trickle-down effect:

With Sean Cwynar, the Irish have three quality nose guards:

  • One proven (Cwynar) albeit over a five-game slate as a starter (the Irish finished 4-1 in that span while allowing one touchdown in an 18-quarter run of excellence).
  • One proven backup (Hafis Williams), who ably backed Cwynar during last year's November surge.
  • One promising prospect (Louis Nix), a first-year competitor who could one day prove dominant thanks to 340-plus pounds of power at his disposal.

But without Cwynar, who had off-season surgery on both his back and his foot, then sat out the spring while recovering from the latter – the Irish have Williams (244 snaps last year; roughly 20 in 2009) and Nix (zero). Cwynar logged 431 last fall alone (approximately 40 more than the position's 2010 eight-game starter, Ian Williams).

Cwynar's the only sure thing inside, as the coaching staff has offered they've yet to determine how many snaps Nix can handle (as few as 20 was mentioned under the September sun) and by any reasonable measure, the 19-year-old is at least three years away from playing his best collegiate football.

Williams (Hafis) played both defensive end and nose guard last fall – this autumn will be his first as a full-time rotation player along the interior. It's notable that head coach Brian Kelly partially attributed Cwynar's increased workload last November as a cause of his back injury.

A sidelined Cwynar would leave what is expected to be a Top 15-level Irish defense with a gaping hole in the middle of its bucket – one no linebacker could consistently fill.

Note:Part II, highlighting Indispensable players ranked #4 through #7, will be published Wednesday morning.


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