Indispensable: Part II

Part II of our list of Notre Dame's indispensable players for 2011 includes the first member of our Top 10 players list from post-season 2010.

The players and rankings listed in Part II below and throughout this three-part series will differ from a forthcoming summer column that details the team's 10 best players entering 2011.

Rather, the list of 2011 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.

Click here for Part I

#7 – Zack Martin

Notre Dame's best pass protector, best lead blocker in the read-option, and best offensive linemen, period. As a bonus, he enters the 2011 season with three years of eligibility remaining.

The team's starting tackle for 11 games last fall, Martin switched to the right side for a Week Six matchup vs. Pittsburgh in place of injured senior Taylor Dever. After allowing a first play sack, Martin shut down talented Panthers pass rusher and recent 2011 second round pick Jabaal Sheard for the remainder of the afternoon in Notre Dame's six-point victory.

The team's best offensive linemen could arguably rank higher on this list, but I believe redshirt-freshman Christian Lombard – the team's third offensive tackle exiting the spring – could do a solid job filling in for Notre Dame's 2010 Guardian of the Year.

Martin's a candidate for post-season (and likely, pre-season) national honors. He's the key player in a still-developing read-option running game, tasked with paving a path (running parallel to, then across the line of scrimmage) for Cierre Wood and opening up a crease into the defense's second level.

I could be overlooking Martin's big-picture importance to the offense, but those listed #6 through #1 on the forthcoming list would likely be more difficult to replace, especially over an extended period.

#6 – Braxston Cave

Cave was involved in more plays than anyone on the squad last year (including field constant Manti Te'o), but the then-junior center struggled intermittently with his new role as a shotgun-spread pivotman for what was intended to be a fast-paced offense.

Cave returns in 2011 with the shotgun snap mastered (in his words, it's "a non-issue") a better understanding of the offense, and more important, wof hat the staff expects from him. Couple that with his athleticism and raw power and Cave the senior could shine in Brian Kelly's offense (he's eligible through 2012).

But Cave's importance isn't tied singularly to his improvement, or to the early April faith his coach expressed in his ability, or simply my inclination that he'll rank among the team's three most improved players when the Irish hit the field in September. Rather – there's a significant drop-off behind him.

Talent level, physicality and experience aren't the only concerns, but no other Irish player has started a game at center and backup Mike Golic was ninth among ten offensive linemen in total scrimmage plays last fall. The loss of Cave could cause a near "reset" in the team's front wall operations – the shotgun spread's training wheels would be back on; offensive regression a likely result.

Cave won't make our pre-season Top 10 (possibly not top 15, player list, as those groups will be populated by defensive stalwarts), but he's one of the six players the Irish can least afford to lose during 2011...and a dark horse All-America candidate for 2012.

#5 – Harrison Smith

As with each of the four listed previously (Tyler Eifert, Theo Riddick, Sean Cwynar, and Zack Martin), Smith didn't sniff this list last summer. Unlike the aforementioned quartet, Smith was a 2010 senior; one most – including myself – pegged as an underachiever entering last fall.

After 29 career games (including 23 starts) without an interception, Smith finally broke out with a late-game pick at Boston College (Week Five). Eight games, six more interceptions and 57 tackles later, Smith concluded the season as one of Notre Dame's best defenders and playmakers, as Irish Eyes' #7 ranked overall player, and as a team captain (currently the lone captain) for 2011.

He enters 2011 as the only player in program history to record more than 200 tackles, while posting 15 passes defended, and 15 tackles for loss (the latter a function of approximately 19 games spent at outside/nickel linebacker in 2008-09). And, as he has been since hitting campus, ranks as one of the team's best overall athletes.

Smith serves as both the secondary's crutch (mentally) and its band-aid (physically): receiving and relaying the defensive signals and also acting as the last line of defense – in this case, literally – as the only member of the otherwise talented backfield who's proven capable of running down/angling opposing speed merchants in the open field.

His logical replacement in the event of time missed would be Jamoris Slaughter – a blossoming senior who's battled a lingering ankle injury since last September. The Irish would be much better off if Slaughter and 2010 nine-game starter Zeke Motta played alongside Smith rather than in his stead.

Point of interest: Of the first six players featured in Parts 1 and II, only Harrison Smith finished on our Top 10 post-season player list for 2010 – a testament to the continuous development and teaching provided by Kelly and his staff.

Note: The conclusion of our Indispensables List will be published Wednesday afternoon. Top Stories