#4 – Corner Duo: Robert Blanton and Gary GrayCheating to include a 2-for-1? Not when the Irish D can ill-afford the absence of either.
Behind the veteran tandem are an untested sophomore (Lo Wood participated in 23 scrimmage snaps last season), a recently converted wide receiver (Bennett Jackson) and between 2-4 incoming freshmen, joining the team over the summer.
Separate, Blanton and Gray will vie for post-season awards. In tandem, they rank among the nation's most well-rounded pair, and arguably its best in run support. The 2010 Irish defense blossomed in part because its secondary featured three viable starting college corners in Blanton, Gray, and since-graduated Darrin Walls. The trio was trusted to the point that Wood saw nary a meaningful snap behind them as a purportedly well-rounded freshman; behind him – walk-ons.
Notre Dame has since added to the unit's depth with incoming talent and the converted athlete Jackson, but the loss of Walls will be exacerbated if either Blanton or Gray misses time.
One of the biggest questions facing the 2011 defense is its fifth defensive back: who will handle the nickel role that Blanton filled so capably last fall? And the potential loss of either part of this dynamic duo would open a new can of worms for the team's back line of defense.
If you're splitting hairs, I'd slot Blanton 4A and Gray 4B on the Indispensable List: Gray ranks as the better player at his position (boundary corner vs. Blanton's 2011 move to the field side) but Blanton was the defense's unsung hero of 2010 and its most versatile DB, capable of playing the field, boundary, and nickel (over the slot) cornerback roles. If Wood can assimilate as a solid No. 3 corner, the Irish defense will take off in 2011, but this pair must remain healthy for 13 games for the unit to reach its potential.
#3 – Michael FloydI had Floyd originally slotted at No. 2 but realized the squad has already prepared for life without its best offensive player. I'd be surprised if the senior star plays 13 games next season, with likely game(s) missed due both to a possible suspension from head coach Brian Kelly following Floyd's expected reinstatement, and to the reality that the star-crossed receiver has an injury history, missing all or part of 11 contests in his 38-game Irish career.
But there's no doubt that Floyd's presence brings the 2011 Irish offense from a level of pedestrian to dangerous; from garden variety to exceptional; and from a December bowl-bound finale to a BCS-quality finish.
Likewise, Floyd's presence guarantees double-team attention to a perimeter Irish receiver from every defense, on most offensive snaps. And in good health, it guarantees 10-plus touchdowns, 900-1,200 yards, and 70-plus receptions over a 13-game slate. It affords single coverage opportunities to the explosive Theo Riddick, and to developing targets T.J. Jones and Robby Toma inside. It allows senior John Goodman to rarely (if ever) see a safety over the top of his route, or a top-level cornerback to tangle with upon his scrimmage release.
Floyd's developed talent level places him among the top 10 players in college football. The trickle down effect of his absence would be felt at varied degrees every week, regardless of the daily or weekly improvement of his cohorts.
But, as Brian Kelly purportedly intimated last year: you can sometimes "fake it" on offense. And Kelly would find a way to free his receivers, tight ends, and running backs to some degree. The team's quarterbacks would (generally) find a way to move the football.
Yet those are the issues that plague the common 8-9 win football team, and five losses must be a thing of the past in South Bend. Floyd is essential for a team with BCS hopes...but the player ranked next on our list is essential for a season that betters Kelly's debut of 2010.
#2 – Cierre WoodThe practice room of Irish running backs coach Tim Hinton will consist of the following this August:
Cierre Wood – a runner who'd start for roughly 100 college teams
Jonas Gray – a senior with 22 games of experience totaling 75 carries, 309 yards, three fumbles, and no touchdowns.
1-2 incoming freshmen – Cam McDaniel and possibly yet-to-be-slotted athlete, George Atkinson... and Walk-ons.
Wood finished as an honorable mention on my Top 10 post-season players list in January. He's a lock for the Top 15 this summer, and likely one of two competitors that will push into the Top 10 entering the 2011 season even though none of the original 10 was lost to graduation.
And the Irish have no proven commodity behind him.
Senior Jonas Gray has potential – I noted in Part I of this series that he's among the short-list of players who just missed the cut for this list due simply to a dearth of scholarships at his position, but Gray has never put together back-to-back games of quality. He's never found the end zone; he's caught just five passes in three years, and he's yet to discover his identity as a running back entering his final season (eligibility exhausted after 2011).
Gray has the talent to form an effective 1-2 punch with Wood; to be a 400-yard runner as a true backup or a 600-plus yard performer as a starter. And incoming freshmen McDaniel and Atkinson can both tote the rock – both could be undervalued entering autumn.
But the read-option Irish running game relies on Wood and his continuous present at the top of the food chain. His potential loss would likely force a move of former RB Theo Riddick back to the backfield – the ancillary result a blow to the passing attack. Wood's loss would put a 25-carry per year ‘back at the forefront and a freshman immediately into the mix in a complicated offense.
Wood's not yet the team's second best player – but he's the offense's essential piece for the upcoming season.
#1 – Manti Te'oI don't think it's arguable.
Lack of a proven, experienced, (or viable) backup aside, Te'o's the glue that holds an up-and-coming defense together...a defense close followers of the program believe could be special.
While the unheralded defensive line allows him to operate in space, it's the rare talent of Te'o that destroys opposing screen games, that cleans up runners before they hit the second level, that allows the interior of the Irish D to function as a unit. Te'o's presence makes fellow inside ‘backer Carlo Calabrese a better player; it allows promising backups Dan Fox and Kendall Moore to remain in their better-suited No. 3/No. 4 roles, and it gives the Irish defense "backfield destruction potential" rather than reverting to a dime-a-dozen unit that relies on a bend-but-don't break approach vs. quality teams.
He's the best player on the defense, the heart of the team as a true junior, and an absolute necessity for both the 2011 and 2012 squads as the team's talent level continues to grow on his side of scrimmage.
Stalwarts such as Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Darius Fleming, and Harrison Smith are essential cogs; the team's cornerback tandem has a chance to make defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's overall unit special next fall, and the offense certainly relies on players such as Wood, Floyd, and top lineman Zack Martin. But none of the above has the individual impact of Te'o, who's potentially dominant 2011 season will again allow everyone around him the chance to be a better player.