Top Five Friday

An off-the-cuff projection of Notre Dame's top five players for 2011 – from each eligibility class:

Seniors/5th-years

Projecting the top players for 2011 who will exhaust their eligibility at season's end:

  1. Michael Floyd (WR): It's not close…
  2. Gary Gray (CB): One of the best run-support corners in the country and an excellent zone cover man…
  3. Darius Fleming (CAT): Finally enters a season playing the same position from the previous year – the most likely Irish player to make the leap from "simply starter" to star status…
  4. Ethan Johnson (DE): He and Kapron Lewis-Moore are the nation's most undervalued pair at DE…
  5. Harrison Smith (S): Smith emerged from outhouse to penthouse over the final seven contests and was the star of two contests (Pittsburgh, Miami) while playing a key role in wins vs. Utah (recording the team's best, most athletic interception of the season) and USC (the game-clinching end zone pick) as well.

Two toughest Omission(s): Robert Blanton (CB) and David Ruffer (K) – both ranked among Irish Eyes top 10 overall players from 2010 with Blanton at #7 and Ruffer at #6. (Assuming Floyd, each of our Top 10 from 2010 returns in 2011.)

Ruffer was a revelation hitting 18 consecutive field goals and booting 11 touchbacks; Blanton is the team's most versatile defender – the key to the team's nickel defense while starting at field cornerback and likely serving as the lead backup at Gray's boundary spot. He'll likely garner OLB starts/playing time when the Irish face Air Force and Navy next fall.

Additionally, it's notable that my lead candidate for the team's Most Improved Player Award (Trevor Robinson) doesn't appear among the seven seniors listed. The squad's upperclassmen are a true program strength entering 2011.

Redshirt-seniors/true juniors

A forecast of the top players for 2011 with two seasons of eligibility remaining:

  1. Manti Te'o (MLB): Again, it's not close…
  2. Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE): See Ethan Johnson…
  3. Theo Riddick (WR): The Darius Fleming of the offense: it's breakout time for Brian Kelly's next spread star. He and Te'o are the group's only juniors…
  4. Braxston Cave (C): I thought he was much better than did most critics in 2010 considering the circumstances (Cave was as new to the spread as QB Dayne Crist or any other key offensive cog)…
  5. Dayne Crist (QB): I now feel he'll win the job by the conclusion of Week Two of August camp. But September will be the litmus…

Two toughest Omission(s): Jamoris Slaughter (S), Sean Cwynar (NG). Both must avoid re-injury to easily aggravated body parts (Slaughter's ankle and Cwynar's back/foot).

Redshirt-juniors/true sophomores

A prediction for the top players in 2011 with three seasons of eligibility remaining:

  1. Cierre Wood (RB): Finished just outside the Top 10 of our 2010 player rankings – he'll shoot up the charts with a healthy 2011…
  2. Tyler Eifert (TE): Could dominate a game or two with defenses focused on Michael Floyd. Tight End U won't miss a beat at the position after losing NFL prototype Kyle Rudolph to early entry …
  3. Zack Martin (LT): The best of the group last season; the team's top offensive lineman in 2010 finished No. 5 in our overall player rankings last winter…
  4. Carlo Calabrese (WLB): Was the team's best newcomer through the season's first five weeks last year and provides a battering ram compliment to Te'o inside…
  5. Tommy Rees (QB): I'll think he'll start – and win – at least two games next fall…

Two toughest Omission(s): T.J. Jones (WR/Slot) and Prince Shembo (LB). Shembo's playing a new, extremely difficult and mentally taxing position or he'd have been a list shoe-in; Jones is a heck of a No. 7 player for the group and could have easily earned the fifth slot, but I think he's the No. 5 option behind Floyd, Riddick, Eifert, and Wood, in the passing game.

Redshirt-sophomores/true freshmen

A look at the top players for 2011 who've yet to see the field for the Irish:

  1. Aaron Lynch (DE): I don't think its close…
  2. Louis Nix (NG): Should provide a huge boost to the team's rush defense, whether it's for 20 snaps or 40 – if it's the latter, the Irish defense will rank among the nation's Top 10…
  3. Christian Lombard (RT): The No. 3 OT but there's little chance he won't be called upon over a 13-game slate (last year's No. 3 started twice and finished No. 6 on the line in total snaps) – A 2012 star-in-waiting?
  4. Alex Welch (TE): Coaches are effusive in their praise of Welch due to his tremendous hands, knack for finding openings, and developing blocking skill…
  5. George Atkinson (RB/KR): Can he press senior Jonas Gray for the No. 2 RB role by season's end? Both the Irish offense and Gray would be better for it…

Others Considered: Stephon Tuitt (DE), Everett Golson (QB), Matthias Farley (ST), and Kendall Moore (ILB).

It's a wrap:

  1. Rock-solid projections sure to come to fruition: Manti Te'o and Theo Riddick among the top three juniors...
  2. Projection most likely to be proven wrong: Robert Blanton outside the top 5, but I'll stick with my chosen quintet until at least late August as Blanton adjusts to the field cornerback duties.
  3. Players absent from the list that could rocket up the charts – 5th-year senior Taylor Dever and redshirt-freshman Andrew Hendrix, with a dark horse nod to sophomore linebacker Danny Spond.

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