Ten on Top

Our Top 10 Irish performers and those that just missed the cut in September.

With one-third of the regular season gone, its time for a Top 10 overall list of Irish for September 2011.

But first, a look at the team's best each week:

10 best Irish – South Florida: Michael Floyd, Cierre Wood, Tommy Rees, Robert Blanton, Ethan Johnson, Manti Te'o, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Zack Martin, Louis Nix, Tyler Eifert. Just missed the cut: Chris Watt

10 best Irish – Michigan: Michael Floyd, Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, Tyler Eifert, Tommy Rees, T.J. Jones, Robert Blanton, Kapron Lewis Moore, Jonas Gray, and Dan Fox. Just missed: Ethan Johnson, Zack Martin, Taylor Dever, Manti Te'o, Trevor Robinson.

10 best Irish – Michigan State: Robert Blanton, Aaron Lynch, Harrison Smith, Cierre Wood, Ethan Johnson, Michael Floyd, George Atkinson, Gary Gray, Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert. Just missed: Jonas Gray, Louis Nix, T.J. Jones, Darius Fleming

10 Best Irish – Pittsburgh: Tyler Eifert, Cierre Wood, Manti Te'o, Darius Fleming, Jonas Gray, Harrison Smith, Robert Blanton, Zack Martin, Carlo Calabrese?
Just Missed: Ethan Johnson, Prince Shembo, Theo Riddick

Which leads us to the much-anticipated Top 10 for September:

  1. Michael Floyd: The offense simply wouldn't function at a major college level without him. Floyd's major error on the season – a holding call in Week One that negated (and afforded) a Cierre Wood touchdown has been paid back in spades with key perimeter blocks leading to scores vs. both Michigan State (2) and Pittsburgh. He's the team's top playmaker (11 receptions in excess of 15 yards); one of two key third-down security blankets for QB Tommy Rees, and its only viable deep threat at present.

  2. Cierre Wood: Has grown from showing flashes of greatness into a solid, every down, every game runner – a welcomed outcome for a lead ‘back at a program that has lacked any semblance of such since the end of 2006. When Wood becomes a passing game option, he'll be a complete ‘back – and he has up to 35 more college games to do so.

  3. Robert Blanton: Had the best individual defensive game of the season in Week Three and has likely been among the team's top three defenders in the remaining trio of contests. The senior simply hasn't been beaten for a gain of consequence in the season's opening month.

  4. Tyler Eifert: It's too early to anoint him the team's best tight end of an impressive last decade…but which of the quartet of previous contenders would you rather have? The junior is tied with Floyd in third-down conversions (6) and was the key player on Notre Dame's season-saving touchdown drive last Saturday in Heinz Field.

  5. Manti Te'o: Unspectacular to date? Sure, but Te'o cleans up opposing runners that venture to the second level and he's begun to make plays in the opponents' backfield as well. Struggles on occasion vs. tight ends but those offenses are also more noticeable because fans have long expected perfection from the team's top talent defensively. Cementing his spot in the Top 5 – the Irish defense would likely be part of a massive middle tier of college football teams, without him.

  6. Zack Martin: Aside from a pair of personal foul penalties – both for illegal hands to the face – there's not much Martin has done wrong to date (the sack/strip of Rees vs. MSU, as it turns out, was not his responsibility). But it's what Martin does right, even to the eye of a non-coach that sets him apart: xxx

  7. Harrison Smith: He's yet to play at the fringe All-America level expected, but Smith is the quarterback of the secondary, rarely leaves the field, is tied for the team lead in passes defended (5), ranks second to Te'o in tackles (25) and patrols the back end of a defense that, aside from notable breakdowns in Game Two, has allowed nothing over the top.

  8. Ethan Johnson: I admit going to the four-game scorecard above for this slotting. With the exception of a half in Pittsburgh, few teams have enjoyed even a modicum of success testing Johnson's edge of scrimmage. His four QB hurries rank second on the squad and, perhaps troubling, Johnson has the team's only fumble recovery through four contests.

  9. Kapron Lewis-Moore: Was arguably the best defender through two contests but has leveled off since. Lewis-Moore, as he has in each of seasons at the school, leads the defensive line with 20 tackles, including two for loss, and is one of two Irish defenders to force a fumble this season. Lewis-Moore's backfield penetration has allowed fellow front seven members ample shots at runners with stopped momentum.

  10. Louis Nix: The Irish defense allows just 2.88 yards per carry, and aside from a fumble recovery touchdown, did not yield a rushing score over the opening month. With 11 tackles, Nix won't appear on many top 10s, especially ahead of Darius Fleming (below), but the nose guard plays a much bigger role in the success of the defense than does the boundary linebacker.

On the Rise: Three that just missed the cut, including a senior on the rise at outside linebacker…

Darius Fleming – 18 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and a team-high 2.5 sacks, but Fleming has had two strong, and two sub-par contests while Nix has been the rock in the middle of the Irish rush defense.

Aaron Lynch – You can't sit out a game and make little impact in another (USF) and qualify through four contests, but Lynch's 6-QB hurry tour de force vs. Michigan State deserves mention. He also recorded a key late-game sack at Pittsburgh. Both Fleming and Lynch should/could move into the Top 10 by season's end.

Chris Watt – Likely ranks lower on the coaches' system, but his toughness at the point is a welcomed change among Irish guards over the last, well, five seasons. Until someone explains to me definitively why he's not the second best OL through, I'm sticking with my guns.

Also considered: Braxston Cave, Tommy Rees, T.J. Jones.

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