Rank and File: Mid-season

As Notre Dame heads into the season's second half, Irisheyes.com offers its 10 best players to date, as well as those that just missed the cut...

With one-third of the regular season gone, it's finally time for a Top 10 overall list of Irish for 2011. At the end of the list is a review of the best players each week.

(For our first two editions of Rank and File, click the links below.)

Rank and File: Opening weeks

Rank and File: Ten on Top through September

The Irisheyes.com Mid-Season Top 10

  1. Michael Floyd: Four games of statistical dominance plus a fifth in which he set the table – Floyd is the team's best player, the nation's most complete wide receiver, and the among its best players for 60 consistent minutes each Saturday. The straw that stirs the drink…

  2. Cierre Wood: Wood's backup Jonas Gray has been a revelation, but it's the junior from Concord, CA that's done the heavy lifting, toting the rock 20 or more times on four occasions and scoring at least one touchdown in all but the Pittsburgh contest – he made up for that by converting the game's crucial 3rd down on sheer effort up the gut. Wood has been firmly entrenched in this No. 2 spot since the season opener.

  3. Robert Blanton: Likely the only player to rank among the team's top 3 on his side of scrimmage in each of the six weeks. As for damage incurred vs. the senior this season: a few mid-distance conversions on third down out routes? I think we'll live. He's yet to be beaten for a gain of consequence, and though Manti Te'o (below) is the team's best defensive player, Blanton has been the best this season. Sits at #3 in total tackles; #2 in tackles-for-loss; #2 in passes defended, tied for #1 in interceptions and is one of two Irish players to recover a fumble this season.

  4. Manti Te'o: His last two games have been his best; his two previous the next best pair…and he was awfully good in the opener. Te'o could easily be argued to the No. 2 spot on this list – the coaching staff would probably agree – but I like to treat the Top 10 as if no games have been played prior to this season. Te'o's best football of 2011 is yet to come – that might not be true of those ahead of him.

  5. Zack Martin: The team's best in space (by far); among its best at the point of attack, and possibly its best offensive lineman since Jeff Faine starred as a senior center in 2002. 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. His ability to get in front of bubble screens and shoot out to the second level – securing multiple blocks on certain assignments, is staggering.

  6. Tyler Eifert: Is he the offense's X-factor or merely one of the team's best overall players? I side with the latter, adding that it wouldn't be a major upset if Eifert leads the team in touchdowns dating back from Week Four at Pittsburgh through season's end. He and Floyd are devastating in tandem, and an unmatched pair of possession targets nationally on third-down. Eifert hasn't been the down field threat he was at the end of last season, but that's likely a function of an offense that has done most of its damage inside 20 yards from the snap. While Notre Dame's No. 3 and No. 4 pass targets have been inconsistent, its No. 2 has been the most productive half-season tight end of the last three decades at the program.

  7. Tommy Rees: You could argue two spots too high or one too low, regardless, no one has a tougher job and no one has improved as much over the last two weeks as Brian Kelly's sophomore signal caller. Rees is one colossal defensive brain freeze from being 10-0 as a starter with three fourth quarter comeback wins intermixed. 5.5 games have yielded 14 touchdowns, 8 turnovers, and more than 1,500 yards of offense.

  8. Harrison Smith: Joins Te'o as the defense's most irreplaceable player, though he's not quite at the All-America level many expected of him through six games. Ranks second on the squad in tackles (one ahead of Blanton and far behind Te'o) and first in passes defended. It's also relevant the defensive backfield would be athletically challenged without him and considering he's in charge of defensive calls as well, a potential team weakness if not for his efforts.

  9. Jonas Gray: From an all-thumbs afterthought to a likely NFL Scouting Combine curiosity in a five-week span – Gray's meteoric ascent can be attributed to two things: maturity, in his daily approach, and as important, a new running style best described as "Angry." His 8.4 yards per carry is reminiscent of Reggie Brooks' stalwart senior season of 1992, albeit on far fewer carries. Gray and Rees are the two most improved players since the opening week(s).

  10. Darius Fleming – We're splitting hairs between Fleming and my No. 11 choice, Kapron Lewis-Moore: the latter has been more consistent, the former better over the last month and with the tougher weekly task. Fleming rarely leaves the field, ranks fourth in tackles, tied for third in tackles-for-loss, is third in sacks, fourth in pass breakups, and third in QB hurries, adding a blocked kick. After a rough effort (by my evaluation, not the coaches') in Ann Arbor, Fleming has been excellent on the edge.

Just Missed and on the rise...

Kapron Lewis-Moore – A shade behind Fleming in most statistical categories and has been the team's most consistent defensive lineman)
Louis Nix – His first experience vs. the option proved challenging, but Nix is a solid No. 12 at this point in the season, and ranks as the defensive newcomer of the year)
Ethan Johnson – Missed the last two games with an ankle injury but was stout vs. the run in the first four contests. The Irish will need him vs. both SC and Navy in the coming weeks…
Chris Watt – A mauler at left guard and easily the No. 2 OL to date in my A estimation…
Aaron Lynch – A game-changer up front; like Nix, struggled with his first look at the triple-option
Braxston Cave – At his best over the last two games

Three to Watch over the next two weeks: FS Jamoris Slaughter, DL Stephon Tuitt, Slot receiver Theo Riddick…

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, 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

10 Best Irish – Purdue: Cierre Wood, Jonas Gray, Zack Martin, Michael Floyd, Tommy Rees, Trevor Robinson, Manti Te'o, Robert Blanton, Louis Nix, Darius Fleming. Just Missed: Chris Watt, Harrison Smith, Aaron Lynch, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Braxston Cave, Tyler Eifert

10 Best Irish – Air Force: Tommy Rees, Jamoris Slaughter, Manti Te'o, Michael Floyd, Theo Riddick, Braxston Cave, Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Jonas Gray, and Darius Fleming. Just Missed: Tyler Eifert, Andrew Hendrix, Gary Gray, the Will Linebacker Duo (Carlo Calabrese/Dan Fox), Kapron Lewis-Moore, Robert Blanton.

On tap for Monday: Thoughts on every Irish player that has seen the field in 2011…and a few that haven't.

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