Ten on TopOur bi-weekly look at Notre Dame's Top 10 performers through nearly two-and-a-half months of football. Pro potential, results prior to this season and injuries are not considered in the final ranking. Difficulty of the player's required tasks, however, is.
This is largely about results between the lines through 10 games.
- Wide Receiver Michael Floyd – Neither Wake Forest nor Maryland could be considered in the argument for his best games of his season – its relevant to point out Floyd accrued 14 catches, two touchdowns, and 134 yards in those "pedestrian" outings. Never take the best playmaker, perimeter blocker, and offense's heartbeat, for granted: Floyd is the team MVP through 10 games, and is as advertised.
- Running Back Jonas Gray – The senior's meteoric rise ranks as the story of the 2011 Irish season. Gray's put together the best seven game run (81 carries, 582 yards, 11 touchdowns) since Julius Jones took over the otherwise lost 2003 season (Jones compiled 1,062 yards on 166 carries with nine touchdowns over seven games beginning with a program-record 262-yard tour de force at Pittsburgh in Week Five). Jones is one of the hottest runners among the nation's Top 25 teams at present. It's relevant (at least to me) that Gray was one of two skill position players to perform when called upon vs. USC in the disheartening Game Seven defeat.
- Left Tackle Zack Martin – Martin didn't drop one spot as much as Gray simply claimed the No. 2 slotting. A shoe-in for his second straight Guardian of the Year award at the program's season-end banquet, its Martin's ability to secure the edge, control linebackers (and sometimes defensive backs) at the second level, protect the immobile Tommy Rees' blindside, and lead through the hole that keys Notre Dame's short-yardage, spread attack.
- Cornerback Robert Blanton – Produced his first sub par game of the season Saturday, due mainly to a pair of mental errors that resulted in a needless Terrapins touchdown. Blanton has excelled otherwise, he stands second in tackles, third in both tackles for loss and passes defended (no small feat) and tied for first with Gary Gray at two picks apiece. It's difficult to imagine a cornerback giving up fewer pass completions of consequence as has Blanton through 10 games this fall. The Irish will miss his run support on the edges greatly next season.
- Linebacker Manti Te'o – His full season body of work is much stronger than that of the last two contests, but Te'o has intermittently struggled (relatively speaking) since the first defensive series vs. USC in mid-October. Then again, he was the game MVP vs. Navy – a contest that followed the USC loss and preceded his pair of less-than-healthy efforts vs. Wake Forest and Maryland. Te'o's season will likely be defined by his efforts in two weeks vs. Stanford: will he be merely an All-America candidate, or can he, despite a lingering ankle injury, will the Irish defense to greatness vs. a powerful Cardinal offense? He might not be at his best again until the Bowl game in late December.
- Running Back Cierre Wood – It feels too low, but who would you drop? Wood leads the Irish in rushing though he hasn't done so on a single Saturday since the Purdue victory on October 1. His 907 yards are the most for an Irish runner since 2006 and the junior should join Darius Walker (2005-06), Julius Jones (2003), and Ryan Grant (2002) as the only runners to eclipse the century mark in a season since Autry Denson's graduation following the 1998 campaign – Gray could join the group as well at 730 yards with three contests remaining. I've likely undervalued Wood here and over the last four weeks.
- Tight End Tyler Eifert – It feels too low, but who would you drop, Part II? Eifert is a potential first-team All-America tight end and Mackey Award winner in his first full season as a starter. He's already the first player at the position to score five touchdowns (as forecasted here) since Ken MacAfee in 1977 and should eclipse MacAfee's single-season receptions record (he needs four catches to do so) this week. The latter's 797-yard season record is likewise not out of reach, though Eifert, currently at 589, would have the benefit of two extra games. The Fort Wayne, Bishop Dwenger-product has converted more third-down passes into first downs than has Michael Floyd this fall.
- Safety Harrison Smith – Likely the only elite athlete at his position among the defensive back seven, Smith allows the soft Irish zone coverage scheme to work – a human eraser of big plays on the back end. The 5th-year leader and team captain paces the team with nine passes defended while ranking second in total tackles (73). Responsible for pass and run checks among the back seven, Smith – as noted by safeties coach Chuck Martin, has played only one game (Air Force, with multiple) in which he suffered a mental error in a defensive check this season (and it appeared, listening to Martin's explanation, perhaps during the entire Brian Kelly era).
- Quarterback Tommy Rees – Notre Dame is 4-6 during the Kelly era when Rees doesn't start; 11-2 when he does. He's thrown for the 5th-highest number of touchdowns this season in program history and has three games to play. His 2,392 yards already ranks 8th and with good health, he's guaranteed a spot in the Top 5. Rees has thrown 19 touchdown passes in 9.5 games (he's within reach of #4, 25 TD passes, on the single season list) and had avoided a sack for five straight games prior to suffering three last week vs. Maryland (at least one of which was likely his fault). The sophomore's 10 interceptions and three lost fumbles along with a dearth of successful downfield throws have been black marks on an otherwise strong second season.
- Safety Jamoris Slaughter – Has played as well as any member of the back seven over the last five games (dating back to the Air Force victory of which he was the defensive MVP). Slaughter's ability to cover the slot in the team's nickel package, support the run, and patrol the middle zones in base defensive sets serves as the versatile key to the team's 2nd and 3rd down defenses. Though not as much of a playmaker as Blanton was in the role last year, Slaughter is nearly as valuable to defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's unit.
On the cusp (season): Junior left guard Chris Watt (I have him tied with Slaughter at #10, but Slaughter's role is more difficult in the grand scheme), senior Cat linebacker Darius Fleming, senior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore (season over due to ankle surgery), senior center Braxston Cave (out for the season, foot surgery), and freshman defensive lineman/season saver Stephon Tuitt, kick returner George Atkinson…
Recently on the rise: Senior right guard Trevor Robinson, 5th-year senior cornerback Gary Gray…Honorable mention of late: Freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch, special teams demon Austin Collinsworth, center Mike Golic, slot receiver Robby Toma, kicker David Ruffer…