There's no drama involved in this year's selection for Notre Dame's Most Improved Player award. In fact, no rational argument can be made against our winner, Jonas Gray (column to be published Saturday).
But a trio of Irish starters produced standout seasons that greatly aided Notre Dame in its eight victories this fall. In the case of one of the three, his nationally recognized, program record-setting performance will be etched as part of team lore.
Our 2011 finalists – and eventual runner-ups – include:
#3 Runner Up, Safety/Nickel/OLB Jamoris SlaughterIncluding Part I, Slaughter is one of just two defensive players to make our eight-man list.
Hobbled or unavailable for most of the 2010 season, Slaughter's 2011 campaign took off in a Week Six matchup vs. Air Force – the first game his versatility as a player was on display in the Irish defensive scheme.
Like classmate Robert Blanton in 2010, Slaughter shifted to an outside linebacker position vs. an option-heavy attack; he subsequently earned head coach Brian Kelly's defensive game ball for his efforts – notably containing dangerous QB Tim Jefferson on the triple-option, but also picking off a pass and forcing a fumble in during the decisive first half.
Slaughter resumed the role vs. Navy's triple-option attack and served as the team's nickel defender, aligned in the slot vs. both quick-footed perimeter teams such as USC and Wake Forest, and again vs. tight-end heavy Stanford.
Slaughter was the most improved and most versatile player on Bob Diaco's 2011 defense and likely the only vastly underrated player on the roster (a tall task at Notre Dame for a team earning a modicum of success).
Of note: Of the eight players reviewed/that will be reviewed, only Slaughter can boast the USC loss as one of his best efforts
Best Games: Air Force, USC, Navy, Stanford
Focus for 2012: Slaughter needs to rank as a dominant collegiate defensive back to mitigate the inevitable damage the team's young cornerback starters will incur next fall.
#2 Runner Up, Running Back Cierre WoodIs it cheating to include the team's best running back from 2010? Maybe, but Wood was far more polished and consistent this season and was a legitimate Top 15 national runner before Jonas Gray exploded in late September.
Solid in pass protection, better with ball security (USC notwithstanding) and far more disciplined hitting the line of scrimmage, Wood is the team's most important offensive weapon next fall (since there'll be more than one quarterback over 13 games, this isn't close).
With a touchdown in the bowl game, Wood will be the first Irish runner to produce 1,000 yards and 10 rushing scores in the same season since Julius Jones in 2003.
Best Games: South Florida, Michigan, Pittsburgh, Purdue, Navy
Focus for 2012: To play like a team captain for 13 games, regardless of his official status and to produce the best solo mission at the running back position since Autry Denson ruled the roost in 1998. Post-game ice baths await his presence...
#1 Runner-up, Tight End Tyler EifertEifert broke a 34-year program record for tight ends with 57 receptions (and counting) and tied the same player – legendary three-time All America Ken MacAfee – for the most touchdowns ever scored at the position (6).
He was the team's No. 1 chain-mover (earning more first down receptions on third down than did unquestioned team MVP Michael Floyd) and his 57 catch total ranks ninth all-time, for any position, in program history.
Hunter, Bavaro, Brown, Smith, Chryplewicz, Holloway, Fasano, Carlson, Rudolph – all first round or first day NFL draft picks …Eifert's 2011 season topped them all. No collegiate tight end will repeat the feats of Irish Hall of Famers Dave Casper and MacAfee, but to be the best tight end at Tight End U since?
Nothing else needs to be said…
Best Games: Nearly every week, but Pittsburgh, Michigan, Stanford, and Wake Forest stand out on a need basis.
Focus for 2012: To return to Notre Dame…