Introduction and those that just missed the cut…
#3 – Defensive Back Jamoris SlaughterHe's the starting free safety, nickel defender, and dog outside ‘backer (vs. at least half the team's on the schedule). He's the backup strong safety, boundary cornerback, and field cornerback. He'd be the team's best gunner in punt coverage if allowed and if the Irish face a team with a top-notch return man (USC), you can bet Slaughter will make cameo appearances on both coverage units.
At 5'11" 200 pounds, he's the team's biggest hitter (Manti Te'o included), its fastest functional defensive back (speed doesn't count when you don't know where to go without hesitation), a likely captain, a certain team leader, veteran voice, and one of the few defensive players to show well every week last fall after his coming out party in a Week Six blowout of Air Force.
And if Jamoris Slaughter misses any semblance of significant time (two games or vs. a team with an offensive pulse), the Irish defense will suffer and be forced to change its approach. There's no player close to his talents at any of the positions listed above and certainly no one capable of filling even two of those myriad roles.
He's the instrumental member of the team's best defensive packages (its Nickel and Dime sets), covering opposing slot receivers or a top-tier tight end from his nickel/slot coverage position. He's the best defensive back on the team at the line of scrimmage and in man-to-man coverage, and far and away the best open-field tackler not named Manti Te'o on the defense (Of Note: the Irish will miss Harrison Smith in this regard).
Said cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks of the Nickel position in the Irish defense: "To me nickel is a critical spot. We have a perfect nickel in Ja-Mo. People think 'Nickel. Just go play nickel.' But that's one of the critical spots on any defense. It takes a lot of coaching and teaching. And the more savvy and experience that you have, the better you'll be at that position."
The good news is, Slaughter has plenty of both and the athleticism to be a potential All-America. Selected or not, I guarantee he plays to that level if in good health over 12 games.
The bad news? His violent, aggressive playing style suggests good health is unlikely over a three-month span as the lynchpin of nearly every defensive package.
A drop-off between Slaughter and any of his backups would be stark, but his listing is due more to importance in nearly every thing the defense does than the gulf that exists between him and a host of young, untested players who'll begin to make their mark as the season progresses, but mostly in 2013.
You could argue Slaughter is the most important Irish player for 2012. I've settled on #3 with a pair of players toiling in the trenches earning a slight nod.
Next: No. 2, and our final offensive player in the countdown, one that missed four games last fall.