Top 10 Today…and on Thanksgiving WeekendConsidering the exercise is 100 percent opinion based, it could be argued I take the official Irisheyes.com Top 10 rankings a bit too seriously. Then again, that opinion is based on extensive film reviews, interviews, live games, the undefinable eye test, statistical analysis … and did I mention I take it too seriously?
Our 2011 end-season Top 10 for Brian Kelly's Fighting Irish was as follows (and in order): Michael Floyd, Tyler Eifert, Jonas Gray, Manti Te'o, Robert Blanton, Harrison Smith, Zack Martin, Jamoris Slaughter, Cierre Wood, and a tie between Aaron Lynch and Chris Watt.
Eifert, Martin, Slaughter, Wood, and Watt return, and its no surprise each occupies a spot on my pre-season Top 10 for 2012, a list that includes (based solely on past performance): Eifert, Te'o, Martin, Slaughter, Wood, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Braxston Cave, Chris Watt, Louis Nix, and Stephon Tuitt.
Those are my top 10 entering Week One. More important, however, is projecting out: to a new season, a new set of circumstances, opponents, and program improvement.
Thus, the following projections, while based on past performance, are also heavily weighted by my views on the likely improvement for each candidate by season's end.
Projected Top 10 for 2012:
1 -- TE Tyler Eifert -- The best player at his position in the nation; one of the best three in program history at the position and the other two are in the Hall of Fame(s).
2 -- MLB Manti Te'o -- If Notre Dame had 22 players at his level, the Irish would be 26-0 in the Kelly era. Can he improve from very good to the nation's best as a senior?
3 -- LT Zack Martin -- A rarity in South Bend: a true underrated senior. Martin is fantastic in space. The only downside: his two worst games last year were the team's final pair as well.
4 -- S Jamoris Slaughter -- As versatile as graduated cornerback/nickel Robert Blanton, but a bigger hitter. Most avoid injury without losing trademark aggression.
5 -- DE Stephon Tuitt -- Could have scratched the Top 10 last year if not for a one-game suspension and late-season illness
6 -- LG Chris Watt -- He'll be the fan favorite at season's end for his aggressive style. A throwback mauler at guard. Teammate Dan Fox called him, "A bowling ball with knees."
7 -- RB Cierre Wood - Pre-suspension, but I'll leave him on the list until a game is played. Wood should enter Week Three a runner possessed…and in a backup role.
8 -- C Braxston Cave -- The offensive line gave up five sacks with him in nine games last fall; it allowed 11 in the three played without him. Enters his third season as a starter in the middle.
9 -- NG Louis Nix -- The gregarious immovable object will be a chief reason Notre Dame gets off to a fast start for the first time since 2002. Nix is the key to the rush defense, and thus the team's hopes for more than eight wins, as Notre Dame cannot suffer any drop-off up front.
10 -- DE Kapron Lewis-Moore -- The forgotten man. Such is life for a 5th-year senior and four-year starter that ranks second in tackles-for-loss and in tackles within three yards of the line of scrimmage over the last three seasons. Must rebound from October knee surgery.
The Next 5: Five that'll make a move toward the top, either with consistent weekly efforts, or dramatic improvement by season's end. As always, 2012 production trumps 2013 potential:
11 -- QB Everett Golson -- Based entirely on projection, of course. My main worry for Golson is staying healthy against a vicious set of defenses that await the sub-6'0" 185-pounder from Week Three through early November.
13 -- RB/Slot/WR Theo Riddick -- Time to show on the field in the fall what his head coach has apparently seen every spring practice and August training camp.
14 -- RB George Atkinson -- Look for six scores, two big games, a handful of solid outings, a costly fumble or three, a couple of no-shows as a sophomore "backup" …and plenty of excitement.
12 -- NG Kona Schwenke -- Beat out Nix in the spring, but will be considered nose guard 1B for most of the season.
15 -- X Receiver T.J. Jones -- The forgotten man, Part II: I'm of the opinion Jones is far better than he showed last fall, and a consistent, clutch junior season is on tap.
Note: Look for two thoughts on 20 more Irish regulars on Thursday. The Irisheyes.com Top 10 will be updated weekly in the "Rank and File" column.