#1 -- Linebacker Manti Te'o: Leads the team in tackles, big plays, and inspiration. One of the nation's most productive linebackers entering the season, no defender in the nation has had a bigger impact on his team this season, between the lines or off the field, than the indomitable Te'o. He's likewise the most improved player vs. the pass on the Irish defense.
Te'o has rung up 38 tackles including two for lost yardage, 3 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries, 3 QB hurries (including a half-back pass attempt) and 5 passes defended. Two of his hurries resulted in Irish interceptions.
#2 -- Defensive End Stephon Tuitt: The team's best NFL prospect, Tuitt has arrived a year ahead of schedule, dominating each week by caving in opposing pockets and finishing the drill with timely sacks and QB pressures. Tuitt was unblock able in a Game Two win over Purdue in South Bend and was the Irisheyes.com defensive player of the game vs. both Navy and the Boilermakers. (14 tackles including 6 sacks, 4 QB hurries, 1 forced fumble, and a 77-yard fumble recovery touchdown on the season.)
#3 -- Nose Guard Louis Nix: The key to the team's stout rush defense, Nix has consistently penetrated scrimmage vs. solo blocking efforts and held his ground vs. double teams in the middle of the team's alternating 3-4 and 4-3 fronts. His quickness and athleticism at 325-plus pounds has allowed for 15 tackles (second among defensive linemen) including three for lost yardage with 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble (UM) and two crucial passes defended, both against Purdue. Up-and-down in his first two outings, Nix has controlled the point since for one of four of 124 FBS defenses yet to allow a rushing touchdown. Nix shared our site's defensive MVP award with Tuitt for his efforts vs. the Boilers.
#4 -- Defensive End Prince Shembo: Shembo also serves as the team's boundary (Cat) linebacker in 3-4 fronts, but he's most often aligned in a three-point stance at right defensive end or just off the line in a two-point stance, taking on opposing tackles at scrimmage. One of Irisheyes.com's five best defenders in each of the team's first four games, Shembo has two sacks while tying Tuitt for a team-high four QB hurries. His 17 stops leads all down linemen and includes three for lost yardage. Shembo joined Te'o as the defense's player of the game in a Game Three bundling of Michigan State.
#5 -- Safety Zeke Motta: Arguably one spot too low considering his overall contributions, Motta is the quarterback and calming influence of the youngest Irish secondary since the 1990 season when a pair of true freshman worked their way into starting roles late in the season. A two-season part-time starter prior to this season, Motta struggled on the season's opening defensive drive but has shined since, especially in run support and against the short-passing game's featured by early foes, ranking second on the squad with 25 tackles including one for lost yardage and a pass breakup.
# -- Running Back Theo Riddick: Shared the offensive MVP award with his fellow running backs (George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel) in the opener, earned a game ball for his work vs. Purdue, and won the offensive MVP award outright in Saturday's victory vs. Michigan thanks to his workmanlike fourth quarter efforts. Riddick leads the team with 242 rushing yards and two touchdowns, his 3.8-yard-per-carry average a touch misleading as he's served as the team's short-yardage 'back and closer in two of three close contests, contributing heavily in a third (MSU). Riddick also leads the team in receptions (14) and pass targets (22).
#7 -- Tight End Tyler Eifert: One of the team's top three blockers to date (including offensive linemen), Eifert has been limited to nine receptions for 158 yards and one touchdown, including a lone catch for 38 yards over the last two contests. Eifert has drawn four pass interference penalties from opposing defenses and provided the game's clutch receptions vs. Purdue (3rd and 16 for 22 yards plus a 25-yard grab two snaps later to set up an Irish touchdown) and Michigan, the aforementioned 38-yard catch-and-run on 3rd and 4 to help salt away the contest vs. the Wolverines. Eifert ranks second on the squad in pass targets with 19 officially plus four drawn interference penalties.
#8 -- Cornerback Bennett Jackson Has compiled 22 tackles (third on the squad), three interceptions, four passes defended, and a fumble recovery and more important, not been beaten deep since the first drive of the second half against Navy. Jackson has been flagged for three pass interference/holding penalties but improved his overall coverage each week as a first time starter on the boundary.
#9 -- Defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore: Ten tackles including one for lost yardage with three QB hurries and a sack (negated by a teammate's penalty) in three games. Lewis-Moore played exceptional football vs. both Navy and Michigan, while applying consistent pocket pressure (and two hurries) despite a lower leg injury at Michigan State. Of his six tackles vs. the Wolverines, four occurred within three yards of scrimmage. The 5th-year senior missed all but one series of the Purdue contest with a calf injury.
#10 -- Quarterback Everett Golson: Benched twice, but also the Irisheyes.com offensive MVP in two contests (including the first in which he was benched), the redshirt-freshman remains a work in progress, and hasn't dazzled with his feet as often as anticipated, but Notre Dame would, in my estimation, be 2-2 if Golson wasn't the starter to date.
Golson has completed 56 percent of his throws for 641 yards with three touchdown passes vs. three interceptions, while tying for the team-lead with two rushing scores. Golson also committed a crucial fumble late vs. Purdue, and better ball security (four turnovers in four games) will be key to his continued development. Two of his interceptions have occurred inside the red zone, the other two turnovers were conversely deep in Irish territory -- each of the four could have proved costly.
Targets for the list by the end of October: Running back Cierre Wood, left tackle Zack Martin, senior left guard Chris Watt, safety Matthias Farley, 5th-year senior center Braxston Cave, redshirt-freshman wide receiver DaVaris Daniels.