Rank and File

Ten down, three to go. How did Notre Dame get to 10-0? Who are the surprise players to date? Who's in the running for the Irisheyes.com top 10 at season's end? Which position group is in the running for second best? If it can be ranked, we've given it a shot as the Irish embark on the final stretch of a potential championship season.

We take a break from our regularly scheduled Monday program to bring back a favorite from season's past. Our first edition of Rank and File, 2012:

Top 10 at Season's End -- the Candidates

Players are not listed in order, though admittedly the top of the list would be close in that regard:

LB Manti Te'o: He's not a "candidate" he'll finish at the top of the list, potentially including the entire nation...

NG Louis Nix: No player has meant more to the team outside of Te'o. Nix either occupies multiple blockers or destroys one...

DE Stephon Tuitt: With 11 sacks through nine games, the true sophomore has a chance to record the most sacks at the program in a single season since the statistic became official in 1982…

DE Prince Shembo: Technically a Cat linebacker, Shembo has excelled vs. the run and rushing the passer...

TE Tyler Eifert: The best player on an offense that relies on his multi-faceted skill set…

LT Zack Martin: The team's best offensive lineman over the last three years and its never been close…

DL Kapron Lewis-Moore: Having by far his best season and plays (at least) three positions for Bob Diaco's dominant front. To be blunt, Lewis-Moore 2012 is better than Aaron Lynch 2012 likely would have been.

S Zeke Motta: The secondary would be lost without its leader and most physical football player...

RB Theo Riddick: Between the tackles, out of the backfield, down the seam, protecting the quarterback -- Riddick is a jack-of-all-trades as a senior starter…

WR T.J. Jones: The team's chief chain mover on the perimeter is tied with Eifert for receptions and receiving touchdowns and has been targeted more than any member of the offense...

CB Bennett Jackson: Perhaps the most improved player on the defense from Week One through Week Ten...

LG Chris Watt: Very good, very physical, and thankfully for Irish fans, needs work in pass protection at times, ensuring his presence for a 5th season next fall...

QB Everett Golson: For Notre Dame to finish 13-0, Golson will have to finish among the Irisheyes.com Top 10 at season's end...

Still a Chance to Crack the Honorable Mention List: LB Danny Spond, CB Keivarae Russell, RB Cierre Wood

Top Position Groups

No. 1 started that way and will finish as such, whether the Irish finish 13-0, 12-1, or 11-2. Room for movement exists elsewhere:

1.) Defensive Line: The Irish are among the nation's best vs. the rush and the pass because the team's front four (including Prince Shembo) and its three backups have given the program its best defensive line since 1993. Each of the four starters will likely finish among the team's top 10 players at season's end. They are the best front four in college football -- four years ago, the Notre Dame defensive front was among the worst of any relevant college football team.

2.) Linebackers: The nation's best occupies the middle while Danny Spond has been a revelation since joining the team for Week Three in East Lansing following a serious migraine condition. Dan Fox is far better than last fall and Carlo Calabrese has made two of the season's biggest stops vs. the run (its not his fault they leave him in the game on 3rd and 4th and long at times). Ishaq Williams is the X-factor going forward, playing consistent football over the last two weeks for the first time in his young career.

3.) Secondary: With due respect to the team's solid offensive line, Notre Dame's secondary has starred since returning from Dublin. It is the most surprisingly solid position group in college football 2012 and the best tackling secondary in South Bend since 2002.

Next in Line: Offensive line, tight ends/wide receivers, running backs, quarterbacks, punt coverage, field goal unit.

In need of improvement toward the title: Kickoff Coverage, Kickoff Return

Lost Cause: Punt Return -- maybe next year...

Most Improved Unit from 2011: Offensive Line, Secondary, Quarterback

Five Pleasant Personnel Surprises

You might have seen it coming, but I didn't. And trust me, I put a lot of thought into such things...

1.) Safety Zeke Motta: From JAG ("just a guy") to standout. Motta plays angry without making stupid mistakes. I'm unable to find words to explain how much better he is today than opening day 2011 as a second-year starter.

2.) Dog LB Danny Spond: From supposed camp battle with redshirt-freshman Ben Councell and a likely two-down role at his position -- to never coming off the football field. Spond is suddenly a player fans wish had been withheld from action previously but 2013 will be his last in an Irish uniform.

3.) CB KeiVarae Russell: The defense is designed to alleviate pressure on the team's cornerbacks, but Russell is closer to being among the team's top 15 players than he is a weak link among its starting 22. An amazing journey for the former running back who'd never played cornerback (he occasionally played safety in high school) until this August.

4.) RB/Slot Theo Riddick: I had no idea his north-south style and desire existed, nor that it would be the undervalued key to close wins vs. Michigan, Brigham Young, and Pittsburgh not to mention solid efforts vs. Oklahoma, and Boston College.

5.) QB Tommy Rees: If you told me Rees' extended services would needed to beat Purdue, Michigan, Stanford, and Brigham Young I'd have guessed my flight to late-December flight to Shreveport would be booked by now…

Five Relative Disappointments

One familiar refrain and a couple of surprises dot the list...

1.) One Reception of Note: That's all that's been produced to date by the freshman trio of Davonte' Neal, Chris Brown, and Justin Ferguson. Brown's 50-yarder vs. Oklahoma was huge, but the offense could have used a boost from Neal's quick feet and toughness and with eight downfield shots in Brown's direction, one catch isn't enough.

2.) Wood's Usage: Its the message board topic of the year at Irisheyes.com: Why doesn't senior running back Cierre Wood receive more carries? (His carries don't have to come at the expense of Riddick, either.) Three games with single digit rushing attempts including two of the last three is puzzling for a player that can beat most defenses with consistent gains in excess of five yards per pop…

3.) No Special Returns: Notre Dame hasn't made just one drive-changing play (a nine-yard shake-and-back by Cam McDaniel that saved terrible field position in Norman) and hasn't come close to producing a game-changing effort, on either kickoff or punt returns through 10 contests. The Irish have eight punt return yards in the last seven games and a long kick return of just 35 (Saturday at BC).

4.) GA3 -- Hit and Miss: Potential game-breaking running back George Atkinson was at his best in a pair of 40-point margins this season. That's akin to hitting for the cycle in a 20-1 baseball game. The sophomore has had limited opportunity because he runs tentatively at times and ball security issues remain. This is on both the player and staff -- improvement in this regard for a forthcoming BCS bowl game could be the X-Factor the Irish offense needs against a top tier foe.

5.) Attention to Detail: Five home games, five opening drives marred by penalty (or turnover ), and no opening drive touchdowns in any of the team's five games, all decided near the final gun. Notre Dame is 5-0 at home for the first time since 1998. Had it been more impressive early vs. also-rans Purdue, Brigham Young, and Pittsburgh, heroics might not have been needed late, and pollsters that only watch final scores might have the Irish at No. 1 or No. 2 rather than on the outside looking in.

Note: Part II of our Rank and File review will be published later this afternoon….


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