Each element plays a role in the final list of 10…actually, make that nine.
This is my fifth season ranking a list of indispensable Irish, and for the first time, I didn't have to make any tough cuts to get down to the standard number of 10.
In fact, I couldn't get up to 10, a reality which speaks to the depth Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has developed, and the fact that unlike the 2012 squad, the roster isn't top-heavy with high-profile, All-America candidates such as Kyle Rudolph, Michael Floyd, and Manti Te'o in 2010, Floyd and Te'o in 2011; Te'o and Tyler Eifert in 2012.
Before the countdown begins, below is a list of those considered for the list that didn't make the final cut:
Sophomore DE Sheldon Day: Tied with Prince Shembo (below) as the best player not to make the list. Day is the most underrated player nationally on the Irish front seven, but should Day go down, junior Tony Springmann and freshman five-star Eddie Vanderdoes could tag team the position...
Junior Center Nick Martin: Why list Martin? Any team debuting a new starting center would struggle if it was then forced to play the season (or extended period) with its second string new starting center. The loss of Martin would test the team's depth, notably his chief challenger Matt Hegarty, who'll be nine months removed from heart surgery at the start of camp.
Junior Middle Linebacker Jarrett Grace: Grace replaces the irreplaceable, Manti Te'o. Who'd replace Grace? It'd be either 5th-year senior Dan Fox or his classmate Carlo Calabrese. Notre Dame's defense needs these three to make two spots whole next fall.
Senior Right Tackle Christian Lombard: The last veteran cut from my list. Notre Dame has ample backup offensive tackle talent, unfortunately, its in the form of freshmen and Ronnie Stanley, a sophomore who spent most of the off-season and some of the spring recovering from elbow surgery. Lombard is also crucial in that he could fill in at right guard should presumed starter Conor Hanratty go down in 2013. I didn't include Lombard because I think Stanley could hold down the fort when healthy.
Senior Cornerback Bennett Jackson: He's the best of the team's cornerback trio, and maybe one of Notre Dame's 8-10 best players entering 2013, but with Lo Wood and Keivarae Russell on hand, the Irish could overcome the loss of Jackson. Notre Dame's defensive staff proved last fall it can win at the highest level with moving parts in the secondary.
Senior OLB Prince Shembo: A potential All-America in 2013 but also backed by two of the team's most intriguing prospects in junior Ishaq Williams and sophomore Romeo Okwara. Shembo is at present better than both, but missed time by the senior would open a door one of his two backups could close, quickly…
Freshman Linebacker/Athlete Jaylon Smith: He nearly made it, mainly because I believe Smith will start in the nickel and dime package and find rotation time at outside linebacker, while also starring on special teams, but there's actually another freshman that made my last set of cuts, and it wasn't the Fort Wayne five-star Smith...
Had There Been a No. 10...After struggling to include Smith, Lombard, and even Jackson, it was freshman defensive end Eddie Vanderdoes that ultimately was the final player cut.
Though it seems presumptuous (or simply wrong) to include a true freshman defensive line backup as an "indispensable player, allow me to explain/argue the point:
Notre Dame is no longer in the kiddie pool.
10-2 is no longer acceptable to all. 9-3 certainly isn't. Kelly, his staff, the program and its fans have but one goal -- winning a national championship in 2013.
The aforementioned Springmann is a crucial swing player, a dependable, versatile lineman of which more will be expected in his second season as a Saturday competitor (third in the program). He'll be solid at worst -- a touch more than solid at best, I'd guess.
Senior backup nose guard Kona Schwenke could have made the list as well. He'll need to be better than last year to afford Nix rest over a three-month slate.
But its Vanderdoes who has to pull his weight at worst -- or arrive ahead of schedule as an occasional player of impact in a reserve role. Vanderdoes won't "start," but he could play at the level of a starting BCS Championship football player by season's end.
A solid Notre Dame defense can carry the team to nine or 10 victories next fall. But only a dominant defense, one headed by six rotating figures up front from which there is little drop-off among them, can propel the Irish to 11, 12, or 13 wins, and the newcomer Vanderdoes is an X-factor to that end.
But that's a list for another day...
Forthcoming on Irisheyes.com: The next column in our fifth annual "Indispensable" series, and the Irish players ranked No. 7 through No. 9 -- each of which makes his living on the perimeter.