Note: Click here for Part II and players ranked #7 through #9.
#6 WR T.J. JonesHe moves the chains (second only to Eifert in receptions that resulted in a first down, 47 to 43 last fall). He regularly makes three to five yards in traffic after a catch. He's been clutch (sliding game-winner vs. Stanford in overtime). He's been consistent (at least three touchdowns in each of the last three seasons, something not even Eifert accomplished), and he's one of a small sampling of Irish player to show well in the team's face plant last January in Miami.
Most important, senior T.J. Jones -- the four-year starter -- has the complete confidence of his coaching staff.
"We got to the point last year when we were game-planning and sometimes you wanted to put T.J. everywhere," said offensive coordinator Chuck Martin. "Well you can't line him up at all five spots."
But they can line him up in the vast majority, from slot, to X (wide/field) to W (boundary solo), motioned to gain an advantage near the goal -- you name it, you'll see Jones operating from it.
While DaVaris Daniels (featured in the link above) is still scratching the surface, the veteran Jones is putting on a last coat of polish. When Notre Dame needs a first down in a key situation this season, whether it be on the road in The Big House in September or on The Farm in November, expect to see Jones on the receiving end.
"I feel that this being my last year, I think I'm doing everything right in preparation," Jones said following the Blue Gold Game. "I'm able to run with the weight I gained (since) my freshman year. I've gained about 35 pounds since I got here. I'm just now comfortable in my own skin and I think that's gonna allow me to take my game to another level."
Not to mention prodding the younger crew of pass catchers to join him at the apex as the season progresses.
"I think with a lot of the young guys, it's the same problem I had. You don't know how to work through practice. You may not like practice but as you get older you learn how to push through two hours, to lock in.
"I'm gonna help as much as I can to help our offense as a whole mature."
He's the only skill player on the roster in such a position to do so on a daily basis-- moving the chains all-the-while each Saturday.
#5 Offensive Guard Chris WattFor the third straight season, there's a good chance Chris Watt will again finish second best.
The 5th-year senior-to-be ranked as Irisheyes.com second-best lineman in 2012. Ditto Watt and our film reviews in 2011. Considering the company he keeps in potential All-America tackle Zack Martin, both on the left side of the line and in their off-campus apartment, being second best might have to be good enough again. Not that the bruiser from the suburbs of Chicago will settle for such a moniker.
"To be better in every facet. If my run blocking is sound, I need to work on my pass (sets). If I'm asked to pull, I need to do that better," Watt noted of his mission to improve heading into Year 5 in the program and Year 3 as the left guard starter. "Being technically sound, being able to help out with (interior) protections."
While Watt's talent, experience, and aggression are instrumental to the running game in 2013, its his lack of a veteran backup guard -- and the presence of two new starters at center and right guard that comprise the Irish interior -- that solidified his lofty spot in our Indispensable rankings.
Without Watt, the Irish interior lacks an accomplished mauler at the point of attack. Without Watt, Notre Dame's interior threesome would enter 2013 with zero meaningful snaps among them at their present positions (and only center Nick Martin, a guard and tackle last year, has played in competitive contests among all G/C prospects on the roster). And without Watt, Notre Dame's offensive coordinator might be challenged to sleep during the Autumn months.
"We're hoping to try something to the right. We're hoping to run a little bit to the right this year," offensive coordinator Chuck Martin joked of his reliance upon Zack Martin and Watt last fall. "You have Watt and Zack: if you want to lay your head on the pillow at night and think about that big play late in the game, we'd all be pretty foolish not to run behind Zack and Watt, but I think we'll be more balanced as far as right and left in the run game, no doubt."
And there's no doubt where the offense and running game will hang its hat once again.
#4 Defensive End Stephon TuittIn 1993, Florida State freshman linebacker Sam Cowart received a nickname from his teammates that stuck with him during his unexpected five seasons in Tallahassee: N-F-L.
Cowart stayed with the Seminoles for an extra year thanks to a senior season knee injury that precluded him from turning pro. Irish fans hope college football's modern version of their player worthy of the N-F-L moniker since he stepped on campus in 2011 simply decides to stay for four.
Junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt dominated for six weeks last season. He then played in pain -- a sports hernia to be precise -- for the remainder, along the way earning a spot among the nation's finalists for the Hendricks Award and the country's top defensive linemen.
As a true sophomore.
"I think it hurt him significantly and he's to be commended for fighting through it," said defensive line coach Mike Elston of his massive pupil. "That's a tough injury and he fought through that and was a very serviceable player, but he's the kind of guy that wants to change the game. Physically he was unable to change the game. But he fought through it and did a great job."
He changed games vs. Navy, Purdue, Michigan State, and Michigan prior to the injury. He'll likely do the same when he hits the field this fall.
Tuitt's slotting on this list has nothing to do with a lack of depth behind him. He's simply the best professional prospect on the squad. In good health, he might be its best college player for 2013 (he was at least top 5 last year pre-injury), and with another year of seasoning under Elston, Tuitt likely ranks second only to South Carolina's Jadaveon Clowney as the best and biggest difference-maker in the nation's trenches.
In my estimation, there are four players Notre Dame absolutely cannot lose in order to finish 12-0 next fall. Tuitt is one of them. And he might be the best player of the bunch.
But there are three more Indispensable Irish.
Next: The conclusion of the series and the team's three most indispensable players for 2013.