The '09 Fighting Irish are a deeper, more experienced and, it appears, more athletically gifted team than their brethren that took the field in recent years. Choosing the squad's five, ten, fifteen, or even twenty best players is a more difficult task than at any season in recent memory.
Choosing the team's ten most indispensable players for '09 was slightly less complicated.
Below is an early look at the 10 players the Irish can least afford to lose. They aren't necessarily the school's 10 best football players, just the essential cogs in what could be a well-oiled machine after two seasons of clunkers.
Just Missed the Cut
- Brian Smith: File this under, "I hope we don't have to find out." And frankly I hope this slotting looks ridiculous at season's end, because Irish fans need Smith to become one of the team's most consistent performers. His move to the weak side should enable Smith to excel in space and to make a 13-game impact this fall.
- Sergio Brown: The jack-of-all-trades is a gifted punt-blocker; he'll likely replace David Bruton as the gunner opposite Mike Anello; serve as a key member of the defense's nickel blitz packages; and continue to offer position versatility (SS, nickel LB, FS) that few players on the roster can match.
- Steve Filer: Filer was the underrated member of tremendous special teams coverage units last season. He and incoming LB Manti Te'o represent athletic depth in the LB corps and both could challenge for significant playing time if not starting roles in the fall. And since it's difficult to justify an incoming freshman on a list of indispensable players in May, this is the best I can do for the growing T'eo contingent.
- Sam Young: He was on this list last season. Fool me twice, shame on you. Fool me three times … Actually, Young didn't make the top ten simply because I have faith that Trevor Robinson could handle any position along the offensive line if one of the starters succumbs to injury. The Irish need steady play from Young. They need his leadership and guidance in order to contend for a BCS berth. They also need improvement from senior tackle.
No. 10 Mike AnelloIf you've watched a better special teams gunner at Notre Dame in your lifetime I'd love to hear from you. Mike Anello and David Bruton (who might rank as the second or third best gunner in Irish lore) played at an entirely different level than most of the free world last season every time an Irish kicker or punter let one loose. Anello led the charge and he and his cohorts ranked as the nation's No. 1 kick coverage unit in 2008. He changes field position; he creates and pounces on turnovers; and he'll often have two men assigned to him this fall every time the former walk-on lines up to cover a kick.
To appreciate exactly how good Anello is at his craft we'll likely have to wait and observe the 2010 season when he's no longer hounding opposing return men. I recognize the loss of Anello wouldn't destroy the Irish season as there are plenty of candidates for his job, including Jamoris Slaughter, Darrin Walls, and Raeshon McNeil while Harrison Smith could also move outside on the kick coverage teams. And Anello's new running-mate, Sergio Brown, should adapt well on the opposite side. They're all probably better athletes than Anello … except of course when a kick is in the air or in the returner's arms.
No. 9 Robert BlantonI mentioned in Kyle Rudolph's player assessment that the upcoming season probably won't be the best of his Irish playing career. The same holds true for sophomore CB Robert Blanton. And though Blanton plays at one of the deepest positions on the roster I feel there's a significant playmaking drop-off between him and a potential replacement (McNeil or Gary Gray). I think McNeil will play a huge role on the '09 defense and I think Gray will become a playmaker in 2010 (maybe sooner). But this squad needs confident, aggressive, seasoned playmakers when it steps on the field in September. Blanton fulfills those requirements. The most overused term of the last five seasons in sports is "swagger." But it actually applies to Blanton.
No. 8 Kyle McCarthyMy original list didn't include McCarthy in the top ten. That was a mistake, as I have a feeling McCarthy is like that old car that's long been paid for: you don't really notice the difference or the comfort level it provided until you start to make payments on its replacement. He's a sure tackler (and had to make too many at the tail end of plays last season); he doesn't make head-shaking mistakes in coverage; and he offers the defense a leader in the secondary, providing continuity to aid the transition of a few familiar but changing parts this fall. If McCarthy improves as much this off-season as he apparently did between '07 and '08 Notre Dame could boast its best secondary since 2002.
No. 7 Darrin WallsYou're thinking one of two things at this point: A.) "Wait, is this a preview of the secondary?" or B.) "The secondary survived last year without him, we have other problems." Survived? Yes. Improved from ‘07? Yes, again. Dominated? No. Without Darrin Walls the Irish secondary could still be the best unit on the '09 team. With Walls it has a chance to change games. With four CBs challenging for playing time through every drill, every practice, and every quarter of every game, the Irish pass defense, coupled with an improved pass rush, will win games that otherwise would have slipped away. While I consider Blanton the playmaker of the group, I nonetheless consider Walls to be the most complete player – a finished product that will play with a hunger befitting a player that had the sport taken away from him last season. Walls and Blanton on the corners allows the Irish defense to attack in a variety of ways (we'll leave those to the mastermind in the booth). The same attacking defenses would be less secure without the duo in one-on-one coverage downfield.
No. 6 Kyle RudolphHis 2008 contributions were detailed in today's pre-camp assessment column, as were his perceived strengths and weaknesses as a sophomore tight end. And Rudolph could probably qualify for several other pre-season nominations, yet this is the most important if you're a fan of the program, because Rudolph is the first player on the list that must stay healthy due to the readiness of those behind him. While sophomore Joseph Fauria showed he was a player in the spring, and junior Mike Ragone should be much closer to full speed in October than he was in April, the role of go-to tight end; the role of every down player still falls on Rudolph's shoulders. His presence serves not only as a security blanket for Jimmy Clausen, but as a chief threat to opposing defenses: a player capable of handling anything the schedule has to offer. Rudolph appears to be the ideal tight end for Coach Weis' offense – a reliable underneath target that doubles as a massive downfield mismatch for most defenders.
Tomorrow: The Top 5 and a few thoughts on how the list could change in August.