Can't Win Without 'Em - Part II

Continuing the two-part series examining the top ten players the Irish can't win without in 2009.

Last night we examined the first grouping of Notre Dame's Indispensable Players for 2009 (players ranked 6-10).

Today we move onto the top five: the squad's essential pieces to a successful season. And like yesterday, not everyone listed currently ranks among the top ten football players on the team; they're simply the players the Irish can least afford to lose through the course of the season.

Just Missed the Cut: Brian Smith, Sergio Brown, Steve Filer, Sam Young.

No. 10: Mike Anello

No. 9: Robert Blanton

No. 8: Kyle McCarthy

No. 7: Darrin Walls

No. 6: Kyle Rudolph

No. 5 Ian Williams

The missteps of the '07 and '08 offensive lines are well documented. But the lack of production and, more importantly, the lack of bodies (big, experienced, seasoned, athletic, etc.) along the defensive front has been as much to blame for the program's 10-15 record over that span.

That should change in ‘09, as athletic reinforcements and more able bodies in practice continue to develop into Notre Dame-level athletes. But one big body must be game-ready from the jump, and that's junior NT Ian Williams. Williams performed yeoman's work as a freshman in '07, fighting continual losing battles vs. bigger, quicker, and more developed college players. Last season, Williams improved but not enough to distinguish himself as a top tier player. Now a junior, Williams needs to provide what John Madden formerly referred to as a "Point." The Point is the anchor along the defensive line, and the key to consistently winning on first down. Winning first down allows the defense to apply pressure on 2nd and 3rd. Pressure in these situations leads to the opposing offense walking back to the bench.

Williams must play well, stay healthy, and provide a base on the Irish front four to allow defenders to succeed around him. If not, ND will again rely on untested, not-quite-ready underclassmen to play the game's most demanding position. Williams' backup, sophomore NT Brandon Newman is a first-year player as is sophomore DT Hafis Williams (H. Williams should be a key contributor this season in a 3rd defensive tackle role – a fine spot for a developing player). And Hafis could conceivably slide over to the nose should Ian go down. But the Irish can't rely on redshirt or true freshman in the middle of this defense and play in a BCS game.

No. 4 Harrison Smith

The Irish have a pair of quality backup safeties in Sergio Brown and Ray Herring. Brown is ideally suited for his role as a nickel package player, and he could certainly survive in extended duty at SS (where Kyle McCarthy is the starter). Herring, a career backup, should prove reliable in relief at FS and leading the second string defense. But (to borrow from Corwin Brown) "If you make a mistake at safety, the band's going to be playing."

And without a player of Harrison Smith's ability on the back line, the risk/reward of Jon Tenuta's blitz packages would be too great. No matter how talented a CB is, he's going to be beaten on occasion, and Smith is the key to limiting those mistakes. Additionally, he's a talented, versatile player for the goal line defense; a key cog in 3rd and long packages; and he gives the Irish (along with McCarthy) a second rock-solid tackler in the secondary. To add further speculation (it is May after all), Smith could prove to be one of the three biggest impact defenders on a reloaded Irish defense.

No. 3 Jimmy Clausen

Why not No. 1? I think Dayne Crist would do well leading an otherwise healthy offense to victory. If the Irish were to lose Clausen, Crist would receive the vast majority of the practice snaps and become the complete focus of Weis' tutelage. I believe he has the talent to handle the role.

Now, let's rejoin reality…

Clausen is the starter, should be the starter and, barring super stardom or a complete collapse, will be the starter until he leaves campus in 2011. And I believe Clausen is in line for a huge junior season. He survived trial by fire in '07. He then appeared on the cusp of joining the nation's top young quarterbacks early last year. But that progress was derailed by a brutal mid-season slump, and the sophomore signal-caller certainly didn't seem like the answer to Irish fans' prayers last November.

But something clicked in the bowl victory on Christmas Eve (a cynic might point out what "clicked" was facing what appeared to be five random students pulled out of the Hawaii crowd who were subsequently asked to play defensive back). The pain of two seasons of losing wasn't washed away in three quarters of dominant offensive football ... but it didn't hurt. Confidence grew. For the first time since the end of the 2005 season Irish fans could look toward the upcoming season and know there were pieces in place.

Does a bowl win over a mediocre team signify greatness? Of course not. But a player with Clausen's ability should learn from both his and the team's failures. And the Irish program needs him healthy and at the top of his game this fall.

No. 2 Ethan Johnson

While junior NT Ian Williams provides the point (base), sophomore DT Ethan Johnson lends a completely different dimension to the '09 D-Line: Playmaker. Johnson was perhaps the team's most improved football player from September through Christmas Eve, and his work in Spring Ball did nothing to dissuade me from that opinion.

Johnson's the best player on the front seven; he could end up being the best player on the defense (I'm confident he will be by 2010); and he might have a Team MVP award in his future.

It's asking too much for Johnson to be a finished product early this season, but his ascension from quality rotation player to potentially dominant sophomore force is the type of progress teams need to climb from the abyss of mediocrity.

Throwing for 400 yards is fun. Stopping opponents from rushing for triple digits every week wins football games.

No. 1 Golden Tate or Michael Floyd

Is listing both a cop-out? Maybe, but I believe the loss of either player takes the Irish out of BCS contention. The Irish have impressive depth behind Tate and Floyd, but none of the quintet of Kamara, Parris, Goodman, Walker, or Evans is a proven big-time starter. I understand that a wide receiver, no matter how talented, is rarely the most important player on a football team. But for the 2009 Fighting Irish, the pairing of this dynamic duo is the key to the season.

They not only make each other better (whom do you double-team?), they make tight end Kyle Rudolph better (hello LB coverage!). They'll cover-up O-line mistakes by bailing the offense out of long-yardage situations. They'll cover up quarterback mistakes because there's no such thing as "covered" regarding Tate/Floyd in one-on-one situations. They'll again provide the offense the ability to overcome two-touchdown deficits in minimal time and they'll keep the chains moving through talent and will.

But most importantly, the duo allows the school's running attack to be average (not poor, but average). If Notre Dame can run the football with any competence in 2009, and Tate and Floyd remain healthy, the sky's the limit for this offense. Without either one of them, the trickle-down effect would eventually be too much to overcome.

Tomorrow: How this list could change in early September and reader feedback on the Top Ten. It's early, but there are certainly arguments to be made by the informed Irish fan. Top Stories