Each unit was ranked based upon 2008 performance, perceived depth, and the prediction of improvement/decline for 2009.
Below is our first full re-ranking of each unit. Each group's slotting is a result of on-field results in 2009. No pre-season expectations/rankings/predictions/perceived unit talent level is considered relevant.
(Jimmy Clausen and Dayne Crist): Not a tough call for a position grouping that has one of the nation's best players and a backup that directed two key first-half touchdown drives in a close road victory.
If I were to apply standard grades, Clausen would receive an A+ and Crist at least a solid B (I don't grade on curves) due to his effort at Purdue.
Outlook: A win Saturday would likely solidify this unit as the nation's best as well.
#2 Wide Receivers
(Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, Robby Parris, Duval Kamara, Shaquelle Evans, Deion Walker, John Goodman): I considered two groups listed below, but Floyd's impact still counts for something and Tate is the team's second-best player through five games. Parris has come through with two clutch catches on game-deciding drives though he's certainly better served as the team's third receiver and fourth route option. Kamara is a strange case: a top-tier downfield blocker that has greatly aided the running game but he's regressed (to date) as a pass catcher. Its possible an extra week of rest will be the key to his full recovery from August knee surgery.
Evans is coming along as a freshman, but sooner or later he'll have to be used as more than an 8-12 yard hitch/comeback route runner. Walker and Goodman have yet to make an impact and one will be needed from the duo by season's end if the Irish are to contend for something better than the Gator Bowl.
Outlook: The loss of Floyd...that still hurts to type.
#3 Tight Ends
(Kyle Rudolph, Bobby Burger, Mike Ragone): Rudolph might be the nation's best, though he's had (at least) two poor Saturdays as a blocker through five games. Nevertheless, he's made the biggest early-season impact for a player at his position in recent memory (Derek Brown, Irv Smith, Pete Chryplewicz, Jabari Holloway, Dan O'Leary, Anthony Fasano, John Carlson…all excellent players. But did any of them impact a season through five games as has Rudolph in '09?)
Ragone was dominant as an early-season in-line blocker but as of late, he's been less-than-notable (and that's not a completely negative comment: I simply haven't noticed his impact as a blocker over the last two games). Burger has been nothing short of outstanding, though mainly a lead-blocker as a fullback in the offset-I formation. If he's not the most consistent blocking fullback the Irish have had during the Weis era than I'm simply not equipped to grade film (which is too bad for you, as I plan to continue the practice).
Outlook: Either Ragone or Burger could be called upon as a receiver in a key 3rd down or goal line situation in the coming weeks.
#4 Offensive Line
(Paul Duncan, Chris Stewart, Eric Olsen, Trevor Robinson, Sam Young, Dan Wenger, Matt Romine, Andrew Nuss): This group could easily rank as the No. 3 unit (but Rudolph's performance has to be recognized). The Irish offensive line is the team's most improved group, and it's not close. They're the reason the squad's five best position units listed in this column play on the offensive side of the scrimmage line. Aside from some costly penalties and a rough quarter or two, the group has exceeded all expectations. No. 4 feels too low, but the list will be updated weekly from this point forward, so all reasonable arguments will be considered.
Outlook: A strong effort Saturday vs. USC would cement this group as the most improved unit in the nation.
#5 Running Backs
(Armando Allen, Robert Hughes, Jonas Gray, Theo Riddick, James Aldridge): You could add Bobby Burger to this list as well as most of the senior's impact has been as a blocking fullback. Allen has played (by far) the best football of his career and Hughes has been invaluable in Allen's absence over the last two contests. Gray has shown promise, especially in the screen game though he had a costly fumble in the team's only defeat.
The loss of Aldridge as an extra weapon has limited the Irish a bit. His return could yield a few key chain-moving conversions in the coming weeks. Riddick showed he could turn the corner vs. Purdue but wore a protective wrap in practice prior to Game Five vs. Washington and might have to fight for snaps with the reemergence of Hughes.
Outlook: It's the best overall group in terms of developed talent since 2003-2004 and the Irish running game is playing at its highest level since the 2005 season.
#6 Field Goal Unit
(Nicholas Tausch, Braxston Cave, Eric Maust): I'm still amazed that Tausch bounced back from a 28-yard miss on his first collegiate kick attempt and a blown PAT (in which he also committed a penalty) in his third game. His mental toughness certainly can't be questioned through five college games. The freshman has drilled 10 consecutive field goals (10-11 overall) and afforded Weis wiggle room when the offense occasionally falters inside the 20-yard line.
The best case scenario for Maust and Cave is not to be mentioned until the banquet in December.
Outlook: Tausch is of course allowed to miss another chip-shot at some point; it just can't occur in a winnable game. The life of a kicker…
#7 Return Units
(Theo Riddick, Barry Gallup, Jr., James Aldridge, Golden Tate): Riddick has been solid, showing flashes of his potential as a return man and consistently providing the Irish with fine field position. Gallup excelled in his first two chances (at Michigan) and the duo has maintained ball security – perhaps the main requirement of their collective job as the ball is then turned over to one of the nation's best offenses.
Tate remains a mystery: a fine punt returner but one who seems like a natural to dominate in the role a la Tom Zbikowski in '05 or Joey Getherall in '00. In fairness to Tate, the Irish have only fielded three meaningful punts (two vs. MSU and one vs. Purdue). The rest have resulted in dead balls, touchbacks, or a fair catch.
Outlook: Riddick has been solid at nearly 24 yards per return in 16 attempts, though he's yet to look special. If he plays 13 games without fumbling and maintains a 24-25 yard average, the Irish will be fine in this department. As for Tate's seemingly impending breakout…there's not time like the present.
(Darius Fleming, Brian Smith, Toryan Smith, Manti Te'o, Scott Smith, Steve Filer): Though Fleming (and Filer, for that matter) could easily be listed as "Nickel Rush Ends" thus aiding the ranking of the Irish defensive line, I've decided to keep them at their listed positions. Fleming has made the second biggest impact of all Irish defenders to date, and Brian Smith looked better vs. Washington as a middle linebacker as the game progressed (and better than he had in his previous outings at the position). Its time for Smith to settle into that role, as freshman WLB linebacker Manti Te'o will have his spot on lockdown from this point forward (unless he's cross-trained at MLB in the spring, of course).
Senior Toryan Smith lost his starting job but shined for the goal line defense last Saturday vs. Washington after struggling over the previous three games as a starter. Scott Smith played a key role in the back-to-the-end-zone stops vs. the Huskies as well, and should be used in that defensive package for the remainder of the season, rather than as a rotational backup who can be targeted in pass coverage coming in cold off the bench.
Filer subbed in for one series vs. the Huskies and made a 2nd Down tackle for loss.
Outlook: More playing time for Filer would likely arrive courtesy of a DE role in the team's nickel and/or dime defenses. And frankly, I don't see the harm in trying the athletic sophomore in that role in relief of John Ryan (who's playing too well to replace often in the base defense). Te'o will only get better and both Toryan and Scott Smith have a niche role vs. the run near the goal line. Both can be called upon for a series or two if a front-line player succumbs to injury.
The continued improvement and (re)adjustment of Brian Smith in the middle is the key to the defense in the season's final seven games…not to mention Saturday.
#9 Defensive Backs
(Kyle McCarthy, Harrison Smith, Sergio Brown, Darrin Walls, Robert Blanton, Raeshon McNeil, Gary Gray, Jamoris Slaughter, Ray Herring, Zeke Motta): How? Why? Were we just completely wrong in our pre-season assessment of this supposedly deep and formidable position group? Aside from Defensive MVP Kyle McCarthy (who could have vaulted this group up one spot by himself) the secondary has been a disappointment to date. Not a group that loses games, but one that has played soft in coverage and, more importantly, soft physically as the last four opponents have run through the overall shoddy tackling efforts of this position group.
McCarthy is a steadying force and, unfortunately, the unit's best and only playmaker to date. His safety-mate Smith has disappointed as a playmaker and (from an outsider's view) communicator along the back line, though it should be noted teams aren't beating the Irish deep in his coverage responsibility. Its equally surprising that Smith has struggled as an open-field tackler, especially over the last two games.
Change could be afoot among the four-man CB crew as junior Gary Gray is challenging starters Darrin Walls and Robert Blanton for a prime time role. McNeil lost his starting role/heavy playing time though looked better than both Blanton and Walls vs. Washington last Saturday, albeit in limited action. Slaughter appears to be the definitive "fifth" CB at this point, though Co-Defensive Coordinator and Defensive Backs coach Corwin Brown has regularly stated that if one of his cornerbacks earns playing time, the rotation will deepen as a result.
Sergio Brown has maintained an odd stranglehold on the Nickel DB role since he and McNeil alternated in the oft-used package vs. the Wolverines in Week Two.
Herring and Motta are in a veteran/rookie battle for playing time in the team's Dime package (a grouping that calls for six defensive backs).
Outlook: One top-notch effort this Saturday would put the entire secondary back in the good graces of the team's fan base, media, and coaching staff.
#10 Defensive Linemen
(Ian Williams, Ethan Johnson, Kapron-Lewis Moore, Kerry Neal, John Ryan, Sean Cwynar, Hafis Williams, Paddy Mullen): The unit struggled vs. Nevada, was horrendous vs. Michigan and began to improve in the 2nd Half in the come-from-behind win over the Spartans in Week Three.
Lewis-Moore has played back-to-back solid games and Johnson played his best game since the end of last season in the win over Washington, playing particularly well in the 2nd Half and at the goal line. Ian Williams, a major disappointment through two games, played well in the 2nd Half vs. MSU and was immovable near the goal line vs. the Huskies.
The Irish defensive end rotation of John Ryan and Kerry Neal, while undersized, put forth its best effort of the season vs. Washington. Ryan is the defense's most improved player since last season.
Paddy Mullen was a rock inside during the defense's goal line efforts vs. the Huskies.
Outlook: I'm not sure how deepening the rotation to include more of Sean Cwynar and Hafis Williams could hurt the starters, especially late in games and in November. Mullen should certainly be considered a key cog on all 4th and 1 attempts by the opposing offense.
#11 Kick/Punt Coverage
The nation's No. 1 ranked unit (KR) in 2008 allowed a game-changing KR touchdown at Michigan. Though generally solid since, until its most recent kickoff near the end of the 4th Quarter against Washington, the previously-impactful group had yet to change field position with an outstanding kick and ensuing coverage effort this season.
The KR defense currently ranks 61st nationally and though the 94-yard touchdown allowed certainly contributes greatly to that ranking, the home run was instrumental in the team's lone defeat…something that should not be ignored when analyzing the unit's performance.
The Irish have officially covered just two punts (with the rest resulting in touchbacks, dead balls, or fair catches) through five games but both returns resulted in big gains. The punting team's resume has also been saddled with a costly 29-yard shank near the end of the contest at Michigan, a mistake that damaged ND's overall field position in the game's final four minutes. It technically ranks last (No. 120) in the nation, allowing 24 yards per return, but that total is of course skewed with just two official return attempts.
Outlook: While the group is unfortunately on thin ice, its reasonable to believe the unit will bounce back and become a team strength through the final seven contests.