Our first edition counts down Notre Dame's Top 10 Individual Performers. Prior season performances and potential future stardom play no role in the rankings.
First, those that just missed the cut…
Nicholas Tausch: Hit a program-record 14 consecutive field goals after missing his first attempt in Ann Arbor. Tausch then missed two crucial, point-blank kicks in the season-killing and tenure-ending home loss vs. Navy and, after injuring his ankle late in pre-game warmups at Pittsburgh, surprised head coach Charlie Weis with a "no-go" announcement following his final pre-game extra point in the home finale against UConn. Tausch did not return for last week's game vs. Stanford.
Brian Smith: A game-sealing interception vs. Boston College; a game-changing (at the time) end zone interception vs. Connecticut; one quarter of fury in the comeback vs. USC; a key role (including a brilliant defensive knockdown of a would-be-receiver) in the goal line stand vs. Washington...on the other hand: four consecutive games in which he failed to shed lead fullbacks and guards at the second level in November. He's a born playmaker, but Smith struggled as a still-out-of position middle linebacker as the season progressed.
Sam Young: Young will likely be an unpopular choice but he showed up well as a run-blocker more often than not on film and often appeared to have the toughest assignment (for instance: chipping, then getting onto a linebacker in space on the same play) in the running game as well. But too many mental errors early and costly sacks allowed in November keep the 50-game starter from cracking the Top 10.
Kapron Lewis-Moore: From Week Four at Purdue through Week Eight in San Antonio, no Irish defender showed more improvement or future promise than the first-year sophomore contributor Lewis-Moore. But again: November…
Manti Te'o: The freshman phenom exceeded my expectations in October but regressed with the rest of the front seven in November as four consecutive offensive lines won the battle at the point of attack vs. the Irish run defense, including its linebacker corps. Te'o was the toughest omission because he was obviously the team's most athletic defender…he just happened to be a freshman learning his position.
No. 10 – SLB/DE Darius Fleming
The late October move of struggling FS Harrison Smith back to his hybrid role at SLB/Nickel LB (while a boon to Smith), unfortunately cut into Fleming's playing time in Notre Dame's base defense. Smith was used in special situations vs. Boston College than on a rotational basis against Washington State before taking over as a regular defender (both Base and Nickel) for the season's final month. Though Fleming's best moments occurred as a pass-rushing defensive end, his field time was nonetheless affected by Smith's move, and at a time when the sophomore was playing his best ‘ball of the season:
- Nevada, UM, and MSU: 7 tackles; 5 combined sacks/tackles-for-loss
- Purdue, USC, BC, WSU (Fleming missed the Washington game): 12 tackles; 9.5 combined sacks/TFL
- Navy, Pittsburgh, UConn and Stanford: 10 tackles; 0.5 combined sacks/TFL
No. 9 – Trevor Robinson
Notre Dame lost each of the three games he missed or could not finish (Navy, Pittsburgh, UConn) due to an ankle injury. Robinson received plaudits from NBC announcer Pat Haden as the team's "best offensive lineman" after his Week Eight injury in San Antonio though I think he's a year away from that honor (incidentally, neither Charlie Weis nor Frank Verducci backed up Haden's claim when asked by reporters the following week). But Robinson does play what Weis referred to as the toughest position on the line as the right guard is offered less help in pass protection (than his teammate on the left side).
Robinson and Young were key factors in Notre Dame's improved running game this season, and the drop-off from Robinson to his backups cannot be overstated…but I think his unheralded linemate on the left played slightly better (and did not miss extended time due to injury) this season.
No. 8 – Chris Stewart
When the Irish needed a yard, quarterback Jimmy Clausen ran behind Chris Stewart and Eric Olsen…every time. When the Irish ground game was clicking, it was Chris Stewart you saw pulling from left to right to clear the final first-level defender for Irish running backs. And when Notre Dame ran its most successful screens this season, they were generally to the offense's left, as Chris Stewart and Eric Olsen led the way in space. Maybe its his improvement from last season; maybe its because, as stated above, he happens to receive help in pass protection from Olsen; or maybe its because 335-pound pulling guards catch my attention on film…regardless, I have Stewart as the team's second-best offensive line performer over the course of the season.
An argument can be made against Stewart as the big man needed an occasional series off while Robinson (when healthy) did not, but I'm giving the edge to Stewart's 12-game contribution over Robinson's eight, plus parts of three games played.
No. 7 – Eric Olsen
The move of Eric Olsen from guard to center solidified the previously inept offensive line and gave the Irish a tough, driven leader in the middle of its potent offensive attack. Like Stewart, Olsen played much better in space this season, both as a lead blocker on early-season toss plays to the right (speaking of which, what happened to those?) and as an angry 300-pound protector in the screen game.
As with the rest of the line, Olsen was not without flaw, but Notre Dame's 128 rushing yards per game would have been a pipe dream had the Irish stood pat at the center position entering the season. Look for Olsen to win Notre Dame's Guardian of the Year Award at the team banquet. The senior could have grown into a Top 10-level center next season if he hadn't burned a year of eligibility with limited playing time as a true freshman in 2006.
No. 6 – Kyle Rudolph
The loss of Rudolph (early vs. Navy) severely limited Notre Dame's red zone attack vs. the Midshipmen and in ensuing games vs. Pittsburgh and UConn. The future 1st Round NFL Draft pick began 2009 with a bang, scoring the season's first touchdown on a 3rd Down post vs. Nevada before posting a career-best six receptions and 95 yards in Week Three vs. MSU. Rudolph then carved his niche in Irish lore with a final play, game-winning 4th Down touchdown reception at Purdue and followed one week later with a late-game, go-ahead touchdown vs. Washington (the Huskies answered with a field goal to send the game into overtime).
If not for two tough calls, Rudolph might have reached legendary program status by mid-season as his game-changing 86-yard catch and run in the 3rd Quarter at Michigan was nullified due to a terrible holding call, and the tight end's potential game-tying touchdown in the final seconds vs. USC was ruled out-of-bounds (and correctly upheld by the replay official…after multiple viewings, I'd give that call a 51 percent chance at accuracy in real-time speed. Had it been called a touchdown originally, its doubtful it would have been reversed).
Rudolph was much-improved but inconsistent (three sub par games) as a run-blocker…a skill that should improve for the sophomore in 2010.