(The units were ranked prior to training camp as such: WR, DB, KR/PR Coverage Units, QB, RB, LB, TE, KR/PR Units, Field Goal Unit, OL, DL)
No. 1 – Quarterback
IrishEyes Pre-Season Rank: No. 4 I thought Clausen would produce a strong season (predictions of at least a 3-1 TD-INT ratio and in excess of 3,500 yards) but the junior signal-caller exceeded those lofty expectations with one of the best statistical seasons in program history.
Backup Dayne Crist contributed greatly to a win (Purdue) in his only meaningful action, directing two first half touchdown drives and helping stake the Irish to a 17-7 lead. Best Game(s): Nevada and Stanford
Worst Game: Navy
Why they could rank higher: N/A. Notre Dame received top-level quarterback play in 2009.
Why they could rank lower: How about 6-6?
Final Thoughts: Clausen was the nation's best passer this season. Period. Are quarterbacks ultimately judged by their wins and losses? Yes, and in that vain, try to find a loss in which Jimmy Clausen played poorly.
No. 2 – Wide Receivers
IrishEyes Pre-Season Rank: No. 1 While Golden Tate produced one of the best seasons in program history and sophomore Michael Floyd was tremendous when healthy, the overall depth of the unit did not have the type of impact we expected.
Best Game(s): Michigan State for overall contributions of four receivers (Tate, Floyd, Rob Parris and Duval Kamara); USC in terms of depth stepping to the fore, as Parris augmented Tate's effort with the best game of his career; Stanford for the dynamic performances of Tate and Floyd.
Worst Game: Purdue in terms of sheer production but my vote goes to the Navy contest as Floyd's first game back was riddled with inconsistency and uninspired play throughout the offense until desperation set in.
Why they could rank higher: There are quite a few college quarterbacks that would excel throwing to this group. Tate was a touchdown waiting to happen on the simplest of underneath routes as was Floyd when healthy. I've ranked the unit second on the team yet the starting pair is the best in the college game. In other words, arguments are welcomed.
Why they could rank lower: Drops vs. Michigan, exacerbated by a poorly run route on the game-deciding 3rd down conversion attempt; a key end zone slip vs. USC that ended the contest; another poorly run, critical, late 3rd down comeback route vs. Boston College; a mental error that resulted in an end zone interception and huge drop late vs. Navy; a key 3rd Quarter fumble vs. Pittsburgh; against UConn – a poorly-run, 3rd down slant in overtime that directly led to defeat on the Huskies next series…
Ultimately, the unit "underachieved" due to the lack of development of promising freshman Shaquelle Evans and redshirt-freshman Deion Walker (as well as the curious disappearance of Evans from the field over the final seven games) and little improvement from junior Duval Kamara (aside from sterling run-blocking efforts). Parris had his moments, but more could be expected from a former starter turned-No. 3 wideout in this potent offensive attack and John Goodman stepped in and out of the rotation after making an impact vs. USC as both a sprint-option quarterback and Z-receiver.
Final Thoughts: The Irish receiving corps showed up statistically each week with the exception of the game in West Lafayette…of course, the final drive in that contest featured three clutch receptions by Irish pass catchers (Tate, Parris, and tight end Kyle Rudolph). Notre Dame had the best starting wide receivers in the nation but promising depth did not reach its potential over the course of the 12-game slate.
No. 3 – Field Goal Unit
IrishEyes Pre-Season Rank: No. 9 Freshman Nicholas Tausch won the job from incumbent Brandon Walker and after an initial miss, hit 14 consecutive field goals to set a program record that stood since 1982. Backup David Ruffer was a perfect 5-5.
Best Game(s): Tausch drilled a record-tying five field goals in a win over Washington; Ruffer nailed each of his three attempts in emergency relief of the freshman in the home finale vs. Connecticut, including a clutch 36-yarder in overtime.
Worst Game: Navy. Two missed field goals (41 and 30 yards) contributed greatly to the upset loss.
Why they could rank higher: They can't, but 14 in a row was unimaginable entering the season.
Why they could rank lower: The curious Navy misses (on the heels of 14 straight) served as a decisive blow to the Charlie Weis era.
Final Thoughts: Notre Dame hit 19 of its 22 field goal attempts in 2009. Aside from the timing of the 30-yard shank vs. Navy, what more could you ask for in the college game?
No. 4 – Tight Ends
IrishEyes Pre-Season Rank: No. 7 (due largely to the timing of the loss of sophomore tight end Joseph Fauria). Kyle Rudolph emerged as one of the nation's best tight ends, not only for his consistent contributions and threat as a pass-catcher, but with a game-winning touchdown; a game-tying touchdown; and an apparent game-tying touchdown ruled out of bounds (and eventually upheld by the replay official). While backup Mike Ragone never regained his pre-injury form as a receiver, he did excel (especially in September) as a run-blocker. Walk-on Bobby Burger earned a scholarship and turned into the best lead-blocking fullback at the school in at least five seasons until suffering a neck injury as a result of a cheap shot vs. Washington in Week Five.
Best Game(s): Michigan State, Washington…and of course, Purdue.
Worst Game(s): Navy from a run-blocking standpoint; Pittsburgh in terms of impact and simple execution (a dropped two-point conversion).
Why they could rank higher: They shouldn't, but Kyle Rudolph was among the nation's most impactful offensive players through Week Five.
Why they could rank Lower: After Rudolph was lost to injury and Ragone was pressed into action, the redshirt-junior was badly out of sorts as a receiver until November and showed only flashes of his pass-catching ability in the season's final month. Burger did not make an impact in the passing game.
Final Thoughts: Rudolph's production was affected by the loss of Floyd and the drop-off from the talented sophomore to his backups was staggering. There's little doubt Rudolph ranks as the best tight end in the nation entering 2010 but he did not step up as expected as the season progressed and teams adjusted to the absence of Floyd (though part of that can be attributed to the downturn of the offensive line and Rudolph's suddenly necessary presence in pass protection).
Part II will feature units No. 5-8 and will be posted later today.