If you remove snappers and special teams coverage regulars from the equation (and there was no/negligible improvement among the coverage teams this season), the Irish utilized 45 key players through the 12-game slate.
How many of those players improved, either from last season or over the course of 2009?
Let's break it down by category.
No-Brainer Most Improved in 2009
Golden Tate: No one in college football has improved more since the start of 2007, but Tate was awfully good last season (the team's best play, though unrewarded as such at the season-end banquet) amassing 1,080 receiving yards and 9 total touchdowns.
This year he was, in my opinion, the best offensive player in college football, setting or tying program records for single season receiving yards, receptions, touchdown receptions, and 100-yard receiving games. His 97 catches for 1,499 yards and 18 total touchdowns ranks among the greatest single seasons in program history.
Jimmy Clausen: In one season, Clausen evolved from a below-average road game QB and a player with poor pocket presence to one of the nation's best passers and possibly the best quarterback in the college game. His 68% completion percentage broke a school record and an astounding 7-1 TD-INT ration (28 TD) surpassed any reasonable expectation. Clausen was at his best in the fourth quarter, though the Irish dropped six of 10 close-and-late game situations in '09.
Note: Michael Floyd likely would have qualified for this category prior to his collarbone injury in Week Three.
Solid in '08; big-time in ‘09
Kyle McCarthy: The team's runaway defensive MVP, McCarthy led the team in tackles and interceptions and finished second in total passes broken up/defended. He mentioned in our pre-season sit down that the one thing he felt he needed to add to his game was more big plays, stating "…about five interceptions would be nice."
Darius Fleming: Led the team in tackles-for-loss and was technically second in sacks, but only because college football poorly tracks the statistic (several of his TFL were on a pocket-fleeing quarterback). Fleming, like McCarthy, was much better in September and October than in November.
Most Improved: Week 1 to Week 12
Gary Gray: Began training camp as the team's No. 5 CB and worked his way into the rotation by opening day. After curiously sitting against Michigan (nice call, by the way), Gray continued with spot duty before being named the starter vs. USC, a spot he held for the final seven games. Gray's 4th Quarter interception and subsequent 30-yard return was the impetus for the team's near-comeback from a 19-point deficit.
Upper Echelon: improvement among key players
Eric Olsen: Olsen went from part of the problem in 2008 to the team's best offensive lineman and leader of the group this season.
Armando Allen: Became a legitimate running threat in 2009, posting three 100-yard rushing efforts (and another at 98 yards) as well as two other solid performances while fighting off an ankle injury suffered late in Week Two against Michigan.
Chris Stewart: Keyed the Irish rushing attack as a pulling guard and drive blocker for Jimmy Clausen on QB sneaks. Stewart was a best a bit contributor last season but became a reliable guard as a senior and would help the 2010 squad greatly should he return for a 5th season.
Notable improvement from 2008: rotation players
Rob Parris: After a non-descript 2008 (six receptions) the senior played his best ball from Week Four through Week Six this year with a clutch catch to set up the winning score vs. Purdue and another to give the Irish a chance against the Trojans (Parris set a career high with 9 catches vs. USC).
John Ryan: The unsung hero of the Michigan game (or more appropriately, the only guy that showed up on the front seven), Ryan made key plays vs. Washington (difficult fumble recovery), USC (huge sack), and Stanford (tackle-for-loss late) and contributed simply by playing his assignment: taking on naked bootlegs and misdirection plays on the backside.
Duval Kamara: Developed into the team's best downfield blocker and though used on mostly hitch routes, Kamara was a much better player than he was in a disinterested 2008 campaign.
None of the three players listed above appreciably improved from mid-season to season's end. However…
David Ruffer: Twice pressed into duty late in the season, Ruffer finished 4-4 on field goal attempts and drilled both of the team's touchbacks on kickoffs. Not bad for a former inter-hall kicker who missed his only kick (an extra-point) in 2008.
Emerged roughly as expected in 2009
Trevor Robinson: Should be the team's best offensive lineman in 2010 and was solid as a true sophomore this season. Robinson's nagging ankle injury suffered in Week Eight injury killed the offensive line in November.
Kyle Rudolph: Two injuries derailed his path to sophomore stardom and the program's tight end record books: his own in Week Nine (shoulder) and Michael Floyd's in Week Three. Rudolph ranks as the nation's best tight end entering his junior season.
Improvement: baby steps…
Theo Riddick: An average kick returner but Riddick showed flashes of what could be an excellent career as a cutback runner.
John Goodman: He cracked the rotation and offered the team options as a punt returner and sprint-option quarterback, but Goodman, like the rest of the understudies at the position, needs to become more a more dependable route runner.
Steve Filer: Has a real burst off the edge as a pass rusher. It will be interesting to see how the new staff utilizes his talent with two season of eligibility remaining. Emerged as the top tackler on the return teams.
Rookie of the Year Candidates:
Kapron Lewis-Moore: Appeared a fish out of water in the season's first three weeks but came alive in the win at Purdue and was likely the team's best defensive lineman from Week Four through Week Eight.
Manti Te'o: Obviously the "Pick to Click" in 2010 (or after his mission should he so choose). Te'o peaked in late October along with the rest of the defense.
Nicholas Tausch: Broke the school record with 14 consecutive field goals then missed his next two and never attempted another over the season's final three games due to two pre-game warm-up injuries.
Part-time contributors, but not enough playing time to fairly critique:
Also not considered due to spot duty from scrimmage: LB David Posluszny, Anthony McDonald; DE Morrice Richardson; DB Dan McCarthy; WR George West and Barry Gallup, Jr., OL Mike Golic, Jr., and Braxston Cave.