Now its time to de-clutter my mental inbox with this year's stream-of-consciousness observations on every player that took the field for the 6-6 Irish.
Defensive Line Regulars
- Kapron Lewis-Moore: Among most improved from Week 1 to Week 12…quickness inside in Nickel D was his greatest asset…versatile cog with potential for dominance as an upperclassmen under the right guidance.
- Ian Williams: Up-and-down performance was maddening…not a true 4-3 anchor but hustle plays in key situations (detailed in Part III of our Unit Rankings columns) were largely overlooked by fans…caused ripples with an ill-advised, albeit painfully accurate "out-schemed" observation after loss to the Naval Academy… broken record: the key to next season's Run D.
- Ethan Johnson: Likely miscast as a DT as he has the build and quickness to be ideal DE…often engulfed by physical opponents…no move outside is possible if younger interior DL don't step up in the spring…among most talented front seven players but underperformed in '09.
- Darius Fleming: Quickest first step on the defense…played first month at All-Star level…needs to get a little stronger to hold up on the edge next year…ND's best hope for a consistent pass rush without the aid of a blitz.
- Kerry Neal: Improved through Week 5 (Washington) then stagnate…still susceptible to misdirection and is entering his senior season…ideal role would be Nickel rush end in the 4-3 or weak side linebacker if the team's new regime employs the 3-4.
- John Ryan: Reliability helped defense at key moments in '09…not strong enough to hold the edge against the run…overachieved as a senior, especially over the first seven games (through the win over BC).
Defensive Line Contributors
- Sean Cwynar: Needs to step into starter's role to allow Johnson a move outside…deserved more time in September when Williams struggled…earned a start vs. UConn but ceded time to Williams for the bulk of the contest…not ready to take on a full dose of double teams but held up well when locked up one-on-one.
- Steve Filer: Message board fan favorite might have his future niche as a pass rusher…key to Irish special teams and was the unit's leading tackler, dethroning Mike Anello's two-year strangle-hold as top producer…did not approach Coach Weis' pre-season approximation that he'd play "up to 75% of the snaps"…extremely quick coming off the edge but playing time ultimately decreased following his breakout performance vs. WSU in Week 8…like Kerry Neal, a 3-4 defensive alignment could be a boon for the athletic hybrid LB.
- Paddy Mullen: Unsung hero of goal line defense…probably should have seen time in 3rd and 1 or 4th and short situations in base defense…can apply for 5th year of eligibility.
- Hafis Williams: Missed time early in camp and may not have caught up…what happened to coaches' confidence in his abilities? Rarely played in meaningful action after being the talk of the spring…appears to be a dedicated teammate and willing to do anything to help the team in my brief dealings with him.
- Morrice Richardson: Lost in a numbers game at DE…appeared to fall behind early in camp and never catch up…among the most outgoing players on the team…made a tackle in both appearances (Nevada and Washington State)…showed flashes of potential last year at North Carolina and Boston College but has been lost in the shuffle since…technically could have applied for 5th year had he not taken the field at the end of the WSU game.
- Kallen Wade: Can technically apply for 5th season, but his position is just too deep to crack, though you never know with a new coaching staff in place…double-major in psychology and computer applications will graduate in May.
- Brandon Newman: Made his first field appearance late vs. Washington State…will have to fight freshman Tyler Stockton as well as classmate Hafis Williams and potential 5th-year senior Paddy Mullen for a rotation spot next year…new regime can't hurt his standing.
- Brian Smith: Thrives on big plays, not necessarily what you want from your middle linebacker…will either switch positions next season or learn to shed blocks better under new regime (to his credit, he's been moved back-and-forth between WLB and MLB, twice, and remained a good soldier)…his overall level of play in the 4th Quarter vs. USC was the best a Notre Dame player has looked defensively since Trevor Laws in 2007…the most polarizing defensive player among Irish fans.
- Manti Te'o: Started slow but developed into a true playmaker by late October, including a textbook destruction of a BC screen pass late in the contest…along with the rest of the D, was often lost vs. Navy's triple-option attack and his play suffered a bit at Pittsburgh as well…incredible future once he learns the nuances of the game and improves his play in zone coverage…best hitter on the squad as a true freshman.
- Scott Smith: Special teams captain was a bit more productive (and impressive) as a situational player in 2008…saved a touchdown vs. Purdue with hustlinig tackle-from-behind on much faster player…at his best vs. MSU (second half), Washington and USC.
- Toryan Smith: Started with a bang but could not hold off the talented Te'o…played game of his life in season-opener vs. Nevada but struggled vs. Wolverines, Spartans, and Boilermakers…undervalued player in crucial goal line stands vs. Washington in Week Five.
- David Posluszny: Co-Defensive Coordinator (and linebackers coach) Jon Tenuta was high on him in the summer…like McDonald, participated in Irish coverage teams and earned time from scrimmage vs. Washington State…needs to challenge at a position not occupied by Manti Te'o to find his way onto the field…three seasons of eligibility remaining.
- Anthony McDonald: Special teams regular took a bit of a cheap shot vs. Washington and suffered a concussion…could challenge for role at MLB if Brian Smith is moved next season…three seasons of eligibility remaining.
- Kyle McCarthy: The lone bright spot in the September secondary…ranked among nation's best individual defenders through seven weeks but play leveled off in November…move to FS (or "back" Safety) over final five weeks did not help his game…posted eight games with at least nine total tackles this season…one of the best late-emerging players in recent Irish history with 211 tackles, seven interceptions and 14 passes defended in his final 25 games….
- Sergio Brown: Put forth his best effort of the season in final college game vs. Stanford…again proved that he's a much better player near the line of scrimmage, playing forward, then in coverage or laterally in space…struggled to tackle as a true safety…recorded a team high two forced fumbles including a goal line hit vs. BC to end an Eagles threat…might have been remembered as impactful part-time player had Irish had a proven safety starter next to McCarthy.
- Harrison Smith: Took a major leap forward after move back to linebacker/nickel role vs. Boston College…struggled mightily in coverage (and communication) as the team's free safety…posted five tackles-for-loss and caused two fumbles in final seven games playing as a blitzing linebacker…two seasons of eligibility remaining and could become a top-notch player in space if he can find a defined role.
- Darrin Walls: Curious drop in play was a major story in Irish secondary…lost his starting job near mid-season but regained it for homecoming trip to Pittsburgh…had three plays in which he showed excellent coverage result in three receptions totaling 127 yards and a touchdown…will have to play ball better to reach his full potential…can apply for 5th season of eligibility.
- Gary Gray: Won starting job in Week 6 vs. USC and never looked back…responded with game-changing INT late vs. Trojans…benched for reportedly missing a check down in second half at Pittsburgh despite playing all around solid game…blends physical coverage and run support with solid coverage skills…would excel as a Cover 2 CB…two seasons of eligibility remaining.
- Robert Blanton: Took a step backward after sterling debut season in 2008…seemed to lose his confidence in deep coverage and like Walls, failed to play the ball when in perfect position…at his best reading and jumping routes…like Gray, would be a headache for opposing offenses as short zone CB...competitive player should reemerge as a true junior in 2010.
- Raeshon McNeil: Intermittently benched throughout the season….though not the team's best CB, did appear to be a victim of "change for change's sake" during early-season shuffle…played his best as slot CB in team's nickel sets, including key pass breakup that led to McCarthy interception in 4th Quarter vs. Boston College...though blame lies with both the player and staff, McNeil was not used to the best of his abilities this season in what turned out to be an awful performance by the seconday.
- Jamoris Slaughter: Made move from CB to FS near the end of October and will likely remain in that role entering the spring…a willing hitter at 185 pounds and a "you-heard-it-hear-first" candidate for the team's breakout player of 2010…three seasons of eligibility remaining.
- Zeke Motta: Key special teams player also found a role as the Dime Package hybrid linebacker…should challenge for starting SS role in 2010, especially if Harrison Smith remains in the SLB/Nickel role (one that might best serve Motta's skill set).
- Ray Herring: 5th-Year senior served as special teams contributor and part-time Dime package linebacker…made spot appearances in November as a true safety in relief of Sergio Brown…played 50 games in a Notre Dame uniform from 2005-2009.
- Leonard Gordon: Played in 12 games as special teams coverage contributor and notched 7 tackles…appeared in 31 games in three-year career…can apply for 5th season of eligibility.
- Dan McCarthy: Appeared in five games including four consecutive from Week 8 through Week 11...can challenge for a key rotational role in Irish secondary next season with added strength…three seasons of eligibility remaining.
Note: Check back this afternoon for stream-of-consciousness observations regarding the Irish offense.