#7 Ethan Johnson – Defensive EndLast season, I had Johnson at No. 2 on the list (behind the combination of Golden Tate and Michael Floyd). The ranking proved to be a reach as the Irish defensive line was bludgeoned in November (in other words, it would have been bludgeoned without the then-sophomore Johnson, too).
I like what I see from Johnson in the new scheme. More important, Brian Kelly, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and defensive line coach Mike Elston intermittently praised Johnson throughout the spring and the Portland native admitted a comfort level as part of the three-man D-Line earlier this spring.
"I'm not a defensive tackle… and I'm not a quick defensive end," Johnson noted. "But I feel like I am quick enough to be on the edge. I'm more of a power rusher than a speed rusher."
Johnson's "power" rush was unavailable last season, at least according to the affable junior himself.
"I couldn't really set up too many counter moves (last year) because I didn't have a power rush, so I was all speed in some games."
Johnson appears well-suited for his role in 2010, and though his slew of backups: Hafis Williams, Brandon Newman, and Tyler Stockton, each showed well in open scrimmages or in the Blue Gold Game, I'm certain there'd be a major drop-off without Johnson in the lineup for more than a half of football. Total playing time accrued by the backup trio to date: 9 minutes, 25 seconds.
(Spring surprise Emeka Nwankwo appears to be slotted behind Johnson's classmate Kapron Lewis-Moore at RDE, though Elston's DE candidates could likely adapt to either side of the nose tackle in case of injury.)
Last May, I predicted Johnson would be the team's defensive MVP in 2010. I'll push that back to 2011, but his presence is no less important this fall. He provides a point vs. the run and boasts the best pass rush skills of the team's defensive linemen and, along with OLB Darius Fleming, will likely serve as the defense's best pass rusher this fall.
Kelly offered that the offensive line couldn't block Johnson in a scrimmage midway through the spring. His ability to reach that level on a consistent basis will be a key storyline for the front seven next year and his absence from the lineup would lessen the group's ability to apply pressure without sending additional bodies via the blitz: something Diaco's "No Crease" defense can't afford.
#6 Trevor Robinson – Offensive Guard/TackleNotre Dame's offense prior to Robinson's ankle injury (suffered during the Washington State game, and not included here): 248 carries, 928 rushing yards and 8 rushing touchdowns (7 games and 5 wins). The offense with Robinson out or hobbled by the recurring injury: 105 carries, 356 yards, and 3 rushing scores (4 games and 0 wins).
As a true sophomore, Robinson (along with first-time center Eric Olsen) solidified the Irish front five through the season's first two months. He played what former head coach Charlie Weis referred to as the line's most difficult position (as the right guard was often isolated with little help from the center in blocking schemes).
Entering 2010, Robinson is likely the team's best player at right tackle and right guard. He'll start in one (and possibly play both) and, along with 5th-year senior Chris Stewart, will be the player on which three new starters and up to six OL contributors will rely over the three-month slate of games.
Robinson's footwork, natural aggression and physical nature, and his experience should provide a breakthrough season for the junior in 2010 with post-season awards candidacy by his senior year in '11 if he continues to improve.
Brian Kelly noted that the team has "eight to ten guys that we know can play winning football" as the team broke for the summer. And that entering August camp, the goal was to indentify "five guys that can play championship football."
Trevor Robinson is one of the leaders of that 10-man collection of OL talent, and perhaps the player most likely to reach the recently unapproachable "championship level" by the end of his college career.
#5 Michael Floyd – Wide ReceiverI'll start by stating I believe Floyd is the team's best college football player prior to 2010. And remember, he was listed as the Co-#1 on this list last year. So why #5 in May 2010?
- Quality, albeit underdeveloped depth exists at WR: If Floyd were to go down (again), Notre Dame would lose its most explosive player; one of its two best pro prospects (irrelevant); and a true difference-maker offensively. But Kelly, offensive coordinator Charlie Molnar, and new wide receivers coach Tony Alford could coax strong seasons from the quartet of John Goodman, Shaq Evans, Duval Kamara, and Tai-ler Jones.
Theo Riddick and Deion Walker have the skills necessary to contribute (and make big plays if they can become more consistent snap-to-snap). Mike Ragone and Tyler Eifert could be used in detached tight end sets to aid the passing game and the team's trio of running backs (as well as fullbacks Bobby Burger and Robert Hughes) are all capable in the short passing game.
In short, Kelly has continually found a way to move the ball. The absence of Michael Floyd wouldn't prove to be the head man's undoing.
The group as a whole may have performed below Kelly's expectations level through April 24, but that won't be the case when we discuss this list after Thanksgiving weekend in the LA Memorial Coliseum.
- They won without him last year: Accepting the different circumstances and allowing for the eventual collapse of the team's defense in November, Notre Dame won more games without Floyd than with him. With Floyd, the Irish beat Nevada and had a lead vs. Michigan State (when Floyd suffered a broken collarbone). They also lost to Michigan, Navy, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, and Stanford with Floyd in the starting lineup. At full strength? No, but the fact remains that ND with Michael Floyd – depending on your definition of "with" – was either 2-5 (including MSU) or 1-5 last season.
Without Floyd, they overcame a halftime deficit (17-16) to beat MSU and also beat Purdue, Washington, Boston College, and Washington State (which barely counts). They lost only to USC when Floyd was absent from the lineup.
Would the season have unfolded in the same manner had Floyd stayed healthy throughout? Of course not. He was on his way to rewriting the Irish record books after two super-human games and a healthy Floyd coupled with Golden Tate (who could not have possibly had the same impact as a part of a pair rather than a solo act) certainly would have helped the Irish win more than six games in 12 chances.
But it's hard to argue they can't win without him when they did just that last season.
Note: The conclusion of the three-part series and a review of Indispensable Players #4 through #1 will be published later this afternoon.