#4 Ian Williams – Nose TackleWilliams' positioning is two-fold: the lack of depth and mandatory size at the nose tackle position and my working theory that he'd be a top-level defensive lineman (already) had the defense remained a three-DL base (3-4) over the course of his career.
Williams' backup this spring was 6'4" 281-pound junior Sean Cwynar. I liked Cywnar so much as a 4-3 NT/DT last season that I felt he should have been in a full rotation with Williams and Ethan Johnson inside in an attempt to keep the starters fresh for the 4th quarter and final month. But I have no idea if he can hold up as a two-gap nose tackle. Head coach Brian Kelly and defensive line coach Mike Elston either believe he can, or the team simply didn't have another candidate to spell/compete with Williams this spring.
(Though listed at NT, sophomore Tyler Stockton was seen at DE in every practice viewing I had as was Hafis Williams – a player that Kelly defined as a DE in post-practice interviews. Brandon Newman played the DE spot in the open scrimmage and the spring game as well. I assume one of them is cross-training at nose tackle, but until I see it on the field, can't really comment on them.)
Williams struggled in the 4-3 scheme at times last season, too often being shoved from his gap. Alternately, Williams came up with crucial 3rd down stops (vs. USC downfield; vs. Pittsburgh in the red zone; and throughout the second half vs. MSU). But when you finish 6-6 with a terrible run defense, shining individual moments become largely forgotten/irrelevant.
I like Williams as a 3-4 nose tackle. I like his hustle and quickness when he's initially blocked, and I think he, along with Ethan Johnson, was ruined by the defensive approach last year.
And because I believe incoming freshman nose tackle Louis Nix should be withheld from action (unless its painfully obvious he's as good as advertised at a young age and a better player than Cywnar or Newman/Stockton, etc.), I think Ian Williams is the player the Irish can least afford to lose on the D-Line in 2010. A game-ready Nix changes things, but in late April, it's hard to see the defense holding up if Williams is lost for an extended period.
A defense is built from the inside-out. That explains the slotting of Williams and the next athlete on the list.
#3 Manti Te'o – Middle LinebackerYou could probably argue as high as No. 1 due to his overall projected impact, and because an inside linebacker duo of Te'o's current running mate Anthony McDonald along with one of David Posluszny, Steve Paskorz, or Carlos Calabrese would have issues in pass coverage and frankly produce far fewer big plays than one with Te'o as its anchor.
Te'o's instincts and power in short bursts are rare at the position. He could already be the best overall player among the front seven competitors (though if we're going merely off of last year's film, he's not), and as Kelly stated Saturday following the Blue Gold Game, Te'o is "a Mike (middle) linebacker that can stay on the field. He's not a guy you take off the field on 3rd down."
Te'o looked like a new man in short zone coverage in scrimmages, drilling two receivers on tunnel screens in the Blue Gold Game, popping a pass away from Rudolph, and imposing his will on most targets in his vicinity. Entering last season, there was little doubt SS Kyle McCarthy would lead the team in tackles; Te'o will turn the trick in 2010, and likely by a wide margin.
This is a lofty projection – he didn't approach this level as a true freshman (nor should he have been expected to) – but Te'o will create more turnovers and deliver more big hits than any other Irish player next fall. The key to Te'o meeting or exceeding expectations is his ability to make the routine plays necessary for any quality inside linebacker (fight off uncovered offensive guards, defeat blocks, wrap-up and negate forward momentum vs. hard-charging ‘backs, etc.) over a 12-game season.
#2 Kyle Rudolph – SuperstarI'd talked myself into a No. 1 ranking for Rudolph following the Blue Gold Game but logic prevails over gut instinct, as the lack of depth at QB cinches the "title" for Dayne Crist (below).
Rudolph, however, should make the leap from "future first-round draft pick" to college superstar in 2010. He scratched the surface by early October 2009 with repeated game-winning/changing heroics, but his production tailed off over the next three games and his season (along with his team's) took a nosedive in November.
Rudolph participated throughout the spring after off-season shoulder injury and he'll be fine for the start of camp. He better be, because he'll serve as the team's chief chain-mover; the quarterback's security blanket; and the offense's secondary playmaker (at worst) to wide receiver Michael Floyd.
Kelly has stated his tight end will "never come off the field." Amen to that, because Rudolph is a walking mismatch for nearly every linebacker and safety that await (there's a matchup vs. Boston College that could prove intriguing from a one-on-one standpoint).
Behind Rudolph, senior Mike Ragone could become a difference-maker as the team's second tight end. The qualifier is the designation "second" because I don't think Ragone would stress a defense as much if moved up in the pecking order of Irish pass targets. The oft-injured Ragone has proven his straight-line speed has returned following two surgeries to repair torn ACL, and his hands, shaky last season, looked up to snuff in the Blue Gold Game.
At an early stage in his development (and recovery from back surgery) sophomore Tyler Eifert must play detached from the line. He could do some damage by season's end but he's not yet ready to step to the fore as the team's No. 2. Bobby Burger looks like he's solidified in the role of FB and H-Back for 2010 (I'll have more on Burger early next week in his Pre-Camp Player Assessment).
Quality depth at tight end isn't a problem. But in the case of Kyle Rudolph, comparable depth is impossible to find.
#1 Dayne Crist – QuarterbackWhy could he be lower? Brian Kelly's Cincinnati Bearcats finished 11-3 in 2008 using five quarterbacks, three of which attempted 374, 75, and 64 snaps, respectively. Their completion percentages on those passes? 61, 66, and 66 percent. Last season, Kelly performed a similar miracle, never missing a beat with his insertion of Zach Collaros when Bearcats senior starter Tony Pike went down with injury.
That doesn't mean we need to find out if Kelly can turn water into wine a third time.
Crist's #1 slotting is, of course, due to the question marks behind him, namely: a walk-on not enrolled last fall and three freshmen, two of which won't undergo a Kelly practice until somewhere around August 7.
Montana showed surprising promise in the spring…care to see a list of spring notables over the last 20-30 years? Rees had a valuable head start as an early enrollee: he was awarded one Spring Game snap for his efforts.
Now imagine any of the four fall backups taking the opening snap at 8 PM EST on ABC in Spartans Stadium next September.
The Irish need Crist near full strength, if not for 12 games, certainly for a well-timed 10.
He won't appear in many pre-season magazine watch lists or even this website's Top 10 Player List over the summer, but Dayne Crist is the No. 1 player the Irish can't consistently win without next fall.