All Eyes On...

In the first of four columns this weekend, IrishEyes looks at a collection of Notre Dame players and coaches whose performance will be of great interest to the fan base next season. The level of success attained by each will determine the team's fortunes and his individual standing with Irish fans nationwide.

"Now we've got to win some games. That makes it really exciting, and that's what we'll be looking forward to doing."

Head Coach Brian Kelly following the Blue Gold Game

Five months into the Brian Kelly era, and less than four months away from the 2010 season opener, one truth regarding the Irish football program is apparent: this is Brian Kelly's team. It's his offense, his defense and his program.

He'll receive the bulk of the credit for any success 2010 may bring and likewise shoulder the blame.

In other words, any column that turns its focus to personalities on the Irish football program that must step up this season begins and ends with Brian Kelly.

Which is why I won't insult your intelligence and feature his name in this upcoming series of columns.

The following 2010 Irish personalities – both veteran and newcomer – will be on the spot and in the fans' cross-hairs when the season kicks off on September 4.

Each must improve from last season, or in the case of a few newcomers, produce as expected if Notre Dame is to play winning football in 2010.

Ethan Johnson – Defensive End

Johnson's inclusion is more about taking the next step – an expected step – as a player with two seasons of eligibility remaining.

Bereft of the benefit of a redshirt-season to begin his Irish career on the defensive line (consider that former standouts such as Chris Zorich, Cedric Hilliard, Darrell Campbell, Justin Tuck, Derek Landri, and Trevor Laws each benefited from a freshman year of seasoning on the sidelines) Johnson broke through with an impressive final two contests as a true freshman in '08, recording 7 tackles and 3 sacks vs. USC and Hawaii.

As a sophomore, Johnson was asked to help hold down the fort inside as a defensive tackle. His 265-pound frame (Johnson revealed his standard playing weight last season in an interview this spring) produced spotty results: We expected glimpses of greatness but received standard sophomore fare.

In 2010, fans and media expect Johnson to thrive in his new, more natural position as a 280-pound 3-4 defensive end. Behind him (and fellow starter Kapron Lewis-Moore) are four untested players in senior Emeka Nwankwo (did not see the field last season), juniors Brandon Newman (did not see the field last season) and Hafis Williams (9 minutes and 25 seconds of field time last fall) and sophomore Tyler Stockton (did not see the field last season).

Experienced backup help aside, and acknowledging that he's likely to be "better' in 2011 than next fall, Johnson must consistently perform at the highest level of his career, both setting the edge vs. the run and providing big plays in opposing backfields, to remain a familiar fan favorite next fall.

Robert Blanton – Cornerback

Like his classmate Johnson, fans and media likely anointed Blanton the program's next big thing a tad early in his four-year development cycle. Unlike Johnson, Blanton plays a position in which that type of contribution was attainable and is nearly required in his third season.

Blanton endeared himself to the fan base with a brash, confident approach not seen at the position since Shane Walton's graduation following the 2002 season. For now, that's where the comparisons to Walton abruptly end.

Blanton has flashed the physical approach (in 2008, in practice viewings, and a points in 2009) to succeed in Gary Gray's boundary cornerback role. In 2008, he showed the downfield ball skills to perform in Darrin Walls' athletic field cornerback spot. And according to his head coach, he showed the ability to play both during the spring.

As noted in our Indispensable series, Blanton should be considered a 12th starter, as very few quality opponents, save for Navy and possibly Boston College, will require Notre Dame's defense to employ fewer than five defensive backs throughout the bulk of the contest. (We can only hope the team's nickel defender this season, at least in obvious passing situations, is Blanton, Walls, or Gray, and not a backup safety as utilized with very little success last fall.)

Downfield coverage turned into a humorless episode of the "Keystone Cops" last season for Irish defensive backs, and Blanton played a starring role. He doesn't have to dominate as a junior, but Blanton must bounce back from an unforeseen down campaign in 2010.

Nick Tausch – Kicker

This off-season, I heard, or read on Notre Dame message boards, the following comments regarding sophomore kicker Nick Tausch:

"We haven't had a good kicker since D.J. Fitzpatrick…and he wasn't really that good."

"We need to get (Kyle) Brindza in here." (Brindza was a potential addition for the 2010 season but will have to wait until at least January 2011 to enroll at the college of his choice).

"Tausch was hit or miss last season."

A colleague once told me, that in life, timing is everything. That's apparently true for freshman record-holding kickers, too, as Nick Tausch hit a program-record 14 consecutive field goals last season...

The first 12 of those field goals struck true occurred in games won or lost by a touchdown or less. In other words, Tausch, after missing his first career attempt in Ann Arbor, connected on 12 consecutive kicks of relative pressure.

He missed his final two offerings (important first-half misses in a loss to Navy) to finish 14 of 17 as a rookie before sitting out the remainder of the season (three games) after "pulling up lame" in Pittsburgh.

Tausch has yet to hit, miss, or attempt a game-winning field goal.

If 14 consecutive can't buy a freshman a healthy dose of goodwill in the off-season, maybe a game-winner on September 11 vs. the Wolverines will.

But a miss? That's why he's on our list.

Note: Full Pre-Camp Assessment columns for Ethan Johnson and Robert Blanton will appear later this month. Nick Tausch will be featured in July.

Up next: Part II of our All Eyes On...series will feature senior SS Harrison Smith, senior OLB Brian Smith, and new defensive backs coach Chuck Martin.


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