Only junior wide receiver Michael Floyd remains upright among Notre Dame's opening day skill position starters as Brian Kelly's first Irish squad has played the second half of the season without starters Dayne Crist (QB), Armando Allen (TB), Kyle Rudolph (TE), Theo Riddick (Slot) and recently banged up T.J. Jones ("X" Wide Receiver).
Notre Dame has won its last 25 games in which the Irish outrushed their opponents including a 5-0 mark this season.
Quarterback #13 Tommy Rees – Freshman backup signal caller has guided the Irish two consecutive victories in his first two starts. Rees, who took over for injured junior triggerman Dayne Crist early in the Week Nine loss to Utah, has had an eventful 12 quarters at the helm, tossing 8 touchdown passes and 6 interceptions. California-born, Rees directed an upset win over then-No. 14 Utah in South Bend, Notre Dame's first win over a ranked foe since September 2006. Accurate though not particular strong-armed, Rees has hit on 63.1 percent of his passes including four corner route touchdowns in his total to date.
Running Back #20 Cierre Wood – Wood has started four of the last five contests after first assuming the lead role from a banged up Armando Allen in Game Seven vs. Western Michigan. The Oxnard, California native has totaled 86 touches for 442 yards from scrimmage since while scoring the first four touchdowns of his collegiate career (2 rushing, 2 receiving) in that span. Wood was withheld from action last season by former head coach Charlie Weis but has since won and lost the starting kick return job; emerged as a viable threat at tailback; taken a backseat to Allen due to pass-protection concerns, and finally emerged as the team's best pure runner since Darius Walker left campus in following the 2006 season. Expect ample chatter between the gregarious Wood and plenty of familiar faces Saturday night.
W Receiver #3 Michael Floyd – The only member of the team's skill position players to start every game this season, Floyd will take part in the USC/ND rivalry for the first time in his three year career. The 6'3" 220-pound junior is threatening program records for receiving touchdowns (needs 3), receptions (needs 26) and receiving yards (needs 363) though none are likely attainable should he choose to forgo his senior season in 2011. Floyd leads the squad in receptions (62), yards (830) and touchdowns (9), though his two 100-yard receiving efforts this season mark a career low. The team's best player by a runaway margin, Floyd often lines up as the boundary wideout (W in ND's terminology) which would pit him against the Trojans' best cover man, Shareece Wright.
X Receiver #18 Duval Kamara – Set (since eclipsed) program freshman records in 2007 for both receptions and touchdowns but was summarily passed in 2008 by classmate Golden Tate and freshman Michael Floyd. Kamara reemerged two weeks ago with a two touchdown effort in the upset of Utah, his first multiple score game in three calendar years. The 6'4" 225-pound target is a dominant downfield blocker but is best remembered in this series for slipping as the intended receiver in the end zone on the final play of last year's 34-27 Trojans win in South Bend.
Slot (Z) Receiver #19 Robby Toma – The third slot receiver to start for the Irish this season, the diminutive Toma plays with a physical style that belies his 5'9" 175-pound frame (the latter listing is generous). According to head coach Brian Kelly, Toma has been targeted for the most passes among all players since Tommy Rees took over for Dayne Crist in Week Nine. A classmate and former high school teammate of Irish linebacker Manti Te'o, Toma has 11 catches for 161 yards over the last 13 quarters.
Tight End #80 Tyler Eifert – Redshirt-freshman from Fort Wayne, Indiana scored the first touchdown of his collegiate career in a Week Seven win over Western Michigan, then broke out last week in Yankee Stadium with a four-catch, 78-yard effort that included a diving grab to the Army one-yard line and ensuing series corner route for a 31-yard score. At 6'6" 245 pounds, Eifert has lessened the loss of All-America candidate Kyle Rudolph who was lost for the season following a Week Six win over Pittsburgh. The first-year contributor, who last season wondered if his career was over due to a lingering back injury, has responded to Rudolph's absence in the lineup with 19 catches totaling 268 yards with a score over he last five games.
Irish Starting O-Linemen
Left Tackle #70 Zack Martin – The surprise of the 2010 season, the 6'4" 290-pound redshirt-freshman Martin likely ranks as the team's top OL performer over the first 11 weeks. The Indianapolis native relies on strong technique and quick feet, excelling as a second level blocker and rarely losing one-on-one battles in pass protection as a left tackle. Martin subbed twice at right tackle due to an injury to Taylor Dever midway through the season). Occasionally susceptible to a spin move when he sets his protection base too early.
Left Guard #59 Chris Stewart – Massive 5th-year senior/ND law student has improved over the last two seasons and now ranks as a reliable pull blocker - a necessity in Brian Kelly's spread attack. Easily the largest member of the team at 6'5" 351 pounds, Stewart was slightly better at the point of attack last season as part of Notre Dame's 680 pound left side but the affable pass protector has learned to finish plays under new OL coach Ed Warinner.
Center #52 Braxston Cave – Likely the team's strongest player, Cave won the starting job in August and has maintained the difficult task of calling signals for the front and, at times, cadence for the Irish quarterback. Brian Kelly said it best of Cave when he noted in August, "When Cave blocks you; you stay blocked. It's his decision on whom to block that needs work." The redshirt-junior is in his first season as a contributor after serving as the short-snapper last year.
Right Guard #78 Trevor Robinson – Lost approximately 30 pounds in the off-season and it showed in early-season foibles for the player most considered Notre Dame's best offensive lineman entering the season. Robinson has since rebounded (and gained weight) to star in the team's two-game rededication to the run. Said the junior of his experience in the USC/ND series: "Going from a game (2008) in which we weren't competitive in any way, shape or form, to last year's game where we had a chance to win it at the end…that was tough to take. From my point of view this is the biggest game of the year every year. To get a win in The Coliseum would be unreal."
Right Tackle #75 Taylor Dever – Pleasant surprise Part II: Dever was a career backup before winning the job on the right side in August camp. Was likely the team's second-best pass protector prior to suffering a hamstring injury in a Game Five win at Boston College. The 6'5" 297-pounder has recovered after a rough first two games back to become a reliable bookend to Martin in protection of the freshman QB.
Key Offensive Reserves
X Receiver/Slot Receiver #7 Tai-ler Jones – True freshman became the first Irish wide receiver to start the season opener since Milt Jackson in 1982. Jones scored a touchdown in both of the team's first two contests and piled up 22 receptions for 287 yards and three scores before sitting out the bulk of the last two contests due to a hamstring strain. Jones is expected to be available in a backup role for Saturday's contest though head coach Brian Kelly mentioned that neither he, nor original slot starter Theo Riddick, would start over Toma as both return from injury.
Slot Receiver #6 Theo Riddick – A converted running back, the sophomore target emerged as a weapon during a Week Three loss at Michigan State, grabbing 10 balls for 128 yards and a score. Riddick led the team in receptions at the time of his injury, a high ankle sprain suffered in the Week Seven win over Western Michigan. Has 38 catches for 406 yards and 3 TD despite sitting out the last three contests and the majority of a fourth.
Tailback #25 Jonas Gray – The junior from Detroit has played sparingly since suffering a knee injury in a Week Four loss to Stanford but reemerged two weeks ago with a 36-yard run to set up a Michael Floyd touchdown in the 28-3 upset of Utah. Gray, who has 12 carries for 66 yards over the last two outings, has yet to score a touchdown in his collegiate career and entered the season with four fumbles in 63 career touches (zero fumbles this fall).
Tailback #33 Robert Hughes – Senior from Chicago leads all Irish players with 14 career rushing touchdowns including a one-yard plunge vs. Army last week, his first of the season. Hughes has been used sparingly in the team's new spread attack though he will likely appear for at least one series per half and possibly in goal line situations Saturday night. The 6'1" 235-pound bruiser has accounted for four of Notre Dame's six longest runs from scrimmage over the last four seasons.
Tight End #83 Mike Ragone – Former No. 2 rated TE by Scout.com has not proven consistent as a pass receiver though should again see extended action in two tight end packages in the offense's newfound affinity for the power game.
Wide Receiver #81 John Goodman – Started twice this season but has since fallen slightly behind the more physical Kamara and the quicker Toma in the wide receiver pecking order. Goodman doubles as the team's punt returner and leads the free world in fair catches.
Offensive Guard #66 Chris Watt – Fan favorite will likely spell starting left guard Chris Stewart for at least one series Saturday night. The powerful redshirt-freshman has been cross-trained at both guard and center and is expected to step into a starting guard role next fall.
Offensive Tackle #77 Matt Romine – Should see one series of action at right tackle (Romine has been a left tackle backup for the bulk of his career) in place of classmate Taylor Dever.
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