Staff and moderator's thoughts on the best and worst of 2010:
- Top Senior (including 5th-years): Robert Hughes on offense; tie between Harrison Smith & Gary Gray
- Top Junior: Michael Floyd hands down on offense, Robert Blanton on Defense
- Top Sophomore: Manti Te’o, with Cierre Wood/Tyler Eifert pushing on Offense
- Top Freshman: Tommy Rees on offense and Prince Shembo on defense
- Freshman you're excited about as a sophomore:
Kona Schwenke, kid's going to be a monster on the DL. Louis Nix as well.
- Best Win: USC hands down
- Most Painful Loss: Michigan State - baffling loss and one that defies all odds and blame - something you won't ever see again.
- Top Position Coach: Chuck Martin, DBs; Tony Alford WRs
- Best Coaching Moment of the season: Diaco's resurgence after Navy. My favorite moment is him hugging Tommy Rees in the locker room after the USC game.
- Head-shaking Coaching Moment of the season (Non Field goal Category): Going for it on 4th-and-2 on our own 40-something against Michigan State.
- November MVP: Manti Te’o
- Most improved from last year: Harrison Smith
- Most improved from September 4th: Brian Smith or Theo Riddick
- Top Senior: Gary Gray and David Ruffer - Gray has begun to establish himself as one of the premier corners in all of college football. Ruffer had arguably the best season of any Irish kicker ever. Runner-Up: Ian Williams
- Top Junior: Michael Floyd -- Had a case of fumble-itis at the beginning of the season, but he overcame those issues to have another outstanding year for the Irish.
- Top Sophomore: Manti Te'o -- Te'o was to defense what Ron Powlus was to offense when he signed on with the Irish…except Te'o has become everything we expected and more. Runner-Up Zack Martin
- Top Freshman: Tommy Rees -- May not be the answer to the Irish quarterback issues long term, but the kid helped get the team back on track and into a bowl with impressive wins over Utah, Army and U$C. Runner-Up: Bennett Jackson
- Freshman you're excited about as a sophomore: Prince Shembo -- This kid has shown that even at 18 years of age he can be too much for some established offensive lineman to handle. I look forward to seeing this young man turn into a beast.
- Best Win: U$C -- Could it be any other game? One of the finest defensive performances the Irish have submitted in years.
- Most Painful Loss: Tulsa -- Ugh...kick the ball.
- Top Position Coach: Mike Elston
- Best Coaching Moment of the season: Brian Kelly's late season decision to change offensive philosophies and make the game easier to manage for Tommy Rees. I would be interested to see how the season might have turned out if Coach Kelly had entered the season with this philosophy and progressed from there...
- Head-shaking Coaching Moment of the season: Bob Diaco addressing the media after the Navy game.
- November MVP: Darius Fleming -- Many people felt that Fleming would make a giant leap this year and be on the radar for All-America recognition. Most of the season did not play out that way, but he was a terror on the outside in the month of November.
- Most improved from last year: Harrison Smith -- From the outhouse to the penthouse in just a matter of months. Went from being a superbly athletic player who was confused beyond comprehension to a heat seeking missile in the secondary.
- Most improved from September 4th: Taylor Dever -- Learned a lot from his battle with Purdue standout Ryan Kerrigan and truly established himself as a reliable offensive lineman.
- Top Senior (including 5th-years): Gary Gray has been outstanding as a DB this year.
- Top Junior: Michael Floyd probably the most talented player on this team. If he returns it is a HUGE boost to the team.
- Top Sophomore: Manti Te'o led the team in tackles and made his impact felt on the field.
- Top Freshman: Tie between Tai-ler Jones and Prince Shembo. Jones did very well (just don't drop the ball on your way into the end zone) and Shembo could be looking at a starting spot next year.
- Freshman you're excited about as a sophomore: Kona Schwenke. Late add in to the current freshman class and has a big body and should get in the rotation next year.
- Best Win: Southern California, easily. I’m a youngster and this is the first time I can remember watching ND beat SC.
- Most Painful Loss: Michigan. Missing Crist for nearly half of the game and watching the ND offense struggle was hard to watch.
- Top Position Coach: DB's coach Chuck Martin. All the progress Walls, Smith, and Gray have made in a year and I don't think any of them have hit their potential.
- Best Coaching Moment of the season: With Tommy rattled, just give it to your senior back and let the big ugglies do the work for the final touchdown vs. SC.
- Head-shaking Coaching Moment of the season (Non Field goal Category): Has to be the entire Navy game. The coaching staff even said they had nothing for the triple option.
- November MVP: DC Bob Diaco. The defense was near perfect in November allowing only 1 touchdown in 3 games and that drive was 2 yards on 4 plays.
- Most improved from last year: Harrison Smith was no longer lost and even picked up his first (4 total) interception this year.
- Most improved from September 4th: Brian Smith came into his final year as a player with more bark than bite. His play was key down the stretch.
- Top Senior (including 5th-years): Robert Hughes, for merit and as my emotional choice. Thanks, Robert, for hanging in there when playing time was scarce, and then punking U$C and going out with a proverbial bang.
- Top Junior: Michael Floyd, but not just for catching passes. The dude turned into a very effective blocker, which will help him on Sundays. Hopefully Sundays in 2012.
- Top Sophomore: Manti, and he will only get better. Hearing a U$C RB lament playing against him was icing on the cake.
- Top Freshman: Tom Rees. No idea what the future holds, but the true freshman was thrown to the wolves and did some good things under some tough circumstances.
- Freshman you're excited about as a sophomore: Prince Shembo. If he can build upon the contribution he's made thus far... good times.
- Best Win: USC, for all of the obvious reasons. Ending the streak, elevating the program and recruiting, seeing Lame's despondent face...
- Most Painful Loss: Sadly this one has multiple right answers. A healthy QB and we beat the obnoxious skunk bears. MSU... just (“stunk”). Tulsa was a colossal WTF?. But for me, Navy was the most humiliating. We got our pants pulled down.
- Top Position Coach: Chuck Martin, DBs; Tony Alford WR and recruiting.
- Best Coaching Moment of the season: Whatever Lou Holtz imparted to BK/staff. Coincidence that they ran the table with impunity afterwards? I say this tongue-in-cheek, but not completely.
- Head-shaking Coaching Moment of the season (Non Field goal Category): Diaco's Twilight Zone interview. Then the field goal non-attempt.
- November MVP: Manti Te’o
- Most improved from last year: Harrison Smith
- Most improved from September 4th: Brian Smith
- Top Senior (including 5th-years): Gary Gray, teams were avoiding his half of the field by the third game of the season.
- Top Junior: Harrison Smith (put him here since he’s returning next season), played far too many minutes due to depth issues and still got stronger as the year went on.
- Top Sophomore: Manti Te'o, incredible ability starting to get harnessed, not a better screen sniffer-outer in the nation, just needs some work on pass coverage now.
- Top Freshman: Tai-ler Jones, played like a veteran from day one, better blocker than expected.
- Freshman you're excited about as a sophomore: Louis Nix, "unstoppable."
- Best Win: at USC, emphasis on the AT
- Most Painful Loss: Navy. All of Irish Nation went on red alert after this one. Did we have a pretender in charge?
- Top Position Coach: Chuck Martin, what a huge difference from day one in the corners, and by the end of the season, in the safeties!
- Best Coaching Moment of the season: Defensive game plan against Army.
- Head-shaking Coaching Moment of the season (Non Field goal Category): Defensive game plan against Navy.
- November MVP: Sean Cwynar, after Ian Williams went down we feared the worst, both for Ian and for the defense. Cwynar was Next Man In and the defense almost didn't skip a beat.
- Most improved from last year: Gary Gray, went from undraftable to a bona fide 1st day NFL prospect
- Most improved from September 4th: Tommy Rees progressed from being pulled from the Michigan game after an ignominious start, to beating USC at the Coliseum and going 3-0 as a starting QB for the University of Notre Dame.
Jeff Baumhower (Co-Publisher/Recruiting Analyst)
- Top Senior (including 5th-years): Gary Gray. He set a physical tone early against Purdue and was rarely beaten all season. His play allowed Diaco to be more aggressive with the front seven.
- Top Junior: Michael Floyd… 73 receptions for 913 yards and 10 touchdowns. And that was with shaky play at quarterback.
- Top Sophomore: Manti Te’o still has some work to do, but he showed this year that he is an elite linebacker. If he tightens up his game, he’ll be the best linebacker in the country next season.
- Top Freshman: T.J. Jones…A hamstring injury slowed him toward the end of the season and prevented him from having more of an impact. He still managed 22 receptions for 287 yards and three touchdowns. Surprisingly, Jones also showed that he was a very capable blocker.
- Freshman you're excited about as a sophomore: I like defense and that means I like the defensive linemen, so I’m really interested to see what type of player Louis Nix will be next September.
- Best Win: Breaking the eight-game losing streak against USC.
- Most Painful Loss: There are several. Beating Michigan State could have set the tone for the season. Losing to an undermanned and inferior Tulsa team hurt, but without question, the Navy game. Notre Dame didn’t compete on either side of the ball in the blowout loss. The following week Navy got dominated by a poor Duke squad only twisted the knife.
- Top Position Coach: This is very close between Mike Elson and Chuck Martin, because I felt both of their units played very well throughout the season. Ultimately, the fact that the Notre Dame secondary finished No. 25 in the country in pass efficiency defense and only surrendered nine passing touchdowns pushes Martin over the top.
- Best Coaching Moment of the season: Final Drive of the USC game. Brian Kelly’s decision to put the game on the shoulder of the offense line and his 245-pound senior running back, Robert Hughes. The seven-play drive covered 77 yards and consisted of five running plays and just two passes.
- Head-shaking Coaching Moment of the season (Non Field goal Category): Stanford game; Notre Dame got the ball on their own 14-yard line with 1:21 remaining in the first half, trailing 13-6. Stanford had one timeout. Notre Dame ran the ball on first down. Notre Dame threw a two-yard incomplete pass to Kyle Rudolph on second down, stopping the clock. Notre Dame ran the ball on third down and Stanford called their final timeout. Stanford took over the ball at the 50-yard line with 34 seconds remaining and was able to kick at field goal to go up 16-6 at halftime. Had Notre Dame ran the ball three straight times, the best Stanford could have hoped for would have been a single toss into the end zone.
- November MVP: Where had you been Brian Smith? I had been very critical of Smith’s play in the past. He was everywhere in the final three games of the season and might have been the missing ingredient that transformed the defense from solid to very good.
- Most improved from last year: There is no comparison between the Harrison Smith of 2009 and 2010. Smith finished second on the team with 86 tackles and led the team in interceptions with four…including the game clincher against USC.
- Most improved from September 4th: Darius Fleming struggled in the first couple games of the season, but as the year moved on he started to dominate and demand that the offense find him on the field. Fleming led the team in sacks with six, but probably created another 10 holding penalties due to his pressure.
Dave Berk (Scout.com/Irish Eyes staff)
- Top Senior (including 5th-years): David Ruffer – Kickers just do not get much respect when these things are put together. However, Ruffer had a great season and was consistent from start to finish.
- Top Junior: Michael Floyd – I have been his harshest critic, however, the performances shown late in the season and the whole body of work makes Floyd the top junior in the Irish program.
- Top Sophomore: Manti Te’o – Really wanted to go with Zach Martin, however, you just can not name Te’o at this spot as he is one of the best in college football.
- Top Freshman: Tommy Rees – No one felt Rees would be the starting quarterback of an Irish team going to a bowl game when the season started.
- Freshman you're excited about as a sophomore: Prince Shembo – Just how good Shembo can become should have all Irish fans excited about the future.
- Best Win: USC – May not have looked pretty, but the end results of a victory over USC, and a team continuing their growth makes this the best win of the season.
- Most Painful Loss: Michigan State – Having covered Brian Kelly and Mark Dantonio the past six seasons, even I was surprised with how this game ended. Did not feel the Spartans had a chance to win when they lined up to kick for the tie in overtime.
- Top Position Coach: Mike Elston (Defensive Line) – Elston fought health issues early in the year and saw injury take his best player for several weeks. When the worst was expected, the defensive line stepped up and played solid football down the stretch as Sean Cwynar, Ethan Johnson, and Kapron Lewis-Moore played their best ball of the season.
- Best Coaching Moment of the season: Fourth quarter drive against USC down 16-13. With 6:18 left on the game clock and down by 3, the Irish went 7 plays for 77 yards and a touchdown with Robert Hughes posting carries on four of the seven plays and the touchdown giving the Irish the points needed to hold on and win 20-16.
- Head-shaking Coaching Moment of the season (Non Field goal Category): Lack of defensive adjustments against Navy.
- November MVP: Irish Defense – How can you pick one player when the defense looked so bad against Navy only to turn things around in November giving up only 22 points over three games.
- Most improved from last year: Manti Te’o – Improved upon one of the top freshmen performances in the country. As a freshman, Te’o posted 63 total tackles and 5.5 TFLs. 2010 saw improvement in both areas as he recorded 127 total tackles and 9.5 TFLs.
- Most improved from September 4th: Tommy Rees – The freshman signal caller is thrown into action against Michigan and goes 0-2-1 and was pulled for Nate Montana. Finished the season with three straight wins, (85-132-8 with 10 touchdowns).
Tim O’Malley (Co-Publisher/Managing Editor)
- Top Senior (including 5th-years): Gary Gray – second-place nod for Harrison Smith
- Top Junior: Michael Floyd with no close second; Robert Blanton for the defense as his versatility was key in the season’s second half.
- Top Sophomore: Manti Te’o (in a landslide) followed by Zack Martin and Cierre Wood
- Top Freshman: Tommy Rees
- Freshman you're excited about as a sophomore (Not listed above):
- Best Win: USC…no close second, though BC was satisfying and surprising in its level of dominance.
- Most Painful Loss: Michigan – losing to one player can’t happen, regardless of his greatness that day.
- Top Position Coach (can include coordinators at their position): Bob Diaco (ILB was the defense’s best position group with Te’o, Calabrese and B. Smith) and Chuck Martin (Defensive Backs…just consider the debacle from that unit in 2009)
- Best Coaching Moment of the season: The decision to embrace the running game in November It’s never too late…
- Head-shaking Coaching Moment of the season (Non Field goal Category): Flea-flicker pass play vs. Michigan for Tommy Rees’ first collegiate pass (intercepted). Rees ran onto the field when Crist was unable to return due to blurred vision. His check-down pass was intercepted (the intended receiver was well-covered downfield), but this wasn't about a Rees read: it was a “look-at-how-smart-I-am” play-call at the worst possible time. Sometimes discretion (run, run, run, punt with a 7-0 lead) is the better part of valor.
- November MVP: Brian Smith. Not many seniors could ride the pine for eight weeks, switch positions, and dominate the way he did vs. USC when it mattered most.
- Most improved from last year: Harrison Smith or Robert Blanton. Both were immeasurably better after tough 2009 campaigns.
- Most improved from September 4th: Probably Tommy Rees, but Brian Smith is in the running as is Cierre Wood.