Rank and File: October

LT Zack Martin (#70) has been a consistent force

Our bi-weekly look at Notre Dame's best players, moments, and thoughts on the season to date...

Part I of this edition of Rank and File focuses on the team's top performers. Part II will include thoughts on the roster, coaching staff, numbers of note, and trends the team has shown through the first 2/3 of the 2011 season.

Ten on Top

Our Top 10 Irish performers – potential, hype, and 2010 accomplishments are irrelevant in the rankings. This is merely a reflection of what's transpired on the field through eight games.

  1. Michael Floyd: Makes the entire offense work (would it function without him?) and every skill position player, including his quarterback, a much bigger threat by simply taking the field. The team's second best perimeter blocker (behind Zack Martin), Floyd is the nation's best chain-moving wide receiver (his limitations downfield are that of the quarterbacks, not his own). His presence opens up the running attack and makes tight end Tyler Eifert an All-American candidate inside. Floyd unfortunately came up small in the wrong game, but other than that, he's been outstanding and a likely second-team All-America at season's end. Over the last 20 seasons, only former stars Derrick Mayes and Jeff Samardzija are in his class at the program as mid-range and short zone targets.

  2. Zack Martin: He's the most consistent football player on the team, period. Martin's an ideal left tackle in Brian Kelly's spread attack, possessing the unique ability to dominate, not just execute in space (If there's another left tackle in the nation that can successfully block for the outside boundary receiver on a bubble screen as Martin did at Purdue, I'd love to see the tape). He's also one of the team's two best at the point of attack. A lock for his second straight Guardian of the Year award as the team's top OL, if he remains in South Bend for a 5th year (2013), and with good health, Martin will go down as one of the most accomplished front line players in program history.

  3. Robert Blanton: Manti Te'o is the defense's most valuable player, but no defender has been better at his job week-to-week than has Blanton. The versatile senior defensive back ranks third in tackles, second in tackles-for-loss, third in passes defended and is tied for the team lead in interceptions. He's one of two players on the team to record a sack, fumble recovery, and QB hurry. Though the same could be said of Gary Gray opposite (much-improved in October, mind you), the Irish pass defense would be in a world of hurt without Blanton's skills on the corner, the run edge, and in zone coverage.

  4. Manti Te'o: Like Floyd, had his worst game at the worst possible time in the Game Seven horror show vs. USC. Te'o leads the team in tackles, tackles-for-loss, sacks, and importance to his unit. You could rank him as high as No. 2 without major argument, I just believe consistency should be rewarded, and both Blanton and Martin have continuously performed at the highest level through eight weeks. It's relevant too that the Notre Dame run defense would be middle-of-the-pack at best without him manning its middle.

  5. Jonas Gray: The season's biggest offensive surprise, Gray has averaged a ridiculous 8.0 yards per carry, tying him with Reggie Brooks (1992) for the best modern-day effort at the program. His 502 rushing yards ranks second to Cierre Wood (below) and the pair is tied for the team lead in total touchdowns (eight rushing scores apiece). Gray has been the team's best offensive player over the last five weeks, totaling 354 yards on 41 carries with eight TD. The senior has made one costly mistake this season, his fumble returned for a score on his first carry. Unlike 17 of the team's other 19 turnovers, at least his was a miscue forced by a defender (host of defenders).

  6. Cierre Wood: Dropped from No. 2 in each of our previous three rankings columns, likely because his full-game USC face plant – half-effort after an inexcusable fumble, included – probably sullied my ranking of him at this point in 2011. Still a work-in-progress, Wood leads the Irish in rushing yards (721), attempts (129), and gains in excess of 15 yards (11); he's tied for the team lead in total touchdowns (8). He's lost two fumbles, though both were ill-timed vs. the program's chief rivals Michigan and USC> Wood's probably the best "work-in-progress" at the program this decade, and a strong finish could move him back into the Top 3-5 at season's end.

  7. Tyler Eifert: Anyone else feel like this is too low? If not for Jonas Gray, Eifert would secure the team's Most Improved Award at season's end in congress with his likely status as a first-team All-America selection. The junior (redshirt-sophomore) ranks sixth in program history with 442 receiving yards through eight games and has a solid chance to pass John Carlson (634 in 2006) for second place behind top dog Ken MacAfee (797). Eifert had just one reception last week vs. Navy but still earned mention on our Top 10 players list – a sign that his perimeter blocking skills have improved immeasurably since last season but also as 2011 has progressed. Had the rest of the offense played to Eifert's standards vs. USC, Notre Dame would be a Top 20 team and 6-2 on the season.

  8. Harrison Smith: The secondary's leader and only elite athlete, Smith ranks second on the squad in tackles and first in passes defended – a combination that illustrates both his versatility and, perhaps, necessity along the back line. Smith has posted 30 tackles over the last three games and is now within five passes defended of tying the program record (32) held by Clarence Ellis (1969-71). Oddly, still without an interception through eight games this fall after picking off seven in his last nine last season.

  9. Darius Fleming: Fleming hasn't reached the national status predicted by this website in 2010 or his coaches this August, but he has improved – after a poor first two games – to the point that he's the most reliable outside linebacker and edge player for the defense. Unlike the rest of his LB cohorts, Fleming showed up vs. USC's versatile offensive attack, finishing with six stops including the only solo hit for lost yardage on the day. The senior ranks fifth in tackles, third in tackles-for-loss, third in sacks, second in QB hurries, and first among all front seven players in passes defended.

  10. Kapron Lewis-Moore: Likely KLM's last appearance on the Top 10 list as his senior season has ended due to knee surgery. Lewis-Moore is a lock to return for his fifth season of eligibility next fall. His 2011 season concludes with 32 tackles (4 for loss) and two passes defended in seven contests. The senior leader was the team's most consistent defensive lineman through seven weeks.

Next in Line: Three that just missed the cut…

Chris Watt – Still ranks as my No. 2 OL; the Irish go left and through his gap when key yardage must be gained. Watt should probably rank at No. 10, but grading an interior offensive lineman's performance/assignments is difficult on the TV Tape.
Jamoris Slaughter – The team's most improved player over the last three weeks and its most willing hitter. Slaughter earned his keep vs. USC, a rarity through the Irish roster…
Braxston Cave – Steady, and hasn't received enough recognition for improvement over 2010. One of four key 5th-year candidates for 2012…

Could join the list by season's end: Tommy Rees, Stephon Tuitt, Ethan Johnson (Top 10 easily but he's missed four full games), Theo Riddick, Trevor Robinson, Louis Nix and Aaron Lynch

Four to Watch for November: Aaron Lynch, Prince Shembo, Gary Gray, and Sean Cwynar…

Note: Our three to watch for October were – Jamoris Slaughter, Stephon Tuitt, and Theo Riddick…

10 Best Week-by-Week

A quick review of Irisheyes.com's weekly all-stars over the season's first two months:

10 best Irish – South Florida: Michael Floyd, Cierre Wood, Tommy Rees, Robert Blanton, Ethan Johnson, Manti Te'o, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Zack Martin, Louis Nix, Tyler Eifert. Just missed the cut: Chris Watt

10 best Irish – Michigan: Michael Floyd, Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, Tyler Eifert, Tommy Rees, T.J. Jones, Robert Blanton, Kapron Lewis Moore, Jonas Gray, and Dan Fox. Just missed: Ethan Johnson, Zack Martin, Taylor Dever, Trevor Robinson.

10 best Irish – Michigan State: Robert Blanton, Aaron Lynch, Harrison Smith, Cierre Wood, Ethan Johnson, Michael Floyd, George Atkinson, Gary Gray, Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert. Just missed: Jonas Gray, Louis Nix, T.J. Jones, Darius Fleming

10 Best Irish – Pittsburgh: Tyler Eifert, Cierre Wood, Manti Te'o, Darius Fleming, Jonas Gray, Harrison Smith, Robert Blanton, Zack Martin, Carlo Calabrese? Just Missed: Ethan Johnson, Prince Shembo, Theo Riddick

10 Best Irish – Purdue: Cierre Wood, Jonas Gray, Zack Martin, Michael Floyd, Tommy Rees, Trevor Robinson, Manti Te'o, Robert Blanton, Louis Nix, Darius Fleming. Just Missed: Chris Watt, Harrison Smith, Taylor Dever, Aaron Lynch, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Braxston Cave, Tyler Eifert

10 Best Irish – Air Force: Tommy Rees, Jamoris Slaughter, Manti Te'o, Michael Floyd, Theo Riddick, Braxston Cave, Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Jonas Gray, and Darius Fleming. Just Missed: Tyler Eifert, Andrew Hendrix, Gary Gray, the Will Linebacker Duo (Carlo Calabrese/Dan Fox), Kapron Lewis-Moore, Robert Blanton.

10 Best Irish – USC: George Atkinson, Tyler Eifert, Jonas Gray, Zack Martin, Harrison Smith, Jamoris Slaughter, Theo Riddick, Darius Fleming, Gary Gray, Robert Blanton. Just Missed the Cut: Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ben Turk

10 Best Irish – Navy: Manti Te'o, Jonas Gray, Michael Floyd, Cierre Wood, Zack Martin, Stephon Tuitt, Robert Blanton, Harrison Smith, Jamoris Slaughter, Sean Cwynar. Just Missed: Louis Nix, Tyler Eifert, Austin Collinsworth

Note: Part II is forthcoming…

Click here to view previous editions of Rank and File.

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