Most Improved: Semi-Finalists

Robinson (78) excelled in space this season

Our first column in a weekend series examines those less-heralded, though decidedly improved Irish who took a major step forward from last season.

The Most Improved Award offers a few hurdles to consider. First, no rookies allowed. Some players considered improved greatly since the Sun Bowl last December; others since the beginning of the Kelly era, while a few more were disqualified from contention simply because they performed so well last year.

Regardless, below is the first in a weekend series focusing on Notre Dame's most improved players for 2011: the semi-finalists, the runners-up, the unquestioned winner with homage paid to the past, and finally, the concluding segment with a nod to 2012's candidates.

A quick note: Cornerback Robert Blanton was the No. 7 rated overall player by Irisheyes.com last season. He'll be among the Top 5-6 again this year. His omission from the Most Improved series is due simply to the fact that we were ahead of the curve on the rock-solid senior corner entering 2011.

Others considered for semi-finalist status were junior slot receiver Robby Toma (impact was too late) and sophomore safety Austin Collinsworth for his efforts on special teams, but he was pretty solid last season as well.

#4 Senior Center Braxston Cave

I felt Cave performed better in 2010 than did most Irish fans/observers, but in 2011, we no longer had to assess his play on a curve, as Year 2 as a shotgun spread center was markedly better than Year 1.

Cave's value as a short-yardage blocker and solid pass protector was notable by his absence in the last two games. He's undervalued as a move blocker (pulling into space) as well – he might not look the part on the roll, but he generally gets his man.

The Notre Dame rushing attack was held to 4.1 yards per carry without Cave in the lineup vs. the best (Stanford) and likely the fifth-best rush defense the Irish faced (BC) this fall. Its season average outside those games (and not including Maryland vs. whom Cave did not play) was a robust 5.53 yards per rush. Without Cave (Maryland, BC, and Stanford) the Irish surrendered eight sacks in 12 quarters. With Cave, the team allowed just five in 32 (including half of the Wake Forest game during which he suffered a foot injury, shelving him for the season).

Best Games: Purdue and Air Force
Focus for 2012: Expected to return for a 5th-season, Cave ranked as our No. 13 overall player entering November. He'd have likely finished among the Top 11 or 12. A move into the Top 10 – with no doubt in that ascent – would signify a top-notch 5th-season for the Mishawaka, Penn product.

#3 Junior Will Linebacker Dan Fox

Made the jump from special teams regular to 12-game starter at the Will linebacker position. I'm not sure what a bigger surprise was: that Fox won the job over returning classmate Carlo Calabrese in August, or that he never relinquished the role through three months.

The junior tandem shared the role as forecast by Brian Kelly and his defensive staff, but Fox certainly earned more playing time due to his versatility (read: pass coverage) and vast improvement as an interior run defender.

Fox has two seasons of eligibility remaining and finished his first as a scrimmage competitor with 46 tackles (6th on the squad) including two for lost yardage. He added a sack (it should have been scored as two sacks), a forced fumble (one of just seven Irish players to force a fumble, which is a bit disturbing) and a pass defended.

Best Games: Michigan, Michigan State, Air Force
Focus for 2012: The Irish could use better short-zone and second level coverage from their ‘backers – Fox is more than capable in this regard, but one pass defended this season did not illustrate that oft-reported skill set.

#2 Senior Right Guard Trevor Robinson

I had the former No. 6 Scout.com OG prospect as Notre Dame's fourth, possibly fifth best offensive lineman last fall. (Since five start a football game that's not a huge compliment.) This season he's in the running for the No. 3 spot (potentially No. 2 though my choice is below) considering his consistent play in space, responsibilities (12 games of line calls for a tedious, shot-gun spread attack that drained the play clock on most snaps) and improved play at the point of attack.

After playing relatively well in three starts as a true freshman, Robinson's weight fluctuations (self-imposed) and a lingering leg injury contributed to an inconsistent first two seasons as a starter, but aside from an early-season propensity for succumbing to a power rush over his right side, Robinson played the best football of his college career in his final season.

Best Games: Purdue, Michigan, Wake Forest

#1 Junior Left Guard Chris Watt

I never played a minute along the offensive line, and despite two sessions of film tutorials with an all-time great college defensive coordinator, I still find the position to be the hardest to grade upon multiple viewings. But for my money, Chris Watt was the team's second-best offensive lineman this fall (left tackle Zack Martin is easily No. 1).

Watt used 117 snaps last fall to prepare for the lead role this season; he then appeared among our Top 10 overall players – or those that just missed the cut – in four games this fall. The Glen Ellyn, Illinois-product is a mauler in the run game, excelling at the point of attack and vastly improved kicking out and burying linebackers at the second level.

With two seasons of eligibility remaining and assumed good health, look for Watt to finish his Irish career in the running for national honors in 2013.

Best Games: South Florida, Purdue, Air Force, Boston College
Focus for 2012: The left side (LT, LG, C) returns intact. Though continuity is key, it would benefit both the Irish front five and Watt's future if he could become equally adept at the right guard position, thereby allowing the team's five best offensive linemen to start (rather than force-feeding a new player into the RG role).

Note: Part II will focus on a trio of finalists – players that would be in line to win the award had the 2011 season not included a guy named Jonas...

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