Note: The players and rankings listed below will differ from a forthcoming summer column that details the team's 15 best players entering 2010.
The Indispensable list considers experience, quality depth, importance of the given position, leadership and various other factors (described within). Each played a role in the 10 players reviewed below as well as their slotting on the list.
Just Missed the Cut
Four listed in this category could be considered among the team's top 10-15 overall players entering the season, but that doesn’t mean Notre Dame and its resourceful head coach can’t adjust and win without them.
Chris Stewart: I had Stewart as the team's second-best OL performer in the second half of last season, and as a 5th-year senior, team leader, and steadying influence for the young players on the O-Line, he probably deserves a spot on the list. I just couldn't kick off #10 in favor of the University's biggest law student.
Darius Fleming: To the point: Fleming IS one of the team’s 10 best players heading into the fall. But I’ll take my chances with backup outside linebackers Steve Filer and Kerry Neal in a pinch, or 2-3 game stint in relief.
Brian Smith: He’s here for the same reason he was in this spot in last year’s column: seeing is believing. I like Smith as a “drop” linebacker in the team’s new defensive scheme. He’s an instinctive playmaker and appears well-suited to play in space. And he has one last season to prove it.
Kapron Lewis-Moore: A notch above Ethan Johnson at the conclusion of the ’09 season, I feel he’ll be a notch below his classmate by next November. Johnson’s listing (in a later column) is a result of his apparent progress since November rather than any regression from Lewis-Moore – the team’s most improved defensive player in 2009.
Braxston Cave: I think he’s the team’s best center by leaps-and-bounds, but I’m sure OL coach Ed Warinner could prepare a host of backups that includes a redshirt-junior and 5th-year senior for relief duty if necessary.
Allen occupies the lead role for the offense’s most talented position group. I’m not sure he should receive 75 to 100 more carries than Jonas Gray or Cierre Wood, and I think Gray or Wood will run for more yards in 2011 than will Allen next fall. (To go one step further, I predict Wood will rush for more yards in 2012 than any back at the school since Darius Walker’s 1,267 in 2006.)
But in 2010, when the Brian Kelly program is still in its infancy, the offense and the backfield need the steadying presence, consistent 5-8 yard bursts, and quiet on-field leadership of Allen.
Reliable as a pass-catcher; knowledgeable of his assignments in blitz pickup; and greatly improved as a pure runner since his first two shaky seasons in the backfield, Allen will play a key role if the Irish are to escape September unscathed for the first time since the 2002 season. At first blush the Irish would appear safe in the hands of the Gray/Wood duo (and one of the two would likely explode for a singular big game in Allen’s absence), but the 12-game gauntlet requires Allen’s continuous contributions.
I’m in favor of a heavy rotation at the position, but I believe Allen – the 2010 offense’s security blanket – needs to be part of it on a weekly basis for the Irish to reach their potential next fall.
Two of the three are coming off surprisingly poor performances in 2009. The other (Gray) played intermittently (Michigan State, Purdue, Washington); was benched without apparent cause (Pittsburgh) midway through the contest; or did not play at all (Michigan) as a first-time regular last season.
To suggest one of Notre Dame’s struggling cornerbacks from ’09 cannot miss time in ’10 seems a bit presumptuous. But in the modern era, a team “starts” three cornerbacks. The trio behind Walls/Gray/Blanton has never played a down of college football. One (E.J. Banks) played far more offense than defense prior to his arrival on campus and the other two (Lo Wood and Spencer Boyd) should be about three weeks away from high school graduation at present.
Experience is the sole factor in this ranking and I won’t try to convince you that Walls, Gray, or Blanton is headed for all-star status at season’s end (I have all summer for that exercise). But Banks, Wood, and Boyd would likely struggle mightily in a third CB role next season.
Still learning the position, Banks is technically the No. 4 CB, but as a pure cornerback, Wood is likely the most ready of the three. But starting a freshman (and remember: the 3rd CB is basically a starter these days) at Michigan State or vs. Pittsburgh, or Utah, or at USC, (etc.) is a recipe for defensive disaster.
Learn from the Past: I’m not educated enough on the backup trio’s potential to emphatically state that one of them can’t handle a prime time role, but consider the talented freshman trio of 1990 as a point of reference.
Jeff Burris (future first-round draft pick), Tom Carter (future first-round draft pick) and Willie Clark (future third-round draft pick) each were pressed into significant duty for the No. 1 ranked Irish as rookie defensive backs (cornerback and safety). That 1990 secondary also included All-American and future first-round draft pick Todd Lyght (as well as future second-round draft pick Rod Smith, who struggled opposite Lyght early).
Replete with future pros, the 1990 secondary yielded more passing yards than any of its predecessors – in the history of the program. In fact, the total (267 yards per game) wasn’t surpassed until the 2004 season and hasn’t been since. And the ’90 secondary had star players such as Chris Zorich, Michael Stonebreaker, Demetrius Dubose, Andre Jones, Scott Kowalkowski, and George Williams playing in front of them.
The young 1990 secondary was highlighted by five future high draft picks, yet struggled to find itself due to a trio of first-year players roaming the backline. Here’s to good health for the veteran trio of Walls, Gray, and Blanton in 2010.
While #9’s ranking was due to experience, Slaughter’s slotting is more about position scarcity: he has one viable backup at present in classmate Dan McCarthy (two career defensive snaps, and I think McCarthy might end up at strong safety by 2011-12). A redshirt-junior, Slaughter is well-suited for his new role as the secondary’s quarterback.
He can run, loves to hit, and sets the pace in the weight and film room for a secondary still licking its 2009 wounds thanks to the Rich Gunnell’s of the world. Free safety was a sore spot for the defense last season: Harrison Smith and Sergio Brown couldn’t handle it and Kyle McCarthy was much better in the SS role.
Enter Slaughter for the ’10 campaign (he had a taste at FS with a start vs. Washington State and appearances vs. Stanford). Notre Dame has had four quality free safeties over the last 10 years: Tony Driver, Gerome Sapp, Chinedum Ndukwe, and David Bruton (Glen Earl and Tom Zbikowski were SS).
By 2011 and 2012, that number will reach five thanks to Slaughter, a player that will likely encounter some bumps in the road next season, but one I feel will emerge as the secondary’s secondary playmaker (along with Gary Gray) by early October.
Note: Players ranked #7, #6, #5, and #4, and then the top three, will be posted later today.