The 5 for Fighting Irish X-factors in 2010
With the start of the college football season just around the corner, I will save you from a continued discussion of Dayne Crist running the option or Manti Te'o running the resurrected 3-4 on defense.
Instead, let's take a look at five players who, while not the face of this year's installment of Notre Dame football, will have to be solid contributors over the 12 game schedule in order for it to be considered a successful one.
5. Ben Turk-P/HLD
While I am not here to espouse more details on the importance of field position, special teams left a little to be desired for the Irish last season. In several key situations, the kicking game came up short and opened the door for the opponent.
Ben Turk had a bit of a rocky start when he took over as the punter last season, but finished strong with an average of 45.5 yards per punt over the last two contests.
Additionally, as the holder on PAT and FG tries, his ability to handle sub-par snaps will either be unnoticed (which is a good thing) or overanalyzed.
4. Jamoris Slaughter-S
In Bob Diaco's newly installed defense, there isn't a delineation between the free or strong safety. Hopefully that makes little difference for Slaughter, who has nailed down one of the two spots opposite the much maligned Harrison Smith.
Last year, Slaughter saw action at the end of the season after the aforementioned Smith moved back to LB. He also filp-flopped back and forth between CB and S, which could explain his hesitant play when he did see the field. Totaling only 14 tackles last year, expect a big jump in the numbers for 2010.
3. Sean Cwynar-NG
While not a starter on the defense, I expect Cwynar to play plenty during the season. Based on Kelly's fast-paced, quick scoring offense, the defense will spend plenty of time on the field. Since the nose guard is the anchor of the line in the 3-4, the coaching staff will want the incumbent Ian Williams to get a few breaks throughout the game.
While there will probably won't be a huge jump in production (he only had 3 tackles last season), I don't expect to see much of a drop-off when he is in the line-up. In fact, he got more playing time as the season progressed last year (especially in short yardage and goal line situations) and played very well.
2. Kerry Neal-OLB
Kerry Neal has the prototypical build for a 3-4 OLB. Originally recruited to play that position by Weis & Co., he was switched to a rush DE in Tenuta's blitz happy (yet highly ineffective) defense last year. Often being outweighed by opposing OT by 50+ pounds, Neal struggled playing out of his natural position.
In training camp, he has battled with returning starter Brian Smith and uber-athlete Steve Filer for the starting gig outside opposite Darius Flemming. When the dust settled, Neal emerged victorious. While all three will see plenty of action in what promises to be a heavy rotation, Neal should see the majority of time early in the year.
There is a lot that is required of the "dog" linebacker in Bob Diaco's system. On one play they may have to fill a hole to stop the run, and the next drop into coverage on the tight end or slot receiver. Look for Neal to improve on the 25 total tackles a year ago and be in the middle of some of the big Irish defensive plays throughout the year.
1. Cierre Wood-RB
When fall camp opened, Cierre Wood was probably the fourth guy on the depth chart at running back. When it closed, he moved up to the No. 2 spot. Part of this meteoric ascension was probably due to a very strong performance at the Blue and Gold game in the spring. More of it is likely due to the sheer athleticism of this kid.
A U.S. Army All-American and highly-touted recruit out of high school, he did not see any action last fall. That will certainly change this season, as I think about 10-15 touches at RB seems like a good starting point along with the lead role on the kick return team.
The sky is the limit for this guy with an ideal blend of size and speed. While I don't expect him to supplant Armando Allen as the starter, he will see plenty of reps and offers a varied look out of the backfield. It will be fun to watch him this fall, and he will be a household name by the time November rolls around.