2011 could be a BCS year for Notre Dame football, but the Irish fortunes will rest with some unexpected players.
Obviously, Dayne Crist, Michael Floyd and Manti Te'o will lead the way, but those players are known quantities. There’s always the risk of injury for any player, but, outside of that, we know what we’re going to get from Notre Dame’s established leaders.
Brian Kelly’s team is fully capable of making a leap in 2011, but if the Irish are going to graduate to BCS contention this season, they’ll need a few lesser-known players to step up.
There’s been a ton of buzz around Notre Dame’s revitalized defensive line going into 2011.
Incoming freshmen Aaron Lynch, Ishaq Williams and Stephon Tuitt have brought plenty of hype to South Bend, but those three are unlikely to see the field much, at least in the early part of the season. Still, the forward wall of the Irish defense has the potential to be excellent.
If Notre Dame’s line does deliver on its potential, sophomore defensive tackle Louis Nix will be right in the middle of it. Nix has slimmed down to 326 pounds and will rotate snaps at nose tackle with senior Sean Cwynar. Cwynar is a steady player, but he’s slightly undersized for the position and doesn’t offer quite the same upside as Nix.
In Bob Diaco’s defense, the primary job of the nose tackle is to clog up the middle. When he’s on, Nix’s sheer mass gives him the ability to occupy blockers, and his immense strength allows him to push those blockers into their own backfield. He shuts down the middle on running plays and collapses the pocket on passes. Even more, Nix’s presence allows Notre Dame’s best defensive player to do his job.
Like Tony Siragusa and Ray Lewis on the great Baltimore Ravens defenses of the early 2000’s, Louis Nix and Manti Te'o have a symbiotic relationship. Nix is an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Irish line, and Teo is a ball-seeking missile. When he’s free to roam the field, Te'o covers an incredible amount of territory from his linebacker spot. By the time he reaches the ball-carrier, he delivers a blow like no other player in college football. If Nix can keep opposing linemen off of him, Te'o will be a contender for the Butkus award.
Notre Dame’s defense will be good no matter what, but if Louis Nix elevates his game, the Irish 'D' will be outstanding.
The Irish defense undoubtedly has strength up the middle, but Bob Diaco will have to rely on the outside to generate a pass rush.
Even with the new crop of freshmen pass rushers storming into South Bend, seniors Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore will likely get the bulk of the playing time at defensive end. Both are good players, but neither is an outstanding pass rusher. Senior linebacker Darius Fleming has been terrorizing quarterbacks in camp and will likely demand the attention of opposing offensive lines.
That leaves a tremendous opportunity for sophomore linebacker Prince Shembo.
Shembo came on late in the season last year, registering 4.5 sacks in the final five games he played as a freshman. He’s grabbed hold of the starting outside linebacker spot opposite Fleming and looks ready to break out.
At 6’2” and 250 pounds, Shembo possesses excellent acceleration and quickness but understandably struggles to hold up against run-blocking offensive tackles. Even so, the middle of the Irish defense projects to be stout against the run, and Diaco will often have the luxury of turning Shembo loose on the outside. This is where he can really deliver for the Notre Dame defense.
Prince Shembo is more capable of the spectacular than any Irish defender except Manti Te'o.
He will make some mistakes, but Shembo has the potential to deliver the type of game-changing plays that can be the difference in elevating Notre Dame to BCS contention in 2011.
Notre Dame’s defense is improved in 2011, but it is paper thin in the secondary.
Gary Gray and Robert Blanton should be excellent as the top two corners, but the spread concepts that pervade college football require defenses to have more than two skilled cover men in the secondary. Notre Dame will need at least one more player to emerge as an every-down contributor at corner.
The Irish have a talented backup safety in Zeke Motta, but covering speedy wide receivers is not his strength. Bennett Jackson is an excellent athlete with plenty of speed, but he’s never played cornerback in a college game. Incoming freshmen Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown are talented, but likely won’t be ready to take on significant playing time until later in the season.
That leaves the task up to sophomore cornerback Lo Wood.
Wood will likely slide into the slot, with the responsibility of covering some of the most dangerous offensive players that Notre Dame will face in 2011. While it’s a difficult and demanding position, it actually plays into his strengths.
His change-of-direction ability is excellent, which will allow him to stick with quick slot receivers. The knocks on Wood are that he’s a bit undersized and doesn’t have the power to hang with bigger receivers, but in the slot, he’ll likely be matched up with receivers closer to his own size.
The Irish have done an excellent job of recruiting to reload the front seven, but they’ll depend heavily on Wood to shore up the last line of defense.
Notre Dame’s resurgence at the end of the 2010 season was fueled by their defense. If the Irish are going to ascend back to college football royalty in 2011, they’ll need more explosion from the offense.
Theo Riddick is their detonator.
Riddick will play at least three positions for the Fighting Irish, lining up on offense in the slot, in the backfield and as punt returner.
He was slowed by a foot injury last season, but Riddick is an elusive athlete who could eventually play a similar role to the one that Golden Tate played in recent years. Riddick isn’t quite as powerful as Tate was, but he’s every bit as dangerous with the ball in his hands.
Brian Kelly’s offense revolves around getting the ball to players in space. While Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert are excellent NFL prospects who can excel in any system, their skill sets really aren’t tailored to Kelly’s version of the spread.
Conversely, Theo Riddick is exactly the type of player whose skill set is amplified by playing in the spread. He’s slippery in space and possesses more breakaway ability than any other player on the Irish offense.
Riddick is primed to blow up in 2011 as a catalyst in Notre Dame’s improving offense.
Jonas Gray’s career bears a striking similarity to that of his former teammate, Robert Hughes. Both backs were touted coming out of high school but initially stumbled upon arriving in South Bend. Hughes was excellent as a complement to Armando Allen last season, capping off his year with a Jerome Bettis-esque effort in Notre Dame’s final scoring drive in the rain against USC.
The Irish will look for Gray to fill a similar role this season.
No matter how well the offense can stretch the field vertically or horizontally, there will still be moments in every game when Notre Dame will need to grind out a few yards. Though the yards gained in those situations are few, they tend to hold tremendous importance on the outcome of the game. Gray is the only runner on Notre Dame’s current roster who’s capable of performing this task consistently.
He’s capable, but he's not proven.
Reports coming out of Notre Dame’s preseason camp are saying that Cierre Wood looks healthy, explosive and ready to take a hold of the lead back spot in the Irish offense. Even so, Notre Dame’s fortunes will rise and fall with Jonas Gray.
If he can effectively grind out tough yards in big games, Gray might just carry the Irish all the way to the BCS.