Heading into Notre Dame’s 2011 Senior Day, a few veteran players have really separated themselves from the pack.
Senior Day is always a bittersweet occasion, with contradictory emotions colliding in the hearts and minds of players and fans alike. Irish fans celebrate the careers of the Notre Dame seniors, while coming to the disappointing realization that those seniors won’t be around at next year’s opener.
Brian Kelly has recruited well since arriving in South Bend, but there are a few players who his team will absolutely miss heading into next season.
Gary Gray came in with great fanfare, but his skills have never translated to production on the field.
Taylor Dever and Trevor Robinson have been solid in the latter part of their careers, holding down the right side of an offensive line that has matured into one of the best in the nation.
Darius Fleming and Ethan Johnson struggled to find their place early on, but both have matured into perfect fits at their respective positions in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 system.
Since coming out of nowhere to grab the starting job during the 2009 season, David Ruffer has been one of the better kickers in the nation.
His 18-for-19 performance in 2010 placed him second among all FBS kickers. This year’s 7-for-11 performance is less than impressive, but for his career, Ruffer has converted field goal attempts 86 percent of the time.
For some perspective, the all-time NCAA record is 87 percent.
Though Kyle Brindza has shown a good leg of kick-offs this season, Notre Dame will surely miss Ruffer next year.
Who knows exactly what fueled the renaissance for the senior from Detroit, but after toiling on the bench for three seasons, Jonas Gray has exploded to seize a starting role in the Irish backfield. Seemingly overnight, Gray transformed from an overtalented, underproductive benchwarmer to a determined, powerful bulldozer.
During his first three seasons in the program, Gray totaled 309 yards on just 75 carries.
This season, Gray has rolled up 703 yards on 103 carries, good for a per-carry average that ranks fifth in the country among backs with at least 100 carries. Gray’s career peaked last Saturday at FedEx Field when he gained 136 yards, a single-game effort that topped his total for any season prior to 2011.
Jonas Gray has only been a star for one year, but his metamorphosis represents everything that’s great about college football. He’s lifted up his team, while also creating an NFL future from a career that seemed to be a failure.
With just Cierre Wood left in the backfield, the Irish will really miss Gray in 2012.
Robert Blanton entered Notre Dame as the least heralded member of Notre Dame’s 2008 recruiting class. ESPN ranked Blanton behind such luminaries as Lane Clelland and Brandon Newman. Even so, he improbably forced his way onto the field as a freshman and contributed two interceptions and three tackles for loss.
Since then, Blanton has only gotten better.
He’s evolved into a leader on the Notre Dame defense and one of the most aggressive cornerbacks in the nation, boosting his tackles for loss all the way up to eight so far in 2011.
Blanton is occasionally beaten in coverage, but whether he's defending against the ball in the air or coming up to stuff a run at the line of scrimmage, Blaton attacks the play with a tenacity that is unmatched by any player on the Irish defense. When Blanton moves on, he’ll leave a gaping hole in the Irish secondary.
Harrison Smith began his Notre Dame football career as a man without a position. Smith came out of high school as a safety, but Charlie Weis shifted him to linebacker in his 3-4 defense.
Playing out of position, Smith couldn’t find a role. He had the instincts to play linebacker but was just too small to find his way to the football.
When Brian Kelly took over the reigns, Smith was shifted back to safety. He struggled to adjust at first, but in his senior season, Smith has evolved into the quarterback of the Irish defense. He’s been at the forefront of a defense that’s jumped from 86th overall in 2009 to 35th overall in 2011.
Notre Dame has enough depth at safety to recover from losing Smith’s physical abilities, but it’ll be nearly impossible for the Irish to find a player who can replace Smith’s intangibles.
At this point, there’s not much more to be said about Michael Floyd. Statistically, he’s the greatest receiver in Notre Dame history.
He’s a nightmare for any defender, blending next-level strength with incredible ball skills and an uncanny ability to outmaneuver defenders around the goal line. Athletically, he was a mismatch from the first time he took the field.
By the end of this season, Floyd will have accumulated more than 250 receptions for over 3,500 yards and nearly 40 touchdowns.
Floyd is an all-time great. As deep as Notre Dame’s wide receiving corps is, Michael Floyd is completely irreplaceable.