Notre Dame Football: The Fighting Irish Most Improved Player Award

James ToljCorrespondent IIMarch 30, 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 29: Jonas Gray #25 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish is hit by (L-R) Caleb King #57, Chris Ferguson #23 and Wave Ryder #8 of the Navy Midshipmen at Notre Dame Stadium on October 29, 2011 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Usually, a number of players deserve to be considered for the most improved player. However, this year, one member of the Fighting Irish has separated himself from the rest. There is no question that he is the most improved player.

But that doesn't mean there aren't other players who deserve to be mentioned for the distinction.

One such player is Robert Blanton. Maybe no player has improved more on defense than Blanton.

After starting eight games in his sophomore year, Blanton was relegated to a nickelback role for his junior season. He sat behind Darrin Walls and Gary Gray on the depth chart.

Even though Blanton only started one game in his junior year, he still produced. Blanton ended the year with 54 total tackles, 1.5 sacks and two interceptions. He was third on the team with seven tackles for loss as well.

With little experience behind Blanton and Gray this season, cornerback has become one of the most important positions on the team.  

Blanton has played extremely well, and with the Irish not getting much pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Blanton and Gray have had to cover receivers for ample amounts of time.

Blanton has become the team's top cornerback, and his draft stock has risen considerably over the course of the season.

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 29:  Jonas Gray #25 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs for a touchdown pursued by Chris Ferguson #23 and Jarred Shannon #10 of the Navy Midshipmen at Notre Dame Stadium on October 29, 2011 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame def
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Jamoris Slaughter is another player on defense that is having a superb season. Slaughter missed three full games last season, and he saw Zeke Motta take over the majority of time at safety after Slaughter was bit by the injury bug.

Slaughter's statistics might not indicate it due to sharing time with Motta at safety, but he has had a fantastic year. Slaughter, who started his career at Notre Dame as a cornerback, has proven that he can cover receivers one-on-one. He has also showcased his skills defending the run as a linebacker against run-heavy option teams.

Irish fans should be praying that Slaughter returns next season for a fifth year.

Cierre Wood and Michael Floyd, as expected, have both had great season for the Irish on offense. The whole offensive line has performed amazingly, too. And expectations for Tyler Eifert this season were high as well, but he has played well above them.

Eifert was thrust into a starting role last year after Notre Dame's star tight end, Kyle Rudolph, was forced to miss the remainder of the season with a hamstring injury.

This season, Eifert is the team's second leading receiver in yards, receptions and touchdowns (behind Floyd in each). Floyd gets much of the attention for his blocking, but Eifert has become a weapon in the running game as well. 

With Floyd on his way to the NFL and Eifert's strong rapport with Tommy Rees,  if Rees remains the starter, Eifert has a good chance of being the top receiving threat for the Irish next season.

Now, for the player most deserving of the award.

It should come as no surprise that Jonas Gray is the most improved player, and it is fitting that the departing senior is honored after his career at Notre Dame has likely come to an end.

ESPN reported that Brian Kelly called Gray's knee injury suffered against Boston College "significant" (he is awaiting the results of an MRI). The injury might have ended Gray's college career early, but with the statistics he has accumulated thus far, there is no doubt that Gray is the Irish's most improved player for the 2011-12 season.

In Gray's first three seasons, he had a combined 309 yards on the ground without a touchdown.

The beginning of Gray's senior season didn't start off all that well either. After the Irish drove the length of the field on the first drive in the season opener versus the University of South Florida, Gray fumbled on the goal line and the football was returned for a touchdown.

Gray finished the game with just four carries for 17 yards.

The next week in Ann Arbor, Gray's production increased. He had just six carries, but he racked up 66 yards and an eye-popping 11.0 yards per carry. 

It was in the Week 4 win against Pittsburgh that Gray got his first career touchdown, and he didn't look back. Gray received just three carries, but one of which was a 79-yard touchdown scamper.

In the seven games to follow, Gray scored 11 rushing touchdowns.

Altogether this season, Gray has rushed for 791 yards with 12 touchdowns and an outstanding 6.1 yard per carry average.

He entered the season as a backup to Wood, but he soon emerged as Wood's equal and was part of a dynamic one-two punch.

Gray resiliency throughout the season bodes well for his NFL hopes. His injury came very late in the season and will hurt his draft status, but no one should count Gray out from having a long and productive NFL career.