Tuesday, May 22, 2012
100 Days Countdown: Notre Dame
By Matt Fortuna
As part of the "College Football Live" 100 Days 'Til Kickoff countdown, here's a look at Notre Dame's top 10 players.
Manti Te'o could be the best inside linebacker in all of college football.
1. Manti Te'o: The senior passed up NFL millions and returns as perhaps the top inside linebacker in the nation. He will look to build off consecutive 120-plus-tackle campaigns and anchor a front seven primed to take the next step under third-year coordinator Bob Diaco.
2. Tyler Eifert: Like Te'o, Eifert deferred NFL dollars and dreams to return for one more year. And, like Te'o, Eifert may just be the nation's best player at his position. But the tight end will resemble more of a receiver this season, moving all over the field and serving as the No. 1 target for whoever ends up throwing the ball for Notre Dame.
3. Cierre Wood: Coming off a 1,000-yard season in which he lost snaps to Jonas Gray late in the campaign, Wood returns as the Irish's No. 1 running back. Depth in the backfield may keep carries down again, but Wood figures to have another strong season with a proven line blocking for him.
4. Jamoris Slaughter: He probably won't be a first-round draft pick the way Harrison Smith was, but the fifth-year senior is a versatile playmaker who can move up and play linebacker while serving as the voice for a young secondary.
5. Stephon Tuitt: He didn't put up the big numbers of fellow class member Aaron Lynch, but he may be even better. Tuitt has shown the versatility to play end and nose guard, and he will only get better after bursting onto the scene as a freshman.
6. Zack Martin: Want to know what helps with the quarterback transition the most? A proven offensive line. At left tackle, Martin keys that group as he enters his senior year with 26 straight starts under his belt (two at right tackle).
7. Theo Riddick: You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who stood out more this spring. The running back/slot receiver is a playmaker when he gets the ball in his hands. If he can stay healthy and succeed as a punt returner, he will find his name much higher on this list a few months from now.
8. Braxston Cave: Another veteran piece on this line, Cave stars in the middle and is an important locker room voice. Limited this spring after a foot injury sidelined him late last season, Cave is back for a fifth year, his third in a row as the starting center.
9. Louis Nix: A subpar spring forced Nix behind Kona Schwenke on the depth chart, but the nose guard is an invaluable cog in the middle for the Irish's young line. A strong preseason camp -- and a capable replacement in Schwenke -- should only make Nix better in his second year of game action. (He redshirted his freshman year.)
10. George Atkinson III: Atkinson returned a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns as a freshman. Now, he's hoping that playmaking ability translates on the offensive side of the ball. He netted 178 yards of offense in the spring game but coughed it up twice, and he'll have to ease the staff's concerns since Wood and Riddick are ahead of him.