60 Players to Watch Out For on the Irish Schedule (Part 1 of 3)

By now you’ve probably read a handful of lists breaking down Notre Dame’s best players, ranking the top freshmen in the Irish stable or something along those lines. And while Whiskey is busy breaking down each position group that we’ll see this year for the Irish, I wanted to do a complete 180 and take a look at Notre Dame’s opponents.

More specifically, this list will look at the top 60 players from the Irish schedule and focus on those who will likely do the most damage against Notre Dame this coming fall.

The list favors the offense with 39 players on that side of the ball, but this is only because Notre Dame will be playing some seriously suspect secondaries this year and very few corners or safeties made the cut.

Otherwise, there is a pretty even balance throughout each position on the football roster.

USC (10 players) and Michigan State (nine players) lead the way in representation, while Army and Western Michigan bring up the rear with two players a piece.

Remember, this is not a ranking in any way, just a list of really good football players sorted by position for your convenience.

Now here’s part one, starting off with those players who never get any attention.

Quarterbacks

Andrew Luck (Stanford) Sophomore

2009 stats:

2,575 passing yards (56.3 percent)

13 TD

4 INT

Last year versus Irish:

198 passing yards (70 percent)

0 TD

0 INT

Sure Luck’s stats aren’t overwhelming and he wasn’t the main culprit in defeating the Irish in the last game of 2009. Yes we know Stanford lost All-American running back Toby Gerhart and that this is a big blow to the Cardinal’s chances for success this year.

But Luck still put up one of the best red shirt freshman seasons we’ve seen in recent memory and managed the offense perfectly. And as you’ll see with the completion of this three part series, it’s not like Stanford is without weapons either.

Luck has all the tools to become one of the best quarterbacks in the nation: big arm, great pocket presence, solid accuracy and very good mobility (354 rushing yards in 2009). He also has the benefit of playing behind a very strong offensive line and being tutored by former NFL-quarterback Jim Harbaugh.

Notre Dame may not play a more talented or dangerous player all year.

Ricky Dobbs (Navy) Senior

2009 stats:

1,031 passing yards (53.3 percent)

6 TD

3 INT

1,192 rushing yards (3.8 avg.)

26 TD

Last year versus Irish:

56 passing yards (66.7 percent)

1 TD

102 rushing yards (3.3 average)

1 TD

Navy is looking for another double-digit win season, they’ve beaten Notre Dame two out of the past three years and their quarterback is getting some minor Heisman hype heading into the fall.

This isn’t your typical Midshipmen program from the 1990’s ladies and gentlemen.

There’s no doubt about it, Ricky Dobbs is a terrific option quarterback and as long as he can stay healthy Navy has a very good chance of going undefeated. That is, if they can pull off another upset of Notre Dame.

Dobbs will give the Irish fits all game long at the new Meadowlands when the team’s meet this year. Last season Notre Dame couldn’t shut down Dobbs or the fullback up the middle, so it will be imperative to take away one of those options.

If one thing is for sure, you know Navy and Ricky Dobbs will be ready.

Matt Barkley (USC) Sophomore

2009 stats:

2,735 passing yards (59.9 percent)

15 TD

14 INT

Last year versus Irish:

380 passing yards (65.5 percent)

2 TD

1 INT

It was a very up and down season for the true freshman Barkley last season in Los Angeles, but it’s pretty apparent that this kid is chalk full of talent and can do some serious damage with his arm.

The truth is though that Notre Dame made Barkley look good last year in South Bend and it remains to be seen if he will be next in line of the elite Trojan quarterbacks. Still, he’s only a sophomore and has plenty of time to develop and has numerous weapons to work with on offense.

Notre Dame fans will have plenty of time to watch Barkley as the Trojans don’t host the Irish until late November, so it will be interesting to see how he handles being a team leader amidst all of the problems that have occurred during the off-season.

David Shinskie (Boston College) Sophomore

2009 stats:

2,049 yards (51.7 percent)

15 TD

14 INT

Last year versus Irish:

279 passing yards (48.6 percent)

1 TD

3 INT

Here’s another quarterback Notre Dame made look really good last season. Despite the 26 year-old freshman having a very pedestrian season overall in 2009, Shinskie nevertheless passed for a season high in yards against the Irish.

While coming back as the starter atop the Eagle depth chart this off-season, Shinskie is being pushed by fellow sophomore Mike Marscovetra and may not even be under center by the time Boston College hosts Notre Dame in early October.

Although Shinskie possesses a strong arm, his decision making and pocket presence were pretty close to awful last year. With the Notre Dame defense likely to key on the Eagle running game like last year, there will be plenty of opportunity for Shinskie (or Marscovetra) to make plays when the Irish pay a visit to Chestnut Hill.

Running Backs

Allen Bradford (USC) Senior

2009 stats:

669 rushing yards (5.8 avg.)

8 TD

Last year versus Irish:

45 rushing yards (5.6 avg.)

1 TD

A highly touted prospect coming out of high school in 2005, Bradford has been kind of a journeyman on the USC roster. A safety coming out of the prep ranks, Bradford moved to running back and then fullback for a while, but had never gained significant playing time until last year.

Bradford was second on the team in rushing in 2009 and his punishing and powerful running style perfectly complements the pro-style offense the Trojans will continue to run in 2010.

Although a hip injury slowed him down in the spring, all signs are pointing to Bradford being the starting tailback for USC and he’ll be one player to watch as the season rolls along. He’ll certainly receive plenty of stiff competition from other Trojan runners.

Eddie Wide (Utah) Senior

2009 stats:

1,069 rushing yards (5.3 avg.)

12 TD

A first-team All-Mountain West selection, Wide is a dangerous runner who should improve upon his successful 2009 season, but will likely share carries in the type of system Utah likes to run.

Still, Wide gives Utah another threat to use in their explosive offense that should be very difficult for Notre Dame to defend. He became the primary runner last year due to an injury ahead of him on the depth chart, but Wide proceeded to rattle off a school record six straight games of 100 yards rushing or more.

He will be one of the lesser known players to keep an eye on this season.

Fullback

Vince Murray (Navy) Senior [RS]

2009 stats:

971 rushing yards (5.3 avg.)

6 TD

Last year versus Irish:

158 yards (11.3 avg.)

1 TD

I’d say Murray had a pretty good afternoon last year against Notre Dame when every time he touched the ball he averaged a first down.

Defending Navy’s triple option will be a big test for Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco in their first year at Notre Dame and finding a way to slow down Murray will be a fundamental key to the game plan.

Murray basically came out of nowhere last year and exploded on the scene gaining almost 1,000 yards despite only starting in ten games and missing another with an injury. He is a very powerful runner who hits the hole with speed and should be considered one of the biggest threats Notre Dame will face in 2010.

Wide Receiver

Damaris Johnson (Tulsa) Junior

2009 stats:

78 receptions

1,131 yards

3 TD

A freshman All-American in 2008 and pre-season All-Conference USA heading into this year, Johnson is one of the best players in the country you’ve never heard of.

Some of his numbers are pretty unbelievable including, 125 receptions and 1,739 receiving yards to go along with 12 touchdowns through the air in his first two seasons as a Golden Hurricane.

Johnson has also been in the top five nationally in all-purpose yardage each of his first two seasons, including leading the country in 2009 with 2,693 yards.

While actually quite small at 5’8" 170 pounds, Johnson is an assassin with the ball in his hands and will be a big piece to the Tulsa offense this fall.

Keith Smith (Purdue) Senior

2009 stats:

91 receptions

1,100 yards

6 TD

Last year versus Irish:

11 receptions

136 yards

1 TD

By far Purdue’s biggest weapon on offense, Keith Smith absolutely killed Notre Dame last year in West Lafayette.

A former quarterback who made the switch to safety before ultimately settling in as a receiver for the Boilermakers, Smith exploded last year and was awarded first team All-Big Ten honors from the media.

While I’m not quite ready to believe that if you take away Smith and you’ll take away Purdue’s offense, you can bet he’ll see plenty of double coverage in an attempt to try and force the Boilermakers new quarterback to beat the Irish in another way.

Nevertheless, Smith is the top offensive threat to worry about when the Irish open up their season on September 4th.

BJ Cunningham (Michigan State) Junior

2009 stats:

48 receptions

641 yards

4 TD

Last year versus Irish:

7 receptions

74 yards

While Cunningham’s stats aren’t that impressive, he will be a big threat in what is shaping up to be a very potent Michigan State offense in 2010.

Plus, Cunningham had a really good game last year against Notre Dame and his 89 receptions and 1,169 receiving yards through two years in East Lansing are certainly nothing to scoff at.

With another year of experience and a couple other receivers to take some pressure away, Cunningham may turn into one of the biggest threats in the Big Ten.

Offensive Linemen

Kristofer O’Dowd (USC) Senior

One of the top centers in the nation and one of the best linemen in the country, the veteran O’Dowd anchors the USC attack with power and tenacity.

Although he has been injured quite a bit over his career, when he is on the field and fully healthy, he is one of the best there is at his position.

With the transition in coaching staffs in Los Angeles and plenty of off-season turmoil, O’Dowd will be one of the Trojan leaders heading into his last season at USC.

Thomas Claiborne (Boston College) Senior

A former defensive lineman, Claiborne made the move to guard and has been one of the ACC’s best run blockers ever since.

A smaller version of Notre Dame’s Chris Stewart, the Eagle offensive lineman is part of one of the country’s best blocking units and will be looking to improve upon Boston College’s rather lackluster rushing game against the Irish last year.

Anthony Parker (Western Michigan) Junior

Western Michigan doesn’t have a lot of NFL prospects on their roster, but Parker may be one of the few who does move on to a pro career.

A big hulking guard at 6’4" 330 pounds, Notre Dame will probably see a lot of running plays run directly behind Mr. Parker, and we will almost assuredly hear new color commentator Mike Maycock mention his name a handful of times when the Broncos pay a visit to South Bend.

Defensive Line

Greg Romeus (Pittsburgh) Senior

2009 stats:

43 tackles

11.5 TFL

8 sacks

Last year versus Irish:

2 tackles

1 forced fumble

1 blocked kick

The Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Big East and 1st Team All-Big East in 2009, Romeus was tabbed by many to be a 1st round pick in this year’s NFL draft. Instead, the athletic defensive end will be coming back for one more season in Pittsburgh.

A third team All-American last season and someone who is listed on half a dozen pre-season award watch lists, Romeus may very well be the top defender the Irish face all year. If the Panthers get past Utah and Miami early in the season and Romeus is on top of his game, then Pitt may be the best defense Notre Dame plays all season.

And yes, Romeus was the player who caused the Clausen "fumble" last year that effectively ended the Irish comeback and won the game for Pitt.

Thomas Keiser (Stanford) Senior (RS)

2009 stats:

47 tackles

15 TFL

9 sacks

Last year versus Irish:

4 tackles

1.5 TFL

1 sack

A freshman All-American in 2008, Keiser exploded last year and became one of the top pass rushers in the country.

A linebacker/defensive end hybrid, similar to the way Darius Fleming was used in the past, Keiser is on the Nagurski Trophy and Ronnie Lot Award watch lists for 2010.

He will be a big part of any success Stanford may enjoy this year and will be someone to watch out for as the season rolls along.

Mike Martin (Michigan) Junior

2009 stats:

51 tackles

8.5 TFL

2 sacks

Last year versus Irish:

3 tackles

The Michigan defense was much maligned last year, but Martin was one of the few bright spots contributing solid play from the defensive tackle position.

With the switch to a 3-3-5 defensive scheme under Greg Robinson, it will be all the more important for Martin to clog up the middle and continue making tackles for the Wolverines.

His numbers as a sophomore are pretty impressive and look for Martin to be one of Michigan’s defensive and team leaders this fall.

Linebackers

Obi Ezeh (Michigan) Senior

2009 stats:

69 tackles

5 TFL

Last year versus Irish:

7 tackles

A freshman All-American in 2007, Ezeh struggled a little bit last year but still remains one of Michigan’s top defenders and is the current career leader in tackles for the Wolverines.

With only one week in the season before Michigan plays Notre Dame, there won’t be a lot of time to see how well Ezeh is playing, but he’s a defender you will want to watch closely when the Irish and Wolverines battle it out in a few weeks.

Michael Morgan (USC) Senior

2009 stats:

50 tackles

13 TFL

4 sacks

Last year versus Irish:

6 tackles

Although not a very well rounded linebacker, Morgan is a pass rushing speed demon that consistently battles his way into opponents’ backfields and makes plays.

He will be pushed to keep his starting spot as a strong side linebacker with USC’s talented roster, but he is someone who could give Notre Dame’s inexperienced offensive tackles fits all game long.

Luckily, the Irish don’t play the Trojans until the last game of the year.

Stephen Anderson (Army) Senior

2009 stats:

83 tackles

9 TFL

2.5 sacks

Everyone is expecting Notre Dame to run over Army this year when the teams meet in the new Yankee Stadium, but not if Anderson has anything to say about it.

Described as the consummate leader, and that means a ton with the type of people on Army’s roster, Anderson was among the best non-BCS linebackers in the country last year.

Unfortunately, he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Black Knights ninth game, but he still played well enough to put up some impressive stats.

The Irish may very well score a lot of points against Army in 2010, but you can bet Anderson will be there making a lot of tackles and inspiring his team.

Secondary

DeAundre Brown (Tulsa) Junior

2009 stats:

102 tackles

3 TFL

1 INT

A strong and physical safety, Brown comes into 2010 as Tulsa’s best defender after having led the team in tackles last fall.

At 210 pounds and with great range, he is very much in the mold of the modern-day safeties that play close to the line of scrimmage and can wreak havoc all over the field.

He will definitely be someone that will get your attention when the Golden Hurricanes come to South Bend this year.

Part two coming soon featuring:

A Spartan looking to not throw the game away in the final minute this year, an All-American spark plug from Pitt and a pair of seriously destructive defensive linemen from the land of Troy.

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