When one thinks about the 8-0 Fighting Irish, the names most likely to come to mind are head coach Brian Kelly, Heisman-hopeful Manti Te’o, Louis Nix III, Tyler Eifert, and Cierre Wood, just to name a few. However, while a large part of Notre Dame’s success can certainly be attributed to playmakers like these, there are a few others who deserve to be recognized as key contributors to the (so far) perfect season…
Honorable Mention: QB Tommy Rees
I’m sure that many would argue that Rees should be at the top of this list; the reason that I instead tag him with the ‘honorable mention’ label is that I’m not sure that it is fair to call him an ‘unsung’ hero any longer. Over half-way through the season, Rees’ reliability has made him a fan favorite. In particular, his late-game heroics against Purdue and Stanford have allowed him to be recognized as the best ‘closer’ in college football. Hero? Absolutely. Unsung? Not anymore.
#5: P Ben Turk
It’s about time that Irish fans give the special teams some love; that can start by recognizing fourth-year punter Ben Turk. His yards per punt average (40.9) is nearly the same as that in 2011, but the placement of his punts is the main difference between this year and last. Against Michigan State, Turk punted the ball eight times (including the three inside the 15 yard-line) and forced the Spartans to begin each drive at their own 19 yard-line on average. Throughout the year, Turk has helped put the Notre Dame defense in great position to keep opponents to low points totals and stay close in any contest. There is no way of underrating the defense, but Turk’s punting makes it look even better.
#4: WR T.J. Jones
Jones’ stats will certainly not blow anyone away (26 receptions, 330 yards, 2 TD’s). Still, he is Notre Dame’s leading receiver and provides both Everett Golson and Tommy Rees with a solid threat along the sidelines. Also, similar to Turk, his stats do not tell the whole story; against Purdue and Stanford, Jones hauled in big time catches in critical situations (one to keep a late drive alive and one to win the game in overtime, respectively). While he will most likely never be a star receiver that can carry an offense, he can be and has been a reliable option that improves the offense’s versatility and ability to spread the ball.
#3: RB Theo Riddick
It’s debatable as to whether or not Riddick has received enough praise for his play, but it is certain that he has been a vital component of the Irish offense. Able to line up at both running back and slot receiver, Riddick’s versatility makes him an X-factor that provides an element of surprise to Kelly’s spread offense. He also has big-play ability, making a difficult catch in the redzone against Stanford and breaking off a tough run for a huge gain against BYU. It’s a shame that this is Riddick’s last year, but Notre Dame seems to be making the most of it by using him everywhere he can play, which opens up even more opportunities for the offense.
#2: K Kyle Brindza
Although his kicking game has not been very consistent, Brindza has split the uprights when it has mattered most. In a high pressure situation against Purdue, the home opener, he drilled the ball down the middle to send the Irish to a 2-0 record for the first time since 2008. Even more impressive was his game-tying kick against Stanford; in the biggest game of the year (to that point) and terrible playing conditions, Brindza pulled through to keep Notre Dame’s undefeated season alive. Even if he frustrates us at times, Brindza deserves lots of credit for his clutch play and ability to save the team’s title hopes.
#1: CB KeiVarae Russell and S Matthias Farley
These two deserve as much credit as (almost) any for the rock solid play of Notre Dame’s defense throughout the year. With a combined 64 tackles on the year (including 38 for Russell, tied for 3rd on the team) and two interceptions, both of them have been making plays in the Irish secondary to help sure up the run and pass defense. More importantly, both have been asked to fill big shoes (because of the early losses of upperclassmen Lo Wood and Jamoris Slaughter) and have responded by playing smart, disciplined football. Finally, neither of them were recruited to Notre Dame to play in the secondary (Russell and Farley played RB and WR in high school, respectively), so give them even more credit for not showing any weaknesses and helping us forget that they are both first-year players. Going forward, look for Russell and Farley to be the leaders of a defense that will be fierce for years to come.