In 2002 it was Mike Williams. In 2006, Dwayne Jarrett. And last October, it was Robert Woods playing the role as USC's uncoverable wide receiver that stuck a dagger through the hearts of Notre Dame fans, not to mention its secondary.
Woods scored two touchdowns, caught 12 passes for 119 yards and added a 31-yard punt return that led to a Trojans touchdown in a 31-17 upset victory of the Irish in South Bend.
Just a true junior, Woods now plays second-fiddle to the nation's best receiver, true sophomore Marqise Lee.
"Oh, boy. Incredible, just acceleration after the catch," said Kelly of Lee. "You know, if you look at what he does after the catch, that's where it gets really scary.
"Secondly, their offensive staff does a great job of setting up formations to get him one-on-one matchups. They're always prodding your defense to get him matched up where they get some great one-on-one looks. They do a very good job of finding him and getting him the ball in those kinds of situations that create big plays. He's not catching a hitch route and having three guys hammer him. They're putting him in great position to catch the football and get big chunk plays."
Lee has 40 more receptions, five more total touchdowns, and nearly 900 more yards than does Woods through 11 games. Considering the latter has produced 66 grabs, 721 yards, and 10 TD of his own, its clear the Irish secondary is dealing with the top perimeter duo its experienced in the Kelly era, if not any era dating back through the likes of Michael Irvin and Brian Blades in the heyday of the Miami Hurricanes.
"We thought he was a terrific player, no question about it," said Kelly regarding a pre-season evaluation of Lee. "But there is only one football, so it just seems like he's gotten more of the catches, whether by design or not. Either one those guys can beat you by themselves. The numbers just have gone his way this year.
"But, you know, you're talking about two of the best in the country. I don't know that you can really choose. They're both terrific players."
Woods was a consensus All-American last season; Lee will reach that status this fall and likely earn the position's top honor, the Biletnikoff award, to boot.
Oxnard, Calif., native Cierre Wood has experienced unexpected highs and lows in his senior season. He followed a two-game suspension (unspecified team rules) with a gritty fourth quarter effort to secure a win in East Lansing. One week later, Wood earned just seven carries, gaining 37 yards vs. Michigan.
Next was the Soldier Field battle vs. Miami and a two-TD, 118-yard output. 180 yards on 30 carries over the next two games suggested Wood had hit his stride, but games with seven carries (Oklahoma) and six (Boston College) along with a goal line fumble in overtime in between vs. Pittsburgh way laid that progress.
Wood's season-best 150-yard outburst last week prompted another round of questions from the media to his head coach.
How has the former 1,000-yard rusher adapted to his part-time role? What has been his greatest evolution?
"Route running. Ball catching," said Kelly. "Those are two huge areas where he has elevated his game.
"Practice, he practices with a purpose every day now. He is locked in. e's getting more north and south in his running. The inside-outside zone scheme is set to run north and south. We don't want a lot of cutting.
"We ran the option play on Saturday, and he was looking to cut off of somebody. You know, he was resisting the temptation. hen he runs north and south, we all know what he's capable of.
So those three areas he's really made great improvement."
At 5.5 yards per carry over his 438 career rushes, Wood trails, well, nobody, in program history.
Much of that has been gained because Wood excels in space -- beating 'backers and defensive backs at the second level. There's little doubt the quick-footed Wood, like most runners, prefers to look for big gains rather than sure yardage by powering ahead.
"In some instances you have to because they want to make you miss," said Kelly of a coach's "re-programming" efforts of a college 'back. "It is much more difficult to make a head-on tackle. It's easier to run with speed and make an angle tackle. When you're running north and south, we have run through so many tackles this year when we get north and south, and so that's been a point of emphasis going into the fall."
"Consequently, we've been in more direct snap; it's harder to run downhill when you're in shotgun. Certainly you're put in a position to get the ball east and west (from the shotgun). You're not getting it north and south like you are in direct.
So inherently you have to do some things, and we've made some tweaks in terms of how the back attacks the ball in shotgun, how he gets it downhill, how he gets to north and south."
Next Man In…Next Year
Candidates abound for the 2012 squad's most improved award. Previously unheralded 5th-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore is on the short list. He's made fewer total tackles this fall but far more big plays as a key component in the team's dominant defensive front.
"He's been a better football player for us this year," said Kelly. "Now, he's injury-free. As you know, he got injured last year (torn ACL vs. USC). He is an extremely productive player, is playing with a lot energy, and has been a great leader for us.
"It's night and day in my eyes outside of the statistics as to his impact last year as to this year."
Aiding Lewis-Moore's effort is the team's top reliever among three quality backup defensive linemen, true freshman Sheldon Day.
"Oh, we think he's going to be a terrific player," said Kelly of Day. "Great quickness, does not stay blocked, powerful, and has the quickness and the size to play that two-gap position.
"So we're big Sheldon Day fans. We think he's going to be a terrific player, and he's shown to be a very good player for us."
Lewis-Moore ranks third on the team with 4.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss -- both career bests. Day has contributed 3.5 TFL and 2 sacks in relief. Both have a pair of pass breakups to their credit; both line up inside and on the edge in the team's ever-changing 3-4/4-3 defensive front.