Notre Dame’s 2012 season came to a bittersweet end in the BCS title game at Sun Life Stadium in Miami. And then things got weird.
But now that Manti Te’o’s strange postseason is (mostly) behind us and five-star linebacker Jaylon Smith signed with the Irish on Wednesday, it’s time to get back to football. Don’t forget that Brian Kelly’s squad wildly exceeded expectations in producing one of the most exciting and satisfying (right up until the end) seasons in memory. The Fighting Irish entered last fall unranked in preseason polls, but a dominant defense and renewed focus on the ground led the Golden Domers to an undefeated regular season and a No. 1 ranking before their loss to Alabama.
Sure, the Crimson Tide showed just how far the gap is between the SEC and the rest of the nation. Yet, while Notre Dame’s claim to powerhouse glory hasn’t been fully restored, Kelly has a good chance to keep Notre Dame in the national rankings. But in order for the Domers to match or improve on last year’s performance, five key players will need to step up and play big. (Note: This list excludes quarterback Everett Golson, not because he’s unimportant, but because it’s more than obvious that he needs to mature as a player and leader.)
1. RB George Atkinson III
With Theo Riddick graduating and Cierre Wood electing to submit his NFL paperwork and not return to South Bend for a fifth year, Atkinson will get his chance to become ND’s featured back. The rising junior was No. 3 on the depth chart in 2012, but he averaged 7.1 yards per rush and had five rushing touchdowns — as many as any other tailback on the team. And a person close to the ND program told me earlier this season that the coaches are excited about Atkinson’s future in South Bend. He still has a lot to prove, though, as many of his yards came in two games — against Navy and Miami (FL) — and he didn’t get any carries in the BCS title game. Even so, the 6-1, 210-pounder has the big-play ability that the Irish will need next year. It’s just a matter of consistency for Atkinson.
2. TE Troy Niklas
Notre Dame fans should know that Niklas is not Tyler Eifert, who was one of the most prolific tight ends in school history. But there wasn’t a tight end in the nation last fall who was as athletic as the departing Eifert. However, the Irish will be counting on Niklas, who had just five catches in 2012, to provide a pass-catching presence and take some of the pressure of young, big-play receivers such as DaVaris Daniels and Chris Brown as well as the always steady TJ Jones. While Golson has shown that he has the arm to give this offense a true vertical threat, he will still need a solid tight end as his safety. And the 6-7, 260-pounder can be that player, especially down the seams. Keep in mind he is a converted outside linebacker, so he is still learning the position. Getting first-team reps in spring ball will be huge for his development.
3. CB KeiVarae Russell
We finally saw the Irish secondary–which had been sound all year–exposed against Alabama in the BCS title game. And no one was lit up more than Russell, a freshman who was torched by fellow freshman Amari Cooper in Miami. The Irish did a great job all season of stopping the run with seven defenders and giving their young and inexperienced corners help from the safeties, but playing the Tide didn’t allow ND that luxury. Still, there is hope for the Irish, as Russell didn’t begin to play cornerback full-time until the fall. And, overall, he was a quick learner. A full offseason, including spring drills, will help him continue to develop at his new position. And the experience of playing the Tide should only help him grow.
4. LB Jarrett Grace
Grace was Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te’o’s understudy in 2012 after immediately impressing coaches while playing on the scout team in his first season in South Bend. Now, the rising junior has a chance to become an impact defender for the Irish with Te’o moving on to the NFL. Tabbed as the heir apparent in the middle of the Irish defense, the 6-3, 240-pounder will get his chance in the spring to impress coordinator Bob Diaco and dismiss any idea of being in a rotation with Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese.
5. DE Stephon Tuitt
Tuitt may be the best non-SEC defender in the nation, and he is still fine-tuning his game. The 6-6, 303-pound defensive end is a freakish athlete who had 12 sacks this past fall and continues to improve as a pass-rusher and run-stuffer. Te’o received most of the press, deservedly so, for leading the ND defense in 2012. But Tuitt is the type of player that Kelly and his staff need to continue to target on the recruiting trail if the Irish are to have sustained success in an era that continues to be dominated by the SEC.
Without question, returning to the BCS title game will be quite a chore — unless you’re Alabama. But looking at the Irish’s 2013 slate, it is conceivable that a trip to Pasadena could be booked if they are able to pass a few key tests.
Kelly’s squad gets Oklahoma and USC in South Bend just a year removed from defeating both teams on the road. And the Sooners and Trojans will be breaking in new starting quarterbacks. Road tests loom against Michigan and Stanford, but ND’s physical style of play on defense matches up well against both squads as we saw this past fall.
It’s too early to say if Notre Dame has a reasonable chance to play for a national title next year, but if these five players—and Golson—develop nicely, Fighting Irish fans should feel confident that their team will remain on college football’s national stage.