#91 DT Sheldon Day: The former five-star prospect from Indianapolis is the lone holdover from the 2012 defensive front seven that set unbreakable program records for regular season touchdowns allowed (10) and rushing scores (2). Day is among the most versatile and best-conditioned defensive linemen in football and Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder uses those traits to his advantage, featuring Day in various alignments in the oft-used nickel and dime packages while relying on him to win against consistent double-teams at scrimmage from his three-technique role.
The six-foot-two, 295-pound junior is arguably better through six games this fall than either Stephon Tuitt or Louis Nix were for the stout defense of 2012. He'll be solid throughout Saturday's contest, but the Irish likely need their best defensive player to create a few negative plays in timely situations as well.
#9 WLB Jaylon Smith: A true sophomore and (perhaps inarguably) the team's most talented football player, Smith moved from an outside, 3-4 coverage role as a true freshman last fall to a weak side inside 'backer position in the 2014 squad's 4-3 front.
Smith experienced an uncharacteristically rough outing against North Carolina's up-tempo attack last week. He was routinely blocked at scrimmage and was beaten down the seam for a touchdown -- the latter occurrence shocking to media members that have seen Smith dominate all comers in coverage situations for the first 18 starts of his career.
But Smith is a lightning-quick, explosive, intelligent football player and diligent worker. He's experienced three games in which he wasn't "outstanding" previously -- and each time came back to play one of the three best games of his collegiate career thereafter. Expect him to shine among a stunning array of Florida State athletes Saturday night. (He'll likely be unleashed in crucial pass-rushing situations.)
#7 WR Will Fuller: Another sophomore, Fuller has emerged as the team's top receiving target -- both in terms of moving the chains and as a downfield threat. Saturday will provide the toughest test of his young career as Fuller has not yet experienced a cornerback that has stayed with him downfield when he reaches top end speed. Six of his seven touchdowns have come from outside the red zone and the slippery target has drawn four pass interference penalties in the last two contests. (Look for Golson to unleash at least three deep shots downfield to Fuller late in the play after initial reads break down.)
The Irish feature five main receiving weapons -- no Notre Dame receiver exhausts eligibility at season's end -- with Fuller the most consistent playmaker to date. The Irish likely can't win if Fuller doesn't play up to the standards he's set over the first six games of 2014.
#2 CB Cody Riggs: A 5th-year senior in Notre Dame's intensive MBA program, Riggs started 26 games for the Florida Gators over the last four seasons. He's emerged as one of the six best players for Brian Kelly's Irish this season -- invaluable in the wake of top corner KeiVarae Russell's season-long suspension for academic dishonesty.
Riggs has provided rugged perimeter tackling while challenging receivers, winning battles this fall vs. Michigan's Devin Funchess and Stanford's Ty Montgomery. But Rashad Greene, Riggs' former high school teammate, will provide the season's most important test.
The aggressive Riggs will likely draw a holding and/or pass interference flag against him in what is obviously a personal battle for the Fort Lauderdale product and former Gator.
#25 RB Tarean Folston: One of two second-year runners (Greg Bryant) hailing from the state of Florida, Folston played his best game to date last week vs. North Carolina, piling up 169 yards from scrimmage with three touchdowns. His fluid, jump-cut style complements senior captain Cam McDaniel -- efficient, rugged, reliable -- and occasionally elusive in space.
Against Stanford, Kelly relied on McDaniel's experience over the untapped potential of Folston and Bryant. Though McDaniel will play often again Saturday night (he's a solid receiver and accomplished pass blocker as well as a reliable runner inside both 20-yard lines), it will be Folston that shines if the Irish are to escape Tallahassee with an upset win. Bryant was pegged as the team's eventual breakout runner from what was always going to be a three-pronged attack.
To date, it's been Folston.