2. Tight End *85 Troy Niklas: At nearly 6'7" 270 pounds and blessed with both body control and straight-line speed, Niklas has emerged as the team's top tight end after serving an in-line role alongside graduated Tyler Eifert last fall. Niklas had the best game of his Irish career in Week Two vs. the Wolverines (six receptions including a 20-yard touchdown), but responded last week with two dropped passes in the first half. Add him to the list of the offense's "two quarters" phenoms at present. Niklas has improved greatly as a blocker this season after showing poor technique last fall, his first at the position after converting from linebacker (where he started as a true freshman vs. Michigan State in 2011).
3. Quarterback #11 Tommy Rees: Opened the season by throwing for 300 yards in three straight games with seven touchdowns vs. two interceptions. The latter number remains relevant as one of Rees' picks was unconscionable -- a back-breaker near the end of the half at Michigan that provided the Wolverines field position and a 27-13 advantage at the break. Rees' has improved his arm strength and mid-range accuracy since Spartans fans saw him manage a win -- aka, not get in the way -- vs. their team in the 2011 matchup in South Bend. As a senior, Rees is in charge of protection adjustments at the line of scrimmage and he's audibled roughly 40 percent of the initial play-calls according to Kelly.
Notre Dame won in spite of Rees in 2011. If the Irish win Saturday, he'll likely be the offense's MVP.
4. Running Backs #3 Amir Carlisle and #33 Cam McDaniel: 6'2" 220-pound track star (#4) George Atkinson is the starter but it'd be a surprise if he receives 10 carries vs. the Spartans rough and tumble front. (Atkinson scored on a kick return touchdown vs. the Spartans in 2011). A USC transfer, Carlisle brings quickness, a north-south running style, good hands, and quality blitz protection to the Irish lineup. He however fumbled last week late, opening the door for a potential tying Purdue touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. McDaniel will be the smallest running back the Spartans face this season, a fact that belies his running style as a between-the-tackles, chain-moving runner. Don't expect 15 carries from any of the trio, but they'll each see significant time Saturday.
5. Right Tackle #78 Ronnie Stanley: One of two new starters on the Irish front, Stanley is the most likely to struggle vs. Michigan State's quality front. A four-star prospect in 2012, Stanley could emerge as the team's best offensive linemen in 2015…but it's September 2013, and Saturday will be the biggest test of his young career. Notre Dame has allowed just three sacks in 113 pass attempts this season and each has come at the expense of Stanley, right guard Christian Lombard (the right tackle starter last season) or between the pair.
Notre Dame's best offensive player is on the other side of scrimmage, 5th-year senior left tackle Zack Martin. The toughest matchup for the Irish likely involves Stanley on the right.