1 -- Senior tight end Tyler Eifert: And here's the exception. Eifert rates as Irisheyes.com's best Notre Dame player entering the season. He's the nation's top tight end prospect, undoubtedly its best pass-catching tight end, and a 6'6" 251-pound gazelle that will this year line up wide on the perimeter, detached from the line in the slot, and occasionally in a traditional tight end set. Head coach Brian Kelly noted in the spring there are even plays for Eifert to be released from the backfield.
Few linebackers or safeties in college football can matchup one-on-one with the program's record-setting tight end…but Eifert will play for the first time with star receiver Michael Floyd in the offense, it will be interesting to see how the in-state product handles a heavy dose of double teams for the first time.
2 -- Redshirt-freshman quarterback Everett Golson: The dual-threat triggerman will feature much more pass than run, but its nonetheless his ability to move in and out of the pocket, to "extend the play" in Kelly's words, that has Irish fans excited about the current quarterback of the future.
Generously listed at 6'0" Golson will need to occasionally rely on athletic throws and changed arm angles to thrive in the pocket. Regardless, he gives the offense a true threat as a runner in the shotgun read-option scheme, a first during the Kelly era.
Golson doesn't have to be one of the team's five best offensive players early, but he'll need to evolve to that end by Week 12 if the Irish are to endure a grueling slate.
3 -- The Right Side of the OL: Notre Dame's left tackle, left guard, and center bring 60 games and five seasons of combined starting experience. Each is an all-star candidate to a relative degree entering his senior and/or 5th-year senior season at the school.
The right side, conversely, will debut a first-time starter (and to be frank, a first time regular contributor) in junior Christian Lombard, and a first time regular at guard, 5th-year senior Mike Golic, Jr. Golic started four games at center last season when Braxston Cave was lost to a foot injury, and endured mixed results, bottoming out with a rough outing at Stanford in the season finale.
Lombard was Scout.com's No. 2 ranked offensive tackle prospect in 2010 and is assume ready to take the mantle. Neither player is expected to be a major weak link, but both will be tested in Week One and throughout September as the left side is rock solid.
4 -- Senior RB/Slot/WR Theo Riddick: Cierre Wood is the team's starting running back, but his classmate and best friend is 1A -- a hybrid runner/receiver threat who spent 2009 as a backup runner under Charlie Weis, and 2010-11 as a slot receiver for Brian Kelly. This year, he'll do both.
Look for Riddick to lead the team in touches in multiple games this season as both a backfield option, a swing receiver, the chief screen option, and as an occasional downfield threat.
Of note, it was Riddick's one series effort vs. Navy as a true freshman in 2009 that grabbed the Irish fan base's collective attention: Down 14-0 in the second quarter, Riddick carried four times for 30 yards on one offensive series, then inexplicably logged just one more carry over the entire contest in a 23-21 Navy win that saw only 60 rushing yards for the host Irish.
5 -- Sophomore tight end Troy Niklas: A linebacker and situational pass rusher as a true freshman last season, the 6'7" 260-pound Niklas moved to tight end in the spring in an effort to bring added punch to the team's rushing attack. Eifert will rarely leave the field, but Niklas, dubbed "Hercules" by teammate Manti Te'o last year, will work in congress with the All-America tight end as an in-line blocker and occasional safety valve receiver.
Notre Dame's "other" No. 2 tight end, Ben Koyack, was a highly touted receiving prospect in Oil City, PA as a prep star. He's battling Niklas for a lead role in the team's "12 personnel" package, a two-tight end set that most program observers believe the Irish will favor in September while the young quarterback and unproven receivers get their sea legs.
If Niklas can find and secure linebackers in space, the Notre Dame running game will improve for the third straight season.