More players than the groups listed below need to show drastic improvement for the 2012 Irish to reach nine or more wins. But our initial list includes the competitors I believe have the best shot. As with the rest of the series, rookies (such as 2012 redshirt-freshman DaVaris Daniels) are not included.
Veteran NecessitiesThe return of senior-to-be Tyler Eifert at tight end is the key question facing Notre Dame's 2012 offense, but even with the potential first team All-America in tow, the Irish perimeter will need more production from 2011 starter T.J. Jones and Theo Riddick.
Jones is undersized for the modern era outside receiver, but aggressive after the catch, fearless over the middle, and more quick than fast, with good if not spectacular hands. Its apparent from the 2011 season's plethora of tunnel screen plays intended for him that the offensive staff believes he can do damage in space after the catch, though that rarely came to fruition.
A 50-catch season with an emphasis on receptions and action that commences farther down field than most of his grabs this fall would help open up the post-Floyd attack – one that is sure to include a sampling of first-year players.
Riddick's future position is less certain – the team has a glaring need at running back while Jones and Riddick's classmate, Robby Toma, could excel in tandem in Riddick's current slot receiver role.
Regardless, Riddick must graduate from an inconsistent three-touchdown, 11-yard per catch player to play-making status. There's no doubt he can make defenders miss in space and has the toughness to run through arm tackles inside; he could serve at least as a change-of-pace to Cierre Wood, the expected workhorse at RB.
Riddick doesn't have to be Tim Brown, but he can't be Mike Miller, either.
Veteran SleepersIf Notre Dame's defensive scheme remains intact/similar next season, look for cornerback Bennett Jackson to win the starting boundary role and to finish No. 3-4 on the team in total tackles. What the aggressive Jackson does in addition to those tackles will help determine the pass defense's success in 2012 and his future starting status.
Though Jackson wasn't as reliable in space during his kick coverage forays this year as in his breakout freshman season of 2010, his skill set suggests run support and short zone coverage could become strengths playing on the defensive perimeter of Bob Diaco's heavy zone schemes.
(As an aside: Jackson would make an interesting safety prospect as well.)
Two spots will open on the right side of the Irish offensive front and it would be a major disappointment if highly regarded Christian Lombard didn't win the right tackle role from the outset this spring. A redshirt-freshman in terms of eligibility at present, Lombard earned far less scrimmage time than I anticipated in 2011, but with solid 5th-year senior Taylor Dever moving on, expect Scout.com's No. 2 ranked offensive tackle in 2010 to step to the fore this off-season.
And then there's the deepest sleeper of the bunch – senior-to-be Nick Tausch. A junior this fall, Tausch did not attempt a kick, and considering the Irish enjoyed four epic blowout wins, that was likely by design.
Successful on 15 of his 18 career field goal attempts entering the season, Tausch will have two seasons of eligibility remaining (assuming he doesn't appear in the bowl game) beginning next fall. With points potentially at a premium in September contests vs. rivals Michigan State and Michigan, the formerly forgotten Tausch could be the difference between a surprising 3-1/4-0 start or another .500 September swoon.
Year Ahead of Schedule?In 1988, sophomores Tony Brooks, Ricky Watters, George Williams, Chris Zorich, and Todd Lyght played starring roles in a "year-ahead-of-schedule" championship season in South Bend. I don't expect 2012 to produce the same end result as the '88 campaign, but similar precocious talent exists in the case of defensive ends Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt.
Neither of the pair has to rank among the team's top five players next fall (assuming stars such as Manti Te'o and Tyler Eifert return), but both must enter the conversation – one year ahead of schedule.
Regardless, this is the most important of the three categories, because the 2012 Irish will need to thrive through a youth movement to attain anything close to their program goals.
Still a few rungs below the exploits of Lynch and Tuitt to date are tight end Ben Koyack and running back/return man George Atkinson III. The latter is a borderline All-America candidate at kick returner this season – its incumbent upon Atkinson and the Irish staff that he acclimate to the punt return role as well.
Koyack will of course be thrust into the spotlight if Eifert leaves, but if not, the Irish offense will need to utilize two- and even three-tight end sets as did Stanford this fall, with current redshirt-freshman Alex Welch another potential chain-mover for the 2012 quarterback(s) of choice.
Speaking of quarterbacks, none of this will matter if the collective 2012 signal-callers don't improve mightily from an error-filled 2011 campaign. But it's a bit too early to write that script. Check back in February. And April. And July. And September.