1 -- Senior tight end Tyler Eifert: 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, and no one on the Emerald Isle, can matchup one-on-one with the program's record-setting tight end. Eifert however will play for the first time without star receiver Michael Floyd as part of the offense and it will be interesting to see how the team's best weapon 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 (he proved capable of the latter in the Blue Gold Game). Regardless, Golson 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 regular contributor in junior Christian Lombard, as well a first time starter at guard, 5th-year senior Mike Golic, Jr. Golic endured mixed results as a starting center last November/December, 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 assumed 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: I'd already expected Riddick to lead the team in touches in multiple games this season prior to Cierre Wood's suspension. Now it'll start in Game One as he operates as the lead runner, the likely check-down/short crossing route option, the team's chief screen pass receiver, and as an occasional downfield threat.
Of note, it was Riddick's one series of work 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 appears to be listed as TE 2B to Ben Koyack's 2A, but Niklas bring added punch to the team's rushing attack. Eifert will rarely leave the field, but the sophomore teammate Manti Te'o dubbed "Hercules" will work in congress with the All-America tight end as an in-line blocker and occasional safety valve receiver.
Koyack will also play a crucial 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 Golson and unproven receivers get their sea legs. In my estimation, Koyack is a quality receiving option, both down the seam and in short to mid-range zones. His ascent this fall is crucial to take pressure off of Eifert, Riddick, and slot receiver Robby Toma -- the team's top trio of third-down receiving options.
But Koyack theory aside, if the aforementioned Niklas can find and secure linebackers in space, the Notre Dame running game will dominate Saturday.