#1 -- Senior Mike linebacker Manti Te'o: Notre Dame's best defensive player enjoyed arguably his best game in 2011 vs. the Midshipmen, this after struggling mightily in back-to-back losses to Navy in 2009 and 2010.
Te'o, who admitted hesitance vs. the triple-option blocking schemes prior to the 2010 blowout defeat in East Rutherford, N.J., starred in last year's contest with 13 tackles including 2.5 for lost yardage, and a full five more stops that held Navy runners to gains of two yards or less.
Te'o will be the key Irish defender for the Midshipmen's offensive line to locate as a free-running Te'o would dominate in this, the senior's sixth career contest vs. an offense with triple-option principles.
#2 -- 5th-year senior safety/OLB Jamoris Slaughter Slaughter's star began to rise mid-season 2011 in a standout defensive effort vs. Air Force's varied option attack. Moving from his normal safety spot to outside linebacker in a 4-3 front, Slaughter forced a fumble, picked off a pass (at scrimmage), and wreaked general havoc at the line of scrimmage, this despite a chief job responsibility of making triggerman Tim Jefferson pitch to the perimeter earlier than the veteran quarterback wanted.
Jefferson finished with just 27 rushing yards and Slaughter was given the defensive game ball for the Irish.
Last year against Navy, the 6'0" 195-pound Slaughter likewise manned the field side linebacker spot, finishing with five tackles including one for lost yardage. He's Notre Dame's most versatile defender and inarguably among its top four most indispensable players overall for the season.
#3 -- True freshman cornerback Keivarae Russell Not only is it the true freshman's first game vs. a triple-option attack, its his first game as a cornerback, period. Converted from running back at the tail end of summer workouts, Russell, offered he's played "some safety" as a four-star RB prospect out of Everett, Wa., ascended to the starting boundary cornerback role after junior Lo Wood ruptured his Achilles last week in a non-contact drill.
Russell and junior corner Bennett Jackson represent the program's first new starting pair of cornerbacks since 1998 and Russell is the first true freshman to start the season opener at cornerback for Notre Dame in program history (since freshmen eligibility was adopted in 1972).
In short, anything involving Russell on Saturday will represent a first for the gregarious, confident, but oh-so-green freshman phenom. Navy quarterback Trey Miller is purportedly a better passer than his predecessor Kriss Proctor (its doubtful Miller could be as timely and clutch in his throws as was Ricky Dobbs during his Irish-killing days as the Mid's triggerman). Look for Miller to target Russell on a few exotic play-action passes in both halves.
#4 -- 5th-year senior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore Lewis-Moore has faced the Naval Academy twice and put a dent in the scoresheet on both occasions. As a first-time starter in 2009, the then redshirt-freshman notched seven stops, a quarterback sack, and a quarterback hurry in a 23-21 Midshipmen win. One year later in a stunning 18-point defeat, Lewis-Moore was the only player to show up for the Irish defense, tallying 10 tackles including four for stops of two yards or less. (He missed last year's Notre Dame win with a torn ACL).
A veteran of nearly every line position with the exception of nose guard, Lewis-Moore's opener will be his first game back after a torn ACL vs. USC ended his 2011 season last October. He's never played in a win vs. the Naval Academy.
#5 -- Sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt The team's best-kept secret among casual program observers Tuitt's a 6'6" 300-pound, half-man, half-mountain, future NFL star defensive end that was un-blockable at times last season despite learning on the job as a true freshman.
An ill-conceived "DNP-CD" (Coach's Decision), a one-game suspension for missing class, and a late-season bout with mono limited his initial season to seven full games. Among those were 30 tackles including 23 in a four-game stretch as a starter, three tackles for loss, and a career-best seven tackles vs. Navy along with two quarterback hurries.
Tuitt enters the season as one of Notre Dame's 10-11 best players. He could ascend as high as No. 3 overall by season's end, and will be a major mis-match up front for the Mid's front wall. His ability to play off efficient cut blocks, something he performed with sup rising aplomb last October, will go a long way toward determining if Saturday's game is decided in the fourth quarter or in the first half.