Top Returning Players from 2012Per Irisheyes.com film reviews. Just missed the cut of the 2012 Top 10 and returning 2013 Top 5: Chris Watt, T.J. Jones, Bennett Jackson and Danny Spond.
- Senior nose guard Louis Nix -- No. 2 on our full-season film review. From a pure performance standpoint, Nix wasn't that far from being referred to as "1A" behind Manti Te'o.
- 5th-year senior left tackle Zack Martin -- Finished in the top five at Irisheyes.com for the second straight season; the top 10 in each of his three years as a competitor.
- Junior defensive end/tackle Stephon Tuitt -- Held down the No. 2 spot for the season's first six games and finished at No. 5 in our final film review rankings. (Kapron Lewis-Moore pushed him for the spot by season's end). Bonus for Irish fans: Tuitt might be much better in 2013.
- Junior quarterback Everett Golson -- Forged his way into the top 10 with a fantastic finish. If Golson can finish No. 1 or No. 2 on the 2013 list, the Irish will contend for the national title.
- Senior Cat LB/DE Prince Shembo -- Dropped from weekly top 5-6 performer to No. 10 overall by the conclusion of the BCS Title game, but Shembo's ascent last year was a major part of the defense's success. At 260 pounds, he was never overwhelmed on the line until the Irish were rolled by the Crimson Tide.
Five Toughest Players to ReplacePositional depth plays a major part, though the top of the list was a no-brainer, regardless:
- Linebacker Manti Te'o -- Jarrett Grace's name was a constant over the last two seasons, but always in relation to scout team and/or practice field prowess. Now the purported best backup steps into a role manned by one of the all-time greats among Notre Dame defenders.
- Center Braxston Cave -- Cave didn't make the Irisheyes.com Top 10 player list from 2012, but his potential replacements include a converted tackle with a major medical challenge, a converted high school tackle/tight end who redshirted as a freshman last fall, and some other guards and tackles that have issues snapping a football. The group has combined for zero aggregate snaps in a competitive college football game -- that's a big drop off from the third-team All-America Cave.
- Tight End Tyler Eifert -- I know everyone is enamored with Troy Niklas' potential, but I was a pretty big fan of Tyler Eifert's performance. As Lou Holtz mused, "When all is said and done, a lot more is said, than done." Eifert got it done.
- Running Back Theo Riddick -- The team's No. 1 chain mover, No. 1 rusher, No. 3 pass catcher and targeted receiver, and its closeout option of choice (run and pass) vs. Michigan, Stanford, Brigham Young, Oklahoma, and USC. A bevy of 'backs will get the chance, it will take more than one to fill Riddick's shoes.
- Punter Ben Turk -- With due respect to graduated S Zeke Motta, one of the most improved seniors in recent memory, its relevant to note that the 2013 Notre Dame squad doesn't have a punter. It hasn't recruited a punter. Kicker Kyle Brindza, the presumed punter, had a dead leg last November (and in November 2011) and admitted in December during bowl preparations he had "barely punted" in practice since his arrival. Meanwhile, the Irish have nine safeties, none of whom will exhaust eligibility after 2013, five or six of whom are legitimate challengers to start.
Five upperclassmen that must improve
- Junior Cat LB Ishaq Williams -- Watch Prince Shembo play football. Watch Ishaq Williams do the same. They often play the same position, but I'm only sure of that because the official roster lists them as such.
- Junior RB George Atkinson -- Speed? Oh yeah. Ability to run through arm tackles? Yep. Size to hold up over a 12-game season? No doubt. Instincts to hit the hole at full speed with abandon and thereby stay in the staff's good graces? We'll find out …
- Junior wide receiver DaVaris Daniels -- He's also the most likely to improve, and among the five most important players on next year's offense. Daniels is poised for a breakout year, but only if eight months of grinding, daily work are produced first. His talent isn't in question, but for all the fan praise heaped upon Daniels in 2012, its relevant he's yet to catch a touchdown pass and just once produced back-to-back games with at least three receptions.
- Junior tight end Ben Koyack -- Notre Dame lost the best downfield receiving tight end in its program history...Koyack's calling card entering college was his receiving skills. Its time that trait manifests between the lines. He might be No. 2 to Troy Niklas, but the Irish will need both without Eifert on hand to do the heavy lifting.
- Senior RT Christian Lombard -- Arguably not a fair inclusion, as Lombard was solid as a first-year starter in 2012. He'll need to be more than solid as the third returning starter on a line that will be challenged to match last year's overall production. An intriguing move to right guard isn't out of the question.
Next: Five underclassmen that should emerge this spring; five spring headlines you're sure to read; five returning from injury...