Returning Junior StartersA look at areas of improvement and realistic goals for each junior starter (or part-time starter) this spring and into the fall.
Quarterback Everett Golson: Will Everett Golson definitively win the starting job this spring? Can he stay healthy (avoid big hits) next fall? And most important, how does he approach the daily grind after proving his wares as a first-season starter?
"I won't (be in a position) to not have to prove myself until my career is over here," said Golson last December, and in the midst of a 10-game winning streak as a starter. "I think that's due to the fact that if I do win (a national championship), I want to win more. I'm competitive. While I'm in this, I'm just going to keep my head down to be the best player I can be."
If Golson follows his own advice, he'll be the offense's MVP in 2013.
Competition and a season of pounding from opposing defenders awaits.
Defensive End Stephon Tuitt: The most accomplished junior-to-be on the squad, Tuitt's next step is similar to his last: treat every rep, film session, and snap in a professional manner. All-America honors would likely follow.
"Stephon's process in terms developing into the player that he is today has been one where he had to be unselfish first and foremost," said head coach Brian Kelly. "He had to be a guy that was committed to being solid against the run and not just, I want to be an edge player. He's seen, by the number sacks that he has this year, that he can be both. So the transformation for Stephon Tuitt for us is that he's embraced his role of being a guy that will play the four technique and be a two-gapper against the run, and also be able to rush the passer."
Tight End Troy Niklas: A linebacker in 2011, Niklas development was intriguing, at times exciting, for Irish fans as visions of an athletic 6'7" 260-pound target racing across the seam offered hope for the post-Tyler Eifert era. That time has arrived, and Niklas will be expected to emerge as, or perform to, the level of a lead tight end at Notre Dame. And that's light years more than he or fellow junior Ben Koyack showed as Eifert's aids last fall. Improvement as a blocker, notably in pass protection, and also as a mid-range chain mover are steps one and two for his spring and fall development.
Safety Matthias Farley: Like Niklas, Farley was good last season; very good considering it was his first year of competition at the position, at least at the college level. But the former Scout Team wide receiver is now the most seasoned safety on the roster -- the only of nine potential safeties to have started a college game. A student of the game and everything he does, Farley will be the quarterback of the secondary in 2013, a role for which he's well-suited, but the transition is obvious: young pup to lead dog isn't always easy.
Wide Receiver DaVaris Daniels: Perhaps the most important skill position player not named Everett Golson, Daniels took the first steps toward BCS starter status last season. He's competitive, fast, explosive, confident, athletic, and a natural pass catcher. Now he needs to be consistent. A junior in class, Daniels has three seasons remaining, but Notre Dame's likely to be perimeter-driven offense needs him to perform at high level, daily, beginning yesterday. Daniels caught 25 balls, was targeted 39 times, but did not score last season -- expect the first number to double if he stays healthy in 2013, with what appears to be natural red zone prowess to follow.
Kicker Kyle Brindza: Made and attempted the most field goals in program history last season, finishing 23 of 31 with clutch kicks vs. Purdue, Michigan, Stanford, Brigham Young, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, and USC. He also missed field goals vs. five of the seven teams listed above. Improved accuracy is essential, though a more consistent season on kickoffs is expected as well, as Brindza has struggled with his accuracy and depth on kickoffs in both of the last two Novembers.
Running Back George Atkinson: A three-game starter last fall, Atkinson was intermittently great (Navy, Miami), timely (Michigan State), clutch (Brigham Young), and a complete non-factor (Michigan, Pittsburgh, Alabama). Atkinson's raw tools suggest he'll win and keep the lead runner's role in a wide-open competition, but honed instincts, ball security, improvement on the passing game, and daily focus will determine if he shares, or owns, or even loses that role.
Tight End Ben Koyack Koyack hit campus as Scout.com's No. 1 ranked tight end prospect, status due largely to his purported pass-catching prowess. In 2011 he caught one pass (a check down). In 2012, just three, never two in a game, and also dropped two balls. There's an All-American sized void at the position, one screaming for a pass-catcher to fill. Now's the time for Koyack, who improved as a blocker last season, but still lags behind his teammates and close competitors Niklas and senior Alex Welch.
Note: A look at the returning junior backups will be published later today.