Note: Click here for Part II and players ranked #7 through #9.
Note: Click here for Part III and players ranked #4 through #6.
To date, our "Indispensable Players" hasn't always reflected a list of Notre Dame's best returning players from 2012, but its relevant that in the conclusion of our series, two of the 2013 squad's heavy hitters are front and center.
Then again, neither ranks No. 1.
#3 Left Tackle Zack MartinThe team's best offensive lineman and among its top 10 overall players in each of the last three seasons, decorated 5th-year tackle Zack Martin ranks as the best returning player on Brian Kelly's 2013 offense. And though it is to be hoped not at season's end, I can't think of a same-side-of-scrimmage challenger to that mantle as the Irish enter fall camp.
Martin is the best blocker on the move, the best in pass protection, the best overall, and is second to no one in terms of his knowledge base of the offense, starting every game of the Brian Kelly era.
The lone returning captain from the 2012 Irish, Martin sets the tone each day in practice. He has the advantage of each day facing one of the nation's most impressive pro prospects in Stephon Tuitt after spending the early seasons of his starting career against veterans Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson, as well as explosive pass-rushing prospect Aaron Lynch.
He's as important to the offense's mental makeup and daily progress as he is on game day as quarterback Everett Golson's blind-side tackle. Martin joined Notre Dame in 2009 on the heels of three seasons of something between porous (2006) and terrible (2007) offensive line play -- he's a major reason the unit now ranks as a program strength.
He is without a proven backup for the 2013 season (as he was in 2012). Its a chief reason why his listing could be at the top rather than No. 3 overall.
#2 Nose Guard Louis NixNotre Dame's top returning player per our film evaluations, Nix was purportedly (according to one staff member) "1A" at times last fall -- neck-and-neck with graduate Manti Te'o as the team's best player en route to a 12-0 regular season.
He's the key to the team's rush defense as a first- and second-down rock in the middle, and indirectly, a key component in its pass rush on third down, as the defense's early-down success dictates which packages and advantages can be exploited thereafter.
With Nix flanked by All-America Stephon Tuitt and rising star Sheldon Day, Notre Dame has among the top defensive fronts in the nation. Without him, a quality second string line is stressed, as Kona Schwenke is a nice backup option on a top team, but likely not a championship nose guard.
With Nix, Notre Dame should again be among the nation's top 10 teams vs. the run and in red zone defense (notably touchdowns scored). Without him, the team's inside linebackers are likely stressed past their natural limits, and when that happens, deficiencies elsewhere are often exploited.
With Nix, Notre Dame is a title contender. Without him, they're a defense looking to plug leaks as they arise over the course of 12 games in 14 weeks.
#1 Quarterback Everett GolsonThe second-year starter can't touch either of his compatriots on this page in terms of accomplishments to date, but the dual-threat triggerman is the key to the program's charge for a second straight berth in the BCS Championship game.
Without Golson, Notre Dame has an offense capable of winning eight, maybe nine games by season's end. With him, and the first quarterback and perimeter-driven attack of the Kelly era is expected. Without Golson, Notre Dame is a predictable, three-step-and-throw offense under sage veteran backup Tommy Rees -- one without a proven commodity in the backfield, to boot. With him, the read-option becomes a viable weapon, but one that takes a backseat to a passing game set for takeoff in 2013.
Golson ranked among the top four on this list prior to the transfer of five-star prospect Gunner Kiel. Now, despite Rees' heroics in short relief last season (the Irish could again win most on the schedule with Rees as a stop-gap starter), there's no doubt he's No. 1.
Notre Dame can get to the Belk Bowl with Rees, Andrew Hendrix, and maybe Malik Zaire at the helm. But it can challenge for the national championship with Golson, as it did last season with the first-year quarterback learning as the year progressed.
Expect the first major leap forward in Golson's game in 2013 -- he'll be the straw that stirs the drink for Kelly's fourth-edition Irish.