5 to Watch: Irish Offense

Irisheyes.com publisher Tim O'Malley offers Panthers fans five players to watch when Notre Dame has the ball Saturday night.

#25 Running Back Tarean Folston

A true freshman, Folston led the Irish with 140 rushing yards and a touchdown in last week's 38-34 Irish win over Navy. But to expect a repeat performance would be ignoring a clear 2013 reality: neither Irish fans, nor it appears the coaching staff, knows which running back will show well in a given week.

Junior Cam McDaniel has been the most consistent, finishing first among a quartet of 'backs in rushing yards on five occasions and second in two others. Classmate George Atkinson has finished with the unit's highest yardage total just once this season, a 14-carry, 148-yard outburst vs. Oklahoma to conclude September. The technical "starter" Atkinson has finished second in rushing yards in three of the last four including a 7-74, 1-TD effort vs. Navy last week.

Folston though has fared well in two straight, his first games back since aggravating a hamstring strain vs. Oklahoma (2 carries, 43 yards). His 187 yards and 27 carries over the last two weeks easily outdistance McDaniel's 17 for 113 and Atkinson's 13 for 92. Each has scored a touchdown in that span.

Folston appears the best 'back, but McDaniel will see plenty of playing time and Atkinson will get the first shot to make an early impression. The latter is among the fastest players in college football but his speed is negated in start-stop situations.

#7 Wide Receiver T.J. Jones

The most improved football player from 2012 to 2013, Jones has scored a touchdown in six straight games, two short of the program record shared by Golden Tate (2009) and Jeff Samardizja (2005). Jones leads the team with 48 receptions and 742 yards and has been targeted a whopping 87 times in eight games.

Usually good for two extra yards after initial quality contact, Jones has added deep routes to his repertoire this fall, a stark contrast to the hitch and slant routes he ran as the No. 2 option behind Tyler Eifert most of last season.

There's one player the passing game can count on week-to-week, and it's TJ Jones, the team MVP through eight games played.

#72 Center Nick Martin

Welcome to hell week.

Martin will make his ninth career start Saturday night and in the bulk of the initial eight he fared well, but the junior (redshirt-sophomore) has never faced a defensive tackle as dominant as Aaron Donald. It's relevant however that most of Martin's struggles this season have occurred when matched head-up vs. a 3-4 nose guard. He'll receive plenty of help from Notre Dame's left and right guard Saturday night in an effort to contain Donald and nose tackle Tyrone Ezell.

No. 79 Steve Elmer is one to watch Saturday night. A true freshman, Elmer will make his third straight start at right guard replacing injured senior Christian Lombard. Both players are natural tackles, a fact that illustrates the team's depth issues inside. Fifth-year senior left guard Chris Watt -- one of the nation's best -- is expected to return after missing the Navy game with a torn meniscus. Watt though was expected to play vs. the Midshipmen and after turning it loose in warm-ups, felt instability in the knee.

If he's out or injury re-occurs Saturday night, junior Connor Hanratty will make his competitive debut vs. a non-option offense. Nephew of Irish legend Terry Hanratty, Connor started vs. Navy last week and fared well though the Panthers front seven represents a departure from what the relative rookie encountered last week.

Tight Ends: #85 Troy Niklas and #18 Ben Koyack

Tyler Eifert's replacement has already matched the former All-American's career best with five touchdown receptions this season. He's likewise the key to the team's stretch runs as an in-line blocker and has emerged of late as quarterback Tommy Rees' complimentary target to TJ Jones. It was Niklas who caught the game's most important pass last week, a 3rd-and-8 clutch grab down the seam in which he absorbed contact and continued to churn his 6'7" 270-pound frame after the catch.

Koyack has come on of late, catching three touchdown passes over the last four games, that after never being the target of a Rees pass over the season's first five outings and not catching a pass since Week Two of the 2012 season. Vastly improved as a blocker in the running game, Koyack plays more than does a third receiver as part of the team's two tight end, or "12" package.

#11 Quarterback Tommy Rees

Rees enters Heinz Field in the best four-game stretch of his career, significant in that the quartet of standout efforts comes on the heels of his worst two statistical games since taking the reigns in late October 2010.

The senior has hit 60 of his last 100 throws for 971 yards with 12 touchdowns and three interceptions in wins over Arizona State, USC, Air Force, and Navy. He's been afforded outstanding pass protection (Notre Dame ranks tied for fifth nationally with just seven sacks suffered on the season) and when given time, has made few mistakes this fall, a 3rd Down interception touchdown vs. Arizona State the glaring exception.

But when hurried, as he was on a roll left (interception) vs. Michigan and on occasion vs. Oklahoma and USC, Rees lacks the ability to make a defense pay with his feet. (He's slightly more likely to rush for two yards Saturday night on a scramble or sneak than is Terry Bradshaw should he attend the contest.)

If Notre Dame protects Rees, they'll win Saturday night. If he's harassed into one or two mistakes, as he was vs. Oklahoma, it'll be tough sledding considering the Panthers ability to stop the run.

The two best defenses Rees encountered this season stymied the Irish, with Michigan State and Oklahoma limiting the triggerman to 23 of 58 for a paltry 146 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions, one of the latter going for a back-breaking early score by the Sooners in South Bend.

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