Five to Watch: Irish Offense publisher Tim O'Malley offers Scarlet Knights fans five players to watch -- both their best and potentially vulnerable -- on Notre Dame's offense Rees, a trio of backups now in starting roles up front, and Irish play-makers are reviewed.

Quarterback #11 Tommy Rees: The most polarizing player in South Bend, Ind., since mid-90s quarterback Ron Powlus, Rees earned offensive MVP honors at the season-ending banquet this month. His 27 touchdown passes rank as the fourth highest single-season total in program history and place him behind only Brady Quinn (37, 32) and Jimmy Clausen (28) on the list.

Unfortunately for Rees and for Irish fans, Quinn's standout seasons included just seven interceptions; Clausen's only four. Rees fired 13 picks and hit on just 53.7 percent of his passes though he did often strike downfield as Irish receivers averaged a robust 15 yards per pass reception (Irish foes only 10.5 per catch).

Rees orchestrated (pre-snap) and received (post-snap) outstanding pass protection throughout the season, suffering only eight sacks despite working behind a line that featured eight different starters, five of them first-timers.

Wide Receiver #7 T.J. Jones: Notre Dame's 2014 receivers corps will rank among the deepest in recent program history, but the unit will doubtless miss Jones, an undersized target that evolved from reliable No. 2 to Tyler Eifert last fall into a legitimate go-to playmaker as a senior in 2013. Jones led the Irish in receptions (65), yards from scrimmage (1,093), and touchdowns scored (10) while serving as Rees' security blanket on third down. He scored touchdowns in eight of the last nine games (seven straight), hitting pay dirt on plays ranging from an 80-yard post pattern to a goal line toss sweep.

The senior averaged 16.3 yards per catch, second only to Golden Tate (18.3 in 2008) for an Irish player leading the team in receptions this century.

Center #77 Matt Hegarty and both flanks: A junior former four-star offensive tackle prospect, Hegarty (6-foot-4, 305 pounds) rebounded from Dec. 2012 heart surgery to earn his first career start in the team's regular season finale at Stanford. Replacing injured starter Nick Martin (knee), Hegarty first earned significant time one week prior vs. Brigham Young.

Also emerging late are the backup guard tandem of Conor Hanratty (6-foot-4, 309 pounds) and Steven Elmer (6-foot-6, 317 pounds), the latter a true freshman who, according to head coach Brian Kelly, is a prototype left tackle. Though Elmer was first in line after a late-October back injury knocked senior Christian Lombard from the lineup, Hanratty appeared to beat out the freshman mauler before a third interior lineman, standout fifth-year senior Chris Watt, was also lost for the season because of injury (knee).

The trio has already faced the nation's third-ranked rush defense in Stanford. Saturday they take on the fourth in the Scarlet Knights.

Tight End #85 Troy Niklas: A Mackey Award finalist, Niklas improved greatly as a run blocker in 2013, his second season at the position after working at linebacker as a true freshman in 2011. All of 6-foot-7 and nearly 270 pounds, Niklas is an imposing red zone target though of his five touchdown grabs this season only two were secured inside pay dirt -- the most impressive a box-out effort vs. USC on third down in a 14-10 Irish win.

NIklas is still susceptible against talented pass rushers but his ability to get out in space proved invaluable to the Irish running game. Notre Dame often employs a two tight end set, (its "12 package") in which case Niklas will be joined by former No. 1 tight end prospect Ben Koyack.

The duo scored eight combined touchdowns, tied for the second-highest single-season total at the position in program history.

RB #25 Tarean Folston: "The People's Choice" at running back, Folston emerged earned second billing by the season's final month after being slowed early by a nagging leg injury. A true freshman, Folston scored the winning touchdown and erupted for 140 yards in a 38-34 win over Navy to begin November, then carried a combined 27 times in the final two games vs. Brigham Young (13-78-1) and Stanford (14-50).

Folston inexplicably was not involved in the team's season-defining loss at lowly Pittsburgh, rushing just four times one week after posting his 140-yard breakout performance vs. the Midshipmen.

He'll share carries with two, if not three other backfield members. Junior Cam McDaniel led the squad in rushing attempts (135), yards (625) and touchdowns (three) while his classmate George Atkinson finished second 93 carries for 555 yards and produced three scores of his own while shining as kick returner.

After a 14-carry, 148-yard effort in Game Five vs Oklahoma, Atkinson repeatedly lost yardage running wide in a win over Arizona State (18 carries, 54 yards). His final six outings produced just 37 combined carries while Folston (60 in the final five) and McDaniel (87 in the final six) did the heady lifting.

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