Notre Dame: Five to watch

IrishEyes.com publisher Tim O'Malley talks about five Fighting Irish players to watch for on Saturday.

#48 Greer Martini: If you haven't heard of him it's likely because Saturday's starting middle linebacker is the third player -- and second true freshman -- to start at the position this season. Martini has Irish fans dreaming big because of one play, and it was a big one, a third-down sack of Louisiville quarterback Reggie Bonnahan (an outstanding athlete) that allowed Notre Dame's offense a chance to win or tie in regulation.

It was Martini's fourth snap of the game in emergent relief of classmate Nyles Morgan who was ejected for targeting (Morgan will sit out the first half Saturday afternoon). A five-star prospect per Scout.com, Morgan has struggled mightily to replace starter Joe Schmidt -- as have the Irish as a whole, they're 0-3 without the former preferred walk-on form Mater Dei High School.

Previously a starter in a unique role vs. Navy's triple-option this season (he played with Schmidt and Smith), Martini's sample size is about to get much larger for Irish fans to dissect in the off-season.

#9 Jaylon Smith: The weak side linebacker is the team's best remaining defensive player and easily its top NFL prospect. A true sophomore, Smith has started 24 consecutive games and is one of two remaining starters on Brian VanGorder's unit that matches up athletically with the Trojans skill position players.

Smith leads the Irish in tackles, tackles-for-loss, and is fourth in QB hurries though he's used sparingly as a pass rusher. When Notre Dame needs a crucial red zone stop -- especially on 2nd-and-10, Smith is usually turned loose. He disguises his blitz well and has preternatural quickness for a 235-pound 'backer.

In Saturday's matchup, one stocked with future NFL players among its underclassmen, Smith takes a backseat to no one. He's not, however, ideally built for the inside 'backer role he's been forced to play and learn this fall. Smith can be destructive in open space and can cover most college athletes in short zones/crosses, but he's needed closer to the ball on a youth-filled defense

#36 Cole Luke: Notre Dame's best player during a bad stretch of football, Luke has won his matchups against Arizona State star Jaelen Strong (5 receptions, 56 yards, 1 TD, and not on Luke) and Louisville's dominant DeVante Parker (4 for 65, 1 TD, and again, not on Luke).

Saturday brings Nelson Agholor to the equation but over the last month, Irish fans went from "Uh-oh" to "May the best man win" when comparing the two -- that's quite a leap for a true sophomore that entered August camp as Notre Dame's No. 3 cornerback behind since-suspended Keivarae Russell and injured Cody Riggs. (A transfer from Florida, Riggs did not play against USC last season.)

USC will certainly test Luke -- he's not yet attained that status -- but the bulk of their damage through the air will doubtless be done against sophomore cornerback Devin Butler and the struggling Irish safeties. In addition to Strong and Parker, Luke has squared off against Rashad Greene, Ty Montgomery, and Devin Funchess this season. He's well-prepared for the Trojans speedsters.

The rest of the secondary, on the other hand…

#5 Everett Golson: USC fans will become reacquainted with Golson quickly. He'll be the guy throwing bullets downfield, escaping pressure with quick feet, and fumbling the football back to the USC defense…

Golson is the most important player on the football team and for a solid two months, he was clearly the team's best, but a combined nine turnovers (fumbles and interceptions) by the senior (he'll return next fall) quarterback against Arizona State and Northwestern contributed greatly to the defeats. He was cleaner against Louisville (one pick, one miscommunicated snap that he recovered, one fumble on a sack that he recovered for a 28-yard loss) but hardly played championship football.

Still, Golson is a playmaker, possesses one of the best arms in college football and has the feet to extend plays, then launch downfield (rolling either right or left) to a slew of wide receivers that have evolved from spring 2014 question mark to rank as the best position group on the football team.

If Golson turns it over once Saturday, Notre Dame can win, because that's likely 500 yards of offense and 30-plus points as a result. If it's twice or more -- and it most often is -- or if he fails in the red zone as did the Irish offense last week, it'll be a joyous senior day for the Men of Troy.

#7 Will Fuller: The fourth true sophomore (or freshman) on our five player to watch list, Fuller played sparingly last season against the Trojans. Since, he's evolved into the most underrated skill position player in the nation. Literally. He was not named as one of 81 semi-finalists for the Biletnikoff Award, yet the Philadelphia product leads Notre Dame with 66 receptions, 962 yards, and 14 touchdowns -- the latter ranks second nationally.

No one, not FSU speedster Ronald Darby, nor any other corner on the Irish schedule has been able to run with Fuller one-on-one on the football field. He's far from perfect (no-showed against Navy and has suffered five drops), but if there's one guarantee entering Saturday's contest its that Fuller will make plays. (He's also drawn eight pass interference/holding calls for opposing defenses.)

Fuller, along with sophomore running back Tarean Folston (#25) have been the offense's consistent playmakers over the last six games. (After a slow start, Folston has 637 rushing yards and six total touchdowns over that span.)

Fuller has produced all year and is in-line for Team MVP honors.



Ryan Abraham has been the publisher of USCFootball.com since 1996. You can follow him on Twitter at @InsideTroy or email him at ryan@uscfootball.com .

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