The 2012 season is in the books, but who can Notre Dame expect to break out in 2013?
NOTRE DAME — Now that Notre Dame knows its head coach is coming back next season, it’s time to look at some of the most promising names for 2013.
Gone are the likes of Manti Te’o, Theo Riddick, Braxston Cave, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Tyler Eifert, but several young prospects are poised to fill in their shoes or flesh out their own roles from this past season.
While contributors like Everett Golson, T.J. Jones and Stephon Tuitt are obvious crucial returning players, here are some of the more interesting players and units to watch develop in 2013:
BATTLE FOR NO. 2
Everett Golson’s starting spot should be secure. He is 10-1 as a starter and was one of the few Irish players to perform well in the national championship.
However, the battle for No. 2 should be interesting.
Tommy Rees, Notre Dame’s starter in 2011 and Golson’s bail-out guy in 2012, returns, but so do Andrew Hendrix and Gunner Kiel.
The drama surrounding Kiel’s recruitment died down once the freshman filed into the fourth spot on the depth chart, but expect to see more from the Columbus East product now that he has a year with the Irish playbook under his belt.
Don’t forget that Notre Dame nabbed 4-star quarterback Malik Zaire from this year’s recruiting cycle. While Zaire likely won’t see significant playing time, he looks to be even more lethal than Golson on his feet.
A PARTNER FOR GAIII
With Riddick gone and Cierre Wood’s future uncertain, the brunt of Notre Dame’s ground game will likely fall on the speedy George Atkinson III.
Atkinson will be the only returning Notre Dame tailback with significant playing time (361 rushing yards, 7.1 yards per carry, five touchdowns) but still remains largely untested.
While fellow sophomore Cam McDaniel is an early favorite for the No. 2 spot, USC transfer Amir Carlisle will (hopefully) have recovered from his broken ankle and 5-star recruit Greg Bryant will be poised to compete for early playing time.
A NO. 3 RECEIVER
With Jones and DaVaris Daniels getting promotions on Golson’s list of targets, expect to see a lot more of freshmen Chris Brown, Justin Ferguson and Davonte Neal at the No. 3 spot.
Brown showed signs of potential greatness on his go-route sprint against Oklahoma but otherwise failed to connect with Golson on similar plays throughout the year. If Brown and Golson can develop a better chemistry in the spring and summer, expect to see a lot more of the lightning-fast receiver next season.
Neal was stuck on the chronically under-performing punt return team but can bump himself up to full-time receiver in 2013 after only making one catch for minus-five yards this year.
A SEASONED SECONDARY
Remember when this unit was the biggest concern along the Notre Dame defense?
Next year, it might be the biggest guarantee.
Matthias Farley, Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell all return with a year of starting experience under their belts, and Lo Wood will likely have fully recovered from his torn Achilles tendon.
If Jamoris Slaughter can somehow successfully appeal for a sixth year of eligibility and if 5-star incoming safety Max Redfield is everything he’s hyped up to be, expect the defensive backfield to be stacked with talent come September.
Tyler Eifert is on to bigger and better things, which clears the way for linebacker-turned-tight end Troy Niklas.
The Herculean sophomore — billed at 6-foot-7, 260 pounds — may not yet be the receiving threat Eifert was, but couple his size and blocking ability with soft hands, and Golson may have another hulking target in the middle of the field.
Just like Eifert helped soften the blow of the departed Michael Floyd this year, Niklas and DaVaris Daniels can help fill in for Eifert in 2013.
Daniels broke onto the scene with a four-catch, 70-yard performance against Purdue in Week 2 and settled in as Notre Dame’s No. 3 receiver behind Eifert and T.J. Jones.
Daniels put up promising numbers against Pitt (seven receptions, 86 yards) and came back from a broken clavicle to grab six passes for 115 yards against Alabama but didn’t’ register any catches against BYU or Michigan State.
Despite averaging 15.0 yards per catch on 25 total receptions, the sophomore has yet to find the end zone.
Daniels and Jones are set to lead the Irish receiving corps next year, and Daniels is set to be the big-play threat if he can find consistency.
Irish Chocolate. Big Lou. No. 9.
Call him what you’d like, but the Notre Dame nose guard with a personality to match his 6-foot-3, 326-pound frame has more than hilarious videos and one-liners to offer the Irish next year.
Nix had no problem proving himself this year with 45 tackles, two sacks and five pass break-ups, but with the departure of Te’o and Lewis-Moore, Nix and Tuitt will serve as the anchors of the defense both logistically and as veteran leaders.
With Te’o no longer lined up behind him, expect Nix to play an even bigger role in plugging the middle of the field.
The junior linebacker’s stock started rising after a six-tackle performance against Stanford and an interception against BYU the following week.
Though Spond’s numbers weren’t huge — 39 tackles, three pass break-ups and four defended passes — he has the head and shoulders to be a leader on a linebacker corps that will be moving on without its most famous member in decades.
There’s a good chance Spond’s statistical performance this year would have been even greater, but he spent the greater part of August recovering from a mysterious, serious migraine.
Teamed with Prince Shembo, Romeo Okwara, Ishaq Williams and newcomer Jaylon Smith, expect the outside linebacker corps to be even stronger than it was this year.
The freshman from Indianapolis saw playing time in all 12 games as an heir apparent to the departing Lewis-Moore.
Day could use a little more bulk — his 286 pounds is dwarfed by the 300-plus pound Nix, Lewis-Moore and Tuitt — but otherwise has the ingredients to be a worthy successor on the defensive line.
Day finished the season with 20 tackles (3.5 for loss), two sacks, a recovered fumble and a pass break-up, which made him the second most productive defensive freshman behind Russell.
The (usually) sure-footed kicker broke the school record for most field goals in a season (23) as a sophomore, and his future only looks brighter.
Now that Brindza has a season of experience out of the way and some clutch field goals under his belt, he can be expected to improve his 74 percent accuracy.
If all goes well for a developing Irish offense, Brindza might not have to boot another 31 field goal attempts in 2013, which might be good for saving his leg.
Punter Ben Turk graduates in May. Could Brindza be the go-to guy to take his place?