|Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press|
|Massive Louis Nix III anchors a defensive line that is the strength of Notre Dame's roster.|
After essentially being out of the national title picture for almost two decades, Notre Dame roared back into the mix in a big way last season, falling to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. While the Crimson Tide easily handled the Irish, Notre Dame still finished 12-1 and showed that it was back on the national scene. That was followed by six Irish players being selected in the 2013 NFL Draft, including one first-rounder (TE Tyler Eifert). That gave the Irish 10 picks in the past two drafts, four more than they had in the previous three drafts combined.
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Coach Brian Kelly has done a nice job restocking the Irish with talent, and there are three or four potential top NFL picks on this season's roster. The bell cows are defensive linemen Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt, two players signed out of SEC territory (Nix is from Florida; Tuitt from Georgia). Those two give the Irish one of the best defensive lines in the nation. The entire defense should be strong.
The offense is another matter. Notre Dame didn't exactly roll up yards last season, and incumbent starting QB Everett Golson will sit out this season because of academic ineligibility. The Irish also need a new feature back and must find an adequate replacement for Eifert. At least the line looks solid. Another national title run seems out of reach, but a 10-win season is a legitimate goal. The Irish haven't won 10 games in back-to-back seasons since 1992-93.
Top senior prospects
CB Bennett Jackson: He hadn't done much except play on special teams in his first two seasons, then became a starting corner in 2012. Jackson (6-foot, 185 pounds), who has good speed, was third on the team with 65 tackles and added four picks and four pass breakups. He played most of last season with an injured shoulder that required offseason surgery; he missed spring practice while rehabbing. Notre Dame hasn't had a cornerback drafted earlier than the fifth round since 2001, but Jackson could change that with another solid season.
OT Zack Martin: He has started 39 consecutive games at tackle for the Irish, all but two on the left side. Martin (6-4, 304) is a physical run blocker and gradually has improved his pass-protection skills. He is athletic and moves well laterally. He might fit better as a guard on the next level. Martin already has a management degree and will play this fall as a grad student.
OLB Prince Shembo: He was a full-time starter for the first time last season and responded with 7.5 sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss and 12 quarterback hurries. Shembo (6-2, 250), who runs well, has 14 sacks in his career. He has evolved from just a pass-rush specialist to a well-rounded linebacker, though he can get better in coverage.
G Chris Watt: Watt (6-3, 310), who will be a three-year starter this season, is a road grader in the running game; he is physical and plays with a nasty streak. Though he might not be as athletic as some other high-profile guards, teammates rave about his toughness. He was a consensus top-100 national recruit out of high school in Illinois.
NT Louis Nix III: He is a fourth-year junior who has started in each of the past two seasons. Nix (6-3, 326) is an elite run-stuffer who has the quickness, strength and athleticism to also be a disruptive force. He does a nice job of consistently holding his ground, even against double teams, which enables linebackers to come in and clean up the play. Nix never is going to be an elite pass rusher, but expect him to become a bit better in that facet this fall. Though he has played well when the Irish have used their 4-3 sets, he fits best as a 3-4 nose tackle at the next level.
DE Stephon Tuitt: He was a national top-50 recruit out of suburban Atlanta in 2011 and is well on his way to living up to the hype. He started three times as a true freshman that fall, then burst on the national scene last season with a big-time sophomore campaign. Tuitt led the Irish with 12 sacks -- second most in school history in a season -- and added 47 tackles, three forced fumbles, nine quarterback hurries and a blocked kick. Tuitt (6-6, 303) has unreal quickness for a guy his size; he also has good strength, and was used inside at times when the Irish went to a 4-3 set.
RB George Atkinson III: The Irish lost their top two rushers from last season, and Atkinson, a junior, is expected to be the feature back. Atkinson (6-1, 210) has excellent speed and is the Irish's fastest tailback in a while. But he has been criticized for running too upright, and there is a question as to how effective he can be running between the tackles. He has no problem turning the corner and getting up the field, though. Atkinson has shown an ability to be an effective kickoff returner. His father played defensive back for the Oakland Raiders from 1968-77.
WR DaVaris Daniels: Daniels is a third-year sophomore who started three games last season and finished with 31 receptions for 490 yards but no touchdowns. Daniels (6-2, 190) has a nice size/speed combination and is the receiver with the most upside on the roster; he should be the Irish's go-to receiver this fall. But will the Irish's quarterback situation hurt his production? Consistency was an issue in 2012, but worth noting is that he missed two games with a broken collarbone, then returned against Alabama with his best performance of the season (six receptions for 115 yards). His father, Phillip Daniels, was an NFL defensive end for 14 seasons and now serves as the Washington Redskins' director of player development.
DE Sheldon Day: Big things are expected this fall from Day, who made 23 tackles as a true freshman reserve last season. Day (6-2, 286), a touted high school defensive tackle from Indianapolis, is a good fit at end in the Irish's 3-4 scheme. He is tough against the run and flashed some unexpected pass-rush ability, too.
FS Matthias Farley: He played wide receiver on the Irish scout team when he redshirted in 2011. He was moved to safety in fall camp last season (he played the position once in high school in North Carolina, in his final game) and ended up starting 11 times at free safety, finishing with 49 tackles, a pick and a pass breakup. Farley (5-11, 200) basically was playing on pure athleticism last season, and he can be expected to become more accustomed to the position this season. He never played football at any level (he enjoyed soccer) before his junior season in high school.
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OT Christian Lombard: Lombard (6-5, 309) is a fourth-year junior who started all 13 games at right tackle last season. He is a punishing run blocker and could move to guard at the next level; indeed, he could move to guard for the Irish this fall, depending on how some young linemen progress.
TE Troy Niklas: The Irish are looking for a new tight end with Eifert's departure, and Niklas looks as if he will be the guy. Niklas (6-7, 260), a junior, is massive. He played tight end for the first time last fall after moving from outside linebacker; he was a two-way lineman in high school in the Los Angeles area. Niklas started seven games and had five receptions. He is a better blocker than receiver as this point, but coaches like his upside as a pass-catcher. His uncles are former NFL players Bruce and Clay Matthews Jr., and among his cousins are Jake Matthews, a Texas A&M offensive tackle who is one of the best linemen in the nation, and Green Bay Packers LB Clay Matthews III.
CB KeiVarae Russell: He was a high school tailback of some renown in the Seattle area, but made a big impact as a true freshman corner last season. He was the first true freshman corner to ever start a season opener for the Irish. Russell (5-11, 182) has good speed and showed well against the run last fall, when he was fifth on the team with 58 tackles. He added two picks and four pass breakups to earn freshman All-America notice. He could stand to add some bulk and still is learning the intricacies of the position, but defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has said Russell has the potential to eventually become the best corner in the nation.
Three must-see games of 2013
Sept. 7 at Michigan: Tuitt vs. Michigan OT Taylor Lewan, who contemplated coming out early last year, will be an epic matchup. Shembo will see a lot of Lewan, too. Nix could dominate inside against an all-new Michigan interior. Atkinson will be going against a front seven that returns just two starters. Still, Michigan DE Frank Clark will be a handful for Martin.
Sept. 28 vs. Oklahoma: Tuitt should spend part of the day going against touted Oklahoma OT Daryl Williams; the same goes for Shembo. And the matchup of Nix vs. Oklahoma C Gabe Ikard should be excellent. OU's secondary could have some issues, so this could be a big game for Daniels.
Nov. 30 at Stanford: Stanford has two of the best guards in the nation in Kevin Danser and David Yankey, so Nix will see a lot of those guys. Tuitt will be trying to get the better of Cardinal OT Cameron Fleming, who should be one of the best at that position in the Pac-12. Stanford has one of the best linebacker groups in the nation; will the Irish's line be able to open any holes for Atkinson?