Michael Floyd has finished his eligibility in South Bend and it’s time for Jones to emerge as one of Notre Dame’s top threats in the passing game. As a freshman in 2010, he caught 23 passes for 306 yards and three scores, but was quiet over the final month of the season due to an injury. Jones improved upon his freshman totals with 38 catches for 366 yards and three scores in 2011, but did not post a 100-yard performance and was held scoreless over the final eight contests. Jones won’t be asked to replicate Floyd’s production, but he needs to catch over 50 passes in 2012. The junior will be under pressure to perform early, especially with redshirt freshman DaVaris Daniels and true freshman Davonte Neal ready to work their way into playing time.
The secondary will be under the spotlight early in 2012, as Notre Dame must replace three key performers from last year. Slaughter has played in 36 career games and posted a career-best 45 tackles last year. He also registered two sacks and forced one fumble. Slaughter may play some cornerback this year, but his experience and leadership will be critical to a secondary that needs to replace a couple of key performers.
Riddick has bounced between running back and receiver throughout his career and could see time at both positions in 2012. As a sophomore in 2010, Riddick appeared to be on the verge of a breakout year after catching 10 passes for 128 yards and one touchdown against Michigan State. However, he missed time due to an injury and finished the year with 40 receptions for 414 yards. As a junior in 2011, Riddick failed to build on his totals, catching 38 passes for 436 yards and adding 63 yards on the ground. With Michael Floyd playing on Sundays, Riddick needs to become a playmaker for whichever quarterback ends up with the starting job.
With an unsettled quarterback position, Cave’s return for his senior year is a huge boost to Notre Dame’s offense. Having an experienced leader for the offense is crucial, especially if coach Brian Kelly turns to one of the team’s freshman passers. Cave was on the watchlist for the Rimington Trophy last year and started the first nine games of 2011. However, a foot injury against Wake Forest ended his season prematurely. He made 13 starts in 2010 and has made 35 career appearances. Cave likely won’t challenge for All-American honors, but his presence will be critical to the team’s offensive improvement.
Wood’s 1,102 yards last season was the most by a Notre Dame back since Darius Walker rushed for 1,267 in 2006. The Irish struggled to find balance on offense, as the passing attack struggled to find consistency most of the year, but Wood’s production was a bright spot. He recorded three 100-yard performances, including 191 and a touchdown on 20 attempts against Purdue. Wood also chipped in 27 receptions for 189 yards. With Jonas Gray departing, Wood could see his carries increase slightly in 2012. The Irish still have question marks about the passing attack, so the offense will lean heavily on Wood’s production until a quarterback settles into the starting role.
Playing nose guard isn’t a glamorous statistical position, but it’s crucial to the success of any 3-4 scheme. At 6-foot-3 and 326 pounds, Nix is the perfect anchor for the interior of the line. In his redshirt freshman campaign last year, he recorded 45 stops and four tackles for a loss. Inserting Nix into the starting lineup paid immediate dividends, as Notre Dame’s defense allowed only eight rushing scores last year. With Aaron Lynch leaving the team in the spring, opposing defenses could devote more attention to Nix, but he should be a consistent performer in 2012.
With Aaron Lynch’s decision to transfer, Tuitt will have to take on a bigger role on the defensive line in 2012. As a freshman in 2011, Tuitt played in nine games and recorded 30 tackles and two sacks. He needed some time to transition from high school to college, but Tuitt was one of the defensive line’s top players at the end of the year, registering 26 of his 30 tackles over the final six games. The sophomore will is expected to start on the outside in 2012 and will be one of the team’s top pass-rush threats on the line. Notre Dame will miss Lynch, but Tuitt’s development could help the Irish own one of the nation’s top 10 defensive lines.
Getting consistent play from the offensive line has been an issue for Notre Dame in recent years, but 2012 could be different. Martin has been a steady performer in his first two years and could challenge for All-American honors this season. He started all 13 games at left tackle last year and enters 2012 with 26 consecutive starts. The Irish allowed only 17 sacks last season and could improve upon that number with Martin returning for 2012.
An elite tight end is a rarity in college football in recent years. Luckily for Notre Dame, Eifert turned down the NFL Draft to return to South Bend and should be the nation’s best at his position going into the 2012 season. He ranked second on the team with 63 receptions, 803 yards and five receiving scores last year. Eifert had at least one catch in every game last season and caught eight passes for 75 yards and one touchdown in the win against Pittsburgh. With Michael Floyd finishing his eligibility in South Bend, Eifert is the now the leader of the receiving corps and should be targeted more by Notre Dame quarterbacks in 2012.
In a bit of a surprise, Te’o turned down the NFL Draft for his senior year at Notre Dame. The Irish defensive staff certainly isn’t complaining, as Te’o’s play is deserving of the accolades and hype that is thrown his direction. He has posted back-to-back seasons of at least 100 tackles and has 28.5 career tackles for a loss. Te’o was a finalist for the Lott Trophy and Butkus Award last season and earned second-team All-American honors by the Associated Press. The senior is one of the top defensive players in the nation and should close out his career with another season of at least 100 tackles.
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