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Notre Dame Wild Card Players for 2015

KeiVarae Russell

KeiVarae Russell

It could be a very special season in South Bend. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish return both leading receivers and their leading rusher from a season ago. The ultra-talented Malik Zaire takes over full-time under center behind an offensive line that returns three starters. Additionally, Zaire and Co. will have a defense that returns 10 starters from a season ago as a security blanket.

All that's left is to play the games — and win them, of course.

Related: Ranking the Toughest Games on Notre Dame's Schedule in 2015

Notre Dame's schedule is no joke, as the Irish take on three teams that will be in the hunt for their respective conference titles and possibly berths in the College Football Playoff. Given how we saw the new system work a season ago, the Irish will likely need to win every game on their slate in order to be considered for the Playoff. Aside from the obvious stars, four Notre Dame players will need to step up and have big seasons for that to happen.

Here are the "wild card" players for Notre Dame in 2015.

Durham Smythe, Tight End

After catching only a single pass in 2014, it looks as though the 6-4 Texas native will be stepping into that all important starting tight end role for the Irish. Notre Dame's skill players are going to get plenty of attention all season, making Smythe's ability to get open underneath and over the middle that much more important in the crunch. If he can be anything close to as productive as some of his recent predecessors — particularly in the red zone — the Irish could have one of the more explosive offensives in the nation.

Quenton Nelson, Guard

Starting for Notre Dame comes with plenty of pressure as it is. Starting as a freshman in the middle of the offensive line is an entirely different animal altogether. Nelson will be flanked by a talented left tackle and center, but he'll have to step up and be elite on his own for the Irish offense to fire on all cylinders. A lot rests on his ability to handle that pressure.

Joe Schmidt, Linebacker

Schmidt's phenomenal 2014 season was cut short by a month due to injury. His ability to bounce back and pick up where he left off will be key this season. He'll be surrounded by plenty of other talent and experience, but the guys in the defensive huddle will be looking to Schmidt to lead them by example in their quest for a title.

KeiVarae Russell, Cornerback

Russell returns to the Notre Dame starting lineup after missing all of 2014 because of an academic ban. With that behind him, he'll look to reclaim his status as one of the better cornerbacks in the country. He'll need to be exactly that, as the Irish's path to the College Football Playoff includes a couple of elite signal-callers capable of doing damage to any defense they face.

— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Scott is the editor-in-chief of, a Big Ten site for Big Ten fans. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.