Notre Dame Football: 5 Predictions for the 2012 Season

James ToljCorrespondent IIMarch 15, 2012

Notre Dame Football: 5 Predictions for the 2012 Season

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    The Notre Dame Football program has a number of question marks heading into 2012. Chief among them is who out of Everett Golson, Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix and Gunner Kiel will start at quarterback?

    The quarterback question probably won't  be answered anytime soon, both Golson and Hendrix could end up sharing time this season.

    That might not be the most popular opinion, but there are less controversial predictions that are likely to end up being a reality.

    The writing is on the wall as to which freshmen has the best chance of playing, and there a number of them who should see the field in 2012.

    Guessing that Manti' Te'o wins the Butkas Award isn't very far fetched. Neither is saying that Aaron Lynch will have 10 sacks or more.

    And after looking at how Brian Kelly wants to run his offense, the wide receiver spots will definitely have more bodies than fans are used to.

At Least 4 True Freshmen See the Field

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    With the freshmen talent arriving in South Bend in 2012, at least four first-year guys will see the field.

    At safety, Elijah Shumate should play this season. Although the 6'1" New Jersey product only weighs in at 205 pounds, he is already physically imposing and could see time at his natural position of linebacker as well. Look for him to take over Jamoris Slaughter's role of hybrid linebacker/safety against option or run-based offenses and be a major contributor on kickoff coverage.

    Davonte Neal has the opportunity to start at slot receiver. Robby Toma has earned playing time in most fans' eyes, but Neal's ability is too vast to keep him off the field. While Toma likely gets the starting nod, at the very least Neal will be one of the many players used at the position. Neal might just end up playing in all facets of the game.

    Neal is a viable option for kickoffs and punt returns because of his speed and shiftiness (George Atkinson III will be one kick returner) . Also, don't be surprised to see him try his hand at cornerback due to a recent development.

    Tee Shepard would have been ready for the big time at cornerback even though he didn't play his senior year in high school, but reports have surfaced that he is no longer with the team. Coach Kelly talked about Shepard's departure in a statement to the Chicago Tribune.

    If Neal doesn't end up playing cornerback, Eliar Hardy will likely move from safety to battle Jalen Brown, Bennett Jackson, Lo Wood and Josh Atkinson for playing time.

    With the departure of Hafis Williams, Brandon Newman, Sean Cwynar and Ethan Johnson (although Newman got almost no playing time), Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day are likely to help give Brian Kelly the deep rotation he wants along the defensive line (especially at nose tackle or defensive tackle).

    A number of other players could end up seeing time this season too.

    Justin Ferguson and Chris Brown may get to play wide receiver depending on how frequently Brian Kelly wants to rotate his players (Coach Kelly said he was to play fast and use a deep bench at wideout).

    Chris Badger's persistence and physicality may lead to him playing in kickoff coverage, and KeiVarre Russell has the talent to play either at running back or wideout (although the latter is more likely this season).

    However, due to depth, I don't see Russell or William Mahone playing this season at running back, even though Mahone would fit in well as a power back (Cam Roberson may get that role).

Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson Share Time at Quarterback

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    I know. This is the last thing fans want to hear (actually, Tommy Rees starting is the last thing), but Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix both playing in 2012 is a real possibility.

    Golson and Hendrix have similar skill sets. They both have strong arms, great mobility and can run just about any spread package Coach Kelly asks them to, but this is less about having different skill sets and more about being good enough to play.

    If one of the two doesn't clearly separate himself in the spring, then having both guys get reps is a very likely scenario.

    It may make more sense to have Gunner Kiel be the player to supplement the starter, but if Kiel doesn't know the playbook well enough, it will be difficult for him to earn the repetitions in practice needed to play.

    Notre Dame's new offensive coordinator isn't too worried about who will be the guy, or even when a starting quarterback is named for that matter. In an ESPN article by Matt Fortuna, Chuck Martin said, "It won't be a big deal to me, and I don't think it would be a big deal to Coach [Brian] Kelly. We've been doing this long enough. You can name your starter before the first game, the day before the first game and it can be fine. He can go and win the Heisman Trophy. There's no magical answer."

    Even if Hendrix is named the sole starter, then don't be surprised if Coach Kelly and Martin put Golson in on occasion to see what he can do. And while the last thing the team needs is another quarterback controversy during the season, it may just be inevitable.

Manti Te'o Wins Butkus Award

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    Last year, Te'o was a finalist for the Butkas Award but eventually lost to Luke Kuechly.

    Te'o wasn't near full strength in 2011, though. He was nursing an ankle injury all year and rarely even practiced. 

    An injured Te'o still managed to rack up 66 assisted and 62 solo tackles, five sacks, four quarterback hurries, 13.5 tackles for loss, two passes broken up and a forced fumble.

    In 2012, a fully healthy Te'o has to be considered one of the favorites for the award if not the front-runner.

    During his time at Notre Dame, fans have seen Te'o develop into a elite player. The broken assignments, overrun plays and missed tackles that happened in his freshman campaign quickly became a thing of the past.

    Te'o hits opposing players with the brute force of a ram, blows up plays in the backfield with ease and if he can slightly improve his coverage, he could be one of the top picks in next year's NFL draft (and might be regardless).

    Barring good health, if the Hawaii native doesn't earn the Butkas Award in his final season, it would be a shocker.

A Rotating Door at Wide Receiver

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    Brian Kelly will get his wish soon enough.

    In the South Bend Tribune, Kelly stated, "We want to play fast, but we've been so low in numbers at that position. We've suffered an injury here or there. That's why we're still recruiting wide receivers. It puts a ton of reps on guys."

    After bringing in a stack of receivers the past few years, Kelly has the depth at wideout to make the unit hum.

    Four players with experience are returning in Theo Riddick, John Goodman, T.J. Jones and Robby Toma. 

    Daniel Smith, DaVaris Daniels, Matthias Farley and Luke Massa are more options.

    Kelly nabbed a number of talented wide receiver in the 2012 class as well. Freshmen Justin Ferguson, Chris Brown, Davonte Neal and KeiVarae Russel, who could play wideout or running back, all have the skills to see the field early.

    Running backs Cam McDaniel, George Atkinson III, Amir Carsile (now that he has been cleared to play according to ESPN), Riddick (if he remains at running back), Russell (if he isn't labeled a wide receiver anyway), Cam Roberson, William Mahone and even Cierre Wood could see some time in the slot now that Tony Alford has moved back to coach the running backs but remains in charge of the slot-receiver position (although Mahone and Roberson are doubtful candidates).

    With Tyler Eifert also an option at wideout, the coaching staff has switched former outside linebacker Troy Niklas to tight end to add even more depth to the receiving unit and utilize Niklas' offensive talent.

    While the wideout unit lost a star and its leading receiver in Michael Floyd, there sure isn't a lack of depth.

Aaron Lynch Has 10 Sacks or More

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    This may seem like more of a truism than a prediction to Irish fans. 

    After Aaron Lynch dominated the annual Blue-Gold game in 2011, there were very high expectations for the freshman defensive end.

    He didn't disappoint.

    Lynch exhibited his raw talent as he willed his way to 5.5 sacks, 19 solo and 14 assisted tackles, two passes broken up, 14 quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and seven tackles for loss.

    Like most freshmen, he was still learning his position throughout the season, but injuries to Ethan Johnson and Kapron-Lewis Moore earned both Lynch and Stephon Tuitt increased playing time.

    With a year of experience, Lynch will come back even stronger in 2012. He has the ability to lead all of college football in sacks, and if he can avoid facing constant double teams, Lynch might just do so.

    Lynch will have at least 10 sacks in 2012 (nine players had 10 or more last season), and if he doesn't, it is only because he is opening pass-rushing lanes for his teammates by garnering so much attention (which will be evident).