Notre Dame Football: 5 Players Who Will Have a Breakout 2012 Season

Kyle O'Connor@@oconnorkyleContributor IIIApril 8, 2012

Notre Dame Football: 5 Players Who Will Have a Breakout 2012 Season

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    The Notre Dame football season is inching closer and closer to starting, and personnel questions remain. Brian Kelly still has some very tough decisions to make, most notably at quarterback. 

    That's not to say that there aren't other position battles that will make big impacts on the 2012 Notre Dame season. We're about halfway through spring practices, and races are starting to take shape with early leaders emerging out of the pack.

    Notre Dame lost a bulk of its secondary, including Harrison Smith, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton. As well all know, Michael Floyd will not be back, as he'll be a first-round pick later this month in the NFL draft. Depending on how younger players can step up and fill in, the 2012 Notre Dame season could go a variety of different ways. 

    If the five players I'm going to highlight have breakout seasons, as I believe they will, Notre Dame could be in for a special season. Let's look at the handful of players I'm expecting big things from, and I'll tell you what I've seen from them to back up my high expectations. 

5. Ishaq Williams

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    There's a huge opportunity to be had, and it's opposite Prince Shembo. 

    Not much is known about playing time at OLB yet other than Prince Shembo is starting. Outside of that? Whoever looks the best will get the nod. Right now, everyone is thrown together, moving around from side to side to see what the best fit will be. In my opinion, Williams will win the starting nod and flourish. 

    Williams is a top-notch athlete. Honestly, the only knock on him right now is that he is raw. He didn't play against the best competition in high school, so he's improving at rapid speed. He has looked phenomenal so far this spring. While offensive fronts will have their hands full with Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Prince Shembo, there will a huge opportunity for whoever wins this spot. If Williams is left on an island with an offensive tackle, I like his chances.

    That leaves run support. In his limited time last year, I was actually really impressed by his run support. He did a decent job containing the edge and has the speed to chase down backs. If Williams does indeed win this spot and gets the majority of the defensive snaps, he'll have a huge impact on a strong Irish defense in 2012. 

4. Lo Wood

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    There are a few corners to choose from for the upcoming season. Considering both starting corners have moved on, someone is going to have to put up a breakout season. I'm a little higher on this group than some are, so let's start with the two who didn't make this list.

    Bennett Jackson has a ton of speed and played pretty well when he got the chance last year. He's probably the best athlete of the group and is slated to start opposite Lo Wood next season.

    Jalen Brown is another player who almost made this list, but I'm not sure if he will get the playing time to justify it. If Brian Kelly decided to start Brown, I would have no problem with that. As I've stated before, coaches and players alike would rave about Brown's performance in practices last season, and he may be the best pure corner on the team right now.

    Finally, Lo Wood, as you can see, did make this list. Wood didn't get to see a ton of action last season, but every time I see him on tape when he did, I come away more and more impressed. He's a solid athlete, has good speed and cuts quickly, but what really sets him apart is his ball skills. No corner on this roster is better when the ball is in the air.

    It will be interesting to see next season if Wood decides to play it since he'll be a starter or if he can stay aggressive and go get the ball when it's in the air. If he keeps the same habits he showed in his limited time last year and can be become a little more polished with his footwork, I expect him to have a monster 2012 season. 

3. Davaris Daniels

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    Daniels has the size (6'2", 190) to step in and start as an outside receiver right away. As of now, the staff has T.J. Jones penciled in as the lone starting receiver on the outside, leaving Daniels battling for the other starting spot along with John Goodman and Luke Massa. 

    After sitting and learning from Mike Floyd last season, I'm fully expecting a breakout season from Daniels. The coaches rave about how good he looked in practices last season as well as the early portions of spring practice. Daniels has the athletic ability and hands to make plays down the field, which is something that will be needed after the departure of Floyd.

    The Irish running game should be very solid next year, bringing a couple extra defenders into the box on most downs. It will fall to Daniels to make the defenses pay for doing so. 

    Whoever ends up in the slot—whether it's Robby Toma, Theo Riddick or Davonte Neal—he should attract enough attention along with TE Tyler Eifert to allow plenty of one-on-one coverage on the outside. While T.J. Jones is much more of a possession receiver, I expect Daniels to stretch the field and blow the top off the defense a few times a game.

    If he can work his way into the game plan enough to the point that he sees most of the offensive snaps, I wouldn't be surprised to see Daniels put up the best numbers of all of the receivers next season. 

2. Stephon Tuitt

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    This one isn't too surprising, as plenty of people are predicting a breakout season for Stephon Tuitt in 2012. Well, add my name to the list. 

    Tuitt joined Aaron Lynch as the big defensive recruits last season. The Notre Dame coaching staff went into that offseason wanting to take care of the defensive end position moving forward, and it's safe to say that they succeeded. Tuitt moves really well for his size (6'6", 295) and has incredible strength. Similar to Lynch, he uses his hands as well as anyone in the country.

    The biggest reason I think Tuitt will blow up this season is due to the overall talent up front for Notre Dame. Lynch and Nix will demand double teams, leaving Tuitt one man to beat most of the time. He will beat one man, over and over again. His incredible wingspan really comes into play in run support as well as being able to knock down passes. Opposing quarterbacks are going to have their hands full just getting the ball out next season as Tuitt (6'6"), Lynch (6'6") and Williams (6'5") will fill a lot of passing lanes with their length alone. 

    Kapron Lewis-Moore is back for a fifth year and will see plenty of time as well, but I think Tuitt sees a lot of snaps at DE opposite Lynch as well as some snaps up the middle and will really shine when he does. I fully expect him to have a big-time 2012 campaign. 

1. Everett Golson

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    Obviously, this is going to depend on who wins the QB battle. I've been saying since the offseason began that I believe it will be Everett Golson. As for Tommy Rees, Brian Kelly has seen enough of him, and I think he'll serve as a solid backup.

    Andrew Hendrix saw some playing time last season, but I like Golson to beat him out. They offer many of the same qualities, but I would give Golson the edge in terms of athletic ability as well as accuracy.

    Highly-touted freshman Gunner Kiel will also battle for the starting nod. Kiel, probably the most polished QB in the race, has a great chance to start from Day 1, but I doubt that he can pick up the offense in time especially given Brian Kelly's emphasis on eliminating turnovers next season. That leaves Everett Golson. 

    Golson has experience in running the Kelly offense, and he is also is the best dual-threat QB on the team. That is a huge factor considering how much more dangerous this offense is with a mobile quarterback. We all saw it last year: When Hendrix was in the game, opposing defenses were on their toes just enough to open up the passing game a little bit more as well as give Cierre Wood a little extra room to run. 

    There are also factors that aren't talked about near enough, as many people don't know how good of an arm Golson has. While he's still working on maker quicker reads and honing his game management skills, don't forget that this kid has a rocket arm and will put it on receivers time and time again.

    If Golson is given the chance to start, he could really put up some huge numbers. Golson, paired with Cierre Wood and Amir Carlisle, could make the Irish rushing attack one of the tops in the country in 2012.