Notre Dame Football: The Top 25 Opposing Players of 2012

Matt Smith@MattSmithCFBCorrespondent IIIMay 4, 2012

Notre Dame Football: The Top 25 Opposing Players of 2012

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    Notre Dame's 2012 schedule is one of the most rigorous it has ever faced, with Miami (FL) and Oklahoma joining the likes of annual foes Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford and USC. Not only will the Irish face a number of elite teams this season, but they also must deal with some of the best individual talent in college football.

    Here is a look at the 25 best players Notre Dame must deal with in order to survive the gauntlet of a schedule that it faces this fall.


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No. 25: S Jordan Kovacs, Michigan

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    Despite playing safety, Kovacs was tied for second on the team in sacks with four. He added eight tackles for loss and intercepted Tommy Rees in last year's Wolverines victory over Notre Dame.

    A physical player despite weighing in at under 200 pounds, he's played in 37 of 38 games since arriving in Ann Arbor.

No. 24: WR Trey Metoyer, Oklahoma

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    Metoyer is the only player on the list who has yet to play a down of major college football. After academics forced him to spend 2011 in prep school, he arrived in Norman in January and was the Sooners' most impressive player in spring practice.

    With a fourth-year starting quarterback and a fellow elite receiver on the opposite side of him, Metoyer is poised to put up huge numbers in his first season at Oklahoma.

No. 23: RB Ray Graham, Pittsburgh

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    Graham appeared to be the next in a line of great Panther running backs, following in the footsteps of LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis. Unfortunately, his 2011 season was cut short after eight games due to a knee injury.

    His availability for the fall is still unknown, but he should be close to 100 percent by the time Pittsburgh roles into South Bend in early November. Graham ran for 89 yards last year in Notre Dame's 15-12 win at Heinz Field.

No. 22: LB Denicos Allen, Michigan State

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    Allen had more than double the number of sacks as any other Spartan last year, finishing with 11, including three in the Big Ten Championship Game. He also led the Spartans in tackles for loss en route to being named to the All-Big Ten second team.

    The senior is a bit undersized at 5'10", but has great speed as an edge rusher. Notre Dame contained him well last season, holding him to no sacks and just four tackles. 

No. 21: NG Nikita Whitlock, Wake Forest

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    Whitlock is not the massive physical specimen that Louis Nix is for Notre Dame, but he might be a better anchor of a 3-4 defensive line. He followed a strong redshirt freshman season in 2010 with an even better sophomore campaign a year ago.

    His 14 tackles for loss led the Demon Deacons in 2011. He's on the shorter side, but extremely strong at the point of attack.

No. 20: CB Demontre Hurst, Oklahoma

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    Hurst made the most of his lone interception in 2011, returning it 55 yards for a touchdown against arch-rival Texas. The senior was a second team All-Big 12 performer last season.

    He's extremely fast, with sub-4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash. He's expected to be more of a vocal leader this season and will be aided by the addition of former Sooner cornerback Derrick Strait to the coaching staff.

No. 19: LB Dion Bailey, USC

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    What Aaron Lynch was to Notre Dame last season, that is what Bailey was to the Trojans. As a true freshman, Bailey tied for the team lead with 81 tackles and added a pair of both interceptions and sacks.

    Bailey was the Pac-12's defensive freshman of the year in 2011. At just 195 pounds, he's still growing into his frame. The strongside linebacker position at USC is in good hands for at least the next two seasons.

No. 18: RB Stepfan Taylor, Stanford

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    Taylor has had the benefit of running behind one of the best offensive lines in college football. He has scored 25 touchdowns and run for almost 2,500 years over the past two seasons.

    The senior has been at his best against Notre Dame, topping 100 yards in both meetings. Taylor is effective both in space and between the tackles.

No. 17: LB Kyle Van Noy, BYU

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    With BYU not garnering much attention last season thanks to a fairly soft schedule, Van Noy's dominant season went unnoticed by most. He finished with 68 tackles, seven sacks, three interceptions and three forced fumbles from his weakside linebacker position.

    His big plays also came at the biggest times, including a fumble return for a touchdown in a comeback win at Ole Miss. Van Noy will go down as one of the best defenders to ever play for the Cougars.

No. 16: OG Gabe Ikard, Oklahoma

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    Ikard was an All-Big 12 selection last season, a key piece for the No. 5 offense in college football. He's started 25 consecutive games for the Sooners since taking over a starting role in the third game of his redshirt freshman season.

    The junior also excels in the classroom, having been named to the academic All-Big 12 team in each of the past two seasons.

No. 15: DT Kawaan Short, Purdue

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    Short will be one of the biggest defenders Notre Dame will face this season, weighing in at 305 pounds on his 6'3" frame. The senior initially had declared for the NFL draft in January, but changed his mind and returned to West Lafayette.

    His 6.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss led the Boilermakers last season. Although he blocked a field goal attempt in last year's loss to the Irish, Short was held to just two tackles .

No. 14: QB Landry Jones, Oklahoma

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    This may seem low for a quarterback to be one of the top picks in the 2012 NFL draft, but 2011 was not a banner year for Jones. He was awful in losses to Texas Tech and Oklahoma State and struggled after leading receiver Ryan Broyles was lost for the season in early November.

    Jones will close his career with most of the school's passing records, but consistency in big games is still a concern even after 37 starts in his Sooners career.

No. 13: OT Taylor Lewan, Michigan

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    Lewan was a second team All-Big Ten performer in 2011 despite having to transition from a spread offense to more of a pro-style attack under new coach Brady Hoke. At 6'8", he gives the Wolverines a large body to protect Denard Robinson's blindside.

    The junior helped hold Notre Dame to just a single sack of Robinson in last year's meeting. He has the option to return for a fifth year in 2013, but could be a first-round NFL draft pick with a productive 2012 season.

No. 12: WR Kenny Stills, Oklahoma

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    Stills started strong last season, topping 100 yards in three of his first six games, including a career-high 135 yards against Texas Tech. He trailed off in the second half of the season, failing to score a touchdown after fellow receiver Ryan Broyles' season-ending injury.

    The junior isn't very tall at just 6'1", but has good speed and good ball skills. His consistency must improve, but he has the potential to be the next great Sooner receiver.

No. 11: CB Nickell Robey, USC

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    Robey made one of the plays of the year last season when he intercepted Andrew Luck for a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter against Stanford. While the Trojans would eventually lose that game, Robey was still named to the All-Pac 12 team as a sophomore.

    At just 5'8" and 165 pounds, Robey is small, even for a cornerback. That doesn't deter him from physical play, however, as he recorded a pair of sacks against UCLA. His only other interception came at Notre Dame.

No. 10: S Tony Jefferson, Oklahoma

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    Think Jamoris Slaughter when you think of Jefferson. You can never know where the junior strong safety will be on any given play, as he excels against both the run and the pass. His 74 tackles were third on the team, and his four interceptions led the Sooners.

    Jefferson is a big hitter and his physical play could make for an interesting matchup against Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert when the teams meet in Norman. He was named the Big 12's top defensive freshman in 2010.

No. 9: LB Shayne Skov, Stanford

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    It's been a difficult eight months for Skov after a leg injury that cost him all but three games of the 2011 season and a DUI arrest in January. Despite the challenges facing him, Skov is one of the most talented linebackers in the country.

    His status remains somewhat uncertain due to his recovery from injury and legal situation. When he's healthy, he's as good as his Notre Dame middle linebacker counterpart, Manti Te'o. He led the Cardinal in tackles in 2010 and was leading the team last year at the time of his injury.

No. 8: QB Denard Robinson, Michigan

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    Robinson has been at his absolute best against Notre Dame the past two seasons, vaulting to the top of the Heisman Trophy race after leading comeback victories over the Irish in consecutive years.

    His passing skills are still a major flaw, but his elite speed makes him a nightmare for opposing defenses. The Irish have struggled to contain Robinson, as he has run for 266 yards in the past two meetings.

No. 7: CB Johnny Adams, Michigan State

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    The overwhelming sentiment was that Adams would join teammate Jerel Worthy in forgoing his final year of eligibility to enter the draft. Adams elected to return, however, and the Spartans should now have the best secondary in the Big Ten.

    Adams had three interceptions last season, including one returned for a touchdown against Northwestern. He's played in parts of each of the past four seasons, including three games in a redshirt year in 2009. He has one interception against Notre Dame, picking off Dayne Crist in the 2010 meeting.

No. 6: S T.J. McDonald

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    McDonald is a giant at the back end of the USC secondary at 6'3", 205 pounds. He passed up the NFL to return to Los Angeles for his senior season after recording 67 tackles and a team-high three interceptions as a junior, being named to the All-Pac 12 team.

    The Fresno native has missed only one game over the past three years for the Trojans. He had six tackles in last year's USC win in South Bend.

No. 5: LB Chase Thomas, Stanford

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    Thomas was put in a difficult situation last season, having to anchor the Cardinal linebacking corps after Shayne Skov's season-ending injury. All he did was lead the team with 8.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss in an all-Pac 12 season.

    He considered entering the NFL draft, calling it the toughest decision of his life, but ultimately elected to return to Palo Alto. He had two sacks last year in Stanford's 28-14 win against Notre Dame.

No. 4: WR Robert Woods, USC

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    Woods is almost a lock to be selected in the first round of next year's NFL draft should he choose to leave USC. After his performance in South Bend last year, Notre Dame fans can only hope he does just that.

    He caught 12 passes for 119 yards against the Irish last season, including two touchdown receptions from Matt Barkley. His 14-catch, 255-yard performance against Arizona was one of the best single-game performances in college football last season.

No. 3: DE William Gholston, Michigan State

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    It was a major recruiting coup for the Spartans landing Gholston in their 2010 class, and he's lived up to the hype in his first two seasons in East Lansing. Gholston only made the All-Big Ten second team last season, but he could be the league's Defensive Player of the Year in 2012.

    His temper can flare up occasionally, as it did last year when he was suspended for a game against Wisconsin after punching Michigan's Taylor Lewan. At 6'7", however, he is a nightmare for opposing offensive lines.

No. 2: QB Matt Barkley, USC

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    Given Barkley's play over the past two seasons, it's pretty clear that USC would be riding a 10-game winning streak over Notre Dame had he not missed the 2010 loss to the Irish with a leg injury. He'll enter his senior season at USC as the Heisman Trophy favorite.

    Barkley is brilliant when throwing on the run and has plenty of weapons around him with which to work. He'll break many of Carson Palmer's school passing records this season and is sure to receive a tremendous ovation when Notre Dame comes to Los Angeles for Senior Night at the Coliseum.

No. 1: WR Marqise Lee, USC

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    Some would argue that Lee isn't even the best receiver on his team, but his 1,143-yard season as a true freshman is just the beginning of what he'll do during his time at USC. With Robert Woods on the opposite side, Lee isn't always the primary target of opposing defenses.

    Lee had a tremendous November last season, with seven touchdowns and over 600 yards in four games. The call here is for Lee to approach 1,500 yards as a sophomore. The worst news for Notre Dame fans? He can't enter the NFL draft until 2014.