Every season, at least one player on every team outperforms his expectations and becomes one of the most important players on the roster. Last year, that player for Notre Dame was Jonas Gray. The senior running back had done little in his first three seasons, but a new attitude led to a surprising senior season after being written off as a bust my most Irish fans.
Who will be the Jonas Gray of the 2012 for the Fighting Irish? I have identified five candidates. I have limited the pool of players to only juniors and seniors. Obvious candidates such as George Atkinson III, Everett Golson and Stephon Tuitt are not included.
Here are five players with the potential to soar to greater heights for Notre Dame in 2012.
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Like Theo Riddick, Motta was at his best in the season finale last year, which included a fumble return for a touchdown to give Notre Dame an early lead over Florida State. With defensive captain Harrison Smith now a Minnesota Viking, it’s up to Motta to not only be the last line of defense, but also help replace the leadership qualities that helped turn Smith into a first-round NFL Draft pick.
Motta saw the field often in nickel coverage last season, finishing with 40 tackles and an interception against Michigan. He came on strong late in the season, finishing with multiple solo tackles in each of the team’s final four games. Entering his final season, it’s time for Motta to shine as an every-down player.
The senior hasn’t yet found his exact home on Notre Dame’s depth chart. A move back to running back after two full seasons at wide receiver prior to last season’s Champs Sports Bowl was a success, with Riddick rushing for 37 yards on eight carries in a losing effort.
The Irish backfield is a crowded one this season, but with running backs coach Tony Alford also coaching slot receivers, expect Riddick to line up both on and behind the line of scrimmage this season. He displays great vision when carrying the ball, but never appeared comfortable catching downfield passes, despite scoring what should have been a game-winning touchdown at Michigan.
Much like Theo Riddick, Shembo is also struggling to find his ideal position. An experiment at Dog linebacker last season did not work out as well as was hoped, so he’ll try Cat linebacker this season in what should be a platoon role with sophomore Ishaq Williams.
The Cat position will allow Shembo to rush the passer more often this season, which is a more natural fit for them than dropping into coverage. Despite likely sharing time with Williams he should at least double the two sacks he registered as a sophomore.
Special teams were a major weakness last season for the Irish. Placekicker David Ruffer did not match his 2010 season in which he was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award, and the punt return game was among the worst in the nation. Turk had his bright moments last season, but struggled with consistency early in the season.
After averaging less than 35 yards per punt in the first two weeks, Turk averaged over 40 yards per attempt in nine of the team’s final 11 games. He finished in the middle of the pack nationally, but on pure ability he should be more in the No. 20-30 range, not No. 62. Expect his final year to be his best yet and the Irish to move way up in the special teams rankings.
There was little to complain about Watt’s junior season with the Irish, but the Chicago native makes this list because he could become one of the better guards in the country in his senior season (Watt is eligible for a fifth year in 2013). He outlasted Andrew Nuss for the starting role last fall, and will team with Zack Martin to form an elite pairing on the left side of Notre Dame’s offensive line.
Watt will get an early test this season in Week Two against Purdue’s star defensive tackle Kawann Short. The Irish gashed Purdue for 305 yards on the ground in a 38-10 romp last season, with the offensive line controlling the line of scrimmage from the outset. If history repeats itself on Sept. 8, you’ll know Watt has taken the next step in his development.