The term "next man in" has joined the ever-increasing number of phrases in the coach-speak dictionary. It's a way of softening the blow of losing impact players, at least to the fans and media. For Notre Dame, some key impact players are gone, including all-time leading receiver Michael Floyd and Cat linebacker Darius Fleming.
Replacing such elite players as Floyd, Fleming and others will require some of Notre Dame's young players to take their games to the next level. Some got a taste of major college football last year, while others will see the field for the first time next month.
Here are five Fighting Irish freshmen and sophomores who will soar to new heights in 2012 as the "next man in."
Notre Dame got a glimpse of how special Atkinson can be with his pair of kick return touchdowns last season. As a sophomore, he’ll be in the mix at running back after a dominant spring running track for the Irish.
He’s ideal for reverses and jet sweeps with his straight-line speed and cutback ability. Carries will be at a premium with Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood the more experienced running backs, but Atkinson is the most dynamic offensive player Notre Dame has had since Raghib “Rocket” Ismail’s final season in 1990.
Golson, the fan favorite, is going to play this season. How much? That’s the million dollar question. It’s no secret that Golson has the best skill set for what Brian Kelly likes to do offensively, but his struggles grasping the system’s intricacies have kept him from establishing himself as the leading candidate for the starting job.
When he gets on the field, he’ll make plays that Tommy Rees simply cannot with his limited athleticism. However, if you think Golson will permanently eliminate Brian Kelly’s patented purple faces, you’re probably wrong. There will still be plenty of mistakes, but after the 2011 season, throwing Golson to the wolves seems like a risk worth taking.
Making an instant impact as a true freshman in major college football is no easy task, especially for those like Neal, who did not go through spring practice. However, Neal walks into a great situation for early playing time, as Notre Dame desperately needs production at the wide receiver position with Michael Floyd off to the NFL.
Neal will be battling senior Robby Toma for the starting slot position role now that a move to cornerback appears off the table after classmate KeiVarae Russell made the switch from running back. He’s not a true deep threat (yet), but once the ball is in his hands, he can turn a good play into a great play.
With all the hype surrounding the now-departed Aaron Lynch both on and off the field over the past year, the other elite defensive end in the 2011 class has become a bit of a forgotten man. That will not be the case this season, as he’ll team with senior Kapron Lewis-Moore to bookend Notre Dame’s defensive line.
The Georgia native isn’t quite the athletic freak that Lynch is, but he’s extremely strong and moves well for his size. He made three starts last year and made 30 tackles, good enough to garner third-team Freshman All-American honors. His style of play doesn’t always lend itself to being at the top of the stat sheet in terms of sacks, but he’ll be extremely productive as a sophomore.
Williams experienced some growing pains as a freshman, but now appears ready to at least split time at the Cat linebacker position with Prince Shembo. He saw limited action last season, making six tackles in 11 games.
Darius Fleming was a smart, veteran player at the position last year, but he didn’t possess the pass-rushing skills that the position requires. Williams has them, but now he just needs to get everything to click. If you’re looking for the most improved player on the Irish defense from 2011 to 2012, Williams might be your guy.