Early in the 2012 season, Notre Dame has played its way back into the mix among the top teams in college football.
The Fighting Irish are back.
After several years of absence from the upper echelon of college football, head coach Brian Kelly has rebuilt his program and Notre Dame is once again among the best teams in the country. At 4-0 for the first time since 2002, the Irish are ranked as a top-10 team in the nation and have already knocked off a pair of ranked opponents in Michigan and Michigan State.
Big matchups still loom ahead of Notre Dame this regular season, but there’s no question that expectations for Irish fans and college football fans around the country have been solidified: This team should hang with the best and compete for a major BCS bowl.
In order for the team to get there, however, there are a few key individuals who need to step up—or continue the steps they have already taken—to carry the Irish to the finish line. Here are five players of utmost importance to Notre Dame’s success.
Manti Te'o is calling the shots on Notre Dame's defense.
When it comes to Notre Dame's extraordinary Hawaiian linebacker, the stats don't lie: 38 total tackles, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries are all team bests.
Even more importantly, however, is his leadership. Defense has been the true key to Notre Dame's success thus far—not many teams can keep an athlete like Michigan's Denard Robinson out of the end zone for an entire game—and Manti Te'o is the Irish defense's rock.
Te'o absolutely must continue his all-over-the-field playmaking from the linebacker position, not just for the amazing numbers he's been putting up, but for the overall impact his presence has on Notre Dame's success.
Theo Riddick has been an offensive workhorse for the Irish this season.
Despite the team's success, the quarterback position has been something of a question mark for Notre Dame so far this year. What better way to address it than to repeatedly put the ball in the hands of an experienced workhorse at running back?
Not only has Theo Riddick carried the ball 63 times for 242 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the first four games of this season, he's also caught more passes (14) than any receiver on the team. Riddick has created much of the Irish offense to this point, and they'll continue to look to him throughout the season.
The most important variable for the senior running back may ultimately prove to be his health. He's missed time to injury in each of the last two seasons, and the load he's carried so far this year would take its toll on anyone. If he can sustain it, however, he'll be instrumental to the team's success.
Sophomore Everett Golson has looked promising at times but has been replaced by backup Tommy Rees in some key moments.
Speaking of that question at quarterback...
Sophomore Everett Golson is the starter, and he's played fairly well so far. One could wish for better than his 56.2 percent completion rate, however, and he's thrown as many interceptions (three) as he has touchdowns.
The larger concern is that in the team's tight contests—first against Purdue and then against Michigan—Golson was benched in favor of his more experienced backup, junior Tommy Rees. The instability at quarterback hasn't cost them yet, but the Irish have relied heavily on the run to make up for it, calling 147 running plays as opposed to just 65 passes. Not only will that imbalance put a heavier toll on Riddick, but it will also make the offense increasingly predictable.
For the Notre Dame offense to continue putting points on the board, some combination of Golson and Rees needs to step up. Whether one of them takes control or they continue to function as a duo doesn't really matter, but they need to create a more effective passing attack.
T.J. Jones celebrates a touchdown grab against Purdue earlier this season.
Part of establishing a more effective passing attack, of course, is the emergence of a significant threat at wide receiver. T.J. Jones has the speed to do it, and he's seen significant playing time ever since he was a freshman.
Currently, the junior wideout is second on the team with 11 receptions and has caught one of just three receiving touchdowns that the Irish have recorded.
Part of the reason receiving numbers are low, of course, is that Notre Dame has relied so heavily on its ground attack. Look for that to change as the season goes on, however, as defenses plan for the run and the Irish do not always find themselves with a lead to protect.
When the time comes, Notre Dame's quarterbacks will need someone to step up as a go-to receiver, and Jones could be the guy.
Stephon Tuitt has been a nightmare for every quarterback the Irish have faced.
This article began by talking about the importance of the defense, and it will finish that way, too.
As impressive as Te'o has been at the linebacker position, a certain Stephon Tuitt has been just as noticeable at the defensive end. How's this for a statistic: Through four games, Tuitt has amassed six sacks, placing him .5 behind the nation's leaders. He is also tied for the team lead with four hits on the quarterback. Long story short, opposing passers are being forced to think about Tuitt a lot more than they'd like to.
Notre Dame has only allowed nine points per game this season, and they have yet to trail an opponent. Both facts are incredible, and credit for both is due to the defense. At the end of the day, that's what is going to carry the Irish to a BCS bowl game.