After starting last season on a 12-game winning streak and reaching the National Championship Game, the bar has been raised for Notre Dame, and the program will need its returning stars to live up to expectations in 2013.
While the Fighting Irish are always on the national radar, it had been decades since fans in South Bend rooted for a team contending for the national title at the end of the season
Brian Kelly has been pegged as the coach who has finally ushered in another era of glory to college football’s most prestigious program.
There is plenty of pressure on Kelly to perform next season, and he will look to these players to get the job done.
Everett Golson, Quarterback
A team cannot win a national title without quality play under center.
Golson does not have to pass for 4,000 yards or throw 35 touchdown passes next season in order to play well, but he does need to make smart decisions with the football. He finished last season with 2,405 passing yards, a 58.8 completion percentage, 12 touchdowns and six interceptions.
As a junior, he will be expected to complete more passes and avoid turnovers. If he can orchestrate an efficient offensive attack, the Irish will once again have an impressive record.
Golson’s leadership on offense will be crucial to Notre Dame’s success in 2013.
George Atkinson III, Running Back
Ultimately, the Fighting Irish offense is centered on the running game, and the team is losing both its leading rushers.
Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood are graduating, leaving Atkinson as the player tipped to be one of the primary backs next season.
While Kelly will almost certainly give a decent workload to at least one other rusher, Atkinson III has the benefit of his 51 carries for 361 yards and five touchdowns this past season.
His experience gives him an advantage, and he must step up and lead the Irish’s running game in 2013.
Louis Nix III, Defensive Tackle
Quality performances from the offensive stars will be important, but the key to Notre Dame’s success in the upcoming season will be their defense’s ability to dominate.
After having one of the top defensive units in the country for all of last year’s campaign, the returning stars will have to step up and fill the gap that Manti Te’o left.
Nix was a monster in the middle of the line last season, racking up 50 total tackles while also recording 7.5 tackles for a loss and 2.0 sacks.
He must be a dominant force in the trenches for the Irish’s defense to have any chance at matching its production from a season ago.
Stephon Tuitt, Defensive End
There is no player more important to the Irish in 2013 than Tuitt.
During his sophomore season, he had 12 sacks and three forced fumbles, proving his ability to be an extremely disruptive pass-rusher.
Notre Dame’s defense was a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks in 2012. While the linebackers and the secondary contributed to this, everything started up front.
Tuitt is the most talented player on the defensive side of the ball, and he must stand out among many other potential stars for his team to once again find itself playing for a national championship.