Notre Dame Football: The Top 25 Opposing Players in 2013

Matt Smith@MattSmithCFBCorrespondent IIIApril 6, 2013

Notre Dame Football: The Top 25 Opposing Players in 2013

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    Household names like Matt Barkley, Landry Jones, Denard Robinson and Robert Woods are no longer around, but Notre Dame will again face some of the best individual talent in college football this fall.

    We've ranked the 25 players that Notre Dame will have to play against during the 2013 season. Some of the names may be less familiar than the one in last year's list, with a drop-off in elite quarterbacks and an increase in front-seven defenders.

    Unlike last year's list, which had five USC players ranked in the top 11, you'll find just one Trojan in the top 15. Stanford's five players are the most of any opponent, with nine of the Irish's 12 opponents represented at least once.

No. 25: CB Aaron Colvin, Oklahoma

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    The 6'0", 182-pound senior has missed just one game over the past three years for the Sooners. An All-Big 12 selection last year, Colvin had four interceptions and helped Oklahoma win 10 games for the sixth time in seven years.

    The Oklahoma pass defense climbed 50 spots in the national rankings last year, Colvin's first as the team's top cornerback. Another solid season for Colvin could make him a second-day NFL-draft pick next April.

    Notre Dame was fairly conservative offensively last year in Norman until its game-winning drive, but an experienced Everett Golson could test Colvin and the Sooners secondary more so than last year when Oklahoma visits Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 28.

No. 24: QB Kevin Hogan, Stanford

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    With last season's meeting between the Cardinal and Irish in its traditional, early-October date, Notre Dame did not have to face Hogan. The redshirt freshman led Stanford to six straight wins upon taking over the starting role for Josh Nunes in early November.

    The Cardinal still run a pro-style offense, but Hogan can extend plays and escape pressure much better than the slow-footed Nunes did in the team's overtime loss at Notre Dame Stadium last season.

    Despite a bit of an unorthodox throwing motion, Hogan protects the football well, throwing just one interception over the team's final four games.

No. 23: WR Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma

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    Trey Metoyer was supposed to be the Oklahoma freshman receiver who would burst onto the scene in 2012. As it turned out, it was Shepard who gave the Sooners receiving corps an injection of new blood.

    While Notre Dame held the Oklahoma City native to just one catch last year in Norman, Shepard finished with 45 receptions and three touchdowns. He topped the 100-yard plateau in just his third game, against eventual Big 12 champion Kansas State.

    At just 5'10", Shepard won't win a lot of jump balls, but he's far more than just a possession receiver in Oklahoma's fast-paced attack.

No. 22: QB Blake Bell, Oklahoma

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    Notre Dame got its first taste of Bell last season when the sophomore scored the first rushing touchdown of the season against the Irish. With Jones off to the NFL, Bell should become more than just a short-yardage specialist this fall.

    The comparisons to Tim Tebow are obvious, but Bell is a better passer than the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner, despite throwing just 16 passes last season.

    The Sooners open with three home games, so the late-September trip to Notre Dame will be Bell's first road start.

No. 21: RB Silas Redd, USC

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    USC was one of the beneficiaries of the fallout from the Penn State scandal, as Redd elected to transfer from the Nittany Lions and join the Trojans. Redd and Curtis McNeal combined for over 1,600 yards in 2012 in a disappointing 7-6 season.

    McNeal has since departed, and Redd will be the workhorse this fall for USC for an offense that also loses Matt Barkley and Robert Woods.

    Redd finished with a respectable 77 yards against the Irish last year, despite Notre Dame selling out against the run with Max Wittek making his first start at quarterback. Behind an improved offensive line, Redd should easily top 1,000 yards this fall.

No. 20: CB Ricardo Allen, Purdue

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    Allen's first collegiate start came in Brian Kelly's first game as Notre Dame head coach in 2010, so the All-Big Ten second team cornerback certainly doesn't lack experience.

    There was a reason Purdue had no qualms about matching Allen up with the Irish's Michael Floyd in his first career start. Allen has every tool needed to be an elite college cornerback, despite standing just 5'9".

    Allen had just one interception in 2012 after having three in each of his first two years, but much of that is due to the lack of throws in his direction. Expect Allen to have a fine senior season for the rebuilding Boilermakers.

No. 19: LB Corey Nelson, Oklahoma

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    Nelson has been targeted as a budding star ever since his breakout spring in 2011. It has taken him awhile to jell, but the rising senior should be one of the best linebackers in the Big 12 in 2013.

    New coordinator Mike Stoops shuffled between 4-3 and 4-2-5 alignments last season, causing some frustration for Nelson and the now-departed middle linebacker Tom Wort. Those issues appear to have been addressed heading into Stoops' second season back in Norman.

    Oklahoma returns just three starters on defense, so it's imperative for Nelson to reach his potential if the Sooners hope to win or share the Big 12 title for the ninth time under Bob Stoops.

No. 18: LB/S Dion Bailey, USC

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    Bailey burst onto the scene as a redshirt freshman in 2011, but much like most of his USC teammates, he did not progress as much as Trojans fans hoped in 2012.

    The junior began his college career at linebacker, but at just 6'0" and 210 pounds, Bailey may move to safety under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast to help ease the loss of three-year starters T.J. McDonald and Jawanza Starling. He is not participating in spring practice, however, as he recovers from shoulder surgery.

    Bailey has reached the 80-tackle mark in each of his first two seasons but hasn't been much of factor in two games against Notre Dame. That should change this October when the Trojans come to South Bend.

No. 17: WR Devin Street, Pittsburgh

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    The Pittsburgh offense will look a whole lot different this year without the likes of Tino Sunseri, Rushel Shell, Ray Graham, Mike Shanahan and Cameron Saddler. The only returning skill-position player is Street, who turned down a chance at the NFL to play his final season for the Panthers, the team's first in the ACC.

    While it remains unclear who will be throwing to Street this fall, whoever wins the quarterback battle will have the luxury of working with a receiver who has 151 career receptions.

    At 6'4", Street is a big target and a threat in the red zone.

    He had just three catches at Notre Dame last year, but the Panthers were very conservative offensively for much of the game while unsuccessfully trying to maintain a lead.

No.16: DT Leonard Williams, USC

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    Williams was one of the lone bright spots for the 2012 Trojans, as the Pac-12 freshman defensive player of the year finished with eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss.

    Expectations are now sky-high for Williams. After losing three multi-year starters in the secondary, USC will be forced to rely heavily on its front seven.

    For the Trojans to recruit in Florida, Williams' home state, it takes a very special player.

    Williams is one of those players, with a rare combination of athleticism and size at 6'5" and 270 pounds.

No. 15: LB Shayne Skov, Stanford

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    Stanford wasn't 100 percent sure what to expect from Skov last year after the linebacker tore his ACL early in the 2011 season and served a one-game suspension for a DUI arrest.

    While Skov failed to make either the first or second All-Pac-12 team, Skov did lead the Cardinal in tackles as Stanford won the Pac-12 title for the first time since 1999.

    Notre Dame-Stanford has arguably become one of the most physical rivalries in college football, due in large part to run-stuffing linebackers like Skov.

No. 14: LB Denicos Allen, Michigan State

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    After falling from a No. 10 ranking before hosting Notre Dame to a 7-6 finish in 2012, Michigan State will be one of the most intriguing teams in the country heading into 2013.

    The Spartans defense was still terrific last season, finishing in the top 10 in rushing defense, pass defense, total defense and scoring defense. Michigan State returns many of its key pieces, including Allen at weak-side linebacker.

    Allen plays bigger than his 5'11", 232-pound frame would suggest.

    He is not participating in spring practice due to a leg injury, but Allen should be at 100 percent by the time the Spartans open the 2013 season on Aug. 31.

No. 13: OG/C Gabe Ikard, Oklahoma

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    This might seem like a bit of a head-scratcher for Notre Dame fans, as Ikard was on the wrong end of most of his one-on-one battles with Louis Nix last season in the Irish's win over Oklahoma.

    One game does not make a season, however, and Ikard was a unanimous All-Big 12 selection, helping stabilize a Sooners offensive line that was rocked by two significant injuries just prior to the season.

    Ikard should remain at center after starting his career at guard but gives the Sooners position flexibility should they again need it. A stronger performance by Ikard against the Irish is vital if Oklahoma hopes to gain revenge on Notre Dame this September in South Bend.

No. 12: QB Taylor Kelly, Arizona State

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    Arizona State had one of the most muddled quarterback situations in the country heading into last spring after the departure of Brock Osweiler. (Did you know he's not actually 6'8"?)

    Redshirt freshman Michael Eubank appeared to have an edge during the spring, but Kelly took control of the position over the summer and never relinquished it. He finished the season with over 3,000 yards passing and over 500 yards on the ground as the Sun Devils finished with three straight wins.

    Kelly, a rising junior, is a much better fit for head coach Todd Graham's offense than Sunseri was at Pittsburgh. Graham's attack is more or less a run-based spread attack, but it's more power driven than finesse driven, as opposed to the offense of a team like Oregon.

No. 11: DE Ben Gardner, Stanford

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    Like Skov, Gardner had a decision to make following the 2012 season. Also, like Skov, Gardner bypassed the NFL for one more season to help try to bring a national title to Palo Alto for the first time in almost 90 years.

    Gardner was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection as a junior, finishing with 7.5 sacks, five pass breakups and a forced fumble. He has registered a sack in each of the past two seasons against Notre Dame.

    The Wisconsin native was one of many Jim Harbaugh recruits who were glossed over by the national powers. He was not even offered a scholarship by Wisconsin (or any other FBS team) but got a bit of revenge when Stanford defeated the Badgers in the Rose Bowl last January. 

No. 10: DT Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh

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    Notre Dame's offense was a bit stodgy for much of 2012, but it struggled as much as it ever did against Pittsburgh, failing to score a touchdown until late in the fourth quarter.

    Much of the credit for the Irish's ineffectiveness goes to Donald, a force in the middle of the Panthers defense. He's just 6'0" but gets great leverage, much like Wake Forest's Nikita Whitlock, whom Notre Dame has faced each of the past two seasons.

    With Notre Dame breaking in a new center and new right guard this season, Donald could present some problems for the interior of the Irish offensive line.

    An All-Big East performer last season, Donald led the Panthers in sacks and led the conference in tackles for loss.

No. 9: QB Devin Gardner, Michigan

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    This may seem high for a quarterback who has started just five games, but Gardner is a much better fit for the Wolverines offense than Denard Robinson.

    Gardner nearly led Michigan to upsets of Ohio State and South Carolina last season and helped the Wolverines rally from a late deficit to stun Northwestern in overtime and keep Big Ten title hopes alive.

    His size, smooth running style and No. 12 jersey have drawn comparisons to NFL great Randall Cunningham.

    In addition to his athleticism, Gardner is an efficient passer with a big arm who will provide an early test for Notre Dame's secondary.

No. 8: WR Cody Hoffman, BYU

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    BYU isn't exactly known as a wide-receiver factory, but Hoffman is as reliable as any receiver in the country.

    He doesn't have elite speed but has great size and is an excellent route-runner. A poor throw from quarterback Riley Nelson may have been the only thing that prevented Hoffman from scoring the game-winning touchdown at Notre Dame last season.

    Hoffman did find the end zone earlier in the game, one of his 11 touchdown receptions on the season. He closed the 2013 season on fire, catching 35 passes in the final three games, including five for touchdowns in one game against New Mexico State.

No. 7: OT David Yankey, Stanford

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    Brian Kelly rebuilt Notre Dame around the defensive line. Jim Harbaugh's remarkable reclamation project at Stanford began with developing a big, nasty offensive line.

    That philosophy has continued under current head coach David Shaw, with Yankey the star of what should be another great Cardinal offensive front.

    The junior made the All-Pac-12 team last year after having to replace second-round pick Jonathan Martin.

    Yankey is to the Stanford offense what Zack Martin is to Notre Dame's—an elite left tackle who leads an effective rushing offense and provides his dual-threat quarterback with the time to utilize his wide array of skills.

No. 6: LB Max Bullough, Michigan State

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    Despite having an uncle and grandfather who played football at Notre Dame, Bullough did not follow in their footsteps. Notre Dame didn't really need much help at middle linebacker the past few seasons, but Bullough is one of the best in the country at that position.

    The senior has started 27 straight games for the Spartans and made 111 tackles for the top defense in the Big Ten last season. He's the classic smart, tough Big Ten middle linebacker.

    Michigan State struggled to force turnovers last season, part of the reason why its record did not match its lofty statistics. The burden is on Bullough and the rest of the Spartans defense to win the turnover battles this season, much as Notre Dame did in going from 8-5 to 12-1 in 2012.

No. 5: LB Trent Murphy, Stanford

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    It just seems like Stanford's entire front seven is on this list. Murphy narrowly missed out on the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Award last season (you'll find out who beat him out shortly), but he still led the Cardinal in both sacks (10) and tackles for loss (18).

    The 6'6", 255-pound senior had perhaps his best game of the season last year against Notre Dame, making 10 tackles, 1.5 sacks and forcing three quarterback hurries.

    Murphy won't have Chase Thomas on the other side to help wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks, but with players like Skov and Ben Gardner returning, the Stanford defense should again be one of the best in the nation.

No. 4: LB Kyle Van Noy, BYU

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    As big of news as Hoffman's return was to the BYU offense, Van Noy delaying his NFL career for one more year was perhaps even bigger for the Cougars defense.

    One of the best pass-rushers most casual fans have never heard of, Van Noy finished fifth in the nation last season with 13 sacks. He's a legitimate All-American candidate at outside linebacker and is coached by one of the best defensive minds in football in Bronco Mendenhall.

    Van Noy had two touchdowns in BYU's Poinsettia Bowl win over San Diego State, one on a fumble recovery and one on an interception return.

    He may be the most difficult challenge Notre Dame tackles Zack Martin and Christian Lombard have all season.

No. 3: OT Taylor Lewan, Michigan

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    Every January there are some surprises among players deciding whether or not to enter the NFL draft. There was perhaps no bigger surprise this year than Lewan, a near lock to be a first-round pick, deciding to return to school.

    An All-American last season, Lewan may be the best tackle in college football now that Luke Joeckel has left Texas A&M. His one-on-one showdown with Notre Dame's Prince Shembo will be a major key when the teams meet on Sept. 7.

    Lewan had to face not only Shembo last season but also South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, Ohio State's John Simon and Michigan State's William Gholston.

    To say Lewan is battle tested would be an understatement.

No. 2: DT Will Sutton, Arizona State

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    Heading into last season, Gholston was the opposing defensive lineman Notre Dame fans were most worried about facing. This year, it's Sutton, the Sun Devils' All-American defensive tackle and Pac-12 defensive player of the year.

    Don't get confused. Sutton is not a Nix clone. He's just 6'2" and 275 pounds, but he's perhaps even more dominant than Nix is for the Irish.

    Sutton's 13 sacks ranked third in the nation, and his 23.5 tackles for loss ranked second. Much like when Notre Dame faces Donald and Pittsburgh, having a first-year center and a first-year right guard against Sutton is a concern for the Irish.

No. 1: WR Marqise Lee, USC

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    It's not even close. Had the Trojans not lost four of their final five regular-season games, Lee probably would have been a Heisman Trophy finalist.

    The numbers are simply eye popping. Three-hundred-forty-five yards over three games is impressive, but Lee did that in one game against Arizona. The next week against Oregon, he amassed over 400 all-purpose yards.

    Lee did almost turn the game against Notre Dame around last season with a long reception late in the fourth quarter, but the Irish held the rising junior to just 75 yards.