Notre Dame's 2013 season is just four short months away. Expectations are high for the Fighting Irish, who went undefeated in their regular season in 2012. While a fair amount of the senior leadership will be returning, there are a few younger players who will distinguish themselves on the field this fall.
Here are three underclassmen who will be key to Notre Dame's success in 2013.
I have been harping about the importance of this kid for a while now. Notre Dame's spring practice game highlighted the issues the Irish are having at the running back position after the departures of Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick to the NFL.
Head coach Brian Kelly appears to have hedged his bets on a run-heavy offense, so the running back position is critical to the success of the team. As it stands now, George Atkinson III has yet to prove himself as a star back and USC transfer Amir Carlisle is benched again due to injury. Carlisle is expected to be fully recovered in time for the 2013 season, but injury has plagued him in the past, so nothing is certain.
Also on the depth chart are Cam McDaniel and Will Mahone, but neither have displayed the skill set of a true star running back to date.
This leaves us with Rivals.com 5-star ranked recruit Greg Bryant.
Unfortunately, Bryant does not arrive in South Bend until this summer, so we can only speculate how he will perform at the college level. If his reels are any indicator though, he will be an indispensable asset to the team. His compact build and low center of gravity allow him to be quick on his feet and make defenders miss tackles in small spaces. He also has great strength, allowing him to muscle in tough yards.
Expect to see him on the field this fall.
Obviously, Everett Golson is one of the most critical players to the Irish's success, underclassman or not. Currently in his second year of eligibility, the redshirt sophomore out of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is now the undisputed starter after the departure of Gunner Kiel.
Golson's biggest issue is his consistency, or lack thereof. His pass completion percentage fluctuated between 77.3 percent all the way down to 37.5 percent last season. His rushing stats are also erratic, carrying the ball anywhere between 74 and negative-10 yards last season.
Admittedly, the strength of the opponent does factor into these statistics, but Golson needs to be more consistent if he wants to be in another BCS championship game.
Golson can improve his stats by hanging in the pocket longer, keeping his eyes downfield, accurately reading blitzes and keeping an eye out for alternate receivers in case primaries are bogged down in coverage.
Why is C.J. Prosise on this list? Because he is on special teams, and special teams needs some major improvement this fall.
According to the latest edition of the depth chart on Rivals.com, Prosise is slated to be a punt returner this season. Prosise is also on the depth chart as a wide receiver, but that is not why he is on this list.
Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune quoted ND receivers coach Mike Denbrock as saying:
Which underclassman will be the most critical to Notre Dame's success in 2013?
"He has really been a bright spot—last few practices in particular. As he gets more and more comfortable in what we're asking him to do, there's a guy who has all the tools to become something pretty good."
Prosise did not start out as a receiver, He actually came to South Bend as a safety before taking reps at outside linebacker when Danny Spond was injured. He also played on the scout team as wide receiver building up to the Alabama game, before the coaching staff settled on where to put him.
At 6'0", 220 pounds, he has a height and weight advantage over Amir Carlisle (5'10", 185 lbs.) and T.J. Jones (5'11", 192 lbs.), who will also be fielding punts this fall.
Notre Dame ranked a dismal 116th in punt returns last season, averaging just 2.19 yards per return, according to the NCAA. Keep in mind, that is out of 120 teams. Quite literally, there is nowhere to go but up. Prosise may be green, but his build and background on defense will help him get the extra yardage the Fighting Irish so desperately need this fall.