Notre Dame Football: The 10 Best Units the Irish Will Face in 2013

Matt Smith@MattSmithCFBCorrespondent IIIJune 28, 2013

Notre Dame Football: The 10 Best Units the Irish Will Face in 2013

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    We've already told you the 25 best individual players Notre Dame will face during the 2013 season.

    Now it's time to reveal the 10 best position groups the Fighting Irish will do battle with when the season kicks off in just two months.

    You'll notice a common theme—most of Notre Dame's toughest challenges this season will come from the West. Only two of the top 10 units are from teams in the Eastern or Central time zone.

    Without further ado, let's unveil the 10 best units among Notre Dame's 12 opponents this fall.

10. Oklahoma Offensive Line

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    Oklahoma's offensive line was gutted prior to last season when center Ben Habern was forced to give up football and right guard Tyler Evans tore his ACL. Gabe Ikard slid over from guard to center and was an All-Big 12 performer despite being on the wrong end of most of his one-on-one battles with Louis Nix against Notre Dame.

    Ikard returns, as do guards Adam Shead and Bronson Irwin, who were forced into the starting lineup last year after injuries to Habern and Evans. Left tackle Lane Johnson is the lone loss but is a significant one, as Johnson was selected fourth overall in April's NFL draft.

    Despite allowing their first rushing touchdown of the season last year in Norman, the Irish defensive line had its way in the trenches for much of the evening, holding the Sooners to just 15 yards on the ground. As long as new left tackle Tyrus Thompson can hold up on Blake Bell's blind side, this should be a much-improved unit.

9. Stanford Defensive Line

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    Stanford's defensive front designated "party in the backfield" as its slogan last season. Expect much of the same in 2013 with both defensive ends, Ben Gardner and Henry Anderson, returning. The duo combined for 13 sacks a year ago.

    Terrence Stephens must be replaced at nose guard, but Stephens fell out of favor late in 2012, with sophomore David Parry filling in adequately. Parry returns to give the Cardinal one of the most complete defensive lines in the nation.

    The key contributors behind the top three all return as well, but keep an eye on sophomore Aziz Shittu, a top recruit in the 2012 class. While still extremely raw, Shittu should be a factor in 2013 after a year of learning and developing.

8. Stanford Defensive Backs

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    It appeared as if Stanford would return its entire starting secondary, but cornerback Terrence Brown somewhat surprisingly chose to enter the NFL draft. Despite the loss of Brown, this should still be one of the best secondaries in the Pac-12.

    Juniors Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards, who combined for nine interceptions last season, give the Cardinal the experienced pair of safeties that Notre Dame thought it had last season before Jamoris Slaughter's season-ending injury.

    Former Notre Dame target Wayne Lyons could take over for Brown. Sophomore Alex Carter is returning at the other cornerback position, and veteran Barry Browning gives the team three solid corners.

    The Irish will have their hands full once again on Nov. 30 against a unit that held Tommy Rees and Everett Golson to just a 57 percent completion rate in last season's meeting.

7. USC Receivers

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    Biletnikoff Award-winner Marqise Lee had one of the best seasons in recent memory for a wide receiver in 2012, but now he must try to duplicate that performance without Matt Barkley throwing to him and Robert Woods on the other side of the field.

    The junior's best performance came in a losing effort against Arizona last October, in which he amassed 469 all-purpose yards. It was one of eight games in which Lee went over the century mark in receiving. His five catches against Notre Dame were his second-lowest output of the 2012 season.

    Sophomore Nelson Agholor should start alongside Lee, but the Trojans lack the tall receiver who can help them in the red zone. Junior George Farmer and true freshman Steven Mitchell were both lost for the season with injuries.

    Tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer will be vital parts of the USC offense after combining for nine touchdown receptions last season.

6. Arizona State Running Backs

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    Cameron Marshall was expected to handle the bulk of the carries last season for the Sun Devils, but the senior ended up with only one fewer carry than quarterback Taylor Kelly and failed to lead the team in rushing. With Marshall gone, Marion Grice assumes the leading role in 2013

    The junior college transfer surprised everyone last season by leading the Sun Devils in rushing despite not arriving in Tempe until July. Grice is a threat in the passing game but is much bigger than the typical pass-catching back at more than 200 pounds. The combination of a between-the-tackles runner and pass-catcher is a scary combination.

    Sophomore D.J. Foster will back up Grice. He's a freakish athlete who also serves as a receiver, catching 38 passes last year. The versatility of this duo, as well as Kelly's mobility, will make game-planning for Arizona State a difficult task for Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.

    The names Grice and Foster may be relative unknowns to Fighting Irish fans, but no backfield will test the Irish more so this fall than that of the Sun Devils.

5. Stanford Offensive Line

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    You can credit Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck for the resurgence of Stanford, but offensive line play has to at least be mentioned in the same sentence. The Cardinal have vaulted to the top of a conference known more for speed and skill by mauling their opponents, even Oregon, at the line of scrimmage.

    Notre Dame narrowly won the line-of-scrimmage battle last season with an epic overtime goal-line stand, but Stanford brings back four of its five starters up front, led by All-Pac-12 tackle David Yankey. Fourth-year junior Cameron Fleming returns to give the Cardinal an elite pair of bookends up front.

    Center Sam Schwartzstein is the lone loss, but David Shaw and staff have recruited well, signing arguably the best offensive line class in the country in 2012. Offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren (formerly the offensive line coach) has spoken very highly of Graham Shuler, Schwarzstein's likely replacement in the middle.

4. Michigan State Linebackers

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    The Spartans have arguably the two best linebackers in the Big Ten in Denicos Allen and Max Bullough. Both seniors, the duo has combined to make 362 tackles over the past two seasons, helping Michigan State finish ninth and eighth against the run in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

    Allen is somewhat undersized at just 5'11" but packs a powerful punch. Bullough is the prototypical middle linebacker—a cerebral run-stuffer with a hard-nosed style of play. Despite going just 7-6 last season, the Spartans allowed fewer than 100 yards per game on the ground.

    Chris Norman departs at the team's Star position, with junior Taiwan Jones the likely successor after serving as the primary backup last season. Jones could not ask for a better situation in his first year as a starter than to play with Bullough and Allen beside him.

3. USC Defensive Line

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    I, as well as many others, made the mistake of thinking USC would play for the national title in 2012. The one caveat, however, was the Trojans' young defensive line. While it turned out that USC had far more problems than just its defensive front, the unit coached by fiery assistant Ed Orgeron did struggle as expected. USC finished eighth in the Pac-12 against the run, including allowing 426 yards to Oregon.

    Three starters return this season, led by sophomore tackle Leonard Williams. As a freshman, Williams had 64 tackles, 13 of those against Notre Dame, and seven sacks. George Uko is also back on the inside, while senior Morgan Breslin gives the Trojans one of the best edge-rushers in college football.

    USC does get Devon Kennard back from injury after he missed 2012, and he should slide back in at the other end spot. Top backups who should be part of the defensive line rotation include sophomore Greg Townsend and true freshman Kenny Bigelow.

2. Arizona State Defensive Line

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    Heading into last season, Michigan State's William Gholston was the opposing defensive lineman Notre Dame fans were most worried about facing. This year, it's Will Sutton, the Sun Devils' All-American defensive tackle.

    Don't get confused, however. Sutton is not a Louis Nix clone. He's just 6'2" and 275 pounds, but he's perhaps even more dominant than Nix. Sutton's 13 sacks were third most in the nation, and his 23.5 tackles for loss were second most. Having a first-year center and a first-year right guard against Sutton is a concern for Notre Dame.

    There is also defensive end Junior Onyeali to deal with, a speed rusher who is at his best on third downs. Sophomore Jaxon Hood is the incumbent at nose tackle. While not overly big at just 290 pounds, he has the luxury of playing next to Sutton, who requires much attention from opposing offensive linemen.

    Carl Bradford, who had 11.5 sacks in 2012, serves as the team's hybrid defensive end/linebacker, a la Prince Shembo for Notre Dame. His inclusion in this unit only adds to its dominance.

1. Stanford Linebackers

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    Like Notre Dame, Stanford utilizes a 3-4 defense. Also like the Irish, the Cardinal will bring back three of their four 2012 starters.

    Shayne Skov, the team's leading tackler, and Trent Murphy, who led the Cardinal in sacks, both return as fifth-year seniors. A.J. Tarpley is also back on the inside to complement Skov.

    The lone loss is outside linebacker Chase Thomas. It's a big loss, however, as Thomas made 48 career starts, including three in BCS bowls. Noor Davis, one of the highest-rated linebackers in the 2012 class, could assume Thomas' role after redshirting as a true freshman in 2012.