Despite reaching the BCS National Championship last year and boasting another top recruiting class, the Fighting Irish have begun the season at the No. 14 and No. 11 spots in the AP and USA Today preseason NCAA football polls.
Coach Brian Kelly’s team finished at No. 4 in the AP and No. 3 in the USA Today rankings after their blowout loss to Alabama in the title game last January.
Following up a championship game appearance is never easy. Well, unless you’re Nick Saban, of course. But this year’s Irish team has a lot of questions to answer before anyone is willing to stake their reputation on backing them.
In order to turn out another BCS appearance, the Irish will need to have breakout seasons from several key players. These are the guys who will be stepping into new roles this season after spots were vacated for various reasons.
Tommy Rees leads this list.
QB Tommy Rees, Senior
The football gods have provided the much-maligned quarterback with one last shot at resurrecting his college football career. Everett Golson’s suspension opened yet another window of opportunity for Rees to right the wrongs committed earlier in his career.
How many football lives does one player get?
Rees has been a backup. He’s been a starter. He’s been a starter-turned-backup and vice versa. He’s won games in the closing moments, and he’s completely thrown others out the window.
The truth is, you’re just never going to be sure which Tommy Rees you’ll get week in and week out.
Despite that uncertainty, Rees has matured throughout his three seasons in South Bend. He’s even becoming a vocal leader of the huddle, Irish running back Amir Carlisle said, per AP’s Tom Coyne.
"He's the guy you go to if you have a question. He's the guy that if you do make a mistake, he'll come over to you and say, 'Next play. It will be all right.’ He has a real command of the offense."
Perhaps Rees’ emergence as a leader is due to a new-found faith in himself after shining at times last season in limited opportunities.
“I’ve never seen him more confident. He knows this is his team,” tackle Zack Martin said, per Matt Hayes of Sporting News.
Hopefully the matured and experienced Rees will be able to make the necessary adjustments, take ownership of his team and do enough—but not too much—to lead his team to success this season.
WR TJ Jones, Senior
TJ Jones is a future first-round NFL draft pick in the making, Kelly said, per Lamond Pope of the Chicago Sun-Times.
No pressure, TJ.
He’s been a somewhat consistent option throughout his career, recording 1,321 yards on 111 receptions and also hauling in 10 touchdowns during his three seasons in South Bend. After co-leading the team with 50 receptions and four touchdowns last year, Jones is the biggest producer returning to the Fighting Irish passing attack this season.
If the 5’11”, 190-pound receiver has any hopes of hearing his name called on the first day of the NFL draft, he’ll need to become Rees’ go-to option by continuing to progress this year. He made a jump in 2012, but now is the time for a full-out leap to the next level.
DT Louis Nix, Senior
Nose tackles aren’t supposed to find themselves in opposing backfields disrupting quarterbacks and taking down running backs. Nobody told that to senior Irish defensive lineman Louis Nix.
The massive 6’3”, 357-pound tackle was a terror for opposing defenses last season. Even when commanding double-teams, Nix used his explosiveness off of the snap, strength and technique to make an impact at the point of attack.
When Nix missed much of the game against Pittsburgh, the Irish were less than spectacular up front. Pittsburgh running back Ray Graham put up a staggering 172 yards on the ground on 24 carries.
We’ve seen how dominant Nix can be, now he just needs to stay healthy and go out and do it again one more time before earning a big payday in the NFL next season.